By Dave Gliddon, AAC member from Australia
It was September 2012. In Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, China, I was to meet three friends to attempt a climb in the Four Sisters region, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau. My friend Qiu Jiang, known as Spiderman Paul, picked me up from the airport. Within four hours, we were already in the Changping Valley of the Qionglai Range, surrounded by the famous peaks of Mt. Siguniang (the third and fourth sisters, at 6,250m and 5,355m), Mt. Erguniang (5,276m) and Mt. Daguniang (5,025m). The immense peak of Seerdengpu (5,592m), or the ‘Savage Peak’, with its unclimbed west face, towered up from the side valley. It’s hard to explain or comprehend the sheer number of walls and faces in this massive area, with granite cliffs up to 1,300m, and at a 6,000m altitude.
Our team’s objective was to the west of Seerdengpu: the west face of Boudara Shan (5413m). A Slovenian team had nabbed the first ascent in 2003, following a 1300m line up the weakness, called ‘Dalai Lama’. The route meanders up the wall, veering wildly up the right side of middle of the face. It heads left to a pillar buttress, through a crack system that leads to the upper ledge and head wall pitches. The route goes at 5.10c, through 22, 60-metre pitches. Our initial goal was a first ascent of a more direct variation of the start of the original line, following a six-pitch dihedral of 5.12 free climbing.
Spiderman Paul and I had just come from a two-month sport climbing mission, bolting routes in many different areas of China. The trip, called ‘Rock Searching’, was organized by my sponsor, Kailas, a Chinese outdoor equipment and climbing company. Covering four new climbing areas in Le Ye, Xian, Hangzhou, and Yingxi, I viewed the trip as training for our attempt at Boudara Shan. I had bolted 30+ routes and climbed as much as I could without a rest day, doing any and all tough job to get ready.
Paul and I studied photographs of the wall while we were on the bolting trip. Paul had tried the route years before but had no luck with the weather. The clouds move very fast in those mountains and afternoon storms seem constant.
We were also psyched up by Toni Arbonés, a legendary Spanish climber from Siurana, who is also a big waller. We all worked on putting together a good plan, promising to send through photos if we made it. Open to any opportunity, I was fresh to climb and super happy to be a leader in the team.
When I arrived, the boys were ready with a 4x4 packed with all the food, which they had bought off the internet. They had a week’s worth of Mountain House freeze dried food and Power Bars. Yong Fan and I had never been there before, but Spiderman Paul and Gu Gu had being going to the valley for years.
There is always history in any area of big wall climbing. The Sichuan’s mountains and weather do not tend to easy alpine big walling. This high-commitment area has no mountain rescue and just a few farms and locals to rally help. And even then, only if you can reach them by cell phone. This leaves you feeling very alone. The province also has a history of earthquakes, which leads to some fear of massive rock fall. Many faces showed signs of loose rock in the form of massive slide scars.
Justification for this madness needed to be had! And it was had!! The first day we saw the valley with its perfect walls and amazing lines, we were instantly inspired.
We stayed with a Tibetan family that often hosts climbers. They were yak farmers, and we could have hot milk every day – a very cheap and friendly place for climbers to stay. From there, it was only a four-hour hike to the base of Boudara Shan and the start of ‘Paul’s Route’.
We felt happy and ready to go, but with base camp at 4,500, we still had to take time to acclimatize to the thin air. Even after a party, a flight and a drive in, I knew I could shake it off and be ready to climb soon. We rested and then spent the second day ferrying gear and food to the base of the climb.
The next morning, we packed the rest of the gear had a meal of yak meat soup, buttermilk tea, and bread. We headed out to the ‘cow house’, a little shack that sits directly under the wall with a Tibetan temple nearby. We stayed the night there and got ourselves ready for the next day.
I woke up on the fourth day to the sound of Paul saying, ‘Wow, shit.’ Stepping out of the wooden shed, I saw that the wall was covered in ice and snow. It had been a clear night, but still the wind had dumped snow all over the route. Wet lines ran for hundreds of meters all over the wall. Seeing that the west face got direct sunlight from 12:30pm, we decided to take a rest day and hope for the wall to dry quickly.
That night, I sat sketching a topo of the original Slovenian route for each team member. We planned to leave at 4:00am. Once again, the plan was to rack up and continue on up Paul’s route. But in the morning, as the sunlight hit the valley, we saw that the planned route was still very wet. We quickly decided to climb the start of the original Slovenian route instead. By 10:30am, we reached the base of the route.
The first five pitches of the route were 5.7 climbing across large ledges. The ledges were linked with rotten dirty scree slopes and patches of snow. We felt driven and moved along well, but trying to do anything fast at 4500m will get you out of breath. We had beautiful weather, climbing all day in the sun. By 5pm, we were looking for a bivy at our intended spot.
But from of the north side of the mountain, where we could not see, clouds were building. Before long, I felt the first chunks of hail pelting my helmet. This was not a good sign.
Midway up a pitch, it hit hard: an afternoon thunderstorm. Within minutes, the wall was filling up with snow and hail. Lightning and thunder were hitting us at the same time; we were in the centre of the storm. Already late in the day and on the radio, it was made clear that the heavy snow would keep the wall wet for days, and we must go down. I got this radio message just after I made a move that dislodged a huge rock that brushed past my climbing ropes as I tried to mantle a snowed-up ledge.
So it was decided we would go down and find a safe bivy. We found it after placing a bolt and rapping a pitch to a traverse ledge and cave that would protect us from rock fall. As the wall spewed out snow and ice slides of debris, we took cover in the cave, which we named ‘Paul’s Cave’, because it was over the corner line of his route. The next day was clear, but the team felt it better to descend, as the wall would be wet.
So we traversed the snow to the belay and started to rap the wet corner of three pitches, plus four of the slab below to base camp. At this point, the weather was good and I felt like I should be going up, not down. And Gu Gu and Paul could see that I did not want this to be the end of our bid at the second ascent of Boudara Shan. Gu Gu was the only one with more time to climb, and who also wanted to summit and get the first Chinese ascent. He would stay and plan another attempt at the wall.
After a day and a half, rested, fuelled and getting our power, Gu Gu and I hiked the four hours back to base camp to bivy and start again the next morning. With stars and the moon high in the sky above us, we felt the weather would be good. We were wrong, but still by 10am, we had already simul-climbed past our high point from our first attempt at the wall, past where I dislodged the rock during the thunderstorm.
We felt good we had made it to the slabs, not sure of the route and it had only been climbed once, 10 years earlier. We did not know if we were on route. Just trying to take any weakness in the slabs ahead, with the gear hanging in orderly bundles on our harnesses, we continued to route-find, passing three pitches of slab and not finding any sign of the original line. We did not know if we were on route or not. All we looked for was crack lines, vaguely guided by my sketch of the Slovenian topos.
We made it to the steeper rock. I knew we were on route, as Gu Gu led the first pitch of offwidth, with his pack loaded. We only had bivy bags, no sleeping bags (to save weight) – just jackets to sleep in. We were still very heavy with food, a stove, a rack of cams and one sleeping mat, as I had left mine, because I felt it was too bulky and could not climb with it hanging off of my pack. This was not helpful for the cold that was coming.
After Gu Gu struggled with the offwidth and the pack full of gear, it was my turn on the chimney pitch. We now knew that we were on route, as Gu Gu had made it to an old anchor – an 8mm bolt and a wire, linked with an old piece of tatty rope.
After getting through the chimney safely, we bivyed at the top, a spot which we later named ‘Dave’s Cave’. After a cold night, we awoke to see the sky cloud-covered. It snowed once again. We were at Pitch 13, with the crux at the next pitch. We decided to push on and aid the crux pitch – a now-wet 5.10c hand crack, ending with a series of roof moves leading to the belay.
I started up the wet rock. I felt that I was moving much more slowly than the day before. With the thought of everyone at home wishing for us to be safe, the decision felt very unsafe, but I had climbed loads of wet rock before. I slowly climbed the wet crack, and as it was only 5.10c, I was able to free most of the moves, even in the wet – after the small setback of dropping the wires into the crack below and having to go back down to get them (I could only just reach them). And in minutes, I was pulling the moves through the roof. Then, back to the easy climbing.
Now it was midday, and the rain and snow started again. Thick mist and fog flowed up the wall, and we were in a whiteout.
The next several pitches, though difficult to find, would lead us to the headwall traverse that would then take us to the summit. The pitons were tricky to place, and the rope was wet and heavy. With waterfalls running down the wall, footwork on the slab was not easy. ‘It’s not easy’ – these seemed to be the only words that Gu Gu and I had to say to each other.
We finally made it to the top of the pillar buttress and the upper traverse ledge that carried on to the summit of Boudara Shan. From here, we had stunning views of Niuxin Shan (4,942m) and Seerdengpu Shan (5,592m) through a brief break in the clouds and fog. To the north, the face fell away into the mist.
High on the wall, now over 5,200m, the weather was cold and wet, and the upper section still towered over us. On the right-leading traverse, the rock was very rotten and blocky, with only the ice and snow holding it together. After 120m of sliding across, trying to pick the best rocks to surf, I came to an immense gully in the middle of wall.
Our route description was vague, and it seemed we must go up. The only crack above looked to be 5.8, but in the rain and snow, and both of us tired from a day of wet climbing, we were sure it would feel much harder. With only an hour of light left, Gu Gu climbed the saturated wall amazingly well and sent the pitch.
At this point, one of the harder things happened. Most places in China have mobile reception at all times. I had been hoping to get a call from my girlfriend, Marisa, who was stuck in Hong Kong. Talking to someone I love, not knowing if we had a bivy for the night, really hit hard. I started to feel the danger of the loose rock and cold that we had climbed into. Nice as it was, I could not help but break down. With Gu Gu on the radio and Marisa on the phone, she could hear Gu Gu shout down that he had found a bivy, which we named ‘Gu Gu’s bivy’. Pulling myself together and saying I love you, I climbed and cleaned the pitch to a nice but small bivy. Having one packet of noodles each, we set in for a cold night. After checking our gas canister, we felt it would be better to melt snow first, before we cooked dinner.
That night was the coldest I have ever had. Even with down jackets, the cold and wet crept through my layers, into my gloves and socks to my toes. I shivered uncontrollably through the night. We awoke to an amazing view of the valley, but it was only shortlived. The clouds moved in again fast. We continued the last five pitches of ice-covered rock. Parts were dry, but parts had heavy ice. Gu Gu is always happy and confident, but even he said that his hands were cold and a bit numb. I led four of the last five pitches, plus the final summit pitch.
Just as the snow came back in, there we were, standing on the top – the second ascent of the route since it had been established almost 10 years earlier. Now it a complete whiteout, and the snow coming in sideways, we felt stoked to have pushed through to the summit. After a few quick photos and phone calls to Spiderman Paul and our buddy Tyson Wallace back in Yangshuo, we knew it was time to get off the mountain. Plan A had been to rap straight down the line to the base, but there was no choice but to go with Plan B: rap to Dave’s Cave and wait out the storm.
In our minds, we knew everything must go well, because we could be in great danger of freezing on the wall if anything, like rock fall or stuck ropes, slowed us down. Luckily, we executed the tasks perfectly and made it back to the cave before it was dark. Now, after two days of wet and only our core that was dry, in the cave which was tight for two, we only had one packet of noodles left. With the walls of the cave dripping onto our soaked bivy bags, it was almost impossible to sleep. Sitting up, I felt like I would fall out of the cave. Lying down, the water droplets splattered onto my face like water torture.
The storm was on us, and the dripping water froze to ice on our bivy bags. The next morning was the most shocking, as it had snowed all night, and the wall was covered in a two-foot thick layer of snow all the way down to the tree line. Like gnarled fingers, icicles now hung from the wall and our climbing gear. We knew we must still go down – we were out of gas and food, and there was no other option. Where we were in the chute, constant snow and ice slides came down on us, as we hunted for anchors and made new ones. We had to move fast, as pieces of ice bounced over us. Rocks the size of heads, dislodged by the accumulation of snow on the wall, whistled past us into the mist.
Continuing down and finally finding Paul’s route, we continued into the corner, with a waterfall of melting snow coming down around us. Now and again, there would be a break in the mist, and we could see the wall above, thinking about how nice it would be in the dry. The parts we climbed in the dry were great, but in the wet, it was a test of all the skills we had. We called it the ‘Boudara Shan Test’ all the way back to base camp.
We bivyed at base camp. All in all, the attempt took five days. While this might be one of the easier lines to the summit of Boudara Shan, the weather definitely added an extra challenge.
The next day, we were already on our way to Chengdu. Four hours from one of China’s largest cities, is a world of untouched granite. For any alpine climber, this is the place to go.