Chasing ghosts and dreams

Szu-ting Yi on the South Ridge of Kemailong, Sichuan China

The Tibetan Plateau of Western China is home to a host of unclimbed 6,000-metre peaks and a culture that believes in elemental powers that challenge our comprehension

A story by David Anderson

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Year of the Dragon, 2012

The friction pulled at my waist as I strained to move forward. I looked back with frustration at the lead rope, pulled taut as though sewn in tight stitches around the crumbling granite spires I had already traversed. I stopped climbing, found enough slack to flip the rope over a fin of rock and yelled, “Belay on,” to Szu-ting. The wind snatched my words and carried them east through pooling mist, down the exposed 2,000-metre flank of Kemailong toward the hazy green fields of the Tibetan Plateau. Still bathed in sunlight, the grasslands were pumping thermals of warm air into the sky, fuel for the towering thunderheads bearing down on us.

While climbing this summit ridge, I had pushed aside thoughts of the building electrical storm. But as I belayed, it was impossible to ignore all my metal climbing gear ringing like tuning forks. Sparks leapt between the gear, my hands and the wet rope. Fixed to the mountain, I was helpless, like a prisoner strapped to an electric chair.

“Please hurry,” I begged Szu-ting, who was frozen on a polished slab calculating the trajectory of her potential swing.

“I’m trying,” she snapped.

The ridge had been our ascent route, but descending it now left us exposed to the lightning. We needed another way down. After Szu-ting reached my stance, I peered down through the approaching darkness at the unknown 700-metre wall. Did we have enough gear to get down it?

Prone on the ledge, I winced as streaks of ground current arced between my helmet and my wet forehead. I placed a single climbing nut, the size of my pinky finger, in the only crack I could find and rigged the ropes for a rappel. As I descended, my rappel device squeezed the soaked ropes, sending a constant stream of icy water down my crotch. Hail obscured my view and thunderclaps deafened me. Still this uncertain descent was our only hope.

Year of the Dog, 2006

The impetus for this, my first visit to the Genyen Massif in Sichuan, was a photo of the majestic 700-year-old Lenggu Monastery resting in the centre of a narrow valley, taken by the famed Japanese explorer Tamotsu Nakamura and published in the 2003 American Alpine Journal. The most compelling part of the photo was the caption, which read: “The highest peak in the region is Mt Genyen (20,354 feet), a divine (sacred) mountain which had been climbed in 1988. However, more than 10 untouched rock and snow peaks of over 19,000 feet await climbers.”

On October 7, 2006, Americans Molly Loomis, Andy Tyson, Canadian Sarah Heuniken, and I rendezvoused in Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan. Chengdu is located at the bottom of a large fertile basin on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. As a result of this topography, Chengdu’s skies are constantly filled with clouds and haze. It is known as the city where dogs bark at the rare sun. This canine behavior gave rise to the Chinese proverb ‘Shu quan fei ri’ that means being surprised at something commonly seen, due to one’s ignorance. With the four of us having little understanding of the language, history or culture of the region, shu quan fei ri became a fitting motto for our expedition.

Woman at Horse Racing
Woman at Horse Racing

We left Chengdu in an overloaded jeep and drove west through the dense bamboo forests of the Qionglai Mountains, where a few wild pandas still live. Eventually, we emerged onto the high plains of the plateau, passing herds of yaks tended by ethnic Tibetans whose hand-woven black tents dot the empty landscape.

In the village of Zhangma, 1,000 kilometres west of Chengdu, we hired horses to carry our gear for the 12-kilometre trek along a tight singletrack toward the Genyen Massif. We passed thick-walled Tibetan houses and fields of crisp barley swaying gently beneath a low ashen sky. Further up, we crossed dilapidated bridges suspended dangerously over roaring torrents of jade meltwater fed by unseen glaciers above. The long hike in the thin air left the four of us spread out, following our own solitary rhythm of breaths and steps as we climbed into the mountains.

At day’s end, I stood before the Lengu Monastery and smiled as my eyes drifted outside the frame of Nakamura’s photo to a stunning granite spire in the background. But before we could celebrate our arrival, two monks with dour faces approached.

The monks told us that an expedition from Italy had climbed the sacred Mt Genyen in the spring. The monks were not happy that more climbers had now arrived to possibly do the same. When it comes to sacred peaks climbers often walk a thin line between respect for the belief of others and personal desire. Some climbers have tried to reach a compromise, at least in their own eyes, by stopping a few feet short of the summit. This tradition was adopted by the English climber Joe Brown during the first ascent of Kangchenjunga in 1955 and had also been used by Karl Unterkircher when his Italian team climbed Genyen earlier that spring.

Eventually, we were able to convince the monks we had no desire to climb Genyen but that we were, however, very interested in the rock pinnacle jutting out of the hillside behind where the monks were standing. “Sachun,” the older monk said.

Sarah Hueniken Andy Tyson and Molly Tyson scoping Sachun
Sarah Hueniken Andy Tyson and Molly Tyson scoping Sachun


On the glacier below Sachun (5,716 metres), Sarah and I roped up and passed several gaping crevasses. The sun hit as I booted up steep snow on the east side of the peak. Transitioning to the rock headwall, Sarah calmly slotted the picks of her axes in thin seams and balanced her front points on tiny edges. More pitches of perfect granite cracks led to a small col below the summit. Above me an eight-metre unprotectable slab guarded the summit.

I moved slowly, treating the delicate climbing with the respect it deserved. The wind picked up as I neared the top and I shamelessly flopped my body like a walrus onto the summit. I looked around for cracks, horns or other features to place protection, but it was as if I had climbed onto the smooth back of a giant whale. With Sarah out of earshot and no options for building an anchor, I immediately started to downclimb. My shirt clung to me with sweat and cold waves of fear shot up my spine. My movements tightened and my legs began to shake.

“Stop it,” I hissed at my legs as if they were a couple of unruly teenagers.

Partway down the slab, I weighted a large crystal foothold and it snapped beneath me. The fall started slowly at first and I had time to look down at my potential impact zone. I didn’t have many options. Landing in the rocky col six metres below would almost certainly result in a broken femur or worse. So instead, I pushed myself off around the corner into the void of the unseen west face. As I fell, my body pirouetted out of control, arms and legs arcing through the Himalayan air. I flew past the col and after falling almost 10 metres, I hit a flat ledge fortuitously covered with a metre or more of soft snow. Hastily clearing the snow from my face, I leapt out of my landing crater to prove to myself that I was still in one piece. Incredibly I was completely unscathed.

Genyen, China
Genyen, China

Year of the Dragon, 2012

In the village of Lamaya, Juzha spooned two heaping dollops of fresh yak yogurt into my bowl. From a nearby glass jar he grasped a handful of coarse sugar grains and tossed them onto the surface of the yogurt as if casting a spell.

It was September 21, 2012, and my fiancee Szu-ting Yi and I were sitting in his house having just finished negotiating a fair price to have our gear and supplies transported by horses to the base of a peak called Kemailong, 30 kilometres and four valleys to the northeast of Mt Genyen.

I had first caught a glimpse of Kemailong in 2006: its striking double summits of steel-gray granite looked like duelling swords thrust up out of the rolling green fields. Nakamura listed the peak as 5,780 metres high, and that was all the information we had.

Szu-ting had grown up in Taiwan and only discovered the outdoors when she moved to the U.S. for her PhD. She quickly took the determination she had honed in academia and applied it to her new passion for climbing. It was her interest in my 2006 expedition that had helped me separate Charlie’s death from the beautiful peaks of Genyen and rekindled my desire to return.

From the courtyard, where the horses were being readied for the trek, we heard several men arguing. Szu-ting and I walked out of the house and found our climbing gear duffels unzipped, with the men shaking our ice axes in the air, a look of fear in their faces.

We discovered their anxiety was directly related to the deaths of Charlie Fowler and Christine Boskoff. In 2006 when the search for the two famous American climbers had narrowed to the Genyen region, suspicion for their disappearance fell upon local villagers and the monks of Lenggu Monastery.

Rengo Monastery
Rengo Monastery

Under the guise of searching for clues connected to the missing climbers, the police had ransacked the monastery, interrogated the monks and rifled through their personal belongings. The police also rounded up the Tibetan horse packers in Lamaya, including Juzha, and threw them in jail on suspicion of having something to do with the climbers’ disappearance.

The fate of our expedition seemed to hang in the balance, weighed down by the actions of those who came before us. With a confident smile, Szu-ting began to work her negotiating magic. Being from Taiwan, she shared with the Tibetans a mistrust of the Chinese government and knowledge of their human rights abuses.

After much conversation, Szu-ting began writing Chinese characters on a pad of paper. She quickly crafted a waiver stating the horse packers and people of Lamaya would not be responsible for anything that happened to us in the mountains.

“Write your passport number and sign it,” Szu-ting commanded, handing me the pad. I followed her instructions while Juzha held out an inkpad, so that I could add my thumbprint to seal the document. The over-the-top release satisfied the horse packers’ worries, climbing gear was strapped to the horses and we began the trek to Kemailong.

By evening we were camped on the western edge of a large meadow below a series of empty hermits’ caves. Through the yellow blaze of the cook fire, Juzha asked why we wanted to climb these peaks. Was there money to be made or social status to be gained? Szu-ting and I looked at each other and laughed. He shook his head in disapproval telling us we should be having kids, making a future instead of risking it climbing these mountains. He then jokingly warned us about the creatures of Kemailong: the bears, leopards and even wild men who lived in the woods beyond the meadow, killing stray yaks and anything else that wandered into the tangled rhododendron forest. As the fire burned down, his voice took on a serious tone.

“There are spirits here, too,” he said looking directly into our eyes. He pointed toward Kemailong. “There are spirits up there, some good, some bad. They are watching us. Maybe one day my spirit will be there as well,” he added with a trace of a smile.

We spent the next week carrying food and climbing gear up the lower slope of Kemailong. On October 1, after a week of unsettled weather, I unzipped the tent at our high camp and stepped out into the still night air. My pupils widened and the stars and planets began to appear, like infinitesimal cookie cutters forced through the inky dough of the sky above and I knew the next day would be our chance.

Genyen, China
Genyen, China

As we racked up in the pre-morning light, our chosen route up the south ridge to the summit looked to be around 500 metres long. After a few mixed pitches we reached the ridge and traded leads on the featured yet compact granite. Pitches of dry sunny rock fell easily below our hands and feet. I could see a few clouds building down in the valley, but otherwise the weather seemed stable. We were making good progress up moderate terrain, but I soon realised I had grossly underestimated the length of the ridge.

After I ran out of gear, Szu-ting led the final pitch to what we thought would be the summit, but instead of raising her arms up in celebration, she stared off to the northwest. When I reached her, I looked across a convoluted ridge, guarded by crumbling granite gendarmes adorned with clumps of hardened snow. At the far end, 200 metres away, stood a granite tower.

“I don’t even know if that thing is any higher,” I said while re-racking the gear. “We should call this the summit.” I continued, complaining about the absurdity of needing to go to the true summit even as I led out toward it.

After an hour of navigating the tricky traversing terrain, we stood below an overhanging crack guarding the top. I jammed my fists into the fissure and fought upward. By now the haze in the valley had risen up to the neck of Kemailong and a wall of black clouds were advancing from the west.

The first blinding flash of lightning and the crash of thunder came simultaneously. From the summit, we quickly reversed the ridge and began to descend the east face.

Initially, cracks to build anchors appeared near the end of each rappel, but several rope lengths down I had to settle for a flaring slot running with water. My largest piece of climbing protection did not fit well in this crack, but it was my only option. Szu-ting arrived at the hanging stance and eyed the single piece warily before committing her full weight. The cold and accumulated stress were wearing us out, and as we continued down, the descent began to feel like runaway train that we were barely keeping on the track. I lost count of how many rappels we had done, but the darkness kept me guessing about how many more we had to go.

“I’m at the end of the rope,” Szu-ting yelled, dangling 15 metres above my stance. I stopped fiddling with the anchor and flashed my headlamp across the face searching for the rope that had been dangling right next to me. Where had it gone?

“I made a mistake,” Szu-ting called down in an apologetic tone.

“What do you mean? What kind of mistake?” I shouted back, struggling to control the rising panic in my voice. But the gusting wind prevented further communication and all I could do was stare upward at Szu-ting, hanging limply on the end of the rope out of my reach.

I had held my shit together through the runout climbing and lightning strikes on the summit, but standing alone on a 15-centimetre ledge powerless to help the woman I loved, I began to crumble. The enormity of the sheer rock face seemed to grow above and below me. My head spun with vertigo and my stomach churned. When I closed my eyes, all I could see were dark images of selfish climbing desire: the police imprisoning the monks and Juzha, the bodies of Charlie and Chris in avalanche debris, my fingerprint on the signed ‘release’ note and Szu-ting falling into the darkness.

I snapped my head back and gulped in a lungful of air, trying to shake visions of the unthinkable. I looked away from the lifeless wall of rock and snow and out towards Lamaya. Below me, through swirling clouds, I thought I saw a distant light. I blinked, thinking it to be a fear-induced mirage, but the faint glow remained. There appeared to be a large fire in the meadow near where we had first camped. I concentrated on it, watching it flicker through the storm. Was it Juzha coming to look for us or nomads grazing their yaks? Or maybe the wild spirits he had described? I didn’t know if they could see our headlamps bouncing off the frozen granite 2,000 metres above them, but in my moment of despair it felt comforting to see the light.

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“I’m sorry,” Szu-ting yelled again through a break in the wind. Climbing for 16 hours, out of food and nearly hypothermic, Szu-ting had made a big mistake. She had only threaded one rope through her rappel device. What saved her was a back-up she had hitched around both ropes. As she rappelled, one rope had slipped slowly through the rappel anchor, leaving her 15 metres short of my stance.

Szu-ting pendulumed back and forth across the blank face until she found a crack to accept a piece of gear, evened out the ropes and few minutes later reached my ledge. After something like 13 rappels, we finally stood on the remnants of a dying glacier at the base of the east face of Kemailong. We pulled our ropes and stumbled like drunks through the snow-covered talus searching for our high camp and the end of our epic.

The following day, as we reached the pasture where our base camp had been, we were startled by the sound of advancing hooves drumming on the thin soil. To the east, four horses broke over a low rise and galloped toward us, their chest and thigh muscles driving hard, their hooves flinging up chunks of sod in their wake. It was like a scene from one of those cliched Chinese paintings. Less than ten metres away, the horses halted, ears up, with no hint of exertion. They stared at us expectantly. Pinned against the edge of the pasture, Szu-ting and I stared back. They were not Juzha’s horses.

Szu-ting Yi on the South Ridge of Kemailong, Sichuan China
Szu-ting Yi on the South Ridge of Kemailong, Sichuan China

After a few moments we edged past the animals, hoping to find their owner to transport our monstrous packs back to Lamaya. I realised that must have been who built the fire I had seen during our rappelling nightmare. Pushing through the wet grass, we reached the edge of the meadow but found no one and saw no sign of a recent fire.

I cinched the waist belt of my pack tighter and looked back upvalley at the cloud-covered peaks. As much as I wanted to believe that skill and hard work alone had shaped our experiences in the mountains of Western China, I could not shake the feeling that we had been watched over somehow. The fire in the meadow had been a hopeful sign when all seemed lost and even our brush with the horses had a surreal feel. Maybe it was my exhausted state, but to me these events could not be explained by simple logic.

Before Buddhism spread north from India, before the Chinese divided up the land and before foreign climbers like myself came to test themselves in a place they didn’t really understand, the people living in these valleys looked to the spirits to guide them. Even today many there, including Juzha, believe in those spirits. Some good, some bad, just like he said. Who’s to say we hadn’t had our own brush with the divine? AA



When to go

The Genyen Region gets most of its rain and is warmest from June – August. This combination produces amazing wildflowers, but often challenging driving conditions along the dirt roads. Mid October through to early May is much drier, but also colder.

How to get there

Fly into Chengdu then head overland for two days to the town of Litang on public buses or by hiring a private vehicle. From Litang you can hire a car/van for the half-day drive to the newly built Lengu Monastery at the base of Mt Genyen. Overlanding this way also will help with acclimatisation. A new airport has been built in Doacheng, two hours south of Litang, and is a faster option for the return leg.

What to take

The town of Litang has a number of hotels, an open market and several small food stores. There are no outdoor gear stores in Litang, so specialty items such as gas canisters for camping stoves and energy bars should be purchased in Chengdu. Note that public buses do not allow the transport of fuel canisters. Another option is to bring a multi-fuel camping stove and purchase petrol in Lamaya or Zhangma. The Lengu Monastery offers very simple accomodation and sells basic foodstuffs, but bringing a tent and cooking gear will allow for more idependent travel.