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Escape from Sichuan
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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: 3985 

Page Score: 86.37%  - 22 Votes 

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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
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
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
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
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

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
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.

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.

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.
"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