Pandas and Precipitous Peaks

Trip Start Jan 14, 2009
Trip End May 2010

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Where I stayed
The Loft
Ma Go Bin's place, Rilong, China
Champinguo Valley, Sichuan, China

Flag of China  , Sichuan,
Thursday, October 22, 2009

We start this blog entry from 4282m (14k ft) on the sloping hillside of the pass in SiGuNiangShan National Park. The weather has forced us to the confines of our sloping REI Half Dome tent. Most the other parties in the valleys have left and we haven't seen another soul for a couple days. How we got in this tetering position? We were forced up the pass from 3880m by a large herd of yaks at 10pm yesterday night. When will our situation change? That's up to the weather gods to decide. It's funny how nearly every trip into the mountains brings both elation and dispair.


Now on to a more cuddly note--PANDAS!

Sub adult pandas playing roughly with each other

Our first site in Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan province of China, was to visit the pandas
at the Panda Reserve. It's best to leave early so you can catch them at their most playful hours. We arrived at about 7:30am, when the pandas were lively and hungry, and stayed until 11am, at which point most were sleeping in gregarious positions in the trees. Since pandas' diet consists mainly of bamboo, their slow metabolism means they sleep through most of the day and night.

An adult giant panda covered in scraps of bamboo. He was impressively capable of stripping the stalks to get to the nutrient-rich center in one motion!

At the panda reserve, you can see baby pandas from just weeks old to a couple months old--but you can't take pictures! They also host a score of red pandas, which are under debate as to their relation to pandas vs. racoons. The are adorable either way, and for a mere 100 yuan, you can hold, fondle and feed one. Lindsey jumped at the opportunity to cuddle with this adorable creature. Check out the vid, mate!

More cuddly panda photos here:


So, I'm sure some of you are wondering what we are doing in SiGuNiangShan instead of Tibet like we planned. Simply put, it was a confluence of holidays and our foreigner lack of planning for local customs. Classic, really. We had given ourselves plenty of time in China to get permits and make the 8-day minimum trip to Lhasa and across the Friendship Highway to Kathmandu. But when we got our visas in Hong Kong for China, we could only get 30-day visas--we were told it was due to the 60th Anniversary of the People's Republic of China coming up.

Oh well, we thought. We'll just have to go through the hassle of getting them extended. Not a big deal. Except, not knowing Chinese holidays, we learned that the entire country outside of tourism shuts down and goes on holiday for the Mid Autumn Festival (during which time people make, buy, and give moon cakes--pastry filled with anything from fruit to minced meat--a tradition that is similar to Westerner's fruit cake giving during the winter holidays). But since this year the Mid Autumn Festival coincided with the 60th Anniversary of the PRC, most of China took at least a week off. It is during such special occasions that it is especially difficult for travelers in China. The PSB offices (where people extend their visas) were closed from Oct. 1-9 and all borders into Tibet and Tibetian areas (like SiGuNiangShan, which is in Sichuan) are closed to foreigners. Thus our comfortable schedule lead to all narrow margins for us to travel into Tibet.

We decided to extend our visas anyway. We went to Leshan to do it because they extend in 1 day--not same-day as we learned--instead of the 5-7 business days in Chengdu. You can also visit the Giant Buddha in Leshan while you're waiting for your visa.

From there, we headed Northwest of Chengdu to the small village of Rilong, the entry point into the Champing Valley, where SiGuNiangShan and many other spectacular peaks awaited us.

Looking out at the start of the Champing Valley from the internet cafe near Ma Go Bin's place

Views of the town of Rilong

This sweet local lady gave us a cabbage out of her own garden to take up into the mountains. Locals in China are so friendly and helpful!


We first learned of this remote and mountainous area from our friend, Joe Puryear, whose explorations in the valley have lead to rugged first ascents. At 5,700m, Joe, Chad Kellog, and Jay Janousek put up a first ascent alpine-style on the snowy and beautiful peak the renamed Lara Peak after Chad's late wife in 2007.

Lara Peak (the snowy one in the middle) from up the Champing Valley

You can read more about this ascent in Alpinist:

More recently, in 2008, Chad and Dylan Johnson put up a harrowing first ascent on SiGuNiangShan, the prize peak in the range.

"SiGuNiang" means "4th girl" and "Shan" means "peak." There are four mountains in the range named after girls:

DaGuNiangShan, the 1st girl (5,025m);
ErGuNiangShan, the 2nd girl (5,276m);
SanGuNiangShan, the 3rd girl (5,355m);
and SiGuNiangShan, the 4th girl (6,250m)

Siggi, as we've lovingly nicknamed it, is the tallest and in many ways the most extreme peak in the range.

Last year, we had the chance to see Dylan and Chad's slideshow on their epic first ascent of this peak. Without going into great detail, any ascent of Siggi is a huge undertaking. Chad and Dylan's ascent combined high altitude technical rock climbing, to an extraordinarily long ridge traverse, to the final long and exposed snow climb to the summit.

Dylan on Route, Mt. SiGuNiang
Dylan on the ridgeline of SiGuNiangShan (photo taken during their first ascent)

We were impressed at last year's slidesnow (thanks guys and Feathered Friends!), but seeing the peak day in and day out from various aspects had left us uterly humbled.

SiGuNiang peak during our trip. Chad and Dylan's line ascended up the right, jagged skyline after finishing the big rock wall below. We've seen some impressive mountains on this trip so far (Fitzroy, Cerro Torre, peaks of the Cordillera Blanca) and Siguniangshan is right up there with them!


Due to lack of funds to pay for the climbing permits necessary to ascend to any of the summits, even the non-technical ones, we opted for a nice, leisurely backpack through the Changping Valley and out the Shuangqiao Valley. We planned for an 8-day trip that would allow us lots of time to see all the peaks while allowing for some potentially bad weather.. 

Ben and our contact in Rilong (the nearest mountain town), Ma Go Bin. Chad and Dylan hooked us up with Ma Go Bin and when we arrived in Rilong with photos of Chad and Dylan, Mr. Ma eargerly shook Ben's hand and practically squeezed him to death! Mr. Ma is a very strong, very competent outdoorsman who sets up expeditions from Rilong and guides many people up and around the SiGuNiangShan range. We rented a horse through him just to get us into basecamp where we could eat away some of our weight before carrying it on our own backs. It was a worthwhile investment for sure!

Our trek started out leisurely enough; we camped for three days at the Siguniangshan (North) base camp where we met a group of Russian climbers who were attempting a first ascent up the massive north face wall, a true big wall climb.  Four climbers had started up the route and were approximately half way or more up the wall.  Two had already descended early since their portaledge had be torn apart in on the wall during a storm.  They opted for an alpine ascent of the impressive Celestial Peak, but we left base camp to continue our trek before they got back.  

The upper mere fraction of the massive Celestial Peak poked up through the clouds

Horses running free in the Changping valley

We enjoyed the spectacular views all along the way.  The valley terrain lends itself to good, mellow hiking, but this time of year, the water table can be so high that almost all ground is saturated, so our hiking boots were constantly wet.  The larches were simply spectacular this time of year and it seems that the valley is almost all larch (seemed like about 60% of all trees were larch!).  The temperatures were cool to cold and we often woke up to snow on the ground.

Ben rocking out with his enormous pack; check out all the larch in the background

Just look at them larches

Waking up to snow on a cold, cold morning at 3800 meters

As we moved up valley, we saw more and more yaks.  To head into the next valley, the Shuangqiao valley, one needs to ascent to a 4700 meter pass, so we thought we'd camp below the pass and hike the pass in one day.  We found an idylic meadow to camp; Lindsey made dinner and we enjoyed the most wonderful sunset yet of the trip so far. We were stoked; we were acclimatized for the pass - really life couldn't get any better. 

A sunset shot from our idylic campsite

Then the yaks came and wrecked our party. They were fighting (we think they may have been in the rut), growling (in a sort of a yak way) and generally making it impossible to sleep. We took turns chasing them away, but they just came back and made it impossible for us and constantly threatened to eat our food (which they succeeded in doing so, right out of our tent, at our first base camp). So at 10pm, we packed up our stuff and headup up the pass. It was a steep trail that seemed to continue endlessly high up in the dark (our headlamps proved more than useful!) but we found a sort of flat spot about 2000 feet higher.

Damn yaks! And this is a small one! The biggest pest of them all was a light coloured one that looked to be at least twice the size of this yak--I think it was the biggest animal we've ever seen!

Us, 2000 feet higher, at midnight, with our shelter back up.

Then it started to snow. And snow it did, for two days straight!

Our tent rather precariously placed on the hillside halfway up the pass.  The snow has just begun!

We waited a day in our tent and then gave up.  The snow seemed like it would never end so we headed out over the pass while we still had plenty of food left.  Hiking over the pass in whiteout conditions certainly wasn't ideal, but we had a good idea of where we were heading, or so we thought, so off went.  Getting up to the pass was a bit of a grunt, but we got there just fine.

Lindsey at the pass (~4700 meters) in whiteout conditions. We thought we were at the top of the pass. All that was left was to go down the other side. Or so we thought...

Descending down and over large talus boulders with just a foot or two of snow was slow and arduous going. But again, we slipped, slid and powered our way downwards, confident that we'd eventually make it to more friendly terrain. But just as we thought we'd be setting up camp in the snow yet again another night, the sun came out and we saw the valley bottom and the route into the next valley and back out to civilization... or so we thought!

The weather cleared unexpectedly in the afternoon!  Looking back up towards the pass.

Lindsey loving life after descending from the pass to know that the worst was over!

We set up camp in the valley, but before going to bed, Ben walked and ran a bit of the next stretch of trail to get our bearings while there was still some visibility (in case the clouds came in overnight). Well the clouds came in and it snowed again. And the trail and terrain didn't seem to match our crappy map. We made a decision on which way to go and pushed hard so as to keep our morale high. By midday, we were totally soaked and done with the mountains!  An hour or so down the trail further and shabam, we hit civilization!  A quick chat with the locals (the few that were still left this late in the season) told us that we were in a completely different valley than we had intended (the Bipeng instead of the Shaungqiao) and that to get back to our lovely mountain town of Rilong (our starting point and where our bags were) would take at least two days of bus travel! Our hearts sank. Quick decisions, money spent and forward thinking progress took us to the nearest town of Lixian where Ben used his Mandarin and others' cell phones to call around until we had accommodation, a plan to get back to Chengdu and a plan to have our baggage in Rilong sent to Chengdu by local bus where we could pick it up at the local bus station. Who know that one wrong turn somewhere would change the course of our return back to Chengdu so drastically! In retrospect, we made the right decisions at the right time, but we sure learned a few lessons along the way.

Many more shots from the beautiful Changping and some from the Bipeng vallies here:

Next, we fly to Kathmandu to trek the Annapurna Circuit, a 17-day journey through small villages and around some of the most spectacular peaks in the Himalaya, all in the company of our dear friends from back home: Ben Glenn, Greg Chappel, and Chris Cass. Stay tuned!
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therunningdog on

Stupid Yaks
I have the same problem with crows at the marina that you guys have with the Yaks. Perhaps you could purchase a cheap BB gun...that would keep those pesky yaks away!

Stoopid Yaks!

What an adventure! It's hard to get into 'real' wilderness in China...nice work you two!

sallykunz on

Those fierce, hairy bovines can be used to pull you up the mountain: strap a bundle of pony nuts in front of one, like a carrot on a horse, grab its tail, and power up to the pass! So glad you avoided a a Yak Attack!
Ben, do I remember you running around the Appalachians on a similar snowy, night in white-out conditions, wondering where the rest of the group had wandered? So glad you both came through the ordeal ok!

Rihann on

Were there last week. Absolutely fantastic! Had to turn back due to more and more snow. Unbelievable adventure!

Ron on

Wow. I'm experiencing a remote attack of mountain drool.

Elevation Film on

I will be shooting in Chengdu and Rilong with Chad next month for 60 days. I hope the adventure is good!

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