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A Chinese Mountain, a Canadian Challenge...

After each shovel full of snow I have to rest now. As I dig, my head is spinning and I am fighting for breath. A dull pain throbs above my eyes and bending down brings on debilitating dizziness. But the view is magnificent. I am standing with three companions at an altitude of 6710 meters (22,000 feet) on Muztagh Ata, one of the highest peaks in the Pamir Range of western China—a range few Westerners have ever laid eyes on. For several days, we have been skiing up the gentle snowfields of the mountain’s western flank, allowing our bodies to slowly adjust to the rarified air. Not slowly enough, I realize. My discomfort at this height is evidence that this vital process of acclimatization was incomplete. However, tomorrow, if we can get a good night’s rest on the snow ledge I am digging, we plan to go for the summit, nearly 9l5 meters above.

Our journey to Muztagh Ata had begun several months earlier in Canada.    In preparation for the 1982 Canadian Mount Everest Expedition, sponsored by Air Canada, it had been decided that a series of high altitude training climbs in 1981 would improve the team’s chances of success on the world’s highest mountain the following year.  We had realized that while Canadian mountaineers are among the finest in the world in terms of technical ability, they are lacking in the experience of climbing at extreme altitudes. Canada’s highest mountain is Mount Logan in the St. Elias mountains of the Yukon, rising to 6050 metres.  And few Canadians have ventured onto the higher summits of the Himalayan mountains of Asia.

Climbing mountains in China had effectively been off limits to Western mountaineers since the Communist Regime came to power in 1949.  This all changed in 1980, however, when the Chinese Mountaineering Association was established to assist foreign groups wishing to enter China.  As Expedition Leader of the 1982 Everest climb, it was my job to negotiate a protocol. In response to my letter of enquiry, we were invited to send a representative to Beijing (Peking), so I left in late April, returning a week later with permission to climb the 7546metre Muztagh Ata in September, 1981. Ours was to be the first Canadian mountaineering group to climb in China.

Muztagh Ata lies in one of the remotest corners of China’s far west, hard up against the borders of Russia and Afghanistan.  For many years the mountain was regarded locally as the highest in the world, which prompted its name, which means ‘Father of the Ice Mountains’.  Local legend tells of a city on the summit where trees bear fruit year round and people live forever in peace and harmony. Other legends tell of a huge saint’s tomb in which the body of Moses is housed.

Although the first attempt to climb the mountain was as early as 1894 (by Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who rode yaks to 6279 meters, it was not successfully climbed until a large Sino-Russian team reached the summit in 1956. This ascent was repeated three years later by a team of Chinese men and women in preparation for their 1960 Everest climb. It was not to be climbed again until 1980, when an American party reached the summit using mountaineering skis, thereby establishing the peak as the highest in the world to be ascended and descended entirely on skis. This was a procedure that we also planned to adopt, but we were to follow a different route, creating our own Canadian ‘first’ on the mountain.

In late August 1981, the four members of the Everest team chosen for the expedition departed from Calgary en route to Beijing. It would be six weeks before we returned to Canada. We were all veteran mountaineers with long experience of climbing around the world. Veteran mountain guide Lloyd ‘Kiwi’ Gallagher, 42, now an alpine specialist with the province of Alberta, had taken part in the 1977 ascent of Everest neighbor peak, Mount Pumori, at 7145 meters the highest summit reached by Canadians at that time. Professional wilderness photographer, Pat Morrow, 29, had recently returned from climbing 6960meter Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the western hemis­phere. An expert skier, Pat was determined to try to climb Muztagh Ata using lightweight cross country skis, thereby becoming the first person to make a ski ascent of that altitude using Nordic equipment. And our doctor, Stephen Bezruchka, 38, had successfully ascend­ed the difficult East Ridge of Mount Logan in June.

From Beijing, we flew 4000 km west­ward to Kashgar, a city of 175,000 com­posed mainly of Uigur people, one of the 55 national minorities in China who have been granted relative autonomy within the Communist system and allowed to keep their religion and customs. Our visit to Kashgar took us back in time to life in Asia at the turn of the century. Little has changed in this city which once housed a British High Commission at the outermost corner of its Empire and which was once a center for the Silk Road that linked Cathay with Persia in the East and Rome in the West. Merchants traveled for many years by camel across the vast Takla Makan desert to reach the oasis at Kashgar, before continuing through the Pamir passes to Central and Western Asia, to the Medi­terranean and beyond.

Isolated from Western influences, Kashgar continues with its ancient ways. Transportation is still by rickety donkey carts which now have to compete with the occasional dilapidated tractor and drab government green jeep, imported from Russia. Brightly clad Uigur women crowd the bazaars, where local entrepreneurs trade their wares. The ‘best watermelons in the world’ are grown here and exquisitely patterned carpets are woven. The smell of mutton being roasted in open air stalls fills the air. Whenever our eager chaperones give us time to walk the dusty streets, a crowd of Uigurs gathers to gaze in wonder at the first Westerners many have seen. The word ‘Canada’ brings smiles and know­ing nods. Dr. Norman Bethune, the Canadian physician who gave his life for the Chinese Revolution, is a hero here, as elsewhere in China.

Loading our 400kg of equipment and food aboard a run down, dust-filled bus, we leave the comforts of the government-run hotel to drive the 200 bone-jarring kilometers to the village of Subashi at the foot of Muztagh Ata. Part of the Karakoram Highway, linking China to nearby Pakistan, the road is tortuous and rough. We inch past recent landslides and washouts caused by heavy rains. A camel pulls a road grader as we stop at an army checkpoint, manned by the casual troops of the People’s Liberation Army. As the evening shadows fall from Muztagh Ata, our objective to the west, we draw into the Sarikol Valley. The journey has taken 11 hours, at an average of less than 20 kilometers an hour.

  The valley is populated by the friend­ly Kirghiz, another indigenous race, famous for their horsemanship. During the heat of summer, the formerly nomadic Kirghiz families take their sheep and goats to alpine grazing pastures which surround Little Karakul Lake, where they live in circular felt tents, or yurts. In winter, they retreat to the mud-walled homes that make up the village.

For several days, we relax and adjust to the 3965 meter altitude. Visits to local yurts bring smiles of welcome and laughter as we struggle to communicate through signs and expressions. Invited inside, we are seated on richly colored carpets that grace the dirt floor. Sour yogurt is produced and circulated. The men are clad in black — corduroy clothing, long boots and rough wool hats atop shaven heads. The women dress brightly in red head scarves, long skirts, pleated blouses, ornate beaded necklaces and intricate silver earrings. Their proud faces radiate proof of the health of their outdoor existence. Even in this remote region, within eight kilometers of the Russian border, the word ‘Canada’ brings welcome smiles of understanding. But they seem astounded by our determination to climb their mountain, especially on skis, which are unheard of in the valley.

Our efficient Chinese liaison officer, Song Zhi-Yi, and interpreter, Tien Sheny-Yuan, have arranged for local camels to carry our loads up to the base camp which has been set up for our expedition some 400 meters higher. One morning, the camels arrive, swaggering up the valley, snorting in bad-tempered disgust and spitting regurgitated grass at their Kirghiz masters. The day is clear and warm as we depart, each clinging atop our loads of equipment and food, skis lashed below us.

  These camels have the stamina to carry more than 150kg each but they are out of their element, and even more ornery than usual, at this altitude.

  At base camp, we persuade an anxious camel driver to move our loads 215 meters higher, but from there we must ferry them on our own backs, making repeated trips to the site of Camp I at 5250 meters. As we gain height, the pace slows, breath becomes shorter, the rests longer. Still struggling to acclimatize, our heads throb as our bodies struggle to assimilate the oxygen in the thin air. Finally, we settle into our geodesic mountain tents and, sending our Chi­nese guides back to base camp, cut loose our link with the valley below. From now on, we’ll be intent on moving continuously upward until we ‘top out’ on the summit. That night, as a snowstorm howls outside, I suffer from nightmares, dreaming that I am suffocating. Awakening with a start, I have to sit up to regain my breath. This happens several times and I hardly sleep through the long, cold hours.

The storm has dropped 50cm of snow and we must wait a day for it to settle, which it does occasionally with a nerve-wracking retort. Even the following day we proceed cautiously. The slightest disturbance could dislodge a whole slope. An avalanche would swallow us without a trace.

  Our second camp is on the ‘snow line,’ the lower limit of the permanent snow that blankets everything up to the summit of Muztagh Ata, 2287 meters above. As we await the morning sun, which will instantly warm the frost-lad­en tent, we lie in down-filled sleeping bags and drink tea and hot soups. At high altitude, the body is constantly losing fluids through perspiration, breathing, and rapid evaporation at the skin surface. If we are to maintain our strength, it is important to replace these liquids, so we struggle to ingest the daily four liters of water required. Our meals take the form of thick soups, using melted snow as a base. Because of sore throats and coughs caused by breathing hard in the dry air, we often have to force ourselves to eat. We know that survival will depend upon keeping this food and liquid in our stomachs. So we eat and drink slowly, allowing our stomachs to settle.

As the sun strikes the tent, the hoar­frost lining the tent roof — our frozen breath of the previous night — begins to melt and drip on the chaos of sleeping bags, foam pads, packs, cameras, cook pots and stoves where the four of us have squeezed, twisting restlessly in search of comfort. One by one, we slip out of our bags. Donning only boots and jackets, for we have slept fully clothed for warmth, we crawl through the tent door and fumble with frozen skis. Half an hour later, our packs loaded with supplies for the next camp, our skis clamped to the plastic and foam climbing boots we will use on Everest, we depart. Synthetic sealskins, fastened to the base of our skis, give purchase in the soft snow and allow us to climb diagonally upwards in long zigzags.

Lloyd leads, breaking trail through the wind-drifted snow. Without skis, we would sink knee-deep and upward progress would become exhaustingly tiring, perhaps impossible. Even so, breaking trail is hard work and we change places often, sharing the load. As we gain altitude, the rests become longer — three, four, five breaths — it is slow work. By the end of the day, after seven hours of climbing, we have gained only 427 meters. Ten days from base camp we are within striking distance of the summit. The nausea and headaches we suffer tell us that the rate of climb has been too fast to allow complete acclimatization. As we dig a ledge for our dome-shaped tent (our fourth and final camp on the moun­tain), we discuss spending a rest day to allow our bodies to adjust. It is important to allow more time for the system to adapt its mechanisms for the passage of oxygen to the lung and tissue surfaces.

The next day, therefore, despite perfect weather conditions, we lie in our tent and relax. In preparation for the summit climb, we melt snow continuously and force ourselves to drink tea, hot juice and soup, laced with canned meat and dehydrated vegetables. In the early afternoon, as I try to force down some hot chocolate, I am violently sick and lose all the precious liquids that I have been carefully accumulating in my stomach. My pulse drops to 60 beats per minute and my face is as white as a sheet, despite the sunburn of the previous days. Stephen, our doctor, advises me to lie flat with feet elevated, and my color returns. But I remain dangerously weak from the experience. In this condition I am susceptible to brain or lung edema, both due to a lack of oxygen being carried by the blood to the vital organs, both deadly. It has been a close call. The others had worried that an evacuation from the mountain might be necessary, which would have meant the end of the climb. The margin between success and failure at high altitude is very slim.

The next morning, September 17, dawns clear again. It is amazing that the weather has remained settled for so long. Our fall expedition is something of a gamble, since the mountain has never previously been climbed so late in the year. We have prepared for cold weather and heavy snow, and we are not disappointed. Every night the temperature falls to -25º or -30ºC and we are chilled to the bone, despite our excellent down mummy-bags.

As we rise to begin preparations for the summit climb, I feel colder than ever. Struggling to prepare my equipment, I set out after Pat, our strongest member, who will break trail today. The surface of the snow is icy and avalanche­ prone, demanding the utmost caution. All the previous night, I had worried that I would not be strong enough to complete the climb. I soon know the answer. I must turn back. I feel pathetically weak and sense the beginning of frost bite in my fingers. To go on now would jeopardize the climb for Steve, Lloyd or Pat, since one of them would have to accompany me back if I had to retreat from higher up. I am disappointed, but have no regrets. Such things happen at high altitude, where the body is on the knife-edge. One of the important things about climbing mountains is the opportunity it affords for coming to grips with one’s weaknesses. It teaches one to accept reality.

As I ski slowly back to the tent, the others are pushing upwards. As they climb higher, a strong wind begins to blow and they are forced to don extra clothing in the extreme cold. The difficulties are slight, but the effort is great, pushing weary bodies to the limit of endurance until their goal is reached. The summit, at 7546 meters, is flat and rocky, the snow blown granite-hard by the wind. There is little time for elation or emotion. Survival depends upon returning to the tent and its life-giving warmth. Pat arrives first, having skied down from the summit on his Nordic equipment. Steve follows. Some time later, Lloyd arrives, absolutely exhausted. It is more than an hour before he can summon the strength to drink the tea I have prepared. The long-elusive summit has obviously drawn a great deal from all of us.

Next year, it will be Everest. Who knows what trials lie in wait for us there? One thing is certain, however: On Everest, it will be harder. A lot harder. For the difficulties on the world’s highest mountain will scarcely have begun by the time we reach an altitude equivalent to the summit of Muztagh Ata. And it will be a different kind of challenge, involving more people, a longer climb, at greater altitudes, but with a more sophisticated range of support systems: Sherpa guides, oxygen, extensive backup supplies and personnel at base camp. The mountain may win. But whatever happens, the Everest attempt will be the challenge of our lives. This climb to the 8,850 meter summit of the world will take us closer to the limits of endurance than ever before; closer than any of us have ever dreamed possible. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sunset at Camp 3,
near the summit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

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