James Monypenny has just returned from a month establishing first ascents in the Genyen Massif of China’s Sechuan province. He offers an expedition report on climbing in the area, and some top tips for self-organised expeditions to remote regions of the world.
I was lucky to catch James yesterday: the 28-year-old was briefly bound to a sofa by tiredness, in between a stint of freelance outdoor instructing and jetting off to Morocco for some cross-country paragliding. After that, he’ll be in the UK for a couple of days before setting off on his next expedition. James certainly makes the most of being footloose and freelance. He has claimed first ascents in Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, India, Nepal — and now China.
James first saw the aesthetic triangular peak, Hutsa (5863m), in a photo on Dave Anderson’s blog. The American explorer had tried to climb it a couple of times and failed. “It was romantic idealism,” James told me: “This perfect, pointy peak sat right in the middle of a mountain range. Surrounded by thousands of cairns that Buddhist monks built up on pilgrimages, it had an air of mystery about it, too. But mostly, it was appealingly big and pointy, with awesome-looking mixed climbing on it.”
James put together a team to tackle Hutsa — Peter Linney, Italians Luca Vallata and Tito Arosio, Tom Nichols, Robert Partridge and Heather Swift — which assembled in China for a month on 17th September.
First glimpse of Hutsa and the cairns. Photo: Rob Partridge
Hutsa expedition report
JM: We scoped out a couple of aspects on Hutsa, and chose a line that looked achievable and technically interesting. The next day, two pairs — me and Pete, and Rob and Tom — set off to have a look. The main doubt was over the first pitch: 20m of really rotten rock and unconsolidated snow with no good protection. Rocks were coming away in my hands and ice axes. It wasn’t particularly hard — maybe M4 climbing — but just horrible. Tom and Pete understandably decided to turn around.
I’d never climbed with Rob before but our outlooks turned out to complement each other. Neither of us saw a reason to go down, even though every pitch looked difficult from below, and provided constant doubt about whether we would summit. The benefit of swinging leads, though, was that one of us would be belaying and thinking, “Hmm, that next pitch looks hard!” but when the other got to the stance he didn’t stand around long enough to have doubts, so just got on with climbing it.
Higher up the route, crumbling rock turned into vertical ice, which wasn’t frozen enough for decent protection but was good enough for ice tools. Then the couloir eased off and crescendoed into this lovely ice and mixed climbing of around M5. A snow slog along a ridge led into rock steps next. Rob’s high level of Scottish winter climbing showed through here: he wasn’t fazed. We were excited to reach the summit of Hutsa on our first try.
FA of Hutsa, James Monypenny & Rob Partridge. Route name: Yak Attack.
What to do with the rest of our time there?
Well, I’d eyed up this other cool line on Hutsa, so Pete and I set off to try that. We climbed what turned out to be 850m of technical, run-out, thin ice, overhanging bulges and long pitches of water ice in a 35-hour push. It was mentally taxing and slow-going, right up to the summit. Even the last pitch took me over two hours in this awkward chimney, climbing at least M5 all the way to the top. Pete and I pushed the envelope a bit on that.
Line of route two: Holographic Jesus. FA James Monypenny & Peter Linney.
At this point Pete left, and Heather walked in to join us. The most appealing peak in the range besides Hutsa had seen a previous ascent by Dave Anderson, but it looked so good that it didn’t seem to matter. There was this great pitch on Sichuan: 70m of E2/3 splitter crack going up into the heavens. Awesome hand-jamming. Then this wild summit spire. I had to pull a few tricks out of the bag to get onto it, including a few dodgy lassos.
James Monypenny on the summit of Sechuan. Photo: Heather Swift.
There’s a lot of potential for other first ascents in the region
While the rest of us climbed these two peaks, the Italian contingent of the team, Tito and Luca, climbed a 5912m peak further south-east. They spent three days and two bivouacs on the route, climbing snow fields and ridges, encountering difficulties up to M4, and 70-degree snow.
The route up Peak 5912m. FA by Luca Vallata and Tito Arosio.
Tips for self-organising an expedition
How to research a peak
Do some journalistic digging for post-expedition reports, blog posts and photo albums of trips to remote mountainous areas to find inspiration. Most of the peaks that remain unclimbed lie in hard-to-reach regions, but most ranges have seen at least some form of exploration these days.
Using Google Earth
Even if you only manage to unearth a map of the range and a photo, there are some useful tools for working with even this limited information. You can overlay maps and images onto Google Earth — basically draping them over the terrain — which allows you to do things like orientate map images precisely, and work out where photos were taken from, and from what angle.
Choosing climbing partners
It’s good to climb with people who share the same mountaineering ethics, level of acceptable risk and sense of humour as you. If you’re only going with one person, everything is magnified and intensified. It’s a bit like getting married to someone for a short time during which you go on a crazy holiday. The large team on the Hutsa expedition meant a bit more banter and available climbing partners.
The team (apart from Heather). Rob, Luca, Tito, Pete, Tom and James.
In places where there’s no organised mountain rescue, other team members would probably have to carry you out if you got injured. But what happens then? My advice is to always go for a comprehensive insurance policy from someone like the BMC. If you scrimp and just get normal travel insurance — thinking you could go to hospital and pretend you got your injuries falling out of a truck or something — you’re probably going to get found out and add a maxed-out credit card to your troubles.
It’s a massive physical and morale boost if you can eat well, especially if you can organise porters, mules or motorbikes to help carry it in. I’ve had a few failed cooking experiments at base camp on rest days for sure, but also some successes. You can make things like pizza and cakes by putting a shallow pan with boiling water underneath another pan on top of a stove, and slow cooking it.
Base camp scene. Photo: Rob Partridge.
Cost is a balance of stress and time versus money and ease. If you have more money than time, it’s best to find an in-country agent to organise things like transport, food, cooking and a translator. I have more time than money, so I usually organise all these things myself. You learn a lot about dealing with people that way, too!
Funding and sponsorship
We’re lucky in the UK that there are lots of funding avenues for expeditions. It’s all online: do some research. My advice is apply early. As for sponsorship, first weigh up if it’s worth it. You have to give a bit of yourself and your time to promote your sponsors. My advice is: put yourself in the shoes of the brand’s marketing manager and think about how you could promote their brand before approaching them. You need to show that you can put together blog posts, videos and social media. Make a specific proposal about what you can offer and what you’d like in return.
Find out about BMC funding for expeditions
Leaving basecamp. Photo: Rob Partridge.
When to go
Allow enough time for acclimatisation, potential failed attempts and sitting through some bad weather. Obviously look at the rainfall for the year to decide when it’s best to go so you’re not climbing in monsoon season. We had no phone coverage, so brought sat phones, and asked a friend to text us regular weather updates, which was useful for day-to-day planning.
Thanks to the expedition sponsors and supporters Rab, DMM, Force Ten, Vango, Mountain Hardwear and the BMC.
More photos on Rob Partridge's Flickr
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