China Jam – Free Climbing the South Pillar of Kyzyl Asker
October, 2013: Yes! We (Evrard, Sean, Stéphane and I) have hit civilization and made it back from the Chinese mountains. Thank God, food tastes so good now. And what a treat it is to be able to take hot showers whenever. Sorry for the lack of news. Again, all sat phone credits had to be sacrificed for phone sex to release some tension in our team, obviously crucial for our climbing.
We spent the first week in the mountains just exploring all the valleys around us, looking for interesting climbing targets. We also tried to climb during that first week but everyday the beautiful weather turned into a snowstorm by the afternoon. We realized with the particularly cold temps and fresh snow, we could only consider rock climbing on the south faces hoping the sun would heat things up a bit. This criteria narrowed down our choices a lot but we finally found what we were looking for: A big wall with plenty of potential to keep ourselves busy for a while. It was, in fact, the 1400m South Pillar of Kyzyl Asker (5842m) that attracted us. It’s long, steep and high with rock of great quality mixed in with lots of white “things” on the upper part of the wall. I was excited by the prospect that this experience would be something quite different from all the other big walls I had climbed before.
It took us another week to bring all our gear, food and musical instruments up the long glacier to the base of the wall. The last two days, we finally had perfect weather and started climbing with our load, and fixed the first 400m of the wall. Right away we were very impressed by the quality of the rock but also by its crazy hueco shapes which made for some unique climbing.
It was finally on September 10th that we left the ground with 15 days worth of vertical life supplies. We spent the whole day hauling all our gear up the 400m of fixed terrain. We were very heavy and the altitude was pumping our hearts so hauling turned out to be a lot harder than anticipated. Around 2:30 a.m. we could finally relax and eat our lyophilized, or freeze-dried, meals mixed with funky Chinese additions, comfortably installed on our portaledge.
The next couple of days the weather maintained itself perfectly, the best so far! But I caught a cold so I couldn’t do anything other than just stay on the portaledge while Sean, Steph and Evrard made steady progress. It’s really amazing how the feeling of being on a portaledge changes radically when you are not feeling well. It felt like hell! Inside the fly everything was constantly frozen and moving around. Even melting snow cost me a huge amount of energy. With fever kicking in and the need to make a choice whether I should keep going or bail, I decided to finally take some antibiotics. Twenty-four hours later, I started to feel better and it was great to be back and able to climb.
We finished installing camp at 3am after a full day hauling our heavy bags up to our first camp. We are exhausted but the weather is perfect so there is no time to wait for action. Sean explores while Steph found a confortable belay position.
We were just getting into the heart of the climb on an amazing section of the wall – orange granite that was vertical to slightly overhanging, covered with perfect splitter cracks. Sean was so excited to do some challenging rock climbing, he decided to leave the most obvious line of weakness to go up a perfect overhanging splitter. It was hard, long and very thin but amazing, and he decided to make it his big-wall cragging project. Meanwhile, Evrard, Steph and I explored what was next: Another perfect, difficult splitter pitch followed by a 3-dimensional pitch moving through huge huecos and crazy shapes.
The next day some bad weather kicked in and all we could do was play some music to wait out the storm. It was cold for our fingers to play well on our instruments, but with the four of us on one portaledge playing fast, we could quickly turn the freezer into a sauna! Evrard, who’s new to the band, took some time to make a few adjustments but after a while he managed to put in a nice groovy, xylophone touch.
The following day the weather remained the same but, fresh from a full day of rest, we decided to tough it up and confront the bad weather. We moved our camp higher which we thought would save us some time. But as soon as we started hauling, we got ourselves caught in a whiteout with heavy snow precipitation. The atmosphere was magical. Everything was covered with 20cm of fresh snow, but we needed to maintain focus to have everything go right because in these conditions any error could be costly. This day it was Steph’s turn to not feel so good with a cold he most likely caught from me. At the end of the day when we managed to set our ledges, slinged around on each side of a horn, Steph was in a more passive mode leaving his feet and hands particularly cold. But fortunately, some hot soup later, heat came back to him.
The sun appears after 24 hours of snow in camp 1. Since the face was too plastered to rock climb, we decided to move our camp upward. But as soon as we folded our portaledges it started snowing again.
The next morning, the good weather was back and Sean and I started the day by cleaning the fresh snow out of the cracks of the two pitches we wanted to redpoint. I jugged up with my big boots and gloves but quickly felt the cold, especially with a light but freezing wind. All the snow didn’t even melt in the sun, and the water bottle hanging on my harness had frozen completely! I cleaned what I could but the pitch remained iced up. Sean’s pitch was cleaner, so he decided to give it an attempt but it was so freaking cold. Before he tried it, I set Steph’s watch in the shade to check if I was being a wimp or if the temperature was really that cold. A little later his watch showed -6° C and it was the warmest time of the day! My hands and feet were so cold that I could not imagine putting my climbing shoes on. But Sean felt OK climbing in these conditions and managed to give it a really good try, falling only at the end of the crux. By nighttime, I set the watch outside the fly and it showed -15° C!
That day, because the weather was perfect but I still couldn’t climb, it made me wonder: What am I doing here climbing in this cold? Where is the fun in this? I fell asleep mentally worn out. Fortunately, with the help of some tricks to keep my feet and hands warm, I climbed well the next day even though I was cold. It gave me back my confidence and enjoyment. Sean got closer to sending his pitch project and I redpointed my personal best pitch of the whole climb – a perfect splitter crack with beautiful exposure.
The next day, Sean gave another three tries and got painfully close to send his project pitch, but finally he decided to give up on it because it was our ninth day on the wall and we were still less than halfway up the mountain. He quickly completed an easier free variation so that we stayed in the game of freeing every bit of this mountain. Meanwhile Steph and I fixed the rest of our ropes to the base of the last headwall and finished the day in a snowstorm. The climbing conditions became icy here with lots of icicles hanging everywhere.
More and more, the summit felt just below our noses and we were quite tempted to cut loose from our static ropes to make an attempt to climb to the summit. But the poor weather conditions held us back and instead we moved our camp once more to the altitude of 5200m. Afterward, I was glad we made this move because the summit was still much further than expected. This time the camp move was not as epic. We managed to finish the day comfortably installed, enjoying an amazing view looking over many virgin peaks. After a few days in the same place, it was great to change camp and break our routine.
The next morning it was Sean’s turn to be hit by the flu so he stayed on the portaldge the whole day while Steph, Evrard and I explored the last headwall until all ropes were fixed. I was going to switch lead with Stéphane but when we arrived at the base of the climb, Steph realized he had forgotten to bring his climbing shoes. What a bummer! I was not disappointed by his mistake because the weather was perfect and the climbing was amazing!!! I climbed three full rope lengths of perfect quality splitter cracks running right on the pillar and here we were again at the end of the ropes we could fix. The atmosphere was quite spectacular with icicles hanging all over the place and the view started to dominate with mountains all around us. When we came back to our portaledge we were relieved to see Sean feeling better so we decided to plan a summit attempt and wake up at 5 a.m. the next day in order to reach the top of our fixed rope by light, around 8 a.m.
At 5 a.m. the next day, we woke up and were so excited and confident that it took us about 45 minutes, and some porridge in our bellies, to look outside and see that the weather wasn’t all that good. We woke up again at 7 a.m. only to realize that the weather was getting worse. It ended up snowing all day and all night. Our gas was running low from melting water which started to worry us. Even with all the fresh snow, we chose not to miss our chance and decided to make an attempt the next day if the weather cleared up. But of course this meant we would be climbing a rock face that would be completely plastered with ice and snow. Before sleeping that night I was a bit anxious realizing how exposed we would be to the cold conditions and if the weather turned bad on us. We had absolutely no weather forecast, and we knew that often even a perfect morning here turned into a heavy snowstorm by the afternoon.
Fortunately, my excitement erased my anxiety and the next morning, the sky full of stars, gave me confidence that it would be the right day for it. Our start got a bit delayed by Steph who didn’t feel very well while jumaring in the morning. So Evrard and I passed him so that he could take it easy. Luckily, he felt better and better as the day went on. Sean started climbing late at about 11 a.m. and, to our surprise, the wind had already done a good part of the snow cleaning so it wasn’t as plastered as we thought. I switched lead with Sean and from that pitch onward there was ice and snow all over the place, so we kept our crampons and ice axes. It took us another seven pitches of steep and spectacular mixed climbing to reach the summit ridge. It felt very nice just to keep moving and not deal with the hassle of handling a long, static rope to fix.
This last section was a lot longer than what we had estimated. Darkness settled in just as we climbed the final pitch to the summit and the temperature dropped. I was very happy to be on the summit of Kyzyl Asker but the cold was biting me so hard I knew I had to get down quickly. It was difficult for me to really enjoy this moment except for the perspective that soon I would be comfortably looking back at the mountain and would feel complete. In the distance, a light from the Kyrgyz side flashed to us. It was a strange feeling to be seen from the top and have our first contact with civilization after 20 days of just us and the mountains.
Nico started this pitch with his climbing shoes but quickly realized it was not the best idea so he switched to mixed climbing. From there on, we didn’t leave our ice axes and crampons until the summit. Here we are on our summit pitch, still early on.
The way down was long but went well, with no issues. My feet were cold so I forced myself to make them do some push-ups inside my boots, but it wasn’t enough to get them warm. On the last few raps it was not only my feet but my whole body that was fighting the cold.
At 3 a.m., I was glad to finally arrive back to our portaledge. It took me a couple of hours to get my body and feet warm with hot drinks. Steph did the same but as my feet were getting warmer, his were still hard like a block of ice. I knew it wasn’t good. The next day they were blue and blisters started appearing. Evrard’s feet were not looking very good either. We were so exhausted from our push to the summit we couldn’t do anything else but spend the whole next day just recovering on the portaledge. But it was obvious: We had to get down as soon as possible so that Steph’s feet could be better taken care of.
The next day we rapped down and managed to slide all our gear down the glacier using our haul bags like sleds. And two intense days later of load-carrying effort, we were back with all our gear to luxury in the city of Aksu. Our adventure was over! It was time to enjoy and value the simple things in life!
With Stephane’s frostbite, we hurried down the mountain. We saved a lot of time by pulling all our haulbags at once on the glacier. Behind you see the south pillar of Kyzyl Asker. It’s always a good feeling to be able to look back at a mountain after climbing it.
Stéphane is now in a hospital in Brussels in the hands of specialists. If everything goes well, Stéphane’s foot will be fully healed in a few months and he’ll be ready for the next adventure.
We would like to thank everyone who helped us live our dreams: Patagonia, Julbo, Five Ten, Black Diamond, The Belgian Alpine Club, Seeonee, Sterling Rope, Nikon, Belclimb.be, Petzl, Careplus, Boreal, Crux and Threshold Provision Salmon Jerky.
Also we would like to thank our translator Alli for his good vibes, our liaison officer Yue (who was very kind to us), the camel drivers (who were very friendly and helpful) and Guo from Guide to Adventures & Expeditions (GAE).
Details about the climb: South Pillar of Kyzyl Asker, Western Kokshal Tau Moutains, China, 1400m, 31 pitches 7b, M7, all free, no bolts, no pitons. About 10 pitches on the upper part of the wall are common with the Russian route.
Growing up in Brussels, Nico Favresse bonded to the outdoors through windsurfing, mountain biking and skiing. He started climbing at 15 and immediately found his passion. As an 18-year old exchange student in the United States, he visited Yosemite and discovered a new calling for big walls. Since then he’s climbed big walls in Patagonia, Pakistan, Greenland, Venezuela and Canada.
Evrard Wendenbaum’s work as a photographer has led him to the most inaccessible corners of the planet over the last ten years. His first film, Amazonian Vertigo, shot during the ascent of Angel Falls in Venezuela, has won 11 film festival awards. Evrard also leads the Naturevolution environmental association and applies his skills to the preservation of biodiversity.
Click here to read the full post