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Mustagh Ata 2012 — Agony of Defeat…

MM Dis­patch 5

23 July 2012

Kash­gar, Xin­jiang, China

So, agony of defeat” dis­patch here. The Mad­ness team is all safe­ly back in Kash­gar, over­all in good spir­its but dis­ap­point­ed that we didn’t reach the top of Mustagh Ata. A brief descrip­tion fol­lows, along with pho­tos from our trip:

The beau­ti­ful Mustagh Ata. Ted Calla­han photo

We delayed leav­ing BC on the 16th due to con­sid­er­able snow­fall overnight and a bad fore­cast for our first planned sum­mit day. Every­one enjoyed an extra day to relax and pre­pare for our sum­mit attempt. 

On the 17th, we moved up to Camp 1. The pre­vi­ous day’s snow had melt­ed so the going was easy, espe­cial­ly with light packs, as we had already stocked the low­er camps. 

The weath­er help up on the 18th, grant­i­ng us anoth­er easy move, this time to Camp 2. Again, fair­ly light packs and every­one stoked to get to the top made it a pret­ty easy day. 

The acclima­ti­za­tion ride” near the begin­ning of the trip. Ted Calla­han photo

Our move to Camp 3 on the 19th was an order of mag­ni­tude hard­er — our high­est ele­va­tion yet and we didn’t have the ben­e­fit of mul­ti­ple car­ries to stock the camp, so we slogged uphill with heavy packs. It had snowed sev­er­al cm the night before so trail break­ing, accom­plished most­ly by our local staff (espe­cial­ly Asu and Lob­sang), was arduous. 

We arrived at camp after about four long hours, in the ear­ly after­noon. Unlike the oth­er camps, we were stay­ing three-to-a-tent at Camp Three — warmer but a bit cramped. So, every­one got to know each oth­er bet­ter as snow was melt­ed in an attempt hydrate, eat and rest before the sum­mit push. 

Snow­shoe­ing dur­ing the first days on the moun­tain. Ted Calla­han photo

The weath­er was odd­ly mild — not very cold and no wind, but in the evening clouds rolled in and it snowed again. Because the tem­per­a­tures weren’t too cold, we opt­ed to get up at 0200 and be mov­ing by 0400. Mild, though, is still pret­ty rel­a­tive at almost 6800 meters and we didn’t actu­al­ly start walk­ing until 0500, as it’s quite a feat of will to get out of a warm sleep­ing bag at that hour. 

Trail-break­ing involved knee-deep sug­ar snow. Again, one local staff was out in front, with I and anoth­er guide from a dif­fer­ent expe­di­tion tak­ing turns in the sec­ond posi­tion. Every­one on the team was plagued with occa­sion­al­ly cold feet and hands but so long as we kept mov­ing, there were no seri­ous issues. 

Ted Calla­han photo

After two hours, we reached the part of the route where the trail turns left and starts climb­ing up the mas­sive Mustagh Ata main sum­mit. Unlike every oth­er year, when this just means con­tin­u­ing up a mild­ly inclined slope, this year we had to cross a mas­sive crevasse over a fair­ly small snow bridge. So, it took about an hour for us to fix ropes to allow every­one to cross this sec­tion safe­ly. At this point, a cou­ple slow­er mem­bers from the oth­er expe­di­tion turned back due to cold. 

Keep­ing up good spir­its. Ted Calla­han photo

From the crevasse cross­ing, the route went basi­cal­ly straight uphill for the next sev­er­al hours. The line of climbers began to spread out and a few more peo­ple from the oth­er team turned back. At around noon, there were about eight climbers left, includ­ing the four of us from Moun­tain Mad­ness. I took over break­ing trail as the two remain­ing local staff were exhaust­ed. We were above 7000m now and temps were still strange­ly warm, with no wind. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the peak was cov­ered in cloud and vis­i­bil­i­ty var­ied between 30 – 100 meters, so it was hard to mea­sure progress except by con­sult­ing the altimeter. 

After a cou­ple more hours, it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to reach the sum­mit with any mar­gin of safe­ty and that if we pressed on, we’d be descend­ing in the dark. The deep snow still had not relent­ed (usu­al­ly climbers are just snow­shoe­ing or cram­pon­ing on top of per­fect neve by this point), it had begun snow­ing again, and we had already been going for more than nine hours, with anoth­er two or three need­ed just to reach the sum­mit. So, at 14:30, I made the hard call that 7358 meters would be our high point. The team was dis­ap­point­ed but under­stood that sum­mit­ing was not worth the risk of being caught out high on Mustagh Ata at night in a storm. We turned around and began the long descent to Camp 3

Deep tracks. Ted Calla­han photo

The next day, more snow had fall­en (by all accounts, it was a freak­ish­ly wet year — even the road back to Kash­gar had been par­tial­ly washed out due to floods from all the recent pre­cip­i­ta­tion) and we got to break trail down the moun­tain as well. By late after­noon, we were all back in BC and all the high camps had been stripped and the equip­ment car­ried down. A few beers were raised in BC that night.

The next day, the 22nd, we packed up BC and loaded every­thing onto 9 camels and 10 don­keys. We stopped for a late lunch at a Chi­nese restau­rant not far from Kash­gar and the staff was most tol­er­ant of our ragged (and mal­odor­ous) crew, all sun­burned and look­ing like a band of wild Cossacks. 

On the 23rd, our last full day in Kash­gar, the team recov­ered from the huge effort of the pre­vi­ous days and we con­clud­ed our expe­di­tion with a mas­sive Chi­nese ban­quet feast. Toasts were raised to our incred­i­bly hard-work­ing local staff, to new friend­ships, and to Mustagh Ata. 

Local staff mem­ber, Lob­sang. Ted Calla­han photo

I would like to thank Stu­art Heys, Chok Liu, and Hamid Najafi­an for being fan­tas­tic expe­di­tion team­mates. Their humor and good-cheer was a plea­sure but more impor­tant was their will­ing­ness to adhere to the three most impor­tant rules which, in order of impor­tance, are (as out­lined by great British alpin­ist, Roger Baxter-Jones):

Come back alive.

Come back friends.

Get to the top.

~ MM Guide Ted Callahan

Until next time… Ted Calla­han photo

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