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Mustagata New Route

Mustagh Ata New Route

(7546 metres) East Ridge (3 members summit) We climbed an exciting new route on the east ridge.

Thanks to our sponsors, who provided the equipment you see in these photos.

Mustagh Ata, with the East Ridge marked. Photographer and Copyright: Dan Waugh

An enticing view: On 24 June, while standing atop the 7546 metre summit of Mustagh Ata, after climbing it from the normal route, Walter Keller, representing Pittsburgh, USA, dangled Jon Otto, representing Chengdu, China, and Bellingham, Washington, from the summit, down onto the east ridge on a rope, but the view was obscured. On 27 June, Daniel Mazur, representing Bristol, England, and Montana, USA, Walter Frehner, representing Zurich, and Mathijs van der Plas, representing Brussels, found their way to the top on a windy clear day, where they were able to see a 360 degree view of mountains in all directions, and get a good look down the east ridge. The new route looked possible.

Looking down from the summit onto the new route on the east ridge. Our basecamp on the other side of the Kuksay Glacier, the Waugh Plateau, and the Potterfield Glacier are clearly visible in the photo. Photographer: D.L. Mazur, Copyright, www.mountainzone.com

Trekking around to new route basecamp: On 26 June, our East Ridge climb began in earnest with the arrival of Anne Ramzy from Portland, Oregon, and Yang Li Qun, from Urumqi, China. On 27 June the two took off with Walter Keller to make the quest to locate a decent basecamp for the new route up the Torbulung river. On 30 June, after clearing the camps and rubbish, Lakpa, Dan, and Jon followed, while the “normal routers” boarded a bus bound for Pakistan and home. However, before departing, Mathijs enjoyed himself immensely and amused all of us by galloping around Subashi village on one of the local’s sturdy, small, and speedy stallions.

Anne Ramzy, our Manager. Mathijs van der Plas, riding a stallion in Subashi ( Mustagh Ata behind). Photographer: D.L. Mazur, Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

By 4 June, we reached the basecamp established by Walter, Ann, and Yang. It was high on a gorgeous grassy-mossy moor on the east side of the head of the Kuksay Glacier at 4600 metres. We were able to observe our objective, the east ridge, in detail, as it was directly across the head of the glacier from where we were located.

Lakpa Tamang and Daniel Mazur, carrying solar panel, on the way to new route basecamp. Photographer: Jon Otto, Copyright: www.mountainzone.com. Yang Li Qun, after carrying 5 loads into advanced base camp. That is our new route, the east ridge, just behind his head, and a bit to the left, in the photo. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright: www.mountainzone.com.

Research background: We had studied the route carefully for five years, and tried to establish if it had been climbed or not. We are as certain as can be, that this route was unclimbed. Since 1995, when Dan Waugh hiked up the Kuksay Glacier, near to the route, we had been researching the possibility of climbing it. We wrote to members of the Japanese Alpine Club who were said to be active in exploring the area, and received confirmation that they had attempted the route, and climbed to 6000 metres. In 1998 Dan Mazur climbed Mustagh Ata together with one Japanese man who had attempted it: Masanori Suzuki. Mr. Suzuki had said that the climbing was hard, so his group turned around. In July of 1998, Jon Otto, Dan Mazur, Olivier Raimond, and Richard Bothwell attempted an expedition to climb the new route, and spent three days near the base of the ridge, but they ran out of time, due to bad weather and permit problems, climbing 6150 metre Tokoruk instead.

Tokoruk, seen from 6400 metres on the east ridge of Mustagh Ata. Photographer: D. L. Mazur. Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

During our climb of the new route in July of 2000, we saw no sign of any other teams having been there, such as pitons, screws, or slings. Also, the outrage expressed by certain members of the Chinese establishment that other bureaucrats had given us permission to climb seemed to indicate that this was indeed virgin ground.

Establishing the camps: By July 7th, we had established our 4700 metre advanced basecamp in the midst of a flat ice-rock glacier at the base of the east ridge. On the 8th of July, during a foggy snow storm, we had moved into our 5350 metre camp 1, at the top of the Waugh plateau. Along the way, we traversed along the Potterfield Glacier via a long snaking moraine and then we scrambled through 30-40 degree cliffs and snow gullies.

Dan climbing in the Arrowhead. Photographer: Jon Otto. Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

On July 9, we climbed through very exposed mixed ice snow, and rock, some approaching 80 degrees, through the "Arrowhead". The climbing was challenging, with our heavy rucksacks. But the temperature remained warm, and we were able to recover when Jon Otto dropped both ice axes down a 50 degree snow slope (he recovered them with a dangling ski pole wrist strap technique), nor when Walter climbed into a vertical rock chimney and got his rucksack stuck (he took the sack off and hauled it up after). Our camp 2 was located during a snow storm in darkness, on a tiny icy-snowy shelf on the east ridge proper at 5850 metres. We were finally on the ridge!

Jon leading an extremely dicey pitch into camp 3, and the final approach into Dragon camp. Photographer: D. L. Mazur. Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

On July 10, we set up our tent in camp 3, on a snowy, but flattish ridge, at 6000 metres. We had struggled all day through hip deep snow, on slopes approaching 50 degrees. At times, the snowpack was frightening, but remained stable. We decided to name this section of the ridge "the dragon" because it was very winding, with many ascents and descents, like the tail of a serpent.

Topping the last rise before Avalanche camp. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

On July 11th, we established camp 4, which we named: "avalanche camp" at 6400 metres, at the base of a large slope littered with monstrous fracture lines and avalanche debris. The going had been difficult that day, with snow-wading through over-the-knee snow the norm. We had chosen, for some odd reason, not to bring snow shoes on this part of the climb.

Jon struggling in the wind and deep snow on the way to camp 5. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

On July 12th, we climbed through the debris and over the fractures, with one memorable avalanche slab being over 2 metres high. It was somewhat terrifying, climbing through this recently slid battleground, but once again, we were blessed with a stable snow pack. That afternoon, the weather turned on us and the wind howled in, accompanied by snow-laden clouds, and we hastily made camp 5 at 6700 metres, under a protective cornice. We huddled in our single-wall tent, trying to sleep with the sounds of avalanches rumbling around us, somewhat comforted by the knowledge that we were anchored to the slope with pickets and ice-screws.

Walter standing, and Jon poking his head out of the tent at camp 6. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

The following morning, July 13th, we climbed through clear weather and stunning views to the base of the east face at 6850 metres. We were finally through with the dragon ridge! A storm blew in at 1:00 pm and we put up the tent (camp 6) to rest and brew warm drinks. Our fuel was nearly consumed, and there was'nt much food either, so we resolved to carry on through the night, hoping to climb continuously.

Walter belays, Jon leads hard ice at 7100 metres, and a blizzard rages. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

Our plans were thwarted, however, as the evening storm intensified, and we awoke early on the morning of July 14th, in medium visibility, to a light snow storm and strong winds. We pushed our way up through the deepest snow yet, then the terrain turned to 30 - 60 degree ice. At 7200 metres, we found a safe looking crevasse and dug in for the night, at camp 7. All of us were chilled to the bone, from the lack of food, lack of water, being nearly out of fuel, out in the blowing snow all day, arriving in twilight, and having to carve our tent platform out of very deep and cold snow- wind slab.

It was difficult to get up the following morning, then we were warmed by the sun, and anticipated that today might be the day we made it to the summit and we could get off of the mountain. However, that day, the 15th of July, our plans were dashed when we encountered further high winds and very deep, steep snow. Jon completed an impressive series of ice leads, and as the afternoon turned to evening, we were still about 100 metres below the summit. We could see it looming above us, and saw the rays of the sunset streaming over the top, but where we were it was freezing and dark. We knew that if a large snowfall hit here we would stand a good chance of being pulped by an avalanche, so we looked for a safe place to camp. Not finding anything, we cut a small flat spot into a patch of snow at 7450 metres, and piled into the tent (camp 8). We were somewhat encouraged by the sight of the afternoon's clouds blowing away, to the east. Perhaps this evening would bring better weather.

Dan's Cerebral Edema: The following morning, July 16th, Dan woke up early, but was not able to speak clearly, nor move his limbs with much coordination. He said he thought he had suffered a stroke and might die. There was less than one fuel canister left, and almost no food, so there was no choice but to go over the top, rather than descending through the deep snow and winding, undulating ridge from whence we had come. After a breakfast of cold water and uncooked porridge, Jon and Walter divided Dan's satellite communication gear, and the three set off up slope. With an apparent aplomb, and no protection, Jon climbed the final 15 metre, 85 degree rock and ice face. He tried to place a few pitons and ice screws, but the cracks were thin, the ice hard, and all of the gear rattled down the face, disappearing into the oblivion below.

Walter and Jon, 15 metres below the summit, preparing the anchors for Jon's lead. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

Dan falls from near the summit: Dan was able to talk again, and said he was feeling better, so Walter followed Jon to the summit, where the rope was anchored with a snow picket. The three had removed their rucksacks and left them tied to a piton pounded at the bottom of the 15 metre ice-rock face. Dan called up to them, saying he would tie in the sacks and the other two should haul. Not thinking 100% clearly, he untied the three bags and himself, and readied to ascend and haul. The others began hauling the rope. Dan, untied, grabbed for the rope, which was no longer where it had been a few seconds before. Suddenly, he saw Jon's rucksack slipping downhill, and he grabbed for it quickly, and was thrown off balance. Dan felt himself falling, together with two rucksacks, one tied to his back, the other he clutched tightly, resolving not to let go, lest it plunge into the abyss, the way the pitons and ice screws had gone, when Jon was leading the pitch.

Jon pulling onto the summit. Photographer: D. L. Mazur, Copyright: www.mountainzone.com

Dan tumbled, with the two bags, cartwheeling over some rocks and landing on a 15 degree snow plateau, after falling about 50 metres down the steep rock, ice, and snow slope. Surprisingly, he was unscathed, and untangling himself from the straps of the rucksacks, he walked around the slope and picked up his hat, Walter's mitten, and Jon's water bottle, which they had dropped earlier, in their final ascent of the pitch. Jon came down to help, and the two climbed up to the summit once again. Dan said he felt better, that the fall had done him well, and that he had apparently been in need of a good "shaking up". After a bit of climbing, and hauling of bags (tied in this time), the three reunited on the summit, in sunshine and howling wind.

Dan ascending the final near-vertical mixed section to the summit, which he had fallen down a few minutes earlier. Dan and Walter on top. The summit flag is visible just to the left of Dan. Photographer and Copyright: Jon Otto.

The summit and the dead Slovenian: We snapped a few summit photos, then descended immediately, and made our 9th camp at 7150 metres, that night of the 16th, sleeping in an empty and small grey two person tent, which we were surprised to find at his altitude. We were thirsty and hungry but warm, all piled into the confined space together. The following evening, July 17th, after a long descent of post-holing without snowshoes, we reached basecamp, to discover that the tent we had slept in on the night of the 16th had belonged to a Slovenian expedition, whose leader inquired if the three of us exhausted new-routers had seen a missing companion who had disappeared from the tent, and was apparently dead. We had not, and the missing climber was never located. Finally, very late in the middle of that night, after much walking, and a motorcycle accident that nearly claimed Walter's life, all (Anne, Yang, Lakpa, Walter, Jon, and Dan) were reunited at Karakuli Lake.

Leaving the mountain: During July 18th and 19th, our group drove to Kashgar, rested, said their goodbyes, then Lakpa, Walter, and Daniel headed for the Pakistan border early on the morning of the 20th. Later that night, after some rows with the Chinese customs officers about walkie-talkies that were being shipped to Lhasa rather than brought out through the Khunjerab border, the three of us crossed into Pakistan and slept in Gilgit. On the 21st of June, we boarded a public bus, and arrived in Rawalpindi early in the morning of the 22nd. Walter split off to meet his girlfriend Amy Rice, and stay in Pakistan for more climbing, while Lakpa and Dan were hauled off to the police station for questioning by an overzealous officer acting on an anonymous tip. Released from the clutches of the authorities, Lakpa and Dan flew to Kathmandu three hours later. If you would like to read about the expedition which followed this one, please "click" the following link: Mount Kailash News.

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