American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, China, Kun Lun Shan, Jambeyang, Attempt

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2001

Jambeyang, Attempt. Jambeyang, throne to the Bodhisattva of learning, stands at the head of the Duron Valley. This unclimbed pyramid shares the idyllic valley with two other stand-alone peaks, Xiangre Ri and Chondorjie. Located in the far southwest of Sichuan Province, China, these remote mountains have attracted relatively little Western attention until quite recently.

Fred Beckey had seen pictures of Jambeyang several years ago and had been quietly planning to attempt the mountain ever since. Beckey recruited Canadians Rick and Lisa Clements and Americans Judd Stewart, Wesley Bunch*, and Dabney Eastham. Dabney was the only member of the expedition to have actually traveled to the Duron Valley; this was to be his third trip.

Our party size was reduced by one when Rick was struck by lightning while climbing with Beckey in Banff several weeks before departure (he survived, but suffered bums and brain swelling). Lisa made the trip to the valley, but unfortunately she became ill and had to leave after only several days.

We arrived in the Duron Valley on September 19, hoping that the post-monsoon season would bring the most stable, dry weather conditions. Jambeyang, Xiangre Ri, and Chondorjie are holy to the Buddhist Tibetans who inhabit this region. The Gongah Chonguh Monastery lies low in the valley at the foot of Xiangre Ri. The monks who live here in the cedar and larch forests below the 6000-meter peaks maintain and operate a tourist camp that caters to Chinese tourists who have come for the natural spectacles. The tourist operation was begun within the last two years; it will dramatically change the character of this beautiful place.

Unfortunately, our visit corresponded with a major national ten-day holiday. By the time the hundreds of tourists left the valley, the meadows and streams were littered with discarded cigarette packs and wads of dirty toilet paper. More seriously for us, the tourist stream had created a new economy in the area. Local officials almost made our trip impossible when they demanded outrageous fees for camping in their valley. Even though we had official permits and permission from the Chinese Mountaineering Association in Beijing, local authorities enjoy a degree of autonomy simply due to the vastness of China and the time and energy required to travel the great distances. Our official permits were useless rubbish here; Beijing was too far away to have any meaningful authority in this remote nook of the world. Only our excellent guides and their contacts saved the trip.

We had studied Jambeyang in photos and these pictures hinted that the northeast ridge of the mountain would provide the easiest and safest climbing. Reality proved different: the ridge was very steep and corniced, with a large hanging glacier approximately two-thirds of the way to the top. The most feasible route appeared to be up the northeast face to a col at ca. 18,200 feet on the south side of the mountain. Americans Charlie Fowler and John Cato had attempted a similar line three or four years ago, but had been repelled from the mountain by difficult and dangerous loose snow conditions.

We established our ABC at the bottom of the route on a large, easily accessible shelf below the northeast face. Only half an hour of hiking was required before we roped up, put our crampons on and started climbing.

We had studied the face for several weeks and determined that a small avalanche runnel would provide the safest and fastest access to the mountain. We successfully climbed the 800- foot runnel and accessed the face proper. Immediately we ran into horrible sugar snow. Barely a foot deep, the rotten snow hid the friable limestone that characterizes the peaks in this area. Shattered and crumbling, the stone was useless for any sort of protection. Several short frightening pitches convinced us that a route up the face was out of the question. We managed a traverse to a large hanging glacier that descends from the south col. The glacier proved easier going and we reached the col late that afternoon. A snow cave bivouac was followed the next morning by a waist-deep powder slog to the bottom of the south face. It was immediately obvious that the south face was in even worse shape than the northeast face. Loose sugary snow clung to the steep, rotten rock; no way was this route going to go.

We poked around the col a little and got a bit of a view of the west side of the mountain. What we saw was a vast face of vertical and overhanging crumbling limestone rising out of the clouds and extending to the summit.

Conceding to reality, we began our descent. Despite the icefall danger, we chose to descend the hanging glacier. The solid ice anchors available on the glacier allowed a quick descent, and it wasn’t long before we saw Dabney hiking up from ABC to greet us.

While we struggled on Jambeyang, another American team was giving Chondorjie a shot. Led by Pete Athans, The North Face/National Geographic team had managed to get part way up their mountain but were repulsed by conditions similar to what we discovered on Jambeyang. It appeared that the poor snow we encountered is typical for these mountains. Of the four expeditions that had attempted peaks in this valley, all had failed due to poor snow conditions. Given good conditions, the peaks would be serious but climbable. The climbers who make this long journey and find good snow and ice to climb would be very lucky indeed.

Judd Stewart

*Recipient of an AAC Lyman Spitzer Climbing Grant

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