Grosvenor (6,376m), West Face, Black Wolves and Blue Poppies

Asia, China, Daxue Shan, Minya Konka Range
Author: Chris Gibisch. Climb Year: 2011. Publication Year: 2012.

Grosvenor is a striking mountain, an iconic pyramid with technical faces that allow no easy way up. The west face appeared to us the most impressive and technical. It rises 1,300m and is littered with ice ribbons broken by steep rock bands. The north face, which is slightly shorter, has potential, but is topped by large seracs. The east face is shorter, with more moderate ice lines.

October 14 found Jeff Shapiro and me leaving the Buddhist community of Laouyling to spend the next three days trekking to base camp. Although initial snowfall caused concern, by the time we reached camp, the weather had improved, and conditions looked favorable. We did our best to acclimatize while scouting the west face, establishing a high camp at 5,100m, near its base.

We got weather reports from our liaison officer, who was in contact with headquarters, and the Russians who climbed the east face of Grosvenor and were e-mailing friends. On the 24th, despite conflicting forecasts, we left base camp for our high camp. Next morning we woke to a star-filled sky. Our chosen line right of the central couloir began moderately, and we simul-climbed pitches of névé and ice, protected by rock gear. Eventually I reached a belay, where I could see much steeper ground ahead. Jeff took the lead and charged up. Shortly after the rope ran out and I started climbing, Jeff reached the steepest section. His climbing slowed and he moved with precision. Unable to protect this section, he ran it out for 20m on rotten, sublimated snice, before finding solid gear. Following, I realized the significance of what I’d witnessed.

We were now on a snow/ice ramp leading to our proposed bivouac site. With the sun kissing the horizon, we made haste for what we hoped would be a reasonable ledge. To our disappointment, the site proved less than ideal, and with no other options, we placed a picket, chopped some seats, and pulled our bags over us.

First light revealed the next challenge: a 20cm strip of ice transecting the rock band above. We packed up, and I started climbing. A few delicate placements and some dry-tooling allowed access to the more moderate slope above. We again began simul-climbing, but I soon found myself faced with another intimidating challenge: more vertical, rotten snice. I did my best to not pull the pitch down on myself and was able to place a cam half-way up the strip, far off to one side.

We could now see our final mystery, a couple of pitches of gray ice that had been visible from base camp. Jeff climbed toward the ice, and our fears of fierceness were dispelled. When I reached his belay, I saw it was the best water ice we had so far encountered. However, we were at 6,200m, I was wasted, and the ice was steep. Digging deep I limped my way up for just over 60m. Half frozen, Jeff met me at the belay, carried on through, and with one more huge pull got us to the ridge above. Hopes of a bivouac on the presumed broad summit slopes were crushed when I reached him, exhausted, to find we were on a sharp knife-edge, fluting onto the west face. With the last rays of light once again gracing us, I led up the ridge to find a suitable bivouac. Near the end of the rope, all that I came up with was a good anchor and some hard ice at the base of a large overhanging boulder close to the summit. We chopped ice buckets, knowing we were in for another sleepless night.

Arctic temperatures on the morning of the 27th made us reluctant to leave our bags. But morning light was reaching the summit, so warmth awaited us there. A distant but fast-moving storm increased our motivation, so we began climbing. After some of the most exhausting easy climbing I’ve ever done, we stood on the summit. Winds were light, the sky blue, and the views amazing.

It took the rest of our summit day and the next to make it back to base camp. We made 12 rappels down the east face and bivouacked in the glaciated basin between Grosvenor, Jiazi, and Edgar. The following day we rappelled from the col between Jiazi and Grosvenor, then made a long slog across glaciers and moraines to reach the grassy meadows of base camp.

Once again an alpine climb had changed my perspective on my life and what I’m capable of. After working harder than either of us imagined, we came away from the experience with an entirely new outlook toward what’s possible.

Our route, Black Wolves and Blue Poppies (1,300m, M5+ WI4+ AI6) was done alpine style with leave-no-trace ethics. Three unavoidable pins at rappel stations, close to the bottom of the east face, were the only gear we abandoned on the mountain. We hope the faces of the Daxue Shan will be respected by the continued absence of bolts and unnecessary fixed gear.

Chris Gibisch, AAC

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