trip report from deno and brian’s december trip to china’s #1 ice climbing location, the shuangqiao valley on the sichuan tibet border. after 10 years of trips there there’s still not a lot of good beta on the place, so Deno’s report and Brian’s film is a good resource for anyone wanting to get out to ice climbing’s true wild west frontier
So it’s August 2014. In Hong Kong. Also known as the worst month in an already polluted city, and my mind wanders from my admin-y desk job to ice climbing. It’s been far too long, and I’m not getting any younger. My buddy Brian in Singapore is going through the same withdrawals, neither of us have had gloriously miserable freezing cold days outside since Nepal the year before, and now it’s just TIME. Time to get a bit vertical, time to get a bit scared, time to live a little.
Now you don’t have to be one of the world’s elite climbers to get jazzed by the idea of an ice climbing trip, and I’m a shining example of that. I can get wigged out on WI3, and I’m stoked when I climb WI4 any old way. But this is not about grades, because I’m getting excited thinking about ice by year’s end, and it’s a great “waiting in bed for Santa to come” type of feeling.
On this occasion, Asia’s own ‘full metal alpinist’ Ed from iceclimbingjapan.com was our Santa. Not in the roly-poly old dude way, but certainly in the ‘gives gifts to those who deserve them’ way. He sorted the permits (hell, it’s China, so don’t expect that to be easy or quick), and transport / accommodation logistics. Shuangqiao valley in Sichuan was our goal, a still semi-under-the-radar ice destination with 60+ lines, and everything you could want – multi-pitch ice from WI2 to WI6, and plenty of mixed, from intro to ridiculous. Let’s not forget it’s all at over 3500m, so it’ll get you breathin’ hard.
4th December 2014. I’ve kicked my job to the curb a while back, and I’m loving the freedom. Brian and I meet in Chengdu, and one of Ed’s crew has arranged a Land Cruiser to get us to the valley. It’s one hell of a 7 hour ride, over broken roads and broken countryside, still trying to recover from the devastating earthquake of 2008. There is a long way to go. It’ a rural, subsistence-level farming environment, and as you get higher, life seems to gets harder. In summertime it’s covered in tour buses looking for alleged pandas and enjoying the stunning scenery, but in -15 degree December the beauty is in the frozen vertical that we climbers seek, and this means basically no tourists anywhere.
We’re staying at the “Five Colours Mountain Lodge” a simple Tibetan-style lodge that is totally set up for climbers, they are used to the amount of crap we have, the need to hang and dry ropes and gear, and the hours we keep. Great family, great food, and apart from the fact they speak no English and our Tibetan/Sichuan dialect is ZERO, we got on really well.
For all but 2 nights of our 9 night trip, there were only two other climbers climbing in the valley, the awesomely strong pro-climbers Enzo and Marcos. Given that their level was ‘not the same as ours’, we had our choice of routes throughout the valley. However, we were basically there a couple of weeks too early. Ice was thin on many routes, or totally missing in big sections on some lines. Basically, unless you like climbing WI3 that is trying to be WI5+/M6, wait until late December. Then you will be rewarded with fat floes on long multipitch routes, brilliant access (no walk longer than 60 mins, most only 30-40 mins on great trails) and an incredible sense of adventure and exploration. Whilst it’s not the sort of place you want to have an accident, there is cell phone coverage, and escape off most routes seems possible, at least in theory.
So that’s a too-many words summary of our trip. In 9 short days, we got a bunch of multi-pitch ice climbed, rediscovered the awesomeness of that metal-taste-in-your-mouth when way above your gear, saw zero pandas, and had a fantastic adventure in an unspoiled, beautiful part of the China/Tibet border. There are routes for now, there are routes for ‘the future’, and there are routes to repeat. All of which makes me sure I will go again, and I know Brian feels the same.
When to go: late December to late February
What to take: 70m ropes x 2, full ice rack, gear for mixed, plenty of v-thread cordlette, anything else you need for an ice trip – there is nowhere to buy stuff. Lodges have great bedding etc / food is ample, take personal snacks, no shops in the valley.