Ice Climbing in Western China (part 1)

五色冰瀑(Wu Se Bing Pu)Five color fall / 50m, WI3

五色冰瀑(Wu Se Bing Pu)Five color fall / 50m, WI3
photo by G. Vallot

It’s September 2012 and I’m supposed to fly to China on business. The airline’s crew doesn’t show for the flight and my trip is short. After the hassles of trying to reschedule, I eventually throw in the towl and cancel the trip. Fast forward to my 2nd attempt at travel there. It’s November 2012 and this time I am scheduled to accompany my manager, but I have just taken Holiday in Argentina and returned home with a lacerated shin. I can not walk and am advised against travel. I cancel the trip but this time intentionally plan travel a little further out to give my leg time to heal and catch up on things at work. This new timing works well because I intend to take some Holiday during the trip to experience the Chinese New Year. However, unlike the other two trips, a friend I have met in Argentina, Marcos, will be returning home there and I think it would be fun to meet up with him. He has plans to ice climb in Western China with some people from Petzl (whom I have also met in Argentina and the Red River Gorge, earlier in the fall). Petzl is doing a catalogue shoot and being a Petzl athlete and having never ice climbed before, I thought it would be fun to join, especially since I’ll already be on the Mainland for business. Marcos plans everything. All I need to do is make it to Shanghai as scheduled…and find ice climbing gear and learn what I can about ice climbing in only 3 weeks!

Audrey Sniezek ready to Ice Climb

Audrey Sniezek ready to Ice Climb!

Fortunately I have the most responsive and incredible sponsors who took the extra time to rush me gear. Items literally were arriving up to the Friday before my flight. I can’t believe we pulled that off. A huge thank you to Petzl, La Sportiva, Skhoop, Rab, Innate Gear, and the many colleagues and friends who helped me understand what I was in for and more importantly identify the gear I would need, esp. Melissa Stowe for loaning me some, too. Gear list can be found here.

I arrive in Shanghai with little incident. Read all about that experience, here. Marcos has just returned from Ice Climbing in Chamonix and he is now available to help me coordinate my ticket to Chengdu. Ctrip was the cheapest and easiest way for me to organize my flight from Shanghai to Chengdu. Intra-China travel is pretty inexpensive, but my inflexibility on dates put the roundtrip cost up around $400.

The most eventful part of my time in Chengdu was the evening street festival. The Chinese New Year would officially kick off at midnight the night we arrived and the celebration was well underway along all of the city streets—some blocked off just for this occasion. See my Chengdu post to read more about this and watch some video footage, here.

Balang Highway stop

Balang Highway stop, Gateway to the Panda Kingdom

Our entire party of travelers arrived that night totaling 10 people, representing 7 different countries: France, Brazil, Korea, Japan, China, UK and USA. We arranged for a private driver to drive us to the Valley in two batches. The first would leave at 9am the next morning, the 2nd would leave at noon. It takes around 6 hours to drive, depending on traffic. For logistics on how to get from Chengdu to the Valley, see here, which will get you to the neighboring Changping Valley home of Mount Siguniang.

5 people per vehicle cost us around 150 yuan each (at ~6:1 exchange rate to the US Dollar that works out to $25). When we were ready to return, we didn’t come back in the same groups. Some of us came back earlier because of work and therefore we reserved a car from the place we were staying. They arranged everything and even filled the car, thereby reducing our cost to about the same as on the way up. There really isn’t a need to rent a car. Once up in the Valley, you can rent a driver to drop and fetch you at any time of the day for as little as 100 yuan round trip, for the car.

Earthquake damage

Earthquake damage
photo by Marcos Costa

The drive to the Valley starts off hazy and polluted, much like the rest of my experience of China to that point. However, the skies started clearing once we drove into Wolong, the epicenter of the 2008 7.9 magnitude earthquake that demolished the town and caused widespread damage, including the loss of 80,000 people. There is a stretch of road that is still rough and unrepaired since the earthquake. You could even see bridges in various states of disrepair and a housing complex that has slid down the mountain side.

After you exit this stretch, the road becomes paved again and civilization with newly renovated and built complexes begin to line the streets at various stretches. We creep ever higher along this Balang Highway that is the Gateway to the Panda Kingdom and takes us to a height of nearly 4500m (~14,700 ft). The views are stunning—a stark contrast to the moonscape we have been traveling through moments before. Pine trees, cliffs and mountain peeks loom around us as we switchback our way up and over this magnificent pass, stopping once to take in a site and observe a prayer shrine.

National Park Entrance

National Park Entrance

The Valley is now part of a UNESCO heritage site and is marked as a National Park. As such, there are entrance fees to consider when visiting the valleys. Further, be aware that leaving the Park and re-entering could force you to pay another entrance fee. We avoided this by getting drivers who live in the park and having them speak on our behalf that we are returning and have already paid and won’t pay again. This does not work if you are visiting other valleys, however. You will have to pay a Park fee or deposit when entering certain areas.

Mount Siguniang

Mount Siguniang
Qionglai Mountains

For instance, Changping Valley doesn’t allow motorists into the Valley. You must pay a park fee, take a shuttle and pay a deposit at the entrance to enter. Further, your exploration is on foot or by rented mule. We did this for the 2nd day and chose to explore the Valley on foot, which was perfect. I just wish we had taken more time to go further up into the Valley. I believe the valley stretches back some 16km and meets up with the end of the Shuangqiao Valley. There are lakes, waterfalls, and the towering 4 sister’s peak, Mount Siguniang at 6250m to enjoy.

Our housing

Where we stayed

ATM and other food or internet you might need can be found in the small town of Rilong City at the base of the fork to these Valleys. Our accommodations in the Valley served us breakfast, lunch and dinner included with the room cost. Therefore, I didn’t have a need or desire to go into town to get more food or use the internet (gasp!), but I did find myself low on cash. The group ended up doubled in rooms with a washroom included. This was the more expensive accommodation (100 yuan per night per person) and that coupled with renting taxis on a daily basis meant I ran low on cash right away. I brought with me 1000 yuan, but in the end, spent about 2500 yuan between transportation (including airport transport), housing, taxis, park fees and a few souvenirs, which covered the 9 days’ worth of expenses. Don’t plan on credit cards up in the mountains, in case  you hadn’t figured that part out, yet. 🙂

The Valleys

The Valleys
Shuangqiao gou is in the middle
Map from:

In the Valley, the crowds are not overwhelming for the Holiday Season, but I am surprised by the number of Chinese who have come to the Valley to Ice Climb. I am told our housing complex and others have sprung up in the last few years because of the demand. The temperature in the Valley never reaches positive centigrade, dipping into the negative teens regularly and snowing only once the entire time we are here. Cold and I don’t get along well so the thought of living in these conditions makes me nervous. I am prepared for anything, however, and upon arriving and seeing my room with two wool blankets on my bed, electricity, an electric water heater and an electric blanket give me surprisingly enough comfort that upon reflection I think I would gladly do it again. The rooms, otherwise, have no heat. They are drafty, cement blocks and for most of the trip, we don’t even think we have running hot water from the tap! This makes showering quite interesting. J

Life is simple up in the Mountains. Every morning feels like a crag day, but an ice crag day. The Valley offers around 30 ice features spread out and ranging in difficulty from moderate to hard, including some Mixed options. For grades and further ice climbing explanations, go here. I’m told this is the Rifle (a sport climbing crag in Colorado) of ice climbing. The approaches vary but at first glance appear intimidating. I suggest that I don’t do this type of scree hiking to get to sport crags, but that really isn’t true. It’s just weird to be doing these hikes sometimes fully geared with crampons on and tools in hand.

翅膀(Chi Bang)Jesus Shroud / 50m, WI4+, 40min

翅膀(Chi Bang)Jesus Shroud / 50m, WI4+, 40min approach

First stop, 翅膀(Chi Bang)Jesus Shroud / 50m, WI4+, 40min approach

About Audrey Sniezek

Audrey Sniezek is a rock climbing athlete and computer software/technology enthusiast.
This entry was posted in Climbing, Fun, Road Trip, Travel, Uncategorized, Writings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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