In 1983 Ted Vaill, an officer of the American Alpine Club, became the first Westerner to climb 17,600foot Celestial Peak in China's Sichuan province. Twenty-one years later Vaill returned to the southern region of Sichuan to find the majority of peaks there still unclimbed by anyone. " China is the place if you're an explorer who wants to go to [unscaled mountains]," he says. "There is a lifetime of climbing to explore."
Beginning in 2001 China opened up Kham--a 700-mile expanse from eastern Tibet to Sichuan--to unrestricted foreign travel. There are hundreds of virgin peaks in the 5,000- to 6,000meter range, and word of this vast, pristine region is spreading quickly in the climbing community. Says John Harlin, editor of The American Alpine Journal, "This is the last really great area for climbing virgin territory. It's going to be getting more and more attention."
Since the last of the world's unclimbed 8,000-meter peaks, Tibet's Shisha Pangma, was claimed by a team of Chinese climbers in 1964, a new generation of mountaineers has headed to Pakistan, Tibet and Nepal in search of unclimbed 7,000-meter peaks, and Alpinists have explored the big granite walls in India, Greenland and the Baffin Islands. "But no place else has as much potential as China," Harlin says. "It offers different options. There's a whole mixed bag of big-wall climbing, easier snow peaks and technical, mixed peaks."
Western China's mountain ranges remained entirely closed to foreign travel until 1978, when Deng Xiaoping instituted an open-door policy as part of his economic reforms. However, getting climbing permits and access to the remote regions of Tibet and western China remained a major obstacle for decades. The 1,511-mile Sichuan- Tibet Highway connected Sichuan's capital, Chengdu, to Tibet's capital, Lhasa, but was only a slight improvement on the ancient Silk Road. "It's known as the highest, worst road in the world," says Tommy Chandler, who made his first climbing trip to Sichuan last August. The recent boom in China's economy has brought significant improvements in transportation in the southwest provinces. From Chengdu climbers can now reach Sichuan's famous Daxue Shan range, which includes the 24,790foot Minya Konka, in a day.
In 2002 Pete Athans, who has made seven summits of Mount Everest, led a six-member expedition to Sichuan. There the team climbed the 17,200-foot Jarjinjabo Massif, which boasts a granite rock tower that has been likened to Patagonia's Fitzroy. "The beauty of this place is miraculous," Athans wrote in a report for The American Alpine Journal. "I made two first ascents that I count among my best in 30 years of climbing."
Other climbers soon followed. In August, Steve Cater of Salt Lake City led a six-member team to Jarjinjabo, ticking off three successful ascents on two different peaks. "The rock is unbelievable, the place is culturally fascinating, and it's got amazing scenery," Cater says. "As more people hear about it, it'll become more popular."