since Messner appeared a while back stating how the eastern Tibet ranges would be his choice should he be a young man again, knowing what he knows, interest has bubbled. and tho climbers like to invoke the name of Messner, not all actually apply what his ideals were for self-supported, clean, committed, daring and integral climbing. at iceclimbingjapan we saw what Messner said as a kind of indicator of somewhere the climbing world can go: towards a cleaner, more streamlined, more sustainable direction less burdened by the undesirable commercial elements that have warped expedition climbing elsewhere.
the Minya Konka range: most peoples introduction to eastern Tibet is via this range, either out the window or thru the escapades of western climbers. despite being close to the lowlands, its still remarkably unexplored, with huge potential.
climbing in Tibet is its own thing. it differs from Greater Himalayan climbing in that there’s no industry surrounding it, it revolves around 5500m – 7000m peaks, it has Chinese infrastructure around it and the bulk of whats there is unknown. it also differs from former-soviet Central Asian climbing, where despite similar altitudes, again there is no industry behind it and there is simply far less known about the geography. whilst decades past saw huge interest in the Himalaya, Karakorum, Central Asian ranges, Tibet lay mostly off-limits and unclimbed in.
since gradually becoming accessible the Tibetan ranges have been slow to see action. even though ‘Tibet’ is synonymous with alpinism, the onslaughts of activity seen in Central Asia and around 8000m peaks that bought airstrips, hotels, seasonal base camps, guides, piles of trash, sanitation problems and celebrity have never arrived in Tibet. even the most well known places like the Siguniangshan and Minya Konka areas are startlingly quiet, and despite now being open, the other ranges of eastern Tibet are barely climbed in at all. for all the media and spray about climbing these days, most of Tibet is still a huge area as unclimbed, unseen and unnamed as the Khumbu was in the 1950s.
laying so culturally distant, Tibetan peaks have something in common with places in Central Asia. Unlike North America, Europe and western-oriented locations like Nepal, Tibet shares with the ‘Stans a void in reliability, logistics and data that immediately extends the motivation and attention to detail needed to go there. theres no off-the-rack trips, piles of ready permits and industry maintained infrastructure. like the ‘Stans almost no specific resources are available in-country, which translates to climbing with only the gear you can bring with you which then means a refined style is default.
a good example of whats out there: this +/-5600m tower, viewable only thru this break in the ridgelines, sits along with others like it in Eastern Tibet. no ones even been to the base of it.
today, Tibetan climbing is perhaps most influenced by Alaskan style climbing, mostly because American climbers with Alaskan histories are taking the most interest. this means light teams, well equipped, with daring ideas and the experience to pull it off. these teams are reveling in the ease of access that allow multiple ascents to be undertaken, using an Alaskan protocol of acclimating on smaller routes then squeezing as many routes into a weather window as sanity allows.
‘Charakusa’ and ‘Garwhal style’ climbing also exerts an influence, with similar elevation peaks and high, grassed valleys to base from. what differs is Tibet’s more amenable approaches (Chengdu and Chinese transport and food is considerably nicer than whats in Pakistan or India) meaning you arrive in better condition with less chance of hygiene problems and a more reliable schedule. rising from similar tectonic processes (ie being newer mountains) means there are similarities in the way rivers cut thru ranges to make dramatic formations into newly exposed rock that offers complex ‘feature climbing’ well suited to small, focused teams.
another big influence on the regions style is of course Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden, bringing to the mix the British near-infinite obsession for style. where the Alaskanites are clocking the lines, Mick and Paul are taking on the bigger peaks with a style perhaps described as Scottish-Himalayan, ie single-objective grungy sufferfests done on ridiculous gear. along similar lines, teams like Dave Anderson and Tzu ting have been focusing on single prominent peaks, sometimes returning over multiple seasons to find the best window in places with almost no records of climate.
between the gaps of these two parallel styles are significant numbers of Japanese, eastern Europeans, Antipodeans and Chinese climbers, mostly climbing in similar ‘hit & run’ styles and dispensing with the accouterments of long expedition climbing. many of these groups have simply taken long weekend style climbing and pushed it to a barely doable degree.
Alps-style climbing is a fairly distant cousin to climbing in Tibet in most areas. theres not a lot of options for short overnight trips from civilization, theres no cable cars and definitely no assistance to give margin to any errors. the actual vertical climbing has more similarities as the glaciers are generally smaller and things get steep fast, but with a base level of about 4000m and the unsupported approach the technical climbing happens in a different context.
even tho this looks like a lot of interest, spread across an area as huge as Tibet it barely registers. entire ranges are still barely recorded let alone climbed in and if not for the distant glimpses and skeletal mapping of travelers like Tomatsu Nakamura almost nothing would be recorded at all.
Tibet will always be Tibet: in many places yaks and horses outnumber cars and theres still populations of people who live nomadic lifestyles.
what defines Tibetan style alpinism?
5000 – 7000m peaks: peaks at these heights offer amazing climbing-to-dollar ratios. rather than weeks on crowded approaches then more time playing connect four and eating popcorn in a mess tent, these elevations generate a high proportion of climbing time. these elevations also allow for more technical and/or hard climbing, and when combined with relatively quick approaches open up possibilities impossible elsewhere.
variation: so much geophysical activity has produced a wide range of mountain types. huge walls, complex massifs, rocky spires, collections of granite towers, long faces of connected peaks, isolated standalone peaks. some areas are heavily glaciated whilst others rise from grassy step and river valleys.
unexplored: most tibetan ranges, even the well known ones and peaks near towns, are barely explored. most have never been looked at with the intention to climb, making even the base of many mountains uncharted ground. of the peaks that have had interest, its often of just a single aspect, with whole other sides of familiar peaks unknown. weather records barely exist and what does is based on models rather than actual recording. even peaks on maps, unless climbed, have not been verified, with discrepancies sometimes show to be by several hundred meters. all this means going into tibetan ranges requires a scope of skills rarely seen since the 80s
high starts: most approaches begin between 3500m and 4200m, making the ascent to the roadhead from sea level Chengdu one needing planning. its easy to rise too fast as Tibet zips past the car window, but smarter ascent profiles can be managed. in the end, it will catch you.
remote: even ranges close to towns are still several days from places where communication and requirements will be easy. just because a town is near doesnt mean youre close to help
acute approaches: tibetan approaches tend to go from 4000m roadheads to 5000m basecamps over quite short distances – often within 5km. consider that the approach to Everest or K2s BC at similar elevations occur over a week, starting at about 3000m and spanning about 65 – 80km. its easy to gain height too fast on the drive up from the Yangzi basin, so transport needs to be arranged to cover this. the good thing is much of your acclimation can take place in hotels and around town, rather than out in a cold tent.
little snow: compared to Alaska and some of central Asia much of tibet has less snow. north of the Minya Konka range snow loading significantly decreases and some areas in Qinghai are high altitude desert in the secondary rain shadow beyond the Greater Himalaya. 20 years on the ground has shown us that dependable weather patterns create incredible windows, but due to the scarcity of climbing they are little known.
no rescue: in China, any form of help will come from days away thru the local mountaineering associations. there wont be helicopters put in the sky for climbers. period. this gives things a degree of risk not seen in high altitude areas for decades and an affect of this means international rescue groups like Global Rescue have reduced efficacy in China.
relaxed cultures: these days Tibet is a safe culture to be in. aside from occasional pick pocketing and a few hygeine issues like hepatitis and tetanus, Tibetan areas are pretty easy to be in. food is plentiful, hotels are ok, theres no heavy religious stuff or extremism and in general Tibetans are happy to have outsiders pass thru so long as they dont treat locals like their home is Disneyland. that said, Tibetan liberalism can easily be confused with false security. Tibetans still have good people and bad people, opportunists and ugly elements. in Eastern Tibet especially brigandry has a long history that isnt exactly dead yet, and not everyone is glad to see outsiders.
no industry: aside from the anomaly of the cross-border Everest/8000m industry, elsewhere Tibet has no industry to support climbers. a few Chinese companies provide the logistics and legal stuff and theres a guesthouse or two aimed at foreign adventure travelers, but out in the mountain areas theres nothing. this means no systems of porters, no tea houses, no code of employment, no gear shops, no reason to care. in some areas locals just laugh when asked if porters are available, wondering why foreigners cant carry their own loads.
good infrastructure: despite its image as a hardcore destination, the roads, towns, food and basics in Tibetan areas can be good. much better than anywhere south of the Himalaya or in central Asia. in an effort to keep the population happy China has sunk a lot into roads, power supplies, hospitals, telecommunications etc. you may not want to live there year round, but its certainly enough to bookend the actual climbing.
permits: the days of under-the-radar ascents are pretty much over – as are the days of buying your way out of trouble. permits in China for virgin peaks can be up to $8000, then theres a series of smaller fees and permits for compulsory insurance, the environment and entrance to some areas. but, for all this, what you get is good – crew are well paid and professional, infrastructure gets things done, the system works and for all the expense, it keeps things from becoming crowded. to that end, in 20 years there will still be new areas across Tibet to explore. its worth noting these same fees apply to Chinese climbers as well.
the PSB, politics & restrictions: Tibet never has been open and free and aside from a 10 year window when lack of interest meant no one was watching, its better now than its ever been. yes, big brother is watching, but so long as you stick to climbing they are more curious than problematic. that said, make a problem for the Public Security Bureau and they will be very efficient at shutting things down till its sorted. not all problems come from the authorities tho; local superstitions and monastic rules have shut down their fair share of expeditions, and unlike the limitations of authority, this happens well after youve handed over your cash. politics is never far the surface in Tibetan areas, and its complex beyond what any newcomer will comprehend. to think its as black and white as ‘Tibet vs China’ is the first error to make. authorities are aware that some foreigners have agendas – a history of holding and ejecting journalists is testament to this – and compared to Nepal, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan etc this is all more tightly controlled.
+6000m peaks out the window: the roads into Eastern Tibet go high, well over 4000m, and the approach to the roadhead needs careful planning
add all this up and for high altitude climbing it makes one of the most unadulterated region to climb in – which in this era demands a unique climbing style; the light and unsupported style of Alaska, the clean ethics of Scotland, the topographical features of Charakusa, the exotic remoteness of Central Asia
todays climbing resources mean there is no reason to use invasive methods to ascend. no bolts need to be needlessly used, no industrial base camps need to be carved out, no fixed ropes need to be installed etc. using the example set in places like Alaska’s Ruth Gorge, small groups with light camps can come and go to serious objectives leaving almost no trace if they apply some basic parameters for conduct. in the absence of any others we have come up with these;
keep trips self or minimally supported; carry your own stuff, go light, dont rely on the locals, pay properly when you do
keep climbing styles clean; no fixed ropes, no bolted progresss, no fixed camps, no reliance on outside technology. if you cant climb without these things come back when you can.
keep cultural impact to a minimum; climbers are not salvation, these people do not need us and they certainly dont need all the crap of our culture in theirs
go remote: spreading climbing activity wide prevents problems associated with saturation. in Tibet this includes banditry, price gouging, sanitation problems and attention from the police
keep the authorities satisfied: pay for the permits, dont project an agenda, be careful with photos. its taken decades to see these places open and they can be closed overnight. its happened before. if you want to push the rules, dont connect it to climbing. this applies as much to the local monks and construction companies as it does to the PSB – remember that in China things dont have the degree of separation they do elsewhere.
collect quality information: useful data on these places helps streamline future trips and minimize potential accidents
understand where youre going: the era for foreigners to blunder unknowingly thru another culture is over. educate yourself so you can apply it
these are not meant as rules by any means, they are simply things weve seen to work and keep working over nearly 20 years, and when the opposite has been done its been shown to quickly result in problems. we vividly recall the years of ‘anything goes’ climbing in Eastern Tibet and yes, it was fun, but the side-effects of trouble with the authorities, security with the locals and probably the deaths of several climbers makes it clear things are better now.
with effectively a clean slate this is a chance to avoid the mistakes of the past and use standards in line with the best thinking of today. right now most of Tibet’s mountains are still pristine and unadulterated by mass tourism. in many places stream water is still safe to drink, nomadic families still move thru the valleys and foreigners have almost no impact on the local way of life. wed like to see it kept this way.
a note on the use of the word ‘Tibet’.
disputes about where and what ‘Tibet’ is are common, usually debated by people with little real experience in the places concerned. the Tibetan people themselves do not use the word Tibet, nor do the Chinese. there never has been any one place called ‘Tibet’ other than in the foreign imagination. What we call Tibet the Tibetans refer to under various names for various lands that over the centuries have shifted and been far, far greater than they are today. even today these lands and people are not unified nor homogeneous, comprising multiple groups with widely varying cultures, languages and beliefs.
today, ‘Tibet’ is often used to mean what in China is called Xizang province. this constitutes only a small part of the Tibetan peoples homeland – other areas including Qinghai, western Yunnan and Sichuan, southern Gansu and the sub-Himalayan regions of Sikkim, Bhutan, Mustang and Northern Myanmar etc. Xizang as it currently is has only existed since 1955. before this its eastern half and the west of Sichuan were the separate province of East Tibet or Xikang. this was the most populous Tibetan state and even since the dissolution of Xikang the region of western Sichuan is still the most populated Tibetan area. today people of Tibetan ethnic groups make up about 75% of the population – more than that of Xizang province. some areas in what is now Sichuan, due to being more remote from the interests of both the Tibetan and Chinese governments, have retained a less adulterated Tibetan culture than the well know areas of central Tibet. administratively, most of these areas are known as ‘Tibetan Autonomous Regions’ or TAR’s and get special interest from the central government, both good and bad.
we use the term Tibet, because we are climbing in the lands of Tibetan people, whether they are in Sichuan, Qinghai, Xizang etc and however it has been carved up, romanticized and politicized by others. we use it to denote the lands that come under the collective Tibetan culture. currently climbing in Xizang province is near to impossible, so we are mostly climbing in the western part of Sichuan province that was Xikang until 1955. in these areas non-Tibetan’s are in a small minority, with little other than Tibetan languages spoken. culturally, ethnically, linguistically and practically it is 95% Tibetan.
over the years weve seen how politics can mess up expeditions – both for ourselves and others who come after – so we keep our thoughts on that quiet. but as a Chinese sage once said, ‘the first step to wisdom is getting the names right’ we know Tibet when we see it and when we look out the window, we see nothing that could be called anything else.