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Asia, China, Qionglai Range, Siguniang National Park, Tan Shan and Putala Shan, First Ascents via Difficult Rock Routes

Tan Shan and Putala Shan, first ascents via difficult rock routes. My wife Tanja Grmovsek and I planned to visit the Qionglai Mountains in the spring of 2003 but due to the outbreak of the SARS virus just a few days before leaving for China we had to postpone to the autumn. In the end this time of year turned out perfect for rock climbing in the Siguniang region.

We always try to travel as simply as possible on our climbing expeditions. We were completely on our own, without a translator, in the land of Chinese characters. In the second half of September we arrived in Rilong, a small tourist town at the foot of the Siguniang Shan, an increasingly well-known region of the Qionglai Mountains. Our goal was to free climb some large granite walls in an area that is almost untouched by mountaineers. We didn’t have much information about the mountains here, only inspiration from Tom Nakamura’s article published in the AAJ 2003. However, we were also a bit scared due to the almost universal reports of bad weather and limited success by the few rock climbers who had previously visited these peaks. Because of this we opted to climb very light and fast.

We really had no idea where to find the big walls, so the first thing we did was to take a new tourist bus into the Shuangqiao Gou Valley. This valley is 35km long and had many interesting granite walls up to 1,000m high, almost all of which were unclimbed. We couldn’t believe that all those walls were just waiting for climbers, so we quickly worked out a plan as to where, and how, we were going to climb in this paradise. Access to the valley was very simple. We just got off the bus, established base camp, and then hiked for four to seven hours up to the base of the walls. The weather in the Shuangqiao Gou was really strange. During the course of the day we could have all kinds of weather. But in general the weather was much better than we expected. It was very changeable but most days were without rain or snow.

We decided to first try a somewhat easier, lower wall for acclimatization. The approach was quite bad, involving very steep terrain and a lot of prickly vegetation. We tried to go as light as possible, but our sacs were still far from light. On September 25 in a one-day push we climbed Don’t Fly Away (450m, 11 pitches, V, VIII/VIII+ obl.) on the south face of a nameless peak, which we later called Tan Shan. It is probably 4,943m high and was almost certainly unclimbed. For protection we used only Friends and found in general they were quite hard to place. This meant the climbing was sometimes really serious, especially on the hardest pitch, which had a 15-meter runout up a smooth slab. I took a fall on the crux and was held by just two cams of a small Friend placed in a flared crack under a small roof. The rock was very smooth and the climbing right at the limit. At one stage I thought we were going to have to retreat from half way up the wall. However, I managed the slab second try, but the protection was really quite scary.

After a few rest days we went for our second objective: the west face of Putala Shan (5,428m). The snow that had previously been lying on the face had now almost disappeared, so we left all our ice climbing equipment in the valley and took only climbing shoes, some clothes, a bivouac sack and a small bottle of water. The approach was again very steep with a lot of vegetation. We had hoped to climb the beautiful arete that forms the left side of the face, but after a closer look we decided for a more logical and faster line up the middle of the wall. We climbed as fast as possible and reached the north summit of this broad mountain in the evening. The lower part of the wall had been exposed to rock fall. The middle part was quite steep with nice climbing in crack systems and some off-widths. On the last 200m we found some snow on the ledges. Now the weather had become more changeable: very cloudy with some sun, and often misty and windy. We opted to make a freezing bivouac on the summit and rappel the wall the following day. We used only Friends and nuts for protection and belays, but left rappel anchors on our descent. The route is ca 1,300 meters long and the wall ca 800 meters high. We called the 22-pitch climb Dalai Lama (VI, VIII-), and we believe this also to be the first ascent of the peak. By the time we returned to the valley, the weather was changing. Next night 20cm of snow fell and we were really happy we were no longer on the wall. Because of this and the injuries I had sustained (I’d hurt my ribs), we decided to leave this beautiful area. But there are still many interesting walls to climb here and we shall probably return in the future. For more photographs of this trip see http://kitajska.odprava.net.

Andrej Grmovsek, Slovenia