Yala, west-southwest ridge, attempt. From October 20 to November 1 the GORE-AAIC First Ascents team attempted a new route on the west-southwest ridge of Yala (a.k.a. Yala Xeushan, Zhara, Ja-ra, or Haizi Shan, the King of Mountains, 5,833m). Our expedition started in Chengdu, as do all expeditions climbing in Sichuan Province. On the 20th we drove all day to a small town named Bamei, stopping briefly in Kangding to have the Ganzi Prefecture Mountaineering Association stamp the official red seal on our permit.
Bamei is a small, grubby place at the junction of three roads. Small, shabby auto repair shops, stores, and other hole-in-a-wall businesses necessary to the trucking industry have developed at this junction. Among this sprawl the old town still maintains some of its charm, and there is even a lovely Tibetan home, bequeathed with a courtyard flower garden. We stayed there that evening.
On the 21st we drove the short distance to the Taizhan Valley and from the roadhead employed horses to carry equipment to the natural hot springs. After a four-hour walk, we made base camp at 4,050m on grassy fields near the hot springs.
We then had almost 30cm of snowfall, but on the 24th it stopped and the sky cleared. I became restless and walked up to Camp 1. The route followed small, skinny couloirs. I placed camp in a large boulder field on the north side of the west-southwest ridge. The following day the entire team made the trip to Camp 1.
On the 26th Chen Cheng, Su Rongqin, Ma Yihua, and I, all guides working with the Arête Alpine Instruction Center in Chengdu, climbed to Camp 2 at 5,010m. The route followed the north face of the west ridge. When we reached the crest, the wind was howling, blowing directly from the south. We made camp on the leeward side, and Su Rongqin descended to base camp that evening.
A two-day storm had deposited a thick layer of unconsolidated snow on the primarily rocky ridge above, where initially the solid-granite crest was stepped, a horizontal section generally being followed by a steep rock face. Wind and blowing snow plagued our entire ascent, and the route proved very time-consuming. Two sections involved sack-hauling, while a few others required the leader to climb without a pack, then rappel and jumar back up with his sack.
We spent the night of the 27th in a half-erected tent on a small ledge at 5,250m. The next day we only managed to climb 147 vertical meters. The following morning we avoided the crest by a snow slope on the right, but when forced back to the ridge, were surprised to find it changed in character: narrower, steeper, and composed of large unstable blocks. Progress on less-steep sections often involved gingerly crawling along the crest, while the vertical parts involved climbing difficult rock in boots and crampons. One small section required easy aid.
We sited the last camp at a little over 5,500m, but by the afternoon of the following day, with obviously looser rock above, we realized we were not going to make the summit by the ridge. At 6 p.m., a little more than 200 vertical meters below the summit, we decided to rappel into the gully on the left. The gully would not only provide a campsite for the night, but hopefully we could downclimb it to a point where it met other couloirs, one of which we might be able to follow directly to the summit ridge.
We did not make a conscious decision to abandon our route that evening, but once wed started rappelling, we kept going down. We descended for 15 hours through the night, enduring a storm with erratic, bitter cold winds and whipping spindrift, and finally reaching base camp at 9 a.m. on the 31st. Concentration during the descent was so great that at 10:47 p.m. an earthquake measuring 4.2 on the Richter Scale, with an epicenter just 20km away, occurred unnoticed. We rated the climb to our high point Alpine TD 5.10 A0. Despite a number of attempts to date, Yala remains unclimbed.
Jon Otto, AAC and Arête Alpine Instruction Center, Chengdu, China