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Escape from Sichuan

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Escape from Sichuan

Page Type: Trip Report

Location: Sichuan, China, Asia

Object Title: Escape from Sichuan

Date Climbed/Hiked: May 12, 2008

Activities: Mountaineering

Season: Spring

 

Page By: cLaBounty

Created/Edited: May 13, 2009 / May 15, 2009

Object ID: 513536

Hits: 3473 

Page Score: 86.37%  - 22 Votes 

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Introduction

Introduction
My thoughts are the fine webs lining the forest path in the early morning. As I pass through I must write them down to brush away, but the sensations on the hairs of my bare skin remain.
While having never truly attempted to write a story, I feel compelled to tell this one. Perhaps because of the overwhelming intensity of the experience, or perhaps I need to keep this experience sharpened so I never allow the details to dull in my mind. I have many pictures to stare at over and over, but these are only rigid blocks in time. It is the detail that links these pictures together, the cement. Without the cement the stack of blocks is weak, easily knocked over and forgotten. I find that putting these words down is not difficult, that it seems to write itself
and I must only put in the time to record my memories. This story begins with just me, a solo trip, but characters are introduced and reappear with the timing of a well written script that somehow already existed. Often I feel that I am just a character, speaking my lines and taking direction. I’m thankful to have played a part.
This is the story of the six days encompassing my time in the Siguniang Mountains, my narrow escape from Siguniang Shan during the great Sichuan 7.9 magnitude earthquake, the days following in the town of Rilong, and finding my way back to Chengdu with newfound friends through areas forbidden to western travelers. These are my thoughts, given chronologically, and with no attempt to over polish them, as every time I do, they seem to me insincere. As I said, this is just my story.

Friday May 9, Pre-Trip

It’s mid afternoon, I’m at my company office in Chengdu, China. I email my wife Colleen a rough
itinerary with schedule, and some notes to help her know when to relax and when to begin
worrying. Pretty routine for us. The last time we needed to broach the worrying part was many
years ago on another solo trip via touring kayak out to Santa Cruz Island from Channel Islands
Harbor in Ventura, CA. That trip ended with me casually calling by cell phone from my parking
spot in the mainland harbor after successfully negotiating the channel in peak Santa Ana wind
conditions pushing ten to twenty foot seas and with multiple open-water kayak-roll recoveries.
Unbeknownst to me, the Coast Guard had been tipped off by a ranger on Santa Cruz Island when
the weather went south and there were multiple search aircraft scanning the seas for my wee
vessel. With my trips to China, it’s simply implicit that I’ll be exploring solo. I’ve found it quite
difficult to convince friends to travel with me in the region especially since I typically have but a
few days to spend on personal pursuits. This solo-nature presents an extra challenge to every
trip.
The Siguniang Mountains and surrounding Qionglai range have preoccupied my thoughts for
several months now. I was as excited as a child going trick-or-treating at the anticipation of
climbing such a profound mountain range, and only a half-days travel from my company’s site in
Chengdu. Referred to as the Chinese or Oriental Alps, I scanned web sites and travel logs with
these keywords for more information on the area, printed dozens of sheets of web pages and trip
reports, but somehow still felt ill prepared. The best maps of the region are hand drawn, and the
resolution of Google Earth insufficient. I emailed Bob, a fellow climber I met in another prolific
Chinese sport-climbing Mecca, Yangshou, as I knew he had experience in the region. Following
all this research, I concluded that I must simply make a preliminary trip to the area to learn what I
could, scope out future goals, and generally become familiar with the area and terrain. I packed
my bags for Chengdu bringing only essentials to travel light and fast. One glimpse of Celestial
peak or the countless other peaks and walls makes the draw of this region to great climbers such
as the late Charlie Fowler quite obvious.

On this Friday, the day before my trip, Daisy (that’s her English name, anyway) offers to help me
buy my bus ticket before they sell out. We leave work a bit early for the Cha Dian Zi bus station,
and during an early dinner she helps to write down several key Chinese instructions for getting to
and from the town. The plan is only fixed in its departure details, all else is speculative. The bus
goes from Chengdu to Xiaojin, but the destination is along the way in the small town of Rilong
(called Gee-Long for some reason). I was then going to explore the Chang Ping Valley and
perhaps try to climb one of the first three peaks that make up the Siguniang Shan massif. I
intentionally pack light, skipping things like boots, crampons, or a stove, and instead bringing
water-proof trail running shoes, a bivy sack, and dry foods. My ice axe and gaiters are the sum of
the climbing gear. I remind myself that this trip was more about learning the area, and coming up
with to do’s for future trips as I am expecting to travel to Chengdu on a regular basis. I splay my
gear across the hotel bed, and assemble my pack. I brought all food from home, a mix of jerky,
dried fruit, my favorite peanut butter Balance bar, and of course the all-time king of power bars,
the Snickers Bar. With all the extra clothes and a few bottles of water from the housekeeping
cart, the pack is maybe a tad over 30lbs.
With my things in order, I join a colleague for a Friday after-work meeting at his hotel next door to
discuss the week’s events and shift gears from work to play. A female Cuban piano player
provides a typically strange Chinese-hotel mood, and we end up discussing, of all things,
American politics. I leave the evening far too late, but full of anticipation, and sing under my
breath a favorite poetic song verse that always enters my mind when exploring a new wild area.
Aurora borealis,
the icy sky at night.
Paddles cut the water
in a long and hurried flight.
From the white man
to the fields of green
and the homeland
we’ve never seen.

Saturday May 10, 5:00am

I wake seconds before my first watch alarm. My internal clock is a few ticks fast. Groggy eyed
and limp, stiff coffee would be my normal prescription but I consciously choose to skip coffee to
avoid the need to go on the looming long bus ride. Not that good coffee is easy to come by in
China. I routinely bring my own bag of Starbucks along with a copper fine-mesh filter. I’m sure
the hotel housekeeping maids despise my wet sticky coffee grinds left in the bagless mini
garbage cans of the hotel rooms. I often wonder what their first reaction is upon discovering my
deposit.
The room phone rings: the taxi driver I arranged the night before is already waiting outside, fifteen
minutes early. The ride to the bus station is uneventful, and I take the opportunity to call Colleen
one last time before leaving town. Outside the bus station groups of young kids are playing
around, seemingly odd this early on a Saturday. I find it impossible now to look at young children
and not think of my daughters. I bet these kids would get a kick out of my daughters’ red hair.
Ticket in hand, I enter the station and have no trouble locating my bus. There is a small cluster of
older men near the bus door, chain smoking as if they were about to board a non-smoking bus. I
circle around to the back where a man I assume is the driver kindly insists on loading my pack in
the compartment. After gouging the door with my ice axe, it is quickly buried under more bags
and I locate a spot to stand upwind of the nearby smoke stack.
A younger, fit, camo-clad Chinese guy cheerfully says hello, and asks a question that I interpret
as where am I going? I sputter Siguniang Shan in my best pronunciation, and he acknowledges
as if he already knew my answer before I could reply. My first impression is he’s Chinese
military, and he sports a utility vest that would catch the eye of Batman. He returns back a few
steps and tells his female friend that I’m going to the same place as they. We exchange a little
more broken conversation and I manage to at least get his name is Tiger. The rest of our clumsy
exchange in my Chinese and his English is unsuccessful. A few moments later as they playfully
joke around, “Chinese Rambo” throws a sparing head-high kick and the girl answers with an
equally fast arm block. These two are either in the Peoples Liberation Army, or in a relationship.
I later confirm the latter.
As the congregation begins to board the bus, I contemplate showing the driver my Chinese note
to drop me in Rilong, but it seems like several people are already on top of this. I locate my
assigned aisle seat as if boarding a plane, and immediately note the head cots on the seats have
likely never met a washing machine. At first I hold my head away, but quickly tire and realize the
futility in such paranoia. I’m going to be in contact with a lot of unwashed things this trip, the head
cot should be the least of my worries. The bus roars alive and within moments of pulling away
the gent in the seat next to me lights yet another cigarette. I guess climbing the stairs onto the
bus stressed him out. The wind from the open windows creates a vortex that seams to draw the
smoke into orbit around me. I recheck the back of the bus for the open seats spotted earlier and
retreat quickly. I try to lie down to sleep, but I’m riding a bus with no shocks. This back seat has
no springs and rides directly on the frame, leaving no pothole unnoticed. In any case we soon
stop at two more stations on the way out of Chengdu, and I can no longer lie down. An old man
sporting a wooden leg joins me in the back with a little girl that looks the same age as my twoyear
old daughter Mabel. The girl nestles in her seat and rests her head on his softer leg despite
the jolting blows of the road. The old man lights up and creates a fog of smoke that stretches the
length of our shared seat. I move again to the only remaining open seat and have to push over a
stretched out sleeping fellow. I’m pleasantly surprised to find him not smoking in his sleep. From
this new perspective, I now witness the creative driving techniques employed by our driver. Like
the never-ending construction in cities of China, the roads are no exception, there are always new
ones going up, and there is always construction. The familiar driving rules of China seem to
apply, if I honk louder and longer, then right-of-way is granted, but we are not on straight roads
with visibility. We are on blind turns, in a bus, passing trailer trucks, uphill. I’m genuinely
nervous. The oncoming traffic is often a smallish vehicle, but just as often it is a sizeable rig, with
mass exceeding ours. I doubt our driver got to ninth grade physics.
A godsend, we pull over for our scheduled break stop. After most folks hurriedly shuffle out, I
leisurely make my way outside. The smoke-free fresh air is heaven. There is even sunshine and
I sport my shades for the first time on this trip. Reluctantly I meander inside in search of a toilet.
As one man exits, another waiting outside the bathroom door enters, clearly indicating a full
house inside. I wait patiently, and a familiar face approaches. He’s the other westerner I noticed
on the bus, and even turns out to be from San Francisco. Norman’s his name, and we discuss a
bit about China travel before my turn is up at the john. The bathroom could be described as
minimalist, two stalls, two holes, two foot walls providing separation. Peripheral vision, while I’m
sure key to our ancestors’ survival, can be a terrible attribute. My partner is clearly having
digestive issues, and focuses on the ground to avoid the eye level view of my junk.
 
Bus break on the way from Chengdu to Rilong.
 

Thankfully back outside, I cross the street for some impromptu shopping. A moment is spent
examining the river rapids below and then scoping out some cart booths with various produce
and souvenirs. The sales folk are mellow in contrast to so many pushy Chinese shop owners,
and I actually enjoy the experience. I end up picking up some jade earrings for Colleen, trying to
remember the marks of quality to look for that I learned in my forced tour of a jade factory
between Beijing and the Great Wall. I use my developed China bargaining technique, ask price,
divide by ten, make offer, walk away. If they agree after the first walk away, ask for another 2X
reduction.
After scurrying back across the street, I get an in-your-face exposure to garbage etiquette by my
fellow bus passengers. Open package, consume, toss garbage to the ground. It takes
considerable restraint to not make a scene of this, but it’s clear they would not understand, not
care, and I would simply be a crazy ranting foreigner. I faintly attempt to make a point by walking
past them, picking up the trash, and depositing in the nearby garbage can. I’m not even sure it’s
noticed.
Norman then emerges and we chat a bit more. I learn he’s currently unemployed, and quite
comfortable with it. He seems an odd character at first impression, but he’s genuinely nice. He
has been here in Sichuan for several weeks traveling with his girlfriend whom just got dropped off
to the airport before this trip. I suggest this break seems excessive for a bathroom stop, then the
driver emerges from inside, protruding belly confessing the real delay. In hindsight, he is
probably one of the few riders who can stomach a big meal before the impending twists and turns
of the road ahead. Norman and I return to our seats.
This really is one of the worse and best bus rides I’ve taken. It’s not long before somehow,
someway, the road deteriorates further. Sleepy head next to me keeps slamming his skull into
the window at each large jolt of the bus. My eyes close each time in reflex anticipating flying
glass. I refocus down the aisle to a puppy trotting, or is it bouncing about. The presumed owner
chases it down and returns the pup to the cardboard doghouse and carefully folds back down the
four sides into a lock position. I yawn hard to pop my ears, we’re piling on elevation now as we
weave switchback after switchback. At countless points the bus straddles the loose gravel edge
of the road, with bottomless voids below. The sweeping mountain views are rapidly being
overtaken by cloud and mist which truly makes these voids immeasurable. My eyes grow heavy,
but I am never relaxed enough to come close to sleep. I marvel at the fact that this bus likely
makes this trip on a routine basis, and still runs. I imagine entire pit crews performing endless
maintenance and repairs. As we seem to be cresting a high pass, I check my watch altimeter,
14,404ft. The bus charges the last hill like it’s still down in the city and I snap a photo of my
watch.

May 10, 1:30pm: Damp on Arrival

I gasp at the air, resurfacing after a seven hour prolonged smoke submergence. It is crisp,
chilled, mountain air, and most notably smoke-free. The cooling 10,500ft air temperature is
immediately apparent and is accentuated by the steady light rain. My first impression is of a
typical small Chinese mountain town, with a very distinct Tibetan feel to it. I feel somewhat
unqualified to make this observation considering this is the farthest east I’ve traveled in China, but
I’ve seen The Golden Child many times. Tiger and his girl have already shifted to a shopkeeper’s
shelter and the owner thankfully waves me inside the roll-up door of his shop. There is
not much room to move, the entire store is maybe the size of a 1-car garage and the aisles of
grocery are dense. With care to not knock over any merchandise or shelves, I suit up in my rain
gear, organize the other gear on my pack and cinch down the pack cover. An SUV alarmingly
jerks to a stop at the street curb a few feet away. The back door opens, and all I can see is a
bushel of hair vomiting to the drainage ditch below. It is a disturbing luminescent orange color, a
substance one might find at Panda Express. With her long crazy hair, it looks like “Cousin It” is
the sick passenger. Just as quickly the door slams shut and pulls away. The shop owner looks
irritated but makes no word or motion.
Before departing, I select a vintage ’92 bottle of Chinese Gatorade authenticated by the density of
dust on the bottle, and ask for the direction of the Chang Ping Valley. The shop keeper and wife
offer a limp pointing motion down the street perpendicular to the c-curve we are on. He offers me
his card, and with the help of Tiger, I am some how successful in communicating to write down
the bus departure times to return back to Chengdu. An awkward goodbye to Norman who seems
unsure of where to start his search for accommodations, and I’m off into the increasing rain.

May 10, 2:30PM: Finding the Valley

A good, soaking rain drops now. I arrive at a gate, a long arching painted board across the road,
and there are a few English words pointing to a small building to the right over a bridge across the
river. I enter to strange looks by no fewer than six people and offer, “Ni how.” (Hello) My
pronunciation of the very basic of Chinese words has become so polished that I always get a fullon
Chinese response that I can never understand. This triggers my next well versed phrase, “wo
bu dong”, or “You’ve mistaken me for a native speaker and really I’m an idiot and don’t
understand anything you say.” More hand motions and multiple repeats of my intended
destination, and I’m able to purchase the 70 RMB (about $10 USD) permit to enter, despite their
genuine suggestions that I go back and sleep in town until the weather improves. With no
weather forecast, their assertive resistance to selling me the permit multiplies my uneasiness.
This may turn out to be a miserable few days.
I’m now charging past the gate, trying to warm up, and a trench coat emerges from what I thought
was a dark unoccupied kiosk. He wants to see my permit that I have safely stuffed away deep in
my pack. Frustrated, I again unwrap my pack cover and dig out the post-card permit. OK, finally
I’m moving up the road towards what I hope is the trail head and regaining some lost warmth. It’s
not five minutes since passing the gate when a car pulls up alongside and generously offers a lift.
I shrug and accept, but of course once inside the Samaritan asks for 5 Yuan. I say no, and
motion to get out. He reacts by asking for 1 Yuan, roughly seventeen cents. Out of principle I
motion again to get out of the car, and he quickly abandons his attempts, reverting back to
generosity. As it turns out, the uphill road to the trail head is a lot longer than I expect, and I am
now genuinely grateful for the ride. At the end of the road, I thankfully offer a Snickers bar that he
gladly accepts.
A giant pincushion of poles and prayer flags marks the start of the trail next to a large stone
building being worked on by several men … I feel that I am at a truly special place. The
crossroad trail sign reads, “Plank Road Passageway” or “Entrance of Horse Road”. I choose
wisely. The visibility low in the valley is good, but all the mountains are shrouded in fog and
cloud. I pass by several locals and offer a “Ni how” to each. They all respond kindly and seem to
all be in very happy, friendly moods. Why not, this valley is beautiful. Large yaks dot the
scattered fields as I walk. Great Hawaiian-grade waterfalls come down the steep valley walls. As
I continue up the trail, I begin to get offers for donkey or horse rides up the valley. To some I try
to explain I’m allergic, but I abandon this after several failed attempts. I have now left the clean
walking of the wooden planks, and am navigating a combination of fifth-class mud, pony piss and
yak dung. I resolve that “Chang Ping” roughly translates to “yak mud”. Thankfully the mud
improves as I go further from town, and most places have alternate paths running parallel to the
main trail to help avoid the worse spots. The rain has almost stopped now, and with the foggy
clouds hiding the great mountains, I appreciate the landscape as the quintessential Chinese
mountain scene. Shan shui, shan shui indeed.
 
Prayer flags near a large stone structure at the Chang Ping Valley trail head
 

---
 
Trail of muck, Chang Ping Valley
 

Further along the trail, I reach a nice looking outhouse. Closer inspection reveals a novel design
in human waste disposal. The front has several doors with sides marked for men and women.
Inside is a typical Chinese hole in the floor, but this hole angles backwards to an open air trench
behind the building. Somewhat concerning when one measures the distance to the river flowing
near by, the same river flowing to the town below.
Several hours of hiking brings me to another open area near the river, and with a rise in the cloud
cover I can clearly make out the west wall of Siguniang Shan, or the Forth Girl. I’m excited to
realize my location, but also resolving that I’ve clearly overshot my goal to climb one of the first
three peaks. After some internal debate on what to do next, I backtrack down the trail looking for
a weakness in the sheer slopes to approach one of these lesser peaks. Somewhat frustrated, I
take the first opportunity to leave the trail and head up a faint trail that is quickly identified as just
another yak-track. Nonetheless, I continue into an ever steepening bushwhack. It’s tedious, but
I’m gaining elevation quickly, and am pushed by the increasing visibility of the peaks across the
valley. I develop a deep familiarity with the diversity of thorn bush species on these slopes. I
reach a stance upon some slippery moss with a nasty looking thorn bush that I must pass
through. The exposure below is escalating and the uncertainty of the terrain above makes me
pause to contemplate proceeding. I yearn for the relative comfort of good ‘ol Sierra Manzanita. I
push through singing an Offspring lyric, “the more you suffer, the more it shows you really care!”
More suffering brings me to a formidable headwall. A wet greasy off-width chimney is the only
upward exit. I enter the first few moves and appreciate the uncertainty of continuing.
Considering my solo condition and that I’m well off the main trail, there would be no help if I fall
here, and worse, if I couldn’t catch myself on the small ledge below it would be another 500 ft
freefall to the slopes below. I retreat the 1500ft I’ve climbed, revisiting all the wonderful thorns I
met on the ascent. Darkness falls as I reach the valley floor and a search ensues for an
adequate camp site. The hunt for a spot void of yak pies is more challenging than I expect, but
finally I find a good spot. The ground is mostly dry and quite soft; it will be a comfortable bed.
Dinner is jerky, dried banana, and for desert, a Snickers bar. Luckily the altitude suppresses my
appetite so this feels like a satisfying meal.
 
Hiking up the valley, with only the bases of the peaks visible
 

Sunday May 11th, 6:30am, Search for Shan

As my eyes flutter open, I stare up to clear blue skies. Hurriedly I pack up camp in the chilly
morning air, and continue back down the valley trail scanning the tree line for any obvious sign of
a trail that would head up, not wanting to bushwhack as yesterday. A heard of yak passes me by,
and all I can do is sit and watch for the next five minutes. I take the opportunity to fully appreciate
the scale and beauty of the surrounding peaks. While Siguniang Shan is blowing me away with
it’s 6000 meter scale and beauty, a fine piece of geological art, I am even more blown away by
Celestial Peak rising across the valley to the northwest. It is the essence of a mountain, what we
sketch as children in the background of our scenic sunset pictures posted up on the refrigerator
door.
 
Celestial Peak, a perfect mountain form
 

After painfully retracing more of my steps the day before, I decide to again depart the valley
where a sign marks “Dragon Cave”. I am still unsure of where or what this dragon cave is, but
the terrain is open with a sweeping rock field above a flowing creek. A yak skull hangs on a
bamboo signpost, and I’m encouraged, at least this should keep the yaks away from this climb.
My second bushwhack ensues. More headwalls are overcome with persistence and occasional
tree climbing. Several times I consider the bushwhacking is not worth my time on this trip, and I
should just return to the valley to head up further on the easily traveled valley trail. But, the
stubborn side of my will always seems to ultimately win in these scenarios, and I continue. It’s
almost noon now, and one last maze of very dense trees sporting horizontal branches emanating
from the trunks seems to be between me and greatly improved climbing. The pack catches on
everything. Finally, I get out of the tree line, and I’m re-energized. A cool looking glacial-ice
formation packs the creek I must cross, and leads to talus and boulder-filled slopes. There is
nothing much in the way of a bivy spot to be found and I contemplate an upright seated position
for my bed tonight. One tilted limestone looking cliff appears, and from below it suggests it may
be overhanging enough to have a dry rain-sheltered base. Closer inspection confesses the angle
is not enough, and water glides down the entire wall. From here, I am getting the first good look
at what may be the summit of the third girl. I study the weaknesses during my periodic pauses to
catch my breath. Further on, I cross a set of tracks left by a big cat. They seem fresh, but a scan
of my tilted horizon turns up nothing. Hmm, Chinese mountain lions, I hope they like turkey jerky.
I grope my right front pocket for my multi-tool, and wonder if in a panic, would I open the knife
blade, or the nail file. A good pedicure should tame most any cat. Finally I find an adequate
camp just below 15,000ft that doesn’t require a backhoe to move rocks in constructing a flat five
foot span and a bit of shelter. The only problem is the spot I would lie on is getting constant drips
from the melting snow and moss on top of the main boulder. I sweep and scrape the snow and
moss head-waters with my ice axe, and the dripping ceases within an hour. The weather turns
sour late in the day, and as I shovel my legs into my sleeping bag and bivy sack, a steady corn
snow falls. My position has an excellent backrest to sit up against, and after a brief snack, I halfsleep
for the next hour. When I’m roused from the chill propagating my spine, I eat a bit more
food, read a printed copy of an American Alpine Journal article on the area, and try to get
comfortable for the night. The visibility is unchanged, but the snow has slowed to a flurry, and I
settle to sleep left unsure if the weather will clear or not.
 
High Camp around 15000ft
High Camp, ~15,000ft.

Monday May 12, 6:30am: The Awakening

I intentionally wake late as I know the upper couloirs will likely be hard and icy in the early
morning. With an ice axe but no crampons, I need the slope to accept my sneaker-kicks to make
upward progress. The day begins with loading up my summit pack with only some food and
water. I am wearing almost all my layers in the early morning temperatures, and climb for twenty
minutes just to loose the chill and warm my numb hands. The weather has again thankfully
cleared, and the mountains are glorious.
 
Siguniang Shan is on the left, and the third girl that I was climbing is to the right
View of Siguniang Shan and my objective on the right, the 3rd Sister.

I can clearly see my options for gaining the upper ridgeline, and possibly a summit. There is a
more risky open crossing to a right rock band with a snow and ice gully above and below, or there
is an easier looking snow or ice couloir to the left. If the peak in the middle of either route is a
summit, then the far-right option shows the best chance of success. The left however looks more
manageable with my limited equipment. I resolve to start up for a spot between the two. Again I
cross some cat tracks, the same animal I assume. They look to have been from after the snows
the night before. I confidently conclude the Chinese mountain lions do not like turkeys or
Americans. I posthole past my knees occasionally, but for the most part it’s easy climbing on a
stiff upper snow crust. Old avalanche paths show clear over the smoother wind-blown snow. So
far the snow depth to the rock base is no more than thigh deep, so I’m not terribly concerned with
new avalanches. As I approach my point of decision below the center rock face, I shed my down
jacket layer, snap a few photos, and head boldly for the right line. Two, three, four steps, I punch
through to my waist in snow. Shoving my axe horizontal to the surface, I push up and sweep my
legs out and over, probing for firmer snow. Upright again, I enjoy two more steps before, thrump,
I’m in to my lower chest. Exiting this hole is not as easy, and I commando crawl several body
lengths to get back up on tentatively firm snow. Three more cycles of this routine makes me
reconsider my route. The left option looked more exciting at the top any way. After traversing
back left to the gully, the climbing is indeed more firm, too firm. I’m now struggling to get good
kick-steps in the sun-hardened snow. I should have brought crampons. Some delicate moves
and I’m able to get through the worst of the hard stuff. Shit, now I’m back in soft, formless snow.
The post-holing is now reaching my chest once again. I move left in search of firmer snow,
nothing. I again try an ice-axe commando crawl, and after ten feet in ten minutes, I crunch the
numbers in my head. It proves a convincing argument to my stubborn will. Reluctantly, I prepare
to glissade back down the gully. After rechecking my gaiters, tucking my jacket into my pants and
pulling my pack up high on my shoulders, I get a rewardingly huge ride. What took hours to
ascend, is over in mere minutes. Minus one tiny, icy, way-too-fast uncontrolled section that
requires a true self-arrest, it’s one of the best mountain glissades I’ve had. Back in sunshine
now, the warmth is encouraging, and I motor my way into camp.
Arriving at high camp around 11am, I’m in good spirits. Despite failing on the climb, I made
17,000 feet in good climbing conditions, and in great weather. I’m still feeling enthusiastic about
getting back to the valley with time to scanter up the Chang Ping valley to scope out other future
goals and walls. Warm from entering the sunshine slopes, I enjoy my lunch shirtless with just a
slight breeze. The feeling and the view are sweeping. After restuffing my pack I start down, more
to the north side of the steep boulder field this time than when I climbed up. The day before I had
scoped for any signs of a real trail the best I could or at least a faster way to descend. The rock
is looser on my chosen line, testing my balance, but does seem faster. Navigating to a point
where I can look across to my original creek crossing the day before, I remember that I had
scoped a likely easier crossing further below. Down further, it becomes increasingly difficult to
see the creek or where I should drop down to cross. I blindly continue becoming increasingly
doubtful that my path will not be a dead end. Not too long after, I confirm my fear. My heart
sinks, I may have just wasted the rest of my afternoon. I turn and retrace my steps back up. With
the disappointment the climbing feels like I’m back at 17,000 feet and I suck hard for air. I get
stuck in an ambush of thorns that I don’t recognize, but push through. Despite my distracting
underbreath cursing, I spot a possible exit to regain the south side of the gorging creek. Another
brutal thorn-whipping is required, but it goes! I’ve avoided completely retracing my steps another
thousand feet, I’m recharged, rejuvenated. There is even what looks like a man-made path with
bushes shimmering from cuts made by machete. Excellent, I can maybe make up the lost time. I
stop in the middle of the creek where the water splits around a protruding rock outcrop and work
on clearing the embedded thorns in my shirt and pack. After refilling and treating some water and
enjoying a melty Snickers bar, I mount up and start down the trail. A few dozen steps and I
discover a little two-man rock shelter with a vegetation roof. I snap a quick photo for future
reference and continue on. A few more steps and then …
What the fuck?!! The mountain is alive, shaking and screaming! I begin to run before my
conscious mind can catch up and register what’s happening. The focus is entirely on the ground
straight ahead. My instincts are to get up higher, away from the creek. The path quickly narrows
and becomes flanked by ever steepening slopes of bush and tree. I target the base of one of the
larger trees with a good pocket of cover and as I can no longer keep my balance, I fall into its
exposed roots. Mud splatters into my eyes as my hands slap the wet soil. The thunder is
deafening now and comes from everywhere, above, left, right, and it’s approaching! What is this,
a rockslide? An earthquake? I quickly decide it’s irrelevant and conclude this is most certainly it.
Game over. I close my eyes and thankfully take these last moments to focus my thoughts on my
wife, my kids, my family. I ponder that not everyone gets these moments before their end, and I
make my peace. I feel content, there are no sudden urges of regret or wave of fear towards my
fate, but there is an overwhelming sadness in leaving my family behind. My thoughts are broken
and my eyes flash open to a distinct rumbling that echoes off the steep canyon walls above the
creek. Simply incredible … a dump truck sized boulder is bouncing down the walls of the creek!
This, this is surreal. I imagine Indy spotting his hat in the flowing water below, swinging the whip
to a limb above, and swinging down capturing his trademark while narrowly dodging the impact of
the monster. I leak a gasp of breath when it’s clear that I am at least twenty feet above the
highest bounces. An updraft of wind as it passes is all that interrupts the non stop sensation of
violent shaking. The relief is short lived as the real danger is incoming, rocks sized from
baseballs to armchairs begin shooting by and ricocheting off my tree shelter. The earth continues
shaking violently, relentless. Looking out the entire mass on which I cower appears to be
slipping, sinking toward the edge of the cliffs below. I bicycle kick tighter into my shelter, fingers
smearing the mossy soil. As the moss tears in my grip, I grab more. A tree maybe fifteen feet
away is decapitated. A feeling of complete frustration emerges, as I can do nothing but grovel
and wait, it is a helpless feeling. I retract my earlier sense of peaceful resignation, and instead
decide that I’m going to survive. This resolution is the only action I can take against the
helplessness, but it feels like a small victory. The vibrations continue, but the constant onslaught
of rock fall has started to subside. I don’t dare yet move, so I occupy my mind and time with a
quick video of myself. I figure I should begin to document this experience to share with others.
The ground continues to hum and reverberate and I check the vegetation around me to verify it’s
not just me shaking. More time passes, I’m not sure how much, seconds, minutes. I look at my
watch, note the time, and decide I’ll wait ten more minutes, and then move from my position in
search of a safer one deeper in the forest with bigger trees for shield. Five minutes later, I’m on
the move.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sLAHX7yLILs

May 12, ~2:45: The Gauntlets

As I move down through the mixed terrain, I negotiate steep down-steps of the ridges, while trying
to avoid any valleys or troughs that would focus the trajectory of stone shots. At times I must
cross a trough as the ridge cliffs out. I form a strategy similar to the kayak river running so
familiar to me. From behind a tree shelter, I spot my next tree, peel out in a downhill run, and
tuck in behind that next tree as if I’m eddy hopping and boat scouting a steep river run. I wish
constantly that I could get out of my boat and scout the next set of rapids safely from shore. A
rhythm is formed, and I’m shedding altitude at a good pace. Then, a disturbing scene appears.
The trough I need to cross is forty meters wide, it is nearly devoid of standing trees from the
recent rock fall and it’s a focal point of anything coming loose above. Rocks are constantly
zipping down in thirty to sixty second intervals. I begin looking for my line, the path to engage
from one side to the other. My strategy is to find a minimum in obstacles, but also goes slightly
downhill. I’m still at elevation and know that I’ll become quickly winded while running as hard as I
can. I also go down this ridge as far as it allows to leave as much forewarning as possible when
the sound of incoming rocks is detected. I wait, I watch, I listen, and during an all too brief quite
moment, I run. The trunks and branches of the down trees prove to be like ice and I quickly
change my technique from stepping and jumping on them to grabbing and swinging or stepping
over them. I drive up the muddy bank of the far side and catch my breath behind another tree
with time to spare before the next foray of rock cuts loose above. I wonder how many more of
these “crossings” I’ll encounter.
It’s not long before I get my answer. There appears to be a large clearing up ahead that most
certainly did not exist the day before. As I reach a shelter with good visibility, the sheer scale of
the clearing comes into focus. From where I stand the land slide is at least three football fields
end-to-end, and all that is left is the underlying rock slab slathered in dirt and soil. A hundred
meters across is devoid of vegetation, and another ten to twenty meters of either side are half
destroyed and littered with the carcasses of tree trunks and branches. How to scope a line on
this thing? I’m not even sure I could cross it in the best of circumstances. Desperately I tree hop
further down, and begin to see a boulder field that has accumulated and nearly spans the
distance. Thank goodness, because I’m out of runway on this side and can again hear the water
rushing in the gorge below. After studying the line through the boulders, the daunting distance,
and the frequent rock fall activity, I’m as clenched as I was during the initial quake. I do find much
comfort in knowing I have regained some control over my fate. There are decisions to be made
and actions to be taken, I am no longer helpless as I was earlier. Still, the risk and danger of the
situation does not elude me and I take a few moments to compose myself enough to leave a last
video message to my wife and daughters. I pull out half my bag, wrap the camera in my down
jacket, and place it carefully in the middle of the pack for protection. I had considered the option
of shedding my pack to make me faster and more agile, but I argue with myself that there
remains unknown territory ahead and what lies beyond the far shore of the tree line is uncertain.
It’s beginning to rain now, and I could still be trapped and forced to bivy for an indefinite time.
Better to take it along, and maybe it might even take the brunt of one of those hurling asteroids.
Besides, I’ve got the pack weight whittled down to under 30lbs and I’m wearing many of the
clothes that total that weight. I do resolve to down a liter of water and dump the remaining until
I’m left with 8 ounces. I gain some reassurance that this line I’ve chosen to cross is tailored for
my strengths. After thousands of miles trail running and rock hoping through the backcountry,
much of this wearing a backpack, my skills for this are as good as they get. I couldn’t win a 20k
mountain scramble, but I could stay within seconds of the front runner in this 150 meter distance.
Of course my stomach is twisted with anxiety, and when the ground is not shaking, I am. The
biggest sprint race I have ever competed in is moments away. There are no competitors, no
spectators, no first place. Only finish or don’t finish. No pressure!
 
The upper section of the gauntlet
The Gauntlet.

--
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_QUzvN9F40
Tremors are still going off at an almost routine pace, and each stokes the fire causing rocks to
shoot down like popping embers. I’m ready to go and after sixty seconds of stillness, I take 2
leaping jump steps down the loose soil before freezing. A tremor has just started! I retreat like
I’m slamming on car brakes over black ice, just turning around feels difficult and slow. A regain
my refuge in time to watch the half-dozen boulders shoot by, successful in their descent. I’ve lost
what little confidence there was and again my ears strain to listen above my heartbeat, for the
crack and sizzle of the stone shots. Ten minutes later there’s another lull. Again the gun sounds
in my head, and out of the starting blocks I slip on the muddy bank and again on an equally slick
downed tree-trunk that blocks the start of the boulder field. My shin flares. My pulse races. My
breathing accelerates. The first half of the boulder field goes well, and I feel confidence growing
while jumping from block to block. Time stands still as my focus locks on the task at hand. I’m
just over halfway when the dreaded sound rings out from above. Do I stop to look, or keep my
focus on the tree line maintaining full speed? No way, I must look, there’s always a chance I can
dodge and avoid. It’s the ultimate dodge ball game. A pummel horse move over an uplifted rock
provides the perfect time to make a visual identification. I spot them almost instantaneously, one
directly, one in my peripheral vision. Both are chair sized, but only the one detects my presence.
It’s coming so fast, I have lost any reliance in dodging, instead shifting to a panicked scan for a
protective hole or position. Then, a hundred or so meters up, it is swatted by a barn door slab of
prayer, and passes safely thirty feet to my left. “Run asshole, ruuuunnn!!!”, I shout at myself to
wake up and move. Five or six more jump strides over the jumbled boulders, and I already know
as my left foot makes initial contact, I’m going down hard. A big bully just jumped off his side of
the teeter totter, and my ass is racing toward the ground. I know it should hurt, but the pain
doesn’t come, and I’m back to my feet in a wincing blink. Twice more I go down, forward these
times, pounding my knees, shins, and hands. A few moments later, I hit the redefined tree line,
and spot the perfect rock shield leaning on a good sized pine while another tremor begins. This
time I keep full steam ahead and pound through a wall of branches like the yellow tape of a finish
line. I collapse on my back, lungs screaming, head pounding, while the sound of more rock fall
reverberates. I laugh, laugh harder, then near uncontrollably until I’m almost in tears. My first
thought was “You clumsy fuck, that was horrible style.” Upon regaining blood flow to my brain, I
find my ridiculous self criticism to be the funniest thing I’ve heard in years. My next thought is one
of victory and I pump my arms silently in celebration. As I regain control, the synapses in my
brain are no longer blocked. My shins sear, my right elbow throbs. In my pack I find my
remaining eight Tylenol. I consume all of them with my remaining water.
In fact, it is not over, and I soon find one last slide that must be crossed with the same donkey
kong at the top floor. But this is slightly smaller than the first slide I crossed, and I don’t feel all
that stressed in my now established routine. Wait, observe, choose the line, go hard. The
penalty of suppressed fear is that the burning in my shins and full throttle throbbing of my elbow
are completely present. These pains make me feel sluggish as I begin my sprint one last time,
alas this feeling reignites my fear and the pain is again depressed. No rocks come, I win again.
I am now a mere eight hundred feet from the valley floor, and the terrain is rapidly becoming a
higher order derivative. Johnny begins playing in my head,
I fell in to a burning ring of fire,
I went down, down, down
and the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns
the ring of fire
the ring of fire.
It’s clear now I’m no longer on the hairy edge, and with the relief comes a raw, distorted yell of
celebration. The barn is close, and I’m almost galloping now down the slopes. Twenty speedy
minutes later, I’m standing back on the main Chang Ping Guo Trail.

May 12, ~5pm : Return to Rilong

The mud of the valley trail was now a relief to see. I am eager to get to town and learn how large a quake this really was, or what has become of the town. Up ahead, standing on the trail looks to
be another American walking with a Chinese man. It’s not until we are face to face that I recognize the man as Norman, my bus companion. My delay in recognizing the only other
American I’ve seen is a likely signal that my brain is still not fully shifted out of its flight response.
We enthusiastically exchange our stories. He had almost decided to hike further up the valley to Muluozi, a big open meadow in this steep valley. Other hikers were telling us now that the
meadow had been completely swept with a glacial slide of snow, ice, and earth. He had just met the other fellow, Eric, a few minutes before the quake struck. Even on the trail the two men had
to run and take cover behind trees and rocks as many boulders, some perhaps I had met first, were sweeping all the way to the inflection point of the valley. We continue discussing as we
keep a swift pace back to the trail head. At a bridge that brings us to the west side of the river,
the change in water color is striking. What was a cool, blue-green mountain stream is now a filthy
brown solution of sediment. Evidence of the quake is all around. Natural looking boulders lie
about, but with depressions in the ground leaving a trail reminding me of the Race Track back
home in Death Valley. Scars streak the steep hillsides around in a panoramic view. On the
planked walkway near the end, planks are missing with only splinters left. Closer inspection is
needed to identify the missing boards dozens of feet away, sometimes with the guilty stone
nearby, sometimes not. On the trail back we meet a few others. Some quite happy as we are,
some blank faced, and some quite distraught. One particular women sobs as two others console
her. They are walking up the trail in the other direction, and I began to consider the likelihood that
some unlucky folks may not walk out of the valley at all. Our pace quickens.
At the trailhead the congregation of onlookers, rangers, and hikers is growing. Norman’s new
friend speaks English and helps translate the ranger’s repeated requests for our names and date
of entry. I’m asked three times whether I was really solo; I guess the Chinese have easier times
finding climbing partners. Most coming off the trail are unharmed, physically at least. Then one
young man arrives half slung over his friend’s shoulder and is tended to right away. None of the
rangers appear to have any medical training, but they are present, very attentive to everyone, and
passing out water to anyone who doesn’t have their hands in their pockets. We sit for maybe
twenty minutes waiting for a bus that will take us all back into town. It’s the first time I’ve sat
down since departing my high camp that morning. The stoppage in movement reminds me that I
hurt all over and I shift my weight to the right to take the pressure off my bruised ass. A check of
my knees, shins and elbow show only some spotting of blood and a bit of swelling, nothing
requiring treatment beyond extra strength doses of píjǐu, aka beer. A spot a guy across the street
inspecting his open phone and based on his expression, I fish mine out not expecting much. The
bus starts up with a black cloud of diesel, and the loitering bunches all eagerly board. I learn that
this is the normal bus that runs between Rilong and the Valley trailheads. Inside, with the roar of
energetic conversation, it reminds me of a school bus heading out on a field trip. Everyone on
board is enthusiastically swapping tales, and though I try, I understand almost nothing. Instead I
shift my focus to the behavior of the story tellers. Each has a unique sort of euphoria that is
easily interpreted as “I’m happy to be alive”. I wonder how long this experience will resonate in
their minds, will they resolve to change something about their lives, how long will they remember?
How long will I?
As we approach town, much of it appears to be intact and I start to consider where to get off.
Back where the Chengdu bus dropped us? Further into town to look for lodging? I stay on until it
looks like the bus is about to go beyond the main section of town, and Norman follows hoping to
maybe find a working phone. We passed his hostel halfway down the valley road, and he
comments that it looked intact. As we step off the bus glass crackles under our feet. Windows of
the four story hotel next to us lay scattered about, and I mark this hotel of my list. People are
milling about in small groups across the street around vehicles and trees. We cross to that side
wanting to avoid any teetering glass. We are greeted and stop to discuss with a young group of
Chinese around their minivan talking to another rare white guy. The man is Chilean and boldly
comments, “they no allow me in my hotella”, nodding towards the one whose glass we walked
over. His appearance reminds me of a slim Woody Allen, and he repeats his previous statement,
“they no allow me in my hotella.” One of the Chinese party introduces herself as Stella, and
thankfully she speaks a bit of English. She elaborates on the quirky Chilean’s comments that the
police have mandated everyone stays out of all structures, no exceptions. They have little else in
way of information and the wind seems to be blowing harder following these comments. There,
outside their van, I strip down to undies and redress for the elements. No one seems to give
notice. Layered up I feel much more comfortable and begin to take notice of all the damaged
structures around us. Norman and I walk a bit from the van to snap a few photos. After being
fooled several times we learn quickly how to tell what is new carnage and what was pre-quake
disarray. Look for the chaotic pile of rubble below the hole, missing wall, missing roof, missing
story. It is somewhat deceiving in this town, as many of the structures were not in pristine
condition to begin with. In some cases, a pile of debris exists, but it is far too organized pointing
to previous demolition.
When we return the group has abandon any talk about attempting a drive to Chengdu and starts
to discuss where to move the van and set-up their tents. The Chilean is still convinced they are
driving to Chengdu and is repeatedly motioning with his hands attempting to convince the group
his road bike can fold up to fit in the already over packed minivan. “Look look, it folds like this”, I
note he speaks English quite well, he just doesn’t understand English. We note some grassy
spots near by, but the steady wind suggests a look elsewhere. With admirable timing, a
government looking vehicle is slowly rolling by and one of the group flags it down to ask for
advice on where to go. After what seems like minutes of conversation, Stella roughly translates
that they say to go to the parking area outside the Chang Ping Valley ticket office. I tell Stella that
we will likely see everyone later and I join Norman to look for a phone before continuing up the
road past the ticket office to check on his hostel.
 
restaurant
"The Corner" in Rilong.

As we head in the direction of the hostel, there appear to be two LAN–line phones, one in the
same shop I first used for shelter days ago, and another across the street in a small open-door
eatery slash restaurant. Both seem to be in non stop use and it’s not clear if calls are getting
through or not. We continue up the road towards the hostel, and are stopped at the gate by the
guards. After useless verbal argument, Norman succeeds in gaining us passage by writing the
Chinese symbol for the hostel’s name. “Ahhhhh, ha ha ha”, and they wave us through.
The elder lady of the house sees Norm and rushes over to greet him. She is noticeably shaken,
and greets Norman with an embracing hug, tears welling in her eyes. We learn from her
daughter that besides the trauma of severe damage to their family’s lively hood, she was hit with
some of the collapsed rock walls in their guest house. Norman asks about getting his belongings
from his still standing second floor room, and they sternly refuse instead leading us up the steep
hillside behind the hostile to an open area between old piles of ruble and a vegetable garden.
Here we help set up the first tent, a four-man dome style. The elastic cord on the poles is several
feet too long, and won’t allow the sections to join. After reengineering the cord, we start on the
rain fly just as one of the guys motions for us to pick up the tent and move it. The anchors are
pulled, and after getting it guyed back out, he now motions to take it down. Norman and I agree
from our eye contact that it’s time for us to just stand back and stop getting in the way. Two men
arrive toting a long pole form which hangs a giant mass of canvass that looks like a large roasted
pig on a spit. As they start to unravel the beast, it’s clear why the other tent had to be removed.
This military-style canvas tent is at least twenty five feet across and occupies the entire open
area.
I consider staying, but feel antsy, wanting to go check back with Stella’s group on any
developments or new information. So far they are the only ones with whom we’ve been able to
communicate. As I pass by the ticket office parking lot across the river, I can’t clearly spot the
groups van, so decide to continue down to the general store for some much earned píjǐu. As I
enter it first occurs to me that there is no electrical power, not surprising, it just hadn’t been
relevant yet. I pull out my head lamp to make out the labels on the silhouettes. Nothing looks
terribly appetizing, not even the quickly disappearing hot cup of noodle containers. As I creep
further from the entrance the shop keeper motions for me to remain at the open doorway and his
wife picks out the items that I point out. I complement my tin of Chinese Pringles with three
bottles of water and three cans of, that’s right, Budweiser. I pay as a man repeatedly dials a
number on the phone, clearly not getting through to anyone.
As I start back up the street an injured climber arrives by car from the trail head. One of the
group leaders speaks a bit of English and states his group was far up the Chang Ping Valley. His
friend took a boulder to the head, and to the chest. An ambulance transport is requested from
Xiaojin, and I help to set up and move the man into a nearby tent. I offer that I have some
training and we discuss the care for him, checking vital signs on a routine basis, evaluating the
head injury with special concern for neck or spine damage, checking for fluid in lungs or signs of
internal bleeding in the chest. The bleeding in his head seems to be superficial, and most of the
concern is with the chest injury but he looks stable. I offer to remain, but they insist that it will be
OK and the transport should arrive soon.
Back at the parking lot there are several identical looking minivans, but I cannot locate Stella, or
even the Chilean for that matter. Tired from still carrying my pack around, I set up my Thermarest
against a four foot retaining wall. Concerned folks begin asking me if I have a tent, or at least
that’s what I interpret. I make an OK sign as I crack open the Bud amused with my current
situation. Again I power-on and check my phone before popping the top to the second Bud and
wondering what happened to the first. Anyone else drinking has some sort of bottled schnops, all
politely leaving the píjǐu for me. Nearby, also along the retaining wall, a giant wok of rice is
cooking. The grill boss hands me an overflowing bowl, not as an offer but as though he will drop
it on me if I don’t grab quickly. Not wanting to insult the boss, I fish in my pack for a makeshift
utensil. The boss grabs a branch from the woodpile, and widdles me a pair of chopsticks inside
of sixty seconds. He finally slips out a smile when I skillfully put his impromptu sticks to work.
Some trucks carrying military have arrived now, the People’s Liberation Army I presume. They
set up large tents in the field near the parking lot, and it’s seems clear these are going to be
barracks for them, not mere shelters. One of the uniformed men approaches and speaks rapid
speed Chinese. He deftly interprets my silence and blank stare, and then turns and walks away.
To my surprise he returns five minutes later with a posse of army men. I am even more surprised
when the most senior looking gent starts speaking polished English.
”Hello sir, is there a problem?”
“Ahh, no, no problem”, I respond kindly knowing that while it sounded as such, his question was
not meant to be confrontational.
“What are your plans for the evening, do you have a tent for sleeping? We are expecting rain
tonight”, he adds. I bite my tongue to prevent what would be my normal sarcastic response, no
just a tent for drinking.
“Yes, a small tent, a bivy sack.”
Satisfied with my answer, he continues to warn that there will be two more earthquakes sometime
this evening, both seven or greater in magnitude. I question the source of this information, but
this seems to agitate him, so I let it go. I switch to asking about the quake, and the condition of
the surrounding areas. He only mentions that many towns have been destroyed with many dead.
My further questions all fetch the same answer, that more information is to come. The only other
clue I get is that this army unit came from Xiaojin, not from the Chengdu direction. His description
of towns destroyed and many dead hangs with me. My little Budweiser celebration is weighted
with the sinking realization this is much, much bigger than my experience in the last six hours.
In the interest of keeping a positive attitude, I switch my thoughts to consider the remarkable
earthquake prediction. Is this plausibly a government scare tactic to keep the people out of the
buildings, or is it more about setting expectations and managing the panic that may occur from
likely aftershocks? One question is certain, if the Chinese have secretly developed the
technology to predict earthquakes, why the hell didn’t they warn us about the first one?
After crushing the three empty cans, I decide to set up my bed over by the other tents away from
the retaining wall that likely becomes a waterfall in heavy rain. As I drop my pack and pad down,
and begin to thread my sleeping bag into the bivy sack, a small audience assembles. A few folks
are still not convinced this yellow pod will keep me dry and yet another concern citizen toggles his
fingers downward telling me it’s going to rain. To put this to rest, I open my water bottle and
splash some water over the foot of the sack. With a shake the beaded water flies off and a look
of stark realization is expressed by the spectators. I’m almost asleep when another aftershock
starts. It feels like a large one but it’s likely from being so tightly coupled to the ground now. I
can detect the distinct levels of vibrations along with the ramps up and down in intensity. Given a
paper and pen I could be a human seismograph. As it finally winds down along with the yells and
chants of the tent city, I hear the first drops of rain. Fully awake now from the tremor, I reflect for
a moment on the transpired events thus far, and why I’m laying here in this gravel parking lot
alive and well. On any given day, what is a minute in time, give or take, does it really matter? On
this day it did. All the stack-ups of time on this day contributed to this outcome, me, laying here in
the rain. What if I hadn’t turned back in that snow gully this morning or just climbed ten more feet,
would I have been standing in that creek when the Indy boulder came rolling along? What if I
turned back sooner, or didn’t stop as long for lunch at my high camp, would I have been in the
middle of the football fields? What if? As in our reality, the dangers today were four-dimensional,
occupying both space and time. I could measure the close calls in seconds or feet, and without
any need to take off my shoes to count in either unit. As my eyes grow heavy I remind myself
that I’m not home yet and need to keep focus on the present. There would be time later for more
reflection. The tremors go off all night but after a while not even the yells and calls of the people
wake me.

May 13, Tuesday, The Day After

It rained all night. I’m mostly dry and wanting to remain that way, I wait for a let-up in the rain to
exit my Gortex cocoon. The rain’s popping sound on the sack is deceiving, and as I finally
resolve to get out it’s but a drizzle. My things are damp, but not wet. I head back to the main part
of town and spot Tiger in a doorway adjacent to the shop I dressed in my first day. “Hayyy”, he
yells and waves me into the shop, apparently owned by a friend of his that I never meet.
Thankful to be out of the rain I settle into a wobbly wooden chair, but he keeps insisting I scoot
closer and sit within an arms length of the doorway. Then he shows me why. On one side of the
room the last row of floor tiles tilts down 12 inches into the ground along with the base of the wall,
and a spider web of cracks emanates from the ground. Funny, I just though the ceiling was
supposed to have a ten degree down tilt, you know, for drainage or something. Tiger and his girl
are squirrelly, clearly anxious about more aftershocks. I attempt to tell my story from the day
before and ask about their return from the adjacent Haizi valley, but it’s not terribly successful. I
ask about any chance of a bus today. Tiger, a champion charades player, steps just outside to
pick up a narrow piece of wood, and as he slowly moves it, he drops on it a handful of dirt and
stone. Yeah, I get the idea. I take the same piece of wood along with a hand sized flat stone. I
point to my watch while raising an eyebrow, and then plow a line in the pile while following with
the wooden bus. They stare blankly. So much for my champion.
I step outside to try my cell phone again, expecting disappointment. Within seconds of powering
up I have 3bars!!! I dial Colleen’s cell in a panic, my thumbs feel like they’ve doubled in size and I
struggle to enter the number correctly. A Ring! “Hello?!” I can already hear the quiver of tears in
her voice. “Hey baby, I love you”, I say with equal demeanor. My emotion matching hers. We
struggle to not cut each other off in the rush to say everything at once. After I assure that I’m ok,
she explains she first heard the news that morning, how it has been dealing with the uncertainty
all day, how expansive the impact was, and how worried everyone has been. I can only explain
that things got “pretty dicey”, but that I was ok and safely in the town. And hey, I called exactly
when I said I would. Back home a week later, she describes this call as the first time I have ever
sounded scared or disturbed. We discuss a bit more about updating my parents and folks back
at work before reluctantly ending the call to save my battery. I make one more brief call to my
colleague Thomas who is still in Chengdu. From him I get more clarity on the size of the quake
and that it was felt strongly in the city. Our company and the hotels in Chengdu have been
evacuated and no one is allowed back until later that evening.
As I return to the doorway shelter and eat the last of my packed food, I contemplate how in such
a natural disaster the phones worked. My guess is the cell towers must be running on
generators, and that it’s unlikely there will be continuous service. Still, everyone in town seems to
leave their cell phones on, including Tiger and girl. I try to suggest they power-off to save battery
as there is no way to charge them, I am again unsuccessful.
Another big tremor suddenly hits! I am sternly pulled out of the shop into the streets. Tiger pulls
me again twenty feet further and points to a large street sign still upright, but adjacent to a
downed one. “Hi Chris”, I hear from over my shoulder. I now can identify Norman’s voice
immediately. He had a reasonably good night in his guest tent, the one we repeatedly set-up and
tore down the evening before. His hosts insisted he sleep in his own tent, quite the executive
privilege. We discuss a bit more at the threshold of another building
It’s not too long into the morning when I feel the need to relief myself. Looking around I find
nothing so cross the street back to Tiger. He brings me behind the building to another small
structure. Inside is a classic Chinese toilet hole, and it’s nasty. There’s a pail near by overflowing
with used paper, some with blood, some with unidentifiable substances. As I squat over the
porcelain fissure, I’m staring at a severely cracked wall and another down tilted ceiling. After all
I’ve been through and survived, I imagine my story being told, “he died in an outhouse, pants
around his ankles.” Moments later, I’m finished and get the hell out. Next time I’ll hike out into
one of the forested hillsides.
I find Norman at the small restaurant across from the grocery, and suggest we order some beer.
It’s not even close to noon yet, but I need to forget the bathroom experience and what else is
there to occupy our time? Norm agrees, and like a good Cheers character he can keep up. We
are two fish out of water, and gasp for information on the quake or travel options. With those that
come and go, we get snippets of info. It was centered in Wolong? No, Wenchuan. Perhaps
Songpan is flattened. Hundreds dead, thousands dead, it’s all desperate sounding. Seven-pointzero,
eight-point-zero, three kilometers underground, nineteen kilometers, in the end the precise
details are irrelevant, only where and how big. We’re trying to understand if it was going to be
days or weeks to get out.
Eventually the rain stalls, and we feel cabin fever. We decide to tour through town to stretch the
legs and document the damage. After self guiding ourselves down the main street, we follow a
survey crew with official looking yellow hard hats. We all examine big boulders in roadways and
large cracks in structures while nodding accordingly. Hmmmm, that doesn’t look good, I imagine
them saying. The various forms of building structure fall into a handful of categories. At the
simplest level, there are granite blocks filled in with slate slivers. No mortar of any kind is used,
only a sort of hardened mud for insulation. Then there are similar structures, but with concrete
columns that help anchor the corners, providing more strength to the structure. Then there are
the more conventional cinder block and concrete structures. Of course there are those hybrid
structures as well, that always seem to take the worse of each model. Up along the terraced
hillside, even the pavement of the street appears to have suffered dislocation cracks propagating
throughout.
 
Boulders loitering in the streets, a photo while walking Rilong
New Bouldering options in town.

With no other options, we return to the same restaurant, which I’ve started calling Mama’s. The
head of the place is clearly a middle-aged to older woman, and what I would guess are several of
her daughters. Out of hunger and a bad feeling of squatting in the establishment, we order a real
meal. Norman points to some veggies on the shelf, and to the wok versus a pot of water. Still
uncertain, we hope for the best. Ten minutes later dishes start emerging, each better than the
last. We struggle to finish all the food, wanting to avoid the shame of leaving any wasted. More
píjǐu logically follows. We talk and observe the daily life of the restaurant, a cyclic process of
preparation, cooking, and cleaning. Mama offers us some fresh berries they just washed from a
garden hose whose source of water we assume is the river. We politely decline but order more
píjǐu to not be rude. Next the girls make three trips to the grocery shop across the street, each
time returning with a fifty pound bag of rice. When one of the other sporadic customers orders a
dish, one of the girls goes to the back and emerges with a giant hunk of beef. After lopping off a
portion, she returns it, dripping blood that she catches with her other hand.
The friend of the injured climber walks up and we greet. Surprisingly he’s still impatiently waiting
for the promised transport to Xiaojin for his injured friend. He has been receiving irritating
responses such as having no fuel or oil to make the drive. This sounds plausible at first, but after
generators are deployed, it is obviously being used as an excuse. More discussion leads me to
figure out that he is actually a guide for the group. I ask again about his client’s injuries and
monitoring of vitals. He tries making a call again about the transport, and gets relieving news,
their on their way. Less than an hour later the transport arrives. From Xiaojin, their plans are not
clear, perhaps more road travel or perhaps air travel to Songpan, and then hopefully Chengdu or
another major city.
I decide it’s much better to stick with my fellow American and stay up the road further from town.
We go up to his tent and I lay my sleeping bag out to dry the dampness. The gate guards
recognize us now, and only give a polite nod. After arriving and greeting those at the grand tent,
we go for another stroll since the rain is still holding off. From just a bit up the road from the tents,
our attention is caught with a striking second floor structure. From the back wall we can see
through the opposite wall to the field across the street, a pile of rubble on the bed from the
adjacent wall on the right. We continue up the road toward the valley trail head with no one
around. A crop of Plumerias is spotted on the side of the road and we investigate. We had one
for years at our condo in Santa Barbara, and it never bloomed.
 
View from our executive tent. The fallen main house of Norman’s hostile is in the background
Roof of the hostel where Norm was staying.

It begins to rain, and escalates as we walk back to the tent shelters. My rain shell feels saturated
and barely holding back the water as we enter the tent. A kind older fellow pushes some weird
schnapps on us, likely the same stuff I saw the night before. Of course we cannot refuse, and I
later tuck the drink into the dirt under the foam mattress I sit. I succumb to my fatigue and
reluctantly rest my head in old mildew smelling blankets and pads, keeping my bent legs and feet
on the muddy ground, not wanting to wet everything from my damp rain pants. A Japanese man
enters that Norman had met and talked to the night before. His name is Kenzo and he has some
more information and possibilities for escape from Rilong. He describes one route option that
uses a small back road that starts before the high mountain pass, then makes some phone calls.
No dice, the word he gets is no one is willing to even try the road as all the rain we’ve been
receiving has snowed-in the roads higher up. The route to Danba-Kangdin-Ya’an is discussed,
but much uncertainty surrounds the route. Besides the land-slide risks, the area east of Xiaojin in
Danba has been off limits to non-Chinese since the Tibetan riots and uprisings earlier in the year.
Norman investigated extensively while in Chengdu about the possibility of going to these cities,
and it sounded very unlikely at best. Kenzo offers more confirmation of a bridge being out on the
critical path to Chengdu through Wolong. I am getting the sinking sense it could be weeks to get
out, and coupled with the incessant rain, I’m feeling very down. Kenzo departs, and it’s raining
hard now. We rest our heads and I keep my ears trained on the intensity of the rain looking for a
letup to make for our tent. An hour passes, then another. Finally there is a slight break, and I
rouse Norman to make the move.
 
Getting cozy, waiting for the rain to let up
Waiting out the rain.

May 14 Wed, The Exodus

My eyes shutter open to loud squawking roosters in the distance. A Dylan song comes to mind.
Hear the rooster crowing,
must be something on his miiinnnd.
Hear the rooster crowing,
must be something on his miiinnnd
Well I feel just like that rooster baby, when you treat me so unkiiinndd.
No rush to get up, I’ve reached the seventh stage and accepted there is nil chance of buses
running today. After nodding on and off for another hour, Norman is waking up and I can hear the
others are up in the big tent, and the generator is running. What are they using the generator for,
heat? It’s chilly and damp, but no worse than the previous evening. A closer look popping our
heads inside reveals a rat’s nest of cell adapters all charging a bushel of cell phones. Ahhhh,
now I get it, why power off the cell phones when we have this perfectly good diesel generator to
pump fumes into our tent?
We think to find the number and call the US Consulate in Chengdu, but the cell towers are offline
and have been all morning. After Norman finishes his room service raman-noodle breakfast, we
head to the restaurant for the LAN line. It takes at least ten tries to get through, and after
negotiating the automated menu selections, Norman gets through to a real English-speaking lady.
After explaining our situation and providing our information, she is able to provide us with critical
advice on what to do next. “Be patient”. Hmmm, thanks lady, ok, what do we do after that then?
Huh? Right, got it. In retrospect, I wonder if she was really in Chengdu, or was perhaps an
outsourced operator in India.
Astonishingly a bus pulls through from the mountain pass direction, we reactively stand up to get
a look. It has a concave right side that goes in at least 1 seat for the back half of the bus. It does
not stop in town, and appears to be vacant besides the driver. A few minutes later as we are
settling back down and I’m considering ordering breakfast, Tiger’s girl runs up, and boldly states
that several groups are arranging transportation to Xiaojin and then to Danba, the cars will be
here in ten minutes. Ten minutes??!! We bust-ass back to the hostel to get our things, normally
a fifteen minute walk one-way. As we struggle to make good time, I consider that this decision to
flee to the west is an easy one. The only alternate is to stay in Rilong and trust that the Chinese
military will get the bridge and road fixed quickly. Even if we are blocked from entering Danba,
we can at least stay in Xiaojin until the route back to Chengdu is open. I run up ahead to pack my
things in a plan to make it back to the pick-up point as soon as possible to save our spot. In
actuality Norman arrives and finishes packing at the same time as me since most of his things are
already put away. He is carrying a backpack, and a gargantuan rolling duffel suitcase that takes
two of us to negotiate the steep trail back down to the street. I take off ahead again to hold our
spot. As I run up to the corner, a minivan is waiting. I explain that Norman is just behind and the
van needs to wait. I try spanning the delay with introductions, and many thanks for setting up the
transportation. There is Robert and his girlfriend from Shanghai, and a couple from Hong Kong,
Andy and Zoe. Incredibly, three of the four speak fair English. Finally poor Norman turns the
corner into our line of sight. If only his bag had two more wheels to allow riding it down the hill
like a go-cart. I score shot gun, but get to carry my pack on my lap. The slider door cannot even
close with Norman’s bag inside, and when we make a stop to grab a seventh passenger the
driver ties Norman’s bag to the roof despite his voiced concern. We make one last stop at the
police station for what I imagine is registration for departing to Danba, maybe this will help us get
through the border stop. Finally we are wished good luck by the officials, and are on our way.
Our last passenger turns out to be a professional Chinese climber, but considering his
proportions, I infer that he only climbs alpine. With the unconventional look of a PC (professional
climber), I start calling him Mac. This is an interesting group, two Shanghais, two Hong
Kongians, two Americans, and one Sichuan local for good Karma.
The route is the one discussed previously, travel through Xiaojin to Danba the first day and then,
if possible, to Chengdu passing near Kang Ding and Ya’an the following day in order to make my
flight Friday morning. I’m a little anxious on this itinerary as no one else is on a set schedule, so
there’s a good possibility this could turn to a weeklong diversion instead of a way home. This all
still hangs on the success, or lack thereof, in getting through the border to Danba. At least this is
starting out as a nice auto tour through western Sichuan. I scan the river much of the way,
excellent rapids following outrageous rapids, good stuff. Land slides pose several challenges for
the overloaded minivan, but the driver negotiates the alternate plowed paths well. As we arrive
into Xiaojin, a nice looking town, the sun is shining and we all unload from the Taxi. Robert and
Mac head off to negotiate taxis for the next leg to Danba. Norm is hungry and with the help of
Zoe, he goes shopping. I stay with those remaining to watch the pile of gear. Robert and Mac
return with confirmation of two taxis for 120 RMB per car. But when everyone reconvenes and
the taxis show up, things fall apart. The two drivers are Asian versions of Michael and Tito. The
first is thin, wearing a red jacket, the glove must be in the car. The second is portly with an
innocent look always on display. They now complain that they will need to buy more oil, and the
original negotiated price is not workable, the price is now 300 a car. Five more minutes and as
many excuses, the deal has exploded to 800 a car. Robert is pissed, his tongue darts from left to
right just emerging from his clenched lips. With my nonexistent Chinese, I want to offer some
alternate negotiation tactics and throw down, but I’m already nervous about being allowed to
travel to the next town. Robert charges the group down the street towards the government
center. All right! We’re going to go report these corrupt piss-ants to the government office. It
sounds anti climatic, but I’ve been told to take this step when dealing with underhanded taxi
drivers. The alpha taxi driver pulls up alongside the group as we walk down the street, seeming
to be requesting more negotiation with Robert, but he doesn’t acknowledge him. Mac checks
with other taxis as we walk, but I get the feeling they are all local taxis only, none wanting to drive
to Danba. We meet a small group of exiles walking in the opposite direction, they’ve already
been to the government office and were told to go to the edge of town, a mile or two back the way
we came. Apparently there we should find some monitored taxis and proper arrangements. On
the way back we again see the same drivers and there is a policeman near by. They are now
more eager to cooperate, and with the help of the officer, we close the deal and board.
The drive to the border crossing is fine, but at the crossing is a long line of trucks and cars. We
all step out to stretch legs and try to see what’s happening while looking around, not straying too
far from the cars. After ten minutes, everyone is rushed back into the cars and we pass everyone
to the front of the line, finally some VIP treatment I suppose. We get out again and present our
passports to the officials. There is much back and forth between everyone in Chinese, and then
we sign a log-sheet and are on our way. We’re quite enthusiastic until we’re told this is but the
first border crossing, the Xiaojin side. The Danba side is not expected to be as easy.
 
The first border crossing on the Xiaojin side, Robert and Mac discuss the situation
Attempt to cross the boarder.

From the exchanges at the last crossing and the body language from everyone in our group,
there is a clear befriending with our taxi drivers, unexpected to say the least. It’s not terribly long
before we arrive at the crux of the drive, the Danba border. There is no line here, but that seems
like a bad omen. Cameras are put away to not draw extra attention to our purpose for traveling to
Danba. We are greeted with surprised faces, and promptly hand over our passports again. The
Chinese exchange is much more intense than before, and it’s like Norman and I have hired our
own Chinese lawyers who work pro-bono. Hell, even the taxi drivers are involved, arguing our
case. I discuss with Robert on the situation and see that he is making the key points of our
circumstance and I remind him to stress that we have prearranged transportation out of Chengdu
if we can reach there through Danba. The officials seem to be finally conceding, and start to
hand copy every page of our passports. We suggest taking pictures of our passports, but now
they are vested in the project of transcribing. Stealthy approaching, the Chilean rolls up on his
bike, talking the entire time like he is finishing a conversation with himself. He’s immediately
abrasive to the Chinese officials, but again Robert and the others help to get the same treatment
for his passage. Grumpy from his ride, he is irritated when Robert asks about his bike make and
model, I’ve concluded that as entertaining as he can sometimes be, I don’t like the Chilean. We
wrap up and depart, again saying goodbye to someone we don’t expect to see again.
The drive into Danba gets a little more exciting with rougher roads and a raging river that
accompanies us for awhile. Through more signals I explain to Mac that I kayak rivers, and a few
minutes later he is adamant about showing me one particular section of river. He gets the driver
to pull over and the other car follows suit. The river is pumping at least 10,000 cfs down a creek
that should normally have 1,000 for it’s size. We snap some photos and Mac agrees when I
signal that this is not runnable, slicing my neck with my finger.
As we pull into Danba, the town is quite lovely with great character. We scope out two different
hotels before choosing the nicer one at forty five Yuan per night. After we check in and cleanup,
we all meet in the lobby for dinner and to go make travel arrangements for me the next day. I
spot Mac’s Motorola Razor, and know immediately he almost certainly has a USB-type charger
that I can barrow for my near-dead Black Berry phone. After setting up the phone to charge, we
set out for the bus station, a short walk away. Sadly, due to the earthquake, the normal daily
schedule has been scaled back to weekends only. We find some taxi drivers willing to offer
transportation to Chengdu at a reasonable price of 600 RMB. Of course as more questions are
asked, the uncertainties arise. It is dependant on other customers sharing the ride, in which case
the fare can be split. But then the fair climbs to 2000RMB as they consider using a larger vehicle.
One of the taxi men is particularly disturbing, with this permanent smile and smug look plastered
on his face. He laughs, but the face doesn’t change. Snapping out of negotiation, Robert alerts
everyone that a line of guys stand behind us, and have been slowly encroaching. Obviously pick
pockets, perhaps working with the taxi drivers or just taking advantage of an opportunity. Smiley
laughs again, repeating the English word “pickpocket”. We quickly depart, no travel plans made.
Down the street they ask several more taxi drivers until finally Andy finds one interested in the
service. He is cross-examined by the group before they are satisfied he will likely show up to our
hotel at the arranged time in the morning, 6:15am. Uncertainty still in hand, I am getting excited
that this whole plan to reach Chengdu in time may actually fall into place.
On our walk to dinner, we pass by the apparition, the comedian, the Chilean. He’s in a tiny shop
arguing and apparently trying to get a flat tire repaired. Interestingly, no one seems to notice him,
or at least no one shows any sign of such. A wonderful and inexpensive dinner is had, with
ample amounts of píjǐu. The hotel owner visits our private dining room to offer the warning of
more aftershocks. After some of the stories of other destroyed towns, it does cause some
concern that we are staying on the forth floor. We retire to the hotel lounge as the rest of the
group makes their tourist plans for the following day. Staying in the same hotel, two reporters
from the local branch of the Xinhua news agency take much interest in our presence and we
invite them to sit with us. There is reluctance at first, everyone joking about getting paid for our
photos and story, but we eventually open up and offer some narrative.

May 15 Thursday: On the Road Again

I wake early enough to make it to the lobby by six. Having said goodbye to everyone the night
before and to Norman as I left the room, I expect to not see anyone else. Robert, Andy, and Zoe
all show up to see me off and to triple audit the taxi driver. Even the male reporter from Xinhua
shows up without a camera. The driver has three other passengers in the back seat, but they
turn out to be his sons whom he is using the opportunity to take to the big city. My friends
question the driver a little more, and take a photo of his drivers license as well as the license
plates of the car. They are really going above and beyond, and all I can do is say thank you.
We are not driving five minutes out of town when the driver seems to be nodding off at the wheel.
A few bumps in the road that he fails to avoid shakes him awake, and he turns on the radio while
lighting a cigarette. He starts, and the three sons join quietly in singing to the tune. This is
torture, but better than the driver falling asleep. I roll down my window for air. The drive through
the canyon between Danba and Kang Ding is pretty, and I marvel at the number of mining
operations through this corridor. No wonder the road here is open, the towns here are certainly
well equipped with heavy machines. We honk and buzz past three kids walking and playing on
the side of the street. To the incessant horn blowing, the tallest boy turns to attention saluting the
driver in the style of Benny Hill. We go by too fast to be sure, but I think his tongue was even
poking out the side of his mouth.
The driver’s son behind me adjusts his position, his knees kneading my back through the seat. I
consider sliding the seat forward, but that would reduce the space in front of me in the case of a
frontal crash. I’m fairly certain this cab is not equipped with air bags. He settles on a position that
greatly improves the lumbar support of the seat, I’m definitely not moving now.
At one point we are stopped for twenty minutes for what I later guess was blasting in the canyon
walls. While I stand outside, taking in the view of the nearby Colorado-sized river, I start to cough
and hack, eventually spitting out the phlegm. Then, almost in tune, the driver and one of his sons
copies my coughing fit. My god, I now suffer from the same affliction, and there is a moment of
panic when I realize my health is suffering. This country is on a run-away pollution freight train to
a health care crisis. The consistency of my lungs is now one part diesel fumes, two parts second
hand smoke. I now smoke two packs a day, and I haven’t touched a cigarette.
 
Celebrating our successful arrival to Danba. From left to right, Robert, his girlfriend, another guy, Mac, Zoe, Andy, and yours truly
Celebrating in Danba

Nine hours after departing Danba, as we arrive into Chengdu, all my past attention to directions in
the city pays off as the driver does not know where the hotel is, despite assuring us that morning
that he did know. He’s clearly irritated that it is so south of the downtown area, but brings me to
the hotel doorstep nevertheless. Short of cash I need to run inside to pick up the money that
Thomas so kindly left for me that morning. I pay the driver the agreed 800 RMB, and they leave
satisfied.
After rechecking in and picking up my held duffel bag at the concierge, I head up to my room. On
arrival I dump my bag out on the bed, chair, and coffee table. In the bottom I again find my rock
shoes, untouched on this trip. I hate dead unused weight in my pack, maybe they’ll get used next
time. I take out my camera, and flip through the photos, getting to my farewell video. I don’t play
it, I simply press erase as I said I would at the end of the video. As it turns out it was not time to
leave such a message, and I hope to never need to again.
I flip on the news, while simultaneously taking out my laptop to look for the latest information, as
well as all the old information to get the real story. Seven point nine magnitude seems to be the
consensus, centered in Wenchuan, at 2:28:01PM. Countless towns were destroyed, with
thousands still under the fallen stone. The stories of the collapsed schools are the hardest to
absorb.

May 16 Friday: Going Home

I arrive at the Chengdu airport, and are welcomed by irritating Chinese incessantly cutting the line
in front of me. I’m too lethargic to do much about it, and it only gets better when I learn my flight
has mysteriously been cancelled at the last minute. Even the Air China person who answers the
US phone line tells me the flight is indeed not cancelled. I choose to squat there at the counter
and wait. Finally they offer something. Apparently there is another flight, on the same type of
aircraft that leaves ten minutes later to the same destination, and they are looking to see if there
is room on this flight. As I stand and wait for information concerning the flight for which I am on
standby, a Canton fellow is also in the same boat, trying to get on this “alternate” flight. We talk a
bit, me using a few Chinese words, and he broken English. He helps me explain to the attendant
that I have nothing in my large wheeled duffel that is disallowed for carry-on, we are ticketed, and
given seven minutes to get through security to the gate. The kind fellow stays with me through
security again helping to move us to the front of the long line. Despite many attempts to
demonstrate the ice axe in my bag is harmless (my hand is sore for days) I do have to leave my
longtime trusty friend to be picked up by someone from our company and shipped to me. I’m
sure he understands. The quick Canton then runs ahead to the gate to hold the bus that takes us
to the jet way and we board the plane at the last minute. After reconciling what to do with my
gargantuan bag, I am seated and take off a mere five minutes late with at least a half dozen
empty seats.
Now as I’m pressed back in my seat and the aircraft accelerates to take off speed, a soothing
calm sweeps over me. It is a warm ocean swell that picks me up, and gently lowers me back to
where my toes again reach the sandy bottom. We rise above the clouds and I feel the sun’s
warmth. Knowing now that I will soon see Colleen and my two little girls, I cry.
 
The author killing time in Rilong
The author killing time in Rilong.

Epilogue

This trip has been a long series of climbs and descents for my adrenaline and emotion.
Returning home it has been interesting to find what different friends and family members want to
hear about most, and what questions they are eager to ask.
First, really, I’m fine. I cannot say there has been any notable post-traumatic stress outside of
wanting to spend more time with my family. I also now think about earthquakes a lot more, but I
don’t jump and hide under the table when a random vibration is felt.
Will I return? I’ve had this question countless times already. Of course I’ll return, it was an
earthquake not a nuclear detonation. I knowingly choose to live with my family in Southern
California, if I’m not going to return out of fear of another quake, I better sure as hell get out of So
Cal. I also like to explain that it could have easily been a reverse situation, my family, out of
reach, in a similar sized earthquake while unable to return home to them. This thought haunts
me more than any other. Also there is the compulsion to help out these people of the region
impacted by the quake. When we left for Xiaojin, there was the feeling of abandoning my new
friends. I wanted to leave all my remaining money but knew I must preserve what I had for the
journey ahead. As it was, I needed a colleague to leave part of my taxi fare from Danba to
Chengdu at the hotel. When I do return, I’ll be bringing some extra money to give to those
special folks who really made a difference.
Many want to remind me that someone or something was looking out for me. For those that want
to actually listen to my response, I ask about the tens of thousand that died. Did that someone or
something occupy all their time watching over me? What of the innocent children crushed in the
collapsed schools? I think this is a natural reaction for people, to answer the question of why
me? For me, my survival was simply an outcome of an equation with many variables. Some I
had control of, some I most certainly did not. Alone on the mountain I was the duality of the dead
and live cat in the box, and reaching the valley floor meeting the first person was the observation
that anchored me in the latter probability outcome. Like I said, for those that want to listen.
Weeks after my return to Chengdu, the road between Rilong and Chengdu is still not open.
Aftershocks still negate progress made, adding more slides. With so many areas more severely
impacted, it’s no wonder the priorities are else where. At the time the decision to attempt a trip to
Danba was quite uncertain, but now it is so obvious the proper decision. A few days after getting
home I got a message from Norman, he was in Kang Ding, and still in the thralls of this most
unique of experiences. For me, home with my family, I was glad to be done with it. Not because
I don’t relish the most spontaneous and outrageous of experiences, but because I needed my
family. To see them, to hug them, to be with them. More adventures will certainly come later …

Links to Youtube videos:

Images

Siguniang Shan is on the left, and the third girl that I was climbing is to the right

Comments


[ Post a Comment ]
Viewing: 1-6 of 6    

jordansahlsWow!

jordansahls

Voted 10/10

One of the best TR's I have read. What an experience (if that is a respectful thing to call it). Glade you made it out alive and safe.
Posted May 14, 2009 7:43 pm

EastKingNow that's a TR!!

EastKing

Voted 10/10

EXCELLENT ADVENTURE!! GREAT TR!!
Posted May 16, 2009 4:50 am

sibu1901Mountain Madness

sibu1901

Hasn't voted

thanks for sharing, hope to see you someday in Changping Gou.
Posted May 19, 2009 2:50 am

bajaandySpeachless

bajaandy

Voted 10/10

Wow. Incredible experience and well told. Glad you shared that story.
Posted May 20, 2009 12:50 am

BobKAwesome Story

BobK

Voted 10/10

Sets me on edge everytime I read it! Thanks for posting. Planning a trip to go back? Let me know.
Posted May 23, 2009 9:07 pm

cLaBountyThanks All

cLaBounty

Hasn't voted

I was hoping to get back to the area on my last trip a few months ago, but the direct road is still closed and the alternate drive puts the area out of reach for my short 4 day weekend trips.
I'm planning to hit Huashan next month to see what that area is all about. I'll be sure to post a report when I get back.
Posted May 28, 2009 2:12 pm

Viewing: 1-6 of 6