Climbing China's Virgin Peaks
Credit: Photograph by Jared Ogden

The next morning high cirrus clouds with mare's tails were blowing in from the southeast. "The good weather looks as if it's on its way out," said Pete as he handed me a steaming mug of coffee. We wasted no time in our preparations; two hours later I was standing next to Jared at the base of Janmo, belaying Pete up the first pitch. He jammed his hands and feet into the vertical crack and shuffled his way up, stopping every ten feet or so to place a protection device and then clipping his rope to it with a carabineer. (This is called free climbing.) About 120 feet off the ground Pete called down, "Off belay." Soon the rope was tugging on my harness, so I followed Pete's lead, trailing a second cord for Jared, who would come up last. As I scaled the pitch with the rope overhead I removed the devices that Pete had placed in the crack. In this manner we were able to climb the spire without physically altering it.

"One of the best pitches of my life!" exclaimed Pete as I high-fived him at the belay. Straight above, a six-foot roof stuck out directly over our heads. From the bottom we had seen that this overhang would likely be the crux of the entire route. I was intimidated, but this was exactly what I'd come for: a test. I learned back in high school that climbing is about trying to make your life as difficult as possible. In this sport you literally hang by your fingertips, and the cost of screwing up could be serious injury or death. The intensity is something I crave, like a drug.

The first few moves off the belay required splitting my legs between the walls of an open book. As I inched my way out under the roof, my weight was almost entirely supported by my arms. It's precisely at this point, when you're most likely to fall, that you have to stay the most calm and collected. So I took a few deep breaths, then swung my leg onto a small quartz edge. With my right hand locked into the coarse granite crack, I reached around the lip with my left hand looking for a slot. When I felt my hand settle deep into the crack, I flexed the muscles in my forearm, creating a hold known as a hand jam. It was a tough move (rated 5.10 on a scale of 5.1 to 5.15), especially considering the altitude (over 16,000 feet). With my left hand locked securely in the crack, I shook out my other arm and released my anxiety with a yell that echoed off the surrounding rocks.

By afternoon most of the 1,200-foot wall was below us. We were huddled on a small ledge underneath a 100-foot pinnacle – the very tip of the formation. But the only way to reach Janmo's highest point would be to drill a ladder of bolts up the blank granite. Rock walls are often conquered with the drill, but in this case we agreed it was unjustified. We wanted to leave the rock as nature had created it rather than drill into it so we could say we'd stood on the very top.

The storm that had been threatening all day finally hit as we finished our last rappel back to the ground – and it stranded us in camp for five long days. When it finally broke we set off toward a 2,000-foot buttress dropping off the left side of Jarjinjabo's east face. An alpenglow lit the wall, revealing every nook, cranny, and pocket. With numb hands we picked our way up the impeccable granite, following a circuitous path between a series of tricky minarets. After 12 hours of continuous climbing Jared led us over a final overhanging headwall and up to the 17,200-foot summit.

Unlike that of Janmo, the top of Jarjinjabo is a plateau several hundred feet across with a small snowfield covering it. We scrambled onto the highest boulder, shook hands, and built a small cairn. "Check out that no man's land back there," said Jared, pointing off the backside to where snow-covered peaks and purple valleys stretched as far as we could see. The realization that this territory had likely never been trodden by any person, Tibetan or otherwise, struck something deep in my soul. Here's a place where I can explore and climb for the rest of my life and never run out of first ascents – a place where, in many ways, the golden age is just beginning.