Zhou Peng and I spent October in the northwestern sector of the Minya Konka Range, arriving at base camp (4,300m) in the Riuche Valley on the 1st. Being National Day the valley was filled with Chinese trekkers on the popular route south over a 4,800m pass to the Moxi Valley and Konka Temple. For the next few days, with filmmaker Li Shuang, we made acclimatization and reconnaissance walks to 5,100, then went up Reddomain's northern glacier to camp below its north face at 5,111m.
In February 2010 Christina Chan, Bruce Normand, and I had attempted the icy central rib, the only line not threatened by seracs. We started too late, were too slow, and the weather turned bad before we were able to reach the top. Having little food, only one down jacket between us, and no stove, we retreated, making 10 rappels in the dark, with small avalanches coming down on both flanks of the rib every few minutes. It was 2 a.m. when, in howling winds, we finally spotted our tiny tent on the crevasse-infested glacier. Both Chris and I suffered minor frostbite from the 17-hour ordeal. Although Chris was an expert big wall climber, with many multi-day solo ascents under her belt, this was only her second alpine climb. She never once panicked but kept going with serene calmness, even at the most nerve-wracking moments. Just a few months later, she was killed while downclimbing unroped from Eichorn Pinnacle in Tuolumne Meadows.
In February the face had been mostly ice, but this time it was largely covered in October snow. Zhou and I left camp at 6:47 a.m. on the 8th, climbing on a short rope. We followed the same rib, which connects to the left bank of a couloir at 5,700m, at which point we began to use the full rope and place running belays. Four long pitches saw us on the 6,112m summit at 3:42 p.m. This was the fourth ascent of Reddomain. (Chinese climbers Peng Xiaolong, Liu Yang and Su Rongqin made the third ascent in September, via a variation of the traditional west ridge route.) We named the route Remember Chris (1,000m, AI2 55° snow). The ridge proved longer and more complex than we had expected, and it was 6 a.m. when Zhou walked into base camp, past 7 a.m. when I arrived.
The ordeal left us exhausted, and we waited a week before attempting Jiazi. After retrieving the Reddomain camp on the 10th and on the 13th caching most of our climbing gear at 5,000m on the glacier below Jiazi's west face, we would have begun the attempt on 16th, but decided to wait two more days due to new snow and unstable weather. On the 18th we camped close to the face at 5,016m, there being little danger of rockfall. The wind was strong, and with tent fabric slapping we managed little sleep.
At 6:30 we left camp and headed into a chute right of the wide couloir in the middle of this face, which is more than 2km wide. We crossed a shallow couloir and traversed right, into an adjacent couloir, which led all the way to the headwall at 5,900m. There we hoped to find a decent camping spot. Except for the second pitch (M5) in the chute, we simul-climbed all day, occasionally without protection because the granite was solid, cracks hard to find, and the ice cover thin and loosely attached. When we finally reached the base of the headwall, not long after dark, we were disappointed to find no ledge, only calf-deep snow on rotten ice covering a 45° slab. It took an hour to dig a narrow bivouac at 5,914m. Fortunately we had an almost windless night, sitting in sleeping bags and wearing boots.
We left at 9:30 in the morning, hoping to reach the summit that day. Traversing right into an adjacent couloir proved relatively easy, but after slanting right onto what we believed was the exit snow ridge, we found another 100m of rocky terrain, with difficulties up to M6 where it slightly overhung. We were forced to stop at 6,407m, at the top of a steep chute rising from the right, where we chopped another sitting bivouac in a corner. The wind blew mildly but continuously, and we had to shield the stove to get a few liters of gritty water.
When we left at 9:47 a.m. on the 21st, the wind had grown stronger, blowing snow in our faces. As Zhou neared the top, the heavy cams and pitons on his rack were flying horizontally. We stepped onto the summit at 12:01 p.m. This was the second ascent of Jiazi (6,112m), the first being in 1982 by Americans Pat Callis, Dougal McCarty, and Richard Nolting, via the south ridge. On that same expedition Dave Stutzman and Jim Williams climbed the west face to north ridge, and in 2009 French guides Pierre Labbre and Rémi Sfilio climbed another route on the right side of the face to reach the south ridge. Our route, Liberal Dance (1,500m, M6 W13 55°), is the first west face route to reach the summit.
The south ridge is wide, flat, long, and exposed. It was hours before we started the first of 12 rappels down the triangular south face. Zhou found an old piton, probably from the first ascent. It was nearly dark when we reached the col and set up camp in the snow basin between Jiazi, Grosvenor, and Edgar.
Just before we left for the route, Americans and Russians arrived in the upper Riuche (see below), the Russians intent on attempting Edgar from the west. While making four rappels down a couloir on the west flank of the col, we were both delighted and surprised to see that the diligent Russians had set up a camp below the col, and two were already climbing a parallel couloir. Dima Paramonov, who had remained in the tent, gave us hot fruit tea and advice on avoiding crevasses below. By the time we met Li Shuang at advanced base, we had decided to extend the trip and attempt Xiao Gongga (Little Konka, or Tshiburongri), which had seen three ascents. Li had filmed from beneath Reddomain and Jiazi and now wanted to join us on Little Konka. Our plan was to leave gear at advanced base, go down for a rest, then move the tent farther north onto the glacier below Little Konka’s south face.
We all hiked to Kangding on the 24th and resupplied. We looked up records of previous ascents, but they were conflicting. We got the impression the 1981 British first ascent team had approached from the east, while the French in 2008 and Koreans in 2010 had come from the west, likely leaving the south face unclimbed.
We returned to base camp on the 26th with a friend, Liu Tuanxi, who brought an inflatable kayak to paddle in the small glacial lake northwest of Reddomain. On the 27th we took turns paddling. The sky was cloudy and the water freezing, but it was incredible fun. Next day we reached advanced base and on 29th moved up to the base of the south face at 5,300m, where we camped. It snowed, but after dark the sky cleared, and as there were only a few centimeters of fresh snow, we set off next day an hour before dawn.
The snow couloir in the center of the face was easy enough to simul-climb, but after moving left to avoid the steepest part, we had to belay, with Zhou, who is the superior climber, leading all technical pitches. After three pitches we unexpectedly came across white nylon fixed ropes. An empty energy gel pack with Korean printing suggested the ropes had been left by the Koreans. They were in good condition but generally didn’t follow the optimal climbing route, possibly because of changing snow conditions since 2010.
We climbed three more rocky pitches, with a crux of M6, before reaching the exit ridge. We simul-climbed the last section with Zhou finishing close to the summit in the dark, at a Korean anchor with at least two stacks of colored dynamic rope lying frozen in the ice. There was a good ledge below one of the huge boulders that formed the base of the summit, and we camped for the night. There was another Korean anchor with a stack of woven nylon rope below. We thought about using it as a mattress, but the coils were frozen tight, so we used our own ropes, sacks, and gaiters. It snowed during the night, but with three of us in the small tent, it wasn’t especially cold.
On the 31st we climbed one more pitch to the summit, arriving at 10:20 a.m. By 4:40 p.m. we had made 12 rappels down the face and were back in camp. Though it wasn’t entirely new, coinciding with much of the Korean route for the last 200m (where 250-300m of rope has been abandoned), we named our line Thrill (Shuang; 600m, M6 50°) to celebrate Li’s first technical alpine ascent. We continued down to base camp, arriving 40 minutes before the start of November.
Yan Dongdong, China
Editor’s note: the geography of Xiao Gongga has been confusing and inaccurately described in theJournal. The peak has southwest and southeast ridges separating the northwest, south, and east faces. The southeast ridge connects with Jiazi. The British Army team in 1981 approached via the glacier to the east (Tshiburongi Glacier) and climbed the right-hand of two snow gullies on the east face. The French in 2008 approached from the northwest and climbed the southwest ridge (AAJ2009). The Koreans approached from the west, then south, and climbed the south face (AAJ 2011), with seemingly 12 members reaching the summit in three separate pushes. They had made a reconnaissance in April 2010.