Taking an afternoon flight to Chengdu from Shanghai, I was anxious to get back into the mountains but kept wondering if the long journey to the foot of the Four Sisters area was worth all the time and hassle. This was my first trip in China since returning from the States earlier this month and I had done some climbing near my home in Albuquerque, but more inportantly, I had been able to take long bike rides up the Crest or along the western foothills leaving from my front door. In Shanghai I am reluctant to train out doors because of the poor air quality, and I rarely feel up to the one-to-two hour drive to get into more interesting terrain like the hillside terraces outside of Hangzhou or the mountains of Nanjing.
I keep trying to work it out in my mind, where I need to live in China so I can have an active outdoor lifestyle and still earn enough put my kids through school and not sabatoge my career. Guilin/Yangshuo, Urumqi, Beijing, Chengdu, Kunming, Zhongdian? Probably the only place to make it work would be Beijing, but then there is the traffic and air pollution and hectic pace of life. At least I am settled in Shanghai and the family can run on autopilot for months at a time while I am away. Not sure I'll find the answer, but if I keep taking these trips, something will have to change.
I arrive in Chengdu at 4 pm well rested because I booked the flight at the last minute and the only tickets they had left were in first class. This is a constant problem because of my unpredictable schedule at work. I take a 30 minute taxi ride to a local guide's flat in Chengdu and after catching up over a fish fire pot for dinner, I crash on his couch after setting my alarm for 5 am. I want to get to the Cha Dian bus station for the earliest bus to Rilong - it leaves at 6:30, the station opens at 6:00.
The bus is full of locals returning home to Xiao Jin, I doze off and wake up just past Dujiangyan where the road gets rough because a new, elevated road is being constructed and the road below has been neglected and torn-up by the heavy construction vehicles. This lasts for another hour before the jarring stops and we are on clear roads and make the turnoff towards Siguniang. Going straight would take us to Jiuzaigou, a popular tourist destination, or through Lixian and onward to Ganzizhou and the Tibetan border.
I have come this way three times now: the first time I rented a jeep and driver, the second time was on the Oct. 1 holiday and a group of young people chartered a bus. This time I wanted to try the public bus just to see what it was like. It turned out to be worth the RMB50 ticket and it got me there just after noon; this was all I needed.
Coming from sea level, I am always worried about acclimating before setting off into the hills. Usually, I take the bus ride up Shuangqiao Gou and hike till late in the afternoon, but today I decide to hang out with a local guide, Ma Guobin, and find out what has been going on in town since my last visit one year ago. He tells me the winter climbing scene has grown considerably, but that the management company responsible for Shuangqiao Gou has been charging a climbing fee in winter and many climbers are looking in other canyons for new routes. There were over 30 foreign climbers up here at one point. I tell him I plan to make it here this winter.
Climbing the 1st through 3rd Sister has also seen an increase this year and Ma has guided many trips, his business seems good, his income stable. Last year I came to climb a new route on the 3rd sister with him but the night I arrived a storm moved in and dumped 10 cm of snow on Rilong village, at 3000 m, Early the next morning someone came in after receiving a cellphone call from a party that was stuck at C1 after having climbed the peak (3rd) the day before. There were 8 people from Guizhou who said they could not find their way down and doubted that all the members in their party could make it down on their own.
Together with 5 locals, I put some basic gear together and hiked from the trailhead at 3300m up to their camp at 4700 m in 4 hours on slick trails and the snow covered rocks. 30cm of new snow had fallen in the night and the upper portions of the peaks remained shrouded in fog the entire day. We were able to lead the party down and the last climber stumbled into Rilong at 9:00 pm. We were beat from the long day and this, together with the new snow, put an end to my climbing ambitions for this trip. I drove back to Chengdu the next day before catching a monring flight to Shanghai and my day job the next day.
This time my prospects looked much better. The weather was not totally settled and we had a brief rain shower at around 8:00 pm but the skies were clear after we walked out tof Ma's family restaurant around 9:30 pm. When in Rilong, I always stay at Ma Guobin's hostle and now I can even take a shower at his family's other hotel down the road. I'm not sure of the price, but I guess it is between RMB20 and RMB40 per night. Nothing fancy, but all I need while I'm there and his family takes care to look after whatever gear I leave behind during my climbs.
We had decided over dinner to use one horse to carry our heavy gear to BC at 4550 m and that the two of us would climb the 3rd peak the next morning via the south-east ridge. We didn't need to get too early a start although Ma did mentioned the we would have to start before 5:00 am if I wanted to avoid paying the RMB60 park entrance fee. The extra sleep seems worth the price.
The next morning we got underway just after 9:30. The trail up was steep but dry because these had been little rain in the past two days. We made good time and were at camp by 2:00 pm. The skies were clear all morning, but were beginning to become overcast. I took a brief nap, feeling an altitude headache coming on and woke up an hour later to the sound of large hail crystals on the tent fly. The ground was covered with a few inches of hail by the time it stopped at 4:00 pm but the sky cleared again and we hiked over to the next basin to get a view of the 4th sister 6200m. The hike was well worth it and we were able to take good photos of the entire south face in fading light.. Not long after the sun set over the Celestial Peak, a shaft of light came through a pass and hit the the main peak and turned the surrounding mist a spectacular red. I cursed my old, manual camera for running out of film just at this time and could not reload before the light show was over.
More importantly, we get a clear view of the route we want to climb in the morning. We will traverse around the basin leading to the col between the 2nd and 3rd peaks to the usual C1. From here we go directly up the snow fields leading to the col at 5000m before gaining the ridge line which we will follow north to the summit. The rock in the entire basin and on the peak are all clear of any snow and if the weather holds we can expect fine climbing with great views waiting for us on the summit ridges..
Base camp is in a high glacial basin beneath the 2nd sister and camp spots out of the wind are hard to come by. We were the only tents there and took the best sites in a small indentation with some grass to soften our beds. Water is plentiful from small springs, but there are also yaks in the area and the area is full of shit. The locals did not seem to think this was a problem but I regretted leaving my Catadyn at the hotel.
The skies stayed clear through dinner and we turned in somewhere around 9:00 pm. Frost covered the inside of my tent when I got up just past mid-night for a recycle break and I slept easily afterwards until I had to get up again around 3:00 am when I notices the temperature in the tent was much higher and the frost was gone. As expected, the sky was beginning to cloud over, I wondered what the next morning would bring and hoped any precipitaion would be brief.
We get up to low fog with heavy snow flakes beginning to fall. We boiled water in the predawn darkness but decided to wait until it got lighter to set off because the first hour of the climb was the traverse over sharp sedimentary large scree that we knew would be slippery.
As we made the traverse to the base of the col, the snow continued and by the time we made the bottom of the snow fields, about 90 minutes after we set off, 8 cm of new snow had accumulated, we knew our prospects for making the summit toady were not good.
We continued up the lower snow field to the exposed rock bands in the center and began climbing up the snowcovered scree till we came to 40 degree rock that had been covered with wet snow that was freezing into a thin ice layer. We knew that the higher we went the lower the temps would fall and the more ice we could expect. So, even thought there were no winds to speak of, we still did not want to make an attempt on the long exposed ridge from the col at 5050 m to the summit and decided to turn around at 4955 m.
So much for my second attempt. I would be less dissappointed if it wasn't such a pain to arrange time off and the logistice to travel to the area. Lliving in Shanghai does not allow me to take advantage of a clearing in the weather and working a day job does not allow me to take the time off to wait out a storm to have a go as soon as conditions permit. Must do something about this.
We walked back to BC, packed up and walked the rest of the way out by 3:00pm and after booking a seat on the first bus to Chengdu the next morning, we dried out our gear in the afternoon sun. Ma's hostle has a good view of the 1st and 2nd sisters but they did not clear off for the rest of the day. We ate dinner with Ma's brother-in-law and afterwards had a few rounds of beer before I turned in. Ma, having just got paid, went out with friends and did not return till early the next morning to see me off on the bus. We had a brief view of some of the lower peaks as we left Rilong but the pull of the mountain has only increased and I am making plans to go back again.
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