In the far north west of China lies Keketouhai a place that is as remote as it is peculiar. Here the summer skies stay lit past 10 pm, the sweeping desert meets extreme mountains, and years of Silk Road travel has brought a uniqually Muslim culture. The area as a whole seems more similar to Central Asia than Eastern China.
Xinjiang is often overlooked because of its isolation, but remoteness is part of the appeal. The province is 15,738 square miles of sweeping deserts, oasis towns, and extreme mountains. The capital city of Urumqi is the furthest city from any ocean on Earth. Just north of the city are the wicked Tian Shan Mountains where hardcore mountaineers are still claiming first assents. The Portaledge Song is a product of one of these expeditions: http://vimeo.com/76828146
I would be bypassing these beasts (for now) in favor of the more gentle Altay Mountains. For the last few years, climbers have been coming to establish traditional rock climbs in Keketouhai. I'd first heard about the area at the 2012 LiMing Trad Festival. Andrew Hedesh, Mike Dobie, Ola Przybysz, and Garrett Bradley were fresh off a month long development trip in the area and shared stories about the endless granite and delicious food. They claimed the food was the better than anywhere in China, and the rock more extensive than Yosemite.
For this trip, I partnered up with Mike Dobie, who has spent the last four years developing China's trad climbing mecca, LiMing. He had visited Keketouhai on two prior expeditions. The previous trips had resulted in long, moderate routes. These were what had caught my interest. This year, Mike's eye was on the Hammer and Tongs crag where a steep finger crack and body length roof had yet to see first assents.
When we first arrived, American climber Dan Flynn and Columbian Dani Villegas had been in the national park for two weeks on their second development trip. Despite both claiming not to like chimneys or off width, they had come with some serious gear including a valley giant and a series of big bros. Dan made a video about their two-week trip showing some of the newly established climbs: http://vimeo.com/99323014
Most of our time was spent at Hammer and Tongs scrubbing and cleaning the routes which included throwing massive wads of guano from the roof. After a few days of effort the crag had some of the park's hardest lines. Steep finger cracks and inversions are not exactly my strengths and more than once I found myself laughing at my inability to pull moves Dobie made look easy. I also learned how to use a hand drill, a process that makes me appreciate every bolt. Voices in the Deep, a 5.12 steep finger crack with reachy ring locks and a thin finish went free after a few tries by Mike. Diamond in the Witch House, a burly roof requiring an inversion bat hang went free except for pulling the lip after the roof and is estimated to be around 5.13.
One of our last days, we climbed Sky Rim on the Knife Buttress, a 7 pitch ridge climb with a great alpine feel. The pitches offer a little of everything: a tricky roof, a beautiful hand crack pitch, some slab climbing, and an adventurous descent rappelling off trees and bolts.