Climbing with a friend is great.
Climbing with four friends even better. We inevitably come away tired from cranking and laughing. Jean-Baptiste Assier’s black belt in judo allowed us to enter nightclubs without worrying about our safety. Jack-of-all-trades Sylvain Rechu also enhances our security. In spite of Fabien Suiffet’s advanced age of 28, he passed our goofiness test. Maël Baguet is on the National Alpine Climbing Excellence team. Then there’s me. I failed my aspirant guide’s entrance exam and was deemed ridiculous, though invited to try again in 2012. This left me with more time to organize the expedition.
We arrived at base camp on October 10, after a day’s travel on 4WD roads and another day hiking. On the first night I saw Jean-Baptiste in his underwear running after a herd of rutting yaks, so our nights promised to be filled with action.
We acclimatized on nearby Camel Peak (5,400m), accompanied by two canine alpinists, who even bivouacked with us on the summit ice field, at 5,300m. Our next project was Nanar (5,700m). We were roped and heading up a section of treacherous, crevassed glacier, when I saw Fabien rocketing down the slope above me, closely followed by Maël. We had been so focused on the crevasse danger that we hadn’t noticed the obvious windslab, which could have been picked out by an eight-year old. Being elite-levellazies, the numerous rest days were surmounted with ease. Each member had his speciality: reading, crosswords, movies, sculpture, yak dung throwing.
On October 28 Maël and I set off for a spur on the northwest face of Siguniang, previously attempted by Americans (1981) and British (2004), while the other three headed for the unclimbed north ridge, descended by Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden after their ascent of the Inside Line in 2002. An hour later they backed off the approach, which was heavily laden with windslab. Maël and I began at 4,950m, and things were serious from the word go. I struggled with huge amounts of snow to reach two pitches of rotten rock. These were followed by a long stretch of technical ground, with difficult protection. After 300m of 70° climbing, we arrived at the ice, late in the day. Until then we kept expecting to come to an insurmountable pitch that would force us to bail. But from where we now were, we could tell that if we got through the difficult ice pitches above, the summit would be in reach.
Next day we continued on spindrift-swept ice through perfect granite. Neither of us being particularly punctual, we reached the summit ridge at 11 p.m. and chopped a 50cm ledge at 6,200m, just below the serac. The temperature that night dropped to -20°C. We crawled to the summit next afternoon. We named the route Ni Hen Piao Liang (Chinese for You Are Very Pretty, 1,300m, AI5 M6). We descended the north ridge, rappelling over cornices. At our usual time, 11 p.m., we crawled into our shelter. It looked more like a trash bag than a tent.
Getting out in the morning proved our most perilous moment. Then a rope stuck on the second rappel. Overwhelmed by fatigue, we continued the rappels with one 60m rope. Twenty Abalakovs (V-threads) and five hours later, we had finished the 600m of ice and met our friends, who had come up to advanced base. More than ever, this expedition was about our friendship. Maël’s feet were a frightening shade of blue, but we turned to each other and said, “Okay guys, when are we going to do this again?”
A few practical notes: We hired the Sichuan Mountaineering Association to organize our trip. They sent us with the versatile, accommodating liaison officer Gao Wei, who is also a great cook. He speaks English, organized everything perfectly, is a mountaineer, and was resourceful ([email protected] com). You can find nearly everything you need in Chengdu: supermarkets, fast food, good Korean gas canisters, nightclubs. Unlike in some countries, people in China take little notice of you and won’t try to sell you things. Take heed: there are an abnormally high number of attractive women, so bring a bib to collect the drool.
Dimitri Messina, France