EATING ON FUJI: CONSTANT CALORIES

Mt Fuji as we do it is a single huge push up and back in a day. we start at the bottom and return to the bottom, hopefully via the summit. at its most streamlined its still a 10hr round trip, covering 2500m of vertical gain, and all of it is cold, wind-strafed and upwards. most trips take about 12hrs. add it all up and its a 4500kcal day.

the effort is a constant slow grind forwards and cold becomes the major factor. without adequate kcal intake the chances of topping out are small. now those 4500kcals dont need to be consumed on the mountain. with a 750kcal breakfast, another 250kcal snack in the car and 750kcals waiting for the return, theres about 2750kcals left and less again if you apply the idea that replacing at least 50% will get you thru.

lets say consuming 1500 – 1750kcals over the +10hrs is the goal.

800kcals of liquid energy + 1200kcals of salami, nuts and bars. chocolate coated coffee beans added for the hell of it.

to consume that amount of kcals in that time doesnt happen by chance. a couple of snickers or Clif bars and a bottle of water wont do it. to get it right means a constant flow of carbohydrate into the bloodstream, and after a while replenishment of fat and protein. efforts that long push well beyond what simple carbohydrate consumption serves, not to mention that amount of kcals in carbodydrate form is pretty bulky.

food works best when it is real as the balance of nutrients tells the metabolism and brain it is satisfied or not. gels are fine for a few hours, but aside from solidifying they throw the bodies sense of satiation. carbohydrates in the form of dense bread and quality bars contain a good amount of bang for the weight. complex sugars in the form of dried fruit comes buffered in fiber that makes the brain happy, slowly releases the sugars and gives the bowels something to work on. fats in the form of nuts trickle easily into the system with less of the digestive burden of saturated fats. and salami as a source of protein, extra fat and sodium keeps the body ticking nicely. along with being ‘real’, these foods can be easily found, and picked up 24hrs a day at Japanese convenience stores. 1000kcals from a balanced mix of these things is easy to throw together in a ziplok bag and fits easily in a pocket or top of a small pack.

liquid kcals can come in the form of weight gain powder, endurance concoctions or meal replacement drinks. dumped into a 1L sports bottle its easy to carry 750 – 1000kcals in fluid form. good liquid kcal mixes contain fat, electrolytes and protein in proportions close to what your body will need replacing. you wouldnt want to live on these powders, but for occasional use they fill a gap easily worth their refined natures.

those attempting the Asama-yama-Fuji double header will need to consume like this on both mountains, as fueling (after endurance training – but its too late by then) is the biggest factor towards both safety and success.

EXPED EATING: DIFFERENT TRIPS, DIFFERENT MENUS

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

THE FRANKEN-STOVE Mk I: COLD WALL COOKING

>>>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.

PREPARATION: PRE-EXPEDITION TRIPS – WHY BOTHER?

somewhere up a huge granite face, a long way from home, with no topo to point the way, in the cold, is NOT the place to find out how your stove works. or your bivy bag. or your aiders. or your tent. or your partner. likewise, a day at a crag or a night in your backyard isnt realistic either.

unexplored objectives, unique mix of gear, early efforts up high, lots of factors unknown: with enough to focus on already, it pays to hammer out any details you can well before

when youre spending good money and energy and have pinned your expectations on a result, its unrealistic to not fortify your ability with functional practice. climbing trips to serious objectives are not the place for cutting corners, and worse than cutting corners on gear is cutting them on capability. especially things easily rectified once dragged thru the mill of experience. its amazing to see what climbers let slip thru with no preparation, even obvious stuff. common bug-ridden elements include:

  • cooking, melting and eating: these things need to become automated second nature as 9 times out of 10 they happen in cramped, stressful, time-dependant conditions. you need the right tools and to know how to make it all work. there’s a reason manfacturers say not to cook in a tent and circumventing this warning is skill, not luck.
  • packing to climb: messing about in the dark with a hundred stuff sacks is dangerous, annoying and time-wasting. you need to know what you have, where it is and how to get to it. beyond minimizing rummaging when youd rather be sleeping, access to important gear can save your life.
  • setting up bivvys: alpine tents, tarps, chopping ledges, securing gear, being safe and maybe even comfortable are important skills that need trailling to understand.
  • sorting racks: the less known the route the more unique and complex the gear. weekends cragging – especially sport or in the gym – negate the frontline skills of forseeing, racking and using the array of gear a leader needs
  • exped-belays: unaccustomed climbers dont realize how different an expedition-belay is. the time, the jobs to do, the conditions, the environment, the safety are lightyears away from guidebook stuff
  • seconding: along with the belays, seconding is a real job as part of a real team. you have shit to do. as the leader is busy at the sharp end the second has the tail-end responsibilities
  • descent: you usually dont just walk off an expedition objective. getting off unknown mountains with your gear, on ‘exped’ anchors, as a team, is a VITAL skill.

EVERY ONE of these things is fundamental to staying on mountains. NONE of these things are hypothetical. ALL of these things are trainable. not having these skills refined and functional wastes energy when you need it most and compromises your position as a team member – if you cant get it right someone else is affected.

pre-exped ‘debugging’ trips are as much about assessing your condition as they are about nailing down the general ‘house keeping’ skill set and test running the equipment you plan to use. a debugging trip needs to take place close enough to an expeds schedule to apply the foundations you have built for the trip, but also with enough time left to fix as much as possible. debugging trips are where you get to try things out and make (some) mistakes with a safety net. its also where you find out where you fit into a team, and get to self-assess whilst others observe you.

there’s right and wrong ways to setting up bivvys and exposed mountainsides is the worst place to find out

the best preparation trips mimic as many of the stressors of the real, planned trip as possible – minus the things that can kill you if your mistakes are too big, ie altitude, conditions, expense, travel factors and overall time. as much as you want to emulate the technical factors you also dont want to burn so deep as to compromise your condition for the real thing. Steve House & Scott Johnston recommend prepartory trips prior to focal expeditions, over-compensating some factors like height gain and loads carried in environments that allow it, and assumedly to refine their clothing, nutrition and technical systems as well. factors to prioritze debugging for include;

  • nights out: as many as possible, in a row. its usually the 3rd night that shows how good you are at it
  • load bearing: both approaches and on the vertical. can you actually move the stuff you need to?
  • nutrition: over several days. again – it takes a few days to realize the weaknesses in your intake
  • access skills: getting a months worth of supplies into BC is as much a team event as it is a necessary chore. not the best place to see a rope bridge, cable hoist or zip line for the first time
  • seconding: everyone needs ample time jugging, cleaning, belaying, organizing and suffering on the blunt end
  • systems: practice with your exped gear be it different ropes, chest racks, climbing in big boots, hauling, traversing, simu-climbing etc
  • organization: planning ahead and executing efficiency leads to better rest, time management and safety
  • communication: talking is the least useful form of communication. get as good as possible at reading signs so when you have to talk its only for important stuff.
  • descent: if nothing needs practise more its this, both as an individual and as a team. with gloves, by headtorch. even regular alpine descents are confusing.
  • being a team member: its easy to think its all about YOU. observe the ways your behaviour and abilities impact others so you can interact healthily.

spread over multiple weekends these elements can be accumulated, but combined in a short trip specific for the intention of up-skilling is far more effective. its not just the individual skills that matter, its the interplay and random throwing together that makes preparation realistic and not just simulated exercise.

ideally too, preparation trips should be fun. there will be enough genuine suffering on the real trip, preparation should be a time to immerse yourself in the enjoyable aspects of climbing, to whet your psyche as much as your skills. like avoiding burning out before you even start, dont crash your motivation or espirit de corps either. remember this is still a step on the up and up, not the final crux. realistically 100% of the final objective cannot be pre-empted, so the aim is to sharpen the bits that need it most.

when its cold, you’re tired, the ropes are frozen and theres a lot of rappels ahead, you wont be thinking about pointless details: its now when you need to be well prepared

dollar-for-dollar, preparation trips are the best money spend towards you goals as its here not that you get to play with your expensive toys, but that you get to refine what you dont need. gimmicky folding bowls, esoteric hardware, over-sized sleeping bags, silly clothes, flimsy electronics and bad food choices can get pin pointed and eliminated, freeing up cash for other things and simplifying what happens on the mountain.

in the end your capacity to acheive your objectives and return is at most 50% about you pulling 5.12 moves – the other 50% is how well you can sustain yourself in the place when its all occurring, including amongst your team mates. half that again is how well you perform, the remaining (25% in total) is how well you know yourself and your abilities so you can make the call.

CHIMPANZEE BARS ARE HERE

www.chimpanzeebar.com/#

finally Chimpanzee bars have arrived.

in the world of energy bars its hard to stand out, with most bars following the McClif Bar model and just rehashing the same old stuff. but Chimpanze bars take a different approach, producing a less tiresome, more multiday friendly nutrition source. not all that sweet, with a high raw and fibre content, Chimpanzee bars dont clog the system as much as more procesed bars. the flavours are bit left of center (beetroot? surprisingly good) perhaps reflecting their Czech origins and the protein content is really good.

 

ASAMA+FUJI: WHAT YOU NEED

the asama-yama / fuji-san back-to-back is never easy. its a 2 day exercise in suffering and strategy with no easy way round it. physical condition plays the major role, shared with the weather, but perhaps more than any trip we run your gear choices have a big effect on the outcome

sleek, light, simple and functional

hour after hour of constant ascent in hurtling winds makes every gram count and function matter. unlike the stop-go schedule of ice climbing, asama/fuji is a constant push forward with little time to stop. the clothes and gear you use need to work for this. with 3800m of total gain attempted over 2 days, total weight needs to be as low as possible, but with temps so low and conditions so hostile (-5c to -25c and windchill easily bring things down to -35c) it all needs to be very warm and weather-proof.

clothing needs to be as dynamic as possible with as few superfluous bits as can be done without. approaches can be sweaty, but both routes have sudden emergences above the treeline when things get very cold very fast.

baselayer full sleeved, full legged, hooded, perferably one-piece

trousers tough, leg vents, preferably a bib

mid-layer mid-weight, vented, athletic cut, large pockets, hand pockets

shell jacket full weight, athletic cut, hooded, simple

insulation light exped weight, hooded, generous cut

face protection windproof, full face coverage, glacier rated glasses

boots as warm as possible, doubles preferably

gloves 1 x light and windproof for the approach, 1 x full alpine, 1 x insulated mitts for contingency

carried gear needs to be as light and low profile as possible but generous in design to swallow up gear in the howling gales. often too much is carried or choices are too complicated, meaning that keeping the wheels grinding forward is made harder than it has to be.

pack over-night sized, stripped of lid, waist belt and flapping straps, large snow throat

food glove friendly, 2500kcals per day, salty, freeze-proof

water insulated, sweetened, about 1.5L

tech gear needs to be light and sleek as possible. tho harnesses and helmets are rarely needed for objective matters they are in-place in case of accidents when it would be too late to get them on

crampons light and simple as possible, easy to don in nasty conditions with cold hands

axe light, straight shaft, insulated grip, teathered to harness

helmet light

harness light, wearable with crampons

head torch +70 lumens, fresh batteries, carried against body

now none of this is very special, but when put together it needs to be streamlined and idiot-proofed as its too cold to stop and fiddle once under way. to nail the strategy demands constant progress just below max hill speed – sustained for up to 12hrs. anything that flaps, doesnt work with big gloves, freezes, demands dexterity, takes unnecessary time or isnt bombproof fast becomes a limiting factor. in trips past weve turned back due to problems that at other times wouldnt take much to solve. a face mask that doesnt cover enough skin, crampons that shift or zip pulls that catch can be just enough to lose the psyche thats needed to keep your head in an already difficult game.

as the hours grind on the inner dialogue needs to be kept bouyant and nailing down gear is one way to control the small window we can. its also our interface with the elements – all of which work against us – and creates the narrow micro-climate that allows us to survive.

 

 

FUJI, FUGU & THE DEEP FREEZE: 14/15 Mt FUJI SEASON

the winter 14/15 Mt Fuji season kicks into high gear with the iciest conditions on Fuji-san weve ever seen. a dramatic freeze-thaw has the mountain covered an excellent layer of neve that makes for fast progress and anything exposed is covered in several centimetres of clear ice, with howling winds ripping off anything not solid.

Mt Fuji on the 22nd, safely frozen but ripping ferociously in the +70kmph winds

temperatures and winds so far this season have been siberian, and with the sun long-gone from the northern slopes theres ice all the way down to Naka-no-cha at 13500m. that means 2500m full meters in deep winter conditions, something that doesnt usually hit for another month.

the Fugu (puffer fish) tempura set: quality nutrients with the right amount of danger

meanwhile, down in Kawaguchiko and new restaurant has opened thats become our go-to for pre- and post-trip calorie loading. no more grotty climbers descending on family ramen and gyoza restaurants, now we head for the Fugu tempura place for Japans most (in)famous meal. why keep the risks on the mountain right?*

*actually, Fugu isnt as crazy as its made out to be. yes, theres serious toxins, but all restaurants that serve it are licensed, and with only about 6 incidents per year (not all being fatal) as Yvon Chouinard said, ‘more people die from eating bad mayonaise’.

 

 

UNSEEN, UNNAMED, UNCLIMBED: GANGGA VII 2014

anyone saying the era of real exploration is over is simply wrong

gangga VII, 5425m, north east tibetan plateau. south east coulouir, 5.7 M4 VI, 85degrees ice, 40 – 60 degrees snow, +/-500m, 9 pitches to 5340m. no summit…this time

over a month from September to October iceclimbingjapan lead another trip to the Sichuan/Tibet plateau to find & climb new peaks – new as in totally unclimbed.

based on 15 years of trips to remote parts of China ICJ teamed up with the master of Tibetan exploration, Tomatsu Nakamura, to get the inside knowledge on whats out there to do. from his vast base of data we settled on an objective that suited ICJs model of small footprint, highly mobile trips that shed many of the problems associated with the big, dinosaur industry ‘expeditions’ found elsewhere. the Gangga Massifs were chosen with their +/-5500m mixed peaks and relative easy access, which made for a streamlined ascent profile that fitted our window.

aside from that almost nothing was known. first we had to find the base of the mountain before thinking about climbing it – a big matter considering only half a dozen photos of the Gangga peaks existed, all of them from the same side. it didn’t help too that the area was known as a center for civil unrest, with access restrictions forming a large element in the planning…

SO WHAT’S THERE?

even several months of speculation didn’t touch on the amount of climbing out there. what turned out to be extremely complex topography uncovered decades worth of routes in just the one part of the Gangga we recced (approx. 10% of the range). characterized by a series of high cirques (+4500m) ringed with rock peaks theres climbing everywhere. from ideal boulders to 1200m big walls, ski routes, hard alpine, moderate ridges and huge ice lines theres endless possibilities.

basecamps mostly sit above 4000m, on grass yak pasture (nomads use the Gangga valleys connecting the Yalong river to the higher grasslands), with pristine spring water (ie very comfortable). high camps tend to be up the steep scree slopes that lead into the cirques thru openings in the walls (ie not so comfortable).

 Gangga VII highcamp (4500m)

another common feature of the Gangga massifs geology are the formations of spires and pillars that form maze-like networks of couloirs between faces and snow fields, making for complex route choices requiring a broad spectrum of climbing ability. theres lots of steep snow plodding to be had – but it takes solid mixed alpine to get to.

WHAT DID WE DO?

Gangga VII SE face:  SE couloir starts from the top of the visible snow/scree and emerges at the ice/snow that disappears round to the north side at the obvious notch on the right skyline. (note: the peak appearing to the left is a sub-peak foreshortened, +/- 5050m)

our permits were for the most distinct peak in the Gangga’s central massif, unnamed despite being so prominent, marked simply as 5425m in Nakamura’s images and sometimes referred to as Gangga VII. after looking into options from the accessible eastern side and balancing a large team of varied ability, we eventually settled on an ‘easy looking’ mixed couloir that twisted from the SE side thru pillars and faces around to the NE headwall – via several blind spots. other options included direct and variant routes on the SE face, a wandering mostly-rock line on the south face, linking pulpits of snow on the NE side and taking the SSW ridge from a notch in the west side of the cirque. all elegant choices that one by one got crossed off due to time, safety, logistics and ability. in the harsh light of reality – when theres been no one to go before – of all the gear used for climbing Occam’s razor is the right tool for the job.

top of Pitch 1

so the SE couloir it became and 2 attempts under very different conditions got us to within 4 or 5 pitches of the summit after 500m of steep final approach from highcamp and 9 pitches of mixed alpine up to WI4+ of ice and M4+. things ground down as they got steeper, difficult routes choices turned against us, the ice proved thin and an underestimation of the gear needed (twice as much thin gear next time…) meant we pulled out just before the transition to the (unknown) north side, at about 5340m.

mention must be made of Rob’s outstanding lead on pitch 8; run out above minimal gear and a stressful belay and the hardest moves capped with the last short screw left.

as a first attempt on an unattempted peak in an unexplored massif in an unknown range in a restricted corner of the Tibetan plateau things went exceedingly well. all members of the climbing team and support staff came home with the fingers and toes they left with as was the defined goal. the seamless efforts of the logistics staff maintained a perfect platform for the climbing, supplying excellent food, a comfortable BC, happy living atmosphere and unobtrusive local liaison. its no exaggeration that BCs in China are arguably the best anywhere – an even bigger deal considering theres no mass industry running to format with dollar-a-day locals.

imposing: Gangga VII as seen from the approach

SO WHATS NEXT?

as always, further, cooler and more efficiently. back in Chengdu we met up with Tomatsu Nakamura and started laying down the next trips ideas and organizing the next lot of logistics. the team has been solidified, access and BC locations have been mapped and equipment is being arranged. initial interest is centering around a healthy blend of walls, mixed lines and high altitude ice, with short recce trips further into other parts of the Gangga range (including the whole undocumented western side).

fresh food, good coffee, clean water and variation: BCs in China are healthy, happy and relaxing, meaning good recovery and sustainability in remote places

this years trip established the groundwork for pulling the climate data, access, bureaucracy, supply and resources into line with the demands of climbing, creating a ‘light & fast’ model that functions extremely well. yes, climbing in China has its idiosyncrasies, but beyond that is a level of function that can open up serious expedition climbing like its never been done before. when you have the inspiration and know how to do it of course.

as always, interest & inquiries for 2015 are welcome from both independant teams and individuals. numbers will be limited but several trips can run  and several teams can climb from a shared BC

EXPEDITIONS; KEEPING IT REAL

expeditions don’t follow strict formats. theres a general set of requirements, but how they fit together is unique – its what makes them different to the ‘alpine safaris’ that commonly get passed off as expeditions these days.

the Da Xue Shan range in western Sichuan; want to shrug off that the feel of being a tourist?

for a true trip off the grid theres dozens of matters that the standard commercial formula wont cover and that test the mettle of unseen climbing skills, ie the logistician. take away the heavily industrialized process that connect the alpine fantasy to the actual climbing and theres a world of matters that would be mundane in any other context. suspend the basic formula that in places like Nepal answer all the questions about supplies, access, route and organization and the true soul of an expedition comes out. simply suspending the English language is often enough.

when the mountains unclimbed, the area unexplored, the maps are hazy and the locals have no comprehension of what its all about you start confronting what it means to be a climber. things take on a different gravity when you have to do all the logistics as well. success is not about how well you climb, but how well you build the pyramid of logistics that get you to the base of the route.

some of the things that need answers are;

  • porterage; without a localized industry of locals to carry stuff how do you get everything to where you want it?

  • culture; where climbers have never existed how do locals and their infrastructure relate to it?

  • scheduling; when the route, approach, logistics and resources are all big unknowns how do you construct a timeline?

  • equipment; take away the certainties of porterage and access, then add the uncertainties of an objective with almost zero beta and what do you take?

  • team; unknown routes in unexplored places take a wide spectrum of applied skills, focus and sustained motivation amongst a cohesive group.

pull all this together to form a basic idea and you’ve got enough to work with.

theres plenty of places the climbing industry hasnt entered yet. even with recent interest western Sichuan still has decades worth of new ascents

genuine expeditions take a lot of effort and expense so the elements need to be dialed in before theres any questions about the climbing. can you even get there? forget what colour your baselayer is or how many pull ups you can do until you’ve answered the basics on the place you want to go – something that safari ‘expeditions’ to heavily touristed areas have made format.

the key to true expeditions is patience, adaptability and cash. you need to be able to apply all three in vary degree to every element. your gear needs to cover a wide range of possibilities, your scheduling needs to be snafu-proofed, your group needs to be dynamic, you need a creative attitude to everything from the authorities to the local food, you need the fitness levels to fill the logistical gaps, you need the money to keep the stress levels manageable.

do you want fries with that? the details like food are part of what sets climbing ‘safaris’ apart from real expeditions

for those who dwell upon the established formulas of climbing it appears that the age of expeditions is long over. to many only the splitting of sports industry hairs is left to pursue. but for those who look into the wider aspects of climbing – the greater applications of putting inspired people into unexplored places – theres still lifetimes worth of climbing to be done. it just takes a perspective reeled back in from the pedantic formulas that pop-climbing is broadcast as. theres plenty left to do if your perspective can cover it, and when it does happen – whether it’s a FA on a Japanese icefall or a high altitude FA somewhere like Tibet – its touching on the archetype of climbing that its all about.