Chris Gibisch poked his head out of his tent and saw stars hanging in the dawn light above the snowy Chinese peaks towering over him.
The clear morning meant the sun would rise in a sky free – for a moment – of storms, allowing Gibisch and ice climbing partner Jeff Shapiro to begin an adventure they’d planned for years.
The elite climbers traveled from Missoula to the Sichuan province of western China last October to climb in the big mountains.
They’d scouted their 21,000-foot-tall target – known in China as Ri Wu Qie Feng and to Westerners as Mount Grosvenor – from a base camp at 14,500 feet, waiting for days for the weather to break.
“The thing is in the mountains, like when you go surf, you want to sit at the beach and see what’s going on. For us, it’s really important to take that acclimatization time to not only ready our bodies, to deal with that, but also to listen to the mountains,” Shapiro said. “You have to listen to the conditions, listen to where, what the access is like. It’s super important to be in tune with that. Like anything, if you force it, it’s not going to end right.”
Gibisch and Shapiro were hungry to climb. They’d gone to sleep after hearing conflicting weather reports and agreed a clear morning would be their signal to start up the peak.
“It was kind of intimidating,” Gibisch said. “I poked my head out and said, ‘It’s a beautiful day. OK, here we go.’”
So they began, ice picks clawing into the frozen wall as their giant, crampon-clad boots steadied them from below. They worked their ropes and anchored their ice screws into strategic positions, pulling themselves up farther onto the frozen cascade.
They spent the next three days with their noses pressed against the peak, resting in the dark and roped to narrow chairs of ice. Gibisch and Shapiro would summit the peak, wind-whipped, wasted from exhaustion and desperately thirsty, only to watch a storm sweep in almost faster than they could get down again.
Gibisch and Shapiro met almost a decade ago climbing ice routes in the much tamer peaks of Glacier National Park.
They became fast friends and trusted climbing partners. As they advanced their skills, they dreamed of conquering a big mountain in China.
The first thing they’ll explain about ice climbing is that ice is a devious medium that presents a constant challenge to even the heartiest of thrill-seekers.
The ice changes by the hour – by the minute sometimes.
The picks and ice screws and ropes provide a small safety net. More crucial, they say, is having a solid foundation built on the basics of climbing.
Gibisch and Shapiro are largely self-taught. Both caught the rock climbing bug early in life.
Shapiro’s life has lent itself to adventure. A professional hang gliding pilot, Shapiro’s day job is designing equipment for the largest manufacturer of hang gliders in the world, Wills Wings Inc.
He learned to climb as a kid and has explored most manifestations of the sport. Ice is the trickiest medium he’s climbed so far.
“All the different variables, incoming weather and temperature and the character of the medium, can change from day to day. It adds a lot of thought to the process,” Shapiro said. “(Ice climbing) allows for a lot of creativity, freedom of expression; you can see the lines, you can choose a route.”
Gibisch learned to rock climb in Wisconsin, and in Montana found bigger routes.
“You start to see how many different rope tricks, safety measures there are. We ended up building this solid foundation, where I feel like I can get myself out of any jam,” Gibisch said.
In China, they relied heavily on those foundational skills and the special bond they’ve developed as trusted climbing partners.
“We came from an era, and I think it still exists, (in which) self-reliance is the No. 1 ethic you need to develop as you develop as a climber. Really, you don’t want to put anyone else in a dangerous position if you make a bad decision,” Shapiro said.
Especially when there’s no chance of rescue, let alone contact with the outside world.
After arriving in China last year, Shapiro and Gibisch boarded a bus with a month’s worth of gear, bumping along one of China’s busiest freeways for hours to reach the small mountain town of Laoyuling in the western part of the country.
From Laoyuling, they hiked for three days to reach a base camp at 14,500 feet. They had permits for two peaks that overlooked their camp.
“We had 29 days there to try to get something done,” Shapiro said.
They set up camp, acclimating to the higher altitude and waiting.
Gibisch packed his camera as he does on every trip. His images of the vastness he and Shapiro encountered on their climbs have been widely published.
The camera rode at Gibisch’s waist during the route up Grosvenor.
“The thing I found a while ago is if you don’t have the camera out of your pack you’re not going to use it much. I strap it on the waistbelt of the backpack; it’s strapped over my lower stomach so it’s super easy to pull out and use as much as I can,” Gibisch said.
The peak they watched sits at the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, near the border of Tibet and China. It’s in the first range to receive wind that blows in nearly constant storms. On a nice day, Shapiro said, winds are blowing hard, topping out at 100 mph.
Shapiro and Gibisch don’t fear the sessions of suffering they experience along their routes. They train almost every day to prepare for the physical test.
Then, they let the spiritual side take over. In that way, the sport provides Shapiro and Gibisch a way to push themselves. If they survive and succeed on the route, they say, they will come back as better versions of themselves.
“As long as I’m pushing myself, I get to rediscover myself or learn something new about myself,” Gibisch said.
Somewhere up high on the face of Mount Grosvenor, it was Shapiro’s turn to peek out and check for the stars.
It was the pair’s second night on the mountain. They’d found no place to pitch a tent during the climb. Wasted from the exhaustion of 14-hour climbing sessions in temperatures as low as 30 degrees below zero, they hacked out tiny ledges in the ice – half the width of a regular chair – so they could sit down and wait out the darkness each night.
They used ropes as makeshift seatbelts, snug against their waists and shoulders, to stop them from falling off the icy cliff if they fell asleep. They could only estimate how far they’d gone, how far they had to go and how cold it was.
“It was always a comforting thing to see the stars,” Shapiro said.
That meant a storm wasn’t coming. But it was still frigid.
After they’d made their seats, they’d remove their crampons and somehow climb into their sleeping bags, burying their faces for warmth.
“The wind was so cold you’d freeze your face. The good part was when I’m breathing in the bag, the bag gets wet from respiration. It was so cold, and if you exposed it for a little bit you’d just shake it out and it was dry again,” Shapiro said.
They didn’t sleep that night and still had another day of climbing to reach the peak’s summit. The climb was so intense they’d had no time to stop and eat or drink.
The first night on the face had been much of the same, although they’d managed to get a few hours of sleep, strapped into their tiny ice seats.
The second day of climbing tested both.
“It was definitely the most physically worked I’d ever been; we’d go higher on the face; we thought we would be able to get off the face that day, but it turned out that wasn’t true,” Shapiro said.
It took another day of climbing to reach the plateau. It was flat but not much bigger than an office. The beauty of the vantage point was stunning, they remembered, although their brains were foggy from cold, fatigue and hunger.
“I’ll never forget that last day. It was cold that morning, really cold, and we knew just get to the top and it’ll be flat, but it just took forever,” Gibisch said.
At the top, they boiled snow for water and, for a moment, enjoyed the view few humans have ever taken in. More importantly, they spied a storm coming their way.
“It was just smoking; it was coming and it was coming fast. We didn’t have any idea how we were going to get off this thing,” Shapiro said. “It worked out perfectly because that night we were in a full-on storm; if that would have come the night before we would have been in trouble.”
They dropped off the peak’s east side to escape the storm and began their descent, by far the most dangerous part of the climb.
Shapiro had cold-damaged some of his toes. Gibisch fell asleep once as they both belayed, rappelled and hiked off the peak. Finally, they reached a radio so they could let the base camp know they’d be back for dinner.
“For us, it was sort of that quintessential experience of walking into base camp to hugs and friends. People were psyched, we were psyched. It was like waking up from a really long dream,” Shapiro said.
That was the only peak Gibisch and Shapiro climbed that trip.
The climb helped earn Gibisch a sponsorship from the alpine outdoor clothing and gear company Wild Things.
Wild Things sent Shapiro and Gibisch to France in October to climb routes.
The sponsorship is a nod to their skill and allows them to take more trips to keep conquering the big mountains of the world, testing gear and further testing themselves.
Nothing yet has beat their trip up Mount Grosvenor.
“In China, we had some less than ideal sleeping arrangements. But the reality is, during moments of those nights I remember sitting there in awe, thinking how lucky we were to have gotten there,” Shapiro said. “All the culmination of climbing in Montana, we were able to get to a place where, I can’t speak for Chris, but we will both remember for the rest of our lives.”
The risk is enormous, but the reward of being in a place where birds fly below you is spectacular.
“That’s what’s really neat – where it takes you,” Gibisch said. “This whole world has been mapped out basically, there’s all these small pockets of places no one has ever traveled to before. It seems really unique in this day and age to go to a place where no one else has ever laid a foot.”
Reporter Jenna Cederberg can be reached at 523-5241 or at email@example.com.