welcome to another year of iceclimbingjapan expeditions. if you like your climbing comfortable, commercial, standardized and with minimal unknowns then please exit this website now
by the time you get to the start of the climbing a LOT of planning needs to have been done: Dan Dasilva at the drop-off for the first winter attempt on Se’erdengpu’s SSW face.
motivated by the successes of recent expeditions, over the coming year we will be going further into unknown areas with bigger ideas and more dynamic agendas – including ideas that are raising the eyebrows of even some of the most vanguard climbers around. like previous trips, we will be combining the latest in styles, logistics and resources to match objectives previously off the radar. not all trips are regular alpine climbing and this years schedule includes ice and mixed trips to places you’ve never heard of and peaks that dont even have names.
ice & mixed climbing in the edgiest parts of Asia. if you thought you knew where the frontier was, think again.
new routes on (barely) known peaks attempted in cutting edge styles ranging from big wall to big push
full first ascents of unnamed peaks, done in true expedition style
needless to say, these trips need commitment, both leading up to and during the trip itself. you will be expected to function as a full team member and that means having the physical ability, climbing ability and expedition mentality appropriate for the trip. these things can all be developed – but not overnight. if you need to sharpen your edge, you need to commit asap.
unusual places take unusual levels of commitment to get to.
this process starts with intelligent contact, which includes detailing your previous climbing experience. we dont hide the fact that not every trip suits every climber and we give priority to the right team, not the profit. each team is kept small and streamlined so logistics stay smooth and allow for optimum adaptability at the sharp end, and our unparalleled access and logistics in places like Tibet opens up options only dreamed about a few years ago.
obscured by clouds: for nearly 20 years we have visited the less known parts of Asia, sometimes under the radar, sometimes working with explorers like Tomatsu Nakamura. we take pride in our constant search for unknown objectives.
all expeditions are costed to include all exped-relevant costs, ie the permits and paperwork, ground logistics, logistic support & staff wages, operating management, hotels/meals when not climbing, team equipment and contingencies. on some trips paid positions exist for photographers.
part of the process will be inclusion in aspects of our custom equipment process. this takes time and once the production dead-line passes its gone.
this is a big deal. possibly not for the last 75 years has such a cascade of new data for climbing been dropped into the lap of climbers. Tomatsu Nakamura‘s new book is a jaw-dropping compendium showcasing much of his lifes work spent cataloging the ranges north and east of the Himalayan divide.
East of the Himalaya: the antidote for complacency
the word ‘classic’ is far too used these days but this work of geography fits the description. East of the Himalaya: Alps of Tibet & Beyond is far, far more than a collection of photos and maps – this book is the gateway to the greatest areas of unclimbed peaks on earth. anyone who said theres little left to climb will be flattened by what this tome contains. even long term followers of Nakamura will be astounded by what’s within these pages, with levels of detail and a collation of data that puts the future of high altitude mountaineering all into one complete lot.
there are peaks in this book that defy description. the vast majority are unvisited, recorded from proximity by Nakamura’s peerless team that includes logistics providers second to none anywhere north of Everest. if you are excited by the glimpses of peaks you have seen in the AAJ, Alpinist, Japan Alpine News etc you will be awe struck by the extent of whats shown here. beyond mere photographs of alluring peaks is a library of maps that make this much, much more than alpine porn. East of the Himalaya is truly aimed at climbers and pulls together the topos, line maps, geographic data, cultural data and regional details expeditions can be based on. going thru the hundreds of pages of maps, plates and text illuminate a pandoras box of what is possible. despite the scope covered in the many hundreds of images and maps, what is here is only the edge of what is in Tibet.
be warned tho: the content of this book is way beyond the limits of roadside cragging. even the most open of these areas – places like Shuangqiao gou, Minya Konka etc – are serious increments beyond what is found in places like the Khumbu and even Baltoro. even to seasoned Tibet climbers much of what East of the Himalaya details is well beyond normal expedition parameters of the 21st century. even after nearly 20 years of iceclimbingjapan visiting some of the regions described in East of the Himalaya, much of what is shown is known to be significantly more heady – if not impossible – than what we have seen. the material here is genuine exploration.
note: despite being available at an astoundingly agreeable price, East of the Himalaya, isnt available in huge numbers. versions in Japanese, Chinese and English.
japan has a good reputation for hard rock climbing, hard bouldering. well known climbers regularly put up world class efforts across japan and foreign climbers often come and repeat them. when japanese climbers go overseas they take this with them and do things like speed records in Yosemite and vanguard boulder problems likewise japanese alpine climbers and mountaineers put up consistently hard routes in the big ranges and pull off impressive mountaineering stunts. its a rare year for the Piolet D’or to not include japanese names.
but at home, in japan, the state of japanese winter climbing is dire.
during the 60s, 70s and 80s hard japanese climbers put up thousands of serious routes across the country. from horrorshow death routes in places like Tanigawadake to desperate short mixed routes in the north. with over 20 peaks above 3000m and another +30 over 2500m – most with >1500m of prominence – plus a massively carved topography exposing spires, walls and ravines – there was a lot to choose from. over this time an attitude of hard climbing intent fomented as teams and individuals, often connected with universities, bounced off each other to put ever more committed lines, often in remote areas. that many died cannot be denied and a visit to the granite boulders around the base of Ichi-no-kura is a sobering experience, where dozens and dozens of brass plaques are placed directly below the face of the mountain claimed to have the highest death toll in the world. with research some of those names will also be found listed as the first ascents of lines and variations throughout the country, as well as in places like the Karakorum and Patagonia. for over 20 years climbers in Japan pushed the standards of difficulty wherever they went, and of those who survived many can still be met in the mountains, climbing well into old age.
directly from this era sprang the likes of the Giri Giri boys, Hirata & Taneguchi, Hanatani and Manome and the other ‘last generation’ of Japans elite alpinists, now all in their 40s and wondering what comes next. these climbers brought Japanese style out of the reputation for siege tactics and suicide routes by rebelling against an earlier tradition of climbing hierarchy that makes the battles for Yosemite appear trivial in comparison. consistently and daringly they took what they learned in Japan and reinvented it for the international stage with stunning success. in the mix with the Eastern Europeans, Italians and Americans they were climbing at the edge.
the roof at Mizugaki: dozens of horizontal mixed lines to match the Canadian stuff.
but some time around the turn of the millennium it all ground to a halt. the attitude lapsed and within Japan the idea of climbing hard stuff evaporated. overseas Japanese climbers still did good stuff, but it was the same names getting better – no one new was joining by coming up thru the ranks. there were no wonder-kids like Will Sim and David Lama, no precocious teenagers wanting to tag along. within Japan these days its rare to hear about serious new alpine routes, variations and hard repeats. despite an explosion of gear shops, outdoor media and busy car parks at the trailheads, the locations of Japans serious climbing areas are quiet, guidebooks are out of print and the trails to access where the good stuff have been forgotten. its like one day the notion got turned off. the old guys stopped telling and the young guys stopped asking.
the issue isnt that Japan ran out of hard climbing options. a visit to any of these places reveals decades of new climbing still to be done, not to mention link ups, variations, winter attempts, free versions, faster versions, solo versions, non-stop versions and new interpretations of existing routes. climbers like Hanatani and Hirayama have done isolated versions of some of this, but the idea itself hasnt gained traction. unlike in Europe and North America where the spirit of alpinism burns hot and fire-brand young climbers compete (sometimes suicidaly) to put up edgier and edgier routes, cheered on by and enraging their mentors of the generation before whos ideas they are extending. the energy in places like Vail, Black Rock, the Ruth Gorge and Lofoten is palpable and real – and no doubt parallel to what went on in Japan when things were moving forward. that it all fizzled out is the dropping of a baton that effects climbing everywhere.
what happened is a multi-faceted thing that at one end is a young climbing scene without the idea dangling before them, and the other end is a community of older climbers with a dead tradition behind them. between the two is a large climbing media – local and international – that does NOTHING about it. in climbing centers elsewhere the associated media acts as a recorder, collator, distiller and deseminater of the sport of climbing. sometimes cloaked with a thick layer of advertising and hyperbole, at other times dryly documented, it is considered fundamental to push to idea of climbing better and better. in Japan this process is pale and ill-directed. that foreign climbers know nothing of japans climbing potential is only in accordance with the lack of knowing within japan itself. talk to any aspiring Japanese alpinist and they know far more about the exploits of Ueli Steck and Tommy Caldwell than they do of the hard climbers at home.
thin, desperate and high: areas like White Dragon Wall have a unique Japanese style
of course the easy blame goes on ‘lazy kids of today’, risk adverse cultures and long work hours – but other sports arent suffering. hiking, skiing, surfing and trail running are exploding off the shelves, as are other forms of climbing – its just winter alpinism thats failing and that anomaly points the finger at the players. what could be happening is that the elements that oversee the climbing scene, the media, the retailers, the top climbers and the gear companies – same as everywhere – promote the idea of serious climbing. instead they pander to an introverted, exclusionist crowd have already decided climbing hard is not for them. the very idea of seeking out aspiring young climbers doesnt exist as an aging scene of mediocre guidebook junkies chooses not to see them. the process where young climbers have the inspiration and opportunities before them to get better and more creative is not cultivated nor seen as interesting.
where the international climbing scene fits in is in its lack of recognition of a significant contributor to world alpinism. both foreign and japanese climbers are to blame. when international climbers visit japan they do nothing of interest, maybe a day at a crag between awkwardly translated presentations at the Patagonia and Mountain Hardwear stores. it can be counted on one hand the number of sponsored climbers who have actually come here to climb, despite the good reports. the exotic culture and language divide these days is not enough excuse – plenty of hard skiers can do it. the japanese climbing media is a large part of the problem, bottle-necking anything about climbing in japan and denying what happens in japan exposure outside. the external outlets that could cover japanese climbing simply dont and the people whos job it is to collate it are not doing their jobs.
why it matters is that world alpinism , like any scene, is a constant interplay of ideas from disparate elements opening up new possibilities. in the 80s Japanese climbers brought unique ideas to world climbing that saw major efforts on the worlds hardest routes, and tho not all had perfect outcomes they were a huge part of the climbing-scape that was the cauldron from which contemporary climbing emerged. perhaps second only to the Polish, japanese expeditions filled a crazy outer edge that pushed possibilities ever higher in places like K2 and the Latok group and the eastern Himalaya.
Kaikomagatake: crucible of Japanese hard alpinism, dozens of ice, mixed and wall routes awaiting new ascents.
whats this got to do with foreign climbers? for decades Japanese climbers have contributed to the evolution of climbing around the world. as a world sport its always been the way for ideas from different countries to catalyze another, and on this is built the world of climbing. right now japan is at a low ebb and needs resuscitating. international climbers that come here will find a unique climbing world that is well entrenched but not overrun. despite generations climbing, japans mountains are not crowded and sold out to tourism. unlike climbing meccas elsewhere the effects of attention havnt damaged the very thing climbers come to see. most foreign climbers are astounded at the lack of permits, fees, camping restrictions and inflated prices. the flip side of this is that Japanese alpine areas are undeveloped by western standards. very few cable cars bring the peaks down to size, climbing here is still usually a matter of multiday efforts. in the years since japanese hard climbing went into hibernation the alpinists world has moved on and evolved, and japan has been distant to a lot of it. standards in mixed, wall and style have exploded, rendering a lot of serious japanese climbing ripe to be picked up on. in some ways things were pushed as far as they could go 30 years ago, to a threshold that ability, gear and ideas couldnt breach at the time. right now Japan is ripe for things to fire up again.
Oyafudo: some great routes done – many more waiting
what can be done about it?
the problem needs to be addressed from both sides; make Japan more accessible for foreign climbers and foreign climbers need to harden up and come here. in turn this will spur interest from the young locals. iceclimbingjapan knows thru years of experience that foreign climbers are treated warmly everywhere they go and the thirst for interaction from the young Japanese climbers is enormous. winter after winter we talk with Japans top climbers and the very idea that foreigners want to climb here stirs a significant climbing scene to know more. the goal is to rekindle the process of Japanese hard climbing before it blinks out. the landscape, the culture, the logistics are already here – whats needed is the fire. the goal in not to transplant the climbing fervor of Alaska, Chamonix and Scotland, but to bring some of the attitude from those sorts of places to show the young japanese a way forward. like everything here, the ideas will be fused, rewoven and spat out in their own peculiar way and winter climbers everywhere will benefit.
the recent trips in China/Tibet were at opposite ends of the expedition spectrum: minimalist & aerobic, and grinding & loaded. both trips had almost identical timelines, altitudes and temperatures, but engaged in different ways that had different effects on the metabolism. and just as each trip required very specific equipment, methods and timelines they also required very different eating.
when not climbing eat!
Trip 1: Mt Asura North Face, Alpine mixed
this trip was always about having minimal footprint, and as a team of 3 we had very efficient carrying-capacity. we also knew we would cover a lot of ground and need to consume a high-carbohydrate diet for constant fueling.
breakfast / 1000 kcals
consumed whilst gearing up: 1 cup of quality muesli loaded with seeds, coconut flakes, coconut oil and weight gain powder + instant coffee with butter
day food / 750 kcals
eaten as snacks at belays or brief rests, this was an equation set against time – longer climbing days pushed the envelope: salami, muesli bars, nuts + 1L water mixed with weight gain powder
night / 1200 kcals
eaten as leisurely as possible, usually in 2 installments: instant rice with coconut oil & Chinese meat sauce + soup with dried vegetables + weight gain powder + muesli bar + salami
at just under 3000 kcals a day i was consuming about 2/3 of what i was spending and in the end i came back with only 2 nights food remaining – the 2 nights i could barely eat from the effects of altitude. i was hungry but not crazily so, and probably could have extended the diet another 2 or 3 days before feeling it. i get the feeling beyond about 10 days the need for the enzymes, beta carotene and folate from fresh food gets critical (as also evidenced in the second trip).
eating properly is time well spent: simple food like a tub of cream cheese and a loaf of good bread goes a long way to keeping you moving forward
Trip 2: Se’erdengpu West Face, Alpine Big Wall
Big Wall style is slow. add +5000m of altitude, temperatures consistently below -5c, almost zero direct sun and only 2 climbers to carry the loads and it gets really slow. unlike Mt Asura where kcals were being burned moving fast, on Se’erdengpu the kcals were being burned shuffling slowly in the cold and moving big loads. for this we needed much more fat and ‘real’ food to make it digestible and we knew that with colder days we would make the time to cook properly rather than just boil water.
breakfast / 1000 kcals
1 cup muesli loaded with seeds and nuts OR wholegrain bread with cream cheese and bruschetta paste + weight powder + real coffee with butter + peanut butter
day food / 1200 kcals
muesli bars & protein bars + 1L water with weight powder
night / 1600 kcals
eaten leisurely: spaghetti with pesto, olive oil, salami, cheese OR laksa with noodles, coconut cream, coconut oil + freeze dried chinese soup + 1 square of chocolate + almonds + peanut butter
at nearly 4000 kcals a day we felt we were near the capacity of what we could consume compared to what we could carry and had time for, which was probably about also about 2/3 of what we were spending. being a slow style of climbing we werent burning at a higher heart rate like at Mt Asura. after coming down from the wall after 9 days we were hungry but again, not ravenously so. neither of us had lost our appetites, but we were wanting variation.
what made the big difference was 2 things:
1) the weight gain powder – the same stuff body builders use. drunk from a valve-topped squeeze bottle also like body builders use it keeps a good dose of carbohydrate, protein, fat and sugar trickling into the system. in nearly 20 days cold climbing at altitude i never once felt the sharp pang of being too depleted. what seemed to also help was a nightly dose of multivitamins, dietary fiber, magnesium/calcium, vitamin E & BCAAs.
2) having a cooking system capable of real cooking in the cold, ie a pot that could be cooked in and a stove that allowed gas canisters to liquid feed. this meant we could adapt our food as we needed to, adding and tweaking what we wanted rather than being slaves to the packet. it meant we could eat fresher, tastier food than what dehydrated allows.
a ‘real’ stove is the key to ‘real’food: being at the mercy of dehydrated food has its outcomes
what didnt differ between the 2 trips was minimizing the refined sugar – aside from a single square of chocolate each night on Se’erdengpu and what came in the weight powder, peanut butter and on the muesli bars (the latter we would have avoided if feasible) we carried no candy, no sugar to add to anything, no sugary drinks, no junk food – and we never missed it. if anything we avoided the hormonal slumps and peaks that seem to come with it and also seem to carry a sharper edge to the feeling of hunger.
we also took care to eat decent amounts of fiber to keep our systems moving (another reason to avoid refined sugar) and shat well the entire time – much more important than some people realize.
to do it again i will change these things:
1) scrape more refined sugar out of the daily intake, possibly making custom bars. keep a small amount of complex sugar snacks for when needed
2) more fat in the forms of mozzarella, cream cheese and salami
3) less coconut oil and whats carried take in a better container for the cold – it freezes too hard
4) more bread – it survives better than we expected and combined with cream cheese and salami is a better breakfast than muesli alone
5) more insulated water bottles and a larger pot to melt more snow more efficiently
>>>this information violates just about every warning issued by stove manufacturers, tent manufacturers and compressed gas manufacturers. we know that. we also feel that if you have the wherewithal to climb hard, cold routes you also have the wherewithal to manage other dangers. proceed at your own risk<<<
there isnt really a cold-specific stove out there. companies will say there is, and lots of stoves will burn in the cold, but set into the demands of high, cold climbing none tick all the boxes. its not enough for a stove to just burn at low temperatures and/or high altitude, it has to function for the realities of climbing which means inside a tent, being powerful, being as fuel and heat efficient as possible, being safe, being light weight, being tough and actually being able to cook – not just boil water. as yet nothing offered by the makers of stove systems does all that.
liquid stoves solve much of the power and low temperature issue. and thats it. they are heavy, dangerously cumbersome, suicidaly fire-hazardous and offer you a world of mishaps with toxic fuel. in a storm-bound tent they may melt water fast but compromise the tent as an environment of shelter. even the innovative design from Soto, that flares less, is still lacking. good in large base tents or snow shelters, taking one into a portaledge or single-skin on a chopped slope raises more problems than it solves.
canister stoves have come a long way in the last decade but still dont nail all the factors, tho they do come closer. the canisters can be inefficient in the cold, they can lack power, most lack the flame variability to really cook and some – most famously the Reactor – produce dubious levels of carbon monoxide. lighter and more compact they lend themselves better to cold climbing, but when it comes to turning ice and dehydrated matter into nutrients they lack the power.
winter after winter we had suffered the limitations of several different stoves, including Reactors, Jetboils, XKGs, Mukas, Whisperlites, Pocket Rockets and weird things from Snowpeak. not everything, but enough to see the problems were everywhere. so we sat down and made a list of the things needed and simply decided to hack it together ourselves. the lists were (based on things were had seen fail or succeed over the years):
safe. no flaring, no spillable fuel, safe levels of CO emission, low center of gravity
powerful. enough Kcal/h output to really melt snow
variable. we want to really cook as nutrition demands it
wind resistant. for obvious reasons
packable. light, compact, damage-resistant and easy to use
functional. hangable, canisters manageable in the cold, reliable to light, stable on the ground.
efficient. drain as much liquid gas from the canister as possible, burn as much of the available expressed gas, capture as much heat as possible
reliable. no flimsy bits, no complex components, no special ignition, few moving parts, adaptable to other pots
what wasnt on the list was;
expense. as a tier one bit of gear that lives depend on we will pay what it takes
gimmicks. after seeing all the little add-on bits of junk either fail or get lost we ignored them
brand loyalty. we figure if the big players can fill the gap then theres the right to go cowboy.
‘integrated’ designs. this stove would go round the world – it needed to work with whatever bits were available.
some factors were obvious;
the pot is half the issue. no matter how good the stove you need to an equal pot to harness it – it may well be a good pot does better with a bad stove than vice versa
‘remote canister’ stoves are the only real solution. they have the low center of gravity, canister manageability and damage-resistance. liquid stoves are bulky, toxic, complex and fiddly.
efficiency demands a preheating tube combined with a flux ring / exchanger system. not many canister rigs have this.
durability = simplicity. clunky, basic designs last longer – most systems fail due to damaging complex parts
enter the FRANKEN-STOVE (Mk I).
and this was the result, as tested over +50 winter days/nights, trying expeditions to altitude, a dozen fuel choices, the rigors of logistics and travel. elegantly simple, we used minimal skill and tools to build what far out-shines any other system. it cost – all up it could go at nearly $300 if you bought all the bits new – but if you measure value by performance its worth 10 x that.
the Frankenstove happily melting snow for 2 people at 4900m.
we took a Primus Eta Spider stove because it has the best Kcal/h output-to-least CO output available. this stove is so low-CO it makes Jetboil look dirty and the Reactor look like nerve gas. aside from that it sits low with a wide pot base, and has a remote canister to milk more gas. we usually have it hanging so the canister either sits under in in an inverted helmet, or by using a magnetic hook dangles from the bottom of the rig.
as a pot we (after lots of testing) scavenged an MSR Reactor pot. its heavy but the flux system is efficient, the clear lid fits well and allows a view of the water, and the long handle makes it good for scooping snow. its also strong and a decent profile being relatively wide at the base.
what makes it all pull together tho is our home-rigged wind shield/reflector that keeps so much heat from bleeding away you can put your hands right around it (ie same efficiency as a Jetboil) but allows access for lighting (unlike the Reactor/Windburner). this we made from a titanium UL cup-bowl thing, chopped a slot into it and punched a few vents holes. we sized it magically to fit perfectly inside the 3 pot stands and it slots in/out nicely. again, dozens of tests have shown it works. as an excellent touch, being titanium, it cools fast.
to hang the rig we bought, cut and swaged some thin cable, stuck one of those silly ‘S’ shaped novelty biners on the top and a tiny biner on each end that clips to the 3 stands of the stove. it balances well, but mishaps can happen especially in a tent being nailed hard by wind, so we string a bit of shock cord around it. the S biner was chosen because the top clips to the tent/branch/belay and the bottom clips to both the stove and assorted paraphernalia like igniters, spoons, knives, cups etc. its a little thing that goes a loooong way to making confined and dodgy living spaces manageable.
the Bialetti test: if it doesnt take a moka pot its not even in the running – a major Reactor fail.
to top it all off we use the Primus igniter thing thats long so you dont need to take the pot away to light – tho we have found every Piezo lighter to fail above 4100m for some reason.
it’s stable enough to take any pot you want, including the new collapsible silicone ones (tho the large size distorts a bit) AND vitally, it handles a Bialetti coffee espresso pot. we have cooked tagiatelli, laksa and chinese noodles in it perfectly, no damage to the pot and no cleaning/burning issues. despite digging snow with the pot there is no damage that affects its cooking. over the year of trialing it would have melted literally hundreds of liters of snow and ice.
it’s not perfect tho.
what failed was, unlike a Jetboil, Windburner or several other designs, it doesnt clip together. that would be nice. and with that it’s not holdable like a jetboil, so balancing the thing on your knee would be very sketchy. the other side of that issue is its the clip-together element that limits the other pots that can be used – either nothing will fit, the adapters are crap or the area to fit a pot is too small
stable on frozen, pebbly ground with a Tibetan wind blowing
and if you like that wait till you see Mk II. being tested now, early vectors point at being a remarkable 35% better across the board (power, efficiency, weight, function). stay tuned.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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 as things got steep thru bands of rock.
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.
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.
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.
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 the rock thinner, but no direct sun made for solid conditions.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
post here from our friends at Cilogear
and the newswire article at Alpinist
not all ‘expeditions’ are actually expeditions. going somewhere well known, following a standardized timeline, to do something thats been refined into a process and to have a contingent of anonymous locals do the heavy lifting from points A – Z does not an expedition make. by default real expeditions are concerned with the unknown. that’s the whole point. when the objective isnt completely known then other factors like resources, timelines, risks, preparation and logistics juggle the unknown too. the nature of an expedition is to render a series of unknowns knowable. if almost every element is already known it needs to be called something else.
real expeditions are about doing things together in places they havent been done before
for an ‘expedition’ you prepare by reading books from the ‘Adventure’ section of the bookshop, following a 6 week fitness plan from FHM and once a month visit a gear shop with your list. you buy folding cups, titanium spoons, $400 sunglasses and anything with a stuff sack. along with your new boots and down pants, everything goes into a huge TNF duffel bag.
for an expedition you prepare by search obscure Russian sources for maps in cyrillic, patching your sleeping mat, running up hills with rocks in a pack and trying to order small-production gear from companies that answer their email once a month. even with light weight gear it becomes obvious you will be wearing your boots on the plane and smuggling on a 35kg pack cinched to breaking point as hand luggage.
on an ‘expedition’ you arrive at an airport and are met by a rep from the booking company and a few minor employees who shuffle your load to a company van and whisk you to a 3 star hotel where others dressed in expensive boots with huge duffel bags are shunting about the lobby.
on an expedition you arrive at an airport, everyone stares as you roll your own stack of bags out to a taxi, you hand over the name of the only hotel in town that accepts foreigners and assume you will be taken the long route. after 20 minutes of sign language and charades at reception you are shown to a room with no cable tv, and after the 3rd try on the phone get thru to ‘your guy in town’ an meet him in the lobby.
on an ‘expedition’ you spend the next day signing disclaimers, doing a tour of town then bond over dinner at a famous restaurant ‘where all the climbers go’.
on an expedition you spend the next day trying to find peanut butter, ziplok bags, snickers bars and instant coffee all over town. dinner is from the street stall across the road and you are up repacking and sorting muesli into bags until 2am
with no local industry catering to climbing the process of procuring expedition supplies is a matter of doing the best you can
on an ‘expedition’ the company van drives you to a village where the company bosses ‘cousin’ has a hostel. you eat a dumbed down version of local food and try the local hooch. there are stickers from previous eastern european and iranian groups on the windows and sit down toilets that still just empty into a hole. your room has hot water even tho the locals dont. everyone in town knows why you are there, where you will go tomorrow and when to expect you back. you talk mostly with other foreigners and marvel at the exotic places they come from whilst viewing the locals as entertaining.
on an expedition you drive in an overloaded 4wd until dark, then stay the night somewhere with no heating, electricity or food. the owners are uneasy about having foreigners around and their kids get sent down the road so you can have their beds. the police stop by and are polite but ask a lot of questions. that night you can hear dogs fighting in the streets. you piss in a bottle as the process of finding a toilet is the less-good option. almost no one in town sees you arrive or depart and those that do dont understand nor care what you are doing. having never seen foreigners before you have no common language to explain even if they did.
on an ‘expedition’ your gear all leaves town hours before you do and you start the approach along a well defined trail where kids ask for money, girls sell trinkets and signs from NGO’s adorn the trail side. you walk with the head guide who seems to know everyone they pass, and by midday has told you his life story. lunch is at another ‘cousins’ home. after a total 5 hours on foot you arrive at a small hotel / row of big yellow tents to be greeted with the local tea, a jar of Tang and popcorn. repeat 6 or 7 times.
on an expedition you are left on a lonely roadside with a promise of return in a specified time. your pack ways a lot more than you want it to, even tho you are aware it contains far less food than it really should. with a map printed off Google Earth you start down a valley before anyone sees you are out there, following goat trails. lunch what you can eat as you ferry gear across a stream. the day is done after 2 hours looking for somewhere flat for the tent. you eat rehydrated food, drink boiled water and sleep in your clothes. repeat for as many days as it takes to get to somewhere to use a basecamp.
keeping the psyche when plans waver is considered normal on expeditions
on an ‘expedition’ you follow an obvious path up scree, eventually coming to a fixed line that leads past the remains of Korean tents, rusted Italian cans and sun bleached prayer flags. further up the fixed lines are some other people, a mix of barely equipped locals with large packs, massively over dressed foreigners with tiny packs and the occasional european athlete-climber with huge boots and lots of logos. camps are on large ledges and set out according to company. your guide is already there, having arrived hours before where hed left his gear from his last trip up there a week ago. everybody is talking about ‘Dex’, recharging batteries, sat phone reception and Alpinist magazine. repeat until ready to summit.
on an expedition you take the wrong gully twice before getting the one you can see on the print out. after realizing most of your rack is the wrong size you run out full rope length pitches on just a few blades and the good ol’ yellow alien, trying to get height so you see above the colouir walls and try and locate yourself on the map. the first night is a bivy where you spend 3hrs melting ice and lay awake worrying about having enough gear to go either up or down. every gust of wind you worry is an impending storm. rather than repeat you decide the next day to drop back to base, get your shit together then try again.
when nothing is guaranteed simply getting thru the night is success
on an ‘expedition’ your problems consist of hygiene in a series of camps with dubious sanitary issues, charging batteries, rationing coffee filters, staying ahead of the guy you met last year who was fitter, finding new books to read and whiling away the boring excess hours before and after each days climbing. you play 200 games of connect four, watch 17 films with Jude Law in them, rearrange the rocks around your tent and twice visit the cooking tent to see how the locals do things.
on an expedition you spend as much time drying and coiling ropes, drying sleeping bags and patching tarps as you do climbing. you draw and redraw a dozen topos, dig out gravel to try and collect snow melt and reread the same out of date copy of the Economist.
‘sleep’ in a fragile bivy is the stage between stressing about tomorrow and exhaustion
on an ‘expedition’ nights are spent drinking tea and eating salami whilst discussing property prices and visa procedures in large orange tents. sleep is disrupted by flatulence, the sound of your tent mate typing emails and a snoring Slovenian in the next tent.
on an expedition nights seen as necessary evils, spent balancing a stove, melting snow, keeping gas, gloves, waterbottles and boot liners from freezing and eating whatever you can in the dark as you conserve batteries. thru the gaps in the tarp you watch the clouds move below you and only relax enough to sleep when you see the first light of day. the mornings are either depressing scrambles to stuff gear into a pack, or the best moments of your life as you watch the world from a place no human ever has.
expedition climbing is a series of successes, where every pitch demands working out and every high point is to new terrain.
on an ‘expedition’ summit day is a buzz of agitation. everyone has their camera batteries charged. the summit itself is amazing and a great group atmosphere. coming down you give tips to those going up and hug your guide as you exclaim how you dont believe you actually did it. with the job done its now just a matter of getting home, tho people still coming up the fixed lines slow you down. basecamp is beer, emails and giving away Clif bars.
on an expedition the summit doesnt come. you get close, but what you see on the print out and what is actually there is not the same. several days of stressful effort and nights of bad sleep, plus the dehydration, dont leave enough gas in the tank to take the risk of pushing further. as it is you may not have enough gear to rap all the way, so you down climb the easy bits. at the high point where you turn around you see dozens of other peaks. way below you can see the valley you need to follow to get back to the road. a near-miss on the way down convinces you to stop and bivy rather than push into the 23rd hour without sleep. basecamp is covered in a layer of snow and your food is all frozen. the next day is spent laying in the sun, the tiny trail of an airplane overhead is the first sign of other humans since leaving the road.
on an ‘expedition’ it’s a race back to town. the exotic local culture now gets in the way and a sense of familiarity and having summitted sets you apart from the newcomers you pass going in. you cant wait for cheeseburgers, sushi and real beer. the internet feels slower than on the way in as you search amongst your stack of emails for people to tell your news.
on an expedition theres the inevitable concern about when the 4wd will appear. as you wait you cook slices of salami to use up the remaining gas. all talk has been of how it could have been done better. the weight of the gear you left as anchors and the food you ate is replaced by the grime and damp that infuses everything. only 2 pairs of socks over the entire time has left your feet shriveled and a strange colour. when the 4wd arrives you simply force your full packs in and settle in amongst it. on the way out you stop to check other aspects of the peak, deciding you should have come from the north. you wake up as the headlights illuminate the front of some unopen-looking hotel as you pull in. a sleepy owner points up some stairs to a room with no tv or curtains. for a bed with no suspension its better than a sleeping bag.
the game’s not over till that vehicle returns to that lonely road and everything fits inside.
after an ‘expedition’ you arrive home with a tan and spend days telling people about near-misses and the amazing local culture whilst quietly mentioning how much it all cost. you dabble with thoughts about contributing to NGO’s, sponsorship the motivational speaking circuit and other ideas for incorporating it all into your daily life. the trinkets you bought get hung near the TV and your huge boots go into the purgatory between the garage and a for sale forum.
after an expedition you spend a month regaining your normal weight and getting feeling back to your toes. no one has much interest in a place theyve never heard of, that you didnt summit. the magazines have no interest in your story because without a summit or death it didnt happen and your photos only cover up to when the batteries died. the only souvenirs are some cheap flip flops you bought after losing your good ones and some currency no one will exchange despite the huge amount of it you have. it’s possible your boots will see another trip but you need to replace an entire rack of nuts, and people keep asking if you want to go to Everest next.
autumn in Tibet is like autumn anywhere – rapidly cooling, some moisture still in the air and oscillating winds both cold and neutral. only in Tibet it’s all exaggerated. the winds are colder, the sun is stronger, the difference between sun and shade is huge and the cold fronts huge. this means clothing needs to cover a wide spectrum of use, from sun protection to frosted tents way below freezing.
but first a rant…
current developments in fabrics and insulation have changed high mountain climbing clothing a lot, doing away with both the old standards of what is used, and how they mix. when the layers change so do how you layer them, and anyone saying nothing has changed since the 80’s simply doesnt have their eyes open. the old notion of a polypro baselayer, a fleece or pile midlayer then a Goretex shell on top and a huge down jacket at the end is now as relevant as plastic boots and leashes.
today, baselayers are about being warm by being dry, not by insulating. this makes them lighter by being thinner and having less density. the layers on top do any insulating required. contemporary baselayers function as well as sun layers due to their proficiency at drawing moisture off the skin. midlayers today dont just insulate, they provide a protective barrier as well by shielding wind and moisture whilst allowing excess heat to pass outwards. in the past what took 3 garments (base, mid, shell) now takes 2 and the result is more efficient, lighter and ergonomic (recall that every zip, seam, pocket and layer of fabric accumulates to compromise the end result – something to be said for elegant simplicity). shell layers now bear little in common with the hefty Gore garments of 10 years ago; they weigh less, they use less pieces, the bits like zips and fasteners are lighter and better, they stretch, and as part of a system of new fabrics they get worn much less, serving only as outlier elements. where the shell jacket was once the signature of the alpine climber, its now a secondary thing as the belay jacket comes to the fore, much to the concert of the companies.
ahh yes, the belay jacket, perhaps the symbol of all thats evolving in the alpine climbing and clothing world. both as an indicator of changes in climbing style and industrial development, the very idea of a specific belay jacket has taken a long time to solidify: partly because such garments are expensive to produce, partly because climbers dont turn them over like some other garments, partly because it took time for climbing styles to catch up and partly because the textiles to really make the idea work lagged behind the demand for them. like shell jackets, polypros and fleeces, not long ago insulated jackets were bulky and full of problems – to the point where it wasnt abnormal to simply leave them behind. as insulation got better and base and mid layers got more efficient, the demands on belay layers shifted and we now have garments that were mere fantasy once.
a well-functioning system has little barrier preventing moisture escaping from the skin and within the layers itself, only just enough of a barrier to stop wind sucking warm air away faster than demanded. when external conditions start to steal warmth too fast for the system to maintain, a shell is added as a ‘heat cap’. like the other layers, this heat cap is only as permeable as needed, aiming to capture the higher pressure inside the system as a force to keep cold and moisture out.
new fabrics dont just do the job better, they have better structural integrity that allows them to be put together in more ergonomic designs. only 2 or 3 years ago ‘cutting edge’ designs had dozens of panels of special fabrics that ‘body mapped’ for a garments demands. now as single fabrics have broader spectrums of function – and construction methods have evolved in parallel – garments are becoming more streamlined with less seams to fail and less bits to get in the way.
insulating, breathing, protective & ergonomic; fabrics have evolved to a remarkable state recently, altering the old definitions of how they worked together