Exploring Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山) has brought me some of the most joyous experiences of my life. As my love for the massif grew, I sought close-up views of the peak from numerous angles and altitudes. The east face, however, eluded my efforts. After years spent searching for a suitable vantage point, the best I could manage was a telephoto picture from thirty kilometers away.
Then I heard about a trail between the villages of Haba (哈巴村) and Bendiwan (本地湾村). Few locals knew the path, I was told. Few, if any, outsiders had tracked it.
“Three days. No people. Nice scenery.” That’s how the Haba guides described it. An offer I cannot refuse! Perhaps this route, Haba-Bendiwan, would provide the key to my quest. As I was about to learn, the trek brought with it an unexpected discovery—a spectacular alpine valley to which I gave the name Haba Muru Sanctuary.
The Adventure Begins
My guide, Yang Fuchang (杨付昌), tells me to pack for three days. Just in case, we put away four days’ worth of food. Good call.
We depart Haba Village, a single mule carrying our gear. After the short hike over Pusa Mountain (普萨山), we begin a thoroughly enjoyable and gradual descent along the base of Haba Snow Mountain (哈巴雪山). The sunny weather and grand views of the peak add to my anticipation for the adventure ahead.
We pass the last inhabited hut in the area and start trucking uphill. Stopping at a blue-roofed hut, we encounter residents from Ennu Village (恩努村) gathering roots. They carry wicker baskets full to the brim and soon depart for the two-hour descent home. They would be the last people we encounter for the next three days.
By late afternoon, we arrive at a remote hut, elevation 3,400 meters, in astonishingly sound condition. Good roof. Running water. Stockade for our beast of burden. How fortuitous, even cell phone service. All right! Our home for the night. Already dark by 7:30 P.M., we retire early to our sleeping bags. After toiling on rugged trails, our exhausted frames soak up eleven to twelve hours of rest each night.
Turned Back at the Pass
Day two dawns grim. Gray skies spit snow and graupel. I query Mr. Yang, can we make it over the pass? Kan qingkuang (看情况), he says. It depends.
We hike upwards, hugging to an intricate path that navigates forested islands, evading bands of cliffs. The weather hangs low, cloaking the summits with impervious clouds.
Curious. Mr. Yang packs an axe. Now I discover why. We reach a dry stream bed where steeply eroded banks would force a long detour. Mr. Yang sets to work chopping branches, creating a short cut for our mule. Quick work!
The weather worries Mr. Yang. Could be drifting snow the other side of the pass. Bad for the mule. At the pass, stiff winds blast us. Haba Snow Mountain lies straight ahead, invisible behind clouds.
I want to continue over the pass. Mr. Yang balks. Yes, we humans can make it. But drifting snow for a mule, that’s another matter. I remain skeptical as the accumulation seems minimal. But in the end, I acquiesce to my guide’s advice.
Downcast, I turn around, sensing the opportunity to finish the trek has slipped away, at least for this year. The descent passes quickly. It takes five hours to reach the pass, but only half that time to retrace our steps to the hut.
The Weather Turns
Day three dawns cold and bright. Mr. Yang waxes hopeful. No snow, no clouds, no kan qingkuang. We head up to the pass a second time.
Magnificent, the scenery in clear weather! Larch trees tinged yellow by frigid autumn air, contrast dramatically with eternal evergreens. I scan Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (玉龙雪山) from an angle I’ve never experienced. The highest summit, always invisible down inside Tiger Leaping Gorge (虎跳峡), pokes above lofty spires.
In the valley far below, I spy Watership Tank Meadow, a landmark along the Luke-Haba Route (栌克-哈巴路线).
We pause at a viewpoint that shouts superlatives. I would have passed by unaware if Mr. Yang had not pointed it out. Just off the trail, I ascend a rocky knob that rises above the forest canopy. Stunning. A 360-degree view of rugged peaks and profound valleys.
But the best is yet to come.
The Quest Fulfilled
We reach East Pass, as I call it, the high point of the trek at 4,300 meters. We pass through a stone wall, cross over the crest and behold! Magnificent, awesome — the east face of Haba Snow Mountain.
Spectacular scenery! Moved by nature’s beauty, I shout for joy. Maybe Mr. Yang knew all along that the weather would turn. I don’t know. But this glorious day makes up for the previous.
The east face, what a chaotic concoction of ridges, walls, spires and icy couloirs. Quite unlike the massive rock wall comprising the west face. Far wilder than the north slope, the easy glacier route to the summit.
I spy a couple of “super couloirs”—high-angle snow and ice gullies leading to the summit area. And the south ridge! An impressively long serrated skyline, surpassing 4,000 meters for a good ten kilometers. Too bad, my best days as a rock and ice climber passed years ago -- but I can still dream.
Into the Depths
My gaze drifts down, lower and lower, into the bowl-like valley beneath the east face. The drop off seems bottomless. A single camera frame won’t capture it all. So grateful Mr. Yang knows the way as we descend into the bowl. We walk along the top of cliffs, penetrate deep into forests across severely tilted terrain. Travelling here without a guide strikes me as suicidal.
At the nadir of the valley I glimpse a hut. Stay there tonight? Kan qingkuang, says Mr. Yang.
I lag behind to take photos. Our axe, a weird sight, lies solitary on the trail. Slipped off the mule. I walk the final stretch to the hut like a lumberjack, axe slung over the shoulder.
No one home, ours for the night. I search for and find the resident whisk broom, a crude cluster of branches that serves the purpose. Soon the shelves and bunks are clear of trash and offal, ready for occupation. Mr. Yang proclaims the hut belongs to yak herders, friends he knows from Bendiwan.
Admiring ridges above turned gold by the setting sun, I appreciate the unusual character of this deep bowl of a valley. Ringed on three sides by high peaks. Unseen from any populated place. Guarded by high passes. Drained by an inaccessible canyon. Seldom trod by visitors.
I start to view the valley differently, as sacred space, a sanctuary. Focusing on the last word, I recognize the inspiration comes from another place. I recall descriptions of Nanda Devi Sanctuary (楠达德维山庇护所) in northern India, an isolated, primeval valley surrounded by lofty Himalayan peaks. A place of transcendent beauty that attracted mountaineers, trekkers and scientists, until closed to human footprints in order to preserve the delicate environment.
I know of no other valley on earth that compares with the uniqueness and wonder of Nanda Devi Sanctuary, certainly not here at Haba Snow Mountain. But the similarities are several and striking. To me, Haba Muru Sanctuary (哈巴雪山庇护所)—as I shall call it—ranks among Yunnan’s special places.
Naming the valley Haba Muru makes sense, for that is the original name of the peak. In the language of the Naxi ethnic minority, Haba means golden flower and Muru means snow mountain.
Descent to Civilization
The color of gold saturates the skyline when I arise early next morning. A solitary bird projects song off the cliffs, receiving answer from afar. The conversation continues, joined by other birds announcing their wakeup calls. The last day of our trek begins.
We descend to another hut, then commence the uphill journey to Pass 3770. Near the pass we encounter artifacts of civilization, water pipes leading down into Tiger Leaping Gorge to supply several villages there. Animal rations run low. Mr. Yang scours the forest for bamboo to feed his mule.
The uphill journey continues to Miner’s Pass (矿工垭口), the high point of the day at 3,870 meters. My camera battery conks out abruptly. With views of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in mind, I vow to return to capture photos of the impressive scene.
One last glance at Haba Snow Mountain, then we start down. Way down. Down the unremitting, sole-pounding, knee-jarring descent to Bendiwan Village. We pass through an extensive mining district. Forlorn buildings and rusted equipment betray abandonment. I learn the tungsten mine (钨矿) has recently closed after fifty years in operation, purportedly for good.
At a fork, we take the path lesser traveled. The footpath, arduously steep, fades in and out. We slide down pastures of vegetation. Stinging nettles take a toll even through the fabric of my pants. Four hours after leaving Miner’s Pass we reach the Tiger Leaping Gorge trekking path, a few minutes’ walk from Bendiwan Village.
I check into Halfway Guest House (中途客栈) for two nights. “Why two?”, asks the owner. Seems nobody stays more than one night. “I’m tired and need rest,” I reply. “Me too” he says. A sentiment I understand, given the steady stream of arriving trekkers who require his attention. Exhausting, this trekking business, for those who walk and those who serve.
Return to Miner’s Pass
Two days later I return to Miner’s Pass with camera fully charged. I hire a driver/guide to navigate roads through the defunct mining district, cutting the elevation gain substantially. On the hike up, we cross streams turned milky white by mine tailings. Unsightly. Undrinkable.
From the pass, elevation 3,870 meters, we gain a restricted view of Haba Muru Sanctuary. But, oh, the sight of Haba Snow Mountain and its rugged east face! Nearly as fine as that from the high point on the Haba-Bendiwan Route.
The jagged peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, capped by a lenticular cloud, create a formidable impression. With a bit of walking around to find a suitable vantage point, I manage to fit the entire mountain into one camera frame—all 3,400 vertical meters down to the Jinsha River. Such a feat is impossible lower down.