Slovenians climb major Chinese Tien Shan summit

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 13/09/2011
Xuelian North East seen from west. Bruce Normand

Slovenians Ales Holc, Peter Juvan and Igor Kremser have climbed what was the last remaining virgin 6,000m summit of the main Xuelian Group - Xuelian North East (6,231m).

The Xuelian Massif (pronounced Shwaylian) in Chinese Tien Shan is a 15km ridge with at least six distinct summits over 6,000m. It is located just across the border from Kyrgyzstan's 6,995m Khan Tengri and Inylchek Glaciers.

The north side of the range was visited in 2008 and 2009 by Scottish mountaineer Bruce Normand. Prior to this only Xuelian Main (Xuelian Feng, 6,627m) had been climbed (in 1990 by Japanese from the south).

In 2010 Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden made the first ascent of the North Face of an impressive outlier, 5,380m Sulamar (aka Khanjaylak II),

On Normand's second visit, with Americans Jed Brown, Kyle Dempster and Jared Vilhauer, his team made first ascents of all the major subsidiary summits in the group apart from Xuelian North East. Brown, Dempster and Normand's ascent of Xuelian West (6,422m), via a hard technical line dubbed the Great White Jade Heist, would gain them a prestigious Piolet d'Or in 2010.

Brown and Normand attempted Xuelian North East by the West Ridge but bad snow conditions, together with knife-edged and rocky sections, made the first day particularly time consuming, and by nightfall they had only reached the base of a hard rock section at 5,000m.

Next day Brown led five, tenuous, snow-covered slab pitches and by the time the pair reached 5,400m it was obvious that the route would require considerably more time than available. They retreated.

This year the three Slovenians also chose the West Ridge as perhaps the most elegant and safest line, climbing it over four days.

For two full days and then two half days they moved largely together up snow, ice and mixed terrain on the crest, reaching the summit in deteriorating weather after an effective climbing time of just over 36 hours. Their stove failed at the top bivouac, leaving only half a day's supply of water for the rest of the trip.

The route has a vertical interval of over 2,400m and was graded ED2 AI5 M5+
It was dubbed the Arête of Trust, a tribute to a prolific fellow alpinist, alpine guide and friend, Andrej Magajne, who was killed in Slovenia last winter attempting a ski descent from 2,645m Jalovec.

From the summit, guided largely by a Google Earth print-out, the three Slovenians then made a largely blind descent of the South East Face, forcing a route through poor weather for another one and a half days to reach the glacier.

This 2,000m descent, which required only three rappels, was graded AI3, 60-80°, and finally led to a long trudge through 30cm of fresh snow back down the glacier to their advanced base.

The descent had been threatened by a large band of seracs, though this only became apparent through a brief gap in the mist whilst they were making their way down.

The Slovenians also climbed three previously virgin peaks up to 4,700m.

The photo shows Xuelian North East, and behind (and to the left) Yanamax II (6,180m). The elegant West Ridge of Xuelian North East faces the camera. The ridge with similar aspect on Yanamax II was climbed in 2009 by Dempster and Vilhauer to give Yanamaniacs (M4).



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