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 Special Report on the Everest climber, Guy Cotter as he leads an expedition for Adventure Consultants to attempt the summit of Muztagh Ata in western China.

Update: 8/4/98 Monday 27 July

Last week the expedition did a load carry to C1 on July 23, and Guy Cotter reported that he had his first ski in two years from a height of 5300m! The team went to C1 on 27 July and did a carry to C2 but due to bad weather they dropped their loads at 5900m. There has been 20cm of snow overnight at C1 and no one has been able to summit for some time due to very deep snow up high. The team are resting at BC for two days and will go back up on the 29th, hopefully for the summit on or about 2 July, weather, health and snow permitting.

Update Wednesday 29 July

We have heard back in New Zealand that the team were ready and prepared to go up on 29 July, the weather had improved and the snow is consolidating up high. They expect to have an attempt at the top in about six days. On Wednesday July 29 they expected to climb ( or rather skiing up ! ) to C1, then on the 30th move up to C2, to rest on July 31, then continue onto C3 on 1 July, on July 2nd either rest at C3 or attempt the summit. Guy expected the group to return to base camp by July 4 or 5 ( after a long and tiring ski descent ). All the team reported to be feeling fit and to be enjoying themselves.

Source: ADVENTURE CONSULTANTS LIMITED - High Altitude Expeditions

Update: 7/24/98 Muztagh Ata - 7545 meters

Muztagh Ata lies on the arid planes of Western China. In appearance it is a broad and lofty peak with easy angled flanks. The climbing route is moderately straightforward with only a couple of steeper sections. The whole climb has been skied and is not particularly difficult so the expedition is utilizing ski touring equipment and/or snowshoes.

The mountain is approached through Pakistan initially by plane to Gilgit (weather permitting) and from there to the base camp in a coach. The last leg involves a camel trek to base camp at around 4500m.

The team will visit some varied and interesting places which are still medieval in lifestyle and belief system. Pakistan is off the beaten track for travelers but is a colorful country. They even get to visit Kashgar in Western China which was a major settlement during the Silk Road days and should prove to be a highlight of the trip, along with skiing off the summit at seven and a half thousand meters !

Dates: 13 July to 17 August 1998 ex Islamabad

Team Members : Guy Cotter, Leader from New Zealand

               Peter Weeks , Climber from Australia

               Alex Titchener, Climber from Australia, resident in Italy

               Kurt Mendenhall, Climber from USA

Progress so Far ; Thursday 23 July 1998

The team met in Islamabad on July 12 and 13 and departed for Gilgit after the final preparations were made for the trip. We heard news from Gulmit on July 17 "... have just arrived back from three days trekking up to 4000m. We had stunning views of the mountains of the Hunza region which are very high. Rakaposhi, Diran and Ultar are all in the range of 7500m to 7780m and there are countless other very large and rarely visited peaks here. Tonight we are staying in Gulmit and tomorrow we visit the Kunjerab Pass (ed. links China and Pakistan) for more acclimatization, returning to Sost for the night. Another day of hiking follows then we drive over into China on the 20th."

By Wednesday July 22 the team had reached base camp were going up to Camp 1 (5300m) the following day for a walk and a load carry. They then plan to go up for a few days and will establish C2 at around 6100m, spending nights at C1.

Source: ADVENTURE CONSULTANTS LIMITED - High Altitude Expeditions

Thursday August 20 1998

Guy Cotter, now back in New Zealand, writes of the tragic accident that claimed the life of team member Kurt Mendenhall, and of the conclusion to the expedition. "On the 29th July we moved to camp 1 again. Alex was feeling the effects of the altitude and couldn't go up the next morning so we waited another day at camp 1, eventually moving to camp 2 on the 31st. Conditions were generally good although an ice crust about 20cm below the snow surface made the going difficult as we kept breaking through into a deep layer of faceted (temperature gradient) crystals which was especially loose. I felt that a large snowfall would make the snowpack unstable due to these layers.

A small icefall between camps one and two posed no problems and was fixed with ropes by previous groups. The route was wanded (i.e. bamboo markers with flags attached) and well trodden by the various groups moving up and down the mountain. A crevasse at 5900m had a fixed rope on it but presented little problem to cross. We arrived at camp 2 which we figured was at 6100m at about 1.30pm. The following day we rested but in the evening Alex complained of headache and I assessed him as suffering AMS (acute mountain sickness) so I immediately initiated his descent down to camp 1, departing camp 2 at 6.30pm. We made good time to camp 1 arriving just on nightfall. Alex felt tired but better at the lower altitude and stayed there so I returned to camp 2 arriving at 11.30pm.

At 9.00am in the morning (2nd August) we prepared ourselves and in good weather moved up to establish camp 3. We climbed steadily and in three hours arrived at 6500m where we set up camp, hoping to make a summit attempt in the morning.  A large thunderstorm came in overnight depositing about 30cm of new snow and as the storm did not abate until about 6.00am we did not make the attempt that day. The slope we were camped on had the potential for avalanche activity with another major snowfall and we could not stay where we were. We felt that with the cloud build-up we were experiencing that day, there was a high likelihood of more snow so we decided to retreat.

We packed up and began the ski descent about 12.15pm. The snow was deep and the sun was making the snow settle quickly. At around 6330m we met 5 members of another group who were moving up to camp 3 from camp 2. We continued skiing down the slope but Kurt began having difficulties with his skis. The snow was sticking to them and he was having difficulty controlling them. At 6250m Kurt stopped and decided to walk down the trail the last 150m to the camp which we could clearly see below us. He suggested that Peter and I carry on to the camp and await him there. The trail was wanded and had been used throughout the season and there was no apparent sign of crevasses anywhere on the slope, no change of angle which would suggest crevassing and had been walked up by 6 people that morning. (the 5 we met at about 6330m and one other following behind)

Peter and I continued down the slope on skis and began packing gear at camp 2 (6100m) at about 1.45pm. I watched as Kurt began descending the slope then turned to continue with the packing.  At around 2.00pm I became concerned that Kurt had not arrived at the camp and thought he was in a small area hidden from view 20m above the camp so I walked up the slope to have a look. Once I was able to look at the whole slope I realized Kurt was not on the slope and since no tracks deviated from the trail, I realized he must have fallen into a crevasse. I ran down to the camp and packed up crevasse extraction gear, put skins back on skis, then proceeded up the hill until I came to the crevasse. I saw a ski pole on the surface and a hole about 1m by 1m wide. I walked to within about 1.5m from the hole and yelled out but heard no reply. The hole was dark and I could see nothing inside it. I dug a trench to place an anchor then anchored the rope onto it. Peter arrived at this time and helped me to rig another ski as a back-up anchor. I began to descend into the hole placing the rope over a ski on the lip to stop it caving away but when I got into the crevasse I realized the crevasse was running up the hill and not across it as most crevasses do. I had been standing on the lid of the crevasse when I had yelled down and not known it. The anchor I had set up was also on (or partially on) the lid also and my rope was running down the length of the crevasse roof so I gingerly climbed back out of the crevasse.

Peter and I reset the anchors across the slope from the hole then I abseiled into the crevasse again. It was a very deep hole and when inside I could see no sign of Kurt as it was so dark inside. The crevasse roof was quite thin, about 70cm to 1m, and the crevasse was about 50m from end to end. The trail ran right along the full length of the crevasse and Kurt had broken through right in the center. Had the track been 1 or 2 meters to either side it would have missed the crevasse completely. The crevasse was about 3m wide at the top and had shear walls with no bridges inside the crevasse.

Near the end on my rope which I estimate to be 40 - 43 meters into the crevasse I found Kurt. He had died of injuries sustained in the fall. It was not possible to extract him from the crevasse.

In a shocked state I climbed out of the crevasse. In 25 years of mountaineering I had never seen anyone actually go into a crevasse further than their armpits before, with or without a rope (apart from crevasse extraction practice sessions). The fact that the trail had been repeatedly used during the season, and indeed by 6 people 1 hour earlier that day, leaves me perplexed by the indiscriminate way in which the mountains take lives. Obviously had we known there was a crevasse in that region we would have avoided it. But it was well hidden, so well so that I had walked uphill of the crevasse and stood on the roof in the belief that it was a horizontal crevasse where it actually ran up the hill.

Peter and I packed up the equipment from the mountain that day to Basecamp where we joined Alex and on the 4th moved to Kashgar to initiate formalities.

This has been a very difficult time for us and we extend our deepest sympathies to the friends and family of Kurt. Whilst we place maximum emphasis on safety we are in an environment where the outcome of any expedition at the outset is unclear. This is the essence of adventure which on-the-whole provides us with stimulation and a huge appreciation of the power of the environment and nature. Yet there are occasions like this where every effort we make to operate in absolute safety are not enough. The mountains will forever remain hazardous and cannot be controlled by mankind's' influence - for better or worse, this is why we go there. " Source: ADVENTURE CONSULTANTS LIMITED - High Altitude Expeditions

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