Rock Peaks of the Siguniang Region
New routes, anyone?
Photographs by Tamotsu Nakamura, Japanese Alpine Club
“Mt. Siguniang, the highest peak of the Qionglai mountains, has become so famous and popular within China itself that the southern side of the mountain, access to which is very easy from Chengdu, is now congested with hundreds of tourists and trekkers, domestic as well as foreign. However, if you were to look north, you would note many lofty granite peaks towering toward the sky. These peaks, which range from 5300 to 5900 meters in height, encircle two beautiful valleys as if to form a grand coliseum. Although approaches are not very difficult and a 1:50,000 Chinese topographical map indicates the relevant position and altitude in detail, the peaks remain little-known—and in many cases, untrodden.”
The Siguniang mountain region in the Qionglai Mountains of the Hengduan Shan, Sichuan Province, China, is home to a concentration of granite peaks that will be of interest to both the modem free climber and the aficionado of new routes. Indeed, longtime readers of the AAJ might recall an article in the 1984 volume by Ted Vaill describing the first ascent of Celestial Peak. The article included a photo of Celestial Peak that depicts a pyramidal granite tower so symmetrically precise it might have been cut by laser. A 15-member American Alpine Club party led by Peter Woods that was in the area at the same time made the first ascent of Bok’ra and attempted a circumnavigation of Mt. Siguniang. Their comments gave further indication that here might be an area worth further exploration: “From the summit [of Bok’ra] we could see dozens of unclimbed granite peaks to the north, west and south which would rank with the finest rock climbs on earth.”
The highest peak of the area, Mt. Siguniang (“Peak of Four Daughters,” officially given 6250 meters but perhaps as much as 330 meters less), inspired America’s globe-trotting Charlie Fowler to call it “certainly one of the most beautiful 6000-meter peaks in the world.” It was first climbed in 1981 by a Japanese team over a period of 16 days with the aid of ca. 2000 meters of fixed rope. Their route climbed snow and ice on the right-hand side of the south face to a prominent shoulder, then continued up the east face/ridge to the summit. The same year, the American team of Jack Tackle, Jim Donini, Kim Schmitz and Jim Kantzler attempted the steep 6,000-foot north face, reaching ca. 5300 meters after 11 days above high camp, six days of which were spent on the final push.
The second ascent of the peak came in 1992, again by a Japanese party and again on the south face, this time via an elegant rock buttress left of center to a snow-and-ice finish on the west ridge. This ascent took 23 days and used 600 meters of fixed line.
Two years later, Charlie Fowler visited the area for the first time. Transfixed by Siguniang’s beauty, Mr. Fowler climbed an independent line on the right side of the south face to the shoulder, then more or less followed the line of first ascent up the east ridge. His three-day solo ascent included a top-out late in the day in deteriorating weather and a descent of the same line that he described as “epic.”
The history of Celestial Peak shares parallels with Siguniang in its evolution of styles. The 1983 first ascent had the dual goal of climbing the mountain and making a film of the climb.* Wrote Vaill, “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 3/8-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 1985, American Keith Brown took a considerably lighter approach when he made the second ascent via a three-day, 26-pitch line on the southeast ridge, solo.
Further activity in the area has been rather limited. In addition to his solo of Siguniang, Mr. Fowler has made a number of other ascents in the region. Also in 1994, he soloed a 5383-meter peak to the west of Celestial Peak, and another 5484-meter peak north of Siguniang. In 1997, he made another first ascent, this one of a 5666-meter mountain, again north of Siguniang. All his ascents have been carried out on predominantly alpine terrain. In 1997, Jon Meisler, an American who lived in Chengdu for seven years and now runs the mountaineering and trekking company High Asia, brought his friends Jeff Hollenbaugh and Mike Pennings to the region. Strong American free climbers both, Hollenbaugh and Pennings put up Grand Theft Oreo, a ten-pitch 5.9, on a rock peak to the southwest of Celestial Peak.
In 1998, the Japanese explorer Tamotsu Nakamura, whose photos are represented here, crossed a 4644-meter pass north of Mt. Siguniang that separates the Bi Pung from the Chang Ping valleys. He found the crossing to be, as he notes, “the highlight of the tramping indeed. I found myself in the center of countless magnificent rock peaks… (s)ome spiky, while others … were big masses of formidable rocks.” His camp, pitched at the source of the Chang Ping Valley, saw him in a “palace of a huge rock garden in harmony with vivid green trees and meadows.”
There are three main valleys in the Siguniang region. The Bi Pung Valley is an adjunct valley north of the area of main interest to the climber. The Chang Ping Valley features Celestial Peak on its west side and Siguniang on its east. According to Mr. Meisler, the Chang Ping Valley “is full of interesting walls, especially further up (north). The next valley west, the Shuang Qiao Valley, is also full of walls.” A road has been built up the Shuang Qiao Valley. (It is, notes Mr. Meisler, “horrific.”)
What might the visiting climber expect to find? Culturally, he or she could experience a land more reminiscent of Tibet than China. In his 1984 article, Mr. Vaill noted, 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.” In terms of access, the area, which is being pushed by Sichuan tourism authority as a point of interest to Chinese and foreign tourists, has a series of trails that would allow the climber easy access to a number of peaks.
“Bear in mind,” cautions Mr. Hollenbaugh, “that the Siguniang area is somewhat sensitive in that it is one of the last remaining homes to the panda and red panda. Publicity toward conservation could benefit the area, as the Chinese government only wants to [profit from] tourism.”
The range has a “granite plug” of good rock that begins on the south side with Siguniang and Celestial, and ends on the north side before Bok’ra. At each end, there is an abrupt transformation to worse rock. Though Mr. Vaill recalls “Yosemite-quality” granite from his team’s ascent of Celestial Peak, a recollection bom out by photos from the climb, Mr. Hollenbaugh’s assessment is more reserved. He notes, “The rock is good (this from a desert and Black Canyon climber). It ain’t Yosemite, Patagonia, or Pakistan, but it’s good. Our route was clean and we felt comfortable doing a majority of our raps on slung horns. With some effort you could do a ton of good climbs, most (outside of those on the Siguniang massif) on the slabby side.”
Spring and autumn would best suit the free climber, with the rainy season falling in July and August. As Mr. Fowler pointed out in his note in the 1999 AAJ, “In the future this whole area should become very popular with climbers, as there are unlimited possibilities for rock and alpine routes on fairly low-altitude peaks, and with very easy access from the city of Chengdu.”
1982, pp. 285-286, Siguniang (6250m), first ascent, and p. 286, north face, attempt.
1984, pp. 43-48, Celestial Peak, first ascent, and p. 309, Bok’ra, first ascent, and attempt at circuit of Siguniang.
1986, p. 303, Celestial Peak, second ascent.
1993, pp. 277-78, Siguniang, second ascent.
1996, p. 310, Siguniang, third ascent, and first ascents of three other peaks.
1999, p. 211, first ascent of a ca. 5700-meter peak.
Tamotsu Nakamura was bom in Tokyo, Japan, in 1934 and began climbing with the Hitotsubashi University Mountaineering Club in 1953. In 1961, he traveled with the first Japanese expedition to the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, making the first ascent of Pucahirca Norte (6050m) in the Cordillera Blanca and three first ascents and several second ascents in the Cordillera Apolobamba and Pupuya. He lived abroad from 1967-1994, in Pakistan, Mexico, New Zealand and Hong Kong and has made 18 exploratory treks in southwest China and southeast Tibet. He is auditor of The Japanese Alpine Club, a member of The American Alpine Club and The Himalayan Club and an International Fellow of The Explorers Club. He published his book, East of the Himalaya, in 1996.
* Tower of Challenge is available as a ten-minute video, narrated by Hoyt Axton, for $10 (including shipping) from Edward Vaill (DVaill@aol.com).