Altunshan, or 阿尔金山 (a-er-jin-shan), is the highest mountain in China's Gansu province. Altunshan is also the name of the range which stretches west well into Xinjiang. The mountain is surrounded by the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts and is therefore very dry. The ancient trade route commonly known as the 'Silk Road' follows a path just north of the range. One of the larger trading outposts, Dunhuang, is still an important city and provides the easiest access to the mountain. Dunhuang is also well known for the nearby Mogao Caves where the world's oldest printed books were discovered in the early 1900's. While most of the ancient books and texts were carried off to Europe, America and Russia the caves and sculptures are still a major tourist draw and feature some of the best Buddhist art and uniquely demonstrate the assimilation of Buddhism into mainstream Chinese culture which happened over many centuries.
Dunhuang is the most convenient city to start an expedition. There is a major airport with almost daily flights to Shanghai, Beijing and several other major Chinese cities. There are large supermarkets and even a few small outfitters that sell gas canisters. Dunhuang is a couple hundred kilometers north of the mountain. The main highway that connects Dunhuang to Golmud (Qinghai province) goes over a high pass of the Altunshan range at around 3700m before descending to the south of the range. The highway passes within about 40km of the main peak. There is a dirt access road that services base camp however this can only be driven by high clearance or 4x4 vehicles. The base camp, ~4600m, has no permanent structures and no running water (at least during my stay, Oct 2015). Driving from Dunhuang to the base should take around 4-5 hours.
From the south there are two main approach valleys. We chose the more southeastern one. The valley climbs to a headwall at about 5200m where you can get on a glacier for the final climb. Alternatively there are a couple steep ridges bare of snow or ice gullies that can be followed to the summit. The southwestern approach has much more snow. The glacier can be gained at about 4700m, nearly reaching the base camp. Climbing from the north would be much more involved.
When to Climb
From my experience, early October is a good time to climb. The weather was generally stable (cold, light winds) although a cold front did bring extremely strong winds on our first night.
Camp anywhere that is flat.
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