The Power of Partnership
Thursday, July 27, 2000
As many know, miniscule matters high in the mountains can become one's most pressing concerns. Matters that we take for granted in our daily lives down near sea level, such as boiling a pot of water as a necessity to survive, can be quite laborious and most time consuming high on the mountain. We carried 20 pounds (nine kilograms) of computer, satellite phone equipment and batteries up an unclimbed route in China on a 24,902-foot (7,546-meter) mountain.
We charged the computer during the days by strapping a solar panel to the back of one of our backpacks. We woke to a computer frozen in a puddle of ice water in the corner of the tent. All this while dealing with all the other necessary matters required while climbing a virgin technical alpine route at high altitude. The wonders of modern technology! Was it worth it? I would say yes. I am always one for opening new doors for the future.
We lost communications for the few days around summit day (July 15-17). I later found that this caused great worry among friends, family and the Chinese organization that helped organize our climb. Upon returning to Kashgar the day after the climb, I was even scolded for causing so much worry. (The words this certain individual used cannot be printed without possibly offending many people). They thought we were killed. My friends in Beijing withdrew large quantities of funds to organize a rescue.
We did not attack the summit all night as last reported to MountainZone.com on the evening of July 14th. About an hour later clouds rolled in and the wind started to blow. It was no night for climbing. The weather on Mustagh Ata never seems to be consistent. It is a constantly changing monster. Thinking that we were in for yet another bout of storms, late the next morning it instead cleared and we had the best weather of the whole climb to date.
We headed up at 11am, a very late start for the mountains, and climbed the East Face for over six hours, gaining a mere 990 feet (300 meters) in altitude. This section of the climb was steeper than it appeared from below and involved steep snow and low-grade ice. The ice shattered like dinner plates. In all my years of climbing New England waterfall ice I have never encountered such cold ice. This stuff was deep-frozen and brittle.
That night we had to make camp in a precarious location in the middle of the slope on the East Face. We picked a spot that was as safe from potential avalanches as possible. We dug out a crevasse as our tent platform, which lay half in, half out, of the crevasse. This took a couple of hours. We hoped that the high back walls of the crevasse would protect us from avalanches and that the falling snow would flow right over the tent. We were not concerned much about avalanches at this time, only if it snowed that night.
Here we were, right below the summit at 24,600 feet (7,450 meters). The bare, rocky cliffs of the summit loomed above, capped with small seracs. We had seen this view for days, and now it lay so close. I was full of anticipation, but still always talked of the summit as, "If we reach the summit..." instead of, "When we reach the summit..." There are so many unknowns high on a mountain.
I was tired that night. We were all tired. Our sleeping bags had been wet for days and lost their loft. Walter and I looked at Dan enviously. He had a bivy sack. We crawled into our bags with all of our Gore-Tex clothing on. The temperature dropped drastically as soon as the sun went behind the mountain.
The computer equipment stayed in the backpacks. Yes, I suppose we could have made just one short call, but by the time we had finished doing all of our necessary chores, the thought of unzipping the tent and pulling the satellite phone out of my frigid backpack and setting it up was not an option. I said to myself that we could do it in the morning. A day's exertion at that altitude makes one very sleepy. And, to be honest, I thought rest was a lot more important, as tomorrow was summit day.
That evening, after piling into the tent, our chores went approximately as follows: get into sleeping bag, warm toes and melt snow to make water. The first pot of water we actually boiled and drank hot drinks. The many pots after were only lukewarm to conserve fuel. It takes many hours to melt enough snow to rehydrate oneself at altitude. No one was that hungry. I think I ate a small bag of raw instant noodles. Hardly any calories that night. A quick pee in the pee bottle and the head hit the insulated pad.
It was July 15th and we were camped just below the summit. We were at least one day behind schedule. We had agreed to meet our support team at the base of the mountain at Karakuli Lake on the 16th. Their radio broke five days before so we had had no contact. Even though we were posting daily to MountainZone.com, our support team did not have access to any computers. They did not know our position or progress. We all hoped that tomorrow's weather would continue to be good or at least good enough to summit and allow us to start down the other side of the mountain via the normal route.
The next morning we woke fairly early and started automatically preparing to go. The weather was fair. At least it did not snow the night before. Then Dan spoke inaudibly. Walter and I quickly realized that something was wrong with him and that it might be serious. Something happened to Dan's brain during the night. This is the last thing I thought would happen. Dan is our most experienced high-altitude climber, by far. Our high-altitude experience does not even come close compared with his.
Then Dan said, "My legs are not working, I may die here," or something to that effect. I cannot remember exactly. I was mentally preparing for a disaster. The symptoms, though I am no expert, looked as though Dan got a blood clot in his brain and it was affecting his speech and, to a certain extent, his reasoning ability. Like a mini-stroke.
After taking medicine and drinking a bunch of water, Dan began to function proficiently as he put on his boots, gaiters, etc. The big question was whether or not his condition sapped him of his energy, every bit which was vital at this altitude. Would he be able to climb? As a precautionary measure, Walter and I took as much weight from Dan's backpack as we could shoulder and still climb at a reasonable pace.
Dan is a strong climber and I have seen him perform in adverse conditions. If Walter or I came down with the same affliction, I wonder if we could have carried on with the same conviction as Dan did that day. Regardless, it was obvious that Dan was not thinking clearly a potentially deadly situation.