A dark cloud has fallen over China’s climbing community with the sudden death of one of its top alpinists. Yan Dongdong fell into a crevasse and died on July 9 while descending from the summit of an unclimbed peak in the Heavenly (Tianshan) range of western China. Dongdong was a driving force within China’s new generation of alpinists. He was well-known for pushing the ideals of free-mountaineering within China, a country which highly regulates its mountains. Dongdong was a strong, technically skilled and extremely committed alpinist. He pushed the level of climbing amongst the Chinese outdoor community, both in terms of difficulty and philosophy, redefining mountaineering culture within China.
The tragic accident happened at around 6:15 PM on July 9, 2012. Dongdong, his climbing partner Zhou Peng and camera-woman Li Shuang had made a successful summit on an unclimbed 5900 meter-high peak in the Heavenly range of western China earlier that same day. After summiting they descended back to their camp at 4400 meters, arriving around 5:30 PM. They quickly packed up that camp and then continued to descend as it started to snow. Shortly afterwards Dongdong fell into a hidden crevasse. Zhou Peng and Li Shuang attempted to save and pull him out for over five hours. Near midnight they were forced to give up the arduous rescue attempt as the rope was worn through and the two of them were completely exhausted. Dongdong was non-responsive, unconscious, and wedged tightly into the crevasse. Zhou and Li spent the night next to the crevasse. As there was no response from Dongdong the following morning and the two descended off the mountain.
Yan Dongdong was born on November 16, 1984 in Anshan city, Liaoning Province, China. An interesting piece of trivia is that the ‘shan’ in Anshan means mountain. He attended China’s prestigious Tsinghua University studying in the department of Life Sciences and Technology. Dongdong participated in the University’s mountaineering team and also acted as their president. After graduating in 2005 Dongdong continued to work for the Tsinghua mountaineering team as technical advisor, amongst other capacities. In 2008 he was given the opportunity to participate in China’s Mt. Everest Olympic torch climb, summiting on May 8. It was here that he met Zhou Peng, whom would then become his regular climbing partner. It was also after this that Dongdong turned his attention towards “pure” alpinism.
Yan Dongdong was always in the mountains, ticking off one after another of technically challenging unclimbed peaks and putting up new lines. He espoused a true alpine approach to his climbing, light-weight and quiet. Where this may be the norm in the West, it is the exception in China and his climbing style was a hurricane of fresh air. Dongdong broke through the culture of expedition style climbing by creating a new mold that challenged ways of thinking within the Chinese climbing community. Furthermore, world-class alpinism was always thought to be beyond the reach of Chinese climbers. Then there was Dongdong, out of nowhere, a role model for young aspiring alpinists. It seemed as if all of a sudden people were saying, “Wow, we Chinese can and ARE doing this sort of really hard technical climbing”.
Dongdong took up the cause of what he called free mountaineering, popularizing the sport through nongovernmental means, and encouraging the essence and basic spirit of climbing unrestricted by regulations. Dongdong was a thoughtful and philosophical individual and he wrote about what climbing meant to him, his responsibilities as a climber, the meaning of the sport, friendship, and of just being in the mountains. He was humble, soft-spoken, thoughtful, and had what I would call almost a monk-like demeanor.
Dongdong was articulate with the pen. He made a modest living doing translation work and sponsorships. He was starting to become a regular contributor to Chinese and western journals, recording his climbs in the American Alpine Journal. He also translated climbing books such as “Extreme Alpinism” and “The Mountaineering Handbook” into Chinese. His contributions to climbers everywhere will be greatly missed.
Dongdong had an impressive list of accomplishments on technically challenging five and six thousand meter peaks, many of them first ascents and new lines. This included a new line up the south face of Mt. Siguniang (Sichuan Province) he named, “Free soul”. He won the Golden Rhino, China’s equivalent to the Golden Ice Axe, award three times. Dongdong was also one of this year’s recipients of the Mugs Stump award.
It seems completely unfair when the life of such an energetic and aspiring young man is taken from us in this way. Dongdong was passionate for the mountains and his life revolved around climbing. Although he was not even twenty-eight years old when he fell into the crevasse, he set new highs for Chinese climbers and opened up the mountains of China to the outside world. We offer our deepest condolences to Dongdong’s family, friends, and loved ones. He lived his life for the mountains and in the mountains and his body now rest within the mountains and his spirit above the mountains.