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Checking in from the Condor's Nest on Illimani, Bolivia. MM Collection
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July 26, 2012

Mustagh Ata 2012 - Agony of Defeat...

MM Dispatch 5

23 July 2012

Kashgar, Xinjiang, China

So, “agony of defeat” dispatch here. The Madness team is all safely back in Kashgar, overall in good spirits but disappointed that we didn’t reach the top of Mustagh Ata. A brief description follows, along with photos from our trip:

The beautiful Mustagh Ata. Ted Callahan photo

We delayed leaving BC on the 16th due to considerable snowfall overnight and a bad forecast for our first planned summit day. Everyone enjoyed an extra day to relax and prepare for our summit attempt. 

On the 17th, we moved up to Camp 1. The previous day’s snow had melted so the going was easy, especially with light packs, as we had already stocked the lower camps. 

The weather help up on the 18th, granting us another easy move, this time to Camp 2. Again, fairly light packs and everyone stoked to get to the top made it a pretty easy day. 

The acclimatization "ride" near the beginning of the trip. Ted Callahan photo

Our move to Camp 3 on the 19th was an order of magnitude harder—our highest elevation yet and we didn’t have the benefit of multiple carries to stock the camp, so we slogged uphill with heavy packs. It had snowed several cm the night before so trail breaking, accomplished mostly by our local staff (especially Asu and Lobsang), was arduous. 

We arrived at camp after about four long hours, in the early afternoon. Unlike the other camps, we were staying three-to-a-tent at Camp Three—warmer but a bit cramped. So, everyone got to know each other better as snow was melted in an attempt hydrate, eat and rest before the summit push. 

Snowshoeing during the first days on the mountain. Ted Callahan photo

The weather was oddly mild—not very cold and no wind, but in the evening clouds rolled in and it snowed again. Because the temperatures weren’t too cold, we opted to get up at 0200 and be moving by 0400. Mild, though, is still pretty relative at almost 6800 meters and we didn’t actually start walking until 0500, as it’s quite a feat of will to get out of a warm sleeping bag at that hour. 

Trail-breaking involved knee-deep sugar snow. Again, one local staff was out in front, with I and another guide from a different expedition taking turns in the second position. Everyone on the team was plagued with occasionally cold feet and hands but so long as we kept moving, there were no serious issues. 

Ted Callahan photo

After two hours, we reached the part of the route where the trail turns left and starts climbing up the massive Mustagh Ata main summit. Unlike every other year, when this just means continuing up a mildly inclined slope, this year we had to cross a massive crevasse over a fairly small snow bridge. So, it took about an hour for us to fix ropes to allow everyone to cross this section safely. At this point, a couple slower members from the other expedition turned back due to cold. 

Keeping up good spirits. Ted Callahan photo

From the crevasse crossing, the route went basically straight uphill for the next several hours. The line of climbers began to spread out and a few more people from the other team turned back. At around noon, there were about eight climbers left, including the four of us from Mountain Madness. I took over breaking trail as the two remaining local staff were exhausted. We were above 7000m now and temps were still strangely warm, with no wind. Unfortunately, the peak was covered in cloud and visibility varied between 30-100 meters, so it was hard to measure progress except by consulting the altimeter. 

After a couple more hours, it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to reach the summit with any margin of safety and that if we pressed on, we’d be descending in the dark. The deep snow still had not relented (usually climbers are just snowshoeing or cramponing on top of perfect neve by this point), it had begun snowing again, and we had already been going for more than nine hours, with another two or three needed just to reach the summit. So, at 14:30, I made the hard call that 7358 meters would be our high point. The team was disappointed but understood that summiting was not worth the risk of being caught out high on Mustagh Ata at night in a storm. We turned around and began the long descent to Camp 3. 

Deep tracks. Ted Callahan photo

The next day, more snow had fallen (by all accounts, it was a freakishly wet year—even the road back to Kashgar had been partially washed out due to floods from all the recent precipitation) and we got to break trail down the mountain as well. By late afternoon, we were all back in BC and all the high camps had been stripped and the equipment carried down. A few beers were raised in BC that night.

The next day, the 22nd, we packed up BC and loaded everything onto 9 camels and 10 donkeys. We stopped for a late lunch at a Chinese restaurant not far from Kashgar and the staff was most tolerant of our ragged (and malodorous) crew, all sunburned and looking like a band of wild Cossacks. 

On the 23rd, our last full day in Kashgar, the team recovered from the huge effort of the previous days and we concluded our expedition with a massive Chinese banquet feast. Toasts were raised to our incredibly hard-working local staff, to new friendships, and to Mustagh Ata. 

Local staff member, Lobsang. Ted Callahan photo

I would like to thank Stuart Heys, Chok Liu, and Hamid Najafian for being fantastic expedition teammates. Their humor and good-cheer was a pleasure but more important was their willingness to adhere to the three most important rules which, in order of importance, are (as outlined by great British alpinist, Roger Baxter-Jones):

Come back alive.

Come back friends.

Get to the top.

~ MM Guide Ted Callahan

Until next time... Ted Callahan photo


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