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Spitzer Team Goes Big in China

Posted on: October 2nd, 2009 by admin

The north face of Xuelian West, with the American-Scottish route marked. Courtesy of Jed Brown.

The north face of the major buttress on Xuelian's west ridge, with the American-Scottish route marked. Courtesy of Jed Brown.

Day Two on the north face of Xuelian's west ridge, no good bivy in sight. Courtesy of Jed Brown.

Day Two on the north face of Xuelian's west ridge, no good bivy in sight. Courtesy of Jed Brown.

A small American-Scottish expedition backed by a Lyman Spitzer Cutting-Edge Award from the AAC has made significant climbs on the Chinese side of the Tien Shan. Americans Kyle Dempster and Jared Vilhauer, sponsored by the 2009 Spitzer grant, along with American Jed Brown and Scotsman Bruce Normand, scored several new lines in the Xuelian massif, including a superb and difficult one on a 6,422-meter western satellite of Xuelian Feng.

Xuelian Feng (6,627m) is a massive, marble peak whose extended north, northeast, east, and west ridges all feature a number of tops. A Japanese expedition, approaching from the south, made the first ascent in 1990. Normand and other partners explored the north side of the massif in the summer of 2008, after which Normand and Paul Knott wrote a feature article for the 2009 American Alpine Journal describing the climbing potential in the Chinese Tien Shan. This summer’s expedition turned a little of that potential into reality.

As part of their acclimatization, Brown and Normand climbed the west ridge of Xuelian’s untouched northern satellite (6,472m) to investigate the short but steep north ridge of the main summit. The two then launched a one-day push on the very long east ridge of Xuelian, while Dempster and Vilhauer climbed the east side of the north face. Coincidentally, both pairs reached the upper slopes at the same time and teamed up for the 800-meter slog through deep, rotten snow to a high point at ca. 6,400m, arriving just as marginal weather deteriorated into a white-out. During the descent, all four men crammed into Dempster and Vilhauer’s tiny two-man bivy tent, thus avoiding an open bivouac for Brown and Normand.

“I’m pretty sure I would have been able to keep everything warm that night in an extremely unpleasant open bivy, but Bruce has had frostbite before and likely would have damaged some more toes,” Brown said. “On the flip side, Kyle and Jared probably wouldn’t have been able to finish their route that day if they were breaking all the trail, so our encounter was definitely fortuitous.”

As Normand and Brown returned to base camp, Dempster and Vilhauer remained on the upper Muzart Glacier to climb a moderate ice line on the north face of a subpeak of Yanamax that they called Y2.

With the team all back in base camp and five days left to climb, Brown, Dempster, and Normand prepared to attempt the huge north face of Xuelian’s west ridge while Vilhauer rested a frost-nipped toe. The trio discovered that the tent they had pitched at the base of the north face had been destroyed by high winds, but they salvaged enough gear to begin the climb the following day. They climbed the face over four days, finding excellent ice in the lower half but challenging and slabby mixed climbing above, along with heavy spindrift, minimal bivy sites, and a severe thunderstorm. After tagging the top of the formation, they descended along the west ridge. The 2,650-meter line, the Great White Jade Heist, went at M6 WI5 5.7 R.

Lyman Spitzer Cutting-Edge Awards are granted to American climbers attempting significant ascents throughout the world. Learn more or download an application here. This expedition also was supported by BMC and Mt. Everest Foundation grants.