Chinese holidays are easily the worst time to travel anywhere in China; even the most remote locations swell up with sightseer and city dwellers escaping their numbing routines. I had wanted to return to Lixian ever since my trip there in March. We had run into deep snow and settled for ice climbing on the lower waterfalls of Niupeng Peak. In the meantime, Ma Yihua and Jon Otto had successfully found a route to the summit of Banji Peak, to the north east of Niupeng, and were able to claim the first ascent. I was working intently at getting my son ready to go to university in the US and thought the time better spent at home so I didn’t join them.
On Wednesday Oct. 6, I took an early flight from Shanghai to Chengdu and met up with three guides/trainers from Hong Kong: Franco, Sammy and Ricco. Turns out we have a few mutual friends in Taiwan from our climbing days there in the early 1980s. By 14:00 we were on the road headed for Dujiangyan and Lixian. The road past Dujiangyan is still under construction and traffic was miserable, packed with vacationer returning from the mountains. The normal 90 minutes from Dujiangyan to the turn-off at Wenchuan took us more than three hours and the jarring road conditions made it impossible to rest. We got into Lixian after 19:00 and met up with Jon Otto for dinner at a small restaurant overflowing with locals – as usual in Sichuan, good, spicy food at a great price. They don’t have menus; you simply go into the kitchen and begin point to what you want.
After dinner, we continued on to Bipeng Gou (Valley) and the Shanghai Zi Reception Center. Arriving after 22:00, we had to wake up the caretakers so we could get in. We slept in large tents pitched in the building, they provided thick air mattresses so the cement floor was more bearable.
Next morning was heavily overcast and before breakfast it began snowing large, moist flakes. We took 4-hour hike up into the relatively flat Bipeng Valley to help acclimatize.
It remained overcast and snowed all day obscuring all but the most fleeting views of the surrounding peaks. I stopped to take photos of YangmanTai just before the turn off to the pass to Changping Gou. The weather cleared slightly and I got a few minutes’ look at the strikingly symmetrical western face and high, hanging glacier. Has to be one of the most perfect pyramid shaped summits I’ve ever seen. Further up I was awestruck as the clouds cleared off Nuihuang Peak (The Empress). The faces were huge and not just one but 6 or 8 other impressive individual pyramids, all worthy objectives in their own right, surrounded the central peak. I don’t know if any of these walls have ever been climbed, seems like musts for a Sichuan tick list.
The locals have set up semi-permanent tents at the back of the reception center parking lot and they must have been sensing that their busy China’s national day season was at an end because when we returned, they were in the mood to let loose. Our group, along with the remaining few tourists, joined the locals who managed to produce a Karaoke system with a wireless microphone and the party was on. Once the singing stopped even the grandmothers joined in for what began as ethnic dancing but quickly turned into a full disco party right in the parking lot. Singing and dancing seems to be in their blood.
Next morning, after a long breakfast of rice porridge and boiled eggs under brilliantly sunny skies, we decided to drive down to the main road and into the adjacent valley to the west, Solou Gou. From maps it looked like there were a fewer high peaks accessible from the road and many more settlements. One rainage, Liangtai Gou, however, looked promising and we wanted to see how far up into the valleys we could drive to shorten the approach for an eventual climbing attempt. We could see the three-peaked massive at the head of the valley and reckoned it was the northwest side of the peaks that form the top of Shuangqiao Valley. Stunning looking, but they will have to wait for another day’s adventures.
Friday morning, Oct. 8, was the day of our walk up to C1. We didn’t get underway until after 11:00, but the weather was fine - sunny and not too hot. We planned to gain 900 m of elevation and set camp at 4400 m. The route was straightforward, directly up the drainage and we could see the glacier and peak from the trailhead all the way to camp. Since climbing on Banji only began this spring, there is no trail per se, and the steepness of the canyon prevented it being used to graze cattle so there were no stock-paths either. We made our way up slowly, first along the large rocks next to the stream, then into the very dense, mostly coniferous forests dripping with yesterday’s snow.
We gained altitude quickly staying to the north side of the canyon and soon found ourselves in low rhododendron forests. We battled the trees and the slick ground off and on with steep grassy hillside for about three hours before we entered into the upped valley, it consisted predominantly of talus slopes and larger boulders fields. Every once in a while we were forced back onto steep, slick grassy hillsides as well as rhododendron thickets but these gradually disappeared as we made our way up to timberline. We encountered snow just as we reached a large flat section where we would put C1. The flat was surrounded by a high, jagged ridge on the north which offered spectacular views and interesting scrambling and photo opportunities. We posed silhouetted against the sky on large flakes jutting above the ridge – might just make this year’s Christmas card.
We took it easy in the morning in order to give the HK guides time to recover. By lunch we became aware that one of them was having serious problems and would not be able to continue to C2 that day. He had a urinary infection at the start of the trip that had worsened at altitude; he was unable to urinate although he was drinking great quantities of water trying to minimize the effects of the altitude. He had been taking antibiotics but they were not working fast enough; he was in a painful daze.
We packed up camp but left behind one tent for Ma Yihua and the ailing guide and proceeded to make our way up the talus slopes of this middle basin towards the upper basin and the Banji glacier. We climbed from C1 at 4400 towards C2 at 5050; I was careful to conserve energy all the while trying to avoid slipping on the snow-covered talus. Towards the top of the basin, we worked our way left and finally up a steep slope with less snow cover on the ice and rocks. As the slope approached 60 degrees, we debated putting on crampons but decided to continue on without them but with axes for the last 100 m to the top and a comfortable bank with a great view of Niupeng’s north face. Just above this we crossed the final slopes to C2.
We dug out new platforms for our tents and we were in brewing tea for dinner just after the sun set over Bipeng Valley. Sunset was gray and there were no signs of what to expect from the weather for tomorrow. Temps stayed high all night but the high winds came up before mid-night and snow began to fall again.I fell asleep quickly and slept till 4:00 am. The morning broke clear and I knew my chance had come to summit in fine weather.
I have not had great luck climbing in this part of Sichuan, seems like it rains and snows about 70% of the time, and that I am usually traveling, not climbing, during the other 30%. We already had three days in a row of good weather and I reckoned the chances of having many more was almost zero. The last time I climbed in such nice weather here was two years ago almost to the day on the first sister of Siguniang and I got my best photos of the area on that day.
Seeing the weather was so nice, and realizing the HK guides were not going to be ready for strenuous work today, Jon suggested I climb to the top Zilantou, a young tibetan. He must have been reading my mind. We had breakfast and filled our water bottles before packing a single pack to take with us. We were underway by 8:40. It had snowed heavily through the night and all tracks were covered. I broke trail through 30 cm of new powder, sinking in to my knees for most of the way up the lower part of the glacier.
There are two steeper sections on the glacier route and if the ice below is exposed it requires short axes and front pointing. Fortunately, the new snow made footing more secure and we were able to make it up without ever roping up. Two fixed ropes had been left on these sections by an earlier party but we did not need them going up. Towards the top of the first of the two steep slopes, we stopped to put on crampons and had to struggle a bit with the ice using our long axes and front pointing to the top and out into the sun again. From here a small bridge between two large ice falls lead to the second steep sections that was about 50 meters high. Halfway up, blank green ice was exposed and a 10 m section went nearly vertical. It looked like we could climb up to this point and then traverse to our right for about 20 meters and onto a ridge leading up to the summit dome. The traverse was straightforward and although 15 cm of new snow made for more secure footing, the ice underneath was friable and you could not trust your axe and had to stay balanced. The exposure in this section was exciting; a fall probably could have been stopped before the ice falls below by a self-arrest but neither of us wanted to find out. This was the only real exposure on the entire climb.
Once on the ridge, views of Niupeng Feng opened up and to the east was the summit dome with a few open crevasses. Most of the snow had been blown off and crampons were necessary for the rest of the climb. Zilantou got bored and began sprinting up the slope front pointing for about 20 steps before having to rest for a few minutes. I thought about trying it but imagined my lungs bursting and having to wait a full 30 minutes to recover. The day was exceptional and we had plenty of time to enjoy it up there.
The winds were steady but not overpowering and soon the rounded dome ended with cornices beneath and the view I had been hunting the past year – the north face of Siguniang’s forth sister. Not a cloud in the sky and Siguniang stood out even more majestically than I had imagined. Photos speak louder than words and I had to change rolls in both cameras.
Twenty minutes on the top and we were getting chilled by the wind and decided to head down. Glissading whenever possible and stopping only to feed the fixed ropes through our repell devices, we were back in camp in 50 minutes. With the day’s work completed, we ate lunch, napped, and waited for the sun to begin setting so we could take more photos. The weather stayed brightly sunny for the remainder of the afternoon, and around 18:00, Ma Yihua and the last HK guide rolled into camp – all were in high spirits. The guide had recovered in the morning and felt fit enough to make the climb to C2 in the afternoon.
During dinner, fog moved into the valley below and filled in up around 4500 m; the sky also clouded over and the grayness dashed our hopes of great photos. We settled for what we could get, organized gear and began brewing water for dinner. Somewhere just after nightfall, the wind picked up and it felt like the temperature dropped, then snow began to fall. I slept poorly, feeling all the time I could not get enough air and often woke myself up taking in a deep breath. I had read about this condition and I tried to relax but the paranoia of thinking I was suffocating put me on edge and my sleep was unsettled.
I woke up stressed-out and once I looked at the weather I decided it might be better if I returned to Chengdu and come back another day. I need to plan more time away from work for climbing and I think 8-10 days would be about right: 3 days for acclimatization and the approach, another 5 for climbing and exploring new routes and the last two days for the walk down and the trip back to Shanghai and my other existence. The hike down was tricky and we got lost in the fog a few times. It was also very strenuous with heavy packs on descending the slippery hillsides. I was glad to reach the road where we arrange a car down. I made it to Dujiangyan by 22:00 and caught the first flight to Shanghai the next morning and was back at work before noon. Monday morning and business as usual.