American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Celestial Peak

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1984

Celestial Peak

Edward E. Vaill

when ALLEN STECK AND I first saw Celestial Peak in October 1981, we vowed to return to China to climb it. We were accompanying one of the first groups of foreigners ever to visit the Siguniang mountain region of the Tibetan Autonomous District of Sichuan Province. The Siguniang region is an area of awesome granite peaks rising to 20,000 feet from the 12,000-foot valley floor, a heavily forested, moss-laden rain forest reminiscent of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

Celestial Peak is the unofficial name for the 17,500-foot peak due west of the main summit of Siguniang (“Four Sisters”) in the Hengduan Range, about 100 miles north of Minya Konka (Gongga Shan). The Tibetans call the peak “Po’nyu” which means “Celestial Peak.” The Chinese translate Celestial Peak as “Shen Shan,” which connotes more the spiritual than the physical world. In the range, the only ascended peak was Siguniang, climbed by Japanese in 1981. The altitude given it by the Chinese, 6250 meters or 20,506 feet, seems to us about 1000 feet overstated, as indicated by our altimeter readings on Celestial Peak.

When Allen and I returned to California, we began planning our expedition, hoping to climb its southwest face, taking advantage of the long hours of sunlight on the face and using free-climbing techniques as much as possible at that altitude. We envisioned a Yosemite Valley climb, done two miles higher. The peak was remarkably free of snow and ice, as the surrounding mountains seemed to shelter it from heavy rain and snowfall. The steepness of the peak on every side also hindered snow accumulation. In September 1982 Allen and I negotiated the protocol for Celestial Peak with the Chinese Mountaineering Association in Beijing, and we set about forming our team. In addition to Allen Steck and me, the team ultimately also consisted of Eric Perlman, Brock Wagstaff, Bob Schneider, Bill Lahr, Pete White and Chinese-speaking Peter Klika, our Base Camp coordinator. With a nucleus of strong Yosemite climbers, we hoped to do the entire route in EBs, Fires or equivalent rock-climbing shoes, to push the route as high as possible with ?-inch polypropylene fixed lines and then go for the summit. Fixed lines were to be placed on the route primarily to allow the team access to the face for filming purposes. In actual fact on the face, due to the fragile nature of the granite, we relied heavily on the 40 Friends we had brought and a few stoppers. Few pitons or nuts were placed on the entire route. When necessary for anchor points and fixed lines, we replaced Friends with bolts. Once the summit was climbed, we planned to repeat the ascent the next day to get the film footage necessary to complete a high-quality 16mm mountaineering film. This was to be filmed principally by Pete White, who had extensive professional high-mountaineering cinematography experience, and Eric Perlman, a filmmaker for years.

We were accompanied to Beijing by many of the 16 members of an American Alpine Club group who would be attempting other virgin peaks in the Siguniang region. (See “Climbs and Expeditions” section.) After several rounds of greetings, tours and banquets with our friendly CMA hosts in Beijing and Chengdu, we set out for Celestial Peak with our liaison officer Zheng Jiyue, interpreter Luo Dali and cook Yao Guangcheng.

We spent our first night in the little commune of Wolong, site of the world- famous Panda Reserve. Not having proper permission to visit the pandas, we were not allowed to film them or even see them. Future foreign groups wishing to see them should request that the CMA obtain written permission from the appropriate authorities. The next day we proceeded over the 14,800-foot Po Lung Pass into the Tibetan Autonomous District. The valley in which Siguniang and Celestial Peak are situated has strong ties to Tibetan culture, although it is not geographically part of Tibet today. At the pass we got our first glimpse of Celestial Peak and its southwest face. It looked awesome, much steeper than we had expected. We descended to the picturesque Tibetan village of Zelun and departed the next day with our gear loaded by seven Tibetan drivers on 22 yaks. Two days later, we established Base Camp at 12,700 feet in a meadow near treeline beneath the southwest face.

Above Base Camp, in order to reach the main face, we had to breach two cliff bands. Eric Perlman discovered a highly vegetated diagonal traverse which led to a grassy slope extending up to the second cliff band. We fixed rope on three short pitches on the traverse. At the top of the grassy slope, at 14,500 feet, we built a platform for Camp I, sited a mere nine days after leaving San Francisco!

The next day, October 4, Steck and Perlman led up the second cliff band while the rest of us hauled loads up “Perlman’s Traverse” to Camp I. Peter Klika did yeoman service here, carrying four heavy loads to or near Camp I. The rock encountered by Allen and Eric was hard, slabby granite with often unprotected pitches of up to 5.7, and we placed 800 feet of fixed line anchored by bolts on this cliff band. Late that day Eric reached the site of Camp II at 15,500 feet on a natural platform nestled against the left side of the southwest face and protected from the considerable rockfall which periodically crashed down the face. On October 5 four tents were placed on the Camp II platform. That afternoon, Brock Wagstaff and Bob Schneider started up the main face. They completed the first two pitches up a shallow dike on the center of the face, directly above “Vaill’s Patch,” a permanent snow-and-ice patch I had spotted on our 1981 reconnaissance.

October 6 was one of only two days of bad weather on the entire expedition. In spite of the threatening weather, Brock Wagstaff, Bob Schneider and Eric

Perlman pushed the route higher until it began to snow in the early afternoon. Brock led the third pitch (5.8) to a remarkable cave filled with giant quartz crystals and tinted red with lichen. Eric climbed the fourth pitch out of the cave, up an orange dike, over two small roofs and then 15 feet to a small ledge. After placing a bolt for protection, he continued up and right on a white dike to a large diagonal roof. He placed a Friend, stepped out and over the roof (5.10a), using small face holds and mantle moves. Twenty more feet of climbing led to a hanging belay. Brock cleaned the pitch and led 40 feet to a large ledge. With the snow falling harder, they drilled two bolts, strung a fixed line and rappelled to Camp II.

By October 7, seven members had occupied Camp II. Bob and Brock jümared up to the previous day’s high point and proceeded to push the route all the way up the face to the base of the massive crux dihedral, the “Watchtower,” which led directly to the summit some 600 feet higher. The climbing on this middle section of the face was uneven, with fourth-class ledges covered with loose rock interspersed with short sections of 5.9 and 5.10. The rest of us spent the day filming the lower sections of the face.

October 8 was incredibly clear and warm, perfect for difficult free-climbing at high altitude. Eric Perlman, Allen Steck and Bill Lahr had jümared up to the high point by 11:30 A.M. After scouting the base of the Watchtower from the rubbly ledge, they decided to bypass its lower part by linking a series of discontinuous cracks 100 feet to the left of the dihedral. Eric led strenuous 5.9 fingerlocks and laybacks, with occasional loose blocks and a six-foot tension traverse, later determined to be unnecessary. Rockfall danger was extreme. The second pitch was more 5.9 laybacking, finger-jamming and loose-block skirting, with a short pendulum, ending back at the giant Watchtower comer. A short, hard 5.9 pitch led straight up the dihedral and took all of Eric’s smaller Friends. In view of the lateness of the hour, Allen and Bill jümared up behind Eric and took turns belaying.

The fourth pitch, the most difficult of the climb, involved 5.10c overhanging bridging off small flakes, finger-jamming and a fingertip layback problem. This led, on the fifth pitch, to a short layback into an alcove. The sixth pitch was grim since a large block and smaller chockstones, which were precariously lodged and sounded hollow when banged with the heel of the hand, created a massive ceiling which had to be climbed. Bill jümared up and set up his belay in the protection of the alcove, while Allen hid beneath an overhang a pitch below to protect himself from rockfall. Eric led up the only obvious passage, carefully distributing his weight to prevent the block and chockstones from shifting. He carefully led over the ceiling by grasping a small, loose block and then utilizing it as a step. It held and the rest of the 5.9 pitch was sustained fist-and-finger-jamming. The final pitch had a move of 5.8 turning to a large block chimney, and then a short slab which led to the summit boulders.

At 5:40 P.M. Eric disappeared over the summit ridge, tied off the rope and scrambled the last 40 feet to the top. The summit of Celestial Peak was a 150-foot-long knife edge. The highest pinnacle was about ten feet high and six feet wide, close to the southwest face. By 6:20 Eric had been joined on the narrow summit pinnacle by Bill Lahr and Al Steck. This was a remarkable feat for our 57-year-old “spiritual adviser,” Allen Steck. The main Siguniang peak rose like an ominous shadow to the east, and range after range of peaks marched off for miles to the west, into Tibet. The wind was mild, the air, cool and the sun, warm, but only a few minutes of daylight remained.

As they descended from the summit in the growing darkness, there was little moonlight, but we in Camp II could faintly see the face. At 7:15 rocks crashed down the face and sent us scrambling to the safety of the rock wall at the back of our platform. Pete White was hit a glancing blow and a rock went through the wall of one of our tents. The three summiters were rappelling without headlamps! Half an hour later, Bill Lahr reached Vaill’s Patch, where we met him. By 8:30 Eric Perlman and Allen Steck were in Camp II.

On the following day, October 9, our expedition plan was for the rest of us to reach the summit and to film the final crux pitches. Brock Wagstaff and Bob Schneider led off up the fixed line at 8:15, followed by Pete White with the cinematographic equipment. Pete had been feeling the altitude for the past few days, but he performed his role as cinematographer flawlessly that day. I followed as number-four climber, but still feeling the effects of a bout of dysentery earlier that week, I descended after jümaring several hundred feet.

About three P.M. a large rockfall hurtled from the summit pitches directly on Perlman, Lahr and Steck, who were releading the first two pitches above Vaill’s Patch for photography. Luckily no one was hit. They fled quickly!

About four P.M. Brock Wagstaff, Bob Schneider and Pete White reached the summit after filming the crux pitches. Under a large rock on the exact summit, they left the expedition flag signed by all members in a Jack Daniel tin container. By six o’clock, all three climbers had reached Camp II without incident, although they all held their breath rappelling the frayed fixed lines near the bottom of the face.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Hengduan Shan, Sichuan Province, China.

First Ascent: Celestial Peak (Po’nyu or Shen Shan), 5334 meters, 17,500 feet, via Southwest Face; summit reached on October 8, 1983 (Lahr, Perlman, Steck) and on October 9, 1983 (Schneider, Wagstaff, White).

Personnel: Edward E. Vaill and Allen Steck, co-leaders; Eric Perlman, William Lahr, Robert Schneider, Brock Wagstaff, Pritchard H. (Pete) White; Peter Klika, Base Camp Coordinator.

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