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Asia, China, Kun Lun Shan, Mt. Mustagh Ata, East Ridge

Mt. Mustagh Ata, East Ridge. In 1994, Dan Waugh had seen and photographed the east ridge of Mustagh Ata (7546m) and suggested we might try to be the first to climb it. Through correspondence with Japanese Alpine Club members, including Masanori Suzuki, as well as a previous attempt on the route in 1998, Daniel Mazur and Jon Otto (U.S.) established that the ridge was unclimbed.

Our journey started on June 10 with a preliminary climb of the normal route, on the western slopes of the mountain, where the team used snowshoes and skis to place all members on the summit. After reaching the summit, Thijs Van der Plas (Belgium and the Netherlands), Christian Zimmer Conrad (Germany), Walter Frehner (Switzerland), and Krzysztof Berbeka (Poland) departed base camp on July 1.

By July 4, the new-route team, including Yang Li Cun (China), Anne Ramzy (U.S.), and Lakpa Tamang (Nepal), reached base camp at 4600 meters on a grassy slope at the head of the Kuksay Glacier. On July 8, we traversed along the Potterfield Glacier and scrambled up a steep boulder field to our 5350-meter Camp I at the top of the Waugh Plateau.

The following day, we climbed a 40- to 80-degree buttress with exposed rock, ice, and snow that we called the “Arrowhead.” In our excitement to finally be on the route, Jon dropped both ice tools down a snow face, and Walter got his rucksack wedged in a rock chimney. We recovered our composure and continued on.

Finally we were on the ridge! For the following six days, Walter and Jon led our snow-shoeless group of three through phenomenally deep snow, some of it tilted at precarious angles and fractured into carelessly tossed heaps of car-sized snow blocks. On the afternoon of July 15, we made it to a point 100 meters below the summit. Bitterly chilled, without adequate food, water, or fuel, we dug our single wall tent into the sunless, wind-blasted snow face for the last time. We had determined that our only logical choice was to finish the climb across the top and descend the normal route.

The next morning, Dan awoke unable to speak clearly. He mumbled that he thought he had suffered a stroke, but was able to function. His symptoms appeared to be those of cerebral edema. Meanwhile, Jon stylishly soloed a ten-meter near-vertical rock pitch without much protection, and was the first to stand upon the summit. Walter followed on a rope, and the two prepared a hauling system. At the bottom of the pitch, Dan, not thinking 100 percent clearly, untied himself and the rucksacks, then fell downslope 80 meters, clutching two bags. Jon climbed back down and helped Dan carry the sacks back up to the rope. The two then reclimbed the pitch.

Reunited on top, we snapped a few summit photos, then descended immediately via the normal route. That evening, exhausted, we found a small gray tent at 7100 meters, and later discovered we had slept upon mattresses used by a man who had disappeared just a few days before.

On the night of July 17, we fled the clutches of Mustagh Ata, but not before a bloody motorcycle wreck slapped Walter and his Kyrghyz driver into the pavement.

Walter Keller, Daniel Mazur, and Jon Otto