American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, China, Sichuan, Shaluli Shah, Xiashe, North Face; Peak 5,690m, Northeast Ridge, Attempt

  • Climbs And Expeditions
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  • Publication Year: 2006

Xiashe, north face; Peak 5,690m, northeast ridge, attempt. It was Tamotsu Nakamuras telephoto of Xiashe’s north face appearing in the AAJ that persuaded us to visit. We were looking for an objective that would require little acclimatization, was accessible, and not too difficult. The north face seemed to fit these criteria. However, we had also heard rumors of a previous unauthorized expedition, and these were later confirmed: a Korean team had indeed been to Xiashe in the late 1990s but was unsuccessful.

After three days’ acclimatization and two days of driving at altitude to reach the Zhopu Valley, Duncan Tunstall and I left base camp on October 13 with three gas canisters and food for three evening meals. At 5 p.m. we reached a flat area at ca. 4,500m on a moraine ridge below the north face. Alarm clock issues meant we didn’t start until 8 a.m. on the 14th. An easy snow slope followed by 10m of Scottish 3 and a long, rightwards-leading ramp led into the gully that runs the entire length of the face. Reaching this point, at an altitude of ca. 5,200m, took most of the day and involved punching up a mixture of consolidated and unconsolidated snow over loose rock. Stopping at 4:30 p.m., we dug a ledge for the tent and after a surprisingly bad night, made worse by spindrift avalanches, started again at 8 a.m., trailing the rope. The angle of the face steepened from 45°-50° to something more like 70°, and the climbing consequently became harder. We climbed a lot of Grade 3/4, but as we ascended, the covering of snow became less consolidated. Eventually, we broke out of the gully, to reach the crest of the spur that forms its left edge. This gave steep mixed climbing on rotten rock with sections of Scottish 4 and 5. In fact, overall the route was quite serious with weird, fractured blocky rock and poor belays. On several occasions cracks split when torqued. Even when the climbing was not hard, there was no room for falling. With the summit ridge 150m above, it began to get dark. We eventually stopped at the right edge of a serac barrier extending from the summit and dug out half a ledge. The night passed very slowly.

Next morning was cloudy, and a little snow had fallen. After a brew, Duncan led a steep pitch of 4/5 on good ice and névé. I led a pitch on less solid but easier ground, belaying a few feet below the cornice. Duncan cut through this on solid ice, reaching the crest of the west ridge and the steps of the New Zealand and Canadian women who had made the first ascent of Xiashe several days previously. Less than five minutes later we reached the 5,833m summit and after a quick inspection of the east ridge, chose to follow the steps of the two women down to the west. By 4 p.m. we had reached the base of the ridge and pitched our tent. Next morning we made the long climb back up to and over the west col and slogged down through new snow to base camp.

Tom Prentice, our third team member, opted not to go on the north face and instead made a determined solo effort on the neighboring Peak 5,690m via its long northeast ridge. This peak, which is well seen from the silver mine on the road to Zhopu Monastery, faces Xiashe and, with it, encloses the west valley in a horseshoe. On the 14th Prentice set up camp at 4,600m in the hanging corrie clearly marked on Nakamuras map; the corrie forms the west side of the west valley. The following day Prentice ascended deep snow over boulders and scree to gain the northeast ridge. He followed the snow-covered crest around various towers until stopped by a prominent gendarme, where a western spur marked on Nakamura’s map meets the main ridge at ca. 5,300m. Loose, unstable ground covered with unconsolidated snow, the lack of a rope, and diminishing daylight combined to force a retreat. Above, a long snow ridge appeared to lead all the way to the summit, and the route, which gives an excellent view of Xiashe’s north face, should prove relatively straightforward for a pair of climbers.

The weather had been snowy prior to our arrival, and on our first night it snowed heavily, threatening our bargain basement Chinese tents with abject failure. However, this snow cleared quickly during the day, and although temperatures were never high, life was pleasantly warm in the sunshine. Good weather prevailed throughout our climb, ending during the night of October 16-17 with a big storm and a dump of fresh snow.

This region is as interesting for the strong Tibetan nomadic culture as it is for the climbing. Undermining this culture in the future will be a new village planned for the grassland. In addition, the presence of a silver mine and plans to upgrade the service road will also damage both the way of life and the area’s considerable natural appeal.

Ed Douglas, United Kingdom

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