Tianhaizi: Location and Introduction
Tianhaizi / 田海子山 is a 6070m mountain located in China’s Sichuan province, within the Daxue Shan / 大雪山 (‘big snow mountain’) range. Tianhaizi is the closest major 6000m peak to the nearby town of Kangding.
The Daxue Shan range is also known as the Gongga range, after its major highpoint of Gongga Shan / Minya Konka. Gonga is an incredibly impressive and topographically prominent 7556m peak with only a handful of prior summits, and a shockingly bad track record of fatal climbing accidents. Tianhaizi, while nowhere near Gonga’s difficulty nor notoriety, has a reputation for being a challenging mountain to attempt without a large team and fixed ropes.
Topographic surveys in the 1930s assigned the name Lamo-She to the cluster of peaks of which Tianhaizi is a part, but locals all call the mountain by its Chinese name.
Tianhaizhi has a fascinating climbing history, in that its first ascent was made quite recently – by a 1993 American team led by the legendary Fred Beckey. Although Beckey himself didn’t accompany the summit team, visiting a piece of his legacy proved to be interesting; locals still had stories about him, and one long-time logistics fixer regaled me with tales of then 70-year-old Beckey hitting on his 20 year old daughter! You can read the AAC trip report of the first ascent here. Local officials, perhaps half a dozen of them, all told us that the mountain had seen no prior winter summit.
Tianhaizi: The Soccer Game
For a decade plus the entire wilderness area around Tianhaizi shuts down for winter due to fire risks associated with dry conditions in the alpine forests, and only locals with legitimate economic need are allowed to enter the high mountains. Securing permission to bypass the forest-fire controls put my partner and I through incredibly arduous hoop jumping, telephone tag, and delicate negotiation. This was an ordeal of politicking unlike any I have ever experienced prior, and an absolute roller coaster of emotions. Our hopes of being granted access would be lifted through some minor progress only to be crushed, again and again, in what felt like endless cycles of red tape.
I sent messages to my friends and family while in the midst of this, and looking back at them they read with a certain Kafkaesque despair. There are four or five instances along the lines of “We aren’t making much progress. The contact in the Athletics Department doesn’t know who to call, and the local government guys we met yesterday don’t want to give us their names or phone numbers” interjected with such gems as “we randomly met a guy in the hostel who knows everyone, things are looking up!” and “all this, just for a chance to suffer in freezing squalor for a week”.
Throughout, whilst visiting three disparate government offices in person and making phone contact with about a dozen functionaries and aficionados, we were continually met with fear and skepticism. No foreign tourists had visited Kangding in ages, and everyone around us was concerned about COVID. Producing our negative test results and year-old passport entry stamps helped to cool things off, but the tension created by our very presence didn’t make things any smoother!
After playing soccer for three days, each office and official deftly kicking the ball to the next, we finally found success in the shape of a liability waiver, the fruits of a last ditch persuasive effort. My partner, a native Mandarin speaker, was able to secure the fabled form by walking a tightrope of anger, logic, emotion, and pleading coercion. This final, penultimate conversation was masterful to behold, and made me realize how much room for improvement remains in my spoken Chinese ability. We signed and thumb-printed a document promising not to start any forest fires, and that done, we were on the road and into the mountains!
Tianhaizi: Planning Around Pandemics
The decision to attempt a winter Tianhaizi climb was born of perseverance tempered by impenetrable limitations. Despite relatively stable circumstances within Mainland China, international travel outside of China had become impossible for me due to the COVID19 pandemic. This unfortunate situation prevented access to my preferred (and far more realistic) winter Himalayan goals in India or Nepal, or to on-season climbs in South America. Coming into the 2021 winter season I had missed the 2020 summer season entirely, breaking a four-year streak of 7000m expeditions in Central Asia. Worse yet, following a successful winter climb in Nepal in early 2020 I had failed on a string of ‘easy’ 5000m and 6000m walkups within Mainland China, mostly due to horrible off-season weather. While 2020 concluded as a solid sport-climbing year on rock for me, I felt an irrepressible urge to get back to high altitude.
I have long focused on maintaining momentum in my climbing, and I do believe that my approach of steadily pushing higher and harder has been working well for me. The prospect of missing this winter season and ‘missing out’ on opportunity crushed my spirits. Pandemic controls severely curtailed potential winter climbing goals; foreign nationals remained banned from accessing many national parks or obtaining permits for most interesting climbs. As an example, all of the moderate 5000m climbs around the Siguniang Shan area, where I had climbed in the winter of 2016, remained off limits to foreigners.
When a friend suggested Tianhaizi, and we discovered that a permit would be possible, the gears of preparation immediately began to grind. Having a short term goal to train for once again gave me focus and determination. In reflection, my borderline obsession with mountaineering is a double edged sword capable of cutting deeply in both directions; whilst failures hurt and a total lack of access leads into depression, setting arbitrary personal goals to work for generates an intense motivation and can cumulatively build tenacity.
Tianhaizi: Approach Hike
After we had untangled the complexities of access permission, we were able to drive by car to the mouth of the valley used to approach Tianhaizi. This journey takes just over an hour from Kangding, following a well maintained and paved road the entire way. We enjoyed a full view of Tianhaizi from the lower valley, but were unsettled by the state of the glacier. I could tell from a distance that the lower glacier, when compared to the photos we had collected while researching the route, was very dry and significantly diminished.
The approach hike up the valley begins at 4000m, and we intended to set our basecamp at 4750m. I had anticipated the need for good acclimatization prior to activity at these elevations, and so we had conservatively pre-acclimated. Throughout our daytime adventures with red tape, navigating the intricacies of local bureaucracy, we had maintained a daily schedule of driving out of Kangding to Zheduo Shan, a nearby mountain with good road access. We drove by bus each day to 4300m, and then hiked to 4500-4600m where we would sit and rest for an hour before descending and hitchhiking back down to the city. The bus tickets cost only about 20 RMB per trip up. I had planned and scheduled to make this trip higher for three days in a row, and we ended up following that plan to perfection; we resolved our access issues while on the third day in Kangding. This structured acclimation strategy had us comfortably camping in our planned basecamp at 4750m on the first night.
Unfortunately the nature of the approach hike was particularly unpleasant. The valley to basecamp constitutes some 2km of easy hiking followed by a further 6km of hideous moraine composed of an endless jumble of unstable boulders. Moving across the boulder fields laden with heavy winter packs was fun for the first thirty minutes, and tortuously miserable thereafter! We spent a cumulative time of over 15 hours throughout the trip moving back and forth across these moraine boulders, delicately balancing and bracing for shifting, sliding rocks while keeping our eyes and ears tuned for the warning sounds of rockfall from above. We could hear the sounds of rock slide emanating from the valley walls around us throughout our nights at basecamp, and the entire upper valley felt very unstable.
Accessing the lower glacier at 5000m involved another hour and a half over moraine from our tent, with no suitably flat areas presenting us with higher camping opportunities. The valley was exposed to sunlight only between 10am and 4pm, which made for full-on winter conditions in camp and during our approach rotations. We experienced temperatures of around -20C inside of the tent at night, and figure that it was around -30C outside. We made quite good time throughout our attempt in spite of the cold and awkward terrain, and consistently worked ahead of the timeframes that we had anticipated based on our research.
Tianhaizi: Rockfall and Blue Ice
When we reached the gully which gains the toe of the glacier, we discovered poor conditions on the mountain. There was no snow cover to speak of, and the glacier access at 5000m which we had expected to involve a straightforward snow ramp instead presented us with around 60m of 50 degree blue ice, which we gingerly simul-soloed. Where the approach up the upper valley had involved exposure to easily avoidable rock slide, the gully which gained the glacier created a dangerous, bottle-necked shooting gallery. We had at least a dozen near misses within 1m of us, from rocks softball sized or larger, and my partner took a significant hit to the upper arm while protecting his head with it. While we were on descent in full shade a murderous block the size of a microwave hurtled down the gully towards us, spinning like a throwing axe as it bounced and careened some 10m off of the ground – and this was the final straw for me.
I been warned in advance of rockfall on the route by my helpful contact in the Sichuan mountaineering association, but had not anticipated the degree of risk which we experienced. We encountered sustained rockfall dramatically worse than anticipated, made particularly bad by conditions on the mountain and in the valley; there had been no significant snowfall for months. The same dry conditions which created forest fire hazards lower down made for a glacier of naked blue ice, and for very little snow anywhere on the mountain. High winter winds that cleared away any remaining snow cover further exacerbated this inclement terrain. As a result, rocks perched atop or embedded within the surface of the exposed ice rained down nonstop, knocked free by winds or the daily thaw/freeze cycle.
Without snow cover the bone-dry glacier had also receded from key technical steps along the route. The dry glacier created tens of meters of bare rock and significant ice runouts where our research had led us to expect easy to moderate snow slopes and two or three 2-3m steps of rock and ice. I reviewed my photos of the upper mountain in basecamp, which revealed that the entire 600m of gain to the top, over 1km of summit ridge, was also made up of exposed blue ice. Realistically, even without the unacceptable risks of persistent rockfall, our 30m rope and four ice screws were inadequate for safely dealing with such extended climbing on 45 degree ice atop an exposed ridge. A running belay on screws could have gotten us much higher than our turnaround at 5350m, but a safe descent would have been nightmarish. We made the decision to end our attempt and retreat due to the objectively hazardous rockfall, and the knowledge that a summit was most likely beyond our ability given the state of the glacier.
Tianhaizi: Final Thoughts
Despite an unsuccessful attempt, getting outdoors and trying was immeasurably better than staying home. The swathes of pristine blue ice, while unexpected, were gorgeous to see and to climb on. We did well in managing our acclimation and the challenges of winter camping at altitude, and did our best with the conditions that we found on the mountain. Our high point of 5350m at least involved some real climbing, and afforded us with good views of the upper mountain.
We went into our Tianhaizi attempt knowing full well that our odds of success were low. There was no documented prior winter ascent, and independent winter climbing in or near the Himalaya involves unique challenges created by wind and cold. The cold was a persistent presence throughout, and forced us to pay careful attention to our food intake and rest schedule.
The approach hike was unpleasant enough that I likely would not return to Tianhaizi in the future! Of course, I write this with the misery of crossing the boulder fields fresh in my mind; given time a second attempt in the October season might not be outside the realm of possibility.