It was deja vu: the same stream galloping by the main street, the same houses stacked one-on-one up the rocky hillside, the same visiting monks in their burgundy robes. The town of Kanding, gateway to Tibet, had changed little over the twelve months since my friend Karen and I passed through it on our way to the Zhopu pasture, three bone crunching, brain-numbing days drive away.
Karen and I had been on our way to climb Xiashe (5,920m), a snow encrusted beauty in the Shashuli Range. That we survived the drive and beat the winter and a team of British climbers to the summit was, we felt, testament to our Kiwi female doggedness. But on returning to the relative lowland elevation of Kanding, we had both admitted, it was good to have no more 4000 metre snowed up passes to cross or vehicle breakdowns to worry about and to have a first ascent under our belts!
Now here I was again, a year later, in the same town, but with a different climbing partner; Malcolm Bass, the diminutive charming Yorkshireman Id met several years earlier in Alaska. Wed both been on an (unsuccessful) expedition to the Indian Garwhal in 2004 and since then wed kept in regular contact by email, sharing our climbing disasters, successes and future ambitions.
Id tempted Malcolm to China with the possible first ascent of Haizi Shan, an ethereal peak of 5833 metres in the Daxue Shan Range, a days drive north of Kanding. No fewer than ten expeditions had tried Haizi over the past decade but, for one reason or the other, none had been successful.
Malcolm shared my delight in Kanding. He likened it to a Tibetan version of Chamonix. A day later we were approaching our Base Camp through luxurious forest. The trees were already changing colour with the autumn, and the summit of Haizi shimmering teasingly 2000 metres above us. We both agreed the mountain was an alpinists dream, with a number of elegant ridges running up to the summit pyramid, but the untried 1500 metreNorth Face looked to be a worthy line. Although steep, this route looked like it had the potential to take us directly to the top.
And take us directly to the summit it did. On October 18, after three weeks of acclimatising and load ferrying in generally fine, cold weather, Malcolm and I summited. We had found a route onto the face via an avalanche couloir that enabled us to set up an advanced base camp (ABC) at 4500 metres. Because ABC was some six hours from our picturesque lower base camp, we made the journey up and back enough times to feel fit and strong and ready for the face by mid-October. After two days rest at Base Camp, we left for ABC on the 16th October. The next day we climbed to 5000 metres, dug out a tent platform and then nervously sat out an evening thunderstorm which rattled helter-skelter round the evening skies. Fortunately, the storm turned out to be all threat and no substance. By 4 am the next morning we set off for the summit,with Malcolm leading up and outward into abroad snow, ice, and rock-filled gully in the dark.
We gained confidence as the sun began to rise. The cold, dry snowpack proved to be more stable, and the rock and ice pitches more protectable than we had initially thought. The pitches flowed into each other until about 2 pm, when we were hit by a blast of cold spindrift-saturated air that struck the summit ridge.
Both weary, we snacked and threw on another layer of clothing and goggles before launching up thefinal 300 metre snow ridge to the summit. The clouds came and went with the wind, giving elusive but breathtaking views. As we climbed, we caught flashes of the Tibetan Plateau to the north and west, and the Daxue Shan Range, dominated by the monstrous 7500 metre Mina Konka, to the south.
I ran out a final, shambling rope pitch and then huddled on the summit and waited for Malcolm to join me. I took a moment to reflect. A year previously Karen and I had experiencedan almost identical situation,a lonely wind blown summit, the vastness of the Tibetan Plateau stretching away below us, and the exultation of summiting an unclimbed peak, tempered with the worry of descending, of wanting to be back on the ground and heading home. Four months earlier Karen had disappeared in a storm high on a peak in Alaska. I felt infinite sadness for my friend who, that one time,had failed to make it home.
Malcolm and I took the obligatory summit shots, but we decided against a congratulatory hug until we were safely back at Base Camp, 2000 metres below.
Knowing that Lenny and Amping, our trusty Chinese guide and Tibetan cook duo, would have been watching us from camp with their binoculars throughout the day, Malcolm and I waved to them. I felt happy knowing that our ascent would give kudos to Lennys small expedition company.
Then we turned for the descent, our smiles as wide as the Tibetan Plateau beneath us.