First Ski Descent in China’s Minya Konka: Against the Clouds


A wild range in western China is an unpredictable epic

Text by Cliff Ransom; Photograph by Jimmy Chin



Considering where they were, prudence would not have been out of place. Reddomaine is the westernmost peak of the Minya
Konka massif, a collection of knife-edged summits that ring China’s
24,790-foot Gunga Shan. In recent years the region has seen a marked
increase in climbing expeditions, driven in part by a looser permitting
process within China and a growing trend among elite climbers to favor
smaller, more technical and unclimbed peaks over 8,000 meter behemoths.
It has also seen a concurrent rise in morbid headlines—the rough
terrain and unpredictable weather conspire to make the mountains of
western China particularly avalanche prone. In 2006 Christine Boskoff
and Charlie Fowler were lost on the nearby Genyen Massif. In June 2009,
Johnny Copp and Micah Dash were swept away by a massive slide on Mount
Edgar, just one peak east of Reddomaine. 

While the area’s troubled history was on the minds of the Reddomaine foursome—“We’d just passed though the town where my friend [Copp] was cremated a few months before, ” Chin says—it
was not enough to overcome the pull of the mountains. Two hundred feet
after turning back, the group huddled up once more.

“We decided, well, the weather’s bad, but not that bad. And we’re
behind schedule, but not that behind. Let’s just see how it goes,”
Backstrom recalls. So with graupel beating down on their tightly drawn
hoods, the team again set off into the clouds.

As the group picked its way up the west
ridge, the weather did not improve, but true to their calculations, it
did not worsen. The route alternated between gradual snow slopes and
steep rocky sections. A cornice overhung a sheer face to the left and
the slope dropped away thousands of feet to the right. Massive bus-eating crevasses and deep snow slowed their ascent.
The team developed a routine – each climber out front, would probe for
crevasses, break trail until they were exhausted and then rotate to the
back of the line.

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“At first our turn around time was 3PM then 4PM
then 5PM,” says Chin. But the team summited nonetheless, with all but
Rigby soloing up the final 100-foot ice bulge to the top. They were not
the first to summit this mountain, but they would be the first to
descend on skis. With the light dwindling, the climbers clicked into their ski bindings and
began downhill. What took them 12 hours to climb took three to descend.
As they emerged from the clouds a thousand feet above their high camp,
they faced a full moon, a starlit sky, and boot top powder all the way
to their tent. So much for conventional wisdom—this time.


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