American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Ultima Thule, A Short Walk through China's Kun Lun Shan

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  • Publication Year: 1997

Ultima Thule

A short walk through China ’s Kun Lun Shan by Mark Newcomb

“Man, this place is vast and empty!” said Kent McBride as he, Hans Johnstone and I topped out on a ridge in the heart of the Kun Lun Shan mountains of northwestern China. We were over 5000 meters above sea level and looking out at horizons serrated by peaks well over 6000 meters. They surrounded a vacuous expanse of barren, high-elevation desert across which we would trudge for two more days before establishing a base camp. Big land. Fabric for a story, grist for adventure.

Our gaze encompassed the physical reality of a dream, a multi-year quest to penetrate one of the most remote areas in all of mysterious China. Finally, there it was, rolled out before us like a celestial tapestry: crisp mountains, blank desert, crystalline lakes and, most of all, space. In much of China a person can hardly shuffle their feet without stepping on another’s toes, but the Kun Lun is devoid of humans. In fact, the Kun Lun teems with wildlife generally found only where there are no people. Wildlife has a chance in the Kun Lun for one reason—animals are there, and people are not. Standing on that ridge, I felt for once as if the world weren’t so small after all.

The elongated sprawl of mountains that cartographers label as the Kun Lun Shan stretches west to east along the 36th parallel roughly between 81 and 91 degrees longitude. If the Tibetan- Qinghai Plateau were a none-too-round pizza, the Kun Lun would form the better part of the northern rim of crust. Its northern escarpment drops in irregular steps down to desert basins as low as 2000 meters in elevation, the most notable of which is the Taklimakan Desert. Its southern exposure drops much less radically onto the Changtang, the vast northern plateau of Tibet and Qinghai, 5000 meters above sea level.

It is not an accomodating land. Taklimakan translates to “go in but don’t come out.” The locals call the Kun Lun the Karanghu Tagh, which means “the mountains of blinding darkness.” Kara Burans, or Black Winds, haunt the deserts. Wind and cold so bitter that it froze the ink in the pens of early explorers rake the treeless expanses of rock and sand. Most of the lakes are alkaline, much of the grass as tough as porcupine quills. A thick, smudgy haze of ultra-fine dust drifts off the Taklimakan Desert, muting all to a monotonous khaki and erasing the northern flank of the range from view.

Nor is that part of China readily accessible. Urumqi, a gateway city to the entire region, is the most landlocked city on earth. Even the recent road building spurred by China’s emerging industrialism has done little to alleviate all-day, all-night bus rides through scenery one can only describe as excruciating. Imagine driving from Rock Springs, Wyoming to Rawlins, Wyoming, then back, 20 times. That’s what it’s like to drive the Taklimakan.

As far as the Kun Lun’s historical significance goes, to anyone other than herders, hunters and collectors of rare medicinal plants it might as well be southwestern Wyoming. During the Great Game, Russian spies considered the range a nuisance, a barrier to Tibet and the northwestern frontiers of the British Raj. British spies were only interested in the western end, where they wanted to establish a concrete frontier beyond which Russian encroachments would not be tolerated. Western archaeologists for the most part turned their backs on the Kun Lun and wandered northward into the Taklimakan Desert looking for lost cities swallowed by shifting sands. Other than brief forays by Aurel Stein and Sven Hedin, the Kun Lun remained relatively unmapped and unexplored by Westerners. In short, it’s a land of interest to almost no one.

Almost no one, that is, except exploratory-minded mountaineers. Maps indicate a pass to Tibet that crosses the spine of the Kun Lun south of a desert-bound town called Yutian. A major river, the Keriya, drains that region of the Kun Lun and seems to provide access to Keriya Pass. When I first learned of the Keriya Pass, no mountaineers had been there. I wanted to be the first. My two and a half years of study and travel in China would be for naught if I didn’t bag a peak in a remote part of China before some well-funded, hoitie-toitie expedition from Europe, Japan or Korea got there first.

Unfortunately, it took three years for the pieces to fall into place—time enough for several expeditions to beat us there. None did. In the meantime I negotiated a $4,000 loan at 6% interest from my father that went toward a peak fee and an “Exploratory Mountaineering Permit” (one of the many “permits” and fees in China conjured up in the name of deng shan gui-ding or “mountaineering regulations”—the costs of which fluctuate wildly but are eminently negotiable). Two years later we were lucky enough to garner a W.L. Gore Shipton/Tilman Grant for $7,000. It mandated that our trip be fast, light and simple. No qualms there; we couldn’t afford to do it any other way. In Eric Shipton’s day, options for mode of travel were limited. Ours weren’t; we opted for jets as far as they could take us. This was fine at first: the trans-Pacific flight required two legs and four in-flight movies, but went smoothly enough. In Guangzhou, however, the airline caught us napping. Overweight baggage fees had doubled just a week before, and we were charged $700 extra for the luxury of having our bags accompany us on the same flight across China to Urumqi.

On the next flight to Kashgar we recaptured the initiative, crammed all our heaviest gear into our expedition packs and carried them, along with two duffels of Gore-tex clothes and three day packs, onto the plane, avoiding all but $60 of the overweight fees. We felt it was a pretty good idea, but the flight attendants were unimpressed. Nevertheless, they piled the bags in closets for us, burying fire extinguishers and sundry safety gear in the process.

From Kashgar, a typically Asian 14-hour bus ride brought us to Hetian (Khotan), an ancient Silk Road watering hole on the southern rim of the Taklimakan. Our first bus broke down before getting out of town, our second bus transferred us to a third somewhere out in the desert about 100 kilometers before Hetian, and the third contained half again as many passengers as there were seats. Sometime after dark we rolled into town, where a scruffy looking police officer threw our mountain of gear on a three-wheeled motorcycle. For a fee not far short of a New York City taxi, he careened around several comers and through several unlit intersections to our hotel.

We next picked up our guide/cook and liaison officer. Our guide, Tu Er Di, was Uigher, the predominate minority in that part of China. Tu Er Di quickly displayed an appalling lack of qualities befitting either a guide or a cook, and became affectionately known as R2-D2. Brandon Li was Han Chinese, but he had much more interest in American rock ‘n roll than mountaineering and couldn’t speak a lick of the local dialect, which somewhat diminished his capacity as an LO.

Despite the dubious qualifications of our staff, we proceeded according to plan. In the small trailhead village of Pu Lu, a local contact hired by our guide procured the aid of five donkey drivers and 19 donkeys. Though we had contracted for 10 donkeys, each of which were to carry 40 kilograms, the locals demanded we take 19 and load them each with 20 kilograms. They then gave us a special deal for “American Friends,” charging us half again as much per donkey as we had been led to believe they would cost. (Five days into the trek, the drivers, who were not lighter than 50 kilograms each, would spend most of the day riding the more lightly loaded of the donkeys. If there is such a thing as trickle down economics, the folks in China know how to turn the trickle into a flow.)

The village of Pu Lu is a cluster of mud huts stacked on a knoll of dirt at the base of the Kun Lun Mountains. Neither the modern world nor tourism has yet to afflict it. There are no phones, there is no electricity and—a sign of true backwardness in the eyes of Chinese—there are no televisions. There is one ancient, flat-bed truck that occasionally bumps and lurches down the narrow, poplar-lined main street of town. Donkeys are the primary means of portage and transportation. Supplies arrive once a month via camel train and always include a few luxuries such as grapes, apricots, plastic beads and colorful clothes.

Until well after dark on our first night in Pu Lu, children, often backed by adults, pushed into the musty room in which we were sorting gear and trying to sleep. They formed a harmless, forcefully inquisitive mob, driven by a mixture of curiosity and envy. Pu Lu and its inhabitants are exotic in a tedious sort of way. It’s fine for a day or two, but if one stays longer the memories won’t be as charming.

Four days after shuffling out of Pu Lu in ankle-deep dust, we topped a rocky, 16,500-foot pass at the headwaters of the Ak-Su River. The Ak-Su is a tributary of the Keriya River, merging with it just below the town of Pu Lu. Historically, the footpath used to access the Keriya Pass area followed the Ak-Su rather than the Keriya River, presumably because the Keriya’s greater volume of water made it too treacherous for a standard route into the mountains.

But the Ak-Su is no burbling trout stream: black, polished cobbles and boulders of igneous rock choke the path along the narrow bottom of the gorge. Sheer cliffs and slopes of scree wall both sides. One day we forded the torrent as many as a dozen times. On two occasions the path climbed high above the river; once we had to shovel a trail for our caravan across a scree slope that was in the dynamic phase of its dynamic equilibrium. At another point a donkey tumbled ass over teakettle off the stream bank; amazingly, it rose on its feet unscathed. (Later in the day the same donkey dumped its load, shattering a one dollar bottle of Chinese whiskey. Fortunately the whiskey was soaked up by the better part of our toilet paper supply before it did too much damage.)

According to historians, the ancient Greeks would design roads by loading a donkey with 100 kilograms, marching it up a hill, and laying out the road in its path. The Greeks would not have built a road up the Ak-Su River Gorge. The Chinese, on the other hand, would, and did. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, when China was actively battling India for a large chunk of uranium-laden northern Tibet, the Chinese army constructed a road up the Ak-Su River Gorge. They employed POWs from the Kuomintang army (which had been defeated by the Communist Peoples’ Liberation Army in 1949), and constructed the road by hand without using cement or asphalt. No car ever used the road. None ever will. At present it is washed out and eroded along much of the steepest, narrowest stretch of gorge. Even the donkey path avoids some of the slopes out of which the road was carved. The only remaining bits of evidence of the toil that went into the road are the scattered clusters of caves and rock shelters that appear at intervals along the way. Musty and decaying, their only use now is shelter for herders and campsites for expeditions like ours.

The final grind out of the Ak-Su River Gorge required several switchbacks up a brown and ocher slope of dust and crumbling rock. We had seen no vegetation since passing a few tufts of grass several miles back. The trickle of water we were following was frozen solid. Skeletons of less fortunate donkeys from caravans past were embedded in the ice.

We were penetrating the very northern rim of the huge expanse of high plateau that extends along the northern half of Tibet called the Chang Tang. The peaks in which we were interested lay on the southern horizon across 30 or 40 miles of mud flats and gently sloping alluvium. So wide open and flat was the terrain ahead that it seemed ridiculous that we were in the middle of a mountain range. Yet unclimbed peaks surrounded us on every horizon.

For the next two days we trekked across the wide valley, past anomalous, pimple-like volcanoes and around two lakes with waters too saline to drink. Our drinking water came from wells supplied by subterranean meltwater; finding them was like finding puddles in the Sahara. Without the knowledge of the one donkey driver who had been to the area before, we would have spent a thirsty couple of days.

We established a base camp at 4680 meters on the south shore of the second lake, Uliyk Kul, and for the next two days sorted gear, carried out a couple of recon hikes and formulated a plan. Continuing on with the donkeys proved to be beyond our budget; price, it seemed, rose with distance. From there on we hauled our own gear. Packing a minimal amount of technical gear and food for ten days, we set out toward what our none-too-detailed maps listed, at 6734 and 6786 meters, as the two highest peaks in the area.

From camp a low, gentle pass to our southwest led to a broad plain of lifeless alluvium. Tibetan antelope appeared often in the distance, though they never let us get too close; wolf tracks meandered on and off the thread of a path we were following. On the other side of the pass we crossed braided streams that flowed from glaciers oozing out of a huge massif of peaks. According to our map the massif contained no less than 30 peaks over 6000 meters high. On the whole it reminded me of a giant Floating Island Pudding.

We circled around to the west, where the two highest peaks buttressed the southwest and northwest comers like bastilles. A one-week window of perfect weather had deteriorated into mostly cloudy skies and frequent snow showers, so we decided to tackle the nearer of the two peaks first. It was also the lower of the two. If the weather worsened we would have at least one summit to show for our efforts.

Sitting under glowering skies one evening while the stove roared away and we discussed the weather and our options, a spot of gray and brown moved at a trot toward our tent. It took form as a wolf, although arguably more wild than the bagged, tagged and transplanted wolves of Yellowstone and other North American national parks. We were not in a nature preserve with artificial constructs and regulations to protect this wolf. We were so far from human settlements that it could go about its business free from the threats and paranoia of agricultural and industrial man. There were no laws against our shooting that wolf on the spot; neither were there any laws preventing his eating us on the spot.

The wolf stopped 100 yards away, then circled to its right across a slope strewn with almost identically colored boulders. But it did not just circle us and continue in its original direction. Rather it made an almost complete circle around our tent, stopping every 50 feet or so to sniff the air and glance our way before finally peeling off and loping into the metallic distance. I couldn’t help feeling marked. The fear of being the hunted is not the calculated, familiar fear of tackling a hard climb; it’s more primal. That night I polished off several chapters of Catch 22 before drifting into an uneasy sleep.

A couple of days later we were on the west face of Peak 6734, stumbling up a 1000-meter slope of snow-covered, rounded scree teetering at its angle of repose. The slope ended at a snow-covered glacier that reclined at a modest 25 or 30 degrees and led another 1000 meters to a summit ridge.

From a mountaineer’s standpoint it was hardly an aesthetic climb. Trudge wouldn’t begin to describe the tripping and stumbling involved in ascending the scree; slog merely hints at the snow climb above. We camped with headaches and dour moods just below 6000 meters on a rocky knoll at the toe of the glacier that draped the upper half of the mountain.

The weather that evening was worse than any we had yet experienced. Gusty winds and bursts of graupel wrestled with our tent as we did our best to anchor it to the slope with rocks and ice axes. Settling in as darkness closed around us, we brewed tea and soup, pondered the weather and talked over our options. Slowly, almost as if it wanted to slip away without bothering us, the squall dissipated, leaving a gentle, sibilant patter of snow on the tent wall. Our one remaining worry was whether the squall was the leading edge of a storm or the rear guard of one on its way out. The unchanging elevation on our altimeter watches gave us no clue either way.

By whatever lucky stars that had assumed responsibility for us on our expedition, the next day dawned cold, calm and clear. More massifs, similar to the one we were on, lined the horizon, and rose like icebergs through low-level, tufted clouds. We plodded up the glacier, breaking trail through 18 or 20 centimeters of powder snow. On the ridge we traversed south for just over a kilometer to the highest point, a rounded dome of wind-blown snow. Our altimeters read 6715 meters, close enough to the 6734 meters listed on the map to assure us that this was the true summit. After several photos we constructed a small cairn of rocks just below the summit and started down, reaching our high camp early in the afternoon. By dusk that evening we were back at our camp near the base of the mountain.

From there we returned to base camp to check on how our support crew was weathering the snow squalls. They had not been idle. They had snared a duck and a sea gull and used the carcasses to bait a trap they found on the trek in. Their efforts were rewarded one night with the capture of a wild cat similar in size to a bobcat but different in coloration. It had attacked one of the pack donkeys the night before, raking its jaws so severely the donkey could no longer eat. The skin of the cat now hung from a tent pole, a trophy dangling in the cold, dry wind. Tu Er Di claimed it for himself as a souvenir from the Kun Lun.

In the Kun Lun animals are protected only by the remoteness of their home turf. Rules levied on the Uighers by the occupying Han Chinese prohibit them from possessing firearms, yet our donkey drivers showed the kind of determination with which humans have and will continue to decimate wildlife populations. The incident of the cat put our expedition under a new and harsh light. Were we justified in exposing one of the few remaining preserves of wildlife within China to human exploitation simply to satisfy our urge to explore? Certainly it’s a question many an expedition has asked themselves. Our answer was probably no different than theirs: If we didn’t, someone else would.

Aside from their hunting exploits, our support staff had worn the suits off a pack of cards and eaten up most of their food supplies. Propane for the stove was long gone, so they cooked over a yak dung bonfire. It didn’t seem reasonable for us to stretch our necks out by remaining in the toolies any longer, where we would risk returning in bad weather with low food supplies. But our luck held, and as we packed camp, the weather broke, and bright sun accompanied us almost the whole way out.

The trek out took one day less than the trek in, and all too soon we were back amidst civilization, if that’s what Pu Lu can be called. We waited three days for jeeps to arrive, eating large quantities of mutton pilaf, noodles and steamed buns, filling in diaries, playing solitaire and exploring the surrounding countryside. The locals entertained us one night with a display of folk music and dancing; we entertained them with a display of our lack thereof.

Eventually the jeeps arrived, bumping and jolting us back down the rugged road to tarmac and modernity Chinese style. China’s cities are all alike: in their rush to develop, they evolved into a hurly-burly of brick and cement monoliths. Red, lozenger-shaped taxis screech around comers, distorted movie soundtracks blare from movie houses, markets are thronged with shoppers and factories smudge earth and sky.

Our one urge was to flee back to the mountains. Hans opted for Joshua Tree with his wife. Kent and I opted for Tibet.

Our adventure in the Kun Lun was finished. Though we had been remote, we had not hung it out, nor had we pulled off a mountaineering feat that tested the limits of our abilities. Instead, the memories that persist are those of the land itself; the stories I tell will be of the wolves and antelope and wild yaks. The Kun Lun is a huge, mystical mountain range. May it always remain so.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Kun Lun Shan Mountains, China

FIRST ASCENT: Peak 6734m, September 14-17, 1996 (Mark Newcomb*, Hans Johnstone, Kent McBride)

*Recipient of a W.L. Gore Shipton/Tilman Grant.

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