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The Filthy Lucre Tour
Ted at where C1 would be
16th Sep 2006
Mustagh Ata Part Three - Some Climbing

I was young free and single when I wrote part two, and I'm married now - this has involved a lot of organisational headache so please excuse me if I cover ground I've already been over.

Here goes with the climbing. The hike from base camp to camp one was on a rubble-covered scree slope, in a fair amount of heat even for people who've been living in Greece for a month. T-shirt and shorts type weather. As this was an acclimatisation hike more than a camp-stocking hike we carried very light packs, but even so the altitude was telling. It was an 800m climb up a steady incline, which took is just over four hours. I didn't know at the time that the combination of increased fitness and acclimatisation would cause the same hike to take me just over two hours with a half-full pack in a couple of weeks. Once we arrived at C1 (5200m) we ate our sandwiches, chatted for a while and sat taking in the view for a while in order to acclimatise. Apart from the headache I felt pretty good, and I imagine I speak for the rest of them when I say I was pleased to discover that the three of us were all happy with a similar pace. Ted's girlfriend Ashley appeared to find it a great deal easier than the rest of us did, but I personally decided that it was almost definitely because she was leaving before the main climb and didn't, erm, have to conserve energy as much as the rest of us. That was it. We hopped back down to base camp and had a rest day. I'm going to start having "rest days" on all my hikes in future.

Did I talk about food? I don't think I did. Whilst the food at base camp was really rather pleasant (apart from the chicken heads), the food further up the mountain was a little more basic. All you eat at the higher camps must be cooked on a stove inside the tent using snow that you've melted. I remember as well as anyone how quickly snowballs melt and drip all over you once you'd made them, and how quickly a snow-covered hiker turns into a puddle. Melting snow to cook with, however, is much more of a pain in the tits than you'd imagine. There are two basic tasks involved - collecting the snow (usually scooped up with your bowl into a stuff-sack) outside, and melting it inside. Collecting the snow meant putting gear on and going out in the nasty wasty outdoors, so in reality what usually happened was that I lay inactive groaning for a while, and Ted (my allocated tent-buddy) made some grumbling noises and then went out and collected all the snow. Melting the snow, however, meant lighting the stove. The stoves were home-made affairs (no stove manufacturer will ever make you a stove for cooking inside a tent, for fear of litigation in the inevitable ten thousand tent-fire incidents) and ran on disposable canisters of propane-butane gas mix. In very cold temperatures the gas inside the canisters unfortunately contracts so much that nothing comes out when you turn the tap on, and the only real way to get any gas out is to heat it. And so, almost every time we cooked, we found ourselves in the jolly position of sitting in a flammable tent, several miles up, three days from assistance and completely uncontactable, holding a lighted match an inch underneath a gas canister.

After our rest day we headed back up to C1, with the intention of staying the night and then making some headway for C2 the following morning. Once we got to C1 the tents were already pitched - we were now staying two-to-a-tent instead of the luxurious single tents at base camp, so I was paired up with Ted. C1 lay on rocky scree just below the very highest sliver of ground before the snowline, and the Mountain Madness tents were at the very top. Facing down from our tents we saw the snow to our left, the enormous Kartamak glacier over a very sharp drop to the right and the other ten or so tents of the camp spread out below us. From a distance the whole setup must have looked a little precarious.

We arrived at C1 in the early afternoon and started melting snow immediately - this actually takes somewhere around an hour each morning and evening, so the novelty of playing at being a mountaineer soon palls. My headache got steadily worse, and as evening approached I dedicated my time to lying on the floor trying not to vomit whilst Ted cooked my dinner. All of the food was of the freeze-dried just-add-water variety. It was actually remarkeably good, but so it should have been as each sachet meal cost in the region of 4 quid, which would buy you a jolly nice dinner for two in Kashgar.

Brad appeared to be in fine form, but the very beginnings of a cold that Ian had had at base camp appeared to be getting to him. We went to bed at around nine, the usual sort of time for the higher camps, and I slept really quite badly, mostly because every time I started to doze off I found myself very alert and hyperventilating. I don't know whether it was really due to a lack of oxygen or just a mild case of High Altitude Paranoia, but it was extremely unpleasant. If the higher camps were going to be worse doses of this, I was going to be spending a week drinking in Kashgar.

Although I'd had a bit of practice at base camp, this was also the first night where I rather had to pee in a bottle. For those of you who haven't done this before, peeing in a bottle is a funny old business if you're a man, and a not very funny old business if you're a girl. It had taken me quite some time hunting in Athens for a disposable plastic milk bottle with an enormous enough girth for me, but eventually I'd found one and bundled it into my luggage. Kiki's mother had washed it out carefully beforehand, bless her - I'm not sure she knew exactly what it was destined for. Anyway, whilst seasoned mountaineers can pee in a bottle whilst prone in the comfort of their sleeping bags, the rest of us find that we have to sit up (still in the sleeping bag) in order to perform. As I'm sure you know, the act of urination requires a certain degree of relaxation, and that relaxation is difficult to attain when you're squatting in front of two other gentlemen with one knee resting rather painfully on a discarded ice axe and the other attempting to compensate for the considerable slope your tent has been pitched on. Combine these factors with the knowledge that you're about to open your bladder inside your own sleeping bag, and the horror stories you've heard about urination accidents in base camp, and peeing becomes really quite a task. Once you've finished you just tip the bottle contents out of the tent immediately - you'll only forget to do this part once, when you wake up with a frozen bottle of pee and realise that you're going to have to spend the day with it in your jacket pocket trying to warm it up.

Dear reader, console yourself with the fact that you're not a woman. Unless you're a woman. For a woman, peeing in a bottle is as easy, in the words of Barbara from the Summit Climb party, as getting a cat to pee in a bottle. I'm reliably informed that it involves a funnel, some swearing and a high level of risk. It's such a complex and hazardous procedure that many of the women on the Summit Climb expedition elected to don a complete set of mountaineering gear (including boots) and brave the elements, even at the higher camps. If you're on Diamox (more on this later) this could be three or four times every night.

Once you've got the hang of peeing in a bottle, it's actually great. How many times have you gone to the Lake District camping, had a few beers, leapt into the tent, undressed and realised that you need to pee three times before going to sleep, and now it's started raining? The bottle is your friend.

The next morning it was freezing cold. Despite ventilating the tent quite well we had little bits of frosted condensation all over the zips, the cooking aparatus and all my clothes. From now on, all the mornings are going to be freezing cold. I might not mention it each time, so you'll have to imagine it. Ted, who seems to be a mornings person, was up bright and early and out getting snow for us to start melting. Yay! Another hour of snow melting. Wasn't I doing this BEFORE I went to bed? Isn't it DONE?

After eating some rather nice oatmeal, we made contact with Brad and Ian - initially by yelling, but eventually by getting off our portly posteriors and going to their tent. Ian looked considerably worse. He'd hardly slept at all and announced immediately that he was not going towards C2, but was instead heading back to BC. I had to admire him - as I mentioned before, perhaps the hardest part of any mountaineering trip is deciding when to turn back, and here he was very near the start of the expedition quite sure that if he was going to make the summit, he had to shake off the cold first. He knew as well as we did that a day skipped on the acclimatisation left him at a considerable deficit, but there wasn't much else he could do.

The glacier just above us was quite heavily crevassed. Jon Otto (China's favourite logistics man) and Phil Crampton (Summit Climb's guide) had placed marker wands and fixed some sections of rope, so we just had to follow the wands and clip into the fixed rope where necessary. This meant being roped together, so Brad, Ted and I started to tie in. As we were tying the ropes we met two parties who'd been up for an early-morning sortie above C1. Both parties had had a man fall into a crevasse, and both unroped. They were extremely lucky, but it was a much closer shave than anyone had expected and two people (Roger and Alan) dropped out of the expedition immediately. Although it probably seems an unusual decision to the average reader, I couldn't really fault their sentiments at the time - I've been in a crevasse once and it is really an extremely unpleasant experience. Although shaken, they were in generally good spirits and cheerily wished us good luck. One of them remarked that if he ever climbed a mountain again, it wasn't going to have snow on it.

Slightly sobered by this knowledge, we started towards C2. The ice was reasonably hard and we wore crampons from the outset. I've never been clipped into a fixed rope and tied to other people at the same time, and it's really quite tricky not standing on at least one part of the rope fairly regularly, especially with crampons on. After a bit of tangling we began to get the hang of it and started making a steady but slow pace upwards. It's really quite amazing how slow a pace one makes on high mountains - it's probably about one footstep every five seconds or so. Professional mountaineers aim to walk slowly all day almost without stopping - eating and drinking must be done on the way, so food and drink must be handy in jacket pockets. I'm a great subscriber to this but for the first few hours we had quite regular stops in order to retrieve food, sun cream, sunglasses et cetera from rucksacks.

The terrain from C1 on is a steady climb up snow. If you were to have the classic picture of Mustagh Ata from the north (Karakoul) in front of you, the mountain has a wedge shape - very steep to the left and shallow to the right. C1 is at the snowline on the shallower (right) side. In most pictures from Karakoul, it's just past what you can see to the right. With a few variations, it's a steady incline of perhaps 20 degrees. The up the mountain is of more snow; the view back down behind you is a splendid vista of the Karakoul valley, and directly behind you are the various mountain passes into Afghanistan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan. Many of these passes are quite simply closed to foreigners, with no exceptions.

After skirting around a few clearly marked slots, the crevasse field dried up and we were off the fixed ropes. Compared to the BC-C1 hike, the going was really very hard. We had quite a few stops and I had to ask for quite a few more - my headache was terrible, I was feeling extremely nauseous and completely lacking in energy. The nausea was perhaps the worst part; performing strenuous exercise whilst wanting to vomit is not the easiest thing in the world.

After four hours or so we met Phil (SC guide) and a few others at one of the few slightly flatter parts, and I announced my intention to go no further whatsoever. Brad was feeling "tired" but I quite honestly felt like death. I flumped down without taking my rucksack off, and leaned back breathing heavily and concentrating on not vomiting in front of these nice people.

Some time later - I suspect not very much time, as nobody else noticed - I woke up. How I fell asleep I had no idea, but I was still sitting in the same position, and now I had to vomit in front of these nice people. I staggered to my feet, smiled meekly at Phil and vomited all over the place several times. Ted took this as a useful sign that I probably wasn't going to camp two, and we started to head back down to base camp. The hike took an absolute age, and I felt gruesome the whole way. I think my condition was made much worse by the fact that this didn't bode at all well for the rest of the trip, and I arrived back at BC feeling healthier but in rotten spirits. I spent the next rest day feeling sorry for myself, and guilty for stopping Ted and Brad from making C2.

Ian's cold wasn't any better, so the spirits of the whole team were somewhat down. Just two days ago it had seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that we'd all make the summit, and now it looked like only one of us had much of a chance.

Next: Mustagh Ata Part Four (of Four) - Some More Climbing
Previous: Just married

Diary Photos

Ted at where C1 would be

On the way to C1

Ian on way to C1

Base camp from near C1

Unpacking at C1

Unpacking at C1

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