Our Jeep bounces around a tight bend in the River Gorge, and suddenly the rock walls fall away, revealing a hidden valley straight out of a fairy tale. A dozen or so jagged mountains rise up 6,500 feet from a lush, 15-mile-long pasture that's split by a chalky green river. I've been searching for a place like this for more than a decade, and now that I've found it I'm buzzing with anticipation. I fling open the door before the vehicle has even stopped rolling and jump onto the grass. My climbing partners, Jared Ogden and the famed Everest mountaineer Pete Athans, join me seconds later, slapping high fives and gesturing spastically at the peaks. We are the first Western climbers to lay eyes on this particular valley, located at 13,000 feet on the eastern edge of the Tibet plateau in China's Sichuan Province. In fact, only one other Westerner has been to the Jarjinjabo Valley before us.
A landscape like this was the stuff of my dreams – and, I was certain, nothing more – when I started climbing in the mid-1980s. I grew up with the sad impression that I had missed out on mountaineering's golden age – the time up through the 1950s, when most of the world's greatest peaks were conquered: Nanda Devi, in India, by Eric Shipton and H.W. Tilman in 1934; Mount Everest in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay; K2 in 1954 by a team of Italian climbers.
But one of mountaineering's best-kept secrets is that there are thousands of virgin peaks, many as tall as 23,000 feet, in places like Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Bhutan, and China. The truth is, the golden age is still very much alive. And the Jarjinjabo Valley, whose most tantalizing features are Janmo and Jarjinjabo, two 17,000-foot granite spires, is breathtaking proof.
Our team was on an expedition sponsored by the gear and clothing manufacturer The North Face. When we arrived at the airport in Chengdu, Sichuan's capital, in August, we were met by Zhang Jiyue, a fun-loving 41-year-old Chinese adventurer who would serve as our guide and outfitter. We loaded up two jeeps with food and equipment and headed west for the Jarjinjabo Valley, 300 miles away.
Three days later we pulled into the valley, and we were immediately surrounded by a crew of hyperactive, curious boys. Most of the 60 or so families living here are nomads who move camp a few times a year. About ten families, though, have set up a small permanent village of wooden huts near Zhopu Lake. In addition to herding yaks, they grow crops of barley and potatoes. The village mayor, a stringy, wrinkled man named Chedzi, welcomed us with handshakes and friendly slaps on the back.
We spent the first few days acclimatizing to the elevation by hiking around the valley and visiting the locals in their smoky yak-hair tents. They offered us tsampa (roasted barley flour) and yak butter tea. Wealso explored the Zhopu monastery. Built in 1260, it's one of the few on the plateau not completely destroyed by the Chinese in the late fifties.
The prevailing wisdom says you need a day to acclimatize for each 1,000 feet of elevation gain, but after just three days our curiosity about those granite spires got the better of us. We found a trail leading through the old-growth forest in the general direction of Janmo and Jarjinjabo, and all of us were soon sucking wind – including Pete, who has summited Mount Everest seven times. It took us close to two hours of hard slogging before we emerged into a small hanging valley with a crystal clear brook coursing through it. Janmo and Jarjinjabo rose straight ahead. If these spires were located anywhere else, say in Patagonia or along the Baltoro Glacier in Pakistan's Karakoram range, they would undoubtedly be famous...and long since climbed.
Centuries before Tibetan Buddhism emerged there was a shamanistic religion called Bön – in which certain geological formations were considered deities. Bön survives today in a few isolated spots. In the Jarjinjabo Valley there is a myth, likely of Bön origin, that the mountains are actually living characters. Their story goes like this: Jarjinjabo and Janmo were husband and wife. Jarjinjabo left the valley to go on a pilgrimage to Lhasa; Janmo had an affair with another peak and gave birth to several children before Jarjinjabo returned. The smaller surrounding rock towers are those children. I wanted to climb the whole family.
Of the two towers Janmo (the unfaithful wife) is the more slender and aesthetically pleasing. It's also slightly shorter than Jarjinjabo, so we made a plan to climb it first. We would start out in the morning, but we couldn't wait that long to test out the granite. The three of us have climbed granite in just about every corner of the world, including Pakistan, Baffin Island, and Irian Jaya, and when we laid hands to the stone we were shocked. "This is some of the best rock I've ever seen," Jared said as he scrambled a few feet up the bottom of Janmo. The rough brown granite is infused with quartz crystals that make excellent footholds, and, unbelievably, there are no loose flakes.