Your First 5000 Meter Peak: Climb Dafeng in Siguniangshan, China
If you’re looking to bag your first 5000 meter peak, I suggest tackling DaFeng in Siguniangshan, China.
For the most part, high-altitude mountain climbing is no joke. It requires a commitment to fitness and to a situation in which many of the variables are out of your control. Though objective danger varies from peak to peak, there is one variable that remains constant, insofar as it is the same across certain mountains – altitude.
Luckily, it’s easy to grade climbs based around this factor and adjust plans accordingly. 4000 meter (13,123 ft) peaks, like Colorado’s 14ers, are great for gauging your body’s reaction to altitude. With proper acclimation at an elevation between 3 and 4000 meters most people won’t develop AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness, which can present as a variety of symptoms) at 14,000 feet (4,267m), though that elevation may still feel uncomfortable.
You’ve got to leave the contiguous United States to encounter the next level of serious altitudinal progression. Though 5000 meter (16,404 ft) peaks can be found in the Alaska range, less serious mountaineers who want to shirk the perils of objective danger can opt into options on other continents.
An achievable, safe 5000 meter peak, and my recommendation for someone’s first, is DaFeng (大峰). This mountain is located in the SiGuNiangShan range (which I’ve written about here) right outside Rilong township in Sichuan, China.
One of the best things about this mountain is the price. Big peaks are expensive. Dafeng is not. You don’t need to spend more than 700 – 1000 USD (assuming you’re in China already) on the whole experience, with train tickets, hotels, meals, and the tour included in that price.
Having had an unpleasant experience in the same location with an all-Chinese speaking tour the year before, I combed English-language tourism sites to find a deal. I ended up using adventuretourchina.com, as they plan custom-tours for single travelers like myself.
Most other operators either wanted me to opt into a group tour or charge me too much for going alone. Adventure Tour China, on the other hand, set the price at 350 USD for an all-inclusive ascent package from Chengdu (it seems the price has increased as of late, but remember that everything is negotiable here).
This price surprised me to the point of making an inquiry into the company’s validity – rest assured, they’re legitimate and helpful. Some meals along the way weren’t included, but everything else was (by the way, I’m not associated with these guys financially, so rest easy knowing this is just a plain ol’ recommendation).
The base for traveling efficiently into Sichuan’s glaciated West is Chengdu. Here you can find a cheap, homey motel or hostel and indulge in local cuisine while you wait for the bus (especially if you’re an aficionado of spicy food like myself).
I opted for a single, air-conditioned room at Mrs. Panda hostel. The food and beer are delicious and cheap, and the people are friendly.
Many travelers will be defunct in Chinese. Worry not; an English speaker will get you as far as the car that you’ll be taking to Rilong.
This is where the patent uncertainty that accompanies many Chinese tours comes in; you might be conducted by a bus, you might be taken in a private car. The system isn’t uniform. After some time, you’ll probably feel that this adds to the authenticity of the experience, as I did.
I got lucky with a private car. The drive is between 2 ½ and 5 hours depending on the weather, traffic, and road conditions. This means you’ll get to Rilong in the afternoon. This allows for a full day and night of acclimation to the township’s 9000-foot elevation. After heralding from the flat-lands of Chengdu, you’ll need it.
Now’s an opportune time to bring up season: Seasonality in Sigunianshan follows a monsoon pattern more closely than a traditional calendar pattern. This means that the summer months are drenched and rainy.
Because of this, you’ll probably want to opt out of definite hot weather and accept an October chill. I would advocate late September – November to be the best months for the climb. Not only will you be rewarded with variegated foliage, but clear skies will abound.
My own climb, being in July, didn’t offer much of a view upon my initial arrival. The van pulled into a veritable pond at the guest house and my guide was in the business of whispering about bad-weather omens. It really was dreary. There wasn’t a snow-capped peak in sight for all the cloud cover.
I’ll divert from the advice to relate a curious anecdote. My guesthouse was roughly 2 kilometers downhill from the nearest store, and they weren’t selling water or snacks.
I didn’t want to walk in the rain so I asked the proprietor about transportation. He pointed to a rather dilapidated bike leaning against the opposite house and gave me tacit permission to use it. I obliged.
After thoroughly soaking my shoes to the socks I crested the hill. Looking behind me, I saw a Tibetan guy, about my age, charging up the hill behind me. He was obviously exhausted. This is not the sort of thing that happens in China without a stimulus, and I seemed to be the only one around.
He stopped in front of me and caught his breath for a moment without speaking. I figured the only reasonable question to ask was whether the bike I’d ridden up the hill was his.
“Yes”. He replied in Chinese. Had I not been a foreigner he would have swung on me, I’m quite sure. I assumed the most placating tone I could muster and explained how the owner of the guesthouse opposite had given me tacit permission. Apparently, this guy hadn’t heard about it.
He demanded to know the name of the guesthouse where I was staying (or of the proprietor, I don’t know which really). I said I didn’t know. He got closer, demanding the same information. I told him I simply didn’t know.
His face lit up and he asked if it was the place next to his own house. Yes, indeed, said I. After some flash of recognition came over his features he refused to take the bike back and let me finish the journey. It was all quite strange and I never really questioned the hotel owner about it.
Anywho, you’ll do well to stock up on calories prior to the trip. Eat a hearty breakfast, lunch, and dinner two days prior. The morning of the hike you’ll be eating Chinese-style breakfast, which is basically a buffet with rice as your staple. Splurge on it. If you want to go hard you’ll need to eat like a boar.
The difficulty in this trip, I’d say, is that it’s scrunched into a narrow time frame. That means you’ll go from 9000 ft to 14,200 ft. After 12 hours rest, you’ll be waking up to summit and working towards 16,500 ft.
If that sounds like minimal acclimation time, it is. It’s here that your fitness will pay dividends, assuming you’ve accumulated some cardiovascular base before the trip.
The trail to base camp follows the ridge bisecting the town from the highway, so you get to see where you’ve been and where you’re going. Following this until foothills edge into tundra, you’ll crest at base camp after 8 or 10 miles of hiking.
There’s a guesthouse to have lunch at the halfway point, just before it gets steep enough to become a strain.
What can you expect if you’ve ignored my advice and trudged up in the rainy season? Gobs of mud. And mist. Lots of mist obscuring the peaks you came to take in the view of.
It rained, medium to hard, the whole of my first day on the trail. Keeping my boots dry while following the path (which is replete with as many horses as people) was the most difficult part of the ascent.
Jumping from grass and flower mounds to brine-submerged rocks proved to be the only way of avoiding the suck-mud. You’ll need to be flexible enough to do the splits along either side of the trail.
In all seriousness, the weather didn’t deter many people, except maybe spiritually. The guides never mentioned it. Once at base camp, it was agreed that we’d push for the summit so long as it wasn’t raining quite as hard at 3 AM. With moisture heavy in the air it looked grim.
DaFeng basecamp allows two options; sleep in a cot, with your sleeping bag atop insulation that’s covering wooden planks, or pitch a tent. The cots are 100 Chinese RMB, or 17 dollars. You’ll have no choice if the tundra is marshland.
Unless you’re a champion sleeper, plan to clock some snoozing hours the night beforethe base camp hike. The altitude at base camp, combined with the less than ideal conditions, mean a fitful night at best and a sleepless one at worse. You’re moving up high, quickly. The body doesn’t like that.
Here’s a reminder in case you’d forgotten. EAT. I’m thoroughly convinced that the way stave off many of mountaineering’s perils is to gorge yourself. Frequently. You WILL burn it off. A normal alpine day torches roughly 5000 calories, so consider this trip an extended cheat day if you’re wonky about dieting.
I must have packed in at least 6000 calories (rice, bread, yak meat, snickers..), and thanks to the training I’d been doing my body was not rejecting the food even at altitude (though I admit serious high-altitude climbs, as in those over 6000 meters, demand differentiated dietary sacrifices).
Though a mild headache persisted for 2 hours while I attempted to sleep, 3 AM saw me fully prepared in body and mind to ascend.
The same can’t be said for everybody. At least two Chinese climbers were stricken with headaches and various stages of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), and two of them vomited throughout the night.
Altitude sickness is nothing to roll the dice with, unless you’re kosher with your brain swelling in your head or your lungs filling up with mucus. The only cure is descent. Know the signs and prepare accordingly.
The summit is not terribly far from base camp. The route is mostly just steep. Upon waking our group caught the inkling of stars above – the mist had cleared.
When the sun broke over the lowest band of horizon my guide assured me that this was the best weather he’d seen in days. We’d just crested over the initial ridge that separates the Siguniang massif from the town and valley below.
The view was made all the more spectacular by the fact that these were the first mountains I’d seen during the trip. Yao Mei Feng, imposing, glaciated, broke out among the fog with its snow flutings and spindrift afire in the morning sun.
The summit push from the ridge is rather steep, but manageable and not far. I felt good, and the altitude wasn’t a bother after a night at 14,200 feet. The summit is adorned with prayer flags and various hiking accouterments.