Trip Report: Shuangqiaogou Valley, Sichuan, China

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.

China_Feb_2016_001Leaving Chengdu, the first glimpse of mountains along the highway…

China_Feb_2016_002…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.

China_Feb_2016_003Since we were stuck in the ice, I decided to do some landscape photography, the frosted trees glittered when the morning sun hit.

China_Feb_2016_004The 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.

China_Feb_2016_005On the other side of the pass, the weather was completely different: no snow or frost, just stunning views under a gorgeous blue sky.

China_Feb_2016_006Mt. Siguniang, 6250m.

China_Feb_2016_007I 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.

China_Feb_2016_008My first Chinese meal — dinner was up to a dozen dishes, most with some kinds of unrecognizable,but generally tasty, ingredients scattered throughout.

China_Feb_2016_009That first night also happened to be Steve Swenson’s birthday. Out came the Baijiu, aka Chinese vodka.

China_Feb_2016_010Some of the Chinese spoke broken English, which of course is still miles ahead of our two-word Mandarin vocabulary.

China_Feb_2016_011On 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.

China_Feb_2016_012It’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).

China_Feb_2016_013The view from mid-way up the climb, the village neatly spread along the main (and only) road.

China_Feb_2016_014We set up several top-ropes for the Chinese to practice technique and mock-leading.

China_Feb_2016_015Jens Holsten answering some questions mid-way through our teaching and practice day.

China_Feb_2016_016Daliu 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.

China_Feb_2016_017This 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.

China_Feb_2016_018Our little group in front of the lodge we stayed at. L-R: Daliu, Steven van Sickle, Steve Swenson, Alik Berg, Jens Holsten, me.

China_Feb_2016_019On 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.

China_Feb_2016_020Daily life in the Sichuan? I’m still not entirely sure why this woman is sweeping the road.

China_Feb_2016_021A local convenience store, replete with various bits of mystery meat and dried something-or-other.

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China_Feb_2016_023A typical living room.

China_Feb_2016_024Wherever we went, green tea and Yak butter tea (about as tasty as it sounds) made an appearance.

China_Feb_2016_025Another view of Siguniangshan Town.

China_Feb_2016_026Dried birds, lizards, bits of meat, and not sure what else adorned this store’s door jamb.

China_Feb_2016_027The 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.

China_Feb_2016_028Next day out, we went searching for ice and decided upon the route(s) known as Avalanche Pass.

China_Feb_2016_029The left-hand gets 50m WI5 in the guidebook, while the right goes at 60m WI4+. The climbs are at a staggering altitude of 3650m!

China_Feb_2016_030Alik Berg on the bottom section of the right-hand route. Doesn’t look like WI4+ to me!

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China_Feb_2016_032This route reminded me of the featured ice on Curtain Call, or Wicked Wanda. Super fun!

China_Feb_2016_033Looking across the bowl at Steve Swenson on the left-hand route.

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China_Feb_2016_035After we were done, we swapped routes: Jens Holsten on the right-hand pillar.

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China_Feb_2016_037Typical trailer loads in China?!

China_Feb_2016_038A gorgeous temple further up the valley.

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China_Feb_2016_041The 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.

China_Feb_2016_042Lazy afternoon activities in the sun-room: reading and trying to browse a heavily-censored Internet via spotty WiFi.

China_Feb_2016_043Alik Berg approaching “Stairway to Heaven” 70m WI5+ along the convenient board-walks.

China_Feb_2016_044As 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.

China_Feb_2016_045We 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!

China_Feb_2016_046Dragon’s Breath, the only WI6 in the valley.

China_Feb_2016_047I 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.

China_Feb_2016_048Alik 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.

China_Feb_2016_049Steven van Sickle on (probably) Optical Fiber No. 2, feeling stiffer than the guidebook WI3+ grade.

China_Feb_2016_050Random yak skull on the approach trail!

China_Feb_2016_051The valley is remarkably dry.

China_Feb_2016_052Slightly crowded sleeping-arrangements, especially with the amount of gear each of us had.

China_Feb_2016_053Alik and Jens Holsten approaching Mountain Hut, 500m+ WI5.

China_Feb_2016_054Jens on the crux pitch of Mountain Hut. This is by far the longest continuous-ice route I’ve done.

China_Feb_2016_055That evening we went to a traditional Tibetan restaurant located far up the valley.

China_Feb_2016_056The kitchen.

China_Feb_2016_057Absolutely fantastic food!

China_Feb_2016_058And probably the best, fresh-baked, bread I’ve ever had.

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China_Feb_2016_060Our lodge, and what appear to be snow flurries higher up the peaks.

China_Feb_2016_061Fresh snow the next morning.

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China_Feb_2016_065The 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.

China_Feb_2016_066Definitely snowier up here than just a few days earlier!

China_Feb_2016_067Just 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…

China_Feb_2016_068…that is until the passengers built-up a loose, rocky ramp on the side of the road so vehicles could pass by. Rather resourceful!

China_Feb_2016_069Yaks are everywhere.

China_Feb_2016_070Road-side restaurant stop for lunch — a lot of ingredients I can’t even begin to guess at.

China_Feb_2016_071One of my favourite dishes from the trip: yak stir-fried with a shitload of chilis. Delicious.

China_Feb_2016_072That night we were invited to a farewell get-together at MiMi’s place in Chengdu.

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China_Feb_2016_075One 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.

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