American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, China, Qonglai Shan, Siguniang National Park, Changping Valley, Thorn, First Ascent; Falcon, First Ascent; Camel Peak, Southwest Face, Attempt

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2007

Changping Valley, Thorn, first ascent; Falcon, first ascent; Camel Peak, southwest face, attempt. In October Josh Butson and I ventured to the Quonglai mountains, inspired by conversations with Charlie Fowler, Keith Brown, and information lifted from recent volumes of the Japanese Alpine News. The two of us were hungry for a remote adventure and first ascents on virgin granite. I purchased a plane ticket to Chengdu, armed with a tip from Salt Lake climber Tommy Chandler that our first discovery would be a man named Tong Wei in a bar called the Iced Rock. By the time we found him, we had flown for two days, been held up on the road to Rilong, and pushed a Yugo over a 4,000m pass in a blizzard. On our first overcast morning in the heart of Sichuan, we woke worried and uncertain we were in the right place. We could see no mountains.

We ambled about town, rendezvoused with Tong Wei, and met a government man named Gao Wei. A heated negotiation, tense with cigarette smoke and bulleted by broken but deliberate English, forged an agreement over a stream of Heinikens and $85US. We hadn’t expected contact with the Sichuan Mountaineering Association but its representative, Gao Wei, was fair. We could climb in any style, but not on any mountain. We were granted a permit to explore unclimbed 5,000m peaks in the Changping Goa. It was scrawled on cheap waxy paper.

We hiked from the mouth of the valley with just rucksacks, post-holing through miles of mud deep enough to inhale our plastic boots and exhale belches like a fifth grader. We established a base camp in the hanging valley north of Celestial Peak. The valley, which rises west out of the Changping, was steep and offered little room but ample water. Our first alpine foray was adventurous climbing on two unclimbed 5,000m peaks: a twin-peak formation we called The Thorn and a second peak that looked like a Falcon. We established a run-out 5.9+ on The Thorn and climbed a long steep couloir to a previously unclimbed summit on The Falcon. The couloir was the only weakness in the granite cirque north of Celestial Peak; we found it to be interesting but not altogether difficult: 50°, with third-and fourth-class mixed moves to surmount a small saddle, after which we scooted up to the tiny, exposed summit. We felt The Falcon to be no more than 150m lower than Celestial (5,413m), and as tree line is ca 3,700m, our route, which we named No Cupcake Couloir, must have been ca 1,500m long.

Our final reconnaissance was an endurance march as far up valley as we could see. For four days we approached the unclimbed southwest face of the highest of the previously climbed Camel Peaks [Camel Peak West, 5,484m, first climbed in 1994 by Charlie Fowler]. This face looked demanding, with powder-covered, polished, exfoliating granite slabs, which rose over 600m to a long, steep shoulder.

We burned every bit of the next day's sunlight establishing an absorbing but incomplete route we named Up the Gullet. The climbing was run-out and mixed, with difficulties of AI 5+ 5.7 M8. The pitch of M8 was an unprotected runout up a 35m corner of s’nice. When I returned to the belay after having pounded in the only piece of pro, a stubby LA, and then tenuously rapped down the scrappy corner, Josh commented on what a mentally challenging lead it must have been. I handed the next lead to Josh, and we continued onward, finding more steep, fun climbing through the heart of the throaty route. However, at 6 p.m., when we were over 400m up the face, we became enveloped in winter's icy blast. We were only one overhanging pitch from the long snowfield that led to the summit but decided to bail. Both the rock and the climbing had been great, and we were content, but we were well aware that the weather of the Changping does not forgive.

Darkness stripped away the light as ominously as the featureless granite devoured our 11-pin rack in the maelstrom. Seven rappels led to the wind-scoured ramp below our gully. I dropped to my knees once while blindly traversing the rarely recognizable lower moraine, ready for a night out. Hours passed before the relentless gale ceased, and a momentary break in the cloud revealed the tent. The guy lines were reflecting eerily back at us like a ghost ship. We hugged like brothers and sat outside the tiny structure, finishing our water and flushing our senses.

The walk out took three more days; our trip total was 27. Wild is the Changping Goa. How lucky we were to have traveled there. How irrevocable our will to return.

Ben Clark

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