if a climber leads a life of virtuous vertical achievement they are eligible for mythical elevation to alpinist paradise – the land of virgin peaks, where unlimited climbing pleasure awaits, all is permitted and the only limitations are those of the self.
whatever is desired – from big walls and huge ice to aesthetic boulders and endless mixed alpine – is available, the price of entry is to swap the mundane for the unknown. for climbers that have not considered the idea of paradisical climbing the notion may be obscure.
its been centuries since any part of China was associated with paradise. perhaps the last time was during the Han Dynasty when Daoist hermits wandered off to the western mountains, deeming them rarified and therefore a better place to refine the body and mind. then a few years ago Tomatsu Nakamura published his expedition findings in the AAJ and Alpinist, using the word ‘paradise’ for those same western ranges, and providing a peek to a new wave of travellers wanting to pursue frontiers of the body and mind.
until recently the Gangga massifs and other ranges of North Eastern Tibet were off limits to climbers, with even Chinese climbers being turned away. beneath the radar, guerilla ascents were made of course (and who would ever do such a thing…?), then climbers like Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden, finding ways thru the Chinese governments new redtape, started getting access to entire new regions of unclimbed peaks. it was the stuff of alpine dreams – hundreds of unattempted peaks, with relatively good access and a relatively stable infrastructure to work with – but the message was slow to emerge. a conservative climbing media, inward looking fraternity and warped China view has kept interest in these places distant and esoteric – and thats a good thing.
why repeat the mistakes of over-indulgence from the past?
two of the gems in the crown of NE Tibet’s virgin peaks are the Kawarori and Gangga Shan massifs – steep, complex peak systems with acute prominence from the river valleys, laying just on the fringe of the monsoon pattern to gather enough precipitation for ice to form well, flanks to collect snow and grass to cover the approaches. annoyingly, the Kawarori peaks have proved off-limits after agressive reproachment by local monks, but the three massifs that make up the Gangga range remain accessible to those with the permits and nouse. perhaps even oddly so; indeed the Gangga range is so obscure even the locals dont know or dont care about them, making them unnamed, unvisited and unmapped. and it is here that the 55 virgins await.
according to Nakamura’s map there are at least 40 peaks over 5000m, with 7 peaks over 5500m – ie 2 x the Central Alaska and St Elias Mountain ranges combined, minus Denali. several clusters of peaks have glaciated slopes whilst others have huge cirques full of scree. about three quarters of what is there has simply never been viewed from close range. even the nomadic groups that have crossed from the higher plateau to the Yalong rivers plains for centuries avoid the central part of the massifs, using passes at about 4500m. even the peaks right by the county-level access roads have not been climbed, nor have the endless miles of +/-300m crags, the thousands of house-sized boulders or the hundreds of icefalls, many within an hour from the road. and whilst there is amazing road access to one part of the range – along the valley between the central and eastern massifs – the rest is a large unknown with distant photos and satellite images showing extensive glaciers and deep ravines. of the plateau-sides of the ranges absolutely nothing is known.
but like all paradises, entry is not guaranteed. the Gangga range sits firmly within Tibetan territory and thus has never been open without a price, and despite a straightforward process of permits and access in this era of convenience few rise to the occasion. getting to the Gangga range is more a psychic process than a physical one. in the tradition of Hassan i sabbah, entry requires giving oneself over to new processes more so than just wanting to climb. where there is no concept of climbing the procedure from civilization outwards has none of the tourist bubble and industry convenience the well known alpine destinations have. your reasons for being there are not understood, let alone catered for, none of the decisions have been previously made, the basic questions unanswered. very few climbers will aspire to this, and even less will ever face it.
no porters rush to carry your bags, no signs point the way, no one in town knows or cares what you want to do, no one is concerned if you dont come back, your reasoning appears abstract, the things you want to locals cannot provide. as the old sufi saying goes “it cannot be found by looking, nevertheless, all those who have found it looked”. and the closer you get the less the ideas about summiting matter. first you need to find the base of the mountain – climbing is a priviledge, the notion often being lost in todays climbing world where exploration is a distant reason most will not perceive. to stand on the top of a new route is a world away from standing at the base of a new mountain, knowing nothing above you has been touched.
5567m (L) & 5690m (R) Eastern Gangga massif