Trip Report
Sauyr Zhotasy East. The Great Game, it aint over yet.

by ecdh
Monday September 11, 2017 9:42pm
Checking out the border patrols on the southern side of the Sauyr Rang...
Checking out the border patrols on the southern side of the Sauyr Range, probably with them looking back at us. Photo Mitch Murray.
Credit: ecdh

Talk of doing the first documented ascent of sauyr zhotasy has existed for years. Though not high at 3840m, a topographic prominence of 3250m makes it perhaps the highest of any unascended peak. Along with this arbitrary distinction, the small range and its glaciers hold the distinction of being the most remote from any ocean on earth. That it sits on the China-Kazakhstan border across hundreds of kms of steppe and desert only adds to the mountains obscurity.

Data on the peak was near-impossible to find, mostly hearsay and projection and no reliable photos. As usual, satellite images were taken with snow covering much of what we wanted to see.
Months of attempted correspondence with Chinese authorities and expedition companies resulted in disinterest, inability and paranoia on their behalves due to the hazy security matters of Xinjiangs borders. Taking matters into our own hands we decided to go with trusted friend, expedition collaborator and logistics genius Alex Tang from Chengdu.

The unusual objective needed a team skilled far beyond just the climbing demands who could happily shoulder Xinjiangs unforeseeable elements both bureaucratic and alpine. With Alex literally at the wheel we were Eric Kowalski, Dr Alex Mathews, Mitch Murray and Ed Hannam, all with track records in desperate parts of the world and well equipped with a strong sense of humour in the absurd.

From the razor wire, Uygher restaurants and exotica of Urumqi, Xinjiangs capital, we crossed the Dzungarian basin to Hoboksar, a camel trading outpost nearest the Kazakh border we would launch from. Aside from excellent dumplings, Hoboksar was deeply locked down with border paranoia, entailing soviet-like security checks at every step. The Sauyr Range loomed beguilingly beyond the hotel windows, with only 25km of Gobi between us, but we took pains to conceal our interest in an ascent stating we were camel-watchers instead.

Bactrian camels as we approach the foot of the Sauyr Range. Photo Ed H...
Bactrian camels as we approach the foot of the Sauyr Range. Photo Ed Hannam
Credit: ecdh

Prepared for anything from desert crossings to cold alpine bivys, rain and baking heat, glaciers and technical mixed climbing, we crossed the expanse of endorheic Gobi to find intimidating patrol posts at the head of each valley, beyond which 1000m alpine walls, glaciers, huge buttresses and snowy plateaus beckoned. Through binoculars we considered options ranging from the conservative to the cavalier, and retreated to Hoboksar for permits, only to be blocked at even the idea by military wishing wed just go away.
Paranoid of being detained for any bravado, we gambled on attempting Sauyr Zhotasys glaciated main peak via a distant valley system – the only one within striking range without a border post at the entrance, and grazed by nomads living along tumbling, melt-fed streams. This route would mean summiting the ranges eastern summit at 3750m before a long traverse of the ridges between.

With week-length loads we had 1800m of prominence across 8kms of approach, the majority of the altitude gain over only 500 horizontal meters up to the snowline at 3500m. Below the snow we made a launch camp to set us up for the eastern peak,. from which summit followed about seven kms of exposed ridge lines to the main peak, or so it appeared.

The approach to Sauyr Zhotasy East, 3750m. photo Mitch Murray
The approach to Sauyr Zhotasy East, 3750m. photo Mitch Murray
Credit: ecdh

Camp at the base of Sauyr Zhotasy East. Photo Mitch Murray
Camp at the base of Sauyr Zhotasy East. Photo Mitch Murray
Credit: ecdh

A second day of endless scree and boulder fields merging into 50o snow bought us to the base of the east peaks headwall; a crumbly mass of unstable rock and ice with no safe bivy spots tho great views down the valley back towards the Tarbagatai Desert and its strange ranges of eroded mountains.
Murray and Hannam soloed a rising traverse around the headwall, emerging onto the summit plateau where Hannam continued the 1000m to the eastern peaks true summit through knee deep snow whilst Murray went to survey the northern aspects with views far into northern Kazakhstan. Despite the summits highest point having no signs of activity, a lower feature at approx 3600m - perhaps visible from other vantages - had a series of three possible ancient cairns. Though we claim the first documented ascent of Sauyr Zhotasy East, a previous ascent is possible.

View south towards the Dzungarian Gobi from below where the travers...

View south towards the Dzungarian Gobi from below where the traverse emerged on the summit plateau. Photo Eric Kowalski
Credit: ecdh

From the eastern summit, the reality of the traverse and ascent of the main peak became apparent as beyond the scope of our team at the time. The seven km of alpine ridge is punctuated by at least two technical descent and ascents, the final onto Sauyr Zhotasys summit itself, with a large section of the route unobservable. The northern side of the range proved to be mostly 70o snow and unstable rock slopes offering no good route options
Though the climbing itself was within the teams ability, the 14km return trip, all on totally exposed terrain above the snow line we deemed too risky due to the reality that descent into any of the side valleys as contingency would result in detainment as we exited the valleys. Not a great option considering the regions current state of lockdown.

Sketch from Sauyr Zhotasy East summit of the route to Sauyr Zhotasy ma...
Sketch from Sauyr Zhotasy East summit of the route to Sauyr Zhotasy main summit (3840m, marked V). the valleys below the ridges heading to the left of the sketch all have border posts.
Credit: ecdh

Leaving the summit plateau Murray and Hannam met with Kowalski who had soloed a route variant on steeper snow to scout from a perpendicular ridge, the three climbers descending together to where Mathews and Tang waited in relative safety as the south-facing headwall rapidly shed in the afternoon sun.
Staying ahead of the unstable conditions the team descended to valley level.

Kowalski, Mathews and Hannam between bouts of rockfall at the base of ...
Kowalski, Mathews and Hannam between bouts of rockfall at the base of Sauyr Zhotasy Easts headwall. Photo Mitch Murray
Credit: ecdh

All in all, the difficulties of access aside, Sauyr Zhotasy east goes at about Scottish grade 3 in summer conditions. Sauyr Zhotasy main peak from the east would up the stakes to what looks like about Scottish grade 5 stuff. From the most direct valley it looks like easyish ridgelines, or monster 900m walls of black choss. the north side appears to dangerously steep snow, tho perhaps doable in spring. Winter would be a very different equation with temperatures at 1500m in Hoboksar hitting -35c...

Knowing what we do now, an ascent of Sauyr Zhotasy main peak is possible once the conundrum of the security and the alpine problems are surmounted. Approaches from other valleys are strategically shorter and more dramatic but demand a plan for the ever-watchful border posts that includes the return element. Judging from the state of security imposed on even normal public places like shops and restaurants, its fair to say time in a Xinjiang prison wouldn’t be much fun. Until dealt with any official ascents of this enigmatic peak wont be happening, though opportunities for pirate ascents as per the tradition of central asian alpinism exist, but you didn’t read that here.

As always wed like to thank Cilogear for the specialized packs that are the back bone of trips like these, and NWAlpine for the innovative clothing.

Left to right; Dr Alex Mathews, Mitch Murray, Eric Kowalski and Alex T...
Left to right; Dr Alex Mathews, Mitch Murray, Eric Kowalski and Alex Tang. Photo Ed Hannam
Credit: ecdh

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About the Author
ecdh is a climber from the east.

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Dingus Milktoast

Trad climber
Minister of Moderation, Fatcrackistan
  Sep 11, 2017 - 09:54pm PT


the east
Author's Reply  Sep 11, 2017 - 10:57pm PT
apparently google earth puts Sauyr Zhotasy East at 3750m (100m higher than we concluded out there), so ive changed that in the report.
at the time our altimeters all differed.

Trad climber
Orem, Utah
  Sep 12, 2017 - 09:18am PT
The spirit of adventure lives on! The logistics of dealing with the authorities sounds even more gripping than natural hazards.

Trad climber
South Pasadena, CA
  Sep 12, 2017 - 12:23pm PT
Sounds like an adventure!
All kinds of off-the-beaten-path places to explore in this world.
I was wondering who would buy the camel-watcher story :)
But I admit great pleasure could be had doing just that.
Nick Danger

Ice climber
Arvada, CO
  Sep 12, 2017 - 12:26pm PT
Now THAT is grade triple A adventure. Good on ya, mates!

the east
Author's Reply  Sep 12, 2017 - 03:46pm PT
the camel watching actually did hold water - they were everywhere. amazing animals, twice the bulk of the whimpy little dromedaries. the way they move across the land is amazing.
we also saw otters, hares, heaps of snakes and lizards and strange night insects.

after the peak we followed the Baiyang river for a few days towards the Kazakh border, thru beautiful ravines and white poplar forests (baiyang means white poplar).

to be honest, the strategy and games of deception were as much fun as the climbing. a lot of binocular time.

Social climber
Moorpark, CA.
  Sep 12, 2017 - 05:19pm PT
As always .... your trip reports are outstanding reading. The spirit of adventure invades my little cube.

Thank you for sharing.

  Sep 12, 2017 - 08:24pm PT
1. based solely on your trs, you certainly are living a good life...

2. thanks for taking the time to bring an old school flavour to the telling of a contemporary adventure... t'was tasty.

Trad climber
Ouray, Colorado
  Sep 12, 2017 - 09:18pm PT
Good on you! It's all about exploring, isn't it.

the east
Author's Reply  Sep 12, 2017 - 10:13pm PT
yes and yes - theres nothing like pulling off a good caper.

i find much of climbing soulless and sterile these days, lacking the grist and gravel of a complete adventure. made doubly crazy by how open the world is; places like this are doable with some old fashioned derring do, guile and intensive planning - things that were par for the course in shiptons day but now dwindling.

tuva or bust! as they say.

Social climber
Wolf City, Wyoming
  Sep 13, 2017 - 05:55am PT
The Journey to the east
lars johansen

Trad climber
West Marin, CA
  Sep 13, 2017 - 11:21am PT
Quite an adventure. Thanks for posting. best-lars
Ezra Ellis

Trad climber
North wet, and Da souf
  Sep 15, 2017 - 03:14am PT
Thanks for sharing!
Scott Joffre

Mountain climber
  Nov 10, 2017 - 01:25pm PT
I found this report on the Ice Climbing Japan page and wanted to ask if it would be possible to get more information about your trip? I came across Sauyr Zhotasy in my research last year and found that this is the first record I have come across at all about the mountain and surrounding region, so congratulations!

A couple of questions I have:
Do you know why there is so much border security? China and Kazakhstan have a pretty good geopolitical relationship...

Did you have any luck with working with the Chinese or Kazak governments? Were you able to make contact whatsoever?

Is there a reason you were not able to snag a picture of the peak? Why just the sketch?

Is the peak surmountable without using any special gear?

Even in the summer what were the conditions at that altitude? Was there still a ton of snow and ice up there?

Lastly, how long (including water, food, etc) do you think you could be self sufficient out there? Are there streams nearby? Basically how remote is it really?

Sounded like an amazing adventure and I would love to learn more about the trip, Saury Zhotasy, and the surrounding area! Thanks for your work!


Trad climber
the middle of CA
  Nov 13, 2017 - 04:48pm PT
Great story, I missed this one.


Jingus Newroutaineer
  Nov 13, 2017 - 04:56pm PT
Chinese Prison sounds fun.
T Hocking

Trad climber
Redding, Ca
  Nov 13, 2017 - 05:16pm PT
Proud effort men!

  May 24, 2018 - 11:31am PT
Out of curiosity, did you try Sauyr Zhotasy from the north on the Chinese side? Go to 47.080577, 85.572811 in Google Earth. There looks like there are some buildings here and a road at about 10,000 feet north of the mountain, and if you trace the road back it goes into China. It's a LONG road, perhaps 50 miles of dirt before you hit the nearest pavement, but it would get you within about 2 miles and 2600 vertical feet of the summit... totally different approach than the south side.

Trad climber
South Pasadena, CA
  Jun 2, 2018 - 09:15am PT
Cool adventure! I didn’t see this before.

the east
Author's Reply  Jun 2, 2018 - 02:38pm PT
sawtooth, good spotting.

we looked at lots of access options last year and as a first attempt went with the occams razor version of simplest, based on beta we could get then.

re northern approaches, funny you mention that as we are about to step off to give it a go, but not the route youre looking at as theres no way in hell we will get that close to the border annoyingly. there are other valleys tho.

also that area is divided between 2 administrative zones, with the northern one being even less friendly than the southern, but we now have a strategy to deal with that.

in the end theres solid reasons SZ isnt officially summited yet....pretty much because its so damned hard to get anywhere near it. finding punk climbers willing to take on the strategy is the biggest thing.
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