American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, China, Yunnan Province, Hengduan Shan, Ascent of Peak 4,750, Attempt on Baimang Shan, and Reconnaissance of Meilixueshan and Habaxueshan Areas

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003

Yunnan Province, Hengduan Shan, ascent of Peak 4,750, attempt on Baimang Shan, and reconnaissance of Meilixueshan and Habaxueshan areas. During April and May Paul Macleman and I visited the Hengduan mountains of northwestern Yunnan Province. This was my second journey to the area (AAJ 1999), which is still not popular with foreign expeditions but is becoming increasingly popular as a destination for domestic Chinese package tours.

Driving from Kunming to Lijiang can now be done in around eight hours by bus on the new highway. A cable car up the eastern slopes of Yulongxueshan (5,596m) was completed in late 1998; it gave us an interesting day out, with nice views, as well as a minor degree of acclimatization, as it stops at just over 4,500m on snowfields above the glacier. From Lijiang we continued north to Zhongdian (3,200m), where we spent a few days acclimatizing, buying food and visiting the beautiful Songzhalin monastery. Then we took a public bus toward Deqen, but we jumped off at the 4100m high pass to the east of the attractive and unclimbed Baimang Shan (5,500m).

Passing evidence of increased human traffic in the area—partially completed stone huts, trash, human feces, road crews—we camped slightly above the road, beneath the hill that I climbed in 1998. Two days later we ascended this peak, our altimeters registering around 4750m, significantly lower than I previously thought. On this occasion we climbed the northern ridge in deep snow and over loose rock to arrive on the summit after a couple of hours. The Konkaling peaks were again visible far to the east but we were lucky enough this time to obtain a magical view of Kawa Karpo (6,740m, a.k.a. Meil- ixushan, Kagebo) rising to the northwest above a sea of cloud.

Upon descending we decided that Baimang Shan held too much fresh snow, so we immediately hitched a ride on a truck to the city of Deqen. There has been a significant increase in the number of tourists traveling across the Mekong River from Degen to visit the Minyong Glacier, for a fee, and the nearby monastery.

Using a local tour operator for jeep and horse hire, we crossed the Mekong 45 minutes north of Deqen and turned left toward Xigong hot springs where we left the jeep and loaded the horses. Around six hours of pleasant walking up and over a forested ridge, past prayer flags and small meadows, brought us down in to the Yibong valley and its uppermost village of Yibong. Whilst descending to the village at around 3200m, we got several glimpses through the mist of the lower reaches of the main range to the west, including not only the 6000m peak directly south of Kawa Karpo that we wished to attempt, but also the approach gully to the north ridge of the spectacular 6,054m Miancimu (Metsemo). The next day we hoped to reach the “Japanese Camp” used by the ill-fated Sino-Japanese expedition that lost 17 members in one avalanche higher up on Kawa Karpo in January 1991. There is now a very basic trekking-style lodge in Yibong that can accommodate small groups.

While spending the night in Yibong we learned that although the villagers were happy for us to explore the area, they had been told by the monks from the monastery at Minyong that they would be “punished” for allowing foreigners to go above the village without a local guide. Spiritual reasons were cited for not allowing foreigners to climb or trek in the mountains above—not just Kawa Karpo, but all the peaks—and this prohibition also extended to other activities like plant collecting. We knew beforehand that such issues may affect climbing here but wanted to see for ourselves. Though disappointed, we left the area the next day, content to abandon any climbing plans there out of respect for local beliefs and the well being of the villagers.

After a few days in Deqen we again took a public bus to the pass near Baimang Shan. After spending a day scoping the east face and waiting out the usual rain and snow, we descended directly down hill through low brush until we hit a path that followed the river north to south along the valley floor. Shortly after, this path forked and we took the route that headed west, over a ridge then straight up the valley beneath the east face of Baimang. Passing several crumbling herders’ huts, we arrived after five hours at a clearing in the cirque beneath Baimang, in view of the approach slopes to the face. There was a larger herder’s hut here, with a partially dismembered and mummified dog stored in the corner.

After waiting a day here, hoping the sunny weather would help settle the face, we set off at 3 a.m., planning to enter the rightmost broad couloir, then follow it to a point where we could cross a rock rib to access and follow the upper part of the central couloir to where it exited on to the summit ridge, a climb of around 1,400m. By 5 a.m. we were up on the lower snow slopes, about to climb a diagonal gully to access the first couloir. However for the last 30 minutes we had been winding through increasingly large blocks of avalanche debris, invisible from below. The instinct for self-preservation took over and I suggested that the route was too dangerous in its present condition. Paul, exhibiting a lesser talent for flotation than myself, had been sinking up to his waist in the approach snows and readily agreed to descend upon encountering the television-sized blocks around us. We were back in our bags within an hour, disappointed again. Rising at 9 a.m., we spent over an hour admiring the scene of our most recent failure when a massive boom shook the air and the whole upper section of the central couloir cut loose, tons of snow cascading down the face and obliterating our proposed route. After watching several smaller avalanches bombard the slopes on which we had been recently standing, we had a two-second, non-verbal discussion before happily packing up and walking back to the road that led to Zhongdian, Lijiang, beer, pizza, pancakes, and ice cream.

After a few days of such hardship we decided to visit the northern side of Habaxueshan (5,490m), a peak that has been climbed at least three times and is situated on the northern side of the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. Crossing the Yangtze on the old ferry near Daju, we slogged uphill to the ugly “new village” on the northern bank of the river. Here we shared a tractor ride with a large cow for three hours, winding over the hills to reach the village of Haba, high on a hillside to the northeast of the peak of the same name. Spending the night at an excellent lodge, where the woman who owned the establishment helped us register with the police for a “trekking permit” and also hire her brother and his horse, we set off the next day and made the 1,400m ascent, past grazing cows and the raging river, up through slippery forest to the picturesque lake known locally as “Black Sea,” situated at 4,100m to the north of Habaxueshan. The next day, upon hiking up a small hill near camp, we realized that we did not have enough time to negotiate the approach to the actual climbing on Haba, which necessitated some winding through pinnacles and traversing slopes before touching the main slopes of the peak itself. However, we did gain an awesome view of some jagged, unclimbed 5,000m peaks that were close to the southwest of Habaxueshan and could probably be accessed through Tiger Leaping Gorge. The following day, after a savage hailstorm and a hike up another snowy 4,305m hill, we quickly descended to Haba village, from which we left the next day and retraced our steps to Lijiang and eventually Kunming.

Damien Gildea, AAC

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