No porters, no maps: Hong Kong adventurer in first climb of remote China peak
Team of six climbers conquer unclimbed mountain in western Sichuan’s Gangga range, the ‘Alps of Tibet’, after first running into a dead end, then battling hip-deep snow to reach top
With careful steps, Simon, my climbing partner walks towards the looming precipice, an overhanging snow cone with an abyss of frozen ice below it. This is supposed to be our way to the main summit of an unclimbed Chinese peak deep in remote western Sichuan, but deep down I know it: this is the end of the road. We are stood in front of a large overhanging drop-off that is blocking our path. Even if we manage to get down, how will we ever get back up?
We are a team of six Austrian and Spanish mountaineers that have come to a remote corner of Sichuan, China to explore and climb one of the last remaining “white spots” on the map. This area was branded ‘the Alps of Tibet’ by famous Japanese explorer Tomatsu Nakamura. He is our inspiration for the trip, having ventured into the area a few years earlier and noted that no team had so far really explored or climbed its peaks.
This morning we woke up early in our frost-covered tents, only for our high spirits to be quickly quenched a small earthquake. For the night we’d set our tents in a huge cave, with giant icicles hanging high above; the shaking ground did nothing to instil confidence in their stability.
For hours we’ve pushed ourselves higher, exhausted by the deep, crusty snow. And now we’ve hit a dead end. We climb to the highest point we can reach, a small, rocky pinnacle – the north summit – but the main summit is twinkling at us in the distance, unreachable.
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This is my second expedition to the Gangga mountain range in western Sichuan, where I pursue a long-held childhood dream: to climb a virgin peak, be the first on a yet unclimbed mountain. A year earlier we had come here, with just a few photos as our reference. Terrible weather, bad luck and inexperience had rendered all our attempts to climb any of the local peaks futile. Several times we pushed our luck – in the end we had to turn around in a snowstorm just a few hundred metres shy of the top. The country had, however, put us under its spell. We promised ourselves we’d return.
And here we are, equipped this time with many more photos, satellite pictures and an experienced team. A bumpy two-day bus ride from Chengdu, following the northern Tibetan trade route, brings us back to the remote village of Garzi, the base for our expedition. The snowy peaks of the Gangga mountain range stand out in the south.
Weeks of preparation and exploration let us focus on the most prominent peak on the horizon. The local monks call it Dechok Phedrong – the temple of the highest bliss, an imposing fortress of rock, ice and snow 5,632 metres high. Over time we open up its secrets; a possible route through the mighty northeast face seems to take form. We carry tents and supplies to a high camp in order to shorten the route for the summit attempt; there are no sherpas in these valley and every meal, every gas can has to be carried up by ourselves.
In the first days it’s tough. My lungs seem to explode with every step I take, my body still struggling to adapt to the altitude. At least the weather is on our side. Every morning wonderful blue skies greet us with chilly, winter temperatures. Large vultures observe every step our team is taking up the peak and in the untouched snow I can spot some feline traces – can it be a snow leopard?
The wonderful, pristine surroundings can only partially dampen the frustration of our first summit push. While we have reached a peak, the main summit, the highest point of Dechok Phedrong, has eluded us. It is back to the drawing board.
We go over our photos, study Google Earth. Time is precious, as there are only a few days before we need to head back, where our flights home and the outside world await. Thankfully we identify another potential route. It’s time for one final attempt.
I wake up to snowfall, the first time we have had any precipitation in weeks. After a quick team consultation, we decide to give it a try nevertheless. In the darkness of the night, I follow the beam of my headlamp, dry, fresh snow crunching under my feet. Soon the snowfall stops and at dawn we find ourselves in almost hip-deep snow in the midst of the huge mountain wall. I push myself forward, balancing on all fours, but its a hopeless undertaking as I continuously break through the crust.
The rock and ice seems to be towering over us with no end in sight, as we reach a giant serac, a towering wall of overhanging ice: scary, intimidating and seemingly Dechok’s last line of defence. I’m sceptical that we’ll find a way through this, but Simon is confident and pushes on. I am getting showered in ice debris as he elegantly climbs through the steep wall, pushing his ice axes higher and higher. It’s a huge effort to follow him, my stiff frozen hands barely clinging to their climbing tools. But the push is worth it; as I reach the top of the serac, the main summit comes into view, a steep snow ridge leading up the final snow cone.
Strong winds batter us, but with every metre our confidence rises. My last steps are trance-like, the panorama breathtaking – untouched mountains, valleys and scenery all around us. The whole team has made it – Gerald, Judith, Simon, Martin, Lothar and myself. And a team effort it was – working together to make this dream reality.
One peak has been climbed, but hundreds more remain untouched and to be explored.
Paul Niel will share his experiences on the expedition at the Royal Geographic Society Hong Kong, 11/F, Two Exchange Square, Central, January 19 from 6,30pm