2005: First ascent of Xiashe, Western Sichuan, China

Karen 2 web

I. Finding Paradise

With hundreds of unclimbed mountains awaiting ascent and countless valleys to be walked up, China can be viewed as an explorer?s and climber?s paradise. Access to these areas has been approved only since 1980, when Deng Xiao-Ping implemented an open-door policy, which allows adventurers and climbers access to the unknown Greater Ranges in Tibet and the neighboring regions. Patricia Deavoll of New Zealand, and Karen McNeill of Canada decided to take advantage of this opportunity to explore the yet unclimbed Xiashe Massif in the Sichuan Province of China.

During June 2000, Tamotsu Nakamura from the Japanese Alpine Club, along with Chinese interpreter Zhengling (Lenny) Cheng, explored the Jarjinjabo, Xiashe, and Hati Massif. They traveled to remote regions, where they mapped and took photographs. Since then, Tamotsu has published his findings in ?East of the Himalayas To the Alps of Tibet,? a special edition to the Japanese News, Vol. 4, May 2003. This informative journal was where our journey began. From the many pages depicting unclimbed mountains, we selected the Xiashe Massif to explore.

The two of us had met up in Chengdu, a city of 12 million people in central Sichuan Province and the ?capital? of Western China, where we also met up with well-known translator and expedition organizer Zhengling (Lenny) Cheng, with whom Karen had been liaising over several months prior to the trip. Lenny works with the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture Mountaineering Association (GMA), and it?s his job to communicate with foreign climbers concerned with mountaineering activities in Western Sichuan. Lenny organized base camp staff, food, transport, and the peak permit for Xiashe and Jarjinjabo.

II. The Start of the Journey

On the 29th September, we left Chengdu by jeep with Lenny, all the equipment and most of the supplies, some of which followed in a public bus with another member of the staff. Driven by Mr. Yu, our party headed west through the city of Kanding (the gateway to Tibet), then over a 4,000 m pass onto the Tibetan plateau. The first night we spent in a small Tibetan town about 3 hours west of Kanding.

After traveling over several more 4,000 m passes, our party arrived in the city of Litang on the 30th. At 4,100 m, Litang claims to be the highest city in the world. After a brief stop to mend a flat tire, we drove on to the junction of the highway and the road leading up to the Zhopu pasture. We spent the night in the junction town of Chalu. The road (the main highway between Sichuan and Tibet) is very rough and the driving was time consuming. Often, we felt like milkshakes on the drive along the road.

Access to the Xiashe Massif was feasible via a small, unpaved road from Chalu to the Silver Mines in the hills beyond the Zhopu pastures that lead to Xiashe. The road follows the beautiful Zhopu River to a stunning pasture where wide grassy valleys are broken by granite rock spires and snowy mountains. We found a site for base camp at 4,200 m on the Zhopu pasture, at the junction with the stream draining the north face of Xiashe. The weather was fine enough to have a good view of the north face and the north and southwest ridges. Our party now comprised two climbers: Lenny and a local Tibetan called Tae-Woon.

III. Establishing Base Camp

On October 2nd, we walked up the valley under the north face with a supply of equipment, which we stashed at about 4,300 m under scrubby bushes. The valley was a mixture of pasture, marshland, and rhododendron forests that led to a mountain lake. To get a closer view of the mountain, we walked farther up valley onto the lateral moraine of a small glacier. At this stage, the north face was relatively free of snow and looked steep and rocky, with a summit ice cap. That night, a violent thunderstorm and a fall of snow changed the whole aspect of the mountain and set the tone of the weather for the next week. Another staff member, Ten Pon, arrived at base camp with the remainder of the equipment.

In the morning, we woke to find snow on the ground around base camp. We took supplies to the cache at 4,300 m and by the time we returned to base camp, the snow had melted from the ground.

When we left base camp the next morning with three days? worth of supplies, we intended to acclimatize farther up the valley. We set up camp with our lightweight summit tent on the moraine at 4,450 m in a blizzard.

At 6:00 am the following morning, we left camp for an acclimatization trip up to a col on the southwest ridge of Xiashe. We reached the col at 5,300 m after 5-1/2 hours of strenuous step plugging in deep, freshly fallen snow. The weather was windy but fine, and we were afforded good views of the south side of the mountain.

We returned to base camp the next day. At this stage, we had decided to make an attempt on the mountain via the northwest ridge, a striking, long line involving both rock and snow.

On the second of two rest days at base camp, it snowed heavily during the afternoon and through the night. A team of three British climbers, whose expedition Lenny also organized, arrived at base camp, also with the intention of making the first ascent of Xiashe. With them came another staff member, Mr. John. That night another thunderstorm deposited heavy snow.

In the morning, we woke to find 6 inches of snow on the ground and a heavy cover on the mountain. Since we decided to wait another day before heading off on our summit attempt to give the mountain a chance to shed, we spent the day socializing with the British team and sorting food and equipment. In view of the amount of snow that had fallen during the past week, we decided our best option for a successful first ascent was to cross over to the south face and climb this to the southwest ridge and then on to the summit.

IV. The First Summit Attempt

We left base camp mid-morning the next day and made camp on the moraine at 4,550 m, collecting equipment and food from the cache at 4,300 m on the way. Late in the afternoon, we made a carry up the glacier to 4,800 m before returning to camp for the night. Once we were on the snowy moraine, our snowshoes proved invaluable.

Making an 8:00 am start the next morning, we climbed quickly up to the cache of the previous night. In view of the deep snow and hard travel, we decided to double pack up to the col at 5,300 m. We carried one load up to the bottom of the steep slope leading to the col, then returned to the 4,800 m cache for the second load. This we carried right up onto the col at 5,300 m, but the going was slow, breaking trail through thigh-deep snow with our snowshoes on. We ran out of time to make the second carry and decided to make it the next morning instead. In all, it was a very tiring day, although the weather was perfect.

Another fine day dawned and we returned to the abandoned cache of the night before and carried it to the col. Then we descended a couloir on the south side of the col for a view of the south face and the southwest ridge. The rest of the day we spent resting in the tent.
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The evening before Summit Day, the alarm went off at 11:00 pm. We left the tent 2 hours later in fine but windy conditions. We descended the couloir of the day before about 300 m to a glacier on the south face. From here, we spent several hours ascending the south face in the dark. Travel was slow because of the amount of new snow and again we used our snowshoes. There was moonlight until about 3:00 am. We reached a col on the southwest ridge at 5:00 am and attempted unsuccessfully in the wind to get the cooker going to melt snow for water. Daylight arrived at 7:00 am as we were ascending the southwest ridge to the summit, which we reached at 8:45 am. The fine weather gave spectacular views of the Daxue Shan range to the east and many other mountains in every direction. Although the route was not technical, we felt a great sense of achievement from having battled heavy snow and heavy packs to get to the summit.

We descended along the same route, arriving back at our camp at 2:30 in the afternoon. Patricia was suffering from an altitude-related headache, which continued until we descended the next day. In the morning, we packed up in a strong wind and descended to base camp. On the way down the glacier, we spotted two of the British on the north face.

V. Planned Ascent of Jarjinjabo

The next four days we spent resting at base camp, watching the British through binoculars, and making plans for what to do with the remaining 10 days. A steady stream of local yak herders visited the camp. After much deliberation, we decided to pay another peak fee and have a go at the first ascent of Jarjinjabo, a striking 5,725 m peak about 15 km southwest of Xiashe. The weather remained fine and stable.

Along with Lenny and Tae-Woon, we left base camp at about 10:00 am on the 19th in Tae-Woon?s jeep with the intention of driving across the Zhopu pasture to get as close as possible to the base of Jarjinjabo. Despite some vigorous driving by Tae-Woon, the jeep was finally thwarted by a creek, approximately 5 km from the mountain. We off loaded, and Lenny promised to return on the 26th to the same spot. Hefting large packs, we walked up a moraine wall into a beautiful hanging valley, where we were met by a friendly family of yak herders. The family invited us into their house for food, but we declined the offer and continued on our way. We ascended a small pass and crossed into another valley at the base of the mountain, where we camped for the night by a small glacial lake at 4,350 m. In hindsight, access to the mountain would have been easier if the we had traveled farther west around a spur, then walked up the next valley over when the jeep had dropped us off.

The next morning, we made two consecutive carries of 500 m to get all our equipment up to 4,800 m. We set up camp on a moraine beside a small tarn and made another carry up to 5,000 m underneath the southeast face of Jarjinjabo. After caching the gear, we climbed a steep gulley for 100 m to get a good look at the face and to scout for a potential campsite, then returned to the camp at 4800 m.

The team moved all the equipment up to a camp at the bottom of the glacier on the face at 5,100 m the next day and dug a platform out under a cliff face that afforded some protection from the wind. At 2:00 pm, the weather turned and it started to snow, continuing all night and into the next day.

Heavy snowfall confined us to the tent for the next 2 days. By the first evening, spindrift avalanches from the cliff above were starting to threaten the tent, so we moved camp back down to a safer spot at the base of the gully.

By morning on the 24th, the weather looked like it was starting to clear. However, we needed several days of fine weather before the mountain would be safe to ascend. With time, fuel, and supplies running short, we decided to abandon the ascent. After packing, we descended to the Zhopu pasture where there was a foot of new snow. The weather cleared to a fine evening as we established camp on the pasture near a yak herder?s village.

VI. A Wintry Finish to the Expedition

We spent the next day walking across the pasture to the Zhopu Monastery, where Lenny had re-established base camp since the departure of the British climbers. We left a cache of gear hidden under a rock to be collected by jeep at a later stage. Arriving late in the afternoon, we were welcomed into the small community of people associated with the monastery, some of whom Lenny knew. We pitched our tents in Tae-Woon?s mum?s front yard. The day was beautifully fine but cold.

The fine weather departed as the next day advanced, and the team collected the equipment by jeep. The 27th was another cold, snowy day. The team visited the monastery, which was in a spectacular position ? above a lake beneath the huge granite cliffs of the Jarjinjabo Massif.

We spent the next 3 days returning to Chengdu by jeep. By this time, the plateau was covered in snow and the trip a lot wintrier. We spent one night in Litang and a second in Kanding as guests of the Sichuan/Ganzi/Tibetan Autonomous Mountaineering Association.

The Zhopu pasture area of the Shaluli Shan Range has seen very little climbing activity, the only two rumored previous visits being an American party that was successful on a rock spire above the Zhopu Monastery and a Korean party that made an unsuccessful attempt on Xiashe. However, the area has a number of unclimbed peaks, most of which are accessible by four-wheel drive, negating the need for porters and making it possible to climb a mountain within a 2- or 3-week period.

By Karen McNeill