Chinese Mountain, a Canadian Challenge...
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 Chinaa range few Westerners have ever laid eyes on. For
several days, we have been skiing up the gentle snowfields of the mountains 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 nights 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
sponsored by Air Canada, it had been decided that a series of high altitude
in 1981 would improve the teams chances of success on the worlds 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.
Canadas 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.
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 Chinas 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 saints 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
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.
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.
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 Peoples 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.
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.
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,
well 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.
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.
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.
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 ones weaknesses. It teaches one to
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 worlds
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
Sunset at Camp 3,
near the summit