Banji peak was the first mountaineering peak to be climbed in the Bipeng Valley and is usually climbed from the west via the drainage that flows out just below Shanghaizi. I had climbed Banji in October 2004 via the west route under clear blue skies and low humidity allowing for stunning views and photos of the peaks in the upper reaches of Bipeng Valley. One of the most impressive peaks was Banji North and I was determined to come back and climb again because the possibility for first ascents on classic alpine routes was nearly unlimited.
Driving up to the Bipeng Reception Center you cannot help but be impressed by Banji North’s huge north wall that dominates the southern skyline. Banji North is connected via a knife-edge ridge to the main summit of Banji and from the first time I was able to photograph the peaks I began to dream about traversing the jagged skyline between the summits.
I photographed the peak from the road that day and was impressed by what look liked a classic alpine north face. I estimated the overall height of the face at between 600 and 800 m. The wall begins between 4400 and 4600m and the summit is shown on Chinese topographic maps at above 5400M The face is criss-crossed with snow runnels, which I assumed covered permanent ice; there is a large, hanging glacier protruding over the peak’s west shoulder. Although it is difficult to accurately estimate the overall angle of the rock, I knew from climbing on the south side of Banji that, at that elevation, we could expect to find well-consolidated granite walls with little rock fall and safe climbing.
After convincing a few fellow Summitposters from Guangzhou and Hong Kong that Banji North was a worthy objective for our limited Chinese New Year holidays, we began planning seriously. By mid-November, plans were well underway for the first winter ascent of Banji North’s beckoning north face.
I had met up with this group of climbers the year before for some ice climbing in Siguniang’s Shuangqiao Gou. There were a number of mountaineers in the group and we talked about climbing some of Sichuan’s more technical peaks together. We stayed in touch and when talk turned winter climbs for this year’s CNY, I introduced Bipeng Valley and the north face of Banji North. The photos were compelling and we all liked the idea of an entirely new peak in an area that no one had climbed in before. The peak would be a formidable alpine challenge and we immediately focused our planning on Banji North.
What started as a team of four and some base camp support soon dwindled to a team of two and one guide from Rilong who would help us arrange things in Bipeng and go with us to base camp. Our team: Cosmin Andron from Romania and Bob Keaty of the USA. Cosmin and I had iced climbed together last year and also met in Yangshuo during the year for rockclimbing. More recently, we climbed together over western New Year in Krabi, Thailand in preparation for this trip. Cosmin, in addition to being 20 years younger, was also the more experienced and stronger technical climber and would be leading most of the difficult pitches.
I had returned to mountaineering a few years ago after a16 years hiatus for family and career and had slowly gotten back into shape over the past three years. I climbed regularly indoors in Shanghai and took long weekend trips to Yangshuo for sport and traditional climbing whenever my travel schedule, and my wife, allowed. Since November, I began tailoring my workouts to mountaineering by climbing in heavy boots while carrying a 15kg pack. When it was not crowded at the climbing gym, I taped the picks of my ice axes and dry tooled up as many routes as I could. I climbed some icefalls outside of Beijing after the Jan 1 holiday, leading a few pitches of WI3 /4, and sorted out my equipment while reacquainting myself with the cold world of winter climbing. By mid-January I was feeling strong and getting excited about being back in the isolated mountains of Sichuan.
Cosmin flew in from Guangzhou and we met at Sam’s Guesthouse in Chengdu on a Friday night, a two star hotel without amenities and not enough hot water for a good shower - but at RMB100/night we couldn’t complain. We met up with He Sange, a guide from Rilong we had used for ice climbing in Shuangqiao, early the next morning. He arranged a van to Shanghaizi in Bipeng Valley for RMB 800 and after stopping at Metro for our food and final supplies, we were on the road to Lixian before noon, Saturday, January 21st.
Now that they have completed the elevated highway beyond Dujiangyan, the road to Lixian is much better. The last time I came through the valley the dam had not been completed and the road below was washed out and potholed from the heavy construction equipment. This time we traveled on the smooth surface of the upper road past the reservoir now filled in behind the dam and the jarring bumps and long traffic jams of all previous trips seemed like a old, bad dream. We talked and dozed off, enjoying the last of the mild weather we would experience for a couple of weeks.
The road towards Lixian continues on straight past the turn-off to Rilong along the Cagunao River. A number of ancient Tibetan and Qiang settlements dotted the valley and He Sange told us stories of how the Han Chinese had made peace with the people in the valley and used their forts to protect China’s western border. The further we got from Chengdu, the lower the temperatures fell and the more the dry winds picked up. It was getting dark by the time we got to Lixian but we decided to continue on to Bipeng Valley for dinner because the driver was driving back towards Chengdu that night.
By the time we got to the entrance gate at the bottom of the Bipeng Gou Scenic Development Area, the staff had gone home and we waited 30 minutes to find someone who could register us and collect our RMB30 entrance fees. 30 minutes later, we were at the reception center looking for a place to spend the night but were told that accommodations at Shanghaizi might be more comfortable because the caretakers there had opened guest rooms complete with beds.
We drove on icy roads up to Shanghaizi and unloaded our gear. Inside, the caretaker’s wife prepared a meal of wild mushrooms and dried meat that we woofed down with rice and tea. Tired from the long day of travel and also feeling the altitude, the hut was at 3600m and both of us had come from sea level, we needed to sleep.
The guest rooms were like iceboxes - without heat and sheltered from the sun’s rays for the entire day. It felt much colder than the -10 C thermostat reading. We pulled heavy blankets over our heads and started getting used to winter weather. I slept reasonably well for my first day at altitude but Cosmin was having an altogether different experience. Just as last year, he had eaten the local mushrooms and they upset his system. He was in pain and did not get out of bed the next day. It would take him a full day to recover and we named our first waterfall climb after the event – Evil Mogu (Chinese for mushroom) WI3+ (100m).
After a day of climbing water falls in the canyon I proposed we try a 2-day climb up the west side of Nuipeng Peak. This would give us good information about the ice and rock conditions above, and also more time to acclimate and to gage our ascent rate on ice, the upper talus slopes and the final 250m-summit rock massive. Cosmin was more focused on Banji North and wanted to save strength for the north face and not hamper our chances for success. We began making preparations, arranging porters to carry our gear to base camp and transportation to the trailhead.
The day before we were to get started, Jan 25th, we decided to drive down to Lixain for one night’s sleep in a warm room, a hot shower and a proper meal. We hired a van to bring us down and pick us up again at 7:30, before the sun came up. We checked into the best hotel in town only to find the rooms very drafty and impossible to heat and, more disappointing, no hot showers! We did manage a big meal and found an internet café to check in at and to send a few e-mails. We wrote in our journals and were in bed by mid-night.
Right on time, the driver started honking the horn around 7:20 am and we dragged ourselves and our gear downstairs and into the van. Within an hour we were back at the reception center and by 9:00 am we met up with the porters at the trailhead. We quickly sorted gear and the two porters were underway with 25kg packs, Cosmin and I carried light packs wanting to arrive fresh at the base of the wall.
On the Trail
The trailhead is unmarked, but you can see the canyon below Banji North and easily find where the drainage flows into the creek below. A small, flimsy footbridge led us over the creek to a well-cut trail that starts steeply upward into a bamboo grove. The trail up the canyon is obvious and was cut out of the forest by cowherds to take their cows and yaks to high pastures for summer. The trail is too steep and narrow for horses. It continued up the canyon at a comfortable ascent angle and after two hours we arrived at the rhododendron thickets where the trail steepened. Rhododendron groves can be impenetrable and frustrating and these would have been impassable without a trail. Nearing the top of the trail to the lower basin, the trail moved into the middle of the drainage and in places turned to blank ice and we proceeded carefully not wanting our porters to get injured. By 3:00 pm, and under sunny skies, we arrived at base camp and put up our tents at the northern lip of the basin near an earth mound that reflected heat back. Base camp was on a frozen marsh and we spread out grass below the tents and made a very comfortable campsite.
The sight of Banji North’s giant north face looming ominously overhead dominated BC. We estimated the height of the wall at between 600 and 800 m. According to Chinese maps, the actual summit spire reaches to over 5400m. That afternoon we hiked across the large lower basin to get a better look at the approach and possible lines up the wall. One thing was obvious; we had underestimated the size of the upper basin and also the depth of the snow at the base of the wall, which now looked to cut off our approach to the center line we had imagined.
Once the sun reached camp on the 3rd morning, Jan 28th, we put a rack together and packed up our gear and a tent. The rack we choose was smaller than originally planned consisting of 8 Camalots ((2x0.5; 2x0.75; 2x1; 2x2), a set of BD stoppers, 10 pitons (knifeblades, angles and bugaboos), 4 ice screws and 6 Neutrino quickdraws. It could have been even smaller as we did not need ice protection. We carried each a down sleeping bag, a bivy bag and a belay down jacket, one MSR stove and fuel, one pot and GUs and powerbars for food. With He Sange’s help we carried the kit up to the lip of the upper basin hiking next to the light blue icefall streaming downward. The carry took only three hours, but the going was slow on loose and treacherous, snow-covered talus. Once over the lip, the size of the huge upper basin surprised us - we still had a long hike to the base of the wall. We pitched our tent near the north lip on a large flat boulder tying everything down to large rocks. Hiking further into the basin to try to examine possible lines, we were disappointed that the base of the wall was covered with deep, powdery snow with a thin layer of crust. We knew there was no way to hike through the deep powder over steep rock slabs to the center of the wall.
Hiking around to the waterfall on the east and traversing back towards the middle seemed like a good option, but once we were deeper in the basin we saw that this led to the bottom of a nearly vertical glacier with long sections of blank green ice. Our only option was to get onto the wall further to the right and then to try and traverse back towards the center.
The entire wall was crossed with snow-covered ramps and strangely shaped snow patches interspersed with steeper sections of blank rock. From the middle of the base a ramp led upwards towards the right before crossing another large ramp at a spot we called the ‘X’. From here it appeared there were a few pitches of rock with crack systems that took us to another snow patch shaped like a dragon. Climbing to the top of the dragon would put up in a line leading all the way up to an exit ramp towards the ridgeline on the left just beneath the summit spire. The crux of the route would be getting into the central line, a series of short walls and small bowls between the larger walls on either side. With the approach to the center ramp blocked by sugary snow, we would start on the right-hand side, scale the lower tower and then try to traverse back to the left.
We got in our tent early that night and spent a few hours drying our gear and eating our last normal meal. We brought gels and power bars and planned to eat them exclusively while on the wall but the strategy did not work as we were already beginning to get sick of the “space food”. A dreamy sleep came early and before long the clear sky lightened and we were packed and we set off for the climb at 10:00 am. The going over the snow-covered talus was even more dangerous in the upper basin and the going was, once again, slow and strenuous. It took a few hours before we found ourselves near the base of the wall and unable to continue without a rope. We said good-bye to He Sange and geared up to begin the climb. Cosmin would lead all of the technical pitches carrying a lighter pack and I followed with a heavier one; he set off on the first pitch just after noon.
The first pitch led first past some low angle rock before crossing a final snow- field to the base of the rock. A few cams and stoppers were needed to protect the pitch; the snow was loose on the rock slab beneath and I follow wearing crampons. I was unsure about climbing at altitude with a 12kg pack but I took a wait-and-see attitude and tried to climb within my comfort range, not hurrying or pushing myself too much. We tried to make the pitches as long as possible to limit the number of belays and all but the last two were around 50m.
The second belay was on a narrow ledge a few meters above the snow at the base of the wall and protected by two cams and a piton driven in between rock and frozen mud. The second pitch started out traversing to the left, towards the center of the wall, and there were many cracks for solid cam placements. The rock itself had much moss growing on it, especially in the cracks. We dry tooled most of the climb and Cosmin spent a lot of time cleaning out the cracks, pulling out the dry moss to enable clean cam placements. Belaying below, I saw a nearly constant stream of dry moss floating down from above. The rock itself was solid with relatively few features although the less steep sections were covered in frozen mud.
Two solid cams protected the belay and the climb continued straight up a clean, parallel-sided crack that was impossible to get a foothold in with our mountaineering boots. After a few unsuccessful attempts, Cosmin clipped a long sling to a green cam for a foothold – it was the only aid we used on the entire route. The crack lead straight upward to a large flake with solid pick placements that required some hard pulling. I was really breathing hard when I got on top of the flake and moved over left onto more moderate climbing and the next belay station.
By the time I arrived at this third belay station, the sun was already off the basins below and we changed over quickly to get in one more pitch before nightfall. The third pitch led off to the left crossing two snowfields and a rock rib to the base of a vertical dihedral crack system. We stamped out a small ledge on top of the snow chute at the base of the dihedral and settled in for a reasonably comfortable, sitting bivouac just wide enough for the two of us plus our MSR stove. In over 30 years of climbing, this was my most extreme bivouac and Cosmin had to give instructions for getting in and out of our bags: first secure all gear, than put your pad and sleeping bag inside your bivy bag, take off boots while the other person holds your bag and then crawl in and slowly straighten everything out and pull your bag over your head. Then it is the others person’s turn and in the morning the entire routine is repeated in reverse. It took me several minutes to catch my breath and calm down both body and mind and soon I was relaxed, if not exactly comfortable.
It was well past dark by the time we got settled in and began brewing water for an evening drink. We took pictures and talked well into the night. As far as bivys go, this one was not too bad. We made a ledge in the snow about 40cm deep and wide enough for both of us, our feet hanging over the edge onto the snow and emptiness below. We stayed tied into our harnesses and felt them pull tight on our thighs when we slid towards the end of the ledge before pushing ourselves back. I manage a few hours of sleep once my mind quieted down and dreams took over.
As the sky slowly lightened out to the north in front of us, we could clearly see Outaiji, a magnificent lone peak near Heishui, in the distance as well as spectacular peaks with high icefalls splitting blank rock walls leading to their summits off to the east, probably in Tazi Valley. There is no shortage of stunning peaks in this area; most of which have never been explored or even named, and none have been climbed. The only difference between these peaks and the famous ones in Europe and the Americas is a climbing history and legends. Once climbers start putting up route on these peaks I believe they will be recognized as classic, beautiful climbs in their own right. The peaks are also becoming more accessible. A plane ride to Chengdu followed by a 5-hour drive into the canyons and you are near the base of many incredible giants waiting for new lines. The rock quality is great and the avalanche danger relatively low and accommodations are getting more comfortable every year.
The temperature was –6 C and there was a bit of wind in the early hours making it feel much colder. After brewing we reversed the bivy process and soon we were packed-up and ready for day two. Today’s line was obvious, straight up a dihedral with good cracks for gear placements and dry tools but very steep and eventually overhanging. Cosmin started off quickly and the stream of dry moss continues but after about 30m he slows down and I hear very little from him. I chose to climb in plastic boots because I was worried about my leather ones being tight and cold. I knew they would make the rock sections more difficult, but I was afraid of freezing toes at belays. (Cosmin and I both came away from the climb with some minor frostbite on our toes, probably from not being able to fully dry our boots out after the approach.) It seemed like a good decision standing there as the pitch took 3 hours to complete. Halfway up, Cosmin had to take off his pack to complete a few 6a moves past the overhanging section. When I arrived at his pack, I also tied off my pack and finished the pitch ascending with a Tibloc to save time.
The pitch brought us to the top of a tower and great views of the peaks above and the vertical glacier off to the east. We brewed water and rested before setting out on the 5th pitch. It was after 5:00 pm when Cosmin started up and I was unsure about continuing knowing we would be benighted again and not knowing if we would find a good bivy above. I argued caution, but Cosmin was set on getting past the next section.
From a solid belay at the top of the tower, the next pitch lead up a low angle snow slope made difficult by the slab beneath and impossible to protect. Past the snow and into a muddy gully, the rock became less featured. The moss-free, light gray rock was identical to rock in the center lines leading to the top of the face - cracks became smaller and fewer. Climbing without a pack, Cosmin placed marginal gear and soon found himself run-out on questionable pitons and unable to get in stoppers or cams. He climbed with a tool in one hand, hooking – the other hand, gloveless, crimping – M4. He moved slowly upward as the gully narrowed and steepened and the protection got better. He built an adequate belay station below a series of roof problems just as the moonless sky warned of nightfall. As darkness closed in, I followed the pitch and cleaned the marginal pins and a few cams and then began hauling packs. With no place to bivy, we had one more pitch before we could call it a day.
We climbed the 6th pitch with headlamps, first traversing back around to the right and then up a snowfield into a less intimidating crack system we would climb to the top in the morning. For the second night in a row, we stamped out a small ledge, which kept crumbling throughout the night, on top of the snowfield and crawled in our bags. We were tired from a long day but both of us spent an uncomfortable night doubled over leaning forward on slings around our shoulders trying to rest. No matter what we tried it was impossible to get comfortable; neither of us slept much. We moved and shifted all night and looked at our watches ever 30 minutes waiting for morning to come. We were not cold, not even hungry or thirsty, and sleep seemed less important than just getting comfortable enough to relax and stop the dialog in our minds for a few hours.
Finally, in the distance, the sky started lightening and brought a colorful sunrise. The day started windy. We were in no hurry to get moving but eventually got packed, fed and ready to climb by 10:00 am. Not knowing where the climb up the overhanging dihedral led, we decided to climb without packs. We each took one ice hammer and climbed without crampons. The final pitch was difficult just above the bivy, but once past the first 10m the angle lessened and soon we were at the top of the tower; just beyond was one of the wide snow ramps we had seen from the base. We were a hundred meters to the right of the ‘X’ and could clearly see the dragon still higher up leading to the line to the bowls and the top. The rock above and in the center of the wall was light gray with very little moss and appeared slabby and blank. No matter, it was more than we could bite off on this attempt; it would require more aid gear and food and fuel for at least 3 more days. We decided to call this our high point and began building an anchor to rappel back down Banji North.
We used slings around boulders for the anchor and were soon down to our packs and beyond. The second rappel, also using slings on solid flakes brought us to the top of the tower from the day before. Wasting no time, we used v-thread cord and were soon down the dihedral crack to our fist bivy site. Rappelling with my pack was awkward and strenuous and I should have backed-up my rappel with an autoblock but instead I used two locking biners on my reverso to increase friction and bare hands to give me more control. Three more raps and we were standing on reasonably stable snow at the base of the climb. We repacked most of our gear and ropes in our packs and set off back down the talus slope of the upper basin towards ABC and a well-deserved rest.
We had done it! Put up the first line on Banji North. For now we wanted to get back to base camp before dark and had no time to celebrate. Personally, I had realized my dream of returning to alpine climbing at a higher level in my adopted ‘home’ mountain range in Sichuan and we had put up an alpine FA on an isolated, big north wall. We may have completed only one third of the wall, but I knew I was on the right track as my thoughts immediately turned to planning my next trip to finish the summit and traverse the upper ridge to Banji Peak. It’s a sick sport really! Cosmin and I had climbed, and communicated, well together and gotten down safely. We enjoyed the views of the wall and the vertical glacier in the upper basin one last time: satisfied, but tired and hungry.
We packed up ABC and carried our gear back to BC. On the way down, Cosmin proposed we name the climb Transylvania Avenue after his homeland and also because I told him I had been warned about climbing with ‘crazy eastern Europeans’. Seemed fitting, especially since he had led the climb. I decided to spend the night there and carry a heavy load down the next morning; Cosmin walk out with He Sange that evening with a lighter pack. They did not reach the reception center till after mid-night while I was asleep by 9:00 pm dreaming comfortably on the soft marsh grasses.
I hiked down with he Sange in the morning and we immediately arranged a van to take us back to Chengdu. We spent a few hours in a nearby sauna; we hadn’t showered for two weeks, and did not sleep much because we both had early flights to catch the next morning. We said triumphant goodbyes at the airport and soon I was on a plan headed back to Shanghai – it seems millions of miles away from our high bivys on Banji North.