THE SENTINEL OF ZHAGANA
To the bemusement of locals, three climbers make a first ascent of a striking and technical peak looming over a remote valley in Gansu province.
An account of the first ascent of a technical peak in Gansu, China.
OLA LOOKED TOWARDS ME WITH A CONCERNED EXPRESSION, then returned her attention to the wall. I understood, yet held my words. Finally she couldn’t stay silent. “He’s really runout and his existing protection’s not very good,” she said. Despite being 30m up with only two cams and two mediocre-slung bushes between him and the ground though, Chuan continued to move confidently over the rock. I agreed with her, but suggested we give him a little more time. If any of those pieces failed, he was looking at a ground fall. Then he entered a technical section with few holds and no options for protection, and stalled. Ola shouted up, suggesting he place a bolt. After contemplating his predicament, Chuan downclimbed to a good stance and called up the drill to place a bolt. Ola and I exchanged glances of relief. The adventure was just getting started, this was no time for any of us to take a bad fall.
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Our team had first learned of Zhagana in the summer of 2016 when a photo showed up in the Yangshuo climbers’ Wechat group. In the picture, a prominent beak of rock protruded from the middle of a jagged limestone massif. Below, an idyllic village nestled among terraced hills. The scene set the chat group afire with questions about whether the peak had been climbed and who would climb it first. While most claims didn’t make it out of the chat group, Ola Przybysz quietly set about researching and planning an expedition for the following year. In the months after seeing the photo, Przybysz reached out to Beijing-based Chuan He, a climber with many first ascents to his name. Chuan quickly agreed to join her but insisted they bring a third member to mitigate the risks associated with unknown terrain on remote walls. Przybysz then asked me to join. I needed little convincing to fly in from the US and our little team fixed a date in May 2017. Getting to Zhagana began with the three of us flying to and meeting in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province. Gansu’s tourism has long been dominated by the imperial historical sites at Tianshui, and the western outposts of Dunhuang and Jiayuguan, popular for the Buddhist Mogao grottoes, the desert Oasis temple at Crescent Lake, and the westernmost garrison of the Great Wall. The provincial government has begun heavily promoting ecotourism and visits to areas of Tibetan cultural significance but Zhagana remains well off the beaten track for now. After a five-hour bus ride across wide expanses of alpine grassland we arrived in Diebu, the county-level city closest to Zhagana. From here, another
45-minute ride up a narrow valley took us through a natural gateway in the ridgeline, the entrance to the park that encompasses Zhagana’s terraced hills and towering peaks, though not the village itself. We settled into a modest guesthouse and admired the view from our balcony of the main peak, our climbing objective. We learned from our host, Dawa, that the peak was called Zhawuduo, though it’s meaning seemed to have been lost over time. We spent two days reconnoitering Zhawuduo from various aspects, assessing rock quality and potential routes. The east face looked to have the best rock, but it was also the steepest and offered practically no natural means of protection. It was an impressive wall, close to 500m, but not a likely candidate for our first route. The south face on the other hand provided the most promising route – a crack and corner system that began atop a steep hillside several hundred metres above the valley floor. We decided to give this a go the following day. That evening we organised gear and discussed plans for the next several days. Dawa and his son, Ding, came up to gawk at, fondle, and inquire about our equipment. Earlier in the day we had cautiously revealed our plan to climb Zhawuduo, apprehensive about Dawa’s response. In many Tibetan areas, certain mountains are considered sacred and climbing them is off-limits. Notable examples include Kailash, Kawa Karpo, and the three holy peaks within Yading Nature Reserve. To our relief, he was enthusiastic about our climbing plan, confirming there were no religious beliefs attached to the peak. The next day we followed the park’s south trail alongside a stream until we found a faint yak trail that branched off and switchbacked up the steep hill. As we had hoped, this trail led us to the base of the wall and the start of our route. Chuan offered to take the first lead. From the ground, the pitch looked somewhat protectable, but it was clear that its numerous blank sections would require bolts or running out sections where gear was not available. Though Chuan drilled the first bolt halfway up the pitch, Ola’s relief was short-lived, as the final 20m were again sparse on gear. The climbing was easier overall, however, and Chuan reached a decent ledge where he began building the anchor as snow flurries had began swirling about. At first these were very light, and even stoppped for a period. Chuan put Ola on belay and she began to follow the pitch. But five minutes into her climb, the flurries returned, much heavier. The snow melted upon contacting the wall and soon
covered the entire route with water. Within no time, Ola was slipping and sliding as she tried to climb. We knew it was time to retreat for the day. After fixing the rope, and caching our gear in a well-protected alcove, we headed down the hill in the snow. The weather had fully cleared by night so next day we were back on the wall before noon. After we jumared the fixed rope to Chuan’s anchor of Pitch 1, Ola set off leading the second pitch. While the climbing was only moderately difficult, she found only slightly better protection than Chuan’s pitch, before encountering an exposed blank face that offered no protection whatsoever. At this point, she prepared to pull-up the drill when we all realised she had forgotten the tag line used to pull up gear such as the drill. With no other option, she found a relatively safe stance and untied from her lead rope, leaving her zero protection if she lost her balance and fell. She lowered it to us to attach the drill and tag line, and after pulling it back up, she finally could get to work placing the bolt. The bolt gave her confidence and she quickly dispatched the sport sequence of face movies before finding several vegetated steps offering little protection again. This time she led onto a mossy ledge where she intended to bolt the anchor. She later commented, “There was no solid gear, I was just slinging [putting slings around] clumps of vegetation mostly. When I got to the end, I was trying to balance on this sloping, grassy ledge and drill a bolt. It was the scariest bolt I’ve drilled in my life.” The next pitch was my lead and offered better protection in the first half, up an obvious corner crack leading into a traversing alcove. Higher up, before the alcove, a wet and mossy section produced a short fall when a small moss pod collapsed under my foot and my hand came out of a slimy, flaring jam. I resorted to several aid moves to get through this section, and running out of daylight and gear on my harness, I finally placed a bolt, after which Ola and Chuan convinced me to come down and save the remainder of the pitch for a new day. Rain next morning provided a useful excuse for a rest day after five consecutive days on the move. But the following day we were back on the wall. After jumaring to my high point, I finished my lead through the traversing alcove of Pitch 2 and reached a large mossy ledge where I built an anchor. Then Chuan was back on lead up an obvious, vegetated, corner, unfortunately without an obvious crack. He again encountered runout sections and was forced to climb using calf-burning stemming manoeuvres where the legs
are spread with feet pressed against either side of the wall for a majority of the pitch. Eventually he placed a bolt, which also served as a foothold on a particularly blank section. Finally Chuan made it to a large open ledge, which would have served as decent bivy site for several people, had we needed it. The morning had started off with clouds and threatening more rain, but by afternoon it had burned off and we experienced some of the best weather of the trip. We moved the belay 15m up a grass and scree slope to the base of the upper wall, and from there Ola slowly led the easiest pitch on the route. By now it was late and Chuan half-dozed while belaying Ola, while I fired off shots in the golden light. We rappelled down in the last light and finished the descent to town in the dark. We calculated that only two or three pitches (100-150m) remained to the summit and so we got an early start the following morning with the goal of finishing the route. I led the sixth and Chuan the seventh pitch, both easier than the lower portion of the route, and after a total of 300m of technical climbing, we topped out onto a broad, gentle sloping plateau with thick, waist-high vegetation. This field of vegetation connected two prominent summit points, and we bushwhacked and scrambled up an additional 100m to the eastern, taller summit, at an altitude of 3,800m. There Ola surprised us by pulling out two beers from her jacket pockets and we all whooped and hollered as we drank to our success. The sun had already set beyond the western peaks as we prepared to descend and we had to rappel half of the route by headlamp in the dark. Many folks throughout the village had heard that we were attempting to climb the peak, and more had seen us descending the wall by headlamp on the last two nights. Next morning therefore, as we strolled about the village, many people approached us, congratulated us and asked what it was like on the summit: “Were there any animals?” “Did you see any trees?” “Were there any human bones up there?” The most common question though was: “Did you find any caterpillar fungus?” The fungus (Ophiocordyceps sinensis), also commonly known as chong cao in Mandarin, and yartsa gunbu in Tibetan, is highly valued in traditional Chinese medicine for its perceived aphrodisiac, cancer-curing, and general vitality-enhancing properties. It parasitises the larvae (caterpillar) of the ghost moth which then burrows itself a few inches into the ground, after which the fungus bursts out, killing the caterpillar and growing out of the ground like a root. It grows all over the eastern Tibetan plateau and I have been offered it on numerous occasions, but this was the first time someone had asked me if I found any in the backcountry. Finding it is not so easy: it requires crawling diligently through cold alpine grass to spot it protruding only inches above the ground. Given the fungus fetches tens of thousands of US$ a kilogram, I could understand the villagers eagerness to know if we found any. Our bounty was of a very different nature. From the summit we saw miles of limestone walls extending north up the valleys to the east and west of Zhawuduo peak. There was clear potential for multi-pitch sport climbing. While locals may have viewed us as strange for being content with climbing peaks for the love of it, the recent influx of tourists to Zhagana and the surrounding Gannan region has produced a development and economic boom with unknown consequences. As ever, the question is whether this development will impact the charm and traditions of the local Tibetan culture that is a major draw for visitors in the first place. AA
LIFE IN THE CLOUDS The village of Zhagana sits amid terraced fields and coccooned behind high limestone valley walls.
A BRIGHT FUTURE? The village is already making money from tourism – the number of cars a sign of rising affluence – but could climbing one day be another sustainable source of income from visitors?
A WORLD OF ROCK AND ICE High above Zhagana, imposing faces inspire respect and excite the imagination.
PROUD AND UNBOWED A villager, at work despite advanced years, meets the gaze of the camera.