interest for the 2015 China expedition season is already pouring in, with several objectives lined up as things take shape. the right questions are being asked at the right time – with 9 months to confirm and put the wheels of preparation into motion – so a distilled version is offered here.
unclimbed +/-5500m peaks. there for those who have the motivation. photo Tom Nakamura
its been decades since significant new expedition climbing destinations have opened up. as expedition ability has evolved in the cauldrons of Alaska, Baffin and elsewhere, true exploratory climbing to unexplored ranges has been a little thin. many climbers have glanced over China (with exceptions of course) but dismissed it as too hard to organize – which has been a good thing, leaving vast areas untouched.
the tightening up of protocols for climbing in China deterred many, but in effect has done exactly what was intended – preserving the high peaks of China from a rush of crass commercialism. now the high peaks of China are there only for those with the motivation to approach them as true expeditions. theres no ‘sign-and-climb’ safaris here.
China realistically has several hundred >5000m peaks that are unnamed, unexplored and more often than not, unseen. climbing here reignites the same ideas about furthering the greater body of climbing knowledge as climbing in Nepal and Pakistan did half a century ago. these opportunities come often….
what a trip to China involves
trips start by landing in Chengdu – a large modern city totally unlike most entry points to high altitude climbing areas. consistantly in the top 5 chinese cities to live in, Chengdu is a major player with international flights, a subway, an easy layout, international hospitals & supermarkets and embassies. hotels are comfortable, and being the capital of Sichuan the food is world reknowned. along with 3000 years of heritage theres a large Tibetan quarter and as the self-proclaimed center of Chinas outdoor industry theres even a gear district. Unlike Kathmandu & Islamabad, things like gas canisters and energy bars are not hard to find in Chengdu, so we stock up here.
Chinas roads go to above 4500m so we do the trip up onto the plateau over two days. after leaving the Sichuan basin the roads go thru alpine forest and huge gorges as we ascend, eventually coming above the treeline then crossing over high, barren passed strafed with prayer flags and following the rivers where settlements are. usually we stay another day in medium sized Tibetan towns sorting redtape before heading out into the blank areas around the peaks. depending on the objective this may involve horses and yaks to get stuff to BC.
Chinese basecamps are comfortable and well supplied. at around 4000m we are low enough to acclimate to quickly, with the added advantages of theres no dhal baat and anything edible is permitted. the cooks that oversee the BC logistics take food very seriously and resupply of fresh food for longer trips is regular, meaning the level of recovery is greater. far from the uninhabites moodscapes of southern tibet or Baltoro, most BCs are on grassland and sometimes take advantage of existing rock structures left by the semi-nomadic tribes that cross the area between the lower forests and the upper reaches of the Yangzi and Yellow rivers.
the climbing itself is unique to the objective. the general area is the extreme fringes of the monsoonal pattern so rain helps carve up the geology as much as the movement of snow and ice. above 4000m freeze level starts hitting from around late September as the weather gets drier and clearer. day/night temps can vary as much as 20c. unlike further south towards Yunnan, snow doesnt build year round, making for more exposed rock including huge alpine walls. some peaks have glacial approaches whilst others have alpine grassland right to the base of the scree.
with so many objectives and such civilized access its easy to spend weeks and weeks looking into potential routes – only the dropping temperatures and ever-present redtape limit what can be done in a season. for long trips occasional forays into town to keep things sane are possible, with hotsprings, massage, restaurants and internet cafes to keep life on track.
returning to Chengdu is easy and can involve alternative routes thru other areas hiding new climbing potential. the descent from the high plateau is usually comfortable and the luxuries and sophistication of Chengdu a welcome distraction before flying out.
trips to 5000 – 6000m peaks requires equipment somewhere between regular winter and big wall gear
who are these trips for?
first ascents in unheard of places are not for everyone. if the safari-like process of summiting is all that matters and you want a contingency of support staff to make things as comfortable as possible then the obscure ranges of the Tibetan plateau will be a disappointment. there will be almost no climbing scene to fraternize with at basecamp, no well trodden trails and no mass-industry to answer every matter that arises.
these trips are for climbers who enjoy the process of working it all out; the route finding, the organization, the on-mountain processes and the bigger picture of going into undocumented places. unlike commercial ‘pay to climb’ trips that are guided along well-established schedules, iceclimbingjapan trips are real expeditions and require every climber to be part of the process.
the profile of a climber who ends up on an unclimbed peak somewhere near Tibet includes;
having a head for organization
a high degree of team awareness
a functional ability to self-schedule
an applied ability to use the right resources for the job
a clear perspective of undertaking complex activities in alien cultures
a comprehension of their contributing to the tradition of mountaineering
iceclimbingjapan specializes in unclimbed peaks. direct consultation with Tomatsu Nakamura, explorer of the Tibetan Plateau and Alpinist correspondent, provides a huge resource for peaks that are almost unknown. options exist for alpine ascents, big walls and technical routes, on peaks ranging from c.5500m to 6500m.
whatever your objective is, it will involve all the elements of exploration. despite iceclimbingjapan pulling together all the logistics, the lack of comprehensive cartography and local information pertaining to climbing still leaves inevitable gaps that need to be considered; in this part of the world simply getting to the base of a route is a significant objective, and all that is acheived – summit or not – furthers the greater data base of international climbing.
what you need
TIME: climbing in unexplored areas takes time – time to do it and time to prepare. whilst some peaks can be attempted with a 3 week schedule, most require about a month, especially if they have glaciated approaches. ground logistics in China are usually very good, with good roads going to high altitudes – but beyond the roadhead things things change; the absence of a developed ‘sherpa industry’ and the obscure nature of unexplored regions means approaches are hard to quantify exactly. but thats the nature of true expeditions.
MOTIVATION: these are not ‘sign up and climb’ trips. all members need a high degree of motivation and independant ability, integrated with a perspective that caters to the exploratory nature of these trips. unlike trips to well trodden areas, not all of the process is known. a climbers motivation but be as much to explore as to climb, and must cope with the uncertainties that entails.
RESOURCES: whilst nowhere near the outlay of an 8000m trip, expeditions to unclimbed areas still entail ‘exped level’ costs and equipment. costs depend on team size, location, duration and specific logistics. iceclimbingjapan’s logistics covers everything to the mountain then a lot of whats needed on the mountain itself, but individual climbers need to have the right gear and make the right food choices for themselves.
what you get
iceclimbingjapans in-country logistics partner makes the perceived impossible happen. permits, accomodation, food, transport, liason, redtape and consultation are all arranged to support the on-mountain process. iceclimbingjapans unique and extensive background in the region pulls together a range of styles and possibilities that adapts to each trip, far removed from the normal commercial climbing experience.
the basics for planning include;
3 week to 9 week schedules
multiple peak & route possibilities
costs cover all logistics from Chengdu and back again, except personal on-mountain equipment & food*
all team climbing equipment supplied**
all permits, chinese insurance & chinese taxes included
liaison staff, logistics staff & translators provided
all accommodation pre-booked
visa support letters provided
basecamp-only & on-mountain options
*some personal climbing hardware can be supplied at additional cost
**additional costs for specialized big wall equipment and objectives with glacial approaches requiring fixed ropes
China has unique logistics that once demystified opens up unprecedented possibilities
the expedition process
the basic schedule needs to be confirmed by the end of June and full payments in 90 days before departure. by this time the objective needs to be nailed down, the daily itinerary decided and the team consolidated around the expedition process. with this done we can arrange the paperwork that results in visas and logistical consolidation. China is not like Nepal, with a stack of pre-applied permits just needing the names on them, instead each permit is individually evaluated according to its specifics in a process as opaque as it is thorough.
long before this tho every climber needs to prepare for a style of climbing thats very open – no one can tell you whats exactly needed. covering this skill base means getting fluent in several branches of alpinism, and whilst mastery is not needed in all of them a solid base in general alpine climbing with a functional knowledge of technical rock, ice, big wall and descent is expected, as is being equipped to apply it all.
on a first ascent trip to China there wont be a contingency of in-situ locals to pick up any slack – the expedition is under its own steam to get to and climb. this means no miles of fixed ropes, pre-placed high camps, shuttled supplies or morning cups of tea handed thru the door. what you use on the mountain you carry on the mountain and that requires a degree of team dynamic often absent from industrial climbing trips.
west of Chengdu is a huge area that begins at the edge of the Yangzi basin and extends far up to the high altitude rainshadow of the Tibetan plateau. encompassing forest, grassland and high alpine, to the south lays the jungled ravines of Himalayan Yunnan and to the north the deserts and steppe of Qinghai then the southern Gobi. collectively known as Kham and Amdo, the region buffered Tibet from China, acting as a cultural conduit thru its narrow ravines and high passes.
all down the length of the region are +5000m peaks, with most being unclimbed. previous attention has focused around Minya Konka and Siguniangshan, but beyond these focal points little has been climbed, mostly due to travel restrictions and a process with the authorities too difficult for most climbers. whilst the rest of the worlds big mountains are congested and perhaps over-travelled, Tibetan Sichuan is virtually unknown, with large villages still taken speechless at the sight of foreign faces and the idea of climbing mountains completely alien.
totally off limits till the 90s, most roads lead into eastern Tibet and the areas that are open today are controlled and limited – perhaps not a bad thing after seeing the crush of tourism in less regulated places. nomads still cross thru the valleys connecting the lowlands and high plateau, Khampa cowboys still ride thru town, monasteries are not tourist attractions and the approaches to mountains are along herders trails not trekkers highways. after leaving Chengdu its unlikely to see another foreigner.
Its no secret that western Sichuan has occasional flares up between the Chinese authorities and locals after centuries of facing off that span raiding armies from Lhasa, CIA-trained guerillas, gun fights well into the 90s and ongoing tensions centered on the monastic community, but China in general is a safe destination and unlike Pakistan and Nepal, foreigners are not seen as elements of leverage for upset locals.
historically the Khampa areas have been regarded as bandit-ridden and conduits for smugglers but aside from petty concerns like pick-pocketing in markets this doesnt seriously affect passing groups of climbers so long as precautions are taken. all climbing trips to peaks require a liason officer and a translator/camp co-ordinator to keep things on track.
it doesnt end here. in the bigger picture of whats possible in China, Sichuan is really the start point – further west into deep Tibet, Qinghai and Xinjiang lay peaks and ranges that are mostly unseen, leading eventually to the northern side of the Karakorum. like Sichuan these areas are slowly becoming accessible, more a process of demand rather than supply. having spent 15 years in these parts of China, talking to the right people and being in the right places iceclimbingjapan has the wheels in motion for objectives rarely realized in the last half-century.
got what it takes and interested? inquiries and ideas via the bookings & contact tab
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.
its usually hard to get excited about ‘new’ developments in clothing, most being just marginal variations on accepted themes. the leaps are usually pretty minor in both function and weight savings.
but every now and then a leap occurs. it takes technology and elegance of design to fuse for it to happen, and when it does notice needs to be given. genuine significant development dont happen by chance, almost always being the result of sophisticated processes.
often what hinders developmental leaps in extreme weather clothing is the lack of systemization; enhancing function by 10% and cutting weight by 10% on a single garment usually goes unnoticed, being lost amongst the inefficiencies of whatever else is being worn. only by systemizing can the factors be tuned enough for serious innovations to exist. in one way its about controlling as many factors as possible, in another way its about streamlining a complex set of processes. in both ways its about increasing function as efficiently as possible. so now one of those leaps has arrived. symbioticly applied together two of Polartecs latest textiles have formed a combination that is both elegant in its function and dynamic in its abilities.
PowerWool and ‘alpine’ Neoshell: a quantum leap in clothing systems.
new versions of Neoshell include a superlight, hi-stretch variant that comes in under 120g/m2, which combined with a radical take on Teton Bros Apex Award winning Tsurugi Jacket produces a full shell layer at about 230g – which is over 100g lighter than the next lightest Neoshell jacket. under this sits a ‘1.5 layer’ made of PowerWool, combining the best elements of wool against the skin and Powerdry to wick moisture away; a combined process that took 2 fabrics to achieve in the past now being done by a single layer at 149g/m2 – light even by baselayer standards alone.
PowerWool; merino, synthetic, fleece – whatever youve got against your skin doesnt work as well as this stuff
combined is a system that weighs in at about 515g for both, yet the whole being greater than the sum of the parts this doesnt function like some low calorie mismatch. profound design optimizes on the fabrics to create a series of micro-climates with the functional spectrum of systems 50% heavier (ie any other system). the Neoshell breathes, protects and moves like a true second skin, its function at maximum capacity due to the seamless layer of PowerWool beneath that keeps the skin regulated and dry by transporting unstable moisture across the easily-controlled air mass surrounding the body. the stretch of both layers results in minimal dead air mass, and large vents allow for consistant temperature regulation that evens the curve of body temperature fluctuation. the PowerWool forms a seamless layer that has total body surface conformity which is the foundation for temperature regulation, the hydrophobic nature of wool finally having the durability of structure to optimize on those properties.
so there you have it; a full function Alpine skin-to-shell system that moves and breathes with the body and weighs under 520g. advanced construction means no compromising elements and innovative design-work results in ferrari-like ergonomics that make piloting the system intuitive.
currently this combination is not available for general release tho a limited number will be made available. enquiries for further details are welcome.
guerrilla climbing: steep, cool, with friends, in the dead of night.
neither climbing nor photos are easy when all you’ve got to go by is the spot from a head torch
a clear night at about -13 made for nice conditions. the added paranoia of getting spotted added to the pump of steep ice
the right stuff: Polartec being used in 3 of its forms – Neoshell, Windpro & Powerstretch
it wasnt huge and it wasnt grand, but it was a guerrilla-style caper with good friends for a long-awaited objective and we pulled it off and thats what i call fun.
after a bit of recon in the daylight we went back after dark and the plan unfolded perfectly – good enough to even swap the boots and tools around so everyone who wanted to could get a climb in. after much deliberation we decided to top rope it: the ice too steep, the top-out too sketchy, getting off the top logisticly a problem and shouting calls too risky for our cover. but what we sacrificed in boldness climbing we made up for dodging the security cameras.
a good little line too it turned out, well worth climbing in its own right. 15m of thinnish, partially hanging, vertical, nicely formed ice. slight vertical chandeliering made for great hooks but not too difficult for feet placements. the bottom 3m or so slightly overhangs once wed excavated the snow, and the top 3m thinned out to be a little hairy but worked out ok. i think it would go at maybe WI5- on lead as placing screws would be solid work.
thumbs up to nori & junko, beau and grassy, and the old guy who caught us scoping it out in the day, but after hearing the plan liked it so gave us the security beta and promised not to tell anyone.
‘incredible’ is the word.
a long planned trip to Northern Honshu to coincide with a tiny climate window nailed it. all the waiting and hardwork came together to put us at the right place at the right time for glorious first ascents in truely esoteric territory.
campsite at Futakuchi: not the most inspiring but close to the climbing
a long drive to the depths of the Tohuku mountains between Miyagi and Yamagata got us finally to the lonely trailhead. a year of waiting, planning and re-planning centered us on the ideal climate for the areas low altitude and fluctuating weather.
inside is considerably nicer: my favourite bit of new climbing gear
after +40 nights this season in spartan bivvies, a BC tent we didnt have to haul gave us the comfort level we wanted for forays up into the cold valleys. whilst always honing skills with the obvious tools for ice climbing, comfortable conditions meant we could develop other skills that affected the outcome – like making espresso from snow melt.
the strange volcanic fluting that characterizes the south-facing side BanJi Yama escarpment in the Natori valley: note most of those routes are about 150m high
the main feature of the lower valley is the huge collection of fluted pillars that house ice and mixed lines in almost every grotto. dozens of lines – some connecting some not – that run the length of the main valley, all high and steep.
whilst the north-facing escarpment has several 150m, fat ice falls
far up on the other side of the valley huge, fat ice falls drop down the escarpment.
further along the valley: endless ice, steep, streaked and thin. line after line of pure and mixed routes, almost none of it climbed
the far end of the escarpment that runs about 3km ends in a huge buttress thats streaked with countless thin lines around its faces. higher and more exposed theres enough hard climbing for years of first ascents
the other side of BanJi yama: more ice of course
the headwall and farther side of the buttress hide lots more routes that connect between overhung rock bands
part of White Dragon Wall: +60m, steep and perfect ice and rock – and almost totally unclimbed
the northern valley has different rock formations, with the fluting giving way to steep, bare walls. less visited than the southern valley, the walls are covered in thin but exceptional quality ice in vertical and delicate formations.
further along White Dragon Wall
most sections have overhanging moves connecting thin shelves with fragile veils that are actually much better quality than they at first appear. the rock between is pocketed conglomerate perfect for hooked placements.
protecting it all tho, needs creativity….
more steep and thin ice: note the time signatures between this and the previous image – lines like this go on regularly for miles.
Shimo-jiro Left & Right (lower pitches) 50m, WI4+
we decided on this elegant, fragile corned route to start on, an obvious allusion to the White Dragon Wall nomiker. whilst not appearing hard, protecting it was going to be all about thin stuff and time spent in stances threading abalakovs, chopping, cleaning and tying off short screws – all of which turned out to be the case.
close up of the ice in Shimo-jiro (right): thinly plastered, globules & thin columns – what earns it its ‘+’ grade.
topping out on the first pitch of Shimo-Jiro….
….to find upper pitches that were steeper, thinner and overhanging. next time.
from a good belay we were surprised to find at least another pitch above us – much more serious looking than the first. even getting to its base wasnt a simple transition, and with the snow getting heavier and a complicated rappel ahead off us we called it for another time. not an easy decision.
the return was a game of finding our trail in ever deepening snow, arriving at camp to rapidly deteriorating conditions. being a long way out on far-from-primary roads and over a mountain pass we made the call to leave while we knew we could, getting back to town just before the biggest snow storm to hit the Pacific coast in 35 years. a night in sendai greeted us with an overcast following day, only to find the freeway closed which meant several hours on uncleared secondary roads. theres always a price.
these things dont come easily: the Tohoku freeway closed from a snow storm. a further 4hrs to get home, but easily worth it.
between the Japanese Alps and Hokkaido lays a huge, mountainous region with ideal ice forming condition – its just little ventured into during winter. all across the region we have come across reports of isolated icefalls that only the locals know about and amongst these is an area near Sendai.
it took a lot of looking and trawling thru old guidebooks but we found it: the area map