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.

Action Asia - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tog­ra­phy by Gar­rett Bradley

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.

* * *

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.

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