Christopher Gibisch and Jeff Shapiro’s route Black Wolves and Blue Poppies (WI4+ AI6 M5+, ca. 1300m) on the west/northwest aspect of Mt. Grosvenor (Ri Wu Qie Feng, 6376m).
[Photo] Chris Gibisch
In 2005 Jeff Shapiro and I met with our friend Gray Thompson to discuss the possibility of climbing in the Daxue Shan range of Western China. Gray had visited the area in 1993, during the first ascent of Lamoshe 6070m, and spoke very highly of the potential within the range. We looked over photos and eventually gravitated toward attempting the northwest aspect of Mt. Grosvenor (aka Ri Wu Qie Feng, 6376m) or the then unclimbed southeast face of Mt. Edgar 6618m. Unfortunately, the trip never materialized and our intentions were put on the back burner. Last spring however, we decided to revisit those intentions.
Mt. Grosvenor is a striking mountain. An iconic, pyramid of a peak, it’s composed of technical faces creating no obvious “easy way up”. The west face, to us, appeared the most technical and impressive. Its 1300 meters tower over base camp and is littered with ice ribbons and steep rock bands. The north face, slightly shorter than the west, has potential for routes, but unfortunately is topped by large and threatening seracs. Grosvenor’s east aspect was used as the descent route for the only two previous ascents but in our estimation, contains potential for shorter and more moderate ice lines. Finally, steep glaciated slopes and ridgelines descending toward Gonga Shan (7556m) represent the southern aspect of the mountain.
October 14 found Jeff and I leaving the Buddhist community of Laouyling, spending the next three days trekking into base camp. Although initial snowfall caused us some concern, when we reached camp, the weather had improved and, fortunately, conditions looked favorable. Taking advantage of the stable weather, we did our best to acclimatize while scouting the west face and established a high camp at 5100m.
Jeff Shapiro leads below the crux of Black Wolves and Blue Poppies during their first day on the climb. Because of conditions, Shapiro called it “one of the most
cerebral pitches I’ve ever led in the mountains.” [Photo] Chris Gibisch
On October 24, despite conflicting weather forecasts, we left base camp for our high camp. We woke the next morning to a star filled sky and solidified our decision to climb. Our route began moderate, simulclimbing pitches of neve and ice protected by rock gear. Eventually, I reached a belay where I could see much steeper ground ahead. Jeff took the lead and charged up. Shortly after the rope ran out and I started climbing, Jeff reached the steepest section. His climbing slowed and he moved with precision. Unable to protect this section, he ran it out for sixty to seventy feet of rotten and sublimated “snice” before finding solid gear. It wasn’t until I followed the section did I realize the significance of what I had just witnessed.
We were now on a snow/ice ramp leading to our proposed bivy site. With the sun kissing the horizon, we made haste for what we hoped would be a reasonable ledge. To our disappointment, when we got there, the bivy site was less than ideal. With no other options, we placed a picket, chopped some seats, and pulled our bags over us.
First light revealed our next challenge; an eight-inch strip of ice transecting the rock band above. We packed up, and I started climbing. A few delicate tool placements and some dry tooling allowed access to the more moderate slope above. Shortly after Jeff began to simulclimb with me, I found myself at another intimidating challenge, another section of vertical, rotten “snice.” I did my best to not pull the pitch down on myself and, fortunately, was able to place a cam halfway up.
We could now see the final mystery section visible from base camp as a couple pitches of gray ice. Jeff climbed towards the ice and our initial fears of this section being fierce were dispatched as we discovered it didn’t look too bad. When I reached his belay, I was pleased to see it was the best quality water ice we had encountered yet. However, we were at approximately 20,000 feet, and I was wasted. The ice was steep and felt intimidating. Digging deep, I limped my way up for just over sixty meters. Half frozen, Jeff met me at the belay, hopeful at the sight of the ridgeline above. One more huge pull by Jeff got us to the ridge. Hopes of a bivy on a broad summit slope were crushed when I reached him and discovered we were on a sharp knife-edge ridge, fluting onto the west face.
Shapiro climbs the final meters up to the second bivy, just seventy meters below the summit. [Photo] Chris Gibisch
With the last rays of light gracing us once again, I lead up the summit ridge to find a suitable bivy. Near the end of the rope and close to the summit, all that I found was a good anchor and some hard ice at the base of a large, overhanging boulder. Jeff came up, and we started chopping ice buckets. Again it was only sleeping bags, and experience told us we were in for a sleepless night.
Arctic temps greeted us on the morning of October 27, and made us reluctant to leave our bags. Morning light was reaching the summit and we knew warmth awaited us there. A distant and fast moving storm increased our motivation so, half frozen, we began climbing together towards the summit. After some of the most exhausting “easy” climbing I’ve ever done, I was standing on the summit with Jeff. Winds were light, the sky was blue and the views were amazing.
It took the rest of our “summit day” and the next to make it back to base camp. We made twelve rappels down the east face where we, again, bivied on the glaciated and broken east basin between Mt Grosvenor, Jiazi and Edgar. The next day was spent rappelling the col between Jiazi and Grosvenor, followed by a long slog across the glaciers and moraine before reaching the grassy meadows of base camp.
Once again, an alpine climb has changed my perspective on my life, and what I am capable of. After working harder than either of us imagined, we came away from the experience with an entirely new outlook on what’s possible. Inspired for our next adventure, our journey has left our minds open and hungry.
Our route, Black Wolves and Blue Poppies (WI4+ AI6 M5+, ca. 1300m) was done in alpine style with leave-no-trace ethics. Leaving a total of three pins at rappel stations close to the bottom of the east face was unavoidable, but the only gear left during our ascent. It’s our hope that the faces of the Daxue Shan be respected by the continued absence of bolts and other unnecessary fixed gear.
Gibisch and Shapiro on the summit of Grovesnor, October 27. [Photo] Chris Gibisch