2002 – Jarjinjabo Valley, Tibet

Adventures in the Tibetan Borderlands

Our jeep bounces around a tight bend in the narrow river gorge, and suddenly the V-shaped walls fall away, revealing a hidden valley straight out of a fairy tale. A lush pasture split by a chalky green river, stretches to a horizon of jagged unclimbed peaks up to 19,500 feet high. Giant granite boulders and dirt-colored yak hair tents are scattered along the 15 mile length of the valley. Tibetan nomads, yaks and horses mill about near the river, as Himalayan eagles with six-foot wing spans soar on the thermals rising from a bubbling hot spring. On the far side of the valley, a 700-year-old monastery is tucked between a 2000-foot cliff and a turquoise blue lake ringed by an old growth forest. Above the lake, several granite fangs pierce the sky with impossibly tiny summits. I picture myself perched up on top of the pointiest peak, and the vision fills me with anticipation of good things to come. Over the next three weeks, our only agenda will be to do as many first ascents in this valley as possible.

When I started climbing in the mid 1980s, my enthusiasm was somewhat tempered by the sad realization that I had missed out on mountaineering’s Golden Age — that time up through the 1950s and 60s when most of the world’s greatest peaks were still unclimbed. Over the years though, my initial disappointment has slowly transformed into an appreciation for just how much of the world is still unexplored and unclimbed. It’s a well-kept secret that there are thousands of unclimbed peaks out there, all the way up to 23,000 feet. Of course, you won’t find these unclimbed mountains in the Rockies or the Alps, but if you’re willing to do some exploring in places like Pakistan, India, Burma, Bhutan, Tibet and China, you’ll find that the Golden Age of mountaineering is still very much alive.

The Jarjinjabo Valley, located on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau in China’s Sichuan Province, is just such a place. For most of the past 40 years, the Tibetan Plateau has been closed to outsiders. When Tibet was invaded and annexed by the People’s Republic of China in 1959, the plan of communist party chairman Mao Zedong was to completely wipe out the Tibetan Buddhist culture. Sadly, Mao’s campaign, known as the Cultural Revolution, was largely successful. From 1950 to 1970, approximately 1.2 million Tibetans lost their lives and over 6000 monasteries were looted and destroyed. The Dalai Lama was driven into exile in India where he remains to this day.

In 2000, bowing to increasing pressure from the world community, China finally opened the Tibetan Plateau to outsiders. A few years earlier, the Chinese had discovered silver in the Jarjinjabo Valley. To access it, they built a 25 mile dirt road linking Jarjinjabo to the Sichuan-Tibet Highway. A Japanese photographer named Tamotsu Nakamura discovered this new road and followed it into the valley in June, 2000. He was probably the first outsider to ever lay eyes on this isolated pocket of the plateau, which is considered one of the 16 hidden valleys (“beyul”) of the Tibetan tradition. Nakamura documented the area’s climbing potential with still photos that were published in the Journal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Association.

Peter Klika, a former U.S. State Department diplomat, saw this article and visited the Jarjinjabo Valley in August, 2001. Klika has spent the past 20 years exploring the Tibetan Borderlands. In 1999, he discovered that the ancient Tibetan Kingdom of Muli in western Sichuan Province (approximately 125 miles south of Jarjinjabo) was the inspiration for the “Shangri-La” of James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Klika also happens to be a close friend of famed Everest mountaineer Pete Athans. When Athans first saw the photos of the peaks surrounding the Jarjinjabo Valley, he took them straight to The North Face, the equipment and clothing company which he works for as a sponsored climber.

To help tackle the granite walls in Jarjinjabo, Pete invited myself and Jared Ogden, fellow members of The North Face Climbing Team. Jared and I have been partners since 1997, and we have shared some wild adventures, like the first ascent of the 6000-foot northwest face of Great Trango Tower in Pakistan. This would be our sixth expedition together, and our first with Pete. Kasha Rigby and Hilaree Nelson, two professional female skiers, also joined our crew, hoping to find some first descents in the area. The final team member was Rob Mackinlay, the expedition photographer.

On July 28th, our team arrived in Chengdu, a city of ten million in western China. At the airport we met our guide and outfitter, Jiyae Zhang, a long-haired, fun-loving adventurer who knows the mountains of western China as well as anyone. Chengdu was rainy and covered in a black cloud of smog, so we loaded up two jeeps with our food and equipment and headed west. Halfway through our second 16 hour day we reached a high pass, one of the main eastern gateways onto the Tibetan plateau. The “roof of the world,” as the plateau is often called, averages 13,000 feet in elevation for 850,000 square miles — about one-quarter of China’s total land mass. It’s bordered to the south by the Himalaya, to the west by the Karakoram, and to the north by the Altai Mountains and the Gobi Desert. There are several sub regions within the plateau, including the Tibetan Borderlands, a 100-200 mile wide strip between Tibet and China that stretches from Russia in the north to Thailand in the south. The Borderlands are further divided into 13 principalities, many of which were ruled, until the Chinese takeover, by monarchies dating back thousands of years.

Within a few minutes of arriving at our basecamp in the Jarjinjabo Valley, we were surrounded by a crew of hyperactive Tibetan boys. Klika was the only other westerner to have visited the area before us, so many of the children had never seen white-skinned people before. Most of the sixty or so families living in the pasture are nomads who move camp three times a year. About ten families, though, have set up a small permanent village of wooden huts near the lake. In addition to herding yaks, this group also grows some crops of barley, plus limited amounts of corn and potatoes. At this elevation there is not much that will grow. The village chief, a stringy, wrinkled man named Chedzi, welcomed us with handshakes and friendly slaps on the back. Out of everyone, though, he was by far the most interested in Kasha, as were all the Tibetans. She was probably the first real blonde they had ever seen.

The nomads all wore a similar outfit: nylon pants, button down shirts, blazers, and army surplus rubber sneakers. Some of the men, known as Khampas, wore elaborate red silk tassels in their hair and huge 1970s style gold-rimmed wraparound sunglasses. The monks and nuns were distinguishable from the nomads with their red robes, shaved heads, and constantly spinning prayer wheels. A few of the children were dressed in rags that hung in tatters on their skinny bodies. The ones that weren’t potty trained had big holes cut out of the bottom of their pants, so we made a point to keep these guys out of our tents.

We spent the first few days exploring the valley and getting to know the friendly people who live there. It was a privilege to visit the monastery with Pete because he is a practicing Buddhist. He helped us to understand the religion, supplying simple precepts that Buddhists strive to live by. “You know that love you feel when you look at your children,” he said to me one day. “Well, that’s the way a Buddhist feels towards every living thing, including bugs.” The Zhopu Monastery was founded sometime around 1260 AD by a wandering Indian monk. During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese Red Guard destroyed nearly every monastery on the plateau, but thanks to its incredibly remote location, this one escaped untouched.

Built with stones and local rough hewn timbers, the whitewashed monastery sits at the base of a huge cliff coursed with waterfalls that collect into a stream running by the front entrance. The compound is surrounded by a rock wall comprised entirely of mani stones — hand-carved boulders with the mantra, “Om mani padme hum” (hail to the jewel in the lotus), etched into their sides. The deeper we probed into the wall, the more ancient and worn the stones became. The ones on the very bottom were undoubtedly carved hundreds of years ago by monks whose bones must lay somewhere nearby.

The real benefit of hanging around camp was that it enabled us to acclimatize to the change in altitude. Prevailing wisdom says you need a day to acclimatize to each 1000 feet of elevation gain, and it had only been about a week since I had left my home near sea level in New Hampshire. It would have been foolhardy for us to bend this rule, because if someone did come down with altitude sickness, it would take days of driving to get to a significantly lower altitude. By the third day, though, we could no longer content ourselves with hanging around the valley floor. We found a trail leading into the forest in the general direction of two 17,000-foot rock towers, which the locals called Janmo and Jarjinjabo. With our heavy packs, we soon found ourselves sucking wind, including Pete, who has summitted Mt. Everest seven times.

Twenty minutes into the hike, we arrived in a clearing dominated by a 150-foot tall Hemlock. The tree was magnificent, but, bizarrely, its bottom branches were completely covered with various knickknacks: clothing, hats, knives, shoes, and even a few scalps. Pete explained that the items belonged to local people who had died. Their relatives left the things on the tree to appease their spirits. Around the back of the tree, I found a pile of clay figurines, each about the size of a lemon. “Hey bro, those are the compressed ashes of a dead monk,” said Pete, when I picked one up. “You might want to put him down.”

It took us close to two hours of hard slogging before we emerged from the old growth forest into a small hanging valley coursed by a percolating, crystal clear brook. Straight ahead rose Janmo and Jarjinjabo, granite spires which obviously had no easy routes to their summits. Before setting out from camp, we had asked the monks and Chedzi for permission to climb the towers. They thought we were crazy, but had no problem with us trying to climb their mountains.

More than a thousand years ago, Tibetan Buddhism grew out of an even older religion called Bon, an animistic belief which still pervades many Tibetans’ view of the world in remote areas of the plateau. So, it was not surprising to find that the mountains are actually living characters in the mythology of the valley. The headman told us that Janmo and Jarjinjabo were man and wife. But when Jarjinjabo left the valley to go on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, Janmo had an affair with another peak called Halle. She became pregnant and gave birth to several children before Jarjinjabo returned. The smaller rock towers surrounding them are these children: Langia, Todu, Puba, and Todju Puba. We hoped to climb the entire family.

At 14,800 feet, we clambered up a gully and popped out onto a gravel flood plain dotted with bus-sized granite boulders with fluorescent green, yellow and orange patches of lichen. A small stream trickled from a glacial pond that reflected the images of the rock spires above. There could not be a more obvious or beautiful spot for the location of our advanced basecamp (ABC).

Of the two towers, Janmo (the unfaithful wife) was the more slender, aesthetic formation. It was also a little bit smaller than Jarjinjabo, so we decided to climb it first. The three of us have climbed granite in just about every corner of the world, so it was a total shock when we finally laid hands to the stone. “This is some of the best rock I’ve ever seen,” exclaimed Jared, as he scrambled a few feet up the bottom of the wall. The rough brown granite was infused with quartz crystals that would make excellent footholds and nothing was loose. The only real dilemma was which crack system to choose, because every one of them appeared to be a four star route. After much deliberation, we eventually chose a system on the east side of the spire. After dropping some of our climbing equipment at the base, we bailed back to our high camp for the night.

The next morning, I poked my head out of the tent door and noticed that some high cirrus clouds with mare’s tails were blowing in from the southeast. Pete was huddled over the blue flame of the stove, tending a strong pot of coffee. Jared was still asleep. “The good weather looks like it’s on its way out,” said Pete, as he handed me a steaming mug of java. Two hours later, I was standing next to Jared at the base of Janmo, belaying Pete up the first pitch. He jammed his hands and feet into the vertical crack and shuffled his way up, stopping every ten feet or so to place a protection device. After placing a piece, Pete would clip his rope to it with a carabiner. The rope snaked from Pete’s harness, through the carabiner, then down to me where I had it fed through a friction plate known as a belay device. If Pete were to come off, he would fall twice the distance he was above the piece, then I would lock off and catch him. The system works beautifully, provided that the pieces are placed correctly into the rock. Otherwise, they can rip out, meaning a really big fall onto the next one. If it then rips, there’s a chance you could zipper the whole pitch and hit a ledge or the ground.

At the top of the pitch, about 120 feet off the ground, Pete set a series of pieces in the crack, hooked himself in, and called down: “Off-belay.” Soon the rope was tugging on my harness, so I followed Pete’s lead, trailing a second cord for Jared, who would come up last. As I scaled the pitch with the rope overhead, I removed the devices which Pete had placed in the crack. In this manner we were able to climb the spire without physically altering it in any manner.

“One of the best pitches of my life,” said Pete, as I clasped his hand in a GI Joe grip at the belay. A six-foot roof stuck out directly over our heads. From the bottom we could see clearly that this overhang would likely be the crux of the entire route. I was intimidated, for sure, but that only made me that much more psyched. I learned a long time ago that climbing is all about trying to make your life as difficult as possible.

The first few moves off the belay required splitting my legs between the walls of an open book. As I inched my way out under the roof, my weight was almost entirely supported by my arms, which soon became pumped with lactic acid. It is precisely at this point, when you’re most likely to fall, that you have to stay the most calm and collected. If you let yourself worry too much about the “whipper,” you’ll almost certainly tense up, hence creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that climbers call getting “gripped.” To fight this off, I took a few deep breaths, told myself that the gear below me was solid, then swung my leg onto a small quartz edge. With my right hand locked into the coarse granite crack, I reached out around the lip with my left hand to a slot. When I felt my hand settle deep into the crack, I flexed the muscles in my forearm, creating an absolutely fantastic hold known as a hand jam. From this island of security I placed another piece, as Jared and Pete shouted up encouragement from the belay.

Even though leading was by far the most dangerous and demanding aspect of the ascent, everyone wanted their fair share on the sharp end. It’s an intensely thrilling and demanding experience to be the leader (especially on first ascents), because you never know what kind of obstacle is coming up next. And as everyone knows, uncertainty is the hallmark of any great adventure.

By afternoon most of the 1200-foot wall was below us. The angle had eased from vertical to about 70 degrees, so we climbed simultaneously across the final slabs leading to the summit. Soon we were huddled on a small ledge below a monolithic 100-foot tall pinnacle, which sat like a totem pole on the very tip of the formation. We scrambled all the way around it and discovered that it did not have a single weakness. The only possible way to reach the summit would be to drill a ladder of bolts up the blank granite. Many rock walls have been conquered with the drill, but in this case we all agreed that it would be unjustified. We believed it was better to leave the rock as nature created it than to drill it down to our level just to say that we had stood on the very top.

The storm that had been threatening all day finally unleashed on us as we finished our last rappel back to the ground. After a quick discussion, we decided to bail all the way back to basecamp. We got soaked on the two hour hike down, but this was quickly forgotten as soon as we were warmly ensconced in the communal tent, where we swapped stories and passed around a bottle of scotch with Kasha, Hilaree, Rob and Jiyae.

A monsoon-like rain descended on the Jarjinjabo Valley that night, so we killed time over the next few days sleeping, reading books, writing in journals, and playing endless games of hearts. The scotch became an integral part of our daily routine, so much so that we soon blew through our entire stash. The only backup was a vile Chinese liquor called Duck Weed, which Jiyae, unfortunately, had in plentiful supply.

Four days into the storm, a Tibetan woman showed up in camp. She wore her long black hair in two long braids, and was very pretty with wide set eyes and amber-colored skin. Translating through one of our guides, she explained that she lived on the far side of the valley, about five miles away. She was a nomad who spent her days tending a herd of a dozen or so yaks. Wherever they wandered, she followed, only driving them back to her tent at the end of the day. When our guide told her that we were from the United States of America, she just shook her head. She was twenty years old, but had never heard of our country or met westerners before. When pressed, she told us that she only knew of three other countries besides Tibet and China: India, Nepal and Japan. She had never strayed farther than a few miles outside the valley. Her dream was to one day set off on a pilgrimage to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet and the most holy Buddhist site in the world.

By the time the storm finally broke, even the Duck Weed was gone. While Kasha and Hilaree headed off to explore the valley on the backside of the Jarjinjabo massif, the rest of us headed back up to ABC with a week’s worth of provisions. The next morning we awoke to a pulsating blue sky and immediately set off towards a 2000-foot buttress dropping off the left side of Jarjinjabo’s east face. Alpen-glow lit the wall, revealing its weaknesses and also the fact that every nook, cranny and pocket held small snowpatches left over from the five day storm. With numb hands, we picked our way up the impeccable granite, following a circuitous path that wove between a series of tricky minarets. After 12 hours of continuous climbing, Jared led us over a final overhanging headwall and up onto the 17,200-foot summit.

Unlike Janmo, the top was a plateau several hundred feet across with a small snowfield covering most of it. We scrambled up onto the highest boulder, shook hands, and built a small cairn. Pete recited a Buddhist prayer and placed a pendant containing a photo of the Zhopu Monastery’s Living Buddha inside the cairn. It was humbling to think that we were the first people ever to stand on top of Jarjinjabo, a mountain that had featured prominently in the lives of the local Tibetans for more than one thousand years.

“Check out that no man’s land back there,” said Jared, pointing off the backside, where snow covered peaks and purple misty valleys stretched for as far as we could see. I’m sure we were gazing into areas that had never been visited by any person, Tibetan or otherwise. This realization touched something deep in my soul, filling me with a childhood sense of wonder and curiosity. Here was a place where I could explore and climb for the rest of my life — a place where, in many ways, the Golden Age is just beginning.