From May 11 to 20 2013, our thirteen-man team of five surveyors and eight guides climbed over the Jiuding Mountains that traverse Mao county and Mianzhu county. On our ten-day journey, one of the passes wo went through was 4342m in elevation. It was truly a perilous and treacherous expedition.

Marshy Grassland and Snow-covered Mountains

On the first day, we set off from Zongqu village(elevation 1650m) to the township of Fengyi in Mao county. We set out along a path used by local villages to graze their yaks. It was steep and posed great challenges for hikers. While all of us were experienced mountain climbers, the 12.5kg loads we carried in our backpacks drained our energy and strength. At 4:00pm we arrived at our first campsite, a place called Caimi-niuchang(elevation 3400m). Throughout the night, the freezing wind bellowed and woke us regularly with its discordant performance on its stage that was our camping tents.

Owing to steep gradients and fatigue, I stopped to catch my breath every 100m while hiking on the grassy slopes the following day. Three hours’ trudge brought us to our first pass in the mountains, Shixianglu(elevation 4020m). We hoped the slope after the first pass was not as steep. At noon we crammed some food into our hungry stomachs. Shortly after resuming our journey, we found ourselves amid falling snow. Everything was white; so white that we found ourselves wondering if snowflakes were flying or if it was really white smoke swirling around us.

We had to plod three kilometers in waist-deep snow, which was quite demanding on each of us. Previously we had stopped to rest every 100m on the grassy slopes behind us, but now we had to break every 50 or 30m. While walking on the thick snow we frequently sank in up to our thighs burning three to four times the calories we burned on solid ground. With the gain in altitude, we all displayed some typical side affects such as elevated heart rate and bluish lips due to less oxygen. Asa result, each step forward was more challenging than the one before. The higher we went, the sinking in snow was transferred to slipping and sliding as ice steadily accumulated. It was not unusual to take one firm footstep forward and slip two steps back. If your body was off balance, you were most likely to fall back rather than to advance. At last we managed to reach the highest point on our route-the Qiaopi-Liangzi Pass(elevation 4342m) in another three hours. As the proverb says, “There is no peak that is higher than the knee pits,” which means that man can scale any mountain, however high it is.  Standing here, we had a good view of terrain we had just orossed and a swelling of pride and accomplishment in our chests.

Though we put on sunglasses the minute we were on the snow to shield our eyes from getting hurt, the intense ultraviolet rays radiating from the snow burned our skin.  In the days that followed, we experienced the “thrill” of facial skin renewal.

Four People Share a Double Tent

The following day, we descended 300m to a camping site called E’rigou (elevation 4,020m) where the ground was also covered with snow. After some simple preparation, a double tent was erected on what was a mixture of snow, water, and ice. That night, nine team members crammed themselves into a 10m2 bullpen while the other three and I slept in the double tent. Compared with my tent mates, I was on the smaller side, but I have never been called little. Since the narrow space within the tent at such high altitude provided insufficient oxygen for us, we all felt a pressure binding around our chests. One team member awoke to a feeling of suffocation in his chest at midnight.  For safety’s sake, we kept our tent open for the remainder of the night. On the snow at such high altitude and the choice between warmth and oxygen, we opted for the latter.

The “Crawling Cliffs”

Due to poor sleep the previous night, Wang Jifu and I had headaches and felt pain all over when we awoke on day three of our journey. The others were no better than us. At the thought of the many peaks we must scale before reaching our next campsite, I said to my teammate Zhang Tao, “My heart is cold all the way through”.

When we reached the first peak, I looked into the distance and saw only cliffs and crags in view. This explained why this portion of the trail was named “crawling cliffs” or “cliff zigzag” by the local people. Were it not for the trail cut into the cliffs by herb collector, this peak would have been our farthest destination in these mountains.

We eventually conquered these forbidding “crawling cliffs”. Our guides reassured us that no accident had ever occurred on this portion of path, which served as a good reminder for the saying that “the most dangerous place is also title safest” and those I who take the risky road concentrate much harder.

Rain Seems to Invite Us to Stay Longer

In the first three days of our travels, the sun shone brightly over Jiuding Mountains (part of the Daxue Mountain range). After the fourth day, the weather alternated between fog, rain, and snow adding immense difficulty for research along our predetermined transect lines. In the mornings, we would leave in warm clothes but return soaked through. On the eighth day as we prepared to bid farewell to these mountains, snow began to fall quite heavily seemingly demanding that we stay in place longer. We had no choice but to pack up to leave as our food supplies were getting low. As we descended, a small bullpen at Shaojitang served as a combined kitchen and sleeping area for the entire thirteen-man team. Heavy smoke emitted from our cooking fires and occasionally forced us outside the bullpen. We looked like woodland creatures escaping from a devastating forest fire as we scurried out.

For all of us despite the difficulty, the ten-day journey to Jiuding Mountains was a precious and unforgettable experience for each one of us. We all learned a great deal and survived the great test of our personal stamina and willpower.