Untapped Potential, Exploring the Chinese Central Tien Shan

Publication Year: 2009.

Untapped Potential

Exploring the Chinese Central Tien Shan.

Paul Knott and Bruce Normand

For several years each of us had noticed that the range of high mountains in the Central Tien Shan is much more extensive than its two famous peaks, Pik Pobeda (Tomur Feng, Jengish Chokusu, 7,439m) and Pik Khan Tengri (6,995m). In fact the range extends east and south from Kyrgyzstan’s Inylchek glaciers into China’s Xinjiang Province. Given the amount of climbing done to the west, this suggests huge, untapped potential in the Chinese part of the Central Tien Shan. In August 2008 Guy McKinnon joined us on an exploratory expedition.

The 2007 AAJ reported on the activities of a group of Russian climbers in the area immediately south of Pobeda and Military (a.k.a. Army) Topographers’ Peak (6,873m). We focused our attention on the largely unknown range north of where the Russians went and east of Kyrgyzstan’s Inylchek Glacier basins. This area had received few prior visits by climbers, because of physical access problems from the south and political problems from the north. The only mountaineering activity here was a series of four Japanese expeditions, culminating in the 1990 ascent of Xuelian Feng (Snow Lotus, 6,627m), the dominant peak east of the massive Muzart Gorge (AAJ 1991, p. 302). The Muzart Gorge splits the range, running north-south about 30 kilometers east of the Meridional Ridge, which includes peaks Druzhba (6,800m), Marble Wall (6,400m), and “Zorge” (6,210m). The Meridional Ridge was once the border between Xinjiang Province and Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan, but the frontier was moved west onto the upper South Inylchek (AAJ 2006). Both sides of the Muzart comprise a long east-west chain of 6,000-meter summits and a handful of 6,000-meter outliers. There are further east-west chains of 5,000- meter peaks, and many chains of 4,000ers to the north and south.


The Xuelian massif consists of a 15-kilometer ridge above 5,800 meters, with at least six distinct summits over 6,000 meters, including Xuelian East (6,400m+) at its eastern end. Across a 4,640-meter col farther east is Yanamax (6,332m). Just north of the main ridge, more or less connected to it, are three more 6,000-meter summits: Baiyu Feng (Aketasi Feng or White Jade Peak, 6,422m or 6,438m), Xuelian North (6,472m), and Xuelian Northeast (6,231m). West of the Muzart Gorge is an unbroken 25-kilometer ridge above 6,000 meters. It has numerous summits, culminating at its western end in what we think is Chulebos (Tiger, 6,769m). Some sources attribute the name Zorge to a point at the eastern end of this ridge (map opposite), but this is not the Zorge named on Russian maps and tables. South of this ridge are several 6,000-meter summits, including Muzart (6,571m) and Peaks 6,342m and 6,050m. Where we quote exact heights, we have used figures published on maps and reports. We believe they are reasonably consistent with survey data.


The historic Xiate Trail traverses the range from north to south. This was an important trade route from Ili over to the Muzart Gorge, and hence to the Aksu region and southern Xinjiang. The trail is notable for crossing glacial terrain and a high pass at 3,582 meters. Just as notable is its use in the 1940s by the Uygur army to launch surprise attacks on the Chinese to the south. Subsequently it fell into disrepair and now requires glacier navigation, river crossings, and steep traverses unsuitable for horses. Because of these difficulties few parties traverse the whole length. The first complete traverse in recent years was by a Japanese party in 1989. In 2001 a Chinese team lost its leader in a river. However, trekking from Xiate to the Muzart Glacier and back has become deservedly popular.


The other hurdle to accessing these mountains is permits. We obtained a climbed-peak permit for Xuelian and used it in being the first climbers to approach from the Ili (north) side. Given the restive history of this region and its close proximity of the former Soviet border, it is not surprising that a large number of checkpoints and bureaucratic hurdles inhibit free movement toward the Xiate Valley. August 2008 was an especially difficult time to travel, due to security issues related to the Beijing Olympics. Without a permit and an agent to argue our cause with the authorities, we would have got nowhere. Our agent was Kong Baocun of the China Xinjiang Mountaineering Organization, Kashgar, not to be confused with the Urumqi-based China Xinjiang Mountaineering Association, which has statutory authority. We later read in the 2008 AAJ that Jon Allen’s party the previous year had found Kong “dishonest, difficult to deal with, and manipulative.” We had the same experience. In the end we arranged through him only the climbing permit, base camp staff (a translator plus a guide for the journey in), and insurance for the staff. He dealt dishonestly regarding the prices for these services. We arranged everything else independently, finding the actual local prices comparatively modest. For our party, we paid a total of $500 for private transport from Urumqi, and half that to return (partly by public long-distance bus). We also paid $500 for food and kitchen equipment, and $350 for horses in and out.


From the regional capital, Urumqi, a modern highway heads west past scenic Lake Say- ram and into Kazakhstan. An impressive upgrade is under way through the steep valley southwest of Sayram. The city of Ili (Yining on many maps), capital of Ili Kazakh Autonomous Region, is a short drive from this highway on good roads through rich cultivated land. As we approached Ili, we encountered the first of many checkpoints, where we had to show passports and permits. After processing more paperwork in the city, we continued on upgraded roads through the Ketmen Range of limestone hills to the small county town of Zhaosu. From here we had a panoramic view of the main chain from Yanamax to Khan Tengri. A short drive from Zhaosu took us to the roadhead at Xiate Hot Springs (2,380m). The road journey from Urumqi was 1,000 kilometers and took us a day and a half, including an overnight stop. Notwithstanding the onerous security checkpoints, the authorities are developing the Xiate Valley as a tourist center. A new concrete bridge and hotel are under construction at the hot springs and an upgrade of the access road is mostly complete.

Beyond the hot springs we found gentle horse trekking through pastures and wooded alpine valleys. The 22 kilometers to our base camp took a day and a half, due to the limited skills and work ethic of our horseman and a forced stop due to high afternoon river levels.

At the end of the trip we returned in one easy day with the assistance of Kazakh herders from the high pastures. Above the pastures we followed a good trail over the Muzart Pass (3,582m) to a base camp at Hadamuzi (3,525m), a beautiful meadow overlooking the Muzart (Benzhaerte) Glacier directly opposite Baiyu Feng. In earlier times this area housed a large military garrison to maintain and guard the trail, and artifacts from this habitation are visible around the site.

The Mountains

From base camp we had direct access to the northern aspect of the entire Xuelian chain. The imposing north face of Baiyu Feng and the cirque formed by Xuelian North and Xuelian Feng lay immediately opposite. The form of these peaks is typical of those in the main massif: granitic rock with steep walls on the north sides, long ridges, and serac-threatened slopes on most aspects. The 5,000-meter summits north of the main glacier also have steep north flanks but are made of different rock and have a variety of forms. We focused our reconnaissance on the upper Muzart Glacier basin, using a camp at 3,950 meters on the glacier, which once acclimatized was four hours' walk from base camp. It is 25 kilometers from base camp to the top (eastern) end of the glacier, where it curves to the south and provides access to Yanamax, Xuelian East, and Xuelian Northeast. Most of the side glaciers contain broken icefalls and do not offer convenient access to the high peaks. Our reconnaissance took us to the 4,640-meter col between Yanamax and Xuelian East. A rocky ridge and foresummit separate the col from the snowy upper slopes of Yanamax. We saw no accessible route on the south side, which appeared to consist of 1,000 meters of mostly vertical rock. The south side of the col was also steep and rotten. The only expedient route up Yanamax involved a somewhat threatened slope, rising under the west face. From the col we also saw a route through the high glacier bowl between Xuelian East and Xuelian Northeast that gave serac-free access to the northwest face of Xuelian East.

Weather Conditions

The weather disrupted our activities for much of the period from August 8 to 30. It appeared to have been dry and warm before we arrived, stripping snow from the upper glacier and the high peaks. However, during our stay we experienced four significant snowfalls to below 4,000 meters and regular squalls. The snow cleared at lower levels but accumulated on the peaks and upper glacier until the northern aspects of the Xuelian massif were close to full winter conditions. Due to its position near the Muzart Pass, the Hadamuzi base camp area is in a wind tunnel and catches afternoon rain from the north, even when it is dry elsewhere. At our 3,950-meter camp higher on the glacier, the lowest overnight minimum we recorded was -6°C in the tent wall. Prior to the trip we had varying reports on the prevailing weather patterns. The month of August is the main time for ascents of Pobeda and Khan Tengri from the Inylchek glaciers, with the most settled period supposedly from August 5 to mid-September. The Russian parties that operated farther south found drier conditions than on the Kyrgyz side of the range, feeling that the main Kokshaal-Too Ridge formed a barrier. However, they also experienced heavy snowfall one summer. Generally, the climate is wetter in the northern foothills than in the south, and drier in the east.

Climbing Activities

After our exploration of the upper main glacier, we climbed two summits in the 5,000-meter chain on its north side. On August 20 we established a camp at 4,300 meters on one of the small, hanging side glaciers of the Muzart. On August 21 the whole party climbed Khanjaylak 1 (5,424m GPS) by the south ridge on slopes of snow and névé up to 40°. The following morning, Paul fell (roped) into a bell-shaped crevasse within minutes of camp, underlining the dangers lurking beneath the featureless surface snow. While he elected to remain in camp, Bruce and Guy completed the planned ascent of Khanjaylak II (5,380m altimeter) by traversing the upper glacier bowl and climbing the northeast flank. We found deep, soft snow on the northern aspect, but good 45° névé on the east shoulder.

With the weather providing some days of fine mornings and only light afternoon snow and wind, Bruce and Guy tackled the route we had seen on Yanamax. Paul declined on grounds of safety. On August 24 Bruce and Guy climbed to a high camp at 5,150 meters on a snow ramp skirting the southwest side of the peak, finding little threat from seracs on the west face but fighting abominable snow conditions on a north-facing slope and riding a 30-meter avalanche while crossing a short, icy flank to the ramp. On the 25th the climbers continued up the ramp and onto slopes of good névé, rising at 50° on the upper south face. They finished up the broad and snowy southwest shoulder, where rising clouds obscured views of the untouched ranges to the south and east. After this another snowfall, lack of stable weather, and snow conditions prevented us from further climbing.

Southern Approach

The northern access that we used is almost certainly the most convenient for the upper Muzart Glacier. However, it is not convenient for other glaciers and peaks to the south or west. Reaching these would involve continuing a further 12 kilometers down broken, moraine- covered glacier and negotiating steep terrain near the glacier snout to reach the Muzart Valley flats. From here it would be another five to 30 kilometers to likely starting points for the Chule- bos chain or other peaks west of the Muzart. Instead, it might be worth investigating access up the Muzart Valley via the roadhead at Pochengzi village. Although the historic Xiate trail runs up this valley, walking the trail can be problematic due to the Muzart River, which drains a large area and is described in one source as “tempestuous.” Trekking parties usually come in spring or autumn, when the water is lower due to less glacial melt. According to descriptions from trekking agents, 30 kilometers from the glacier snout a section of the river runs against 150-meter-high bluffs. Climbers can negotiate this section, but horses can’t. There are also major side streams to cross. The Japanese parties on Xuelian reached their base camp via this valley, taking three days from the roadhead. However, their route turned east into what they called the Akuchi Gorge more than 20 kilometers below the Muzart Glacier snout.


As the accompanying photographs show, Xuelian and its immediate satellites offer a number of challenging objectives on both snow and mixed terrain, although suitably stable conditions would be a prerequisite. Several other 5,000-meter summits north of the main glacier are also worthy goals, though the majority of these would be difficult to access safely. We reached only one point offering good views of the Chulebos chain, which separates Xuelian from Khan Tengri and offers a 25-kilometer length of completely untouched rock and ice in the mid-6,000- meter height range. Fleeting vistas over seas of 5,000-meter peaks to the east and south suggest many worthwhile climbing targets for parties prepared for arduous approaches. Our research and exploration have revealed only a tiny part of this range. These mountains have challenging geography, which combines with access problems, unreliable weather, and challenging snow and ice conditions to ensure that unexplored glaciers and unclimbed peaks will await adventurers for years to come.


Area: Tien Shan, Xinjiang Province, China

Ascents and activities: In August 2008, Paul Knott, Guy McKinnon and Bruce Normand became the first climbers to approach the Xuelian Range from the north, establishing a base camp just north of the Muzart Glacier at 3,525m. All three acclimatized by making the first ascent of Khanjaylak I (5,424m) by the south ridge, and then McKinnon and Normand climbed neighboring Khanjaylak II (5,380m) by the northeast flank. McKinnon and Normand then made the first ascent of Yanamax (6,332m), east of the Xuelian Group.


Paul Knott has taken part in a dozen exploratory expeditions to the former Soviet Union and Alaska/Yukon. He has also climbed new routes on desert rock in Oman and Morocco. Originally from the UK, he now lectures in business strategy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Bruce Normand has made more than 20 first ascents on 6,000m peaks in Nepal, Pakistan, India, and China. He is the only Scot to have climbed K2. With a PhD in theoretical physics, he is a roving academic who can be found in university ivory towers when he’s not in the mountains.