Sunday, April 10, 2016

Ice Climbing in China

In the fall of 2014 I had been invited by some Chinese hosts to attend a presentation of films from the Kendall Mountain Film Festival world tour in Wenzhou (see my November 2014 blog posts).  I was impressed at the numbers of Chinese outdoor enthusiasts that I met, many of whom wanted to learn to climb but had minimal options for getting any kind of instruction.  It's easy to forget that in places like North America where we live, there is a long history of providing different types of outdoor education.  In China they do not have that.  Their parents or grandparents lived on the farm and it is a relatively new thing for young Chinese to have enough income to participate in recreational sports.

Afterwards I thought it would be fun to start an exchange and give some Chinese climbers the opportunity to come to North America and learn how we do things.  We would also have the opportunity to bring some American and Canadian climbers to China to have an interesting cultural experience while giving some clinics for the Chinese and doing some of our own climbing as well.

Almost a year ago I got in touch with Daliu, a Chinese climber who I met at the Piolet d Or in Chamonix in the spring of 2012.  Daliu was one of the judges at that event and I was there because our 2011 Saser Kangri II climb had been nominated for this award (see my April 7, 2012 blog post).  Daliu and I started planning an ice climbing exchange where the American and Canadian climbers would come to China in the winter of 2016 and the Chinese climbers would come to North America in 2017.

In early February of this year, Americans Jens Holsten and Steven Van Sickle, and me plus Canadians Rafal Andronowski and Alik Berg flew to Chengdu.  We were met by Daliu and our new Chinese friends who drove us the next day to Siguniang National Park to spend about ten days ice climbing in the Shuangqiaogou Valley.

Siguniang National Park Entrance
L to R  Daliu, Steven van Sickle, Steve Swenson, Alik Berg, Jens Holsten, Rafal Andronowski

Chinese members of our group

We stayed at a lodge in the Shuangqiaogou Valley run by a Tibetan family that provided all our meals.  There is a road in the valley that is closed to normal traffic and each morning we would get picked up by our driver who took us where we wanted to climb that day.  When we were finished climbing we called him on our cell phone and he would come back to get us.

Our lodge and vehicles to take us climbing for the day. There are a couple of ice climbs behind the lodge.

Our driver Li Yun Long and his family in Shuangqiaogou valley 

We had to register at a park kiosk for climbing each day
The first three days we gave clinics to the dozen Chinese ice climbers who were part of our group.  Language was a significant barrier since we didn't speak Mandarin and only about three of the Chinese spoke English well enough to translate. What we learned right away is the Chinese like to go out in big groups and it didn't seem to bother them that much to drop ice on each other.  We had a hard time explaining that when we go ice climbing, we go in small groups of two or three. If we find other people where we want to climb then we leave and go someplace else because falling ice from other parties is dangerous.

Typical Chinese ice climbing class

Eating in China is the only place I have found that I either love a particular dish, or it is just too weird for me.  I enjoy most stir fry plates, veggies, steamed breads, soups, and lean meats.  But I usually pass on things like snails, fish heads, insects, pork fat and other mystery meats.

Typical kitchen

Mystery carcass hanging outside a restaurant

Steven enjoying a chicken foot
We learned a lot about how to demonstrate ice climbing technique rather than trying to explain how to do things through a translator.  Raf suggested we solo next to our Chinese friends on easy ice close to the ground so they could copy what we were doing.  We also spent time explaining how to set up top ropes and arrange a practice area so no one got hit by ice.  We tried to point out that it was bad etiquette to ice climb above a slower party and knock ice on them.

Ice climbing is becoming increasingly popular and practice areas get hacked out even worse than in North America 
Most of our Chinese students had been to an ice climbing course taught by Chinese instructors. There isn't a system for guide certification in China and from what we saw, the capabilities of the Chinese instructors varied considerably.

We did Q&A during our clinic lunch breaks and we would get questions like, "My teacher said I should kick my crampon into the ice four times before I stand up on my boot. Is this true?", or "My teacher says that when I'm leading I should place an ice screw every 3 meters. Is this true?"  These kinds of questions, coupled with other discussions we had with our Chinese friends about family and lifestyle, revealed an interesting observation.  Compared to us, they seemed more apt to be told and then comply with specific instructions from people in positions of authority. Our response to these kinds of questions was usually an explanation of how to make an assessment of the situation and then use our judgment to determine a course of action.  It seemed like a different concept to them which made the cultural differences on this subject seem vast and complicated.

Jens and Daliu trying to explain difficult things like technique, etiquette, and judgment

After three days of clinics we started to go out on our own, or with just a few of the better Chinese ice climbers in our group.  The temperatures during the day had been above freezing, but because we were at about 12,000 feet it was cold at night.  This meant that ice climbs getting a lot of sun were baked, and freestanding ice columns seemed too fragile to climb on.  But it was fine to climb larger ice flows on the shady side of the valley. 

Heading for a nice looking pillar

Unfortunately, with the warm temperatures, even some of the ice on the shady side was running with lots of water!

Jens soaked after leading a very wet pitch

Most of the Chinese climbers are doing easier routes so if we got on anything harder than WI4+ or so, the ice was not hacked out and in better shape than most late season climbs in North America.

Two of the nicer climbs we did

This pitch didn't have pick holes from previous ascents

My friend Amanda, who hosted me and some other friends for the Kendall Mountain Film festival 18 months earlier, came up to Shuangqiaogou for a visit,  Jens and I took her ice climbing.

Amanda is up for anything that looks fun

Amanda took us for lunch at a Tibetan restaurant far up in the Shuangqiaogou valley that made delicious fresh baked bread.

Restaurant kitchen

Amanda with the restaurant matriarch

Given that ice conditions were not that great, Alik, Steven, and I spent a couple of days walking up the Changping Valley, which is the next valley east of the Shuangqiaogou.  We wanted to look for ice climbs to do in the future and for potential summertime alpine climbs. To some degree we had all succumbed to a bad cold and Jens and Raf were not feeling well and had stayed behind in the Shuangqiaogou Valley to recover.

Hiking the first several miles in the Changping Valley was on a boardwalk with interesting signs.

"The stone is unmerciful and please remember never to climb!"

The summit of Mt Siguniang (6250m) is in the clouds. The skyline ridge on the left was climbed by Dylan Johnson and Chad Kellogg in 2008

Alik crossing a bridge in the Changping Valley

Yak after a snowstorm

There is a 14,000 foot pass between Siguniang Park and Chengdu and the snowstorm that hit when we were trekking in the Changping Valley also dumped a lot of snow on this pass.  They don't plow this road so everyone must fend for themselves.  On our drive back I was pretty surprised to see the kinds of buses, trucks, and small cars that head up over this pass that can be pretty dangerous in the winter.

Jack-knifed truck blocking the pass and a tour bus can't get past

We had a great time with our Chinese Hosts and we are looking forward to their trip to Canmore Alberta in the winter of 2017!


Monday, March 28, 2016

Canadian Rockies Ice

Big apologies to everyone for being so delinquent with posting on my blog this past winter.  I've been trying to learn something about how to write creative non-fiction.  This has led me to the final twelve months (hopefully) of a five year process of writing a book.  As it gets closer to completion, the amount of time this takes is getting ratcheted up.  This winter I spent most of my non-climbing time working on this project. I have a bit of a reprieve while the publisher, Mountaineers Books, is doing a line edit on the complete manuscript.  This gives me the opportunity to catch up on things like updating my blog. Some of the photos and stories from the winter might be as much as six months old now which, in the age of social media, is ancient history.

I love spending time in he Canadian Rockies in the winter, especially because of the world class ice climbing.  Here are some photos and brief stories of the highlights.

Hydrophobia in the Waiparous Creek area of the front range is one of my favorite ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies.  It's a beautiful three pitch sheet of ice that goes at WI5.

Third pitch of French Reality
The Stanley Headwall boasts some of the most technically challenging ice and mixed climbs in the range and French Reality is one of the classics.  Here we can see Matthias Scherer leading the final pitch.

Unicorn and Kittyhawk
Off the David Thompson Highway are two great lines, a mixed climb on the left called Unicorn and an ice climb on the right called Kittyhawk.  Note Tanja Schmidt high on the last ice curtain of Unicorn.

Heike Schmidt on the lower section of Unicorn

Suffer Machine

Another classic route on the Stanley Headwall is Suffer Machine.  The original start is via the snowy rock cone in the lower right corner of the photo.  That takes you through the roof followed by some airy drytooling left and up onto the ice.

The Sorcerer
Just south of Hydrophobia, The Sorcerer is the other big classic WI5 route in the front range and it is accessed via the North Ghost River drainage.

Russell on Kidd Falls
Kidd Falls is a two pitch route high on Mt Kidd in Kananaskis Provincial Park.  It gets a lot of sun which makes it a good choice on a cold day.

Margo Talbot on Twisted
Twisted has become a popular ice route on Mount Stephen that is easy to access from the Trans Canada highway near Field BC.  This name was originally used for a mixed climb that came in just to the right.  This makes it confusing for those who see the route description in the old mixed guidebook that doesn't match what it looks like now.

Raphael Slawinski on The Day After les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot 
I get out with Raphael once or twice each season and it's usually on something scary.  This year Raphael led the mixed pitches on The Day After les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.  The first pitch was not that athletic but insecure, and I didn't think the gear was that great.  The second pitch had better gear but was harder. 

At the upper end of the Stanley Headwall is Nemesis, an ice climb that I usually do once or twice every season.  It's another one of those climbs I never get tired of repeating.

Juan Munoz leading the first pitch of Nemesis

John Ohlson
John is even older than me and he came up from Seattle to climb for a week in January.  Here he is on Too Low for Zero in Kananaskis Provincial Park

Rainbow Serpent
Rainbow Serpent is a spectacular ice pillar in the South Ghost River drainage.  This climb is tucked away on the east side of the Recital Hall - an amazing limestone amphitheatre you access by climbing a WI4 pitch called Aquarius.  Our car got stuck in a few snow drifts on the way in and we had to do a lot of digging that day.  But it was worth it.

Chris Wright leading the first pitch of Rainbow Serpent

Alik Berg at the Solarium

It's always nice to go to a new place and neither Alik or I have ever been to the Solarium, a mixed climbing crag up the Icefields Parkway.  Given the snow conditions, we spent seven hours to ski in and out which only allowed us about two hours of climbing.  But the route we did was fun.

Next Up:  A group of us went on a two week ice climbing trip to China in early February.  It will take me a few days, but I will post about that trip up in a few days.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Climbing Changi Tower

After two weeks of bad weather we climbed back up through the icefall, this time to make an attempt on Changi Tower.  Out of the glacial basin where we had cached much of our equipment, we soloed up a thousand feet of easy snow and ice to the Polish Col.  Three Polish climbers had made the only previous attempt on the peak five years earlier had named this pass after their nationality.

Changi Tower with the Polish col on the left
From the Polish Col we ascended a snow and ice face then some mixed climbing up to 6100 meters (20,000ft) where the steep rock climbing started.

Route ascended the ice face and mixed climbing above Graham leaving the Polish Col and then up the wall above.
At the base of the first steep rock pitches, Graham and Scott scouted the route ahead while I started to chop and build a tent platform in the steep slope.  Getting decent shelter for the night is key to success on these higher colder mountains.  Spending several nights out in the open without the tent can mean little sleep and less effective hydration and eating - things that are important to recovery before another day of climbing.   
Scott back at the bivy site while I searched in vain for an easier place to chop a ledge for the tent

We brought an ice hammock, an innovative piece of equipment invented by Mark Richey that consists of a 2 ounce piece of fabric with webbing loops on each end that you fill with snow to make the ledge wider.  In the lower left corner of photo below you can see the blue corner of the ice hammock.
Graham and Scott helping to finish chopping the ledge for our tent
Originally we planned to move the tent up one more time on our second day of climbing above the Polish Col.  We thought that would give us enough time to go to the summit on the third day.  But that night Scott observed that the rock wall above was probably too steep to find a lower angled snow patch to chop another ledge.  He proposed that we get up early and go all the way to the summit from where we had our tent now.  Graham and I agreed, but I suggested we take a stove and one sleeping bag in case we didn't make the top before dark.  That way we wouldn't have to turn around if it got dark short of the summit.  We could survive a cold open bivouac on this minimal gear and go onto the top the next day - but that would be a miserable experience so we hoped we wouldn't have to do  that. 
The rock wall above our bivouac
Graham led the first day from the Polish Col and now it was Scott's turn.  I can't climb nearly as fast as these two young guys and speed was of the essence if we wanted to avoid a cold night out without the tent.  So I followed in support.   
Climbing on thin, but good ice up to where the wall steepened
I was pleasantly surprised at how good the climbing was.  Normally on these big peaks the rock and ice quality can be poor.  But on Changi Tower neither was the case.  The rock quality was almost as good as the best granite I'd climbed on in Patagonia and the ice was solid enough to take good ice screws for protection.
Scott finishing up the mostly mixed climbing. Around the corner was the bottom of the Great Dihedral
Scott kept leading and Graham mentioned to me that when he is on a roll like this it's most efficient to have him keep going.  He was getting the rope up quickly and at this rate it seemed like we might get to the top before dark. 
Graham looking up into the Great Dihedral
From below we had spotted a large corner system in the upper rock wall that I called the Great Dihedral.  If we could climb this feature, we thought it would take us up the steepest part of the route.  As Scott came around a corner to the base of it, he was faced with a thin wet crack capped by a large nasty looking hanging icicle so he did some clever rock climbing on the right wall to get around it.
Looking up into the Great Dihedral
Once Scott traversed left back into the main corner he sped away for another pitch up the ice filled crack system. 

Scott traversing left on face climbing out of the Great Dihedral

On the final pitch up the corner Scott had to change into rock climbing shoes from his boots and crampons.  It looked like the top of the dihedral was capped with a wide, overhanging, and icy crack.  To his delight, a series of nice edges in the granite appeared on the left wall and he was able to get on easy but exposed face climbing that avoided the heinous looking climbing to his right.

Looking to the north at K7 behind Hassin Peak in the foreground.  The unclimbed Link Sar is in the clouds on the right

Above the dihedral it was back to the boots and crampons and Scott quickly dispensed with a snowy granite corner.  As the light started to fade, the last pitch that took us to the summit provided a final sting in the tail.  Scott was faced with an insecure traverse along the top edge of a very exposed rock wall capped with snow that had the consistency and strength of a pile of BB's.  To Move up along the edge of the wall he had to excavate the snow away that wouldn't hold his weight.  As the wall ended he was forced to pull up onto the snow above the rock with insecure ice tool placements and protection that by now was far below.  Once he was up onto the snow he kicked steps up the easy snow to the summit and calmly let Graham and I know that he was on top.

Rappelling off the summit
Scott reached the top just at dusk and by the time he belayed up Graham and then me, it was completely dark.  Although it would have been imprudent to keep climbing up in the dark, we felt comfortable rappelling back down at night the way we came up.  Graham led the rappels and did a nice job finding anchors down the left wall of the Great Dihedral that kept us out of the main corner where our ropes could easily get caught on rock and ice protrusions when we pulled them down.  Further down we had a couple of rappels that wouldn't pull through the anchor or got snagged requiring us to climb back up to retrieve them.  It wasn't until 3AM that we reached our tent and piled in after a very long day.
We woke late the next morning and made rappels down the ice to the Polish Col and then down to the glacial basin below.  By then it was too late in the day to descend the icefall so we spent the night there enjoying the sunset on Changi Tower and the peaks off to the west. 
Sunset on Changi Tower at our camp in the basin

We had some goodies to enjoy at our camp in the basin

In the morning we descended the icefall when it was nice and frozen.

Descending the icefall in the morning

Below the icefall we walked back across the Lachit Glacier and reached our Advanced Base Camp around noon. 
Graham and Scott walking across the Lachit Glacier back to our ABC
We had already decided not to climb the south buttress of K6 Central from our ABC because the lower portion of the route was exposed to avalanches that came off of seracs above. 
The south buttress of K6 Central.  The two large seracs up high on either side of the buttress threaten the lower slopes

The next two days were consumed with moving everything from our ABC up and over the Hidden Col back to the East Nangma Glacier on the other side.  It was a serious and potentially dangerous process because the snow in the couloirs going up and over the Hidden Col had melted out and were now subject to more rockfall.  We had to move quickly during the shady times of the day to minimize this risk.

Getting back to the land of the living on our way back to base camp

We left most of our equipment and supplies at our cache on the upper East Nangma Glacier and walked back to base camp.

Hiking down the lower East Nangma Glacier back to base camp
Before leaving base camp for home, we had one more short good weather window and Scott and Graham had picked out a safer line on K6 via its west ridge.  I mentioned to them that I was too worn out from Changi Tower to turn around quickly and go up on K6 so I elected to stay in base camp for this next climb.  I also felt I would slow them down and they needed to go quickly because the forecast we had was for only three days of good weather followed by a major storm.
My next post covers the last week at base camp before our porters came back to retrieve everything.