Circumambulating Haba Snow Mountain, part I

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An introduction to the hike

Did tigers ever live in Tiger Leaping Gorge? Indeed yes. And they were man-killers. So said Mr Zhao, who guided me for two days during my walk around Haba Snow Mountain. When he was a young boy, his father took him to springs near the gorge. People passing through stopped for water. So did tigers. On occasion they attacked and killed people. Those days are long gone. The springs dried up. The tigers vanished. Gone extinct in the 1990s according to Mr Zhao.

If tigers roamed the gorge today, would I still go? Yes, but not as a solo trekker as I have done several times. I would join a group and still go in order to see the awesome scenery, jagged ramparts towering 3,000 meters and more above the Jinsha River, making for one of the deepest gorges on earth.

Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, on the south bank of the river, certainly makes a powerful impression. But Haba Snow Mountain on the north bank offers greater fascination, at least for me. Its elusive presence prompted me to come back several times for a closer look. For one thing, the summit and its glaciers remain constantly hidden within the gorge. For another, I sought a wilder, quieter journey away from crowds. And so, I embarked on a circumambulation, a walk around the entire massif.

The ritual of circumambulation goes back to ancient times. For millennia, religious pilgrims have walked circle routes — known as kora in Tibet — around mounts Kailash and Kawagarbo. These are two of the most revered mountains of the Buddhist-Hindu world. So sacred, mountain climbing on the slopes of both is banned forever.

Reading about kora aroused a desire to make a similar circle-trek, but for my own reasons and in my own style. I ruled out Kailash and Kawagarbo, their mountain passes higher than I wished to venture. Furthermore, I could not abide strict regulations heaped on foreigners entering Tibet — the special travel permits and tour group operations. But no restrictions applied to Haba Snow Mountain in Yunnan. My goal? To see different faces of a lofty peak. To encounter wildness and mysteries. To fill in blanks on my personal map of experience.

I would be well rewarded.

The last day of winter

I wake in the middle of the night at our 4,000-meter high campsite. Inside the tent, faint light, starlight. Outside the Milky Way glows. I look out toward distant valleys. I cannot see a single light, not from village or vehicle or street lamp. Something to do with altitude and starlight and darkness arouse that welcome sense of peace. As if nestled within a separate fold of the universe, distant from human habitation and concerns.

But not that far distant. Small villages lie tucked away in valleys deep and remote. Just a few kilometers away the village of Haba (哈巴村) sleeps. It was there, earlier in the day, where I began my trek. A hundred-plus extended families inhabit Haba, their lives dedicated to agriculture and livestock. In the fields, yak and human muscle provide much of the energy for tilling, planting and harvesting.

Another form of livelihood puts food on the table in Haba. Above the village, Haba Snow Mountain rises to a height of 5,396 meters, reaching far above the tree line into the realm of permanent glaciers. The climbing route on the peak is relatively easy as high mountains go. Weather and reduced oxygen provide the main obstacles. For many who make the ascent, this is the first and only time they reach an elevation of 5,000 meters. Every year, several thousand mountaineers attempt the peak.

And they need guides. Roughly two hundred men from Haba Village — none are women — hire themselves out as guides. They are of two types. Mule packers (马夫) lead pack animals to base camp, while high mountain guides (高山向导) lead climbers to the summit. I asked one of the guides why none of them are women. He grunted in response, "Buxing!" — basically, "It's out of the question".

I needed a guide, too. Not to surmount the peak, but to walk around it. I looked for one at Haba Snow Mountain Inn, located at the village center. There I sat down with the owner, his wife, her mother, her brother and someone else whose identity I never discovered. It took a while but I finally got across my personal vision of a kora, my dream of circumambulation. A novel idea apparently. The people in the room had never heard of anyone making a complete trek around the mountain.

Next topic, how to keep a mule fed. Grazing? Again, out of the question. Winter snows covered the high meadows. A second mule would be needed just to carry fodder, seven bags. Negotiating the price came next. Two hours after the conversation began, everything was settled.

Yang Xiangming, my mountain guide
Yang Xiangming, my mountain guide

Yang Xiangming (杨向明), the brother of the wife of the inn owner, would be my high mountain guide. He would accompany me for the first four days from Haba to the town of Qiaotou (桥头). Two mules and a packer named Yang Fuchang (杨付昌) would accompany us. The owner of the inn phoned Mr Zhao, who agreed to provide guide services for the last two days, from Tiger Leaping Gorge to Haba.

Afterwards, I reflected with surprise. Whoa! I actually arranged the trek with folks who spoke little or no English. This after three years of language study in Kunming, helped by daily conversation with my Yunnan-born wife. Many times, frustrated to the limit of sanity, I wanted to give up learning Chinese. But now, here in Haba, a tangible reward for years of hard work. I felt a sense of genuine accomplishment.

Mr Yang, my mountain guide, was the senior member of the Haba guide corps. In 1995 he joined the team that made the first ascent of Haba Snow Mountain. Since then he had guided thousands up the peak. I felt fortunate to gain his service and experience. We communicated reasonably well, although his dialect and pronunciation sometimes threw me.

The first day of spring

We encounter a deep pocket of snow for the first time. The mules waffle and stumble and try to turn around. I'm sure they want to go home. Mr Yang, the mule packer, cajoles them, maneuvering them back on track. Soon the difficulties ease.

We hike up onto a pass at 4,240 meters. A magnificent sight comes into view — Haba Snow Mountain in all her glory, from her crown of glaciers down to slopes of snow streaked with bands of rock. Savage crags punctuate the alpine landscape. Below us we glimpse Black Lake (黑海), completely covered by ice and snow, our destination for the night.

From the pass we make a side trip to two bodies of water above tree line — Twin Lake (双海) and Husband and Wife Lake (夫妻海), austere under their white winter blankets. The Haba high country harbors several other lakes, surrounded in the summer by green meadows or flowering rhododendron trees. Most visitors climb the mountain without ever seeing the lakes. Their loss!

At Black Lake we take up residence in a tumble-down shepherd hut with half its roof missing. Snow has accumulated inside, and the Yangs shovel it aside using planks of wood. They head off to woods nearby and return with immense loads of rhododendron branches. Soon a roaring fire heats the inside of our drafty hut.

Dinner time. Tonight's menu is tea, popcorn balls and rice balls. Fried pork strips and stew of pork with cabbage, tomato and potato for the guides, and a stew of chicken liberally strewn with carrot, garlic and ginseng for me. Corn for the mules.

A few months earlier, when I visited Haba for the first time, I made a trip to Black Lake. This was in late autumn before the water froze over. My guide at the time walked along the shoreline, overturning rocks in search of wawayu (娃娃鱼). None appeared that day, but he showed me photos on his cell phone of the Chinese giant salamander. The animal grows to a few centimeters in Black Lake, but elsewhere in more favorable environments, it reaches over one and a half meters in length, as big as some adult humans! That makes it the largest amphibian in the world.

The population of these great salamanders has decreased significantly in recent decades, for reasons such as habitat destruction and pollution. The species is listed as critically endangered, and China passed a law making it illegal to hunt them. Poaching continues, however, driven by high prices and demand for salamander in traditional Chinese medicine. I asked one Haba guide if he had ever eaten the forbidden delicacy. He smiled and said "yes". I wondered how recently "yes" meant. When I asked a few other people from Haba, they also admitted to eating wawayu.

Returning to the first day of spring. At the hut with half a roof, I walk through gathering dusk, snow crunching under foot. A brilliant crescent moon floats above the skyline. Soon it dips below the ridge, leaving just a pair of silver horns. Seconds later, all that remains is a semicircle of earthshine, magical and mysterious. It vanishes and stars take command of the night.

Day three: Zenith

We reach Jizhi Pass (鸡枝垭口), at 4,350 meters the circumambulation high point. On the way up, a deep snow pocket vexes the animals. One moves sideways into an even deeper pit of snow. We do nothing, because we can do nothing. The mule must make his own way out. He wades and rests, belly heaving with each breath. After a few more cycles of wade and rest, he regains his freedom.

I walk alone directly up to the pass on crust, breaking through and post-holing half the time. The mules take another route to avoid deep snow, arriving an hour after I do. A cairn, person-height, sits atop the pass with an arm-like stick poking out the side. For the first time I gaze down the Jizhi Valley, streaked with snow in its upper reaches but dry lower down. A long, long way down. We will spend two days descending the valley before reaching the Chong River (冲江河), which flows through the town of Qiaotou and empties into the Jinsha River (金沙江).

The backs of my hands itch. Must be irritation from the wrist loops of my hiking poles. Ignore it. Jizhi Pass lies a short distance west and a thousand meters lower than the summit of Haba Snow Mountain. Climbing up to the pass through alpine scenery, we pass sheer rock walls and angular peaks. I recall days of yesteryear as a young climber in the Tetons of Wyoming. I feel like I have returned to the Lower Saddle of the Grand Teton after a long absence.

Descending from the pass we glimpse a new aspect of the monarch. The west face comes into view, an impressive rock wall hundreds of meters high, a suitable challenge for world-class mountaineers. The lengthy south ridge culminates in crags inaccessible and perhaps yet unclimbed. I notice a dozen birds circling at the 5,000-meter level, give or take, their view of these soaring ramparts undoubtedly better than mine. My guides call them shanying (山鹰), eagles.

I notice an out-of-place patch of blue sky high upon a ridge, just below the skyline. There must be a hole or cave allowing a view through to the other side. The Yangs confirm it so. Snow Mountain Window (雪山窗户), as it is known, is also visible from Base Camp on the opposite side of the ridge, where climbers begin the ascent to the summit.

Throughout the high country we pass numerous shepherd huts and corrals. Dozens of them dot the terrain, from lower forests of pine, to higher groves of rhododendron trees, and on up to meadows at the timberline around 4,000 meters. In the summer months, young people from Haba live in these dwellings, caring for herds of grazing yak and goats. They stay for a few weeks, then move on with the herds to another hut.

These days, young people find summer residence in the high country less attractive. Many leave for cities like Lijiang (丽江) or Shangri-la (香格里拉), seeking job and life opportunities unavailable in the rural countryside. According to one guide I spoke with, only ten families in Haba tend herds in the high country, many fewer than in the past. No wonder the majority of structures exist in various stages of disintegration. The dilapidated hut at Black Lake, with half its roof missing, is typical.

The descent down the Jizhi Valley seems endless. Toward the end of the day, my pace slows to a crawl. My feet ache badly with every step. I can only blame myself. I should have trained more, much more, before the trip.

After ten hours on the trail, the longest stage of the entire trek, we reach a camping spot next to an aqueduct. This is our water source, but not the mule's. The concrete walls are too deep for them to crane their necks down in for a drink. I worry about them. My guides assure me, mules are tough critters. Tomorrow we reach a spot where they can drink their fill.

Strange, the backs of my hands itching still. Good weather ahead. We slumber under the open sky. Evening entertainment, the stars. Hello Jupiter, jovial friend. I saw your flash, Mr Meteor. Goodnight moon.

Images: Pieter Crow

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