Chinese mountaineering is traditionally characterized by large expeditions making a conventional siege, but recently young climbers have been operating as small teams, putting up fine new routes in alpine-style on their own mountains.
Yang Dongdong and Zhou Peng made the coveted first ascent of the Central Couloir on the South Face of Siguniang (6,250m). This icy granite peak has become the most famous in Sichuan, notably after the 2002 ascent by Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden of a stunning ice couloir on the North West Face dubbed The Inside Line.
The 1,000m Central Couloir on the South Face had previously been attempted by Koreans, Russians, Chinese and a French party that included the accomplished Philippe Batoux.
Yang and Zhou had tried it twice before: in December 2008 as part of a large expedition using fixed ropes, and in February 2009 as a pair in alpine-style. On the latter occasion they retreated from 5,950m when an ice pitch that Zhou was attempting to lead collapsed.
Just before the start of this winter, the pair set off from the town of Rilong with sacs weighing only 15kg, camped below the rimaye of the South Face at 5,130m, and the next day moved together up the right side of the black ice couloir to bivouac at 5,700m.
The following day they climbed several mixed pitches and a few rocky steps before snow led to the summit in early evening. They descended 100m from the top, dug a snow cave for the night, and then rappelled the route the following day, an objectively serious enterprise due to rock fall.
The route has been christened The Free Spirits and has technical difficulties of M4 and AI 3+.
Yan and Zhou began climbing at university about six or seven years ago and were part of the 2008 Everest Olympic Torch Expedition, on which Yan reached the summit. In the spring of 2009 they were sent as a rescue team to search for and subsequently retrieve the bodies of Americans Jonny Copp and Wade Johnson from beneath Edgar in the Minya Konka Range.
Yan works as a freelance translator and was particularly influenced in his climbing style by Mark Twight's seminal book Extreme Alpinism, which he translated into Chinese. He feels that even in 2007-08 ‘alpinism’ was still a relatively new concept in China.
Earlier, on the rather remote Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, Huang Zonghua and Li Yong made an alpine-style first ascent of the West Face of Kangze'gyai (5,817m GPS), the highest summit in the Qilian Range.
The two walked three days to a base camp at the turquoise Hala Lake, and then, underestimating the length of the route, set off for the foot of the face with one rope, two sleeping bags, one litre of water and no tent nor stove.
Deep snow on the glacier slowed progress and they spent the first night at the bottom of the face in a snow hole at 5,343m. Next day the weather was awful with gales and snow, but the pair continued directly up the ice face above, bivouacking again just below the summit ridge at 5,756m.
The morning dawned clear but windy. The pair reached the crest and followed the south ridge to the summit. From here they continued their traverse with a descent of the North West Ridge - the Original Route - and were back in base camp that evening.
The c500m climb has been named Darkness Wall (AI 3+)
Thanks to Ma Demin and Huang Zonghua for help with this report.