American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Genyen Massif

Treading Lightly in a Sacred Range

  • Feature Article
  • Author: Molly Loomis
  • Climb Year: 2006
  • Publication Year: 2007

Deep in the Shaluli Shan mountains of China lies the Genyen Massif, an area that has been described to us as “the Tetons jacked up on steroids.” Dave Anderson, Sarah Hueniken, Andy Tyson, and I have been lured halfway around the world by this description, and we are eager to explore these unclimbed alpine peaks, situated in a remote Tibetan Buddhist stronghold. Although it was first visited by Westerners in the late 1800s, the range has seen just a handful of expeditions, and only Mt. Genyen (20,354'), the area’s highest and most sacred peak, has seen the development of technical routes during the past 20 years.

On October 9 we cram into a Jeep driven by our tour operator, a young Chinese guy better versed in American pop culture and vernacular than any of us—Eminem’s “8 Mile” is his favorite film. After two long days bouncing in the overloaded vehicle, we arrive in Litang (population 49,126; elevation 13,169 feet), considered by many to be the capital for the Tibetan guerrillas known as Khampas. Although officially outside the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), much of western Sichuan (including Litang and the Genyen Massif) is historically part of Tibet’s southeastern Kham region. TAR’s boundary, drawn by the Chinese in 1965, quartered off an area much smaller than the historic expanse of Tibetan culture and settlement. Prayer flags, stone buildings with brightly painted eaves and doorways, women in long, black dresses accented with bright color patches, and men riding motorcycles, black ponytails caught in the wind, define the landscape.

Only one road heads south from Litang to Lamaya, the small mountain village where we will hire pack horses for our one-day trek to the Rengo Monastery, located at the base of Mt. Genyen. Nonetheless, it soon becomes painfully apparent that our tour operator cannot remember how to find this road. After multiple false starts, we hire an independent driver and in the late afternoon arrive in Lamaya without incident. We are taken aback by the villagers’ sincere interest and generosity; it’s refreshing to be in a place where the locals do not yet seem weary, jaded, or demanding of travelers.

We depart the next morning. Two horsemen and seven horses lead us along a well-defined trail up a gently sloping riverbed for approximately 12 miles. Families gather around black tents woven from yak wool, taking a break from the tedious work of digging holes with tin bowls along the trail for the utility poles that will someday bring electricity to the remote village located between Lamaya and the monastery I keep correcting my direction mid-stride in order to walk clockwise around the large stacks of mani stones along the trail.

Mist settles as we hike higher, the valley narrowing, green moss dripping from the trees, and tall, dark cliffs closing in around us. Through the mist we see the Rengo Monastery guarding the valley from its perch on a southwest-facing hill, a small village blending into the slope below. At the base of the monastery’s stupa, I find our tour operator, Dave, Sarah, and two solemn monks sitting on the ground. No one is smiling. Our tour operator is pacing and doing his nicotine-fit thing, ravenously gnawing his fingernails and lower lip. He greets me with, “It’s the Italians—the monks are pissed because the Italians climbed Genyen even though the monks told them not to.” In the spring of 2006 a team of Italians summited Genyen, the monastery’s sacred peak. The Italians were the first climbing team to visit the area since 1988, when a Japanese party successfully climbed Genyen (or Nen-Da, as many of the locals call it). In desperate pantomime, we try to convey that we will not attempt either of the two peaks the monks indicate as sacred: Genyen and a gorgeous granite peak rising directly behind the monastery, a series of five triangles stacked against one another in an ascending pattern.

(According to the Italians, all of their interactions with the monks were positive and they were never told to not climb Mt. Genyen. See “Climbs and Expeditions” for their report.)

After continued pacing and more negotiations, we are permitted to set up a base camp in the meadow below the monastery. Whether it is for spiritual or surveillance reasons, the monks do not want our camp pitched above them.

Eager to take advantage of the excellent weather, we immediately prepare to carry loads up to a high camp, our sights set on a Patagonia-esque spire called Sachun. This less than heroic name translates to the Chicken, belying the peak’s formidable east face and steep southern ridge-line, which leads to a crooked little cap of seamless granite set on the summit. Although we would have preferred setting base camp higher to minimize time spent carrying loads, we feel lucky to be welcome in the valley after the tense negotiations with the monks; getting completely turned back didn’t feel out of the question.

The next morning we carry loads up-valley, following a gentle trail along a wide, meandering riverbed, and ascend a steep slope through dark green rhododendron, golden larch, and boulders speckled with bright red lichen. We return the following day and install a high camp on a moraine at approximately 16,000 feet. Snow patters on the tents all night, so rather than climb we establish an approach route the next day in snow as deep as our thighs.

Although inflicted with some of the worse intestinal gas any of us have ever experienced (thanks to a poorly hydrated dinner), we awake at 3 a.m. to head for Sachun. Sarah and Dave plan to attempt a steep ice line on the east face, while Andy and I focus on the southern ridge’s long, smooth rock profile. However, lured by the aesthetic, sunny route, Dave and Sarah join us at the base of the ridge. We spot three of the Italians’ fixed lines dangling down the southeastern face, thick with ice. After summiting Genyen, they had attempted Sachun but were thwarted partway up by weather.

Six pitches of mixed terrain up to M5 lead to the ridge proper, where parallel cracks run down the textured granite face. We stare at the sunny face incredulous at our luck—clean, high-quality splitters and temperatures as warm as could be expected for autumn at 19,000 feet. We stuff hands and fingers to climb a full pitch of 5.9 jams. “This is some of the best granite I’ve ever climbed,” yells Dave. But enthusiasm wanes halfway up the next pitch, as we realize we’ve swiched to rock shoes too soon. We climb through two pitches of offwidth and wider cracks (up to 5.9) choked with snow and ice, our feet growing increasingly wet and cold. We reach the base of what we anticipated to be the crux pitch, and, shaking our limbs for warmth, stare at two cracks slicing the near-vertical face. Dave leads up through 150 feet of exceptional 5.10-plus hands, fingers, and ring-locks. We huff up behind, laughing and groaning at how good this might all feel at sea level. Andy continues up another half pitch, trying to assess how far we are from the top. Unable to determine our position, and pressured by the quickly waning light (this time of year it is dark by 7 p.m.) and the need to establish descent anchors, we begin heading down.

From base camp the next morning we realize in a mixture of relief, satisfaction, and frustration that we had been very close to the summit. Although climbing as a team of four held advantages for the route’s initial exploration, we decide a team of two will have a better chance at successfully completing the route. Two days later, after a rest in base camp, Sarah and Dave return to Sachun while Andy and I head up-valley, eager to explore new terrain.

Better acclimatized, Sarah and Dave make excellent time up to the previous high point and lead through the remaining two and a half pitches, which include a short traverse around to the west in order to gain the final summit cap. This is split into two separate spires, and after climbing the north spire Dave realizes the south spire is the true summit. He climbs an unprotected 25-foot slab (approximately 5.9) to the top, where, unable to build an anchor on the featureless arête, he is forced to retrace his steps. While downclimbing, he breaks a nubbin and plunges 30 feet into a snowdrift, luckily unharmed. Sarah opts for the north spire. Dave and Sarah name the route Dang Ba ’Dren Pa, a Tibetan phrase meaning “to inspire, enthuse, and uplift,” in memory of friends Todd Skinner, Karen McNeill, and Sue Nott.

Meanwhile, Andy and I set our sights on a pair of high peaks at the head of the valley, which indeed are reminiscent of mountains back home in the Tetons. Although the area is devoid of climbers’ influence, it is not untouched by humans. Walking up-valley, we pass evidence of human life everywhere: spiritual symbols etched into boulders, piles of mani stones, prayer flags adorning trees, boulders, and bushes or hanging from tall poles, chortens, and hillsides decorated with long, tall sticks. Within a short walk from our new high camp at 15,500 feet, we stumble upon what appears to be a meditation chamber: a granite sanctuary hollowed out under a large boulder. Traveling the valley is becoming as much a process of discovery as the climbing has been. The sensation of luck is overwhelming—to be in a place where the feeling of exploration is presented to us in two such distinct but inspiring forms.

By starlight, Andy and I scramble up a slope of talus and snow to the base of what we’ve nicknamed “The Grand.” We work our way up and over, extracting a traverse along the eastern face. Clean crack systems split the faces of enormous, granite blocks just below the ridgeline proper, which proves too knifey and terraced for the quick climbing we are after. We ride à cheval over a series of gendarmes to the final headwall. Dark clouds are moving in quickly, and we debate in the blowing snow about continuing up the estimated three pitches to the top. With the summit in sight we decide to quit wasting time thinking and keep climbing. The rock quality decreases a nd the quantity of snow plastered into the cracks increases. We each tag the circa 18,650-foot summit separately, as the top offers no options for an anchor to accommodate two of us.

Celebrating that night with a big ramen ration, we choose a name for the peak: Phurba, a Tibetan ritual dagger, in reference to the mountain’s sharp ridgelines. The route, Naga, we name for the serpent that is often depicted slithering up the phurba’s blade. It is certain that the locals have their own name for this peak, but we are unable to obtain local names despite several attempts.

Back at base camp, we find that a crew of workers from Litang has arrived to help the monastery build a hostel that will house some of the hundreds of pilgrims who arrive each November for a large festival honoring Genyen. We spend the day helping out, taking turns with rusted tools to work the freshly felled wood. The precision the builders achieve despite the lack of modern tools is impressive. While in Lamaya, we’d seen the village’s new school, a concrete building with a bright-red metal roof. Helping roll stones into place for the hostel’s foundation, I wonder which type of structure will define Tibetan architecture in years to come.

While the workers break for cigarettes and food, we tour the monastery. Colorful murals of Genyen decorate the entryway, as it is believed that Genyen’s body lies beneath the monastery—the mountain embodies his spirit. Tibetan texts describe Genyen as both the faithful servant of the Arahats (disciples of the Bud dha Sakyamuni) and as a group of 21 guardian spirits, embodied by the snowy peaks, in charge of protecting the Dharma and the teachings of the Buddha. Onshu, the head monk, ceremoniously unwraps “Genyen’s heart” and his “intestines”: two polished rocks whose similarity to these organs is uncanny. Towering columns of bright, silky fabric twist from the ceiling down to the floor, and long rows of deserted benches that double as beds, wrapped in saffron-colored cloth, line the main room. We wander through a room housing 1,000 golden Buddhas and another room reserved for the Dalai Lama, complete with a waiting change of clothes.

Due perhaps to its remote setting and location outside of the TAR, the Rengo Monastery was not subjected to the destruction many Tibetan monasteries experienced during the Cultural Revolution; however, it did not emerge completely unaffected. Over 600 years old, the monastery was once home to approximately 275 monks. But during the late 1970s “something” happened (presumably the Cultural Revolution). Now fewer than a dozen monks live there. When we ask through pantomime what happened to the others, Onshu makes a sad expression and gestures with his hands, as if following the contrails of smoke rising into the air.

Andy and I return to our high camp intent on a peak similar to the Tetons’ Teewinot, located just to the northeast of Phurba. It has beautiful southern and northern ridgelines, and a curving couloir splits the east face. Exploring the approach that evening, we find ourselves in the midst of a field of cairns a quarter mile in diameter; towers of three stones cover every inch of available space.

High up in a side valley, east of the main drainage, Dave and Sarah stumble upon a similar cairn field at the base of their new objective, a striking, jagged peak with a highly aesthetic southern ridge. The south-facing side of each cairn is covered in red-orange lichen. The approach takes longer than anticipated, but Dave and Sarah complete five pitches of the southern ridge before turning back.

Back on “Teewinot,” Andy and I change plans after two pitches, wary of the extremely loose rock. We traverse into a southeast-facing couloir and simul-climb approximately four pitches up to 80 degrees; a thin patina of snow and ice is plastered over smooth rock slabs. We then drop into the peak’s main east-facing couloir, and our progress immediately slows as we wallow up waist-deep snow over ice until the snow peters out to mixed terrain. Although the climbing is not difficult, the rock quality is very poor; the only reassuring factor is the cold temperature helping to glue the rocks in place. The couloir steepens and the final few pitches present mixed climbing up to M4. We straddle the narrow saddle between the two summits, assessing our options. The summit blocks are only about 25 feet above us, but conditions on both are dismal. The slightly higher southwestern summit presents a large platelike slab balanced at an incline on a tall, crumbling block of rock. A wind slab eight inches thick coats the plate of rock—an ironic “icing on the cake.” The other summit looks no better. We are disappointed to turn around so close to the summit, but we acquiesce to the poor conditions and call our high point good.

We call the peak Damaru (until someone can discern the correct name) after the little Tibetan double-headed drums similar in shape to the peak’s double summit, and we name our route Kapalika Damaru, the most powerful of all damaru, made with the skull tops of a young boy and girl. The largest of the damaru are used for the “dance of ego-annihilation,” a footnote that gives us a good laugh, considering our turnaround so close to the top.

One day, kept off the peaks by weather, we take a long hike to the 17,886-foot pass at the head of the valley. We follow a trail through what appears to be a sky-burial site, the spot where traditionally the dead are taken and offered to the birds, a practical way of disposing of bodies in a land of permafrost and limited timber. We walk past wooden paddles (likely placed on the bodies’ feet or hands), and clothing and bits of hair hanging in bushes, soon reaching the base of an immense boulder wrapped in prayer flags. We are curious but hesitant, afraid of whom we might offend with our presence. We move on quickly, continuing to curve east toward the pass. The large peak that Sarah and Dave had attempted earlier lines up directly with the boulder, indicating, along with the cairn fields, the likelihood that, although the monks did not state it (perhaps because the peak was not discernible from base camp), the mountain is probably one of the region’s sacred sites.

Rockfall punctuates our ascent up the pass as herds of blue sheep (over 200 in total) scramble on the rocks. We pause frequently, collecting small stones inlaid with large, dark-red garnets. By the time we reach the pass the weather has cleared and we are able to observe the peaks and sub-valleys forming the greater Genyen Massif. As we peer over the pass to the east and southeast, the view reveals more snowy pyramids, steep mixed faces, and snaggle-toothed towers—all unclimbed. But the Genyen valley is certainly the region’s nexus of snowy alpine routes; the outer-lying edges of the massif, crafted from a different geological recipe, erode into sloping brown hillsides.

Looking out over the endless possibilities, I think about returning someday, a mental list of future objectives already amassed. But a part of me hesitates. The Genyen valley has been and continues to be sacred center to a degree none of us was expecting. It has been a climbing destination for just a fraction of that time. The more I learn about this place, the more I feel I am treading a careful line between sacred and sacrilege, guided by a moral yardstick comprised from individual values like spirituality, ego, and desire—a uniquely mixed concoction lodged in each of our psyches, further complicated by language and cultural barriers.

Over the course of the next few days we attempt other objectives, but storms and poor snow conditions turn us around. Our tour operator orders horses from Lamaya via sat phone. The temperatures have grown noticeably colder, and the larches have turned from gold to dull yellow. The stellar weather has kept us moving at an almost nonstop pace for close to three weeks. Numerous signs, including the possibility of roads being closed by snowfall, point us back to Chengdu. According to our tour operator, the monks say we’ve been in the region long enough. Although our relations with the monks have been positive, it is difficult to anticipate how they and their community will receive climbers in the future.

Several weeks later we are contacted regarding Charlie Fowler and Chris Boskoff’s disappearance on the slopes of Mt. Genyen in November, about a month after our trip. It is an eerie and sad time for us all, in particular for Dave, who had communicated at length with Charlie about traveling and climbing in Kham. Dave puts it well when he writes, “As climbers, we stand on the shoulders of those that have come before us. We glean knowledge from previous ascents to help increase our chances of success and climb in better style. But the most important information we gain from our climbing heroes does not show up in the topo or the gear list. What they really give us is the courage to step out into the unknown and try.” It would be simplistic for us to think that we achieved success in the Genyen Massif alone. Our thoughts and wishes go out to the family and friends of Chris and Charlie.

Summary

Area: Genyen Massif, Shaluli Shan, Sichuan Province, China

Ascents: First ascent of Sachun (19,570') via the south ridge; the route is named Dang Ba ’Dren Pa (5.10+ AO M5 70°); Dave Anderson and Sarah Hueniken, October 20, 2006. First ascent of Phurba (ca 18,650') via the east face and south ridge; the route is called Naga (5.8 75°); Molly Loomis and Andy Tyson, October 21, 2006. Loomis and Tyson also climbed the southeast and east face of a peak they called Damaru (ca 18,550'), reaching a point 25 feet below the twin summits.

A Note About the Author:

Molly Loomis, 30, writes from her home in Victor, Idaho, where she splits her time working as a mountain guide and as a freelance writer. The team offers enormous thanks for the financial support provided by a W.L. Gore Shipton-Tilman Grant, Montrail, Outdoor Research, and the National Outdoor Leadership School’s Instructor Development Fund.

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