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The Little Sister Dream: Qionglai Range, China

Looking back at the “Necklace of Pearls” on Sichuan’s Little Sister
(6250m) in 2004. [Photo ]Kang Hua

“Why not come along with us?” said Li

Hongxue. He glanced at us from behind his

wide-brimmed glasses, as matter-of-factly as if

he were inviting us on a weekend hike. Before

he strolled into that little gear shop where we

happened to be browsing, he’d never heard of

us, nor we of him. During our brief talk, we’d

frankly told him about our complete lack of

experience in technical mountaineering; this

would be our first, tentative attempt to gain

such experience.

Yet now he was inviting us to come

along–purely on a momentary whim, it

seemed–to climb that mountain, the mere

mention of which would bring “steep,”

“technical” and “challenging” to any Chinese

mountaineer’s mind. What would it be like?

How hard would the climb be? Could we hold

up to it? We had no idea. Anyway, this was too

good a chance to miss.

“We’re in!”

“OK, let’s leave for Little Sister tomorrow


When the sky is clear, four summits can

be seen from the mouth of the Changping

Valley, near the town of Rilong, in the Sichuan

Province of China. The Chinese name

for the peaks, Siguniang Shan, means “Four

Girls Mountains.” (They are called “Kula Shidak”

in Tibetan.) Each one rises above the

other: Big Sister (5025m) is a gentle, rounded

mound; Second Sister (5276m) is a little taller,

beginning to have a pointed tip; Third Sister

(5355m) is an even higher pyramid. But the

orange, triangular granite face of Little Sister

towers above the surrounding mountains at

6250 meters, dwarfing her elder siblings. In

one version of a local myth, which may not

have actually existed in the old tales, the four

girls were the daughters of a great tribal chief

who became a nearby peak to stop the floods

conjured by a sorcerer, Maardola. To avenge

their father and bring peace to the tribe,

the four sisters also turned themselves into

mountains so they could imprison Maardola

beneath them forever.

In July 1981, a Japanese Doshisha University

team attained the first ascent of Little

Sister. They’d spent sixteen days fixing about

2000 meters of rope up the southeast ridge.

Three months later, Americans Jack Tackle,

Jim Kanzler, Jim Donini and Kim Schmitz

made a semi-alpine-style attempt on the steep

northwest face. After a six-day final push, they

retreated from around 5400 meters in cold,

high winds.

Few other teams tried to climb Little Sister

until the turn of the new century, and only

two of them succeeded. A Japanese Hiroshima

Mountaineering Club expedition scaled the

south face-southwest ridge in 1992. Five years

later, the American alpinist Charlie Fowler

soloed the south face to avoid the perilous

“Necklace of Pearls,” a series of hanging cornices

at 5800 meters along the southeast ridge,

before he rejoined the 1981 Japanese route.

At the time when these climbs took place,

Chinese mountaineering still remained much

the same as it had been since the 1960s: the

Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA)

and the provincial mountaineering organizations

dominated the scene. Every year or two,

their leaders arranged major, official expeditions,

caring only about putting people onto

the summit, not about any novelties in styles

or routes. Although the first nonofficial

climbing groups and activities had cropped

up in China in the late 1980s, very few people

participated in them, and those who did

were pretty much cut off from the rest of the

climbing world.

By the early 2000s, however, the rise of

commercial climbing had exposed more Chinese

people to the basics of mountaineering.

The spread of the Internet gave them broader

access to the concepts of modern alpinism

and easier means to share ideas. The Chinese

“free mountaineers society” seemed to spring

suddenly into being. These would-be alpinists

aspired to more than just following some

big official’s orders in a political expedition

or pushing a jumar along ropes fixed by commercial

guides. They wanted to choose their

own mountains, for their own reasons, and to

climb them in their own way. They gaped at

the seemingly impossible ascents that Western

climbers pulled off, and they dreamed of being

able, one day, to do the same.

Meanwhile, a handful of those Western

climbers–most notably Charlie Fowler–

had already begun to explore many of the

prominent peaks lining the Changping and

Shuangqiao valleys. In 2002 two British alpinists,

Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden, climbed

Little Sister through a narrow, ice-filled basalt

dike that carved a shining line on the shadowed

northwest face. The terrain proved so

steep they spent several bivouacs hanging from

streaks of ice, with the tent draped over their

heads. The ascent won them that year’s Piolet

d’Or. Translated into Chinese, their report

appeared in the Chinese Mountaineering Association’s

official magazine Shanye (“Mountains

and Wildernesses”). Yet instead of a literal

translation of the original route name, “Inside

Line,” the translator took the liberty of dubbing

it Menghuan Zhi Lu (“Dream Route”).

Overnight, Little Sister became the very

totem of technical alpinism among Chinese

mountaineers. On our climbing forums, new

threads appeared with titles like “Those who

call themselves heroes for summiting Everest

in a huge expedition with fixed ropes and

supplemental oxygen–how many years will it

be before they’re able to summit Little Sister?”

But no one turns into an expert climber

instantly, especially in a country with little

nonofficial, noncommercial mountaineering

history. In the spring of 2003, Jon Otto, an

American who studied at Peking University,

and his Chinese climbing partner Ma Yihua

co-founded the nonofficial Arete Alpine

Instruction Center (AAIC) in Chengdu,

the first climbing organization in China to

promote openly the spirit of exploration–

that is, to state explicitly that a first ascent

is more valuable than an 1000th. It was

mostly because of their efforts that the terms

“unclimbed peak,” “new route” and “alpine

style” soon became the new trend words for

Chinese mountaineering websites.

After two reconnaissance trips to Little

Sister, Otto and Ma decided to try the 1981

Japanese route with fixed ropes and camps.

Although the style would be old-fashioned,

they hoped to achieve the first Chinese ascent

of the peak, with a team that included five

Chinese members gathered from the elite of a

still-small community. In November 2004, as the northerly gales grew stronger,

Otto and the expedition leader,

Cao Jun, managed to fix ropes

past the Necklace of Pearls–

despite collapsing two of those

“Pearls” by merely stepping on

them. By November 18, after

waiting out a blizzard in base

camp, four of the Chinese climbers

(and two of the Americans)

had stood on the summit.

Yan Dongdong at the 5700-meter bivy on Little
Sister in November 2009. Many versions of the “Four Sisters” myth exist. As tourist
bureaus began promoting the area, some elements of local folklore were altered in the
translation from Tibetan into Chinese. At times, the Chinese phonetic rendering of the
original Tibetan name for a peak may have generated new, Chinese legends. [Photo] Zhou Peng

Their success was, and still

is, recognized as a turning point

in Chinese mountaineering.

Nonetheless, Otto had led most

of the pitches and fixed most of

the ropes. In October 2006, Sun

Bin, a CMA instructor who’d

trained in France, attempted

Little Sister in alpine style from

the south side with two partners.

They turned back before even

reaching the bergschrund below the southeast

ridge, which was, by then, considered the

“normal route” since it was the only one with

repeated ascents. It seemed as if the thought of

an all-Chinese ascent, by any line in any style,

was premature. No Chinese party tried again

for two more years, although the Little Sister

dream still brewed in the hearts of the more

ambitious mountaineers.

In September 2008, Americans Chad Kellogg

and Dylan Johnson completed a new

route via the long, jagged southwest ridge over

eight days, with many crest-straddling traverses,

which they called “happy cowboys” and

much groping along in an almost-continuous

whiteout. It was as if this ascent raised the curtain

on a competition: three Chinese teams

made almost simultaneous attempts from

November to December. After his partner got

injured, Sun Bin failed on an unplanned solo.

Peng Xiaolong, the founder of a commercial mountaineering company, tried to siege

the normal route with six climbers, but they

couldn’t get past the Necklace of Pearls, which

had become even more precarious because of

glacial recession.

Li Hongxue, a former AAIC instructor,

was the leader of the third team. It was

through our chance encounter with him that

my friend Zhou Peng and I got involved in

this “competition,” and the Little Sister dream

became our dream.

[Photo] Peng Xiaolong descends the south face of Little Sister after his March 2011 attempt.
Yong Liu, one of the 2012 Piolet d’Or panelists, explains that earlier local pioneers
“started with very poor gear, and they learned most of their climbing skills on their own….
We realized [after the Internet came] that what we have been doing is called ‘alpine
style’.” Today, they have more access to outside information, but many ascents still go
unrecorded. “‘Sichuan style’ means only climbing, no talking.” Peng Xiaolong collection

Zhou and I had come to Sichuan with no

specific target in mind, other than to try our

luck. We’d both started climbing in college

clubs, had met during the 2008 Olympic Torch

Everest expedition, and had decided that such

large, slow, siege-style expeditions weren’t to

our taste. I’d participated in translating Mark

Twight’s Extreme Alpinism into Chinese, and

the spirit of “light, fast and high” chimed

with our aspirations. Tackling long, complex,

exposed new routes on remote high mountains

with minimal gear and no backup, relying on

competence and determination to cope with

the difficulties, dangers and fear–now this was

what mountaineering should be about!

In May, lying in our tent at the 6500-meter

camp below the North Col of Everest, Zhou

and I talked about pursuing that spirit among

the mountains of Tibet, Xinjiang and Sichuan.

Full of excitement, we decided to form a

“team” of two that we named the “Free Spirits.”

Circumstances prevented us from actually

trying to carry out our pursuit until October,

though this may have been a good thing in

retrospect: if we hadn’t met Li in Chengdu, it

might have taken several more years for us to

muster the courage to attempt something as

intimidating-sounding as Little Sister.

Our membership bolstered the size of the

team to seven (including Li’s former AAIC colleague

Liu Yunfeng, Yunnan enthusiast Wang

Ting, and local Tibetan guides Xu Guihua

and Yuan Yongqiang). There were too many

of us for an alpine-style ascent, and we didn’t

have enough supplies for a siege. Realizing the

attempt would likely be futile, Li decided to

explore the south face to the right of the central

couloir as a reconnaissance. He, Zhou and the

two guides fixed ropes to 5600 meters before

retreating. The others and I never passed the

bergschrund. For Zhou and me, however, it

was our first new route attempt. And for the

first time, we realized that a mountain face

that looks “vertical” from a distance, may turn

out to be just a series of slopes close up. The

summit of Little Sister–even a new line that

led to it–no longer seemed so far away.

After a season of ice climbing, and other,

more successful, attempts at light and fast

mountaineering, Zhou and I returned to the

central south face in February 2009. This time,

at 5950 meters, Zhou was leading a steep,

rotten icefall (the only safe-looking way) when

the uppermost part of the ice caved in. It was

his first lead fall on ice. Fortunately, the 12cm

ice screw held. A chunk of ice, the size of which

I had no chance to determine, almost knocked

me out. Somehow, we were both unhurt. We

beat an as-hasty-as-possible retreat, trying to

stay above the bottom of a wide, shallow couloir

where torrents of dirty meltwater flowed and

small pieces of rock whizzed past. Spring has

come, I realized, Time to go home.

In late autumn, the competition resumed,

this time with four teams: Sun Bin, Luo Biao,

Li Zongli and the Uyghur climber Dilishati;

Peng Xiaolong, who somehow ended up without

a partner; Zheng Zhaohui, a member of

Peng’s 2008 team, now leading an expedition

of his own; and us. Zheng chose a rock couloir

leading to the west ridge for a possible new

route, but he gave up after his partner was

injured by falling rock. Peng hadn’t expected

to climb alone, and he didn’t get very far up

the south face.

Zhou and I were going for our third attempt

on the route to the right of the south face central

couloir. Simultaneously, Sun’s team aimed

for a variation of the 1992 Japanese south facesouthwest

ridge route. For a couple of hours,

we could see each other plainly across rocky

slabs in the central gully, which were washed

greyish by meltwater and avalanches. Both

of our groups began the summit push just in

time for two days of clear and cold weather

with prevailing north winds. Since Sun’s team

crossed the bergschrund a couple of hours

before us, they were a little higher up when

we left each other’s view. But we were much

luckier than they were: although the low temperatures

minimized rock- and icefall hazards

on the south face, the same weather made the

exposed west ridge very cold and miserable. At

6100 meters, Sun and his partners were forced

back, not so much by technical difficulties as

by the shrill winds that threatened to nip off

their numb fingers.

In the end–much more uneventfullythan we’d ever imagined possible, thanks to

the weather, the lessons from our past failures,

and all the planning–Zhou and I reached

the summit late on the second day, just after

the sun sank below the horizon. The view was

dizzying. Looking down on the surrounding

peaks that suddenly seemed so small and far

below, like distant waves, I realized that we’d

almost forgotten their existence. After leaving

the bivouac in the morning, we’d been

entirely immersed in the climb. It was our

first completed new route, and we named it

Free Spirits after our partnership.

We felt sad that we couldn’t thank Li

Hongxue for our eye-opening expedition a

year before. That June, he’d been rappelling

down the nearby Celestial Peak when his single-

piton anchor blew, and he’d fallen several

hundred meters to his death on the crevassestrewn

glacier. His body was never found,

but many–like me–will never forget the

almost childishly serious look that appeared

on his face whenever he was about to propose

some unexpected, daring act.

For us, the ascent was a fresh beginning.

Afterward, Zhou and I found the confidence

and freedom to explore new mountains and

even wholly new areas. For other Chinese

climbers, I’ve hoped it can be a signal to open

their eyes to the wide, wild possibilities that

China still contains: great, beautiful peaks

and ranges that few have ever climbed or seen,

partly because of the remoteness and poor

accessibility, partly because the western borderlands

have been so restricted to foreigners,

leaving immense potential for exploration.

And indeed, day by day, more Chinese

climbers are waking up to these opportunities.

But this expansion of vision doesn’t spell the

end for the Little Sister dream. In November

2011, Sun Bin and Li Zongli renewed their

effort on the left side of the south face. This

time, after three days on the face, they finally

pushed through, linking an uncompleted

2006 French line and the upper southwest

ridge to form a new route they named “Liberation.”

It should be noted that all Chinese

attempts on Little Sister so far have avoided

the steeper, blanker northwest side, where the

British, Russians and French have climbed.

And the entire east face of the mountain,

which has only been attempted once or twice

back in the 1980s and 1990s, has yet to see a

successful ascent.

It’s possible that even if the Chinese

mountaineering community ventures farther

away from Little Sister in the future,

searching for unclimbed lines amid other

great and small ranges, this peak will evolve

from a coveted prize to a historic classic–

similar to the Eigerwand in Switzerland. Of

course, it’s equally possible that the Little Sister

dream will be forgotten, outgrown as all

those new regions absorb everyone’s attention.

When Zhou and I completed the Free Spirits

route, Ma Yihua had commented that he

hadn’t expected such an ascent to take place so

soon. I hope that either one of those futures–

with a wide, mature, diverse and colorful free

mountaineering community, deeply rooted in

China–will come earlier than I expect, too.

–Yan Dongdong, Beijing, China

On November 13, 2011, Sun Bin and Li Zongli finished the route they’d attempted
with Luo Biao and Dilishati in 2009, Liberation (5.9 AI3+ M4 55 degrees, 1120m), to the left of
Zhou Peng and Yan Dongdong’s Free Spirits (VI M4 A3, 1000m). Today, Yong Liu worries
that the economic boom in China may endanger “the spirit of climbing…. We need more
ways to tell the young generation what is true climbing. A real climber should get back
to the mountain.” He notes that unclimbed lines remain on Sichuan’s big walls. [Photo] Zhou Peng