To the Wall

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Reaching the Untouched Wall:
The Kok Shal Tau Climbing Expedition
Summer 2000


To the Wall
Mike Libecki
Belay On: Jed Workman takes his seat in the team's portaledge as brother Doug prepares to climb

Storming. By early evening the snow and wind interrupted conversations once again, turning the talk to weather and cold instead of climbing. We ponder shuttling loads in the storm and sip more hot tea.

We sit in our floorless, one-poled cook tent, listening to the snow play our shelter like a rock-and-roll and discussing our climbing plans for the next few days. Everyone has different ideas and it's getting late. We decide to sleep on it and discuss the matter over breakfast: hot tea and sugar, probably soup or MSR oats, and most likely snowfall humming in the background.


Garlic and onion soup for breakfast—super tasty. Several Luna bars for breakfast-dessert, which we seem to have everyday; actually, we seem to have desserts on desserts with every meal and snack. We are all into the Clif and Luna Bars—especially the chocolate almond fudge and s'mores flavors. Good thing we have hundreds and hundreds of them.

Discussion of our plans for the next few days begins. Jerry is pretty satisfied on the alpine-suffer climb we just did and would like to spend the remaining days deep in photography mode. I am psyched for him—he did mention this is what his main passion would be on this expedition. So he will concentrate on photographing us on whatever we climb. Jed's idea is to go across the valley from our camp to climb another one of the towers. As we have learned, the towers are deceiving, and deciphering a route is incredibly challenging. They are attractive, though. Doug just wants to climb on rock, snow or ice. He doesn't have a specific objective; just that we are getting something done in the little time we have left here.

I have my own thoughts. On the way in, on the opposite side of the valley from the towers, I scoped out some of the most amazing granite walls I've ever seen. They look to be about 1500 to 2000 feet of vertical, virgin, walls. Clean gray, gold, red, solid, steep overhanging walls of climbing pleasure. Hundreds of route possibilities. Standing underneath them, I'm reminded of Half Dome. Looking at them from a distance, you can see the walls' upper parts, over a thousand feet up, slant into alpine and ice climbing. I want to climb them, to get exposed, and do some hard steep rock routes, whether it be free- or aid climbing.

Since we will probably not be back here for a long time, if ever, we decide that we should all have a chance to do what we want. There are variables though, weather and time among them.

Jed and Doug seem determined to go and climb one of the towers across the valley. It looks like low angle rock climbing, alpine style situations, and a lot of fun. The only thing is that climbing in bad weather on this tower would be a definite shut down, and we have come to expect at least 50 percent bad weather. We have only days left. This gives them one chance to make it to the top of the tower. Best of luck to them.

Jerry stands firm on his photo goals and decides to photo any and everything he wants.

Me? Well, the delectable, world-class vertical walls are just too tempting. Since Jed and Doug will only need a small rack of gear, I am going to take the rest and go solo a route on one of these treasures of a wall. I'm into it, and have great deal of experience solo climbing. We are all psyched to be able to cover so much with one team.

Discussion is interrupted by rock and ice falling in the distance. The glacier's stomach rumbles and we hear the ice crack beneath us—a familiar occurrence. Snow, wind, and sore muscles pull us into chess and a quick-to-come night sky. Not much you can do on these days, except to pick your best suffering method.


Mike Libecki
Move Over Santa: Doug Workman leading the first pitch up the "chimney" route

Up early, around 7:00 A.M. The skies are cold and clear. About 25 degrees Fahrenheit—comfortably cold.

I am psyched to prepare for my solo climb. The stove brings warmth, and another cup of tea not only stalls time, but adds more hydration. Jerry draws in his journal next to me in our kitchen. Rocks formed into lounge chairs and a table give the setting a home-like feel. He draws the peaks in the distance, creating what looks like an old black and white photo of the American west.

Doug and Jed join in for morning feeding. They have decided that they don't want to climb towers. Instead, they will join me and climb the sweet steeps. They say the time and weather are too much of an issue, and they want all of us to climb together. I'm into it—not only is solo climbing taxing on the body's energy, but I really enjoy sharing the experience, seeing and learning from their point of view.

We unite in our plans for the day. Move camp to the walls, get all the necessary gear shuttled to the base, hydrate, hydrate some more, take several rolls of photos each, and smile and laugh. Snow sputters like an old train engine, blue sky waves in and out—a good weather day for us. I'm glad we've decided to stick together. The walls we will attempt can be climbed in any type of weather; they are so steep, it would be hard for them, or us, to get very wet. They are also north facing, and, at about 13,500 feet of elevation, if it snows (a given) you can climb. We are ready for more cold indulging. I step out of the cook tent and start packing.

At the end of the day all of our gear and camp are at the base of the walls. It is incredibly hard to tell how big the walls are simply by looking at them. There is not one tree or bush in sight to add perspective. Truthfully, we have not seen a tree or bush—or any plant life besides algae in the water—for weeks. This whole valley has a kind of a deserted, prehistoric feel, like something out of the Land of the Lost.


Mike Libecki
Mike Libecki peers down at the second pitch, his companions, and the team's entire rack of pins

Cold last night; clear skies this morning. The clouds should be here soon, as usual. When we went bed it was snowing (a few inches fell). We wake up to clear skies and white ground—a pretty normal day.

We rocheambeaux for who will lead the first pitch. Doug goes first, then me, then Jed. We are climbing one of the routes that I eyed on the way into this valley. Looks like about a 200-foot perfect vertical chimney, about three to five feet wide. The chimney is in an amazing feature that has separated from the wall; it looks like the tip of a thousand-foot Excaliber sword thrust out of the ground next to the wall. After the chimney it's hard to say—could be hard aid climbing, or hard free climbing. Either way it looks steep, thin, and looks to go to the top.

Doug leads the chimney without a problem for about 150 feet, and then starts into the thin crack with several lost arrows, knife blades, and cams. Almost a full 200-foot pitch. No snowfall today, just heavy wind and dark clouds.

I clean the pitch trying to jumar in the small chimney with my headlamp on. Full on tunnel vision. One of the most radical and wild features I have climbed—an incredible experience, marred unfortunately by a freak injury. While yanking a piton out of the crack, my shoulder popped out of its socket in a split second—the first time this has happened to me. Looks like a diet of ibuprofen for me the next few days.

Speaking of injuries, Doug has had some serious pain going on lately. His knee is acting up—some sort of tendonitis. It's painful to watch him limp around with a ski pole for a cane.

Doug and I come down from the day's duties, or as we like to say, the day's dragon slaying. It's About 11:00 P.M. and Jerry and Jed are asleep. They left dinner for us, and all we have to do is heat it up. We down the chili, and cook some more. A few Luna bars later and we are in dreamland.

We awake to the most ferocious wind we have encountered since we have been in China. Our tents struggle for posture. We hear the cook tent yelling—sounds from its cries like it will blow away any minute. We get up to check it out.

Crystal stars, black night, and howling wind. Water bottles left out run from us as we scurry to catch them. The cook tent is okay. Back into our warm cocoons. Inside again, it sounds like it is snowing, but it is just spindrift from afar—snow on the ground and mountains being blown at us. It sounds like rebel kids knocking on our door on Halloween, again and again, gimme gimme gimme...


Crack! "RRRRRRRRRIIIIIIIIIICKKKKKKKKK!" I jump from my dream of being in a snow cave. The glacier just shifted below me, and BIG, not only could I hear it, but I could feel it move. Pretty normal occurrence around here, though this is the first time it's happened right below me.

We are camped next to the walls on a glacier that is frozen in the shade and running several streams after it gets its few hours of daily sun. A few cups of hot tea, some hot and sour Chinese soup for breakfast, and Jed and I are off to climb.

We jumar the fixed line on the first pitch, set up the portaledge for belay comforts, and I start off for the intimidating pitch—over vertical and straight up. I can't see more than a hundred feet of rock the first section is so steep. My rack includes gear all smaller than a 1/4 inch, besides a few nuts just in case. I have all of the blades, arrows, beaks/peckers, heads, hooks, and other interesting artillery. I cannot ever see a crack up there, but there is a corner, it has got to go. I hope I won't need the bolt kit.

Six hours later and not a cloud has come into the sky. Just after 4:00 P.M. the sun greets me-but only for an hour or so, then darkness comes. I could see Jed belaying below as he reads his novel, eats hot soup, and drains water bottles. I have not had any water or food since I started leading. I finally look at my rack of gear on my sling, hoping I might have another rurp or beak, only to realize that I don't have one piton left. I am about 170 feet out from the anchor below and I have used every piece of protection we brought (we did bring a light rack, but not that light). I call for the bolt kit and make an anchor. Night comes quick. It takes Jed a lot of sweat and a couple hours to clean the pitch—the entire pitch was nailing. The rock was rotten and only took about seven heads. The rest was iron: time consuming and tiring—but fun. The nicest part of the pitch was the 12 beaks in a row followed by two rurps and a few heads. Spicy pitch! Thin, a little scary, and gives a great appetite. The only real bummer was pummeling Jed below with small rocks all day. The corner I was in was rotten for some time.

Like the night before we get down to cold dinner waiting and all asleep. We eat several bowls of food and dive into bed. My shoulder hurts so bad I can barely sleep. We had the best day of weather today since arriving in China.


6:00 P.M. Jed and Doug are up climbing as I type. Through the binoculars, it looks like more thin, hard, time-consuming aid climbing. The snow, wind, and clouds have returned with a vengeance. I can see those two up on the wall suffering in their Gore-Tex. I have been trying to get a satellite break all day to send this dispatch. Typically, the wonderful weather was yesterday, when I was on lead.

Our stoves have been struggling to cook for us. They try to spew out the dirty unleaded fuel we acquired back in Urumqi. We now have to clean them out almost everyday. At least it is close to the end of the trip, and for the most part the stoves did great, but this damned fuel is catching up with us.

My day? Mostly typing, shooting Jed and Doug on the wall with my 300 mm lens (six rolls now?), eating a lot of oatmeal and drinking a lot of tea. Oh yeah, I even took a baby wipe bath. We brought about 300-plus baby wipes for cleansing ourselves. I took a full on bath with them today—boy did I need it. I definitely don't take showers for granted. After weeks without a shower, no one would. My hair is so greasy we could use the grease to lube up our rusty cams, or lube up the pumps on our stoves. No need of styling gel out here!

I can hear Jed nailing pitons, the water rushing through the glacier runnels, and the punching of the keyboard as I type. Clouds sift snowflakes all around. Time for more tea

Looks like we should be home soon. It is going to take us a little longer to shuttle our loads out of here with Doug's bad knee—he will at least be able to carry his camera. More exciting climbing to come in the next couple days, then we are outta here. Update coming soon.

-Mike Libecki

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