despite not being the best weather window, now is the time when many climbing teams head to Sichuan to climb. seeing the region as a blossoming frontier – and in a way it still is – teams unfamiliar with the mechinations of China show up thinking things will be like Nepal, or Pakistan, or Kyrgyzstan or wherever. and every year some climbers get into trouble. sometimes its just a sudden confrontation with the authorities, and sometimes its deaths. its not unusual for the former to result in the latter and some areas are the resting places of good climbers who may still be alive if only theyd done the paperwork.
a permit from the CMA: ‘3 climbers to an unnamed peak above 5500m’ in a suitably vague range so we can keep our options open. who said Chinese climbing permits had to be hard?
iceclimbingjapan has been climbing mountains in China for nearly 20 years. weve climbed under the radar, above the radar and when there was no radar. weve been caught by the PSB, weve helped the PSB, weve been harassed by brigands, robbed and shown great hospitality. weve seen it go wrong and seen it go right, and weve spent a lot of money, time and effort to get things smooth. if theres one thing weve learnt thru all this – it pays to do it right.
the single biggest thing aspiring climbers come up against in China is the climbing permit system. despite being well publicized and simple, time and again climbers get it wrong simply due to a lack of familiarity with China. so here we demystify things;
1) they are serious. the days of a $20 ‘penalty’ and a blind eye ended in 2010. the PSB and the CMA check and arrest people now. they have no qualms with shutting trips down and detaining climbers. they dont care how special it is to you, to them you are a foreigner trespassing in sensitive areas. journalists have masqueraded as trekkers in the past.
2) the locals are serious too. when things go wrong often the nearest locals are Tibetan monks, who already occupy a delicate place with the authorities. in the past PSB investigations have trashed monasteries in the search for evidence – not always without reason. not every monk is escaping samsara, some have checkered pasts. other times the peaks are sacred to them, and tho the authorities have given you a permit the monks may shut you down. its happened to A list climbers and money wont make a difference.
3) permits are expensive, sort of. for a previously climbed peak permits are affordable and a great deal as often a significant peak is still barely touched, meaning its still a real exped. usually the first ascent is via the easiest route meaning serious new routes can be attempted for good prices. virgin peaks are another story. tho a peak over 5000m can be thousands of dollars, by international standards its not that abnormal. Russia, Myanmar, Xinjiang, Xizang, Bhutan and some parts of Pakistan will charge you lot more for lower peaks, often by adding various other permits to the order. if youve come from repeat ascents in the Himalaya or discounted peaks in parts of India and Pakistan, then yes, things cost more, but its worth remembering that climbing in Tibetan areas never has been as open as elsewhere.
4) youre not entitled to anything. youre a climber on holiday, not a brain surgeon. climbing doesnt cure HIV, its a sport of affluent white people, its very rare anything is gained by it. being a westerner with lots of gear means nothing to the Chinese authorities, they dont care about Alpinist, sponsorships, publishing deals or who you are. its their backyard, they call the shots. whereas in europe, Nepal etc where climbing is the mainstay of entire economies, in China its not. basically you are asking not to climb, but to indulge yourself in a pointless exercise in a sensitive area you share no responsibility for. you gotta ask why they should let you at all, then approach with that logic. given the chance, the PSB would happily have no one out there.
5) its the same for Chinese climbers. think $5000 is a big hit for you? talk to a Chinese climber. they get the same issues, if not more, because they come under the eye for a bigger chunk of attention. we appear in China, do our thing, then leave. a Chinese climber with resources and connections to put towards a first ascent on the Tibet border has twice as many hoops to jump thru.
6) the effects are real. show a permit and the doors open. the CMA/SMA/YMA/XMA etc all have offices and connections way out into the ranges and villages. its China – the system is embedded. like most heavy bureaucracies showing the right paper usually gets you waved thru and a degree of priority. but….show up without it and things grind to a halt fast, especially if you dont know the fuzzy logic of Chinese negotiations. people choose to ignore it but the CMA blacklist is very, very real. yes, there actually is a data base that has the names and details of blacklisted adventurers. as the whole system is one (ever noticed its the police that handle immigration…) being on a government list means you can be seen by every department, including the embassy back home. and it goes both ways – a history of good relations is the #1 advantage you can have in China. more on that later…
7) the penalties are real. weve not been detained in a provincial Tibetan jail, but its probably not fun. many the time weve peered over the walls of the facilities in Litang and Ganzi, thru the razor wire, and we know which side wed rather be on. you may not be serious problem, but your time will be wasted. if youd rather see a detention cell, fair enough, but some people would rather be out climbing. even 10 years ago the PSB didnt consider western climbers picked up somewhere they shouldnt be worth more than a cheap bribe over a cup of tea, but its not like that any more.
8) big brother IS watching. in a state where all infrastructure is state controlled you dont move thru it without being noticed. the bus driver and the check point cop work for the same boss, and being western you get noticed. this why the authorities require teams to have liaison officers – but remember, they work for the CMA, not for you. unlike Paksitan etc liaison officers are not military and as yet weve never met an LO who didnt become a trusted friend. but they have job to do, in part to field any problems, but also to apply the rules. you messing about behind the PSBs khaki back means you may get a slap on the wrist – but it will be a much bigger issue for the LO whos watch it happened on.
9) its ‘Tibet‘. western Sichuan, Xizang and other Tibetan areas are still unspoiled simply because western interest hasnt forced commercialization like it has in Nepal. the reason we can still do first ascents of 6000m peaks a day or two from town is because China hasnt turned things into Disneyland – and it easily could. Gangga, Genyen, Minya Konka, DaXue etc are all easily accessible from the 12 million people strong Chengdu but they are still genuine, wild, Tibetan ranges. and in part that because access is restricted. 100 years ago it was wax sealed parchments and the threat of death, 50 years ago it rubber stamps between high lamas, local warlords and Beijing, even 20 years ago it was bottles of scotch, days patiently awaiting letters and contributions to all involved to get into there places – today its never been easier despite the expense. Tibet is simply Tibet.
10) what you get for it. its not India. for the cost of a Chinese permit you use 6 lane highways and wifi-enabled hotels to get to the peak of your choice. no maoists, taliban or separatists shoot at you, the electricity works, cell phones work at 5000m, the vehicles work, the food is clean, the beer is cold and women are not veiled. unlike in some places where all the cash from the permit goes towards some fat bureaucrats holiday, in China some of it goes to park maintenance, conservation and climbing projects. what you pay the LOs is a decent salary, drivers earn enough and the money goes into the small towns. of course a healthy cut goes to baiju, hotpot and karaoke, but youve only got to see the way places like Shangqiaogou have benefited from climbing dollars to know. where this is felt most perhaps is when things go bad and rescue or extraction is required – foreign organizations are basically useless there. whilst its true the PSB wont put a heli out just for some climbers (and private helis dont exist, simple) only the CMA has the capacity to assist from a remote range. but they have to know where to look. many examples of CMA assistance exist, perhaps the most covered being when Johnny Copp and Micah Dash died. having god-like power as part of the greater machine, the CMA can cast aside the rules when they need to. consider the other options – which has also happened – and the impotency of of westerners bumbling about trying to manage a rescue in China is sadly unrealistic.
11) they have their reasons. we may not see it that way, but the risks in Tibetan areas are very real. people imagine the paranoia is about spies and journalists, but thats minor. along with the risky environment that includes earthquakes, blizzards, altitude and landslides, parts of Tibet have long histories of dangerous tribal politics. over our 20 years weve had our vehicles held for ransom, been assaulted, been blackmailed by police, had our rooms ransacked, been accosted by prostitutes, been heavied by local strong men, been confronted by illegal gem miners, been pickpocketed by kids, been cornered by smugglers and played by con men. all things the world doesnt associated with Tibet but things that are made resolvable by having a paper with the stamp of the government on it. its ok if you dodge the system and things go as planned, but when they dont….
12) it can be surmounted. the good news is that given tact, research and patience – the keys to all things in China – the permit scenario can be harnessed. we know because we have done it. rather than subvert the authorities, get to know them. make your intentions clear and play a long game. basically – show that you respect the lands you are climbing in. even a fool soon learns fast that in China getting snarky only works against you, whilst playing the game forward makes everyone happy. weve spent our years there connecting the dots so today we have an unprecedented position in relations to the authorities with access, security and freedom, which is what we extend to climbers climbing under our name. where other teams get the heavy end of the process, we have earned the trust to take care of ourselves, and if it can be done, we get to do it.
now this all sounds like iceclimbingjapan has a stake in selling permits for the CMA. no. what we have an interest in is seeing things done over a bigger picture so areas wont get shut down (its happened), climbers wont get hassled (it happens all the time) and the locals get a fair part of the process (they rarely do). its taken decades to get to the freedoms we have and people have put a lot on the line to make it happen. what none of us want to see is a bunch of upstarts shut down plans some climbers who know China have had on the boil for years, waiting for the crack in the door to get access. foreign climbers play a real role in the way access to fringe areas develops, and its built on trust – something harder to get in China than money.