The Little Sister Dream: Qionglai Range, China

Posted on: July 11, 2012


Looking back at the "Necklace of Pearls" on Sichuan’s Little Sister (6250m) in 2004. [Photo ]Kang Hua

"Why not come along with us?" said Li Hongxue. He glanced at us from behind his wide-brimmed glasses, as matter-of-factly as if he were inviting us on a weekend hike. Before he strolled into that little gear shop where we happened to be browsing, he'd never heard of us, nor we of him. During our brief talk, we'd frankly told him about our complete lack of experience in technical mountaineering; this would be our first, tentative attempt to gain such experience.

Yet now he was inviting us to come along—purely on a momentary whim, it seemed—to climb that mountain, the mere mention of which would bring "steep," "technical" and "challenging" to any Chinese mountaineer's mind. What would it be like? How hard would the climb be? Could we hold up to it? We had no idea. Anyway, this was too good a chance to miss. "We're in!" "OK, let's leave for Little Sister tomorrow morning."

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When the sky is clear, four summits can be seen from the mouth of the Changping Valley, near the town of Rilong, in the Sichuan Province of China. The Chinese name for the peaks, Siguniang Shan, means "Four Girls Mountains." (They are called "Kula Shidak" in Tibetan.) Each one rises above the other: Big Sister (5025m) is a gentle, rounded mound; Second Sister (5276m) is a little taller, beginning to have a pointed tip; Third Sister (5355m) is an even higher pyramid. But the orange, triangular granite face of Little Sister towers above the surrounding mountains at 6250 meters, dwarfing her elder siblings. In one version of a local myth, which may not have actually existed in the old tales, the four girls were the daughters of a great tribal chief who became a nearby peak to stop the floods conjured by a sorcerer, Maardola. To avenge their father and bring peace to the tribe, the four sisters also turned themselves into mountains so they could imprison Maardola beneath them forever.

In July 1981, a Japanese Doshisha University team attained the first ascent of Little Sister. They'd spent sixteen days fixing about 2000 meters of rope up the southeast ridge. Three months later, Americans Jack Tackle, Jim Kanzler, Jim Donini and Kim Schmitz made a semi-alpine-style attempt on the steep northwest face. After a six-day final push, they retreated from around 5400 meters in cold, high winds.

Few other teams tried to climb Little Sister until the turn of the new century, and only two of them succeeded. A Japanese Hiroshima Mountaineering Club expedition scaled the south face-southwest ridge in 1992. Five years later, the American alpinist Charlie Fowler soloed the south face to avoid the perilous "Necklace of Pearls," a series of hanging cornices at 5800 meters along the southeast ridge, before he rejoined the 1981 Japanese route.

At the time when these climbs took place, Chinese mountaineering still remained much the same as it had been since the 1960s: the Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA) and the provincial mountaineering organizations dominated the scene. Every year or two, their leaders arranged major, official expeditions, caring only about putting people onto the summit, not about any novelties in styles or routes. Although the first nonofficial climbing groups and activities had cropped up in China in the late 1980s, very few people participated in them, and those who did were pretty much cut off from the rest of the climbing world.

By the early 2000s, however, the rise of commercial climbing had exposed more Chinese people to the basics of mountaineering. The spread of the Internet gave them broader access to the concepts of modern alpinism and easier means to share ideas. The Chinese "free mountaineers society" seemed to spring suddenly into being. These would-be alpinists aspired to more than just following some big official's orders in a political expedition or pushing a jumar along ropes fixed by commercial guides. They wanted to choose their own mountains, for their own reasons, and to climb them in their own way. They gaped at the seemingly impossible ascents that Western climbers pulled off, and they dreamed of being able, one day, to do the same.

Meanwhile, a handful of those Western climbers—most notably Charlie Fowler— had already begun to explore many of the prominent peaks lining the Changping and Shuangqiao valleys. In 2002 two British alpinists, Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden, climbed Little Sister through a narrow, ice-filled basalt dike that carved a shining line on the shadowed northwest face. The terrain proved so steep they spent several bivouacs hanging from streaks of ice, with the tent draped over their heads. The ascent won them that year's Piolet d'Or. Translated into Chinese, their report appeared in the Chinese Mountaineering Association's official magazine Shanye ("Mountains and Wildernesses"). Yet instead of a literal translation of the original route name, "Inside Line," the translator took the liberty of dubbing it Menghuan Zhi Lu ("Dream Route").

Overnight, Little Sister became the very totem of technical alpinism among Chinese mountaineers. On our climbing forums, new threads appeared with titles like "Those who call themselves heroes for summiting Everest in a huge expedition with fixed ropes and supplemental oxygen—how many years will it be before they're able to summit Little Sister?"

But no one turns into an expert climber instantly, especially in a country with little nonofficial, noncommercial mountaineering history. In the spring of 2003, Jon Otto, an American who studied at Peking University, and his Chinese climbing partner Ma Yihua co-founded the nonofficial Arete Alpine Instruction Center (AAIC) in Chengdu, the first climbing organization in China to promote openly the spirit of exploration— that is, to state explicitly that a first ascent is more valuable than an 1000th. It was mostly because of their efforts that the terms "unclimbed peak," "new route" and "alpine style" soon became the new trend words for Chinese mountaineering websites.

After two reconnaissance trips to Little Sister, Otto and Ma decided to try the 1981 Japanese route with fixed ropes and camps. Although the style would be old-fashioned, they hoped to achieve the first Chinese ascent of the peak, with a team that included five Chinese members gathered from the elite of a still-small community. In November 2004, as the northerly gales grew stronger, Otto and the expedition leader, Cao Jun, managed to fix ropes past the Necklace of Pearls— despite collapsing two of those "Pearls" by merely stepping on them. By November 18, after waiting out a blizzard in base camp, four of the Chinese climbers (and two of the Americans) had stood on the summit.

Yan Dongdong at the 5700-meter bivy on Little Sister in November 2009. Many versions of the “Four Sisters” myth exist. As tourist bureaus began promoting the area, some elements of local folklore were altered in the translation from Tibetan into Chinese. At times, the Chinese phonetic rendering of the original Tibetan name for a peak may have generated new, Chinese legends. [Photo] Zhou Peng

Their success was, and still is, recognized as a turning point in Chinese mountaineering. Nonetheless, Otto had led most of the pitches and fixed most of the ropes. In October 2006, Sun Bin, a CMA instructor who'd trained in France, attempted Little Sister in alpine style from the south side with two partners. They turned back before even reaching the bergschrund below the southeast ridge, which was, by then, considered the "normal route" since it was the only one with repeated ascents. It seemed as if the thought of an all-Chinese ascent, by any line in any style, was premature. No Chinese party tried again for two more years, although the Little Sister dream still brewed in the hearts of the more ambitious mountaineers.

In September 2008, Americans Chad Kellogg and Dylan Johnson completed a new route via the long, jagged southwest ridge over eight days, with many crest-straddling traverses, which they called "happy cowboys" and much groping along in an almost-continuous whiteout. It was as if this ascent raised the curtain on a competition: three Chinese teams made almost simultaneous attempts from November to December. After his partner got injured, Sun Bin failed on an unplanned solo. Peng Xiaolong, the founder of a commercial mountaineering company, tried to siege the normal route with six climbers, but they couldn't get past the Necklace of Pearls, which had become even more precarious because of glacial recession.

Li Hongxue, a former AAIC instructor, was the leader of the third team. It was through our chance encounter with him that my friend Zhou Peng and I got involved in this "competition," and the Little Sister dream became our dream.

[Photo] Peng Xiaolong descends the south face of Little Sister after his March 2011 attempt. Yong Liu, one of the 2012 Piolet d'Or panelists, explains that earlier local pioneers "started with very poor gear, and they learned most of their climbing skills on their own.... We realized [after the Internet came] that what we have been doing is called 'alpine style'." Today, they have more access to outside information, but many ascents still go unrecorded. "'Sichuan style' means only climbing, no talking." Peng Xiaolong collection

Zhou and I had come to Sichuan with no specific target in mind, other than to try our luck. We'd both started climbing in college clubs, had met during the 2008 Olympic Torch Everest expedition, and had decided that such large, slow, siege-style expeditions weren't to our taste. I'd participated in translating Mark Twight's Extreme Alpinism into Chinese, and the spirit of "light, fast and high" chimed with our aspirations. Tackling long, complex, exposed new routes on remote high mountains with minimal gear and no backup, relying on competence and determination to cope with the difficulties, dangers and fear—now this was what mountaineering should be about! In May, lying in our tent at the 6500-meter camp below the North Col of Everest, Zhou and I talked about pursuing that spirit among the mountains of Tibet, Xinjiang and Sichuan. Full of excitement, we decided to form a "team" of two that we named the "Free Spirits." Circumstances prevented us from actually trying to carry out our pursuit until October, though this may have been a good thing in retrospect: if we hadn't met Li in Chengdu, it might have taken several more years for us to muster the courage to attempt something as intimidating-sounding as Little Sister.

Our membership bolstered the size of the team to seven (including Li's former AAIC colleague Liu Yunfeng, Yunnan enthusiast Wang Ting, and local Tibetan guides Xu Guihua and Yuan Yongqiang). There were too many of us for an alpine-style ascent, and we didn't have enough supplies for a siege. Realizing the attempt would likely be futile, Li decided to explore the south face to the right of the central couloir as a reconnaissance. He, Zhou and the two guides fixed ropes to 5600 meters before retreating. The others and I never passed the bergschrund. For Zhou and me, however, it was our first new route attempt. And for the first time, we realized that a mountain face that looks "vertical" from a distance, may turn out to be just a series of slopes close up. The summit of Little Sister—even a new line that led to it—no longer seemed so far away.

After a season of ice climbing, and other, more successful, attempts at light and fast mountaineering, Zhou and I returned to the central south face in February 2009. This time, at 5950 meters, Zhou was leading a steep, rotten icefall (the only safe-looking way) when the uppermost part of the ice caved in. It was his first lead fall on ice. Fortunately, the 12cm ice screw held. A chunk of ice, the size of which I had no chance to determine, almost knocked me out. Somehow, we were both unhurt. We beat an as-hasty-as-possible retreat, trying to stay above the bottom of a wide, shallow couloir where torrents of dirty meltwater flowed and small pieces of rock whizzed past. Spring has come, I realized, Time to go home.

In late autumn, the competition resumed, this time with four teams: Sun Bin, Luo Biao, Li Zongli and the Uyghur climber Dilishati; Peng Xiaolong, who somehow ended up without a partner; Zheng Zhaohui, a member of Peng's 2008 team, now leading an expedition of his own; and us. Zheng chose a rock couloir leading to the west ridge for a possible new route, but he gave up after his partner was injured by falling rock. Peng hadn't expected to climb alone, and he didn't get very far up the south face.

Zhou and I were going for our third attempt on the route to the right of the south face central couloir. Simultaneously, Sun's team aimed for a variation of the 1992 Japanese south facesouthwest ridge route. For a couple of hours, we could see each other plainly across rocky slabs in the central gully, which were washed greyish by meltwater and avalanches. Both of our groups began the summit push just in time for two days of clear and cold weather with prevailing north winds. Since Sun's team crossed the bergschrund a couple of hours before us, they were a little higher up when we left each other's view. But we were much luckier than they were: although the low temperatures minimized rock- and icefall hazards on the south face, the same weather made the exposed west ridge very cold and miserable. At 6100 meters, Sun and his partners were forced back, not so much by technical difficulties as by the shrill winds that threatened to nip off their numb fingers.

In the end—much more uneventfullythan we'd ever imagined possible, thanks to the weather, the lessons from our past failures, and all the planning—Zhou and I reached the summit late on the second day, just after the sun sank below the horizon. The view was dizzying. Looking down on the surrounding peaks that suddenly seemed so small and far below, like distant waves, I realized that we'd almost forgotten their existence. After leaving the bivouac in the morning, we'd been entirely immersed in the climb. It was our first completed new route, and we named it Free Spirits after our partnership.

We felt sad that we couldn't thank Li Hongxue for our eye-opening expedition a year before. That June, he'd been rappelling down the nearby Celestial Peak when his single- piton anchor blew, and he'd fallen several hundred meters to his death on the crevassestrewn glacier. His body was never found, but many—like me—will never forget the almost childishly serious look that appeared on his face whenever he was about to propose some unexpected, daring act.

For us, the ascent was a fresh beginning. Afterward, Zhou and I found the confidence and freedom to explore new mountains and even wholly new areas. For other Chinese climbers, I've hoped it can be a signal to open their eyes to the wide, wild possibilities that China still contains: great, beautiful peaks and ranges that few have ever climbed or seen, partly because of the remoteness and poor accessibility, partly because the western borderlands have been so restricted to foreigners, leaving immense potential for exploration.

And indeed, day by day, more Chinese climbers are waking up to these opportunities. But this expansion of vision doesn't spell the end for the Little Sister dream. In November 2011, Sun Bin and Li Zongli renewed their effort on the left side of the south face. This time, after three days on the face, they finally pushed through, linking an uncompleted 2006 French line and the upper southwest ridge to form a new route they named "Liberation." It should be noted that all Chinese attempts on Little Sister so far have avoided the steeper, blanker northwest side, where the British, Russians and French have climbed. And the entire east face of the mountain, which has only been attempted once or twice back in the 1980s and 1990s, has yet to see a successful ascent.

It's possible that even if the Chinese mountaineering community ventures farther away from Little Sister in the future, searching for unclimbed lines amid other great and small ranges, this peak will evolve from a coveted prize to a historic classic— similar to the Eigerwand in Switzerland. Of course, it's equally possible that the Little Sister dream will be forgotten, outgrown as all those new regions absorb everyone's attention. When Zhou and I completed the Free Spirits route, Ma Yihua had commented that he hadn't expected such an ascent to take place so soon. I hope that either one of those futures— with a wide, mature, diverse and colorful free mountaineering community, deeply rooted in China—will come earlier than I expect, too. —Yan Dongdong, Beijing, China

On November 13, 2011, Sun Bin and Li Zongli finished the route they'd attempted with Luo Biao and Dilishati in 2009, Liberation (5.9 AI3+ M4 55 degrees, 1120m), to the left of Zhou Peng and Yan Dongdong's Free Spirits (VI M4 A3, 1000m). Today, Yong Liu worries that the economic boom in China may endanger "the spirit of climbing.... We need more ways to tell the young generation what is true climbing. A real climber should get back to the mountain." He notes that unclimbed lines remain on Sichuan's big walls. [Photo] Zhou Peng

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