aka The Adventures of Team Junk Show
We weren’t feeling the best with scratchy throats and running noses. Grating coughs escaped everyone’s lips at some point. Our Tibetan hosts noticed and brewed up a ginger-and-honey home remedy: jiāng chá. We loved it, but couldn’t quite get the pronunciation right, so started calling it “Junk Show.” The moniker stuck amongst us, even though we did eventually get the proper pronunciation mostly right.
Of course, the whole adventure started very differently. The e-mail came in a few days before Christmas …blah blah blah “are you interested in ice climbing in China” Uh, yes.
And so it began. The trip was scheduled for mid-February, and along with Steve Swenson — who’d invited me — I’d be joining Alik Berg, Jens Holsten and Steven van Sickle for nearly two weeks of climbing in the Shuangqiaogou Valley, in Sichuan.
We were going to be teaching, and possibly climbing with, some Chinese climbers but how it was all going to turn out and work, how we’d communicate with them or even what gear we’d need was all a mystery. We each packed a full ice kit; since I’m a total gear-nerd and love reading these kinds of things, I’ll post my gear list and thoughts on what I brought and used soon.
Steve Swenson also has a pretty detailed write-up of the trip on his blog: http://steveswensonsblog.blogspot.ca/2016/04/ice-climbing-in-china.html
Since Steve hit on most of the how and why points, and as I’m a bit more visual, I’ll let photos and captions tell my experience.
Leaving Chengdu, the first glimpse of mountains along the highway…
…once in the mountains, the road turned twisty and winding. It also started gaining altitude and with that came this patch of pure ice hidden underneath a light skiff of snow. Everybody was sliding around.
Since we were stuck in the ice, I decided to do some landscape photography, the frosted trees glittered when the morning sun hit.
The road winds its way to a pass at almost 4500m — you can just see a portion of the road in the lower left of this image.
On the other side of the pass, the weather was completely different: no snow or frost, just stunning views under a gorgeous blue sky.
Mt. Siguniang, 6250m.
I had left a day behind the rest of the group, so when I got to the village we were staying in they were all out climbing. What’s a climber to do for an afternoon in a village when nobody speaks English? Yup, went ahead and solo’ed the left-hand route.
My first Chinese meal — dinner was up to a dozen dishes, most with some kinds of unrecognizable,but generally tasty, ingredients scattered throughout.
That first night also happened to be Steve Swenson’s birthday. Out came the Baijiu, aka Chinese vodka.
Some of the Chinese spoke broken English, which of course is still miles ahead of our two-word Mandarin vocabulary.
On my first full day, we headed with our Chinese friends for a day of instruction on the climb I’d solo’ed the day before.
It’s a short approach, but at over 3000m elevation every step requires work — and many of the Chinese with us live much closer to sea level, so their acclimatization was even worse than ours (Canmore is at around 1400m).
The view from mid-way up the climb, the village neatly spread along the main (and only) road.
We set up several top-ropes for the Chinese to practice technique and mock-leading.
Jens Holsten answering some questions mid-way through our teaching and practice day.
Daliu is one of the more experienced Chinese climbers and was the main point of contact instrumental in organizing this trip — he also speaks very good English.
This was MiMi’s first ice climbing outing — he came along with the group as a photographer, but never really climbed. Here he’s practicing his swing with Jens Holsten instructing.
Our little group in front of the lodge we stayed at. L-R: Daliu, Steven van Sickle, Steve Swenson, Alik Berg, Jens Holsten, me.
On day two, we took advantage of having an interpreter along and took a rest day in Siguniangshan Town, formerly known as Rilongzhen. The town still shows the effects of an earthquake in 2008.
Daily life in the Sichuan? I’m still not entirely sure why this woman is sweeping the road.
A local convenience store, replete with various bits of mystery meat and dried something-or-other.
A typical living room.
Wherever we went, green tea and Yak butter tea (about as tasty as it sounds) made an appearance.
Another view of Siguniangshan Town.
Dried birds, lizards, bits of meat, and not sure what else adorned this store’s door jamb.
The village we stayed in is tiny — maybe a dozen and a half houses in total. There are no street light so light pollution is almost non-existent. I’ve never seen so many starts, anywhere. This is our lodge around 6am, smoke pouring out of the kitchen as breakfast gets started.
Next day out, we went searching for ice and decided upon the route(s) known as Avalanche Pass.
The left-hand gets 50m WI5 in the guidebook, while the right goes at 60m WI4+. The climbs are at a staggering altitude of 3650m!
Alik Berg on the bottom section of the right-hand route. Doesn’t look like WI4+ to me!
This route reminded me of the featured ice on Curtain Call, or Wicked Wanda. Super fun!
Looking across the bowl at Steve Swenson on the left-hand route.
After we were done, we swapped routes: Jens Holsten on the right-hand pillar.
Typical trailer loads in China?!
A gorgeous temple further up the valley.
The kitchen at our lodge was the only heated room in the whole building: thankfully there’s enough room to dry our ropes and other kit.
Lazy afternoon activities in the sun-room: reading and trying to browse a heavily-censored Internet via spotty WiFi.
Alik Berg approaching “Stairway to Heaven” 70m WI5+ along the convenient board-walks.
As we got closer to the climb, it started looking a little worse for wear. I won the Rochambeau for the first lead but managed only 12-15m or so before deciding the ice was not quite climbable. I brought up Alik and he concurred… we rapped off and started looking around for other ideas.
We decided to check out a strip of ice in a deep gully, and ended up following hundreds of meters of WI2-3 to the top of a ridge. I’d never bush-whacked on an ice climb before, so this was a new experience, but the view was sure worth it!
Dragon’s Breath, the only WI6 in the valley.
I once again got the first lead, the ice dinnerplating a lot with every swing. I bailed when the dinnerplate size reached 1.5m or so in diameter, and we weren’t even on the sketchy ice yet. Alik following in my footsteps to reach a fun-looking mixed corner.
Alik doing his best Raph impression in a beautiful trad lead up the icy crack. Super fun climbing! He built an anchor and I attempted to go higher and follow a somewhat-there line of bolts for the second pitch, but after pulling off dozens or rocks, scratching through not-frozen-grass and finally deciding that the ice above would probably not hold a V-thread, I bailed and we went in search of more ice to climb.
Steven van Sickle on (probably) Optical Fiber No. 2, feeling stiffer than the guidebook WI3+ grade.
Random yak skull on the approach trail!
The valley is remarkably dry.
Slightly crowded sleeping-arrangements, especially with the amount of gear each of us had.
Alik and Jens Holsten approaching Mountain Hut, 500m+ WI5.
Jens on the crux pitch of Mountain Hut. This is by far the longest continuous-ice route I’ve done.
That evening we went to a traditional Tibetan restaurant located far up the valley.
Absolutely fantastic food!
And probably the best, fresh-baked, bread I’ve ever had.
Our lodge, and what appear to be snow flurries higher up the peaks.
Fresh snow the next morning.
The snow stuck around until the next day, for our drive back to Chengdu. This is a police checkpoint at the bottom of the pass, where they checked for appropriate tires or snow chains. Very cool.
Definitely snowier up here than just a few days earlier!
Just after the pass, we reached a long line of vehicles. Turns out a truck had gotten jack-knifed, and the buses couldn’t get past…
…that is until the passengers built-up a loose, rocky ramp on the side of the road so vehicles could pass by. Rather resourceful!
Yaks are everywhere.
Road-side restaurant stop for lunch — a lot of ingredients I can’t even begin to guess at.
One of my favourite dishes from the trip: yak stir-fried with a shitload of chilis. Delicious.
That night we were invited to a farewell get-together at MiMi’s place in Chengdu.
One of my last images from the trip as we were heading back to our hostel, seven people crammed into a vehicle designed for four, rain spattering the windshield, the bright lights of Chengdu lighting up the night.