Qionglai Mountains, China. After several weeks of effort spread out between bouts of rainfall, Szu-ting Yi and her husband Dave Anderson completed their new route on the South Face of Eagle Peak East (5300m), calling it Secret Moon Cake (5.10 R, 760m). The route was established ground up, and without the use of bolts. Read the NewsWire from October 13, 2015. Below is a feature story by Szu-ting Yi in Alpinist 53-Spring 2016. This issue is currently available on newsstands.
SEPTEMBER 20, 2015: In a state between waking and dreaming, I sensed movement in the tent; then the hiss of the lit stove. I pulled my sleeping bag to my forehead. All too soon, my husband, Dave Anderson, passed me a bowl of oatmeal, and I had to sit up. The motion triggered the rolling of water drops down the tent wall. They quickly gained speed, merging into cascades and shooting to the ground.
Outside the tent, mist blocked the starlight and hid the path to Eagle Peak East, the rightmost of the three summits of the Eagle Rock Group in the Qionglai Mountains of China. For nine days, Dave and I had camped a few hundred feet from a crystal lake near the base of the peak. We hoped to establish a new line, if only the skies would clear. Morning fog had hidden the summits ever since we arrived in Rilong, the small town near the base of the range, several weeks before. After dawn, I would look through the dew-tinted window of our hotel room to see only a dull layer of green on the foothills–no hints of sun. Nonetheless, the town woke: men in dark cotton-padded jackets led horses up the street; women sat on bamboo woven stools and spun yak wool; our hotel owner, Xiao Zhang, ran into the street in her stylish pumps and waved down a vegetable truck to replenish her kitchen.
I’d known Xiao Zhang ever since my first visit here in 2010. For breakfast, she always placed congee, stir-fry greens, hard-boiled eggs and yak-milk pancakes on the dining room table.
“Can you go in the park now, Szu-ting?” she would ask in her soft voice. “I still have to make a few phone calls,” I would say. As Dave and I struggled to get our climbing permits, I was never sure whether or not I’d talked with the right people.
Later each day, the sun might peer out or not. Whenever Xiao Zhang saw it, she spread out buckets of “ocean ears”–edible fungi she’d gathered from pools at high elevations– on top of a wooden platform to dry. “Sun has been rare,” she told us. “I was so worried that these might go bad.” I too enjoyed the warmth, but I felt anxious that all the good weather might slip past. After six days of afternoon sun, Xiao Zhang packed the ocean ears in vacuum sealed bags and put them on sale. Our permits were finally granted. Dave and I hastily made arrangements. The next morning, we met three porters at the trailhead. In a steady drizzle, the lead porter, Lao Deng, lifted a duffel to test its weight. “You are the first people going up to Bai Haizi Lake this season,” he said. Before he finished his words, he had turned two pieces of webbing into a carrying system and secured the load on his back, and so had the other porters, his next-door neighbors. Dave and I put on our packs and quietly followed them into the woods.
The sound of rain grew louder on the dense canopy of leaves. During rests, the porters chatted away with laughter and cigarettes. Occasionally, I pitched in my opinions when I overheard discussions of previous expeditions. “Your Mandarin is really good!” Lao Deng said. “Of course, I was born and raised in Taiwan,” I replied.
“Can he understand what we are saying?”
he said. He motioned at Dave. Dave pointed at himself and said, “Mei Guo,” which means “America” in Mandarin. This had been Dave’s standard response since he arrived in China because people always asked where he was from.
“Well, no,” I said with a big smile.
“Here, you can put this in your soup,” another porter offered me a mushroom he’d just picked. It was as big as my palm. Under a tilted deep green worker’s hat, his smile wrinkled his tanned face.
Words faded above tree line. The rain turned to snow as we bushwhacked through knee-high thorny bushes and tripped on hidden boulders. When the vegetation changed to grass and moss, the porters charged ahead to the talus field, enlarging the distance between us. Soon I could no longer see them through the thick flakes. I relied on instinct to find the way. At the lake, the porters emerged from the blizzard. “The snow is getting heavier,” one of them shouted at me.
“The forecast said tomorrow would be a good day,” I murmured. They disappeared once more. The snow had started to accumulate, and the mountains were nowhere to be seen.
CLIMBING IN CHINA not only pushes me physically, but also challenges my mind and my self-identification. In 1949 the former leader of the country, Chiang Kai-shek, retreated to Taiwan after his defeat by the Communist army. He set up a new government on the island and imposed martial law to “suppress Communist and Taiwan Independence activities”–an order that wasn’t lifted until 1987. I was born there in September 1975, only a few months after Chiang Kai-shek’s death. When I was a young girl, my teachers told us to study Chinese geography because Taiwan’s mission was “to recover the lost land of mainland China and save the suffering Chinese compatriots.”
By adolescence, I’d begun to question the practicability of the mission. Yet I remained curious about the landscapes of mainland China. Outside my school, emerald bamboo fields shimmered below hills of rolling evergreens. When a breeze broke the humidity, I felt content just staring through the window and daydreaming: What would it be like to ride a horse into the center of the steppe north of the Great Wall after a blizzard eliminated all the colors? Why would caravan merchants be afraid to enter the desert of northwestern China? Life in Taiwan was pleasant, but where could I get lost on this small island?
Each time my older brother returned from a backcountry trip with his alpine club, he brought back fascinating stories–hacking through thick slivergrass and spiky arrow bamboos; walking on grassy ridgelines with clouds below his feet. My mom asked me to persuade him to quit such dangerous endeavors. I didn’t dare confess my own desire for adventure, but secretly I pleaded with my brother to continue.
In 1998 I carried my mom’s dream to the States, where I pursued a PhD degree in computer science at the University of Pennsylvania. Long after my mom disappeared behind the airport security gate, her gaze lingered in my mind: the same caring, anxious expression she’d had on the first day of elementary school, when she let go of my hand and told me, “Now you have to walk across this sky bridge on your own. Be brave.”
My mom lamented that my grandfather hadn’t let her pursue her own studies. “I could have supported myself more easily,” she explained to me. “You don’t understand what it was like to always worry about money.” Although I enjoyed the process of problem solving, she reminded me that fun shouldn’t be my motivation for studying. “Can fun feed you like rice?” she asked. I never could answer the question, but soon she was thousands of miles away, and I seized the opportunity to wander. During weekends and school breaks, I hiked hundreds of miles on the Appalachian Trail with new friends. As I camped beside mountain streams, I watched the water brush the mossy rocks, and I thought of waves hitting the shoreline of eastern Taiwan.
One autumn, a friend invited me to climb in the Gunks. No other outdoor activity had demanded such intimacy: this constant sensation of the rock beneath my hands. When I looked out from the cliff, the crimson, yellow and green leaves all seemed to be performing a well-rehearsed hymn. I was even more impressed by the way that cams and nuts got placed, reclaimed and reused; it reminded me of programming languages, which consist of a finite set of rules that can solve an infinite number of problems.
As I read mountaineering books, such as Eric Shipton’s Blank on the Map and Gregory Crouch’s Enduring Patagonia, I felt drawn to the concept of exploring the unknown. My inquisitiveness had always reassured me of my existence. At the university, I relied on a computer to conduct my research; as an alpine climber, I could use my hands and feet directly, encountering the unfamiliar with my entire being.
After graduation, instead of gaining a high-paying, respectable job in my field, I traveled, seeking every opportunity to increase my climbing knowledge. My savings didn’t last long, but I found enough temporary jobs to eat three meals each day. In a NOLS seminar, a guy with a blond ponytail introduced himself as Dave, the lead instructor. A pair of glaring white wraparound sunglasses concealed half of his face–a goofy look that seemed to contradict his nearly thirty years of climbing experience, including an alpine first ascent in western China.
Intrigued by his humility and kindhearted nature, I began spending more time with him. Soon we were dating. In his apartment, he showed me a photo taken by Tamotsu Nakamura–the majestic 700-yearold Lenggu Monastery resting in the center of a narrow valley. Dave traced the mountain skyline until his finger extended far beyond the picture frame. “There’s got to be something here,” he said.
Meanwhile, my mom told me that she felt ashamed when her neighbors asked what her daughter did for work. In family photos as a girl, I always wore an elegant dress my mom tailored, my hair decorated with bowknots and braids. Now, my clothes were patched together with duct tape. In phone calls and handwritten letters, I begged my mom to understand how happy I was; I assured her I never went hungry. Five years later, she declared that she would just pretend she never had me as a daughter.
When I looked at pictures of mountaineering in China, I felt drawn by more than just the details of countless unclimbed granite spires and vertical walls; I remembered nursery rhymes from my lost childhood: “Giant peaks one after another till the end of the sky.”
THE DAY AFTER DAVE and I arrived in base camp, the sun returned, glittering across the lake-fed streams and unburying the grass from the snow. Giant boulders lay scattered across the slope below Eagle Peak East. A shadow poured from its summit, resting in the middle of the south face at the upper rim of a bowl. Almost immediately to its left, another dark stroke shot straight down and split the remaining face neatly in half. Two years ago,Dave and I had spotted this line from the summit of the nearby peak Dayangtianwo. As time passed, its simplicity only made itself more distinct in our memory. We hiked up the talus to the bottom of the south face. A waterfall as wide as my arm span barred the entrance of the first pitch. The dazzling sunlight couldn’t penetrate it enough to reveal its depth. I regretted that I didn’t pack a snorkeling mask. Perhaps I could use the snaking crack to the left to reconnect to the upper cracks? Under my nut tool, moss and soil fell from the narrowing crack until I realized that the top one-third of it was just a dirt-disguised seam. Raindrops fell as I gingerly down climbed and then rappelled off the first trustworthy protection.
Warm temperatures melted snow off the peak, and the waterfall thinned the next day, revealing a gloomy chimney. Its blocky walls still exuded damp, and all the holes and cracks were plastered with debris and vegetation. It reminded me of a dingy fire alley behind my childhood house, which my mom used as storage. She loved repeating the story about the time my brother hesitated going in there, and I told him, “Let me lead the way. I’ll protect you.” She would comment fondly, “You were only five.”
Now, I readjusted the drawstring of my raincoat hood. I tested each hold before I committed to it, until a piece of metal interrupted this rhythm. I cried out, “A piton. Somebody has been here. Oh, another piton.” During our research, we’d found only one recorded ascent–on another face–but we couldn’t track down all the attempts. “Damn it, a bolt.” I clipped to the shining hanger out of reflex, and then I stared at it empty minded. “What did you see?” Dave asked.
“Huh, a bolt and it looked really new,” I replied.
I climbed a little more only to find a bolt anchor next to perfect cracks. This unfinished line was not our project. We retreated into the vanishing light.
AFTER WE ABANDONED our original objective, we plotted a line up the southeast face and fixed a pitch before the storms settled in. For five days, rain fell in progressive forms: drizzling, showering, pouring. Late at night, lightning bolts illuminated the tent like party lights above a disco floor. We covered our ears against deafening thunderclaps. As the temperatures plunged, snowflakes blanketed the tent wall. The whole world fell silent. We pushed at each other until one of us rose to shovel.
[Photo] Dave Anderson
The morning of September 20 finally arrived; the extended forecast predicted it would be a good day. With faith in modern science, we hiked toward Eagle Peak East. Our headlamps revealed just a few feet into the mist, and we struggled to locate familiar features.
When the sun returned, it wasn’t enough to resuscitate this world. The rock face remained pale, waxed by a thin layer of rime. The fixed rope dangled stiff as a zombie. Ice piled on the top of the ascenders, and they occasionally slipped down the cord. Two hundred meters higher, we had our first contact with the light, but by then the whiteness and slickness of the route had possessed me. I was shaking, because of the cold or the fear or both. The mountain was still in the hands of early winter. Even our confidence became frozen, and we bailed.
Near midnight, thunderstorms enveloped us again. Lightning bolts went astray, and so did my mind. I seemed to see my mom twenty feet in front of me at a playground; my butt glued to the ground, a bicycle flat on my side. I stared at her, full of longing. With a gentle but firm voice, she said, “Fall once, try a second time. Fall twice, try a third time. Fall hundreds or even thousands of times until you succeed.”
“What should we do?” I said. My voice competed with the noise of the thunder. Dave didn’t answer.
“Is there a third option?” I asked.
I felt around to locate my cell phone. When the screen lit up, Dave spoke, “What will the weather be like?” He was looking in my direction, but his gaze focused somewhere far beyond me. I knew he had a plan. I read with zest the forecast saved in my phone, “Few showers tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, no precipitation the next day, and that is it; another storm is coming.”
I rolled back and closed my eyes. As Dave described a possible third line, I seemed to see our summit shot just as the lightning bolts flashed on my eyelids.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, Dave and I stood at the base of Eagle Peak East again. This time, sunlight bathed us in warmth. The crack in front of us looked as though it would offer an impeccable sense of security. Above it, another fissure split a steep slab, joining a dihedral that appeared to continue all the way to the summit. Between the two cracks there was a puzzle we’d have to piece together: a small roof and fifteen meters of blank stone.
Standing on tiptoe, Dave arched his back, stretched his right arm, and stabbed at the roof with his nut tool. A cascade of dirt forced me to shut my eyes. I paid out more and more rope. Where was he? My eyes still filled with small dust particles, I squinted and saw a fuzzy image: he was back to his previous stance. The rope hung on some tiny piece of protection, which fell out. Dave placed more small gear, but the rope sagged free again. “This is just not going to go,” he said.
I shouted a few curses.
“Well, at least we didn’t compromise our style and ethics,” Dave said in casual tone as if he were merely a spectator.
“Bullshit, then why did we bring up four ropes and a bolt kit here?” I yelled. I started to wish that I’d learned to bolt.
By now, we’d walked back to the tent so many times that I could follow the path without thinking. I passed the pool where we filled up our water bottles, and then I traversed across the mossy slab and located the hidden grassy trail that led to the lake. The trail was always saturated with water, and the soft cushion of the earth felt good on my sore ankles. Some familiar black round objects caught my eyes–eh, ocean ears. The sun had already started to shrink them, and wait a second, how about the southeast face?
I turned around: our attempted line was now clear of snow and ice. We had one more chance. High above, once more, the summit rose like a razor-edged sword piercing the sky. Its steel grey faces brought me chills: I still longed to stand on top.
[Photo] Dave Anderson
ON SEPTEMBER 23, I was up before the oatmeal was ready. I jugged past the first 200 meters and arrived at the base of the runout fifth pitch where we’d bailed four days ago. This time, only traces of water stripes glimmered. Dave pressed both feet hard on the surface of the steep slab. “The friction feels good,” he declared. He was waltzing on smoothness, changing his choreography between stances. Only the rope attached to sparse gear recorded his course; each arm stretch and foot placement had a purpose– delicate but decisive. Yet his figure looked fragile on the vast rock face. I observed him intently, afraid that any sudden motion might jeopardize him.
After 260 meters, we arrived at a huge ledge. Just one obvious weakness appeared ahead of me as I led on: overlapping chossy flakes and a vegetated crack that gave way to nearly blank rock. But up was never the only direction on a climbing map, so I backed down and aimed right toward the skyline. I brushed my fingertips gently on the rock probing for an edge, a depression, a crystal, any thing. I commanded myself to breathe slowly and gently as if I could listen to the inaudible sounds of gravity. Slowly, the world changed in front of me, one meter at a time.
A full ropelength later, I turned the corner and entered the shaded east face. I prepared myself with a deep inhale and looked up: the last 200 meters consisted of combinations of granite blocks and cracks of various sizes. I let out a relieved sigh. This problem was new but it was one of the infinite numbers of problems I now felt confident to solve. The mountain had opened up to us, and I was glad we’d left it as it was. Back in base camp after we summited, I traced its reflected image in the lake. Not distracted anymore by its solid mass looming above me, I was moved by the silver light of its undulating figure. If I’d placed a bolt, I would not have the chance to comprehend its original state of beauty.
BECAUSE I’D PICKED UP climbing in America; English had been my first language for mountaineering. Royal Robbins and Yvon Chouinard, my first role models. To me, good style meant climbing a line with a minimal amount of gear, while respecting the natural constraints imposed by the rock. My ideal vision of an alpine first ascent is to find the line, not to create one. For a long time, I’d thought this idea had been seeded in my mind in the States. But as I walked back from Eagle Peak East, I realized, this dream could also stem from my wish to coexist in harmony with nature, a value of the culture in which I was brought up. In Chinese philosophy, everything consists of aspects of yin and yang; to strive for a balance is to achieve excellence. As I’ve entered shifting vertical mazes of geological features, natural hazards and weather patterns, I’ve sought that delicate equilibrium that harms neither the environment, nor myself. I’ve remembered the advice my mom passed down to me, “Add a few slices of warm ginger when you stir-fry cold vegetables.”
Dave and I left Bai Haizi Lake two days before the mid-autumn festival. In Rilong, Xiao Zhang was stuck at the hotel looking after a swell of tourists. The children under her supervision were excited to see us, and they led us on a secret path to a stream banked by dense shrubs and weeds. Under fluffy white clouds, nine-year-old Huang Yi hopped back and forth across the current, flipping stones for creek shrimps. His cousin, Zhang Yachi, pinned wild flowers in my hair. Xiao Zhang welcomed our return with freshly baked mooncakes, a pastry with a round shape that resembled the harvest full moon and symbolized family reunion.
When my mom disowned me, I wept because I believed our gap was too huge to reconcile. Yet while I’ve never attained the financial security she’d dreamed for me, I’ve found principles to help define my existence, similar to the ones she’d taught: be honest, real and respectful to the world we live in. Almost thirty years ago, as I dozed off in the humid Taiwanese air, I heard my name broadcast from the school’s reception office. I rushed to the gate to see my mom covered in sweat after biking under the blazing sun. She handed me the lunchbox I’d forgotten at home. “When can I stop worrying about you?” she said.
Feeling the warmth of the mooncake in my hand and the sweetness on the tip of my tongue, I wanted to reassure my mom, “I will always find rice.”
–Szu-ting Yi, from her van, “Magic”