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Asia, China, Gongg Shan Tragedy

Gongga Shan Tragedy. 1980 was the year China opened to American mountaineering: there were three expeditions, and a number of reconnaissances for future expeditions. In addition to the successful ski ascent of Mustagh Ata, the People’s Republic gave two permits for simultaneous attempts on what is now called Gongga Shan, previously called Minya Konka (7587 meters, 24,891 feet), located in western Szechwan but in an area culturally and geographically eastern Tibet. One permit was issued to Lance Owens; the other to Leo Lebon, head of Mountain Travel. It was Lebon’s original intention to offer his company’s clients a chance to join the expedition. The fees, however, requested by the Chinese for services such as organizing food and transportation, and supplying liaison officer and interpreter (to name only a few of the major budget headings) were astronomical, and caused Lebon to reconsider. He decided to invite several well-known climbers to join the team, then try to sell coverage of the expedition to the media. The final team consisted of : A1 Read, leader; Yvon Chouinard, Harry Frishman, Kim Schmitz, Jack Turner and me, climbers; Dick Long, climber and doctor; Jeff Foott, Edgar Boyles, Peter Pilafian, Jonathan Wright, camera crew; William Pryor, William Little, Clark McDonald, Mountain Travel clients and climbers; and finally, Leo Lebon came along as observer and climber. We had been given permission to attempt the northwest ridge, the same route climbed in 1932 by the Harvard team, while Owens’ group was given the west spur. We traveled one week behind them and used the same transportation: train from Beijing to Chengdu, mini-bus to an outpost in eastern Tibet called Liu Baxiang, then by horse and foot, for three days, to Base Camp in the ruins of the former Gongga Gompa Monastery, where we arrived October 6. The next day we established an Advanced Base Camp at the foot of a long 5000-foot buttress that leads to the crest of the main ridge, at a point north of the col where the principal northwest ridge descends from the summit. On October 8 we began scouting a route to Camp I, and the camp was established at 18,000 feet on October 10. Four of us— Schmitz, Chouinard, Wright and me—were in a position a few days later to continue the route to Camp II. It snowed on the evening of October 12, but in the morning the clouds were scattered, and we decided to try to reach the new camp. Snow conditions were questionable, but with a cloud cover we thought they would remain stable long enough to let us reach Camp II, deposit our loads and get back down. We didn’t realize the slope above, and to the side, of our tents at Camp I was in the sun most of the afternoon and ripe for avalanche. On the descent, just above Camp I, we decided to glissade the remaining 100 yards to the tents. As soon as we got going, one behind the other, we recognized our mistake: we had overloaded an extremely unstable slope, and in a flash it exploded, erupted around us as if there had been a charge set underneath. There was no way to arrest; we were caught in a massive sea of ice. I remember flying over a 60-foot cliff, then being buried for some time, finally popping up, and “swimming” as hard as I could to stay on top. Finally it stopped; we had traveled about 1500 vertical feet. Yvon was in front of me, with cracked ribs, Kim behind, with broken ribs and two cracked vertebrae, Jonathan next to me with, apparently, a broken neck. I was somehow only bruised. Jonathan died in a half hour. We evacuated Yvon and Kim, but it was a long ordeal, especially for Kim. He found strength, with an ensolite pad wrapped tightly around his chest, to walk much of the distance back to Liu Baxiang; he was carried, or rode a horse, the rest of the way. Jonathan, who was 28, is survived by his wife, Geri, and a beautiful two-year-old daughter, Asia, namesake of his home away from home.

Rick Ridgeway