Keketuohai 2012: Nice to Meet You

Ola Przybysz contacted me in the spring of 2012. She was putting together an expedition to go check out legendary Keketuohai in Xinjiang. I first heard of this place following a short video that documented Tommy Caldwell’s and Hayden Kennedy’s expedition there in 2010. If you haven’t seen it click here.  They were calling it China’s Little Yosemite. With my now found love for putting up trad routes in China it was really hard to say no to the opportunity.

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Keketuohai is located on the border of China, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan in a cultural rich and interesting part of the world. Camels, yurts, noodles, bread, and Kahzaks greet you as you enter this valley and region. The granite walls tower to 350-400 meters and boast some of the most accessible and classic granite routes found in China.  Keketuohai is actually the name of the town closest to the valley of rock. In the 70’s and 80’s this town grew with the opening of a mine that was active for some time. Since it closed people have been able to survive there with the tourism involved with the opening of the national park in the 1990’s. These days the mine is shut down, but have heard rumors of another one operating deep in the mountains. Primarily after precious stones like rubies and emeralds. The type of things The King Under the Mountain would be after.

Keketuohai Town Kids
Keketuohai Town Kids photo: Ana Pautler
Looking down the valleys of unclimbed rock.
Looking down the valleys of unclimbed rock. Photo: Ana Pautler

Back to the trip. The team consisted of Andrew Hedesh, Ola Przybysz, Torsten Truefield, Xiao Lee, and photographer Garrett Bradley. We all met in the capitol city of Urumqi, Xinjiang. A large town nestled in a desert basin at the base of the Bogda mountain (~5445m). Urumqi is a mix mash of people from the middle east, Kazakhstan, Russia, and eastern China. With Bazaar type markets it easy to get exotic foods like dried fruit, figs, yogurts, and breads. Very different from the tastes of eastern China. In recent years it has the center for protest against Chinese “occupation” of Xinjiang and every year riots plague the markets and mini 1989 Beijing incidents happen all the time. Its illegal for non Han Chinese people to congregate in a single area and on every corner and market there is an army truck with soldiers ready to act.

Flying a Kite in Urumqi
Flying a Kite in Urumqi Photo: Ana Pautler
BanMian, the staple food in Xinjiang
BanMian, the staple food in Xinjiang Photo: Ana Pautler

We raided the markets and stocked up on supplies that we thought my be hard to get out in the mountains. Our Chinese friend (not appointed be the government, actually a friend) helped us with logistics and we set off across the desert north of the city to the Altai mountains. As soon as we left we could see camels running across the desert. Tame or wild it was awesome to see. We were all from Europe or North American so it was definitely a cool sight.

Camels of all kinds seen in the region
Camels of colors kinds seen in the region Photo: Ana Pautler

After desert expanse the terrain turned to a sort of scab land full of small bits of rubble. Industry was happening here. Factories were being built and it seemed they were after an ore of sort. Continuing on in the distance we began to see rolling hills and eventually arrived in the town Fuyun. A small town on the fringe of the Altai mountains that received the Ertysh river as it poured down from the hills. Another 60 KM driving up out of the desert into the hills the scenery became much more mountainous and we arrived in Keketuohai.

The Ertysh River
The Ertysh River Photo: Ana Pautler
Traditional Muslim woman makes BBQ in Keketuohi Town
Traditional Muslim woman makes BBQ in Keketuohi Town Photo: Ana Pautler

We immediately went to the park gate to sort out the access for climbing. The whispers and rumors from previous expeditions said that access was not certain. To our surprise we were greatly welcomed. We told the park authorities about this reputation that was popular belief amongst climbers. They were astonished! We were told that they welcome climbers and only want more to come. All we had to do as sign a waiver, pay a ticket into the park, and follow a few rules.

The next day we discovered that we had to ride into the park for about 20 KM to get to the larger iconic valley wall. We set about exploring and planning an attack for first ascents. Being a larger group we divided into two climbing parties and our photographer went with alternated between us. Over the course of the next three weeks our two teams established about 30 new routes. Most of these routes were between 3 and 8 pitches and done without bolted belays, only bolting in unsafe climbing conditions or for aid on the ground up first ascents.

Mike Dobie leads Pitch 3 on the first ascent of Eternal Crack in Keketuohai, China
Mike Dobie leads Pitch 3 on the first ascent of Eternal Crack in Keketuohai, China

During that time we explored the routes of previous expeditions and discovered that they operated under different ethics. At least one or all of the routes on the Tommy Caldwell Hayden Kennedy expedition were rappelled in first, some with nice bolted belays every 60m. On this expedition we tried to maintain ground up ethics and all of the routes we did were ground up with no bolted belays. Although we did us bolts when the cracks shut and we needed protection otherwise.

Mike Dobie leads the first pitch on the first ascent of Sky Forge in Keketuohai, China.
Mike Dobie leads the first pitch on the first ascent of Sky Forge in Keketuohai, China.

Andrew Hedesh and I partnered up for all the time except for one day. Of all the routes established, we felt that The Bundy Route was the most notable for our trip. The first day we entered the main valley it was clear the line we had to climb. It was maybe the last obvious “plum” that we could see. Dodging hoards of camels running into the valley for the coming winter and through slits in the trees we could see the line looming above. We both looked at each other and said, “That one”. It climbed an obvious laser cut crack up the wall steeper and steeper into a pitted and other worldly looking face. The cut went left on a roof with nothing below you but air on the rim of the valley. After establishing fourteen routes in the area we felt well acquainted with the rock and ready to be experience this daunting looking line. Our great photographer was able to shots of us on the first ascent by walking around and rappelling off a static line.

Hedesh and I found the obvious starting point and headed up a low angle crack for two long pitches. We had to move left a bit over unprotected sections to get to a large ledge that marked the start of the laser cut crack that would lead up into the steep wall.

Mike Dobie and Andrew Hedesh view the line up Bundy Route on Hontaj Re/Waterfall Rock at the base of Pitch 4
Mike Dobie and Andrew Hedesh view the line up Bundy Route at the base of Pitch 4

I started off from the ledge finding good bits of gear in the crack. At about twenty meters the crack stopped. With my last piece of gear I heel hooked and rocked up onto a small ledge. Above me the crack was basically a runnel feature with no protection (a type of feature typical of cracks in KKTH). It looked like the crack started again but it was filled with green plants and would require digging to find reasonable protection. With no gear to aid up on I slapped a bolt in the wall and aided up digging out the crack. I did this for about 5 meters and established an anchor. Dirty vegetation filled cracks are a very fun part about first ascents. Andrew and I were well acquainted with this with the amount of route development we had done and knew that before continuing up, we needed to clean the crack. He removed all evidence of dirt and veg and revealed an awesome hand sized crack. Maybe climbers in the future wouldn’t think twice about this section, unknowing what it originally looked like.

Many routes in Keketuohai need a bit of nut tool loving.
Many routes in Keketuohai need a bit of nut tool loving.

Andrew led out the next pitch and it was much nicer to climb. A 5.10 finger and hand crack. He made a belay just below the pocketed steep face. I seconded up and looked up at our next pitch and knew the easy part was over.

Hedesh and I climbing the Laser cut splitter into the steeper section of the route.
Hedesh and I climbing the Laser cut splitter of pitch 5.

From far below us Kahzak, Mongolian, and Chinese shouted cheers as I held on for dear life leading up the overhung pocketed face. Kitty littered layered rock disintegrated all around my double 00 TCU as I climbed up into better gear. With a bomber piece that I could trust I freed up the dirty steep finger crack to make a belay.

Mike Dobie freeing the 5.11+ Finger crack of Pitch 6
Mike Dobie freeing the 5.11+ Finger crack of Pitch 6

“That sounded like you got your money’s worth Dobie.” Andrew said from below reflecting on the grunting he had just witnessed.
“Yeah,” I said “Only thought I was going to die once on that pitch. When it has cleaned up more it will go free.”

Andrew followed me up and set out on a downward traversing seam that would put us out of the steep wall. We couldn’t see around the corner of the roof and it was uncertain as to whether or not we would reach another crack system that we spotted from below.

Both of planning the aid trickery of pitch 7.
Both of us planning the aid trickery of pitch 7.

Up above me at the start of the thin traverse he explained, “Its looks like I have a really nice number 2 camalot placement at the start and then absolutely nothing. Send me up the pitons and drill.”
With a short hook move on an edge he sunk a bolt and then an extended move to a piton placement.
“Looks like I can get a double 00 C3 here.” Near the end of the traverse it was nice to know that there would be minimal fixed gear.

Andrew Hedesh leads the aid traverse on Pitch 7
Andrew Hedesh leads the aid traverse on Pitch 7

“Can you see a crack around the corner?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s completely blank and…let me swing over a bit.”
Giving him some slack he swung over and I found a moment of relief when he yelled,” Yeah man I am off belay and we are looking really good here! I’m in the crack system.”
I was greeted by Andrew all smiles and a nice looking hand crack that trended left up to the top of the wall.

Mike Dobie leads the 8th and final pitch
Mike Dobie leads the 8th and final pitch

That night we were welcomed by some locals and celebrated the first ascent of The Bundy Route, a Hedesh/Dobie classic. We sang traditional songs and ate a dish called “Da Pan Ji”, roughly translated Big Dish Chicken. He told us stories about how other climbing parties had attempted the route, but had failed, and we were successful! The name “The Bundy Route” was inspired by the local theme of marriage and children, taking the name “Bundy” from the character Al Bundy from the old 90’s Sitcom “Married with Children”.

Yurts are the local nomadic preferred housing
Yurts are the local nomadic preferred housing

This story was only just the beginning for my love affair of Keketuohai. This one trip inspired three more additional trips which will come in following articles. Today the valley boasts nearly 100 routes with 220 pitches of established rock climbing. Ola wrote the guidebook book and it is available here for free download.

Climbing shots by Garrett Bradley. Follow him at @garrettlbradley

© All text, pictures, and media copyright Michael Dobie Do not reproduce in any way without consulting

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