China Jam: Making music, bagging first ascents

If you were climbing a mountain for the first time, would you take a guitar?
© Evrard Wendenbaum
By Brody Leven

When you think China, our guess is that the first things that come to mind have little do with playing outside – but any country the size of China is sure to offer some outdoor adventure. Evrard Wendenbaum, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Nicolas Favresse, and Stephane Hanssens head to a remote valley in western China to bag a first ascent. The result is China Jam, the trailer for which you can see above. Read below to learn more – or check out this collection of images from the trip.

OK, what's 'China Jam'?
Our big wall expedition and film project in the Tien Shan mountains.

We're going to need details…
The first ascent was the South-East Pillar of Kyzyl Asker (5842m). It’s on the Kyrgyz-Chinese border in the Tien Shan and more precisely, in the Western Kokshaal Tau massif, where it’s the second highest peak. To reach base from the last village is a two-day hike, but we needed seven days to carry our equipment. The climb was 7b+ (5.12c) pitches. The wall is about 1,200m high and we took 14 days to climb it over a 30-day expedition.

Tien Shan Mountains
Conditions were often very snowy © Evrard Wendenbaum

And it was warm and sunny the whole time, right?
We faced terrible weather with a lot of snowfall and very cold temperatures. We had serious doubts that we could ever climb in these conditions. The sky was blue and clear in the morning, then clouds arrived between 10 and noon to finally become a snow storm between 1,400 and 1,600m. Sometimes the weather became clear again and we would have a wonderful (but cold!) evening. At night, the temperatures dropped regularly to -15°C. During the day, the temperature varied from 4°C to -9°C.

Tien Shan Mountains
The approach included traversing through snow © Evrard Wendenbaum

What was the most mentally challenging part of the climb?
The technical mixed pitch that Sean climbed during our push to the summit. Bad protection, thin ice, huge commitment, and high altitude. He climbed it on sight and that was fortunate because there was no other choice, really.

Your team took musical instruments up the wall. Why?
Music is clearly a part of our team’s DNA. Sean, Steph, Nico and his usual team-mate and brother, Olivier, always bring instruments in their vertical adventures. It was obvious that we would bring them with us. We were pretty active during the climb, and very tired and cold, and we all had small injuries on our fingers and hands that never got cured and were very painful. So playing music became really hard. But when we did, it gave us a lot of energy. It’s a perfect way to spend the days of bad weather.

Tien Shan Mountains
The wall offered various sorts of climbing © Evrard Wendenbaum

Did you encounter any unexpected problems?
We all experienced different health problems. Nico, Steph and Sean suffered stomach problems. Nico suffered a respiratory infection during the first two days of our ascent and had to take antibiotics to be able to stay on the wall. Sean suffered a small infection a few days before our summit push. Stephane felt tired without knowing why. I had to deal with serious sunburn (after only four days), which never healed because of the cold and the high altitude, and several wounds on my hands. My nose and lips were leaking and bleeding. It gave me some unexpected difficulties eating and I almost stayed at base camp.

Set the alarm, would you?
Home sweet home © Evrard Wendenbaum

Sounds fun…
We were all pretty optimistic actually. But we also had some moments of doubt, mainly because of the snowy weather. Every day of good weather, we were able to make good progress, but these days were pretty rare and when we realized that on the tenth day of the ascent we were only halfway up, we felt a bit doubtful. We were lucky to have had fantastic weather on our summit push. Without it, we would have failed for sure.

And finally, a jam session while bivvying on the side of a mountain?!
Music is essential in our life but climbing and exploration are more important, so we’re not yet about to start a band. We never practice together, only playing during expeditions or climbing trips (although we play music at each of our public screenings and conferences). And I guess our music is mainly appreciated because of the originality of the environments we play in.

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