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Great Wall of China: An interview with Denis Prokofyev

[Until recently, the Northeast Face of the Great Wall of China (5120m) in the Kokshall-Too massif of Kyrgyzstan had only one ascent. Dutch climbers Bas Visscher, Vincent Perrin and Bas van der Smeede established the line Double Trouble (Alpine Grade TD-, AI4, 800m) in 2013. Previous attempts, such as those by a Scottish team in 2004 and a German team in 2011, had gained considerable ground up the slope, but neither had managed to reach the summit over several days of climbing. On July 23 of this year, the Russian team of Denis Prokofyev, Marina Popova, Vladimir Sysoev and Olesya Babushkina became the second group to stand on the summit.

In the following, Anna Piunova of Mountain.RU interviews expedition leader Prokofyev about their recent ascent.–Ed.]

Tears of the Dragon (Russian Grade 6B, A3 M5, 1150m) marks the second ascent of the Great Wall (5120m) via the northeast face. [Photo] Team archive

“Tears of the Dragon” (Russian Grade 6B, A3 M5, 1150m) marks the second ascent of the Great Wall (5120m) via the northeast face. [Photo] Team archive

Anna Piunova: Why the Great Wall of China?

Denis Prokofyev: The region was new to us, and we had heard a lot about it, but although there is some information about it (thanks to the Moscow team) [Sergey Nilov, Dmitry Golovchenko and Dmitry Grigoryev. For the Moscow team’s first ascent on Kyzyl-Asker, see Golovchenko’s 2015 AAJ report –Ed.], there isn’t a lot about the walls. And there’s practically nothing about that Great Wall. Originally we had thought to climb a new route on Kyzyl-Asker itself, and were looking at a good and difficult buttress not far from the summit. But we tossed that notion aside, after looking in various directions and looking up at the weather…. The wall of Kyzyl-Asker was “overgrown” with ice for two weeks solid, and “our” proposed route was also totally covered in ice and snow. And we could see that it was unstable ice.

Beside it stood the Great Wall, with an approach even closer to our campsite – we actually had to go down a little. The snow and ice on the wall didn’t linger, the summit was usually clear, and the clouds are a bit higher. We went and took a look. In previous years, several expeditions from other countries had tried to climb this wall, but without much success. Only a Dutch expedition in 2013 had reached the summit, climbing the less difficult northeast slope.

Piunova: Choice of route?

Prokofyev: We chose the most logical line, also the safest, incidentally; plus it runs up the center of the wall. The route passes through an overhanging dihedral, which protects it from flying rocks and ice. The wall is steep, with a lot of overhangs. But the terrain, surprisingly, is monolithic. On the third day, we climbed only 90 meters upward because we’d come to smooth walls, but we searched for a logical path, and we ended up having to rappel about 50 meters and begin climbing farther to the right on barely definable terrain. Finally, we found a path through a chimney lined with ice.

Departure onto the route July 20, 2016, at 7:40 a.m.

Summit July 23, 2016 at 15:20

Descent by the line of ascent.

Length of route 1150 meters (of which 100 were on the ridge leading to the summit)

Piunova: Who was on the team?

Prokofyev: [I was] born in 1974, [and am] the most experienced…on the team, a tactician. Master of Sports in alpinism, climb onsight 5.12c, flash 5.13b.

Marina Popova (born 1989) likes big-wall climbing and trad, but also isn’t bothered by aid climbing. Master of Sports in alpinism, climbs onsight 5.11b, flashes 5.12b.

Vladimir Sysoev (born 1984) does not like hammering bolts, but has to do it. Candidate for a Master of Sports, climbs onsight 5.11d, flashes 5.12b.

Olesya Babushkina (born 1989) likes rocks and mountains, so that’s where she goes. Candidate for a Master of Sports, climbs onsight 5.11b, flashes 5.12b.

The team was chosen in the process of climbing at Stolby, while training in Krasnoyarsk, all from the same group of climbers who have known each other for a long time.

Vladimir Sysoev, Olesya Babushkina, Marina Popova, and Denis Prokofyev before their climb. [Photo] Team archive

Vladimir Sysoev, Olesya Babushkina, Marina Popova, and Denis Prokofyev before?their?climb. [Photo]?Team archive

Piunova: The approach. How difficult was it to get to the mountains, how many days, how much gear?

Prokofyev: It’s probably not difficult to get there from China, but from Kyrgyzstan we faced a considerable journey; it took us two and a half days just to get from Bishkek to the base camp. You drive an UAZ off-roader through swamps, and how you fare depends on your driver and the maneuverability of your vehicle. You need to traverse the snow-covered Komarov Glacier and cross over a 4700-meter pass to get to the advanced base camp. Then you arrive in China. It took us 13 hours to go about 18 kilometers. We hiked in snowshoes; the women’s backpacks weighed about 20-22 kilograms, while the guys’ packs were about 30 kilograms. After this approach, we rested another two days.

Piunova: The weather?

Prokofyev: The weather was extremely changeable and unstable, and forecasts did not pan out. The entire time we were under the wall and on it, there were only two good and clear days. Snow starts to fall very fast, and stops just as quickly. During the day, the temperature is obviously above zero, while at night it’s cool, but there are no clearly extreme negative temperatures.

Piunova: What did you call the route? What are its technical characteristics?

Prokofyev: The route was “Tears of the Dragon” (Russian Grade 6B: A3 M5), with a length of 1150 meters and an elevation change of 810 meters per an altimeter. The route was created along the eastern wall of one of the largest walls in China (with a height of 5160 meters), located on the Kokshaal-Too Massif in the Central Tian Shan Range on the border between Kyrgyzstan and China.

As for “Tears of the Dragon,” the dragon is a symbol of China. And “tears” is because ice is constantly falling from above, and water pours down the walls after 3:00 p.m.

Piunova: Climbing style?

Prokofyev: We’ve long since worked out our climbing style, and we haven’t changed it in five years. We always climb without preliminary prep-work, with the lightest-possible amount of gear, according to the route. This time the wall didn’t give us the chance for an extremely light style, as there were practically no ledges on the route. There was one in the lowest of the three pitches from the start, but it was constantly being smashed by rocks and by ice flying down from the roof. That’s why we brought a portaledge on the mountain. We spent four unforgettable nights in it.

On July 20 we approached the route from ABC and started to climb. The approach is nice; you go about 1.5 kilometers on the glacier, descending just a bit.

Equipment: A double set of 14 cams, 20 anchor hooks, 18 slings, a set of stoppers, and 5 eccentric cams. We brought a 10-kilogram portaledge with us.

The leader of the team carried a light backpack weighing about 7 kilograms. Another carried a pack of about 8 kilos and the portaledge. And another carried a duffel bag weighing about 15 kilos. We didn’t bring much water with us, only enough for a day of work, about 3 liters. There were enough snowy micro-ledges along the route. In addition, by lunchtime, water would be flowing down the wall, although by 1:30 p.m. the sun would leave the wall.

The route was monolithic, with lots of overhangs and cornices. In principle, during the day, we could climb the lower part of the wall in climbing shoes, if there wasn’t any wind and the sun was shining. True, you had to really want it. Working in climbing shoes took 2-3 hours. Between moments when it’s a tiny bit warm, and streams of water on the wall, which can easily and very quickly turn to ice. There was already a lot of ice on the upper part, and the temperature had clearly dropped. The entire route could provisionally be divided into four parts:

The lower part up to the dangerous ledge. Characterized by the fact that, theoretically, you could free climb it at 5.11d: 200 meters, 70-8- degrees.

The main part. Characterized by the presence of a large number of diagonal, slanting ledges, cornices, and overhangs (every 30 meters there was a cornice or “bulge”): 600 meters, average of 80-85 degrees.

The third part consists of climbing offwidth cracks full of ice with fairly unstable protection: 150 meters, 80 degrees. At the end of the third day, the climb lead to a section of [blank wall], and we didn’t know if it was going to be possible to get to the summit through the next series of cornices. We were forced to take down one rope and move a bit to the right on that same icy offwidth terrain. Upon examination, the ice in the cracks turned out to be “empty,” containing no tools or screws. We had to climb using temporary protection for a distance of about 15 meters. Farther on, the terrain improved, and it brought us to the roof through a small ice-covered cornice.

The fourth part was the roof itself: ice lightly buried in snow: 150 meters, from 45 to 60 degrees. Farther along was a ridge with snow mushrooms. We reached the summit by evening, and then descended to the portaledge that awaited us five pitches down.

The next day, we descended by the route we’d climbed. A bolt had been placed every 60 meters along the route.