Solid Attempt of Mustagh Ata!
Some of you have been following the updates of John and 13-year-old Alex on Mustagh Ata with guide Shayan Rohani. Shy just got out of Kashgar and had a moment to share with us how the trip went. Here is his story:
I have been climbing with the Smith family for almost 10 years. I first met Alex in Peru when he was 9 and climbed Tocllaraju (a 6,000m peak in Peru) with him. At that point he was the youngest to have climbed that mountain by 6 years! So when he and his dad contacted MM about Mustagh Ata I wasn’t surprised. John, his dad, was interested in the geographical location and it seemed Alex was excited because it is the 50th highest peak in the world, it was an expedition style climb (something he had never really experienced) and it was relatively “non-technical” so he could focus on the altitude and cold management and not worry about the exposure. He gets a bit “gripped” in exposed places. :)
So, I agreed, and we met up in Kashgar along with my partner Claire who agreed to be on the radio at BC to support and encourage our team.
The flight was long and it took us a bit to get our clocks straight. Kashgar is a fascinating place, truly a crossroads of cultures. An Oasis town on the silk road it has been a key trading and stopover location for thousands of years. It is in the Uigher autonomous area of China where the majority of the locals are Muslim. We ate delicious mutton kebabs, polo, nan, and melons of all sorts of varieties there. It was hot, about 100 degrees. We toured the mosque, the famous bazaar and Shipton’s Arch, the highest arch in the world.
Finally we had all our permits and other expedition members in order and headed off to Karakul Lake for our first acclimatization stop. Karakul is at about 12,000 ft and at the base of Mustagh Ata. It is where most of the photo’s of the mountain you see are taken from. Quite a stunning spot and was our first experience interacting with local Kyrgys and Tagik peoples living in yurts for there summer grazing season. We rested there and allowed our bodies to begin the long process of acclimatization to this high mountain for 3 days. In the mean time we took a side trip to Tashkurgan, an ancient fort town very close to the border of Pakistan. It was a beautiful spot too.
We then loaded up camels with 300 pounds of gear each and headed for our base camp at 14,700 ft. It was an easy hike but we could feel the altitude once we got there. We took another 2 days rest before we even started making carries up the mountain.
Mountain Madness uses a different route up Mustagh Ata than the normal route. It is just as non-technical but less crowded, more scenic, and better for skiing; although, we were on snowshoes. A few days later we began making carries, hiking higher and higher on the mountain. The weather was unsettled with daily afternoon snow showers.
We were now finally ready to sleep at Camp One. It took us six hours to reach the camp at about 18,300′. We chose to use one of our extra days to better acclimatize at this altitude and so spent two nights here. The morning after the second night Alex woke up a bit sick and we descended quickly to showers and the better Base Camp food. He quickly was himself again and was the reigning chess champion of Base Camp.
We took a rest day at BC and then fired back up the mountain. The weather had now stabilized and the skies were clear all day and all night. It was hot on the snow and a massive melt cycle had begun. We brought a deck of cards up this time which was key for all the sitting around we had to do at Camp One and Two. We spent a night at Camp One and then chose to again alter the itinerary and spend two nights at Camp Two at about 20,000′. The weather was so good we were tempted to go higher on the mountain so we all went for a hike for camp 3 and it became obvious we weren’t ready yet. So we descended for another couple days rest at BC.
The view from Base Camp
We took our rest seriously this time and made some slight alterations of gear and food. We then shot back up the mountain to Camp One with ease. Although the air felt better there were ominous afternoon snowstorms again. We arrived at Camp One with energy to enjoy a heavy meal of rice with salami and cheese, something we never would have considered on earlier trips.
During the trip I had also been battling a festering bug bite I had gotten on a previous MM tip in the amazon. On the way up to Camp One, John (Alex’s dad who is an ER doc) and I had talked about all the horrible tropical ailments that could be afflicting my foot. Shortly after we arrived at our camp I quickly removed my boot. It seemed my worst nightmare had come true. I peeled the band aid off my foot and low and behold the tail of a worm was visible. I almost passed out and called John over to confirm my worst nightmare. Indeed he did, and much to his chagrin, he grabbed a pair of tweezers and began to apply delicate constant tension to the rear end of this little white worm. After about 15 minutes of me screaming in horror he had the worm out and on to a piece of paper for full inspection and photo documentation. Boy, I was relieved and had a great nights rest after that event.
We awoke the next morning to even worse weather but decided to ascend. We arrived to Camp Two after an easy 3.5 hours walking. Calling to Base Camp for the current weather report, it didn’t look good. Given the forecast our group decided to continue up and make a go of it “rain or shine”.
We left for Camp Three about 10 in the morning and spent a solid seven hours reaching Camp Three 22,000′. The snow was deep and we were in a white out most of the way navigating wand to wand. We arrived to half buried tents and wind with more snow on the way. Jumped in the tent and immediately began the process of melting snow and hydrating ourselves. It was a rough night with wind and snow pounding our tents constantly. Nearly a meter of snow fell that night and the next morning it was ugly. We considered our options and decided to stick to the plan and go for a high point anyway because the summit was most likely unattainable even under better skies because of the deep snow. We geared up and took off — wanding as we continued upward with a GPS in the whiteout. Wind, snow, clouds. At one point we waited on the edge of one of the only crevasses that must be crossed on the upper part of the route for a half hour for enough visibility to find safe passage. It was a long and slow process breaking trail and navigating in the thin air. After three hours we had just crossed the 7,000m mark and while we still had energy it seemed the weather wasn’t interested in improving. We took Baba out (Alex’s lucky sheep), snapped a few photos, and returned to Camp Three for a brief rest.
As we peered down the mountain it seemed the weather was better below and we packed up our things and began descending at 3 pm. I brought a rubber duffel for dragging equipment which turned into a sled for Alex and soon his pa as well. We slip-slided our way to Camp Two in about 1.5 hours with hardly any energy expended. With the thick air and a bit more energy we decided to head for Camp One. We arrived there after another quick hour and Alex could smell the pizza at Base Camp. We packed up and headed down which turned into a gruelling three hour hike back to BC. We arrived there exhausted and starving after eating little more than GU throughout the day. The pizza was there as promised and we snarfed it down with bliss. We were sad to not achieve our entire goal but happy that we felt we had the energy had the weather given us a chance. We had returned to camp stronger than when we left and with lots more insight as to the difficulties and rewards available on big mountains.
On our way out I asked Alex what was next… He very maturely said, “oh, a house boat on lake Powell for a week.” I thought that was entirely appropriate and I am sure he will be back for another adventure when he is 15.
My foot has healed allready and I am off to explore other mountains in Sichuan while I am here.
Stay tuned for some photos from John and Alex’s trip!