Siguniang, south face to southwest ridge, not to summit; Siguniang North, first ascent, southwest face. I’m at 5,500m. The ice is hard. My crampons rebound, blunted after three weeks. For the last eight years in Haute Savoie the Committee of the French Alpine Club has selected people 16-26 years old for a “young alpinists” group. For two years the young men and women are trained in various aspects of mountaineering by a professional guide, and at the end of this period they organize an expedition. In 2006 the project was a new route on Siguniang (6,250m) in Sichuan, an area still ignored by many Europeans but having exceptional potential.
Our flight landed in Chengdu on October 9. Chengdu is a model of the modern Chinese city, soaked in Western culture. With McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, posters for Oréal, Cartier, Vuitton, Sony, it doesn’t correspond to my image of a communist country; the Cultural Revolution seems far away. The city appears to be under construction, with 40-floor apartment blocks. There are many cars: Is Audi the symbol of the new Communism? Is China is becoming modernized too quickly? Economists calculate that if the 1.2 billion Chinese had the same amount of stuff as Westerners, there would be no more oil on the planet in 20 years.
The road to Rilong has been greatly upgraded since the Siguniang National Park became a World Heritage Site. In Rilong, Audis are replaced by horses and yaks. The walk to our base camp at 3,500m in the Changping Valley takes four hours. Our site is next to a wooden hut, where two Tibetans live. They have no running water or electricity, just a wood stove. They have a few pigs and yaks, and sell kebabs to Chinese tourists.
Maile, our translator, has always lived in Beijing and Chengdu, and it is his first time outside a large city. He is so happy to discover the Milky Way and a billion other stars. The pollution in Chinese cities only allows people to see the most brilliant planets. Chengdu and Rilong: two cities in the same China but separated by 100 years.
The mountains of Siguniang are splendid. The peaks are of the most beautiful granite, smooth and compact, a Yosemite Valley with virgin tops between 5,000 and 6,000m. Jérôme Berton, Guillaume Blair, Guillaume Bodin, Clémont Jacquemond, Aurélie Lévèque, David Rolinet, Théo Valla, and I hoped to climb the prominent central couloir on the south face of Siguniang. However, last autumn this gully, more than 1,000m high, was quite dry and the top section completely rocky. Instead, we chose a steep ice line leading out left, up the right side of the rock pillar taken by the eight-member Japanese team, which in 1992 sieged the south buttress and upper southwest ridge to make the second ascent of the mountain. [The French line may be similar to that tried by a Russian team, which attempted a route west of the central couloir but was forced down by stonefall and avalanches—Ed.]
We established a high camp at 5,000m and fixed 500m of rope on the initial difficulties. On October 24 we tried to make a one-day lightweight push to the summit. Leaving camp at 1 a.m., we jumared the ropes and continued on the upper snow slopes, crossing the Japanese Route to reach the crest of the southwest ridge. Here we were slowed by poor conditions. At 5,950m a horizontal rocky ridge, covered in soft snow and impossible to protect, barred the way. An accident at this point would have been serious. Some of the team were already quite tired. It was now 3 p.m. If we continued to the summit, we would certainly have had to bivouac above 6,000m without equipment. I made the decision to go down. The difficulties of our incomplete line, which joined the existing Japanese route on the ridge, were V (WI) 4 M5+.
Four days later we made an attempt on the original 1981 Japanese Route on the southeast ridge, but more bad snow and cold forced us down from 5,600m.
We returned to base camp for a new objective, Siguniang North (5,700m). At 2 a.m. on November 1 all except Berton and Leveque left the camp at 4,500m and started up the southwest face. This is the open snow and ice slope left of (and opposite) the northwest face Siguniang and was partially followed in descent by Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden after their successful ascent of the stunning north-facing couloir, The Inside Line.
The face was granite flagstone, covered by a 5cm layer of snow and ice. The ice was good. The climbing wasn’t difficult, but we couldn’t protect ourselves. Higher, a mixed section, followed by a short vertical ice wall formed by a bergschrund, led to the summit slopes. A ridge led to the highest point. Our joy at being the first to reach this summit was immense. The difficulties of our route were V WI4+ M4.
On our way back to Rilong, we detoured to look at the Shuangqiao, the parallel valley west of the Changping. This valley is famous for its icefalls: more than 50 higher than 400m. Most end up at 5,000m. These lines were not in condition, but there was another surprise. Less than a day’s walk from the road we saw several granite walls at least 1,000m high, major objectives to justify many trips to this land of pandas. This is the new Eldorado, and I believe part of alpinism’s future development will take place on these walls.
Philippe Batoux, France