Frozen China and the 4000 metre winter solo

February 2016

From the humid jungles of northern Laos to the frozen peaks of southern China, and one of the most challenging mountain days I've ever faced.


I'm in an old town named Dali, Yunnan province, which lies on a small plateau between Erhai Lake and the Chanshan Mountains. Naturally, the latter is the reason I'm here.


The mountain range forms an imposing backdrop for the town, rising steeply through pine forests towards the snow and cloud covered summits above. Four days ago I made... a first attempt to reach Zhanghe Peak (4100m), the highest point among the Chanshan. I was, though, the maker of my own fate.


It was 10am by the time I found the trailhead at 1900m - far too late for an ambitious one-day undertaking. By 2.30pm, at 3300m, and with untouched knee-deep snow slowing my progress, I realised I wasn't going to summit much before nightfall. I turned back, but Zhanghe Peak remained on my mind.


It was clear that nobody had walked the narrow trail for several weeks at least, and I had nothing but a dotted line on a gps map to guide me. I rested for a day, stocked up on food and water, adjusted my kit, and had everything ready for an early start yesterday.

This time I was on the trail by 7 - stiff-legged, but full of energy - an hour before sunrise. At 3300m, the air started to thin. At 3500m, the powder snow was over a metre deep and the gradient was suddenly steepening. With every step, my leg sunk down to mid-thigh and slipped downhill. Not my ice axe or my waking poles could help me gain much traction. I spread my bodyweight as much as possible and crawled and climbed and slipped and sunk, as though I was in bad dream where you want to run but are being drawn ever backwards.


It was now around -10'C and the effects of altitude were tangible.


After a sapping 8 hour ascent, with Zhonghe Peak in the near distance, I hit the crux of the climb. Getting to the peak meant traversing 30 metres across a perilously steep slab of snow which had a 100 metre run off below. The sun was beating against the slab, and I knew that the snowpack was incredibly weak. I made an almost immediate decision that traversing the slab alone in these deserted mountains was simply too risky. If the slab slipped with me on it, it would be pretty bad news.


There was though one more opportunity to hit a summit. At ~4010m, Zhonghe's sister peak was just a 30 minute climb above me.

I scrambled out of the sparse forest to see pristine snowcapped mountains all around. I rested for while after my 2100m ascent, and enjoyed three of China's rarest commodities: solitude, silence and oxygen. They were worth every step.


A long descent into nightfall, skidding (or tumbling) through the snow completed my 13 hour hike.



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© Oliver France