It’s my first ice climb and I’m having trouble with the altitude. We are living around 3400m (~11,000 ft) and at times I find it difficult to breathe to the point of clawing at my throat to reduce any constrictions from my clothing. Day 1 is starting out rough. I’m wearing my new boots, which I haven’t had time to break in, and the hike is a strenuous 40 minute stretch. To my horror, when we reach the ice, the surrounding ground is a mix of scree and glacier-type ice, there is hardly a ‘flat’ spot to settle in and gear up.
The experienced are navigating this terrain without hesitation and even with crampons on, the terrain feels super scary. It’s too slabby to make use of the tools and I worry that if I fall (forward or backward), I’ll slide down the mountain-side. My friend, Marcos Costa, unwaveringly aids me along the terrain and I am reminded that this is how some sport crags must feel to newbies and humor myself with the thought of how much of a gumby I was being.
With some basic instructions, I was put on the other end of the rope and followed a line
up to a belay. Marcos graciously did not attempt to do the entire climb in one pitch, though he most certainly could have. We have left our down and I have left my warmer gloves at the base. Despite the cold, Marcos goes up the last bit and swears I will enjoy it better than the first pitch.We are climbing in the shade, it is cold, I am numb, I can hardly get a full breath in at times and the whole scene went upside down for me. Chilled to the bone, I belayed but chickened out when it came to my turn. I had struggled really hard on the easy terrain and the compounding affect was that I was done ice climbing even though I had barely started. For whatever reason, I couldn’t wait to get off that mountain and as cautiously as I could, navigated my way back down, packed up and took my time hiking back to the road. It was grim, I was disheartened and wondered if ice climbing was really something I could or would want to do. Worse, this was day 1, there were 8 other days to follow. L
The next day, I excuse myself from another ice adventure to let my feet, leg (which held up surprisingly well!), and mindset recover. Marcos’ friend Min, who is relatively junior at ice climbing and climbing in general, offers to go on a hike with me in the neighboring Valley, the Changping Valley home of Mount Siguniang. We get a lazy start but hike for several hours enjoying the sunshine, acclimating to the altitude and admiring the scenery. There is an active Monastery located here and I get an unexpected tour from a local Tibetan, including a 3 round pass of about 30 prayer wheels. Are you supposed to actually pray when you spin these things? They must have passed on some good karma because my 2nd day of Ice Climbing went much, much better.
The following day we explored the ice formations just across the street from where we were staying. I wore my approach shoes instead of my mountain boots for the hike, which spared my feet and made the hike a lot more tolerable. More scree and sketchy stances at the top, but this time I climbed 2 pitches and took my pack with my puffy and spare gloves. The first slab pitch brought back apprehensive feelings from my first experience, but I managed better and noticed I was getting more comfortable with the tools and balance though I was still not confident to lead or solo the ‘easy’ terrain. Up at the belay, better prepared, able to breathe a little better, I did my first vertical pitch. I was hooked! Slab terrain terrifies me but vertical and the steeper terrain, I was all-in! The experience was short-lived and I regret hiking out when I did. I definitely could have stayed and climbed tons more that day.
The group has made a reservation that night for dinner up the Valley at a restaurant. Given that we get our food homemade at the house, I wasn’t sure what to expect at this ‘restaurant’. To my surprise, the food was incredible! We must have eaten a 15 course meal, I felt like a gluttonous king served riches and not knowing when to stop lest the savory tastes disappear. Seriously, I could have dined on the bread and Yak butter tea and called that a meal. My only warning to fellow travelers, other than that the food of Sichuan is spicy, if you are offered a drink called baiju, beware.
The last 2 days of ice climbing I got to log more miles and test my skills in a very controlled way. This ice structure was the most impressive of all of them in the Valley that I witnessed. This was a wall that our group wanted to establish a new mixed line on, and establish it they did. This is 龙之涎（Long Zhi Xian)Dragons Breath/70m, WI6, 60min approach. Right next door to Dragons Breath is this beautiful structure: 龙之涎旁边 Next to Dragon Breath featuring clear blue ice with water running visibly behind it. This was the coolest structure I climbed and I made sure to take the steepest route up each time. This was sooo much fun!!
You can find the guidebook with a list of all of the possible ice formations and grades with approach and ice quality information here.
To close out the adventurous week, we attended a New Year’s festival and watched our village people perform to various music, dressed in traditional Tibetan garb. It was fantastic…almost too much so that we nearly couldn’t pull ourselves away to go ice climbing!
Here are some videos capturing my ice climbing trip and the festival. Enjoy!
Chinese New Year Festivities (10 min video, but captures some of the dances and music we enjoyed. Many of the movements are traditional along with the dress, but all of the music was very modern. This surprised us.)
http://vimeo.com/25212377 (Laundry Song with English lyrics, by Soinam Wongmo), this was the song we listened to most as we watched the ladies in our village practice. It has a catchy tune and interesting lyrics, which are in English in this video–Praise to the PLA!