Mustagata: news of our expedition
1 July to 24 July 2000
July 2000, First Ascent of the East Ridge of Mustagata, 7546 metres, located in the Chinese Pamirs. Walter Keller's account of summit day:
Walter and Jon set anchors just before the accident. Thanks to Patagonia for the clothing.
We awoke early on July 16, 2000, to make drinks and eat some food with our little remaining fuel. By this time we were almost out of fuel and were basically committed to the summit. Our only way down was to go over the top and follow the standard route down. Without an extremely dangerous descent down one of the faces of our ascent route, a retreat was out of the question the way we had come. Following our long route of ascent was out of the question.
Setting up our tiny highcamp.
As the grogginess of sleeping at almost 7500m (24,600 ft) was wearing off, our worst nightmares were realized. As Jon and I prepared water, Dan began babbling incoherently unable to put two recognizable words together. Finally, we interpreted his babbling to be something about our snow bag and the morning's drinks. I immediately said "cerebral edema" as Jon tried to rationalize a little less problematic explanation, but finally agreeing my explanation was probably correct.
Grabbing the medical bag, I pulled out some Diamox and Dexamethazone. I gave Dan two Diamox and prayed it would have some effect. We were climbing as a team and were all dependant on each member's ability to complete some of the most technical climbing of the expedition on that day. Fortunately, as the Diamox took effect Dan became somewhat coherent. Then he stretched his hand out in front of him, sitting in his sleeping bag, and said, "Wow, my arms are so weird, they aren't working right."
Jon and I, looking at one another, said nothing, but a deep profound understanding of the criticalness of our situation was apparent.
Jon suggested the Dexamethazone, but I deferred its use until it was absolutely necessary. Its use as an absolute last resort has saved lives. I gave Dan another Diamox as we continued cooking and preparing to leave the tent. The cooking was finished and most of the packing completed when Dan seemingly became coherent and began complaining of an extreme headache. He seemed reasonably functional and I prayed, scared to death, that he would be able to function well enough to climb. After all, there really was no choice in the matter.
Packing the tent in extreme cold that still is felt in my fingers, we left for the summit. It was 8am and Jon suggested I lead. Surprisingly, Dan kept up as I forged through the sometimes deep, sometimes crusted, lower headwall slopes. Dan's experience in the high mountains was serving us well as the upward movement was second nature. Almost in a daze, he continued higher in his debilitated state. I was tired in the thin air and exhausted by the effort, but struggled forward setting up a belay at what I thought at the time to be about two-thirds of the way to the top of the headwall from our camp. The remaining climbing was more technical and I was leaving it for Jon. I was hoping he'd be fresh enough for the more technical section. When he arrived he suggested I might have climbed the first technical section also, but I was tired and told him so.
Dan followed up to the belay I had set up as Jon continued upward. I kept tying Dan off onto the short rope, but he was not truly belayed on the less steep terrain as he came toward me. Dan seemed to be functioning reasonably, if a little slow and, in my own altitude debilitated state, I was not as aware of his condition as I might have been. Jon finished a pitch and I followed up, quickly helping Jon sort gear for the final headwall pitch as he belayed Dan up the slope.
Somehow there, above 24,000ft, in the sub-zero cold, I dropped my glove. Away it went down the slope — my bare fingers exposed to the cold. I grabbed my extra liner glove and shell to shield my fingers from the cold as Jon rummaged through his bag and supplied a wool mitten. It was enough as I still have my fingers. So there we all stood, poised for the summit. All that remained was a very difficult section of 40 feet of very technical mixed rock and ice climbing. Jon asked if I wanted the lead. I said, "I would a little lower, but why don't you take this one."
Jon, on belay, began climbing with a thin snow cave on his right and very difficult near-vertical rock on the left. Dry tooling up the rock and stemming occasionally on the precarious ice cave he made his way up the difficult pitch at over 24,000ft. I was impressed as he mounted the rock, planting a piton that came out immediately as he made the next move. He complained that the piton was a size off, as an ice screw and piton came my way, having slipped from Jon's frozen hands. Finally, he passed the difficult rock and quickly surmounted a snowy section at the top, reaching the flat terrain just below the summit. We'd done it. Now all we needed to do is get the bags to the top and ascend the in-place rope. It was a terrific lead at any altitude, but was especially impressive on the summit of a 7546m (24,750 ft) peak. There really wasn't an easier way and I was profoundly glad Jon was on our team at this moment.
Walter belaying Jon
Jon suggested I come up to help him pull up bags since Dan was still a little debilitated. It made sense at the time, but in retrospect leaving Dan alone to surmount the face and tie on three bags was a bad choice. When Dan said to "pull up the rope" and that he was putting all three bags on the rope at the same time, Jon and I knew there was a problem. As I was helping set up a pully system, he uttered the terrifying words, "We just lost Dan."
I hurried to the edge of the cliff to see Dan go over a steep ice/snow cliff, cartwheeling with one bag in each arm. Head over heels he went, disappearing briefly before reappearing on the steep snow slope below, spinning about a center axis with one bag still wrapped around each arm. Stopping 300 feet below his highpoint, he did not move. Terror filled every bone in my body as Jon said, "Let's get him."
I said, "OK, single-rope rappel," and as Jon readied his rappel device to descend, I backed up the existing anchor.
I watched as Jon descended and Dan finally began to move. As Jon approached, Dan got up and began to wander off to the right, seemingly dazed. "Oh no," I thought, "Dan is hurt and out of it." In actuality, he was walking over to get my glove I had previously dropped. Miraculously, he was unhurt.
Hoping to find other Normal Route climbers who might help, I hurried across the summit plateau. No one was there despite a beautiful day. I hurried back to the scene to see Jon and Dan standing together. Jon said, "Come down and get Dan's bag."
As I readied for the rappel, he said, "Just go get your bag and Dan and I will climb up slowly."
I lowered and, tying on my bag, unbelievably, dropped another glove. Jon tried to grab it as it flew past, but was not successful. Fortunately, I still had Jon's extra wool inner glove and and a shell and quickly put them on. The dropped item had been an insulated down shell this time. I ascended and waited at the top of the rope, my hand in my pocket as they ascended. Strangely, I usually am meticulous about having my gloves tied to my wrists. For the 48 hours we were close to the summit, I never followed this safety practice.
Jon and Dan finally reached the top and we hauled up the bags. Standing on the summit, it was now 4pm. We lingered shortly before leaving. Initially, I started in the lead and our pace was fairly fast as we descended the flat plateau at the top of Mustagh Ata. Dan, still feeling the effects of altitude, would seem to degrade to where he would stop and sit down every few seconds at the back of the rope. I would think, "Oh no, he is degrading," but each time he would gather his strength for another round of movement down the mountain.
Dan and Walter on summit
Initially, I felt strong as we descended, breaking trail in front, but at some point my strength began to wane and fortunately Jon was there to pick up the slack. Eventually, even when Dan was moving well, I could not keep up with Jon's pace and would stop the rope team to catch my breath. We finally ascended a steeper slope to a small gray tent. Jon suggested we sleep in the tent if no one was there. Arriving at about 7:30pm, we found a very small tent with no occupants, a few sleeping mats and a thin sleeping bag.
It was strange that there were skis nearby, but no occupant. Moving into the tent, we made a drink from our limited fuel and snuggled next to each other for the night. Jon suggested 6500m as our altitude. Dan suggested 7100m, which turned out to be a close estimate. It was bitterly cold so Jon went out into the cold and retrieved his sleeping bag. We were cold all night long, but survived. Our arduous descent the following day ended at Base Camp where, adding another twist to the story, we learned the tent had been vacated recently by a lost Slovenian climber who we had not seen.
It was an exciting summit day filled with excitement, terror, and relief. Dan Mazur — our most experienced high-altitude climber, who has climbed Everest, K2, Lhotse, Makalu and Gasherbrum I, all peaks over 8000m — came down with cerebral edema. Somehow, on automatic pilot, he was able to keep moving upward in his debilitated state. Would Jon or I been able to function in the same state? Why had Dan, who was well acclimatized, come down with this affliction while Jon and I remained unaffected? These are difficult questions to answer, but in the end there was a happy ending and I'm glad it worked out as it did. Fortunately, we're all safe at low altitude, reliving the experiences recently shared high on the East Ridge of Mustagh Ata.
Best Regards from the warm lowlands of Western China,
— Walter Keller
Anne Ramzy and Lakpa Sherpa were invaluable in helping us get to the base of the route.
Looking down the East Ridge from the Summit.
Small team approach vehicle.