American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, China, Mustagh Ata, Gasherbrum II, and Other Activity in the Chinese Karakoram

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1999

Mustagh Ata, Gasherbrum II, and Other Activity in the Chinese Karakoram. Our expedition was co-led by Daniel Mazur and Jonathan Otto. On June 29, we set out from Kathmandu, Nepal, to Islamabad, Pakistan, across India by rail with 600 kilograms of mountaineering equipment. An in-progress war of nuclear detente was currently in full swing between India and Pakistan, which made the border crossings interesting. On July 20, our bus crossed from Pakistan into China via the Khunjerab Pass on the Karakoram Highway. On July 21, a four- hour, camel-supported trek from the highway into the Chinese Pamirs brought us to Mustagh Ata’s clean, comfortable, grassy, well-organized, permanently established north side Base Camp at 4350 meters. On August 3, Ellen Miller led the way to the summit (7546m) in a windblown whiteout, with Angela McCormick and Daniel Mazur in tow. That afternoon, they telemark skied down from the summit and reached Base Camp.

By August 10, 11 of our team members (including Frank Pitula, Clint Rogers, Steven Ross, Patricia Peterson and Howard Yee) had reached the summit, either on foot, snowshoe, or ski. Richard Bothwell made a snowboard descent on August 9. Upon departure, we exchanged all of our in-place equipment, including ropes, fixing lines, snow, rock and ice anchors to a well-organized expedition we had met from Osaka, Japan. In this way, we tried to reduce the pollution of mountain environments that occurs with the unnecessary duplication of safety equipment on a well-traveled route.

On August 13, we began an attempt on the unclimbed south face of Mustagh Ata. After leaping initial time-consuming bureaucratic hurdles, including interesting visits to the police station, we entered the Mustagh Ata complex from the east side, crossing several technical 5000-meter ice and rock passes in the process. Our 80-kilometer mountaineering traverse was only possible because we carried lightweight, high-standard equipment. Weather and loss of time prevented us from making a bonafide attempt on Mustagh Ata’s stunningly massive south face, but we did reconnoiter a very feasible route for the future.

During our travels across the Mustagh Ata complex, we made the first ascent of the 6100- meter Tokoruk Peak. Olivier Raimond and Richard Bothwell led the way on the semi-technical snow- and ice-covered west ridge, traversing several cornices and false summits before reaching the top, where we enjoyed a fine view of our entire eight-day traverse and of Mustagh Ata’s classic south face itself.

On September 1, our team began the first attempt of the 8036-meter Gasherbrum II via its unclimbed north face. Eight of us made a rather pleasant trek, and a few exciting camel-assisted crossings of the snow-melt swollen river, through the desert-like Shaksgam River Valley. We established Advanced Base Camp I at 4650 meters and ABC II at 4800 meters on September 2. On September 11, in sunny warm weather, we finished fixing 700 meters of rope on the steep and icy 30-60° “Hilton Headwall.” On September 13, we established CI at 5750 meters on safe flat ground at the edge of “Destruction Plateau” between the “Skyang Ice Cascade” and “Sinclair’s Scepter.” Our single-wall tents were deluged in snow and battered by winds from the Tibetan Plateau until October 1, when we fixed another 500 meters of line over three days. Our route of ascent was the “Wallis Traverse;” we reached a high point of 6400 meters. We found this to be a rather technical, but highly possible, route that stretched the limits of our equipment. On October 3, we turned back in raging winds, out of time, short on hot chocolate drink mix, and a tiny bit let-down, but wiser and 100% primed for a future ascent of this exciting, still unclimbed route.

On October 1, Ian Hatchett made the first ascent of the unclimbed summit of the 6061-meter Madame Butterfly via the east ridge. He climbed solo on 30-60° snow and ice, and his one- day, fast-and-light first ascent was particularly gratifying, as Andrew Dunn and Daniel Mazur had nearly reached the summit in 1996 via the west face.

On October 2, David Wallis and Andrew Hilton attempted to make the first ascent of 6850- meter Venus Rising. At 11 a.m., while climbing at 6400 meters on the east face, they were sucked into a mountain-wide, meter-deep slab avalanche. The two were tossed down the slope, somersaulting through fast-moving snow blocks. Andrew suffered a severely sprained ankle, and both climbers were stripped of ski poles, hats, goggles, and ice axes before coming to a halt at the edge of a rock precipice as the avalanche carried on and tumbled into a deep ice couloir.

On October 7, our entire team, assisted by the faithful Tadjik and Uighur people as camel caravaners, fled the Karakoram in stable, cold, windy weather and low-water river conditions. We carefully buried our biodegradable wastes, then burned and packed out every single scrap of rubbish. During our 48-day expedition, we had encountered a few shepherd families and no other tourists. In fact, the mountaineering authorities told us that during the last two years, ours had been the only climbing expedition permitted to enter the Chinese Karakoram.

On October 10, at the end of the 100-kilometer camel trek out, while visiting Korul, a village of the seasonally-nomadic Kyrgyz people, a seven-year-old shepherd boy was hit by a flying piece of rock shrapnel thrown from a road builder’s dynamite blast. Our expedition doctors Andrew Hilton, Mike Sinclair and Rob Allen amputated his shattered foot and nursed him through the night. We then transported him, his sister, and parents in our vehicles to the nearest hospital, where we pooled our resources to pay for an operation that his family would have been unable to afford. It was the first time any of them had ever ridden in a motor vehicle, or been to the nearest city. As a result of this mishap, we met with local government officials, and are currently joining together to create a health care system that will begin to fill the void for these people, who currently have nothing.

Finally, between October 15 and 27, we crossed Xinjiang Province and the nation of Tibet by rail, plane, and road with 300 kilograms of equipment, hosted along the way by regional mountaineering clubs. We were welcomed warmly, and were able to conduct extensive mountaineering research into high-altitude mountains in and around the Tibetan Plateau. As a result, we are planning expeditions and further explorations in Tibet and Xinjiang for the upcoming climbing season.

Dan Mazur

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