SE’ERDENGPU BIG WALL ATTEMPT: PROBLEMS SOLVED, PROBLEMS FOUND

abridged draft from the forthcoming Wilderness article (Japan)

in November 2015 Dan Da Silva and I attempted the west face of Se’erdengpu with three objectives, in order;
1) to prove a previously overlooked stable weather window after the monsoon
2) to find a usable alpine route to access the walls corner crack system, the highest point to begin the wall
3) to climb the crack system, as free as possible.

West face of Se'erdengpu.
West face of Se’erdengpu.

as far as big walls go, the west face of se’erdengpu is maybe China-Tibet’s most well known. which doesn’t say much. china-tibet has lots of walls and doubtless many times more as yet undocumented, but being on the fringes of the climbing world theres not much interest in them.

se’erdengpu is just under 5600m, with 2300m vertical gain from the road, over 1100m horizontal. half that gain occurs in 800 horizontal meters, then its nearly 1000m of clean granite wall and a few hundred meters high alpine mixed to the summit.
the peak has never been summited by a direct line up the wall, tho theres been numerous valiant attempts, no less by Polish virtuosos who went for a direct line up the face, and Pat Goodman who went to free the only obvious feature system up the walls shallow corner.
both groups got hosed off in bad weather at the tail end of the Asian monsoon.

over 12 years the Shuangqiaogou valley has gone from the best kept sec...
over 12 years the Shuangqiaogou valley has gone from the best kept secret in ice climbing to a China-Tibetan alpine disneyland. well managed, accessible and renovated since the quake theres still a lifetimes worth of serious climbing to do.

on the shoulders of these frontier ascents Dan DaSilva and I pieced together a plan that combined what we considered the most useful elements of the previous efforts with what we had already learned from other FA trips to the region. we took Marcin’s big wall style, Pat’s free idea for the corner and the Kellog-Johnson alpine ethic to strip it all back, and devised a caper that gave us 10 days unsupported to make it happen. our secret weapon that saved it all from being just a suicide mission was our weather predictions. hopefully this would let us hit the wall at the high point of the snow, saving us the time and gear needed of going straight onto the wall. hopefully too it would give us some protection from the exposure if our weather predictions turned out wrong…

snow will have been falling above about 4500m since September but most will have burned off – except for the shaded spots as we eventually found out.
its worth noting here that despite being west facing, in November all sun is blocked from the face by a huge south western buttress (itself with insane 900m granite lines on it) besides a 15 min flash at 5:00pm just as it drops below the horizon.

getting that pile of gear up onto that wall unsupported was a concept ...
getting that pile of gear up onto that wall unsupported was a concept of hell we had already accepted.

the key to our plan was the monster approach. coming from Chengdu at 100m and just one night in the valley at 3300m, we planned to acclimate on the approach as we carried gear upwards, keeping a fairly textbook ascent schedule whilst getting the work done. being unsupported this mean 30kg each loads every day up steep scree and boulders covered in snow. at about 4500m this became class 3 climbing on 60o mixed terrain and the final 200m to our first ledge needed pitching and hauling. from the road this took 4 days with 2 nights in a cave at 4400m.

the easy day...
the easy day…
the cave at the snowline. comfortable enough with a bit of digging.
the cave at the snowline. comfortable enough with a bit of digging.
above the snowline things was an aggravating field of covered boulders...
above the snowline things was an aggravating field of covered boulders that bought out the dark parts of the soul.
ascending into the cold but stable area in the shadow of the awesome w...
ascending into the cold but stable area in the shadow of the awesome west buttress – itself having dozens of big lines.

the upper slopes where the snow met the wall was where we came undone.
what appeared as perhaps a 65o snow slope showed itself to be a bowl corner filled with deep unconsolidated snow. spindrift and snow had collected in there since things cooled down and constant shade from the buttress had kept it dry. no sign of the granite slab beneath poked thru and at about 250m from top to bottom it was way beyond what our ropes would let us fix across. even without the loads it had all the indicators of a death trap.

the pitching and hauling began hundreds of meters lower than expected ...
the pitching and hauling began hundreds of meters lower than expected as things got steep thru bands of rock.
ferrying 120kg in multiple loads up thru the mixed sections at about 4...
ferrying 120kg in multiple loads up thru the mixed sections at about 4600m was as fun as it sounds

the way around meant getting a camp in at the base of the wall (+/-4950m) and traversing the top of the snow, then pitches that followed the exposed rock across the top of the snow field, then what we found to be a line of ice that delivered us to the corner. a substantial detour that looked like interesting climbing but would be a game changer on time. fleetingly we considered a direct route up the sea of granite, but without a full aid and wall rack decided we wouldn’t get far, and anyway that was the Polish line.

realizing that the portaledge would now become a base we set it up to be comfortable in a blank, cold totally vertical world. still unsure as to what our predicted weather window might behold, we needed a capsule that inspired confidence in Tibetan-strength conditions. reports of earlier attempts included 12 day storms and sudden massive dumps of snow, so our setup had to be bomber squared. an already Spartan rack and no existing ledges demanded the only 2 bolts we placed, hand drilled with a light weight titanium hammer on aider-less lead by Dan into bulletproof granite. a 90 minute endeavor when at 5000m and one of the stand-out efforts of the trip. with 1500m of air below us the security was welcome.

Dan reaching the wall.
Dan reaching the wall.
Dan heading out onto the granite to get an anchor in.
Dan heading out onto the granite to get an anchor in.
the only warm, horizontal place amidst a sea of ice and frozen granite
the only warm, horizontal place amidst a sea of ice and frozen granite
morning vista above the clouds. Dumu(L) and Abi(R) peaks.
morning vista above the clouds. Dumu(L) and Abi(R) peaks.

from our ledge the traverse went easy. good enough gear dug thru to the rock and quality snow, plus it was nice getting in climbing time that didn’t push against altitude and acted as both a gain and rest day. what didn’t work for us was the rope it used – at about 90m it meant fixing it till we could ferry across gear to the base of the crack would either not happen (so reclimb it every day), or take on the next pitches with just our second 70m and 35m rappels. with 1500m of air below soloing it didn’t appeal.

looking back down the traverse from near the end of our lead rope.
looking back down the traverse from near the end of our lead rope.

quickly our equation was drying up – hauling / ferrying the traverse would be hard enough, but even on the return wed still need to cross it as we didn’t have the rope to rap the sketchy snowfield.
and then a remarkable thing occurred.

coffee plays a big role in any trip Dan and I do, and part of this is engaging the bowels. on a wall like Se’erdengpu this means finding a safe spot to do so, and during a morning sortie as I hacked out a safe ledge the mountain gods gave us a rare blessing.
there, about 30m across a steep snow slope, poking thru the snow, was what appeared to be an abandoned fixed line. closer inspection and a bit of chopping revealed 100m of 10mm static line in reasonable condition, anchored at a bolt directly below what we assume is the Polish line.
it spanned our traverse perfectly, leaving our lead ropes for the next pitches.

Dan swapping out our scavenged rope across the traverse.
Dan swapping out our scavenged rope across the traverse.

the next day saw us get in a full 65m pitch of quality M4+ mixed climbing that turned part of the corner in towards the top of the sketchy snowfield. gear was again small and needed digging for, with 15m between placements. enough to feel very exposed above the death trap snowfield. beaks and small offsets were the staple, with any ice not deep enough to take more than half a screws length. at over 5000m nothing happened fast, and passing into the walls corner where the sun hadn’t hit for months already the ever-present cold and short days were a constant factor. having the fixed traverse back to the ledge was a welcome convenience.

beyond the traverse the angle got steeper and the sheet of snow over t...
beyond the traverse the angle got steeper and the sheet of snow over the rock thinner, but no direct sun made for solid conditions.
beautiful big pitches of pristine granite and thin but solid snow.
beautiful big pitches of pristine granite and thin but solid snow.

beyond the end of the fixed traverse pitches took us out above the snowfield, crossing a line of rock and alpine ice too steep for snow to settle on to a stance directly under the corner crack system. for the first time we were able to look up into the walls features rather than obliquely at them. no direct sun making it so deep into the part of the face it had an absence of shadows that created an illusion of featurelessness. from a place that a week earlier we thought we could walk to we had a revealing view of just how imposing the wall actually is. ‘cracks’ that appeared as maybe off-widths or at most body-width we now found were huge chimneys behind pillars hundreds of meters high – not slabs or flakes. these chimneys were wide and deep enough to have entire icefalls in the back of them and could be bivvied within. distant thin smears of ice turned out to be entire rope-lengths of iced rock face, and what we thought to be piles of fallen rubble were in fact pitches of large granite slabs. the scooped out ‘corner’ of the wall was way bigger than expected, forming a large amphitheater of 70o snow where it met the base of the wall. id never been so wrong on the sense of scale, feeling like wed suddenly been shrunk in a 50s sci-fi movie. our paltry rack of gear of mostly smaller stuff and just a few ice screws – already being consumed fast – started looking pretty anemic for the task.

inside the corner we got our first views up into the huge features that soared up the deep inside of the wall. the ice falls in the back of the crack were big enough to be entire ice climbs in their own right and the pillar they hid behind alone was a 200m protuberance from the main wall. above this was a series of smaller pillars which the crack split around, coming out into the sunny part of the wall 400m above us. the climbing looked straightforward on almost only rock, with features big enough to be climbed around. in line with what we had predicted over the months of planning, it fitted exactly with the gear we had bought for it and Dan’s prowess on bold rock routes would put it all into motion

looking into the corner. as a scale, the left pillar is about 300m hig...
looking into the corner. as a scale, the left pillar is about 300m high, the ice line about 150m, the horizontal snowline about 200m across.

from our existing highpoint we knew the next pitchs would be a big deal. we had briefly considered climbing further towards the end of the previous day but a few moments silently staring up at it ended that. steeper, icier, more exposed rock and more complicated to retreat from it deserved a fresh day. it didn’t help that it would also take us above the high point of the snowline and into the huge space of the inside corner. this was the highest scraping of snow that followed broken fissures in the darkest corner of the face for a long pitch before terminating at the sea of pristine granite. on all sides was vertical and overhanging rock – to the right a 50m drop back to the top of the snow, to the left 300m of dropped back down to the scree we had left a week ago.
essentially we were pushing it out so we could place the bar as high as we could with all that we had left.

Dan belaying on The Corner Pitch
Dan belaying on The Corner Pitch

the climbing itself was scary but good. scoured and perpetually frozen, the rock and ice was stable, the placements for tools and crampons delicate and shallow but positive, with occasional pockets that collected spindrift and allowed for rests. if it had been at 2000m it would be a classic, mid-grade mixed line, requiring a good degree of tinkering and a grandiose view of expansive granite and peaks stretching back into Tibet. personally the buzz of climbing like that beats any summit as the oscillations between fear, focus and exhilaration get tighter and form their own unique feeling that doesn’t exist anywhere else ive ever been.

where the rope and our time ran out.
where the rope and our time ran out.

I yelled down to Dan to untie as much rope as possible from the belay, giving an extra few meters. He yelled back that he already had.
Dan, who had a better view from the belay, called it as it was; pushing further would exponentially raise the risks. it was time to go.
any further progress would mean either getting onto a big wall with a single 70m rope or shuffling enough gear up with us to stay up there – one was insane, the other needed time we didn’t have. of all the things that could turn us around we agreed they were acceptable, its not like we hadnt tried.

if things went smooth just maybe we would make the ledge in time for t...
if things went smooth just maybe we would make the ledge in time for the afternoon band of sun.

crossing the traverse for one last time we released the Polish rope as we went. anchored at the ledge, it would become the first rope down of the descent – just as it had done for the climbers who left it before us.
the mountain gods, always less eager to give than to take away, had granted us our one reprieve with the rope, and we both felt that after 10 days straight our stretch of perfect weather would suffer a glitch sooner rather than later. having achieved 2/3 of what we came for, so didn’t push our luck.

as we kicked about getting comfortable the first of the snow could be heard on the fly. by midnight the gentle sprinkle was combined with prolonged angry deluges as winds high above us forced spindrift down the face. we could feel it flowing between the rock and the back of the ledge, and occasional glimpses outside the shelter showed nothing but a directionless whirl of snow. at just on 5000m its likely we were in the upper half of a cloud mass where rising air from the valley met a pillow of cold being pushed down the wall.
due to the angle of the wall we had been the only place for any of it to collect, but due to the cold it was sugary and easy to dig thru in the morning.

knowing its time to leave
knowing its time to leave

the last chamber of coffee was good to fire us up, as cold hands went to work dismantling the ledge and packing gear. the plan was anything valuable or needing care would be carried, all else would be dropped down the face. multiple carries were unimaginable.

by midday we had rappelled, down climbed, lowered off and stumbled 500m down to the cave we had stayed in on the way up, just at the snowline. the nights snow had gone all the way to the valley floor but had burned off as the day cleared. it had taken several iterations of kicking the big haul bag down, more frequent as the angle eased and the boulders got bigger. eventually we ended up dragging it across the scree, into a frozen river bed then down over a series of iced drops. the final low angle few hundred meters to the road was along easy boulders and thru some squelchy forest, which did in a final series of silent carries. we dumped the whole lot into a pile just as temperatures dropped below freezing and the sun went under the 4500m horizon. waiting for our ride we sat and stared into nothing, standing to shuffle some warmth into ourselves as it grew colder.

a few hours later we were sitting in the warmth of a Tibetan family room as a little girl stared from behind a chair as the two hairy, bad smelling, unintelligible foreigners ate everything that was set before them.