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International 2002 Muztag Ata Expedition

Part Two

                                               August 7th found us on a six-hour bus journey to the road head nearest base camp.  We first stopped about one hour out of the city at a small town to buy bread and some provisions for the trip, and also visited the local mosque which is in the guide book as a must see place.  The rest of the journey was along the Suxabe River with numerous breaks in the road.  The work crews were doing their best to fix these river related problems, along with one’s brought about by streams that only flow in the afternoon once the snow melts in the surrounding mountain range.  Lots of work going on that just seems to be swept away by the raging river along with the afternoon flowing side streams.  (More about this ride when we attempt to return to Kashgar after the climb.)  We ate our fill at the restaurant at Karakul Lake, and the lake is really picturesque and a drawing point for not only foreign tourists but also for the Han Chinese too.  Having Muztag Ata just south of the lake makes for some stunning views. 

                        By the afternoon we reached Subash (3800m/12,500 ft), and there we met the camels and camel drivers who would arrange for the transportation of all of our gear to base camp.  (To smell one of these camels anywhere near you is an experience one never forgets.  Lets just say the smell is “pungent”.)  Most people try to hurry on up to Base Camp at 4400 m/ 14,500ft, but we decided that the best acclimatization plan was to camp there at the road head for the evening while the camels took our gear to the camp under the watchful eye of the liaison officer Hassan.  It was a good plan and we put our small tents up right beside the river and had a very relaxing and pleasant late afternoon and evening.  We did this as we watched Hassan and the camels walk off into the distance.  (We subsequently learned at base camp that many climbers had arrived there too quickly, had tried to then ascend to Camp One, and were then never successful afterward because of this early set back.)  A local family  (grandfather, grandmother, wife, and young child) from their yurt offered us tea and bread, which we repaid in yuan (8 yuan equals one U.S. dollar), and then asked us in for dinner. This was a real highlight of the trip, and the older gentleman of the family made sure we were welcome and proceeded to “talk” with me for the better part of the evening, with me not comprehending anything he said.  We shared a large melon that we had picked up in town before leaving, and also made sure to offer them some drinks we had before the grandfather started to play a banjo like instrument and began to sing.  (You don’t get these sorts of experiences everyday!)  Before the night was out the group and I got some yuan together and paid the family a nice gift, and the older man’s eyes lit up when it equaled $20 US!  (I should add here that the Father of the family was working in base camp as a donkey herder.)

                        The photographs of the trip really are impressive when putting the area noted above in perspective, especially the local graveyard in front of the town, and all of that framed with the mountain behind.  Its one of my favorite pictures along with the one of Karakul Lake with Muztag Ata in the background, and also in the mountain reflection in the water of the lake.

                        After a very restful nights sleep along the stream (I love camping beside the water) we packed up our tents and personal gear and began the hike up to base camp, which started among the sand and rocks in a desert setting after leaving the stream.  Within an hour we had reached the last dwelling in the area, with no one home, and began a steady ascent on a well-worn path.  Since we had no camels, donkeys, or horses, to jump on to cross the raging stream that was flowing out of the Tergam Bulak glacier, some of us proceeded to hunt for a safe crossing, while others just plowed through it with their boots on.  After a little “bush whacking” up stream along the boulders some of us found a good hopping across point among some rocks and safely negotiated the crossing with dry feet and boots.  About two hours of uphill hiking after this found us at base camp, which was a quite crowded with many tents in a field of boulders and grass placed at the foot of the first ridge on the mountain.  Among the local marmots (large gopher type animals) were German climbers, some Spanish, Austrians, a small group of Japanese, some more Spanish, two groups of Italians (to include our friends from the bus), and some Han Chinese.  It seemed pretty crowded at first sight, but the crowd generally dwindled as time went on, since many groups seemed to leave early on as the weather was not that favorable for climbing up high.  (i.e. The deep snow, cold temperatures, and high winds, made climbing an uncomfortable undertaking.) 

                        The search for some good tent sites for all of us took some time, but fortunately we found some where we could put all of the tents together in a well protected area away from the wind.  (The Chinese had put up many tents for their “scientific expedition”, although little evidence was around concerning any scientific work, and most of their efforts seemed centered around making room and accommodation for climbers who wished to pay for a formal and pre-set-up base camp.)  Once settled in with our personal tents we then moved to our “cook tent”, which to be honest had already been established by our liaison officer and the local cook he had arranged for.   Our cook turned out to be excellent, once we asked him to be easy on the grease after the first few meals, and the usual well stocked dinner commenced.  Dinner at base camp usually consisted of tea or instant coffee, nuts, crackers, and then several dishes of vegetables (brought in from Subash via camel) and “mystery” meats (perhaps mutton, yak, dog,…) , and all that served with large amounts of rice or noodles.  (i.e. lots of carbohydrates)  The climbing association had also transported with the camels enough beer and soda so that each of us could have one a night at dinner if we so wished.  (Pretty good setting to drink a beer or soda at sunset!) 

                        The “latrine” for the area were two holes (“men’s” and “women’s”) dug in the ground and surrounded by some steel plates.  The problem was that human feces had long ago filled in both holes, with a huge pile atop the holes.  (The local camel & donkey men, and the liaison officers for the expeditions, all used local rocks as privacy areas for their toilet stops.)  We soon took the action, since it was impossible to use the “latrine”, to dig our own toilet/latrine hole.  That meant an hour or so with a pick and shovel digging in the rocky ground to excavate a large enough hole to accommodate our stay there until later in August.  It was good to have some privacy without dealing with the stench of the official latrine.  (Yes, even in the cold of the area you could still easily smell the official latrine, while at least the cold temperature kept the flies and gnats to a minimum during the warmer afternoons.)

                        Arrival at this altitude of 4400 meters (14,500 feet) also meant some had headaches and/or general lassitude, and that meant the day after arrival at base camp was one for relaxing, sleeping, and hydrating, not to mention the organizing for the next days trip to Camp One at 5400 m/17,700 ft.  After looking through my large two duffels of climbing gear and clothing, and putting the preferred items into my climbing pack, we then assisted with making up loads of gear and food that the donkeys would carry up to Camp One.  It was great to have the assist of the donkeys, since on the next day they carried up most of the tents, stoves, fuel, and food, after which we would carry up that gear to the higher camps and use.

                        During the early morning of August 10th we ate our breakfast and then started up the first ridge that led all the way to Camp One.  Early on it was not hard going, with grass and a glacial stream making it a perfect area for the numerous marmots around.  (Some people used the marmot holes for toilet receptacles, all the while fearing the appearance of the animal!)  Higher up the route started on scree rocks (loose and fractured small rocks) before topping off with the snow line right where the camp is usually placed.  The place has a few small areas where people can make a level tent site, and some people were just getting ready to descend with their gear, and thus we were able to use their tent sites.  (One of the Austrian climbers had an obvious birth defect with his hands, which was an inspiring note that even with that disability he was able to ascend and descend the mountain.)  It was good to get some hard exercise at a higher altitude, and the route that had taken us three hours to ascend took only 90 minutes to descend.  Then it was off to the cook tent for another large meal from our expert local cook.

                        We used the following day as a “rest day” and hiked around the local area, got clean, and generally prepared for some nights up at Camp One and above it.  I enjoyed the exercise and along with just seeing what the surrounding countryside looked like.  The other people in the camp were very good people and it was nice to say hello to them, and to see what they had been doing on the mountain before we had arrived.  We also made sure to have an early night, since we always tried to get up at 6 a.m. at base camp.  This worked out well since we could then be on our way upward at 7:30 a.m. before the weather became unsettled later in the day, as was the usual pattern. 

                        With our provisions already up on the mountain, and our tents already in place, we enjoyed the hike up the mountain on August 12th to Camp One.  Its always easier the second time up higher, although a few people carried much too much personal gear up the trail on this day.  Once there we got settled into our two man tents, melted snow for drinking water and for making the meals (noodles or adding boiled water to the pre-prepared meals), and generally relaxed and continued the acclimatization process.  As usual I was a little eager to get higher, so in the afternoon I took a stroll up higher on the hill to where the Chinese and Italians were camped, and a bit beyond.  It was good to finally have my climbing boots on, to be up on the snow and ice, and of course good to say hello to the Italians that we knew from our trip to the mountain.  The weather was not great, and the whole afternoon it snowed or sleeted, with some accumulation during the afternoon and evening.  Unfortunately one fellow climber of the group, the other American, had developed a serious and large blister on his foot during the hike up, and quickly descended to try and get it administered to.  The fortunate thing was that he and the Malaysian were Doctors, so both could consult together and think of the best way to get it healed quickly.

                        The weather even got worse the next day, and heavy snow fall continued throughout the day up high and down low into the valley and the neighboring mountains.  Many teams descended this day, while we stayed at camp hoping for a break in the weather the next day.  We tried to keep occupied by making the tents more secure during the storm, cleaning the snow off the tents, while also doing some housekeeping inside the tents.  (We were all good at keeping our garbage collected, while other teams seemed to throw their trash just outside their tents.)  The plan had been to carry some loads of tents, food, and fuel up towards Camp Two at 6100m (20,000 ft) on this day, but those plans were quickly being foiled by the weather.  (By August 27th we would have to leave base camp for Kashgar and home, so every day counted while on the mountain.)  At the very least we were getting better acclimated while at the camp, and finally took a little jaunt 150 meters above base camp to test the snow conditions, and to also check on the areas with crevasses.

                        After the long day in camp the weather the next day was actually worse, with even heavier snow, so after first light we packed up our personal gear for the descent and began a laborious task of breaking trail down through deep snow towards base camp.  At first it was not easy to find the “trail”, since you could not see very far in a white out (heavy snowfall and low clouds), but soon we found our way along the ridge and got down into a much thinner snowfall altitude.  (A friend has a nice picture of me starting down from Camp One with the tents covered in snow.)  Hassan had even hiked up the ridge a bit to say hello in his sneakers, and we were glad to see him and to arrive in base camp none too weary or wet.  Even this camp had taken a heavy beating, since a few cook tents had lost the battle to stay upright in the heavy and wet snowfall, and the metal frames had buckled.

                        We used 15 August as a rest day and cleaned up our clothing and ourselves before sitting down to figure out how to continue climbing on the mountain in the poor weather, and with the time getting near when we would have to leave for Kashgar.  It was decided to go up to Camp One on the following day to check on our tents and gear, while also preparing to set up Camp Two in the days ahead, and then continue higher up if at all possible.  So that night we were all set to go with our climbing packs full with our high altitude clothing and gear, and settled down to an excellent meal.

                        The next day found us safely up at Camp One after several hours of upward hiking and then trail breaking in several inches of snow with our trekking boots.  The weather was not perfect on this day, with occasional periods of snow and sleet, but certainly good enough for this upward move.  It was disheartening though to see some people moving up higher in crampons when conditions did not warrant that sort of gear.  (The crampons just make you drop deeper into the snow with every step versus uses snowshoes or skis.)   No wonder these Germans looked so tired.  The night was long and uncomfortable, since three of us were crammed into a two-man tent, and I was the only one without a “humongous” (very large) sleeping bag and pad, and thus I got the smallest space!  (I learned way back in 1989 in Pakistan on Broad Peak with a small French team to travel as light as possible to conserve energy for higher up.)

                        Finally, and I say “finally” since it felt so long to have been on the mountain without really getting higher, we moved some tents and supplies up to Camp Two at 6100 meters (20,000 feet).  That meant carrying heavy packs up through the deep snow just above Camp One and then through some seracs (rather large blocks of snow and ice), before then working around and over a large crevasse.  (Fortunately the first team over this crevasse early in the season had put a rope across this area, which made for a safer journey.)  Once through this area was a long and steep slope that got steeper with deeper snow near its top.  It seemed forever before we reached the top of this slope where most would put up Camp Two.  After a short rest we then moved even higher and made our camp in a wind-protected bowl where the Chinese had dug some rather large holes (scientific work?) and made a camp.  It took us about an hour, after everyone had made it up there, to dig out and tramp out a platform for the tents.  (You must protect the tents from the constant wind along with the gusts by making these protected sites, while also securing them with guide ropes and snow stakes all around them and at the ends.)  Then it was time to descend and we made it down in good order in approx. two hours after taking over four hours to ascend.  Once back at the tents we used the remainder of the day to re-hydrate, eat, and to organize our gear for the move upward the next day, weather permitting.

                        Unfortunately during this first trip up to Camp Two Dan re-injured his heel and thus he was forced to descend to base camp to recuperate.  Since there was no more time for the heel to heal, and to then re-ascend with us, he made it out to the road head while we were up on the mountain and returned to Kashgar, and then home, on his own.

                        Now came the important trip back up to Camp Two, and the establishment of this firm base for the move up to Camp Three at 6800 meters (22,300 feet).  So on 18 August we found ourselves breaking trail upward through deep snow to regain our highpoint from the previous day.  It was actually easier this time around, and we had company with a Russian friend on the Italian team who just wanted to come up one time and see where Camp Two was situated.  It made a change from the usual slogging upward, and it was nice to have someone new on the team for at least this day.  This time we knew the route and carried in our packs some gear for Camp Three and for hopefully the summit attempt in the next few days.  Of course more snow fell during the afternoon, but we were getting use to that.  We were also getting use to being cramped into small tents, which changed a bit here at the higher camp with a slightly larger tent.  Once there at camp I found two Italians using our tent as there’s, which is not quite true sporting behavior.  (i.e. They had not bothered to carry their own tent up, so used anyone else’s that had one there.)  Once the Italians vacated the premises we reset the tents and made ready for the continuing snowfall, which quickly covered everyone’s tracks in the snow.

                        The nights are long and cold up high, and its always helpful if one goes to the “bathroom” before the Sun drops down and it really gets cold.  So we try to make out a toilet area, along with then making a different area where we get snow for melting for drinks and the meals.  It was good to keep everything organized.  A few of us also used old plastic drinking bottles for pee bottles during the long nights in our sleeping bags.

                        Dawn the next day found everything covered in several inches of new snow, but the sky was semi-clear and the wind was not high or gusting.  So with the conditions looking stable, or as stable as usual, we geared up and started our trip higher to Camp Three.  I was my usual impatient self on this day and worked my way up the slope through deep snow while waiting for the others to follow.  It was good to get out and about, and I crisscrossed the upper slope to gain a higher snow shelf.  Once there we met a Norwegian fellow, who was on the Italian team, and he had suffered a cold night and also had suffered some bad frostbite on his toes and was descending.  Once up on this plateau the leader and I started up the higher slopes, and when the snow got too deep we changed into snowshoes and waded through the new snow that way.  Once up higher we found the Camp Three that the Germans and some Italians had established, and rested there before the Sun turned to clouds and snow fell once again.  On this slope I found a new talent, and that is going to the toilet and bending down for that with snowshoes still on my climbing boots.  It made for a precarious perch, but fortunately the job got done successfully and not on my snowshoes.  Once up this slope we found the higher Italians camp of one tent, and soon knuckled down to building our own tent platform and area.  That meant more digging and tramping in the snow.  Before long the rest of the group arrived and we were able to establish this camp with five of us in two tents, and of course three people in the two-man tent that I was in.  (I am always such a lucky fellow, not.)

                        Once up at this higher camp some Germans dropped in and made a camp of their own just down from us in the driving snow.  They dug for a long time and made quite a hole for the one tent they put in, and then they descended.  The three Italians that had ascended to this area the day before then descended from the summit on skis, and it was good to see and hear that they were all right.  With being so cooped up in the small tent meant very little movement when cooking from the one end of the tent, although we tried very hard to really re-hydrate as best as we could.  I do not like being cramped up, and my four-bedroom house on one acre of wooded land attests to that!

                        Dawn found the inside of the tent covered in frozen condensation (hoar frost) from our breath, so any movement showered the occupants with snow and ice.  It was not entirely pleasant but one for which you expect every morning.  We slowly got ourselves situated and ready for the ascent, except for the Aussie who had difficulty in getting his clothing and boots on.  Unfortunately this would result in frostbite to his fingers, which went all the way up to the second knuckle on all of them, but we would not know of this until the next day.

                        A Spanish fellow had skied up and said hello that morning, so one of my tent mates and I started up to at least follow his tracks in the deep snow with our snowshoes.  The Spaniard took a different line then we thought was wise, so I then began making tracks upward to the slope and then crossed over to his tracks higher up.  Once there we all took a break for liquids and a candy bar and then continued up.  On this final steeper slope the Spaniard took a break and re-heated his toes by rubbing them, and I took the lead again for this final bash up this slope to the higher summit plateau, which loomed up ahead.  It seemed to take forever to get up there, and though we wanted to stay together we slowly broke up in very small groups as we reached the plateau.  Once part way there the leader took over the trail breaking duties in the deep snow, and we frequently took rests and gasped for breath while bent over with fatigue. Small flags on light bamboo poles, called “pickets”, showed the way in the deepening gloom and snow, and finally the small rocks that mark the summit loomed up ahead.  The Scot leader and I congratulated each other before I began the descent, and met our two ascending teammates and congratulated them and the two Spaniards who were also ascending.  (A Spanish lady had also started up, later than us, and was now making it to the summit with our lower down teammates.)   My plan was to descend to Camp Three, and then continue on down to Camp Two to free up space at Camp Three for my tent mates.

                        I quickly lost altitude on the trail we had made on the ascent as the other fellows stayed at the summit to take pictures, but the worsening weather prevented any good panorama’s.  Once down on the lower slopes it actually became harder in the deep snow to descend, since snowshoes are not meant as great tools to actually go downhill.  (Small “teeth” on the bottoms help in the ascent and somewhat on the descent, but do not work well when actually sideways on a slope.)  Before long I was in a “whiteout” and snow with clouds/fog were making it difficult to keep on the trail or to see the pickets.  Even with goggles on it was difficult to make out anything.  This reminded me of the Ukrainian who had disappeared earlier in the season during a storm, which probably meant he had become disoriented and fell off the slope or ridge.  So I kept the pace deliberate once down the major portion of the slope, but still found myself too low on the ridge.  That meant climbing back up to the last “trail” or picket I had seen, which I was loath to do, but which I had to do.  Once back up in the right area I waited a while for my teammates, and we then continue with the descent along with the Spaniards.  For a while I was as lost as anyone could be, but being patient and waiting for my friends was the right thing to do, and it also coincided with better weather where we could actually see the tents!  More descending was through some pretty deep snow, since our trail or tracks from the ascent had quickly been covered over by the snow. 

                        Once back at the tent I started to melt some snow on the stoves for drinks for my friends who were still descending, and for the Aussie who had been sleeping after he returned to the tents after his failed summit bid.  It was good to finally be down off the upper slopes and out of the continuing snowstorms.  The bad part was staying another night at this very cramped tent site and tent, since the oncoming darkness prohibited my descent to Camp Two to make more room for the others.  We re-hydrated as best we could, and nibbled a little food, before bedding down for a cold and cramped night. 

                        I don’t remember much about this night except finally getting awake once dawn came for the new day, and once again getting showered with frost from the inside of the tent.  Every movement meant more frost on you before you could get fully dressed.  Before long I was one of the first outside of the tents, and we quickly tried to get the gear packed away so we could take the tents down.  The chill in the air and the wind made us continually blow on our hands to try and keep our fingers warm.  No one else was there except for the German tent from the day before, and the Italian tent site had quickly disappeared with the newly fallen snow of the last two days. 

                        We then began a long morning of descending, and first came down the slope towards where some other groups had placed their Camp Three.  We met up with a small German group who had been on the mountain for weeks, and they were finally getting up above Camp Three.  Unfortunately all three of them were in crampons, which meant they had no way to not sink into the very deep snow.  (I presume they all had decided not to bring skis or snowshoes on this expedition.)  They briefly listened to our story of our summit success, with one fellow turning back to their tents right away, and two others trying to ascend for at least a little while to look at the upper slopes.  (We heard later in base camp that none of them had made it to the summit.)  Before long the Sun came out and it was good to get warm, although it was slightly too warm for those we then saw leaving Camp Two later in the morning for their ascent up to the Camp Three area.  So down we trudged with all of our gear on our backs, with some taking a none too safe trip across some crevasses, before we all were above the snow slope to Camp Two.  By then we had talked with several of the groups that were heading up, and tried to give them some advice concerning the upper slopes along with the weather.  Fortunately we arrived in good shape at Camp Two and our Malaysian friend had stayed there until that morning to keep our tents safe from those who wished to “borrow” it or its contents for the night.  (The Chinese expedition team members were getting known on the mountain as quite liberal with their visits to other people’s tents and the provisions that were inside.  To be fair to them some teams were using them as porters up to Camp Two, so perhaps some of the gear that was disappearing on the mountain was the result of some misunderstandings.) 

                        It was too bad we had missed our friend that morning, and we decided to stay at the Camp Two this evening to rest, eat, and prepare for a very long and tiring trip down to Camp One.  I mean this because we had carried a lot of gear to Camp Two, and then up to Camp Three, and with one carry downhill we would have to carry it all down in one big push.  You may think it was easy going downhill, which is true, but all the gear on our backs meant every step downward usually meant dropping down into the snow even farther than you would wish to keep your balance, and this was even with snowshoes keeping you from truly plunge stepping down into the very deep snow.  At least this relatively short day of down climbing to Camp Two allowed us plenty of rest, time to pack, and time to melt snow and ice to drink and to make meals from.  It was also a good resting place since the larger tents here gave us plenty of elbow-room. 

                        The bad part of this day was in finding that our Australian team member had developed worse frostbite on summit day, when he had turned back early, than any of us had thought.  Each finger was frostbitten down to the second knuckle, which is serious and makes for great difficulty in handling anything like zippers or buttons.  (i.e. The fingers get large blisters on them.)

                        Dawn on August 22nd found us clearing out of this camp as quickly as possible in cold temperatures and heavy gusts of wind, which made taking the tents down a “cold finger” exercise.  One of the guys helped the Aussie down as quick as he could go, with heavy packs on, while the rest of us took everything that was left and started to make our way down the long and steep slope toward the major crevasse in our path.  After lots of stumbling and falling down in our snowshoes we were down this slope and took off our packs for a rest.  The weather continued its on and off again snow showers, and we thought of those higher up who might be trying for the summit this day or tomorrow.  (We found out later that most stayed in their tents at Camp Three the next day, due to the wind and cold, and tried to go up the following day.)  Then we crossed over the crevasse on the short snow bridge, which I almost stumbled across, and then began the roundabout route through the maze of the seracs.  I was very glad once we had gotten through this area, which sometimes was in deep snow and at other times meant going over slippery ice in the snowshoes.  One final rest stop took place at our high point from the one day of route checking out of Camp One a week or two ago, and then it was more plunge-like stepping and sliding around a final deep snow area before we got down to Camp One. 

                        By this time Camp One was largely abandoned, since most groups had either been successful and left or just plain had left.  Fortunately Hassan had guessed right and donkey men and three donkeys were heading up the trail towards us as we arrived at this camp.  At least we had time to take off our climbing clothes and boots before they arrived, along with taking down all three tents that we had left there.  Once this was all done the donkeys and men had arrived, and we helped them understand how many loads we had for them before the three of us began the slippery scree descent down to base camp and our home there. 

                        In about 90 minutes we finally made it down to base camp and a fine and happy reception by Hassan along with our camp cook.  How happy we were to finally be down the mountain in one piece, along with being successful.  It is usually one of the happiest moments during the trips and during my life!  Before we knew it we all jumped across the final stream before the tents, and we all clambered into the mess tent for refreshments and something to eat.  Its amazing that after all the time on the mountain, and the little food we had had, that our stomachs had grown small and thus before long we were too full to almost walk!  But walk we did back to our base camp tents, and some well earned time horizontal into our sleeping bags before at late supper at 7 p.m.

                        Some of us took naps or just had a nice clean up in the glacial stream before the yell for dinner and once again we had as much as we could eat and/or drink.  It was a happy evening together, and all the teams that were still there dropped by to say hello and to offer their congratulations.  During dinner we all told “tall” stories about summit day, and especially about the snowstorm on the way down.  Then it was time for a long and restful sleep, and I don’t think many of us got up until way past the usual breakfast call the next day, which felt really good.  The other Yank with the bad heel had gone home while we were on the mountain, so this one night even meant I had a whole tent to myself.  Life never seemed so good! 

                        The following day was one for getting our gear organized for the camel loads down to the road head, along with airing and drying out the tents we had had for higher up the mountain.  It was nice to have a cup of tea in one’s hand, get some Sun, and to generally get everything ready and right for us to leave.  To make this happen Hassan ran (walked really fast) down to the road head this day and got in touch with the camel fellows, and this was how one “reserved” the camels for the next day.  (No phones up to base camp, and the satellite phones continued not to work here.)  He was so excited that he returned to base camp later that day and had time to share our final meal there with us, along with a celebration with the cook.  The cook continued to excel with his meals and fixings, and he even sang an emotional song of parting before the night was out. (Little did we know at the beginning of the trip that his wife had been sick when he had been forced to leave to keep the reservation to be our cook for this expedition.)  

Another long and restful night found us wide awake at dawn for the trip down, and before long we were all ready for the fellows to load their camels.  (They had arrived that evening from the road head.)  The breakfast had been very quick, which meant we had plenty of time to dismantle first our tents, and then also the cook tent.  While we were busy the big German group was getting ready to leave, along with a smaller Spanish group.  (Two of the Spaniards had been to the top with us on summit day.)  It took a while for the camel drivers to load the camels, since the camels first have to kneel and then stay down while they are being loaded, and while more stuff than you can ever believe is loaded onto them.  So after waiting for all this we finally headed down the trail on August 24th, with us having been at or above base camp since the 8th of August.  All too quickly we lost altitude while following the trail, and the views of the route above Camp One were great.  The sky was so clear this morning you could even make out the trail to Camp Two and then above that for a little ways.  It was fun going over the route with each other and remembering the experiences up there.  Our only true obstacle this day was the stream crossing, and we all bounded over it with little trouble since it was still in the morning and the glacial melt had not really started for this day.  Then we were down to the first encampment for the locals and met a man before continuing over the broken and rocky ground.   We then retraced our steps from August 8th past the local cemetery and over the stream before stopping and resting alongside the stream and the local’s yurt.

It was good to be down so low and feel the warmth from the air, and to lie down on the grass and enjoy the stream/river flowing beside us.  The locals swarmed all over us to sell things before realizing we had been there before and were not interested in any purchases.  I then shared a can of coke, which I had squirreled away for the trip down, with the local man who had invited us into his yurt for dinner the night we had visited here before.  It was good then to break bread with the family and to have tea with them as we waited for the slow camels to catch-up with us.  As we waited the Spanish group also arrived as two trucks arrived and then a bus.  Since we did not want to wait for every group to get down off the mountain (the Germans had not even started to leave camp yet), we loaded our gear and ourselves on one of the small trucks and proceeded down to the lake for a late lunch.  By that time our bus arrived and met up with it at the lake as we relaxed there for a big lunch and for some great pictures of the lake and us there in its reflection.  So by about 2-3 p.m. we started down the road alongside the river on what we thought would be a 6-hour ride back to Kashgar, or at least we thought that at the time.  I guess I should also add that the bus driver was less than an eager fellow this day, since we thought the night before he may have drunk too much and had a nasty headache/hang-over.  (He kept stopping the bus to wash his face with cold water from the mountain streams.) 

As we descended we had to slow and then stop for several breaks in the road and the workers that were helping fix them, and to re-pave them.  Then we broke out to what we thought was easy ground, and there came the real breaks in the road from the snow melted water gushing down from the mountains higher up.  The first major break resulted in the work gangs changing the flow of the mountain stream, which enabled them to fix the break in the road, and our driver expertly got through the area before we re-boarded the bus.  (Before that a small truck had become wedged in the road, and the locals pushed it out.)  Then after we thought the worst was really behind us the real major obstruction was just up ahead.  During major rains the year before the waters had unseated the original bridge and had washed it downstream, alongside the broken bridge section there were also the remains of a vehicle that seemed to have been caught there.  As we turned the corner we at least saw a major earth shovel at work attempting to fix the problem with a major stream that was flowing, with a jeep caught in the middle of the torrent.  Slowly the shovel operator fixed the worst parts of the break, with the shovel in the middle of the water, and as the local headman/engineer directed him how to fix it all.  The vehicles started to re-cross the stream, with varying degrees of success.  (This also included many buses, since Lake Karakul is a major tourist spot of this area, so lots of tourists were waiting with us to cross this section.)  All too soon buses and trucks were getting stuck in the stream, but fortunately the locals and workers were able to push and pull the stuck vehicles through.  Then it was our turn and we jumped on to the bus as it miraculously made it through this stream and back on to the main road.  (Fortunately the water level had started to drop since the Sun was down and it was starting to get cold again there and up in the mountains!)

So in gathering darkness we along with everyone else started the long descent down into the local valley, with headlights as far as the eye could see from all the vehicles that could now get past the roadblock.  Since everyone was tired, especially the driver, we stopped along the road for a late dinner.  We had stopped at the same place on the way up, so it was nice to stop and relax and have some refreshment along with some bread and then kebabs.  The Spanish climbing group and bus also stopped and we drank to them before we headed off and down into Kashgar proper.  After about nine hours we finally reached Kashgar and the Seman Hotel and unpacked the bus before finally getting to our rooms around midnight. 

It was great to get there, since with the problems on the road we were thinking we might have to spend the night there before the mountain streams stopped flowing and we could continue onward.  The next best thing about that day was finally getting a real hot shower and getting all the dirt and grime off since we had left there on 7 August.  What a wonderful feeling to get into bed with clean sheets and a clean body, and a night of interrupted sleep.  Not to mention a real bathroom where one did not have to find a rock to squat behind!  Getting back to the hotel meant also picking up our city clothes that we had left in storage, which were nice and clean for our return.

We had not only wanted to return to Kashgar early to get clean and some rest, but also because the next day was the Sunday market, which was famous in the area for its wide assortment of trade goods from all around the region.  It was to live up to its legend.

So on Sunday morning we all got up and ate a leisurely breakfast of rice porridge and half boiled eggs, which to be honest I never ate and instead found some bread and munched on that along with drinking some unsweetened tea.  Then it was time to head towards the market, which we did in an old horse drawn cart that barely moved faster than a walk but gave us some fun and time to sightsee.  After that we walked past the melon market, full to overflowing with vendor after vendor, before reaching the enclosed market. (There was a glut of melons during this season, and we regularly bought one for the whole group to eat.)  Once inside this large enclosure it was elbow to elbow with the locals/Kirghiz who were selling and buying about anything you can imagine, and at very cheap prices to us.  I think we all enjoyed just seeing what they had available, along with getting out and about in the city.  (People who know me will understand how much I dislike crowds, but I made an exception for this day and really enjoyed it all.)  At least the area was covered in wide tarps, which kept the hot Sun off everyone while also allowing the breeze in to cool the area.  Later on I bought some local caps to give to my Mother and some friends before we all exited the bazaar for some refreshment and some fresher air. 

Just down the street there were plenty of stalls for sitting down and eating, and we let Hassan pick the best one.  The “menu” consisted of hard bread along with rice balls and meat steamed in a mixture of dough.  The meat that they used for this mixture came from three slabs of beef that hung right there in the market place, and which attracted large numbers of flies, bees, and hornets.  (I stayed well away from the meat and away from the food!)  The food stalls all attracted these flying creatures, and they like the “candy” stalls the best!  Right beside our “restaurant” was a place selling cool drinks, which consisted of water, ice, and some sugar-flavored potion, which turned out to be pretty good tasting and very cheap.  We stayed here a while so one of the team could return to the market and by some bed comforters for his family. During that time we did not order any food so the owner started yelling something at us and threw us out.  (Heaven only knows what he was yelling.)  One of the fellows then returned to the hotel in a taxi since his stomach was misbehaving, and the rest of us walked along the road before seeing some “barber shops” and stopped there.  It was also good to get out of the Sun and heat.

We all then got haircuts and shaves from two if not three different shops (we would have waited forever if five of us waited at one place), and it was a great feeling to get your face massaged several times before the barber would shave you three separate times.  Not to mention the hair cuts with somewhat dull scissors.  Right across from us were “restaurants” which served some food, while also attracting customers with TV screens that displayed western type videos and other violent shows.

Hassan also took some time during this day to find some gloves for the Aussie teammate with the frostbite on his fingers, and the gloves could keep the blistered fingers from getting dirt on them.  The one thing to be careful with frostbite is the blisters and getting them broken, and then getting the damaged area infected.  Fortunately we had the proper drugs to help fight off infection, along with some bandages if the blisters broke and started to seep fluid. 

After this was more walking and we passed by some French tourists whom we had met on the road back from Lake Karakul, and it was funny to be all clean and presentable versus our looks when returning from the mountains just the day before.  We also had a nice tea break up in a very dirty place that at least had lots to eat, along with some cake for desert that was not all that bad. (The place use to be a department type store, and they kept the garbage stacked up in one end of the place.)  Then it was back to the hotel for some rest and clean up from the haircuts and shaves, and the dust, before a light meal in the evening. I also tried to write several postcards to family and friends this night before falling fast asleep.  

The first stop after breakfast this next day (26 August), before the day got hot, was to the Kashgar Mountaineering Association (Hassan’s brothers place) for a friendly visit.  Our expedition leader needed to settle accounts for the transportation with Keyoum, and it was nice to chat a while with him about the results from all the expeditions during the season.  (Not many had been successful on Muztag Ata because of the bad weather.)  Keyoum also very kindly gave both of us pendants from the association, and I repaid the kindness with one of my Seven Summit postcards from 1997.  (The postcard highlights all the dates of the Seven Summit climbs, and on the front places those climbs on a flat globe presentation.)  The pendant now hangs proudly on my wall at work. 

I then took a walk back to the hotel, but first off visited a local military sales shop with another translator/interpreter that Keyoum had working for the association.  I found some Chinese army caps and emblems that I liked and the translator then proceeded to haggle with the owner, who had found what I wanted beside his bed in the very rear of the shop.  (Most locals seemed to buy the clothes and sneakers from the shop, versus what I was interested in.)  After some loud negotiation the owner wanted something like the Chinese equivalent (“yuan”) of two U.S. dollars, and I gave him five dollars after a little more negotiation.  I was probably way overpaying him, and he surely wanted to give me change back, but I could not help from giving him something extra for the articles that I had been looking for in town. 

Another stop was in the local “supermarket”, where a separate individual who uses the store as their own place of business administers every row of goods.  It was interesting to see several rows of the same goods, but available from different owners.  I bought some Chinese flags while browsing through the store, before then getting back to the hotel for lunch.  We then ate lunch at a place on the sidewalk that offered kebabs and bread along with soda’s and beer.  We ate our fill, and of course later that evening after supper at a major restaurant yours truly got quite sick very suddenly.  So much for eating kebabs along the sidewalk, and then overeating at a fancy place too. 

The next day was one of more exploring the town/city and enjoying the mornings before the warmer and sometimes hot afternoons.  Of course “hot” is relative after being up in the mountains for several weeks and getting use to the colder temperatures there.  It was just nice to walk around a bit, and some of us treated ourselves to a pastry or two at a nice looking dessert store.  (No, I did not get sick after eating there!)  The rest of the day was then making sure we were all cleaned up and prepared to leave the next day on the train.  Hassan had kindly found a local laundry for us, so we used it to clean our climbing and traveling clothes, and thus start off back home all clean and tidy. 

We also had a nice look at the old Russian Consulate area of the hotel, and it was interesting how well preserved the place was, and how guests use to be treated after the turn of the century.  Hassan asked the owners to let us walk through the place, and they had quickly given their okay.  Most of the main and newer hotel was taken up with Japanese and Chinese tourists who stayed in the city for a couple of days sightseeing before traveling south to Karakul Lake for a look see, and then usually returned to Urumqi and then Beijing. 

The 28th of August started off nice and relaxed before we needed to get to the train station in the afternoon to catch the 24-hour train to Urumqi.  (Most locals use the train or buses to get around, and they also use the “hard seat” as the cheapest form of travel.)  We made out first mistake by not getting to the train station in plenty of time to load our bags and us on the one and only first class car.  When we did arrive thirty-minutes before departure time there was pandemonium at the nice newer type train station, and we were lucky to get through the small doors and through the crush of people, then through security where they x-rayed the bags, to then get through more small doors with our big climbing bags to then the proper car on the train in the mass of people.  Then the car “stewardess” would not let us take all of our bags into the first class compartment, which meant some of us then hustled down to the end of the train and the one and only freight car to load them on there.  Of course first they had to open those doors and then argue with Hassan about why the first class car would not let us put our bags on there.  As time for departure quickly approached I ran back to the main car, got my ticket, and ran back to the freight car to officially load the bags on.  The doors quickly closed as the train started to move, and I waved goodbye to the team leader (staying on for some trekking), along with Hassan.  (Hassan needed to catch a train shortly to attend University in the eastern part of the country, but had not bought a ticket yet.)  The “fun” was only starting for us. 

Once the train started the lady in the freight car then tabulated our charges for the bags that were sitting in a very empty car, and one that smelled badly of old fish.  Once that was done, and all the while they “talked” with me like I understood Chinese, one of the ladies was to accompany me forward to the first class car so we could pay these charges and get a receipt.  Thankfully the guys had taken my climbing pack so I could run back to the freight car, since very shortly I was to find out how cramped and full the “hard seat” cars were.  It must first be explained that on Chinese trains there are “hard seats”, which are the cheapest fare, “soft seats” which are the next cheapest, “hard bed” where you actually get a bunk but no privacy, and the “soft bed” (first class) where there are four bunks in the small room, a solid and lockable door, and decent toilet for the whole car.  (The toilets are generally locked in the other cars so passengers won’t hide from the ticket ladies, thus most people go to toilet in the area that connects the cars to each other.  Easy for guys but less easy for the women.)  It was an unbelievable sea of humanity in the hard seat cars, and I literally had to push my way through these two cars just to get close to the soft seat cars.  It was like sardines in a can, with people and their luggage packed wall to wall, and this got worse as the train continued to stop and take on more passengers.  Yikes.  Thank the Lord we were in the one decent car on the train.  After getting through the soft seat cars without too much trouble I then stopped in the “dining car” for a drink, and did not visit there again during the train ride.  (This dining car was not too clean, and people smoked heavily there, so I stayed away and then drank and ate things we had thought to bring on the train with us.)  Once I got to our compartment the ticket lady was waiting for us to pay the freight bill, and I still don’t know how she passed me as I worked my way forward through most of the cars on the train.  Of course my buddies were wondering what had taken me so long to reach their/our car.  (Later on they took a peek at the hard seat area, and then stayed well away from it.) 

After that adventure through the cars on the train I washed up, and changed T-shirts, before relaxing in our tiny four-bunk compartment, or in the even tinier hallway.  I was not pleased to be enclosed in such a small place, but felt thankful that it was not worse.  The view was not too interesting, since it was mostly sand and desert, and at least our car was air-conditioned.  So we tried to play some card games as people walked back and forth among the cars on the train, although the doors connecting us to the “back” of the train were locked to keep the hard seat and soft seat people from migrating up in class on the train.  (Just opening a window made one realize how uncomfortable the other parts of the train were this day.)  Thankfully the Sun started to go down, and thus we could go to bed in our bunks and sleep away most of the evening and morning.  There were plenty of stops for the train during this journey, which tended to wake you up before you could fall back asleep. 

The new day found us out of the desert and up in altitude among the forests and rivers, which at least made watching out the window interesting.  That is what we did until the train arrived at Urumqi on time and about twenty-four hours after we had departed Kashgar.  We then spent some time back at the freight car getting our bags (one guy kept yelling at me to get off the car, but we had to retrieve our bags).  Once that was done we moved our bags towards the exit, and shortly the guys waiting to meet us there arrived and helped us get our bags and us down to the local transport (taxi and truck) for the ride to the hotel.  Here is where we met the Director of the Xinjiang Mountaineering Association (aka CMA or XARA), who was Du Xiao Fan.  He helped us check into a very nice hotel, waited for us to shower off the train ride dirt, and then had a very large meal prepared for our dinner.  The place was very nice, although we had no time to walk around and explore the city.  That night was our last meal with our Aussie climbing partner.  After this he began a two week holiday in China the next day, even though his frostbitten fingers were hurting him. 

Arriving just in time for the train had taught us a lesson, and we arrived very early for the 6 a.m. flight from Urumqi to Bishkek.  It was good to not be rushed and we checked in and got all of our processing for this flight done well before the mass of people arrived for this flight.  It was also my last use of a “squat toilet” at the airport, which is a hole in the floor, a bucket of water to “flush” the toilet with a scoop, and another bucket to put the used toilet paper in.  Thankfully I had remembered to bring my own toilet paper, since none is provided, and we were then ready to board the plane for Bishkek.  It was amazing to see what people carried on to the plane, especially in this day and age, and China Xinjiang Airlines allowed huge carry on bags in the compartment along with stacks of vegetables and other food items.   

In comparison to the 24 hours on the train from Kashgar to Urumqi the plane took less than two hours to get us to Bishkek, and it was nice to be at an airport we knew from our previous arrival there from London.  The passport and customs guys even seemed to remember us, and got us all together before approving our arrival into the country and letting our bags go through customs without inspection.   

The Russian fellow (Sergei) who had taken care of us before upon arrival and then to the Chinese border greeted us at the airport and helped whisk us out of there, and away from the “porters” trying to grab our bags.  We then took a bus into town and stopped at one of the nicest hotels in town, which is called the “Pinara” and is a Turkish joint venture with the local government.  We all took a shower before then relaxing beside the pool for a leisurely lunch of “club sandwiches” and beer, and the sandwich at least resembled what it should be!  Then it was off to visit the local “Frunze” museum (named after a Russian general, and the city use to be named Frunze before it separated from the Soviet Union and changed its name to Bishkek, as noted previously).  It was a run-down place, but interesting, and we then proceeded to walk around the city to just see what was there.  We bought a birthday cake for the South African team member, since it was his birthday, and enjoyed the cake in the hotel lobby when we got back there.  Supper was at the “American Pub”, which was downtown, and we ate our fill of sort-of Mexican food before returning to the hotel for a long nights sleep. 

The last day of the month, 31 August, found us sleeping in and then enjoying a grand buffet breakfast at the hotel.  Since it’s a Turkish joint venture there were several types of Turkish food available at the buffet table, and I could recognize some of them from my year in Turkey way back in 1973-74.  It was good to relax and have a meal like this before then taking a cab down to the local bazaar.  It was kind of a disappointment compared to the Kashgar Sunday market, and we tried to enjoy walking around and seeing what was available before walking downtown to see a parade.  We believed the people were celebrating an anniversary of the Kyrgyzstan independence, and also that it was the year of “Mountaineering”.  It was interesting to see all the people out for the occasion, and we also got to see where the American University was located.  Then it was back to the hotel for some more packing for our departure the next day. 

The baggage allowance on the British Airways flight back to London was 23 kilograms (approx 50 pounds) a person, and that meant many of us had to really pare down what we had in our very large climbing bags.  The reported overweight charge was something like $30 US for each kilo over the limit, so we were very eager to get below that.  It meant I had to jettison numerous old/used climbing articles, and gave them to the people who had assisted us in our travels there in Kyrgyzstan.   

The afternoon was spent walking around a park that was about an hour out of town by vehicle, and the local trekking agency took us out there for us to see how people enjoy their weekends in the outdoors.  The place was called “Ala Archa Canyon”, and it had some lovely mountains along with some streams.  We walked around it for a couple of hours and enjoyed being outside in the woods versus all the traveling we had recently done.  It was also interesting to see the local memorial up in the mountains to those that had died climbing in the region.  Then it was back to the hotel for an early night since we had an early flight out of Bishkek.

The alarm rang at 2 a.m. and we were on the road to the airport an hour later and at the airport by 4 a.m. for the flight two hours later.  After paying the $10 US for the pleasure of using the airport we checked in and were generally at the weight limit.  The lady was very nice and checked us in and just made us pay for the bag that contained some people’s snowshoes.  Then we relaxed in the lobby just past passport control, and had some tea that we bought to use up our local money, soms. 

The plane only left thirty minutes late, at 6:30 a.m., and it was onto to Baku for three and a half hours.  We quickly got refueled at Baku and then began the six-hour flight to London.  I do not remember much about these flights, except being bored enough to watch the movie “Spiderman” four times in a row.  (There were no English books that I could find in Bishkek for this flight, and I had already shared and given away the books I had taken for the trip and climb.)  I think I can recite the words to the movie almost verbatim.

The last hour of these type flights is usually the hardest on my butt, and none too soon we were in London.  At least this time there were more than a couple passport officials, and we were all quickly through passport control and down to get our bags.  The bags came out quickly and their loved ones then met the London based climbers.  It was nice to see my friends happy.  I then waited for a bus to take me to my hotel, and the bus I took went past the hotel on the first pass, and I had to wait for another round (30 minutes) of hotel stops before finally arriving there.  At least my favorite Formula One driver was winning a race when I turned on the telly (TV), and I watched that as I called my Mother to report a safe arrival in London.  After watching the race I took an hour-long bath, ordered room service (the privileges one gets used to!), and promptly took a nap.  I woke up and watched a US baseball game before packing up and going off to the airport. 

The eight-hour flight back to the US of A was pretty non-descript, except for the plane waiting near a runway for 30 minutes since we had lost our place in the take-off queue for some reason.  The plane was pretty full, unlike the flight from Dulles to London, and I just tried to relax and enjoy it, nap, and get home as easy as possible.  The big “faux pas” (i.e. mistake) on this flight was that upon arrival at Dulles airport I left my climbing diary on the seat.  Oops.  I did not realize it until well away from the airport.  I called and then visited the airport to try and track it down, and all to no avail.  Fortunately someone up above was looking after me, and the gentlemen in that seat on the next Dulles to London flight found it, emailed me, and sent it back to me.  Now thankfully I have all my recollections written down for me to remember this trip, and to assist me in writing this report. 

So the afternoon of 2 September found me safe and sound back in my home in the wooded country south of Warrenton, Virginia, and busy cleaning clothes from the trip, paying bills that arrived while I was gone, and generally attempting to catch-up. 

It was a very interesting trip, although not of a true mountaineering/alpinist type challenge.  (i.e. There were no icefalls or technical rock, ice, or snow pitches to overcome.)  The weather and the altitude were the main obstacles of this expedition, along with the sort of traveling one must go through just to get to the mountain.  As always the people met in the mountains and along the way, and the cultures we experienced, were the most interesting part of the trip. 

Paul H Morrow

Warrenton, Virginia, USA

September 2002

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