A piece of cake
Suffering first class V A3 5.10
First ascent of the SW wall of the Fourth Sister in Siguniang shan by Wai Wah Yip (UK/HK) and Cosmin Andron (Romania), June 2006. +400m, aprox. 4500-5000m alt
It should have been a smooth ride. Not a walk in a park but nevertheless a smooth ride. And why not? I have been in the area three times before; I’ve worked three times before with our local contact person; we had pictures, timetable, objectives. Actually I was so certain that everything would go smooth that I even booked my flight for Romania departing the night following my return to Guangzhou. Why not? The summer holiday just started and I was planning on doing something interesting, relatively close to the beaten track, nothing too easy of course but nothing to taxing either.
I am not the superstitious kind but I should have known that something is not right as soon as I got Katia’s phone call telling me that she’s out, two days before departure, down with pneumonia. The day before departure Benjack called also, to let me know that he’s out too. The vagaries of running your own successful business I assume... I redesigned the gear list and waited for Geordie to show up from Hong Kong – of course keeping my fingers crossed that he’ll actually show up…. In the end it was to be only the two of us. Geordie (Waiwah Yip in passport) is rigger and technical manager for an adventure races company in Hong Kong (Asia Pacific Adventure). Although ethnically Chinese, Geordie was born in New Castle (hence his nickname) and he’s more English than a cup of tea.
Things were getting better every minute – a motorway congestion meant that we missed our flight. In the airport, once we got there, we realised that we booked our flight with the only company in Baiyun Airport that had no complaints service or manager on site or at least an English speaker, let alone someone partially knowledgeable enough to transfer us on a later flight: the amazing Sichuan Airlines.
We started walking towards the plane twice just to be turned back twice. The second time, against common sense and our loud protests, the clerk sent us to board with all our kit. My deepest regret is that I missed the opportunity to film the expression on the security agent’s face when our 150kgs of kit passed through the X-Ray. Indeed, we said the truth when we told them we had no nail clippers nor scissors nor paper cutters in our luggage. We had only one big knife each, two pairs of crampons, two pairs of ice axes and spare blades, pitons, ice screws and assorted garments. I keep wondering why they didn’t let us board with such a benign hand luggage…
Finally, almost 10 hours later, richly seasoned with negotiation and fights, we landed on the tarmac of Chengdu Airport. From here everything worked just as planned: the driver, which our local fixer arranged for us to pick us up, was there, waiting patiently. He took us to the hotel and we planned for the next day to go food shopping and move towards Rilong, in Siguniang shan, about 8 hours drive from Chengdu.
Under a lucky star
Next day, in the evening, when we arrived in Rilong, black clouds were looming again over our little expedition. Instead of our local contact his wife, a charming and very affable lady, who nevertheless knew little to nothing about our plans, greeted us. Her husband was in the mountains with another group of clients from Hong Kong and was due back in three days. We were graciously invited to wait, option that we could not even contemplate. With ten days in total, door to door, we could not afford to waist not even one hour, let alone three full days. This being the predicament we found ourselves in the situation to organise our own logistics, on site. The most amusing fact seemed to be that everybody was addressing Geordie, who listened actively, just to turn later and ask innocently:
What are these guys saying?
Needles to say, Cantonese doesn’t have too many speakers in Sichuan and I seemed to be the only proud bearer of a vocabulary of some sort in putonghua. Few hours later I managed to negotiate some horses for next morning, a price and an itinerary. Or so I thought… Our great logistics masterpiece was quickly turning into a marvellous act of improvisation. We sorted out our luggage, sorted some more gear and we went to bed.
At 4 am a squeaky van picked us up and took us up, towards Chanping guo where three local Tibetans were waiting for us with four horses. We unloaded the van, which swiftly disappeared into the darkness. We loaded up the horses and we confirmed the itinerary and the price before setting off. The itinerary was OK – the price however doubled! Oh – and we were also supposed to pay them for eight days, not only one day.
Of course we said NO! Of course they unloaded the horses and turned around. We were left, in a clearing in the mountain, with 150 kg of luggage, angry and helpless. I pictured myself setting up the tent and cooking barbecue for a week… No! That’s impossible. We didn’t come all this way for this to happen. We called them back. An hour later, after negotiations that resembled more a shouting match we accepted the doubled price and they accepted to be paid only for one day – the day they were actually working for us. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a victory but it got us moving.
Four hours later we stopped.
- The horses go only up to here!
- But this is not where we wanted to get to. This is not where we agreed to go to… You know?
- The horses go only up to here!
Holly heavens! Here it starts again! Desperate I looked around – we were in the middle of Chanping guo, surrounded by forests and granite walls. I called a war council with Geordie. The decision was unanimous:
- Screw the plan!
I pointed to a wall:
- Can we go there?
- The horses can’t!
- What about there? I said pointing to another wall.
- The horses can’t!
- So how far can the horses go then?
- The horses go up to here only!
- But we’re still miles away from any place we would like to get to…
- The horses go up to here only!
- And how do we get to the wall? To any wall?
- Well… let’s see. If we can agree for a price maybe we can help you with your stuff. But you know, there is no trail and we are very, very tired….
And we did agree for a price: an arm and a leg basically. For us, however, it ceased matter anymore… we were overboard with our finances for two days. A few hundreds extra mattered little by now. The only thing that mattered now was to advance. Otherwise we would lose thousands. We randomly decided on a wall, I pointed to it, we unloaded the horses, we loaded the Tibetans and we started going up.
Six hours later, in which the price we paid seemed kind of reasonable after endless bushwhacking and slab climbing, we were somewhat close to the wall.
- We go only up to here!
I was by now a veteran and used to their mantra! I had my own strategies, developed in a long day of battles. I clawed out of them another 50m elevation gain till a reasonably looking BC site, we paid them and we agreed that they’ll be back in 7 days, for the same price, to take our junk down the hill. And they were gone…
Geordie pulled out a telescope and began scooping for lines. Before the porters left they told us that our randomly chosen wall was actually the southwest face of the fourth peak of Siguniang shan – the most famous and coveted peak in the range. Our random selection didn’t land us that badly after all, and we got our hands on a plum instead of the peanut we aimed for in our initial plans.
Although knackered we picked up to backpacks of stuff and in an hour of scrambling and slogging we dumped them at the base of the wall. On the way I threw up! More than once! We were moving for 12 hours; we were at 4500m altitude and I haven’t eaten nor drank anything all day. At least we reached the wall. At last!
By the time we set off for BC the rain started. One hour later we began setting up our tent while the darkness was settling in over the hills and the rain. I threw up again. We crawled inside, wet and exhausted.
In the morning we looked again at the wall, from BC. We didn’t need to inspect it too long. The line we would try to climb was way too obvious. In the 30’s the Italian climber Comici wrote that the perfect line of a route would be the trajectory of a water drop released from the top of the wall. Such a route later became known as a diretissima. Comici accomplished his dream with his 1933 route in Cima Grande.
We have found our diretissima too. Right there, splashed in the middle of the wall, were two parallel cracks that ended in a roof, followed by a chimney and a corner and finishing in another wall fit various crack systems. Geordie was drooling over the idea of leading the crack – I wanted the roof. We agreed easily. We loaded up another burden and back up again, from BC, to the base of the wall.
I’ve done something stupid though: the day before I drank nothing. I handle thirst quite well and in general it doesn’t bother me. At altitude, however, and especially when you exercise a lot, nothing is more important than hydration! I knew this and I knew how dangerous is to ignore liquid intake! Unfortunately I didn’t practice my own preaching and because of tiredness and wanting things to be done I ignored it for a whole day. I was now in the claws of a dreadful headache and my stomach was turning inside out.
By the time we got back down to BC we found out that our local fixer and a client from Hong Kong (a climber, known to both Geordie and myself) had come up. We gave them the short version of our story, we told them that next morning we are getting up on the wall, that we’ll get down on the 8th and we sent up our fixer and the Hong Kong climber (who was very kind to lay a hand) with two big backpacks.
Near BC I found a place where my mobile phone was able to catch some fading, pale whisper of a network and with the last cry of the battery I managed to send a message to my girlfriend in Guangzhou with the details of our whereabouts, the short version of our adventure so far and our intended schedule. As soon as the message went, the battery passed out and I crawled into the tent where I did pretty much the same thing. Outside was raining heavily; I was forcing myself to drink as much as possible before falling asleep and my boots, which I forgot outside, were collecting water as well. Slowly the water was creeping into the tent as well. Forget famous brands – our North Face was thirsty. After a season on Denali with Geordie the poor tent needed a holiday and sitting out the rain in Qionglai range of Eastern Tibet wasn’t probably the best species of a holiday.
The following day, after another stuff-carrying session we jumped at the wall. Geordie’s plans of freeing the parallel cracks faded real quickly. Two hundred meters of offwidth crack is less than inspiring. After the first few meters only a number 5 Camalot was offering protection and a 4.5 some shred of hope. For the rest: nada! With all our ton of gear these two were the largest pieces of pro we bothered to bring along. Mesmerising! The progress was slow and the distance between Geordie and the last piece of pro inclined to slow down a fall was increasing steadily: 2m, 5m, 10m, 15m.
Standing in his aiders, in his no. 5 Camalot he was sliding no. 4.5 as high as he could, climbed up their etrier as fast as possible while the cam was wiggling and giggling under his weight and shove in again the no. 5, and, again, from the top… leapfrogging he whole pitch. After about 15 m the crack on the right seemed like willing to accept a blue camalot so helped by some monkey business he stuck one in there, clipped the rope in, and back again on the original crack, with the original moves.
During this entire Odyssey I was curled up on a ledge, bent by pains, every now and again belaying – every now and again throwing up. Thank you Petzl for giving us the GriGri!
That evening, after we fixed the pitch, we went down to my ledge at the base of the wall and we put up the portaledge. That was indeed a fully new experience for both of us. We had with us a Metolius/Mt. Hardwear which Geordie borrowed last minute. I never saw one before and I was used to A5s. Geordie played a bit with it in his back yard but I guess his back yard in Hong Kong looked little like a ledge at 4500m altitude in eastern Tibet… At those times we didn’t really appreciate the humour of our situation, albeit now in retrospect we both (and our stuff included) looked like crazy monkeys on a string. After an hour long battle during which Geordie’s sleeping bag fell victim and literally fell into the valley below, we managed to reach some sort of equilibrium and we fell asleep in some rather less orthodox positions.
Geordie’s hands were trashed, glorious result of his attempts to free the crack. In consequence when nature called I had to help him up with his trousers’ zip. Needles to say how close all this experience has brought us! That night the flood began!
We started the morning with a trip to recover the dropped sleeping bag. All night Geordie was shivering, covered with his and my down jacket while resting his legs on my chest. The prospect of a better night sleep was worth the effort. We sorted out some more gear and we jumped back at the wall. Geordie had one more pitch on the parallel cracks and I was feeling slightly better. In the evening, around 10 pm we began hauling up the portaledge and all the luggage to somewhere around 200 m. We finished the work and the set-up sometimes around 4am.
The next day rained so hard that we stayed in. we were surrounded by clouds with zero visibility and drowned by heavy rain. The prospects for the future didn’t looked too good. That afternoon we get a message over the radio. Our Tibetan contact was saying something in putonghua. The only things I could understand were: come down! or just maybe come! I passed the radio onto Geordie to try to find out from the Hong Kong guy, in Cantonese, what’s it all about. The only part he understood from the Cantonese version vas the same: come down!
- What the hell are they saying? What about this come down business? Are they asking us to come down or they want to go down?
- I have no idea! What do they mean by: come down! We can’t go down now! Would take us too much time and the whole climb would be compromised. We won’t have time and energy to come back up again and by the way – why the hell go down in the first place?
- Maybe something happened…
- Well, they are the support down thee. Normally, if there is anything to happen that would be with us and we would need their assistance not the other way round…
We radioed back for more details. The reception was awful. The only new word I could understand was piao.
Piao, piao… What the hell did it mean? I knew the word but I could not remember what it meant… Oh, yeah! Ticket. What ticket is he talking about? This is neither zoo nor cinema….
Then it all sinks in! He didn’t mean ticket! He meant permit!
- But I thought the permit was sorted out before our arrival…
- Should have but since our lovely porters forced us to randomly chose a rock wall to climb by refusing to carry up our stuff anymore and by a twist of fate that peak happened to be the most coveted summit in the range we find ourselves now climbing it without a valid permit.
- That’s no good!
It was no good for many reasons. Firstly it wasn’t good because by not having a permit we were putting our local contact and ourselves in a very delicate position with the Sichuan Mountaineering Association which is the tax enforcer in the area. Secondly it was bad because we could not just get down… We were not just up the wrong tree so we could hop off. We were up the wrong big wall (by permit calculations), caught up in a storm, half way up.
- Well, what shall we do?
- Down is no way! We go up and we pay the permit on the way out. There is no other way.
That night we didn’t see any lights in the BC. Nobody answered our radio. We figured out that our local guy went down to sort out the permit mess. That was great! The problem was that if anything should happen to us we were doomed. Nobody would know if any accident were to happen till it was too late. Rather gloomy and still engulfed in water and clouds we went to sleep on our little portaledge, hoping for a better tomorrow.
Tomorrow came equally wet. It was obvious the bad weather was there to stay. It was my turn to lead now. The next two 70m pitches were mine to enjoy: a crack, a roof, an overhanging chimney and an overhanging corner. The crack would have been fun if it had not been an expanding crack. The roof was fun. Up in the chimney I was thinking of Comici and his diretissima. Were he still alive I would have looked for him to break his legs! Where his drop of water was following its path now the whole family of that water drop was coming down my head, transforming the chimney into a canyon. By the time I got to the corner I was exhausted and hypothermic. By the time I finished my pitches it was dark and I was shaking like I was connected to a power outlet. I thought I saw Comici floating, riding on a cloud, but I wasn’t sure. Could have been Marco Polo just as well …
By the time Geordie got up to the belay we decided we wouldn’t stop until we finish the wall. We didn’t have plans to summit – we came for the wall and that’s what we will climb. I don’t have too many memories form the last pitches. I was too busy being hypothermic. I can remember though Geordie saying every time it was his turn:
- There’s a little bit left. 20 minutes of easy scrambling.
Sure as hell he had no idea how long we still had left and I wasn’t sure if he was lying to me or to himself… The last 20 minutes section lasted three hours and two falls. In the end, at 2:45 am on the 8th of June 2006 we were on the top of our wall, on the summit ridge, intersecting the second Japanese route. We reached our aim. Had we had one more day and a properly obtained permit we would have gone for the final ridge to the summit via the remaining bit of the Japanese route. However, in our situation the priority was: DOWN! We accomplished the route! We climbed the wall! We survived! Now we had a plane to catch in 24 hours! I had actually two planes to catch within 48 hours!
We didn’t leave much gear behind. A couple of hexes, half a dozen pegs, a couple of nuts and some slings, all in the abseil anchors. NO BOLTS!
On the way down, at some point, the ropes got stuck and Geordie began jumaring up to free them. I just finished the abseil and was resting in an intermediate belay: a hex, a yellow camalot and a blue camalot, all three in a vertical crack. Suddenly something hits me in the face. Luckily I was wearing glasses. It was the hex. Thanks to my reflexes I grabbed the ends of the abseil ropes. The camalots just popped out as well. Because of the exhaustion – we were on the move for 31 hours by then – Geordie didn’t noticed that the crack was an expando, that is a crack that under weight and pressure opens up.
The picture didn’t look happy at all. I was hanging, Cliffhanger style, off the ends of the abseil ropes, Geordie was 70m higher locked at the beginning of his abseil after he freed the jammed rope and to top it up I just dropped my radio so I could not tell him what was going on down there. Somehow I managed to tie up the ends of the ropes together and clip in my daisy. Then, to take the load off I stuck my hands in the crack and waited, jamming, till Geordie reached me. He was slightly upset that I was fooling around with the ropes when he was trying to abseil – I wanted to smack him but my hands were busy jamming…
The imminence of the disaster woke us up. We decided to check up everything twice even if that meant taking twice as much time to get down. The haulbag took a flight to the valley off the last lower off section and Geordie’s last abseil was a off some pegs stuck in mud but we somehow managed to get all our stuff down and be back in BC by 6pm.
The Tibetan porters were there as agreed but our fixer, and his Hong Kong companion were missing. By the time we broke the camp down it was already dark. We had to throw in some more money so the porters would agree to go at night and we started going down. We were walking like zombies. We had only one working torch by this stage (mine being somewhere in the bottom of the haulbag). We lost the trail in the early stages of the hike down and probably the good direction at least an hour earlier. Instead of three porters as agreed, we had only two so we both ended up loaded like mules. At some point I managed to fly over a cliff, through some bushes and small trees and I ended up in a stream. The good news: since I was kind of behind and I’ve lost the others and I was torch-less it was a relief to find myself on the stream down the damn hill… The bad news: I busted horribly my knee that came out of joint and I had to knock back in.
By 3am we arrived at some hut. We were expecting to have reached the horses and carry on to Rilong where the meeting with our driver back to Chengdu airport, where we were supposed to arrive before 1pm, was long overdue. Our porters, however, decided they were tired and they won’t move till 8am. The end of story! That meant we would certainly miss our flight to Guangzhou and maybe I would also miss my flight for Romania. Nothing seemed to be able to make them move.
At 4am we heard noise outside the hut. Our local contact busted in, followed by another guy. After an hour of shouting and negotiations our porter brought the horses and started moving. What happened was that indeed, as we thought, he returned to Rilong to sort out the permit mix-up and luckily in that last sms message I sent to my girlfriend in Guangzhou I mentioned the names of our porters. When she saw that I did not contacted her at a time when I was supposed to be on the way back to Chengdu she called our local contact to enquire about our fate. Since the guy had no idea where we were providing him with the name of our porters brought him on time at our door just in time to save the day. At 6am we were in Rilong where we paid the permit fees and a hefty fine – all in total 2400RMB. On the way there every time I stumbled and fell over I would fall asleep. Geordie the same. We were on the move, with no rest for 46 hours. When we were loading up the car we noticed that our porters lost some of our gear: one Beal Ice line and a hammer of mine, Geordie’s boots, iPod and his solar charger. The damage was around few thousands RMB. Nevertheless we had no strength left to do anything. We crawled into the car, glad to be on our way out, and we instantly fell asleep, totally knackered. Our driver managed to drive the 8 hours route to the airport in 6 hours and we arrived at the ticketing office in the last minute. We were the last people at the check in and the last people to board the plane.
In the Air
We were looking awful – full of mud, wearing winter boots and down jackets, smelling like a sewer and with hands covered in blood. The flight attendant showed us to our places. Nothing could go wrong from now on we thought. We were almost at home. Alas a last mix up caught up with us: there was a mistake at the ticketing and we landed in first class seats! Finally a mix up that worked for us for a change and which we thoroughly enjoyed for two hours to the utter repulsion of our clean-trimmed-suit-wearing fellow passengers.
Note about the route and the mountain
Siguniang shan is a chain comprising four main peaks, the highest of them reaching 6250m. The first ascent of this peak happened in 1981 by a Japanese team following the southeast ridge. The ascent lasted for 16 days and the Japanese used 2000m of fixed ropes.
The second ascent is again a Japanese one and happens in 1992 following the southwest ridge. The siege lasted 23 days and they used 600m of fixed ropes.
In 1997 the American climber Charlie Fowler climbs solo, in three days, a variation of the first Japanese route.
In 2002 the British climbers Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden climb the northwest face following a 1500m ice line to the top and spending five days on the wall. Their climb was awarded with the prestigious prize Piolet d’Or.
2004 sees the fifth ascent of the peak when a Chengdu based company run by an American climber, Jonathan Otto, manages to put up on the summit the first Chinese team of climbers.
Our route is a diretissima of the southwest wall on the same valley as the Fowler-Ramsden route. Our final point meets the 1992 Japanese route on the south ridge. We did not summit.
The grade we proposed is V A3 5.10 (possibly 5.12) and it is purely subjective. Having with us better-sized camalots and more of them might have reduced drastically the fall factors we were looking at in the first two pitches. The rest stays the same. Although we spent more time on the wall we appreciated the grade as being a fair V because I am convinced that we could have climbed it faster with no extra effort if the state of my health would not have slowed us down during the first couple of days.
All in all they were some fun days out for sure!
While am working on uploading some pictures on Summitpost you can check them out here:
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