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2010 Mugs Stump Update: Success, Tragedy and Savage Peaks
Sichuan Expedition Cut Short By Injuries
In September, Toby Grohne and Jesse Huey left for China's Changping Valley with plans to make a light-and-fast ascent of a mixed route on the 1500-meter northwest face of Siguniang (6250m). As part of the same expedition, the climbers also taught a six-day alpine climbing and rescue course to the locals in hopes of forming a sustainable eco-tourism industry in the valley.
As a warm-up for the climb, Grohne and Huey, along with climber/photographer John Dickey decided to attempt a new route on the northeast ridge of Celestial Peak (5413m). The endeavor started off slowly, as the climbers fought their way through a burly approach that Grohne calls "the worst four-hour, 2500-foot vertical... jungle thrashing of all times."
The northeast ridge is an exposed knife-edge, with the 3,000-foot north and east faces dropping off on each side. Along the way, Dickey filmed and photographed their progress for a documentary by Four Sisters Film. The climbers spent more than 10 hours on the ridge leading and re-leading pitches for the camera and ran short on time despite "trimul-climbing" everything but the single-pitch crux. Forlorn Ridge reaches difficulties of 5.10 at the crux and ascends a total of 3,500'.
After recovering from their Celestial Peak effort, the team set up advanced base camp in the shelter of a house-sized boulder at the foot of Siguniang's northwest face. They originally planned to climb a route along a rib up the center of the face, but warm conditions raised concerns about loose rock and a lack of snow and ice. Instead, they set their sights on a rock line along the north ridge. During their last night at camp, massive rockfall left their intended line stripped of several pitches. Shaken by the close call but still determined to attempt a new line, Grohne and Huey prepared to attempt their original objective—the northwest rib—and cached supplies at the base of the climb. The next morning, the climbers paused for a bouldering session on a nearby highball. Twenty-five feet off the deck, Huey broke a hold and fell the full length of the boulder, breaking his back and wrist and bruising several ribs.
"I am not sure what was worse, the pain from the broken bones, the realization that I still had to get out of such a remote place or stomaching the thought that it could be a very long time before I would get medical attention," Huey wrote in a trip report.
Huey fought through the long hike out and an eight-hour jeep ride to a hospital in the town of Chengdu, where he was given three anti-inflammatory pills to tide him over for his flight back to the States. "Mentally, I was taxed. The pain was the only thing keeping me alert to the task of getting out of that valley and getting home," Huey said.
Though he faces a long recovery, Huey plans to return to Tibet for a second attempt on Siguniang.
Tragedy in the Labuche Kang Massif
Originally planning to make the first ascent of Karjiang (7221m), a "stunning" virgin peak on the Tibet-Bhutan border, David Gottlieb and Joe Puryear had to change plans after the area was closed to climbing due to "border problems." Instead, they traveled to Tibet to explore the remote and rarely visited Labuche Kang Massif. Only three climbing expeditions to the massif had ever been documented. The apex of the massive range, Labuche Kang (7367m), was climbed just once, via the West Ridge by a Tibetan-Japanese team in 1987. Surrounding Labuche Kang are numerous unclimbed 6000- to 7000-meter peaks.
On September 21, the duo established base camp at 5300m on the south side of the massif on the lateral moraine of an unnamed glacier below Labuche Kang III (ca. 7250m). They spent the next few weeks going on exploratory treks around the valley to scout potential projects. In the first week of October, the pair climbed two 6000-meter peaks to acclimatize before establishing advanced base camp at 5500m. While they waited for high winds and snow to subside, they continued to explore the valley, optimizing their chances of completing an alpine-style ascent.
Gottlieb and Puryear started up the Labuche Kang massif on October 27. At around 5600m, the climbers were approaching the south face on a knife-edge ridge when an accident occurred. Puryear went ahead to scout the route and see how much further they should climb unroped. The knife-edge ridge they had been traversing had debris runnel that cut into the snow, forming a 'deceptively unstable' cornice. As Puryear walked across, the cornice collapsed under his weight and he fell. Out of sight and in high winds, Gottlieb did not see of hear his partner's fall. He climbed up to a section of the ridge where Puryear's tracks disappeared. After yelling and receiving no response, he climbed to a better vantage point but could not see his partner. Gottlieb then rappelled down the cliff about 250m where he found Puryear's body at the base in a debris cone.
Gottlieb coordinated a body recovery over the following four days in collaboration with Michelle Puryear, Rajan Thapa of Climb High Himalaya Outfitter, the U.S. Embassies in Chengdu and Kathmandu, Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association, and Global Rescue. Puryear's body was transported to Kathmandu where he was cremated on November 5 at a private ceremony with friends from Nepal and immediate family.
Sources: Scott Adamson, David Gottlieb, Colin Haley, Jesse Huey, Dylan Johnson, Michael Kennedy, Michelle Puryear, Kate Rutherford, Matt Tuttle, katerutherford.com, foursistersfilm.com, rockclimberjasmin.com, supertopo.com, climbtibet.blogspot.com, climbing.com