Showing posts with label China. Show all posts
Showing posts with label China. Show all posts

Monday, May 15, 2017

Retrospective (July, 2012): Muztagh Ata--Pamirs 2, Hazenberg 0


The Long and Winding Road to Muztagh Ata

My first view of Muztagh Ata back in 1998, across Lake Karakol
After an unsuccessful attempt on Peak Lenin in early July, and a fun but misadventure-filled hiking excursion in Kyrgyzstan with my friend Eric, Monday, July 30th, 2012 found Eric and I joining a number of other clients of Asia Mountains climbing into an overstuffed minivan at the Asia Mountains headquarters in Bishkek, headed to climb Muztagh Ata (literally "The Father of Ice Mountains") in far western China.  We loaded a ridiculous quantity of gear into the van, with my ski bag a particular challenge.  There were other sets of skis, but none that were quite as long as mine, and it took some fancy arranging to get them to fit in.  We were a diverse group:  Eric and myself; an Austrian couple (Enrico and Anna) with whom I would spend a lot of time over the next three weeks; Sergey Baranov (a mountain guide from Almaty) and a friend of his; a couple of Georgian climbers, one of them fairly old but a Snow Leopard (someone who has summited the five 7000-metre peaks in the former USSR); and a couple of other climbers who made so little impression on me that I can’t even remember where they were from, or what they looked like.  By 11 am we were loaded and trundling out of Bishkek, headed south to the town of Naryn.

Duuuude!  Channeling my inner Messner in Bishkek
Compared to my attempt on Peak Lenin, our expedition to Muztagh Ata was a much bigger, more complicated undertaking.  From Bishkek, I took an hour-long flight to Osh and then a four-hour drive to get to Peak Lenin Base Camp, and was there in time for a late lunch.  From Bishkek we would drive for three days and walk for another to get to Muztagh Ata base camp.  Because it was a cross-border expedition, there was a lot more bureaucracy involved, especially for crossing the border at the Torugart Pass.  Crucially, it also meant that Asia Mountains, who had run base camp and Camp One on Peak Lenin very professionally and efficiently, and who were organizing this climb as well, had to work with a Chinese partner company for services in base camp.  All this travel, border crossing and using a Chinese company added up to a climb that cost almost three times as much as Peak Lenin had, but it was still not an excessive sum for a trip that would last 24 days, Bishkek to Bishkek, and would cover all expenses.

It was an uneventful drive to Naryn along smooth tarmac most of the way; with a lunch stop at Kochkar, we were in Naryn by 5 pm, where we stayed at a large apartment owned by Asia Mountains.  We had a wander around town and down to the river before dinner, admiring the concrete brutalist Soviet architecture of the town and enjoying the rushing highland river that flowed through town.  Maria, our vivacious Asia Mountains representative, chatted animatedly as we walked around town, before leading us back to the apartment for a big, hearty meal.  We were in bed early, ready for an early start the next morning to get to Kashgar.

Both Eric and I had been to Kashgar before, as we had both travelled along the Karakoram Highway from Pakistan in the past; I had ridden my bicycle with my sisters and their partners back in 1998, while Eric had visited the same year while he was working as a doctor in Afghanistan.  Neither of us had visited the city since then, and I looked forward to seeing what had changed in a city that I had really liked for its Central Asian culture, its old town, its old men and its great hats, not to mention its mythical Sunday Market.

Another washout of the road to Kashgar (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
The day did not go well.  We left Naryn at 8:30 and bumped along under threatening dark skies on a pretty poor road through the lovely scenery of the At Bati valley, getting to the border by 12:30.  Sadly, we had to bypass the turnoff to the ancient Tash Rabat caravanserai that is supposed to be a highlight of this route. Torugart is not a standard border crossing; all crossings have to be pre-approved by the Chinese, and Chinese transport has to be pre-arranged to come pick you up at the border to take you to Kashgar.  Even cycle tourists aren’t allowed to pedal their way between the border and the pass in either direction, a pointless piece of Chinese killjoy regulation.  We unloaded our mountain of gear from the Kyrgyz minivan, ate our picnic lunches that Maria had brought with us from Naryn, and waited for the Chinese bus to arrive.  We waited a long time, and arrived bearing news of flash floods that had delayed them on the way from Kashgar.  We got onto the bus, wrangled our mountaineering gear in with us (there was a lot more room in the Chinese bus) and set off. 

Me contemplating the washed-out road (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
Those dark clouds that we had seen on the way to the border had gotten to the Chinese side of the frontier and released their moisture in great torrents as we drove downhill.  It ordinarily takes only about 3 hours to get to Kashgar from Torugart, and we anticipated being in Kashgar by 6.  It didn’t work out that way.  We ran into not just one, but four flash floods actively in flood.  Each one required a lengthy wait for the water to drop, or for rubble to be cleared by hand to allow us to continue.  There were also spots where deluges had come and gone, but the rocks and mud left behind required hard work to clear them.  To add spice to the mix, we had a prolonged border crossing at the Chinese border post (downhill from the actual frontier), an overturned truck on the road, another truck mired in mud, and an enormous traffic jam of trucks in front of us.  It was long, hard, frustrating travel, and we arrived at our hotel in Kashgar at 10:30 pm after eight and a half hours of travel.  We arrived at our huge Chinese hotel to be told that since we had arrived so late, the restaurant was closed.  We were all starving, so our Chinese guide took us out to a late-night Uighur restaurant where a big feast of laghman (fried fat noodles, a local Uighur specialty) and shashlik staved off starvation.  We then returned to the Shinde Hotel and collapsed into bed.

Another delay on the road to Kashgar
Eric and I woke up the next morning in our room on the 13th floor of the hotel to the sound of loudspeakers.  We looked out the window and spotted workers at the company across the street gathered outside to listen to some sort of harangue from their boss.  The view from the hotel took us completely by surprise.  Gone was the mid-sized town, full of old Central Asian adobe low-rise buildings, that we had seen in 1998.  In its place rose an enormous Chinese metropolis, full of high-rise blocks and construction cranes.  Broad avenues and neon signs, indistinguishable from hundreds of other new Chinese cities, had been constructed over the demolished old neighbourhoods.  Looking down, most of the pedestrians we saw looked Chinese rather than Uighur, and we could see Chinese soldiers patrolling ostentatiously on the street.

Some blatant falsehoods at the Eid Gah Mosque, Kashgar
We had an underwhelming hotel breakfast, then had an hour to wait while our bus driver had a flat tire fixed, a souvenir of the rocks we had driven across on one of the washouts the day before.  We walked to the Eid Gah Mosque, one of the oldest and largest mosques in Xinjiang and the focus of the former old town.  There was a huge new Chinese-style pedestrian square outside the mosque’s front entrance, built by demolishing a few blocks of old buildings, allegedly to allow quick access to the area by Chinese troops in the case of unrest.  There were dozens of hotels and souvenir shops all around the mosque, giving it a faintly Disneyland air.  Inside, though, it was still as spectacular as I remembered it.  At the main entrance, however, there was a fatuous sign put up by the government about how they were promoting harmony between ethnic groups and guaranteeing religious freedom. Xinjiang has been even more of a hotbed of opposition to Chinese rule over the past 15 years than Tibet, and Kashgar has been one of the more active areas for protests and anti-Chinese attacks.  The Uighurs, a group of Turkic-speaking Muslims who have inhabited the area for the past 1200 years or so, are less than enthusiastic about being part of Communist China, about being swamped by ethnic Chinese immigrants from eastern China, about being economically marginalized, about being prevented from going on pilgrimage to Mecca, about being prevented from practicing their religion, and about being treated as inferiors by the ethnic Chinese.  As I write these words in 2017, the Chinese government has recently outlawed “religious” names for babies in Xinjiang, as well as beards for young men and “abnormal” beards for older men.  Essentially Xinjiang is a Chinese colony, with China borrowing from the American, Canadian, Australian, Argentinian and Israeli playbooks by importing huge numbers of “the right kind” of settlers from elsewhere to overwhelm the indigenous population and push them to the margins in order to cement central government control over the region.  According to what we heard in Kashgar, each city in Xinjiang has been twinned with a much larger city in eastern China; Kashgar’s twin city is the boom town of Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta.  Each of the Chinese twin cities has to send a certain quota of new settlers every year to make sure that within a few years the Uighurs will be a minority, unable to cause further problems to the government in Beijing.

Our first good view of Il Pannetone
We mused on the wrenching changes as we set off on the repaired bus.  We drove south from Kashgar, in the direction of the Pakistani border.  We had a lunch stop in the small town of Opal, where numerous Chinese tour groups had stopped for food, along with a group of very glamorous Uighur fashion models.  From there we left behind the flat expanse of the Tarim Basin and headed up the Ghez Canyon, where a huge new hydroelectric development was disfiguring what had been a dramatic gorge.  When we emerged into the high plateau above the gorge, we found the extensive pasturelands for the Kyrgyz nomads that I remembered cycling across completely submerged in the waters of the new dam’s reservoir.  We made it to idyllic Lake Karakul, where we had camped very contentedly back in 1998, and drove around it to get to Subashi, a collection of rather ugly concrete yurts where we unloaded our luggage.  The views were awe-inspiring, with Kongur, the highest peak in the Pamirs, towering on the other side of the plateau, wreathed in cloud.  In the opposite direction loomed Muztagh Ata, which Eric had named Il Pannetone after its resemblance to this Italian dessert, looking enormous and spectacular, although with its summit also hidden in cloud.

We moved into our rather spartan quarters and then met Igor, the local representative and guide for Asia Mountains, who was accompanying the previous week’s group of Asia Mountains climbers back from a day off in nearby Tashkurgan.  We talked with him after an equally spartan meal about logistical details.  Just before the sun set, the clouds on Il Pannetone

lifted and with binoculars we were able to make out the line of camps leading almost to the summit of the mountain.  It all looked so close and easy.

The First Round

On the trudge from the end of the road to Base Camp, with the mountain behind
Thursday, August 2nd saw us finally arrive in base camp.  Another pretty sparse breakfast (an utter contrast with the lavish spreads we always had with Asia Mountains on Peak Lenin) at 8 am, and by 8:45 we had loaded our luggage onto a jeep and set off on foot to walk to base camp.  It was an easy, pleasant walk across a plain, through a few agonizingly cold rivers and then up old moraines to base camp.  It was a huge place, with well over 100 tents.  It was very Chinese, right down to the unspeakably filthy toilets.  We found the section of the camp that was Asia Mountains, and Eric and I settled into a large 4-man base camp tent that we had to put up ourselves because the base camp manager, a shifty Uighur named Akbar, hadn’t gotten around to erecting it.  Eric was not impressed with the lack of preparation, and it was a foreshadowing of things to come.  We had another underwhelming lunch, drank tea and then settled in for a nap.  The weather was glorious, with the summit perfectly clear; it would have been a perfect day for a summit attempt.  I loved being back in the wide-open spaces that I remembered from my long-ago bike trip.

After our nap, we awoke to find that Akbar had messed up by giving us the tent that he did.  We would have to move to a much smaller tent the next day; Eric was again not very impressed with Akbar’s general competence and acumen.  Both of us found our pulses racing as we tried to fall asleep; we were feeling the effects of being at 4400 metres above sea level.

Anna, unknown, Eric, me and Sergey in the dining tent (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
August 3rd was a rest day, spent in base camp.  We first moved to a new tent (which we had to put up ourselves again; it was beneath Akbar’s dignity to actually do any physical work), then spent the day lazing, eating, reading and chatting with other climbers, both Afto (the younger of the two Georgians, a surgeon from Tbilisi) and a group of Lithuanians who were using the services of another base camp company.  The Lithuanians had had a run-in with the Chinese army commander in charge of the base camp when they went for an acclimatization hike in the hills around the base of the mountain.  They had been arrested, threatened with deportation and slapped with a fine of US$ 300 per person for deviating from the usual mountaineering route.  The Chinese are hypersensitive about tourists in Xinjiang; the cycling route which we had followed in 1998 is now out of bounds, with the Chinese insisting that cyclists be loaded into buses or jeeps between Sust, Pakistan and Tashkurgan, Xinjiang.  As well, other climbers reported being threatened with arrest for having cellular data modems on their computers in base camp; all the Chinese were using them, as there was a cell phone tower right in base camp, but they were, apparently, forbidden to foreigners.  At least we were allowed to have Chinese SIM cards in our phones, which was just as well as we could use them for communication on the mountain, whereas walkie talkies were forbidden to foreigners.  We shook our heads at the insanity of it all.

Leaving Base Camp
Saturday, August 4th saw us make our first move up the mountain.  We paid a porter a pretty hefty sum (something like US$130) to carry our food and gas supplies up to Camp One while Eric and I walked up with our skis.  Although it was expensive, I thought that it might be worth it, as one of the many mistakes I had made on Peak Lenin was wearing myself out early in the climb carrying heavy bags from base camp to Camp One.  We awoke to pretty heavy snow, and lingered over breakfast waiting for the snowfall to stop.  Finally, around 10:30, we donned our packs, with our skis perched on the sides like giant antennas, and set off.  We had read that in most years you can walk in hiking boots all the way to Camp One, but this year had been a very cold, snowy summer on the mountain and the snowline was at 5100 metres, 250 metres below Camp One.  We trudged up the steep scree slope until a lunch stop at 12:30 at 4900 metres, where we gorged on raisins, nuts, cheese and Snickers bars and slugged down a couple of thermoses of tea while having an involved philosophical discussion.  By 1:20 we had shouldered packs again and were moving uphill, quite a bit slower now as altitude (and an upset stomach, in my case) started to bite.  Eric flagged even more than me, and it began to snow again.  By the time we reached the snowline, Eric had had enough and turned around to head back to base camp, stashing his skis beside the trail.  I put on my skis and climbing skins and slogged onwards, getting to Camp One, a random scattering of brightly coloured tents, just before 4:00 pm.  It was still snowing and there was a biting wind as I laboriously dug a platform for the tent in the snow, then erected the tent (just about losing a few fingers to frostbite in the process!).  I stashed my gear and the food and fuel that had been delivered by the porters, zipped up the fly and set off on foot downhill, having used the skis as anchors for guy ropes for the tent.

Eric on the way up from Base Camp
Having taken four and a half hours of actual movement to get up to Camp One, it took a little over an hour to scamper back downhill unencumbered by luggage and with thicker air to breathe with every downwards step.  It was snowing pretty steadily by the time I arrived back in base camp at 6:45, just in time for the first decent meal that Akbar and his acolytes had provided since we got to the mountain.  That night I managed to arrange something that had been bothering me since we had left Bishkek.  Our schedule for the trip had changed by a day, meaning that we would arrive back in Bishkek in the afternoon of Aug. 22nd, while my flight back to Switzerland was leaving that same morning.  I had tried unsuccessfully to change my flight while I was in Bishkek (Turkish Airlines were uncompromising:  no change was possible without buying a new ticket), but now Asia Mountains had arranged a taxi to pick me up in Naryn on August 21st which would drive through the night directly to Bishkek airport in time for my flight.  I was relieved, and glad that on the Kyrgyz side of the border Asia Mountains was on the ball.

I love the sweeping openness and rounded shapes of the Pamirs!
August 5th saw us head uphill again to Camp One, this time to spend the night.  I slept well, although it had taken a while to fall asleep as my heart was racing again.  Eric slept less well, and was concerned that his body was not acclimatizing at all.  We had a leisurely morning, waiting for some of the freshly fallen snow to melt on the trail, and set off at 10.  I felt much stronger and quicker than I had the day before; maybe this time I would acclimatize more successfully than on Peak Lenin?  Eric was very slow, with laboured breathing, and I waited for him a long time at our lunch stop at 4900 metres, where we ate fried egg sandwiches.  I powered ahead to Camp One ahead of Eric after lunch, and arrived around 2:15, significantly quicker than the day before.  I set up the tent for the two of us, sorted through the food and started cooking dinner.  Enrico, our Austrian expedition mate, arrived at 3:45, while Eric and Anna (Enrico’s girlfriend) arrived at 4:30.  Eric was slow, but looked better than he had in the morning; he said that setting his own pace and not trying to keep up with me worked better for him.  I cooked up a storm:  bouillon with ham and butter, followed by potato puree with beans, tuna and olive oil.  Eric wasn’t very hungry, but I ate a huge feast, trying to avoid the weight loss that had plagued me on Peak Lenin.  As we lay in the tent reading after dinner (I was back to labouring through Proust), snug in our sleeping bags, snow began to tickle the outside of the tent again.  It seemed to be a very snowy summer indeed! 

Up at Camp One, after digging out a place for the tent
We both slept poorly that night as our bodies struggled with the lack of atmospheric pressure up at 5350 metres.  We awoke to continuing snow, and stayed in the tent for much of the morning, hoping that it would stop.  Enrico, in the neighbouring tent, had a satellite phone (also forbidden to foreigners, but he had managed to smuggle it through the border and past the base camp commander) that he used, among other things, to get weather updates from his father back in Austria who was checking Mountain-Forecast.com.  We had seen fairly promising weather forecasts down in base camp, but the latest from Austria sounded grim:  5 or 6 days of fairly steady snow and wind were now in the forecast.  We spent much of the day in the tent, emerging for a 45-minute sucker hole of sunny weather to brew up tea and bouillon.  As we reclined again in the tent, there was a sudden loud “bang” from the roof of the tent.  I scrambled outside, thinking that a chunk of ice had slid down from above and hit the tent, but I found nothing.  Looking more closely, I realized that one of the aluminum tent poles had suddenly shattered.  We disassembled the tent in the snow and put on a spare length of reinforcing aluminum tubing designed for precisely such an event, then re-erected the tent after re-levelling the snow under the tent, which had been decidedly tilted the previous night.  Supper was mashed potatoes and tuna, made pretty salty by some disappointing Russian bouillon cubes.  As I rinsed out a tea thermos, I fumbled it and had it rocket downhill on the snow out of sight.  I walked down after it, convinced that it couldn’t be that hard to find a silver thermos on white snow, but I was wrong; after 40 minutes of assiduous searching, I had to give up and retreat to the tent to warm up in my sleeping bag and continue plodding through Proust, wishing that he had hired a good editor.

An Unsatisfactory Break in Tashkurgan

I slept much better that night; perhaps I was becoming acclimatized.  Eric didn’t sleep terribly well, as his intestines were in revolt.  I was awoken a couple of times by howling winds, but managed to fall asleep again.  We awoke on August 7th to cold and wind and yet more snow, so we decided to move back down to base camp until the weather improved.  After tea and muesli, we packed up slowly and headed back down the mountain.  I skied down to the edge of the snowline and stashed my skis, but Eric’s new Dynafit bindings gave him so much trouble trying to put his skis on that in the end he gave up, left the skis at the tent and walked down across the snow.  It marked my first turns on Muztagh Ata, and the snow was deep and soft and surprisingly unslabby, given the winds we had had.  When Eric reached me, we set off on foot back towards base camp.  It was a setback, but at least we had more time for bad weather intervals than I had had on Peak Lenin.  By 1:30 we had trudged back into base camp, in time for another unsatisfying lunch.  The afternoon passed in a rapid series of weather changes:  several sunny patches (at least in base camp; the summit remained wreathed in cloud) with a huge hailstorm and a couple of snow squalls inbetween.  I sat around reading:  I was giving Proust a rest, and re-reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s masterpiece of travel writing A Time of Gifts at great speed, relieved to be free of Proust’s meanderings.  We caught up with Olympics news as well from new arrivals and from our phones:  Usain Bolt had won the 100 metres dash again, but Roger Federer had lost unexpectedly to Andy Murray in the tennis final.  We were in bed early to beat the cold that had descended after the final snowstorm.

The view from the Tagh Arma Pass back in 1998
Wednesday, August 8th, with more poor weather forecast on the mountain, Eric and I decided to take a day away from the mountain.  We awoke from our best night of sleep yet, stuck our heads out of the tent and found 15 cm of fresh snow on the ground; we had both slept so deeply for once that we hadn’t even heard the snow falling.  The light was lovely, and I scampered around taking photos, but it was clearly not a day to be heading back up the mountain.  We had a good breakfast for once and then hopped in a jeep that took us down to the road at Subashi in what my diary records as “a horrific bumpathon”.  We transferred there to a modern, smooth, fast Toyota Hi-Lux for the drive to Tashkurgan, a place that both Eric and I remembered as a charming town of mud-brick buildings and a crumbling medieval fort.  We were keen to achieve three things in town:  check our e-mail, have a massive, tasty lunch and soak in the hot springs outside town. 

The first sign that things were going to go a bit pear-shaped came as we approached the outskirts of Tashkurgan.  The Chinese have installed security video cameras over the highway, and our driver casually drove into the other lane of traffic to avoid the first one.  We asked him why, and it turned out that he didn’t have the proper permit to transport foreign tourists.  The next camera, a couple of kilometres later, was unavoidable because of a central median, and our driver pulled over just before it and called a taxi driver friend of his to come pick us up.  It felt farcical, especially since his friend was so slow in arriving that we could have walked to town more quickly.  We finally made it into town and were both open-mouthed in amazement.  Gone was the small outpost of adobe buildings.  In its place had arisen a big new Chinese instant city of concrete and bathroom tiles, at least ten times the size that I remembered from before.  Most of the faces in the street were Han Chinese, new settlers brought in from the east.  There were still Tajik and Kyrgyz faces to be seen, though, with distinctive sandy hair and green eyes that looked about 4000 km out of place, as though a colony of Scots and Hungarians had been dropped in this remote spot.  The Tajik women wore colourful, elaborate costumes and distinctive pillbox hats. 

We found a few ATMs to restock our supply of Chinese yuan, but our internet dreams foundered on the rock of Chinese government paranoia.  Our driver asked around for an internet joint, and led us to an unmarked door in a semi-derelict building of epic filth and dilapidation.  We made our way upstairs to a room where dozens of computers were in use.  Our Uighur driver asked the boss, a slovenly Chinese man with a cigarette and a pot belly sticking out below his dirty undershirt, and was told dismissively that “there is no internet”.  Given that all the clients were on the internet, this seemed unlikely and we pressed the case.  It turned out that foreigners weren’t allowed to use the internet by some government regulation.  The boss waved his hand at us in a gesture of contemptuous dismissal and shuffled off, leaving us frustrated.  We made a grocery run, picking up some delicious fresh flat Central Asian bread, toilet paper, a new phone battery for me and some beer.  Eric and I walked the streets, shaking our heads at the changes and at the Han Chinese attitude of contempt for the local inhabitants, uncomfortably reminiscent for me of white Canadian attitudes to our own First Nations peoples.  The main street was wide and brand new, with a bombastic cultural centre and a gaudy brothel the main features, and felt utterly unlike the sleepy village I had rather enjoyed back in 1998.

Eric and I on the Tagh Arma Pass in 2012.  The mountains haven't changed.
We set off for the hot springs, via another taxi-swap delay.  We found a Soviet-style sanatorium of considerable grim and wear; as my sister Audie once said in 1998 of Chinese bathrooms in general “4000 years of advanced civilization doesn’t get you a clean toilet”.  We paid 60 yuan (about US $ 10) each for a soak in a wooden bathtub lined with a 5 yuan plastic bag.  It was great to get clean after a week without bathing, but I would have to rate Tashkurgan pretty low on the list of great hot springs of the world.  There wasn’t even a decent restaurant for a big lunch.  We left at 3:00 to head back to base camp, pretty unsatisfied with our big day out.  On the way back our taxi driver had to take a back road across the Tagh Arma basin to dodge a police checkpoint, and we ignored a Chinese cop on a bus who was trying to flag us down out of the bus window.  We stopped for photos at the Tagh Arma pass between Tashkurgan and Muztagh Ata where a glorious sun-soaked panorama awaited us, with Kongur and Muztagh Ata gleaming high and white above the pastel shades of the grasslands below and the azure waters of Lake Karakul.  By 6:00 we were back in base camp, basking in glorious golden late-afternoon light and drinking some of our beer.

Supper was late, scanty and unappetizing when Akbar, our camp manager, finally brought it in.  Eric works as a consultant around the world, evaluating medical aid programs, and as such spends his time looking for money that’s spent fraudulently or inefficiently, or just pocketed.  His professional antennas were immediately up as soon as he met Akbar; as he said “I spend my life dealing with pricks like him, and I know he is stealing most of the money that Asia Mountains pays him for our food.”  And it was true that our base camp meals were scanty, miserable affairs, slow in delivery, cheap in execution and not what hungry mountaineers needed to keep up our strength.  Even the little things, like wiping the dining room table clean or clearing away dirty dishes, were beneath Akbar, and the few times we had gone to find him in the cook tent, we found him feasting on far better fare than we were served.  The contrast with Asia Mountain’s base camp and Camp One on Peak Lenin was extreme, and it was all because Asia Mountains legally had to employ a Chinese company to provide local services.  I heard a story that Igor, the tough Ukrainian mountain guide who was overseeing Asia Mountains clients on Muztagh Ata, had gotten so frustrated the week before our arrival with Akbar that he had chased him around the camp with an ice axe, hoping to scare him into doing his job.  It obviously hadn’t worked, but I wished I had been there to witness it.

The Second Round:  Climbing Solo

Wonderful light seen from Camp One
That night neither Eric nor I slept at all well.  I woke up at 3:00 am and could barely sleep afterwards.  Eric was much worse, with his heart pounding and an unsettling tightness in his chest.  As a doctor, Eric was aware that this sort of feeling was not A Good Thing, and he was worried about not just not acclimatizing, but even having a heart attack.  We had both talked about my friend Roger Payne’s deatha lot in the past few days, and Eric wasn’t keen on dying in the mountains and leaving a wife and two kids fatherless.  It was gloriously sunny and warm and we were planning to head back up the mountain again to take advantage of the weather window.  I made my morning pilgrimage to the awful latrine enclosure and left my Gore Tex jacket lying on a rock outside.  When I emerged, it was gone.  I hunted around, but it had clearly been taken, probably by some of the dodgy local youths who loitered around the camp hoping for work as porters.  I asked around among the various Uighur camp managers and was greeted with supreme unhelpfulness and shrugs of the shoulders.  After three quarters of an hour of this dumb show, I wandered off to the Chinese camp manager, the same stern military man who had arrested the Lithuanians, to see what he could do.  I was admitted into the presence of the great man and explained my predicament.  He issued brief orders in Chinese and sent a couple of minions out into the camp.  It took less than three minutes before my jacket was restored to me, and I thanked him before heading back to our tent, resolving never to leave anything lying out of sight again.

Anna soaking up rays in Camp One during a rare sunny spell
By 11:00 Eric and I were loaded up and ready to head back up the mountain.  Eric was immediately in distress, hardly able to breathe.  By the time we had made 100 vertical metres, he had made a decision.  Since he was not only not acclimatizing but getting worse, with heart and breathing problems, he was pulling the plug.  We said goodbye and he descended painfully back to base camp to start making arrangements for an early return to Bishkek with a previous Asia Mountains group.  His skis and some of his gear were up at Camp One, so a porter would have to come up and pick them up soon.  I watched him descend, sad that our joint expedition was coming to an end, but confident that he had made the right decision for himself (and maybe, in retrospect, I should have followed his lead).  I continued up to Camp One, feeling pretty fit and acclimatized for once, arriving at 3:00 pm, meaning that I had taken a little over three hours of walking, not counting a leisurely lunch stop.  I spent some time digging out my tent from the past few days of snow, then cooked up a big supper and chatted to Enrico and Anna before retreating into my tent before sunset to beat the cold.  I slept well, and was glad that I seemed to be acclimatizing much better to altitude than I had done on Peak Lenin.

Me on my way up to Camp Two (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
Friday August 10th found me up at 8:00 and on the phone with Eric and with Akbar, trying to get a porter sent up to get Eric’s luggage and skis, which I left packed neatly for pickup.  I then had breakfast and packed up my own tent and left at the ridiculously late hour of 11:15 to skin up to Camp Two.  It was a long, slow slog with all my gear, through swirling fog and cloud.  The first 250 vertical metres went pretty quickly, but the next 250 metres seemed to take forever as I negotiated a passage through crevasses in the underlying glacier I recovered a bit on the final 170 metres.  I stopped along the way for a couple of snack stops, as well as chatting with Igor, on his way downhill after summitting the day before with some of the previous Asia Mountains clients.  By 3:45 pm I had arrived at Camp 2, a scattering of tents at 6020 metres.  It took ages to find an empty tent platform (but less time than it would have taken to dig a new one!) and set up my tent.  I felt a bit dehydrated, but after soup and tea I felt a bit better.  The skies had cleared and I cooked outside, making a delicious pack of dehydrated chicken curry, watching a beautiful sunset.  In a reminder of how small and well-connected the 21st century world is, my cell phone rang after supper and I had a conversation with my mother, calling from Ottawa.  It was good to hear her voice.

Having talked with Anna and Enrico, with whom I was now teaming up a bit in the absence of Eric, I knew that different weather forecasts were contradicting each other.  Plan A, dependent on a two-day window of clear weather, was to take a rest day in Camp One and then do a long summit push on August 12th all the way from Camp Two.  I didn’t really feel like packing up my tent again to make camp higher up the mountain, and I hoped that I would be acclimatized and fit enough to do 1400 vertical metres in one big day. 

The next day, August 11th, Enrico and Anna and I tried to acclimatize a bit by skinning up towards Camp 2+, a couple of hundred metres above us, but we were turned back quite quickly by fog and snow.  I felt very fit and acclimatized, and the ski back down was fun, perhaps the most enjoyable part of the entire Muztagh Ata expedition.  We settled into our tents to eat, sleep and read as the snow fell, increasingly heavily, with the occasional clear patch to taunt us.

My tent at Camp Two, seen from Enrico and Anna's (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
We woke up on August 12th to incessant heavy snow, thunder and lightning.  I got out of my tent a few times to shovel snow off so that I wouldn’t get buried and could still breathe.  I could feel my shovel and my jacket both buzzing with what my sister Audie calls “les abeilles”, the bees, as static electricity builds up.  I was concerned about being hit by lightning and was glad when the lightning finally abated.  The day passed slowly, and the night was miserable, as I came down with a headache, possibly from lack of ventilation.  I got up in the middle of the night to shovel snow again, then got up again at 4:00 am to check the weather.  Enrico, Anna and I had agreed to make a summit bid that morning if the skies were clear, but instead snow was belting down, driven horizontally by howling winds.  We shouted to each other across the wind, confirming that we weren’t going anywhere uphill, and went back to bed.  I got up feeling like death:  tired, with a headache and no inclination to spend another stormy night in the tent.  Enrico also felt bad, so we decided to descend for a night of recovery in base camp, leaving our tents up.

I set off first at 10:30 with a pair of Polish female climbers, Agnieszka and Jana, hoping that we could keep an eye on each other through the crevasse field, but they were so agonizingly slow (they were on snowshoes, not skis) that I got cold waiting for them and decided to ski down on my own.  I made it through the crevasse field, finding the safe snow bridges that I had tried to memorize on the way up, and then ran into a complete whiteout.  I took it very slowly, trying to follow the ascent tracks as best I could.  I was so relieved to make it to Camp One unscathed that I celebrated by falling spectacularly in the whiteout.  I was unhurt, but I took it a bit slower from that point onwards.  I emptied my cache of spare fuel and food from Camp One and put it in my pack to take back down to base camp; with Eric gone, I needed only half as much as I had planned for.  I stashed my skis at the ski line again, along with my ski boots, put on my hiking boots and raced down the track.  I noticed that the snow line had descended noticeably down the mountain since the first time we had come up, what with all the fresh snow.  The fact that the snow line was getting lower in the middle of what should have been the hottest month of summer was not comforting!

Wind flag over the summit of Il Pannetone
I was back in base camp by 1:30 (descending on skis certainly saved a lot of time and energy!) and found Igor there, looking deeply depressed.  He had checked his e-mail and learned that Dasha Yashina, the glamorous mountain guide I had met a few weeks earlier on Peak Lenin, had died a few days earlier falling through a cornice on Pik Pobedy (Victory Peak), another of the Snow Leopard peaks in Kyrgyzstan.  It was a summer of close encounters with death in the mountains, and Dasha’s death made me more resolved to be as safe as I could be in my decision-making.  I chatted with other climbers in base camp, relieved not to be huddled in my tiny tent in a snowstorm, and then had a wonderfully relaxed Akbar-less supper with Enrico and Anna, who had arrived later that afternoon.  Eric had departed the day before, and I was alone in the base camp tent, free to sprawl all over the tent.

Tuesday, August 14th found us campbound again.  I had slept very deeply, but had awoken at 3:30 am and had spent the rest of the night reading Montaigne in my sleeping bag.  It was still snowing, and the snow kept up for most of the day.  I lazed in my tent and chatted with Terri on the phone.  We were running out of days on the mountain; we were leaving base camp on August 19th, and with all the snow we had had, we had only a couple of days left for potential summit bids.  Terri begged me not to do anything foolish in pursuit of the summit, and I agreed.  We had a delicious lunch of pasta, the best lunch we had had since our arrival, and the weather finally cleared in the afternoon, letting me sit out in the sun reading and even get in a bit of much-needed laundry.  It started raining at 5:30, sending me scuttling back inside.  The rain rapidly turned to driving snow.  Snow or shine, Enrico, Anna and I were committed to heading uphill the next day, making one last attempt to get to the summit.

The Final Failure

My tent buried in the snow at Camp Two.  The expedition in microcosm
Wednesday, August 15th found me up at 7:30 am after a deep sleep interrupted by the terrifying noise of rockfall close to camp.  It sounded as though rocks were about to land right on my tent, and I leapt up to see what was going on.  It was actually a fair distance away, but it got my heart pounding.  Enrico and Anna were already on their way by the time I got going at 9:10.  I charged uphill, feeling good, and caught up to them by the time I got to the former snowline at 11:00 (the hiking path was under snow for quite a distance below that!).  I put on my skis and skins and continued up to Camp One, getting there by 12:15.  After a snack break I set off again uphill.  I was breaking trail through quite deep snow, and it was physically hard work.  There was a lot of fog and wind as I picked my way gingerly through the crevasses, glad for the bamboo poles that someone had erected to keep people on the safe path.  I was going pretty slowly, but I was still faster than anyone else other than a party of three Spaniards on snowshoes.  I got to Camp Two by 5:45 and could barely see my tent; only the very tip of the roof protruded above a deep covering of new snow.  It took an hour and a half of hard shovelling to excavate it, but by 7:15 I was wrestling with my stove:  my matches weren’t lighting, and my lighter didn’t work.  Luckily Enrico and Anna had arrived and I borrowed a lighter from them.  I cooked up a feast of noodles and dehy, and contemplated how I felt.  I was a bit sunburnt (or windburnt), and I felt a touch of snowblindness, despite wearing my ski goggles.  I was pretty tired after a long, hard day of trail-breaking, and looking uphill I didn’t see a single track, which meant that it was going to be hard work to get higher up.  I was going to need allies to co-operate in the task ahead.

A map of our climbing route (in red); image copyright Central Asia Travel
Thursday, August 16th was a disappointing day.  I slept until 10:00 am, tired from the previous day’s exertions.  We awoke (of course) to snow and wind, and Enrico, Anna and I were resigned to the prospect of another enforced rest day.  At 12:30 though the sky cleared and a bunch of climbers came through from below, including a big group of Austrians and Germans from an outfit called the Summit Club, led by two mountain guides.  I decided that we should take advantage of the trail-breaking services and started to pack up.  Before I got started, though, I got a request on the phone from below to dig out another tent.  Volodya, a Russian climber, had left his tent standing at Camp Two for Afto and his Georgian friend to use, but Afto wasn’t coming up the mountain again either, having given up, so now Volodya’s tent was abandoned at Camp Two.  I agreed to dig it out and pack it up so that a porter could come up and collect it.  It was surprisingly hard work (it was even more buried than mine had been) and I was somewhat annoyed that I was tidying up someone else’s mess, but by 3:00 pm I had packed up his tent and my own and started the climb up to Camp Three, trying to make use of the break in the weather.  I was slow and out of breath, feeling every kilogram on my back and on my feet.  I didn’t catch up to anyone, but at least there was a decent well-trodden track to follow.  I got up to Camp Three, a forlorn collection of tents at 6500 m, by 5:45, under cloudy, threatening skies, the sun having vanished not long after I left camp.  I felt worn out and took ages to set up camp.  My camp neighbours, a French group, gave me a delicious gift of pastrami, which served as an appetizer to some slightly soupy dehydrated stroganoff.  I had more appetite than I had had the night before, which was a promising sign.  It was significantly cold in the tent, and I broke out one of the chemical toe-warmers that Terri had left me to keep my tootsies warm in the sleeping bag.  

Just as I was settling into my sleeping bag, hoping for clear weather in the morning for a summit bid, my cell phone rang.  It was Igor, and he wanted to know if I saw anything unusual going on in camp.  I stuck my head out of my tent and looked around; everything looked normal, I reported.  Igor told me that he had heard that a dead body had been found in Camp Three, of a Polish man who had stayed in Camp Three a few days ago when everybody else had retreated.  A team of porters was being sent up the next day to collect the body.  It was another grim reminder of how things could go badly on high mountains, and something to think about as I tried to get some sleep for our last possible try on the summit the next day.  The latest weather forecast called for clearing skies at daybreak, and we set our alarms for a 6:30 am departure.

I woke up at 5:15 to the sound of snow; yet another supposed weather window turned out to be a meteorological mirage.  I was about to give up and fall back asleep when I heard the Summit Club expedition head past with their headlamps on.  I got myself ready, keen to follow in their tracks.  I felt like death, with a headache, dry mouth and little appetite; this was by far the highest altitude I had ever slept at, and it had been rough on my body.  I forced down some muesli and tea, but the last mouthful of tea was too much for my body, and suddenly I was on my knees in the vestibule vomiting.  I cleaned myself up as best I could, but it was hardly an auspicious start to proceedings. 

At 7:30 I set off into the fog, ahead of Enrico and Anna but behind the French.  The visibility was awful, and I was moving too slowly, averaging only 150 vertical metres per hour; at that rate it would take 7 hours to summit, and I was bound to get slower as I got higher.  My fingers felt cold despite my heavy mountaineering mitts, rated to -40 degrees.  I had never had serious problems with cold fingers in all my mountaineering and skiing experiences, and I was worried.  I tossed in chemical hand-warmers and kept going.  I was moving terribly slowly:  I would count 15 strides on my skis, then stop for 30 gasping breaths.  I felt tired, slow, weak and unmotivated.  The weather wasn’t improving either.  By 10:00 I had had enough; I was clearly not strong enough to make it, and I was leery of going higher into the complete whiteout in case I got lost.  My altimeter said that I was at 6840 m, only 350 metres above Camp Three and still 700 metres below the summit.  I sat down in the snow and caught my breath.  Anna and Enrico had come to the same conclusion, and sat down some distance away.  I tore off my climbing skins, locked down my heels and shouted over that I was headed back down.  They said that they would follow me shortly; I found out afterwards that Enrico was in the midst of proposing to Anna.  He had planned to ask her at the summit, but this, the highest point of the climb, would have to do. 

Skiing back down from Camp Two after giving up on the summit
At first I slid slowly down the up track, unable to see five metres in front of me.  After a while, though, I popped out into clear visibility and carved some satisfying wide GS turns in the snow, back to the tent.  I packed up as quickly as I could and set off downhill, hoping for a fun run down to the edge of the snow line, despite the heavy pack on my back.  Alas, it was not to be.  I had a fun swoosh down to Camp Two, but then I hit the densest pea-soup fog of the entire expedition, right where I needed it least, crossing the crevasse field.  It was seriously scary trying to get through the crevasses, unable to see anything and aware from previous trips how many death traps there were all around me.  I actually sat down for 20 minutes at one point, hoping for other people to pass by or for the fog to lift a bit.  It suddenly started to get quite warm and I was aware of how thirsty I was.  I skidded slowly and carefully down the ascending track until I was clear of the crevasses, then made a few turns back and forth across the track until I got to Camp One.  The sun made a sudden, unexpected appearance and I flew down the final few turns until I ran out of snow.  By 3:45 I was donning my hiking boots and strapping my skis and ski boots to the outside of the pack.  It was a heavy but quick trudge down to base camp, and by 4:45 I was back in base camp, unpacking wet gear in a steady drizzle.  The weather really was starting to drive me nuts, and I was glad to be off the mountain for good.  I chatted with various other climbing groups, especially a bunch of Slovenians who had just arrived, and then settled into supper and celebratory beers with Anna and Enrico, who had just arrived in their newly engaged state.  I slept in Igor’s empty tent that night just to be further from the scary rockfall that had disturbed my sleep the last time I was in base camp.

The Long Farewell 

The rest of the expedition was a never-ending gong show, a sad anti-climax to what had been an anti-climactic climbing season.  I spent Saturday, August 18th lazing around base camp in an orgy of sloth and lassitude.  I was actually keen to get going, but we had to wait for everyone to be down the mountains.  I had also heard that the Chinese government had suddenly and inexplicably decided to honour the Muslim holiday of Eid el Fitr by closing the Torugart Pass for three days so that the Muslim border guards could have a holiday.  Those three days, of course, included the day that we were scheduled to cross, so we could either hurry up and try to cross a day early, or wait two days in Kashgar.  In the end the call from head office was that we would cross the border later, rather than earlier.  This meant that I would definitely miss my flight in Bishkek, which meant that I would have to buy a new Turkish Airlines ticket to get back to Switzerland.  I was not amused, and frankly baffled why a Chinese government hostile to religion in general and Uighur Muslims in general would suddenly decide to be religiously sensitive, and why they hadn’t let anyone know until a few days beforehand. 

I slept strangely, with intense dreams and heavy, laboured breathing punctuated by waking up to spasms in my leg muscles.  I guess it was my need for oxygen in my exhausted muscles overwhelming the thin air available in base camp.  My gums and the roof of my mouth were sore too, and I wondered if I had sunburnt them on the last day, as was the case for my poor, tenderized lips.  

Enrico and Sergey at Kashgar Night Market
The next day, Sunday, August 19th was a day of comical ineptitude.  We had packed up our skis, our tents and all our gear the day before, and were ready for Akbar to arrange a lift for our gear down the mountain.  Instead he sneaked off early in the morning, grabbing lift with the Summit Club climbers (who had summited the day I turned around, climbing on through the fog using 2 GPSes; they had seen nothing at the summit, and had come perilously close to skiing off a cliff en route) and escaping to Kashgar, leaving us Asia Mountains folks to fend for ourselves.  Igor was incensed, but not surprised.  It was the first day of Eid, and the Uighur drivers just wanted to get home to celebrate with their families.  In the end another expedition company took pity on us and found us transport for our gear while we walked down to Subashi.  Akbar had taken off hours before, but we managed, eventually, to find a lift to Kashgar courtesy of another mountaineering outfit.  It was a final middle finger from Akbar, the man Eric had so quickly and accurately diagnosed as a thief and a prick.  By now, with the early departure of the Georgians, Eric and a couple of other climbers, our party was only myself, Enrico, Anna, Sergey, his friend and Igor. We got back to the Xinde Hotel by 7:15 pm and went out to the Kashgar Night Market for a huge celebratory feast of lots of kebabs and even more draft beer.  It was release from the endless frustration of the horrible weather and interacting with the unspeakable Akbar, and we got fairly merry by the time we headed back to the hotel.

Igor and I after a few kebabs and more than a few beers at Kashgar Night Market
The border was definitely closed, so we had two days to kill in Kashgar.  The Summit Club expedition was staying at our hotel, and we exchanged different ideas on how to get back to Bishkek to catch our flights.  It was possible to fly from Kashgar to Urumqi, and then on to Bishkek, but the cost was 600 euros, with something like 300 euros for excess baggage.  I opted for a new Turkish Airlines ticket instead for 950 euros; it took almost 2 hours on Skype to get it all done.  A day of poking around the new sterilized tourist version of the old city of Kashgar and eating a monstrous lunch was followed by another raucous night at the Night Market, this time with the Austrians from Summit Club, ending with us sitting up very, very late in the hotel lobby with beer, whiskey and mountaineering stories.  The Austrians had dubbed me “Young Messner” because of my unruly hair and beard; you be the judge.
The real Reinhold Messner

On Tuesday I slept until noon, then went out with Igor and another Russian mountain guide to lunch at the Altun Orde restaurant, where we ate well and drank some of the best tea I had ever had; the other guide was a tea connoisseur and we lingered over numerous pots of spiced, scented green and black teas late into the afternoon.  It felt finally as though I was back on the Silk Road for the first time since finishing my Silk Road bike trip three years before, and seemed a fitting end to the expedition.

Elderly man, Kashgar, 1998
Wednesday, August 22nd was an endurance fest of bad roads and incompetence (on the Chinese side of the border, anyway).  We drove straight through to Bishkek instead of stopping in Naryn, as we all had flights to catch, and didn’t get back to the Asia Mountains guesthouse until after midnight.  I was relieved to get out of China and the oppressive paranoia of the government.  I have spent a lot of time in remote corners of China in the past (1998, 2001, 2002, 2004) and, since I was always on my bicycle, I was able to avoid the worst of the Chinese government's control-freakery, but this year was much worse. A final morning of last-minute errands (reconfirming my ticket, getting rid of excess Chinese yuan and Kyrgyz som, buying much-needed dental floss) and then I was at the airport, ready to leave behind Central Asia for now, and big mountain summits forever.  

Kashgar, 1998
Overall, my experiences over the summer had been a very mixed bag.  I had loved trekking in Ladakh with Terri in June, but Peak Lenin had been physically exhausting and hampered by bad weather.  Trekking with Eric had been fun, but his twisted ankle had unfortunately shortened that trip.  I had given my best on Muztagh Ata, and had had a chance to summit, but the endless waiting for good weather had been psychologically draining and not the most fun use I could have put those 23 days to.  Had I had a crystal ball, I would have skipped both Peak Lenin and Muztagh Ata and just spent those 7 weeks doing more trekking in India and Kyrgyzstan instead.  On the other hand, as my mountaineer friend Sion says, “If you don’t go, you won’t know!”  I had gone, and now I knew.  Now it was time for a reunion with Terri and a return to teaching in Leysin, a day late, my beard making me look vaguely like a Taliban.  Ironically, after not acclimatizing at all well on either peak, I returned to Leysin with my red blood count up so high that I was soon setting personal bests on my bicycle on all our local climbs.  Maybe high altitude was good for something, if not for reaching summits?