Surprise Birthday Party
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A lot can happen en route from Utah to an untouched valley in China’s Kok Shal Tau range. Via dispatches from the trail, follow four young climbers half way around the world all the way up granite faces the height of two Half Domes.
Finally, after the arduous task of packing and planning our gear, food, and mentality, we are finally in the air over the Pacific Ocean on our way to a totally unknown expedition. As far as our research, and what we have been told by our Chinese contacts, we will be the first people to explore this pin-pointed area of the Kok Shal Tau mountains in the Tien Shan range, just a
According to some old Russian military maps from the 1940s, and some rumors floating around in the mountaineering world, huge, amazing granite walls lie unclimbed, and even unphotographed. Our appetite grows constantly to find these pristine alpine walls, and we are ready for the feast of first ascents up clean, solid granite. Our goal, to shuttle our gear through an untraveled
Jerry Dodrill, from Berkeley, California, is here mainly to photograph the journey, though he’s just as excited to climb. He has his huge artillery of camera gear, including 300 rolls of film, and is psyched to capture the journey with his pure and professional approach to photography and sharing of his passion. As for myself—Mike Libecki, and other team members Jed and
Time to find some sleep, we have about thirty hours of flying and layovers until we arrive in Urumqi, China. From there we have one short nights rest, with little or no time to deal with jet lag, and then we are shipped off immediately to the mountains.
I had been told that dealing with Chinese bureaucracy can be quite ahem, frustrating, given that sometimes no rules exist in their system when it comes to foreigners. This was proven when we tried to catch our next plane to Urumqi, from Peking, Beijing, China. As we approached the check-in counter in the Chinese International Airport, they immediately decided we had too much
As I write this, we are waiting out our unexpected two-day delay to fly out to Urumqi, where we are going to meet with our Chinese Military guides. They will lead us to the restricted area of the mountains in which we supposedly have permits to climb and explore the area. It is unbelievably hot and humid in Beijing. While we sit eating in the hotel restaurant, beads of sweat
With our delay, we are burdening our whole schedule with our Military Police liaison officers/guides, so we decided to try and extend our visas while in Beijing so we have enough time for the schedule with the our guides. After five hours in a taxi that costs us more than I would like to say, we found out extending our visas is not possible, you need at least a week to have
The sky is a dismal gray here and when you get a glimpse of the sun, it looks like a neon-peach full moon—a moon you would see in some alien-science fiction movie. The overcast and polluted skies seem to by fighting to put a damper on our mood, but our optimism is remaining high— the obstacles just add spice to the journey. The unknown aspects that we encounter
Transit from Beijing to Urumqi worked out smoothly in the end (though we’re another $1,000 poorer after the extra baggage charges). I’m now squinting in the sun at the white peaks in the distance, listening to the Toxkan River humming on the other side of the hill. Guo Jin Wei, our Chinese contact, also liaison officer, interpreter, guide, and person that is making all of this
We spent two days driving the two 4x4s (one for the team and one for all of our gear and food) more than 1,000 km to Aksu. The drive offered beautiful views of rusty desert mountains with distant snow capped peaks. It was mostly cloudy—spectacular cumulous clouds reshaping and growing over head—and both nights the day would turn into black-gray spitting huge
Two more days of driving brought us to Akqi. We had much better weather than the last two days, with the sun shining all day and clouds playing Twister over the snowy mountains. 5,000-meter peaks teased us the whole way, and we passed fields upon fields of 12-foot sunflowers circling with the sun. Camels, sheep, goats, lamb, horses, mules, and cows mixed in the foothills
Akqi was our last military check-in point, and all went well. Though it’s restricted to foreigners, so they weren’t too thrilled with our picture taking. We now have all the permits to visit and explore this completely virgin territory, now confirmed as totally unexplored by all of the Chinese we have met.
We drove through another small village, Karabulak, and stopped for lunch (spicy red noodles with lamb and peppers) to meet the active local military, and then proceeded toward the mountains.
Three cultures live in this area, the Chinese, the Uykurs, and the Kyrgystan people; they are all so different and distinct. It is quite amazing being with the people, it truly is fascinating. Right where I’m writing this, in a small village called Maran, two camels are eating, a woman is breastfeeding her child, a man is shaving another man with a razor, and a woman at a
Barometer is dropping as I type, and the clouds are moving in– I have to send this quickly before the bad weather terminates my satellite connection. The animals the Chinese Military, Police and Bureau of Lands made us hire finally arrived: we’re now accompanied by four camels, four donkeys, and their owners—four Kyrgystan men on horses. The animals carried well over a
The animals and all of us walked slowly up the valley along a huge muddy brown river. On the way, we passed at least four small villages, each with about Kyrgy– Kyergystan people. Their strong and weathered look goes along with the territory they live in. They wear colorful clothes of all kinds, and have bright blue and green eyes that seem to glow and hypnotize you. The
As we move up the huge valley, the snow-capped peaks keep rising higher. Huge granite towers and walls are starting to come into view. Massive granite towers and walls are starting to poke out– they’re endless, and with every step and foot of elevation gained, new ones come into view. Not to mention the layers of glaciers laid out over miles of terrain, like a giant
After gaining about 2000 feet of elevation over eight hours of walking with the animals, we have come to where our first camp will be. The animals leave, and we are almost alone, besides the small herds of horses and goats, and our guide, Guo Jin Wei, and his cook. We stare dumbfounded at the pristine mountains in the distance, knowing that suffering is about to begin as we
In the morning, the camels push on for about a half-mile on the dry and dirty glacier. From there the shuttling begins. A couple of the locals decide to carry some light loads for the rest of the day. We start with our 60-pound loads and get everything a couple miles up the frozen maze. All of our gear rests under tarps on the enormous glacier, where what looks like a flat
Cold, cloudy, with a hint of sunlight—those God-like beams.
Since we have been shuttling loads the beautiful, unexpectedly unexpected, and interesting have become our reality. The glaciers seem to go on forever, twisting and turning through the valleys; some look smooth as silk rippling in the wind, others contorted and spiked like a giant dragon’s back (this is the year of the dragon expedition, after all). We have, in the last several
The monstrous walls, towers, ridges, and peaks peer down with inviting, but warning eyes—so many choices for a climber to drool over. According to our map, amazing formations lie hidden just around the corners and over high glaciers that we have yet to meet, and hope to soon. We have considered many routes, and will have to commit to one soon. Patience: soon we will begin
The unexpectedly unexpected that took place a few days ago, slapping us in the face, leaving a scar even, was thievery. In the last small village near the road where we loaded the animals, or so we are pretty sure, some local Kyrgystan people decided they would help themselves to our gear. They stole two of our virgin ropes—actually they cut in half two of our virgin
A couple of days of tormenting rain has soaked everything, leaving us cold and damp through to the bone. The rain has now turned to snow; visibility has been minimal and load shuttling miserable. Rock and snow avalanches crash throughout the night, from what direction we cannot tell. We hope for more sunshine and vertical living soon.
Team morale is as good as it gets. The only recent friction between partners occurred when Jerry, trying to squeeze by in the cook tent, accidentally kicked Jed’s full bowl of tea (with milk and sugar) all over him—from his fleece hat, beard and face, to his chest and legs; comedy for Doug and I, innocent tension and guilt for the others.
Reaching the Untouched Wall:
It is about 32 degrees in the shade with the sun out right now; my hands are almost too cold to type.
The snow and wind blew its fury throughout the night. Heavy, wet snow. We had to get up several times to shovel the snow from the tents so they didn’t collapse on us. The tent poles proved their worth.
We awoke in the morning to sunny skies and about a foot of the heaviest snow I have ever seen. The sun played with us as we sweated and shuttled for another day. The climbing calls intensely now; there are just so many incredible options.
Back at camp from the shuttling, the snow has come out of nowhere to tuck us in. Hot green tea, milk and sugar, Chinese soup, and lots of cheese and salami for dinner, and for breakfast most of the time too. The constant nature of time proves itself a lot out here, though boredom is hard to come by. We lay down for another night on the huge flat boulder, the size of a couple
We have seen, up here in the glaciers, marmots, brown and white striped birds about the size of peregrines, big lanky spiders, and pika-like beasts with huge porcupine spikes and mouse faces.
Starting tomorrow, we will be climbing a huge peak, probably around 17,500 feet, that lies on the border of China and Kyrgystan. We are learning so much from each other, and feel fortunate to have such a tight team of people. I think the partners that were against shuttling without porters are now psyched on the situation and its rewards.
Reaching the Untouched Wall:
Off to climb the Grand Pooh-Bah, or at least that’s what we call it. On the map the peak is 5697 meters.
Such a wonderful feeling to be outfitted in the artillery for modern day dragon battling: big plastic boots, spiked, ice axes, climbing gear, a burdening pack with the essentials for our attempt on this monstrous, rocky tower. Our synthetic clothing impregnates with sweat and grease as we slug up the never ending glaciers and hanging seracs. Hidden crevasses lurk below as we
Hours of falling onto our feet, step after step, breath after breath, we have gained over 2000 feet in elevation—that much closer to our destined climb. The whole way the snow and sun tag-team us. The weather seems to change at least every four hours, if not less, and is totally unpredictable.
As we get to our camp, heavy, wet snowflakes attack, without any sign of retreat. We set up our one pole Mountain Hardwear Kiva shelter for the four of us and fire up the stove—chicken gumbo again, and green tea; quite satisfying. The wet flakes slap our fragile tether as we one again clean the stove that has been clogged by our supply of dirty fuel. We melt water, drink,
I slowly emerge from my dream. I was sailing in a small boat with my fiancée Natalie in the middle of the ocean, circled by whales and dolphins, when I awoke to a damp bivy sack, and the wind and snow attacking us in rage.
We all finally come to an awakened state—not much to do but listen to the rage of the weather outside. We fire up the XGK stove and soon slurp down our tofu Chinese soup. We dig our material cave free of the snow that is trying to bury us and suffocate us by cutting off our oxygen.
Total white out, freezing cold, cramped space, and a lot of time on our hands. Sunday afternoon, and we are obviously stranded here. We all worry about the storm wiping out our shelter, though nobody talks about it. We move through time the best we can. Jed makes a chessboard and pieces, also backgammon set. This holds us over for several hours as the storm screams terror
Fettuccini for dinner, more torturous moisture dripping in the tent, and hopes of sunshine in the morning.
Sunshine drenches our shelter; heat wakes us from our dreams. Green tea, hot and sour soup, and several layers of sunscreen application start our day. We pack up our camp in hopes of getting near The Grand Pooh-Bah.
As we pack, the heat is so intense that we all have headaches by the time we are about to start humping our loads. Only a few sweltering hours later we have a new camp at about 16,500 feet. Peaks we have looked up for days now fall below us. Soon, all of the peaks will be below us.
We build a weather haven—a wall of huge snow bricks around our one-poled shelter—and settle in. We know the weather cannot be predicted as our barometer is ever changing with the elevation, and we lash every part of the tent down to the glacier. Clouds move in by evening, and a gray and gold sunset takes us into darkness. Tamale pie for dinner. Alarms set for 3:00
The alarm goes of several times, or so I am told, and Doug wakes me up. I start singing happy birthday to Doug. He is 27 today.
I fire up the stove. Several liters of ice are liquidated and a huge pot of chicken soup is served. It is about 22 degrees Fahrenheit—pretty warm as far as we are concerned. The sky is crystal blue-black, all the surrounding peaks and towers glow from the full moon.
We leave camp about 5:30 A.M. We have two bivy sacs, Clif bars for a day or two, a few liters of water each, ices axes, one rope (8.8 mm x 60 m), a few nuts, hexes, ice screws, swami belts for harnesses, ten slings, 16 carabiners, and all of our clothes. We are headed for a route that looks to be mostly a big snow and ice couloir—what we hope will be a pretty quick ascent
We navigate a safe route over the glacier and around the huge hanging ice buildings (seracs) and make our way to the ridge that we hope to climb. What we thought might have a few rock and ice pitches has now turned into something new—a route that will have nothing but unpredictable and steep, ice, rock, AND snow pitches. The route looks much more difficult, much steeper,
We go for it. Our gear is probably inadequate, our food is probably not enough, and if we have to bivy, we will suffer.
We simul-climb (all climbing at once, roped up) the first couple pitches. Throughout the day we encounter spicy off-widths (cracks over eight inches wide), interesting mixed rock and ice climbing, sections of frozen water fall climbing, and lots of alpine ice climbing.
Evening approaches and the summit seems far away. We will have to bivy. Darkness falls as we all hang from a couple nuts and ice axes in an ice gully. Heavy wind and snow bite at us. Don’t panic I say, no worries—panic causes trouble. Just off to the left we spot a small ledge of snow hanging in space. Perfect to dig out a little space for four human sardines. Two of us
Already awake at about 6:00 A.M., we force ourselves out of our meager body shelters and into the freezing wind. We are all shaking so bad we can hardly put our boots and crampons on. The sun creeps around the corner and we get excited about the coming warmth. But the wind blows harder and the sun’s warmth comes unnoticed.
Jerry is up on lead crying about numb hands and feet while attacking a difficult ice and rock medley up to a snow gully. We all share the numbness, and all pretend to ignore it. We have little water that is melted, and several Clif bars. Miserable. Dehydrated. Surprisingly, we do have energy. Snow challenges most of our day as we slug up more ice gullies, snow couloirs, and
We all wear crampons the entire route, even while climbing the rock off-widths. The snow and wind attack harder, as we approach what we think is the summit ridge. Snow pellets strikes us as if they were fired by a thousand shot guns. Clouds race by, teasing our view of the heavenly peaks around us. One minute we are stuck in time and in au of the miracle of life, the next
Late afternoon. I lead a loose rock pitch-and-pull of some garbage-can-size-rocks. I am on the summit ridge, and look over the clouds—in only fifty feet I have broken through the storm and stare at the summit a few hundred feet away. I belay up the team, and as soon as the last is at the belay, the clouds, wind, and snow decide they want to come too. White out.
Heavy graupel and wind come back for a re-match. The summit is within our reach and we decide to give one chance to hit it. Doug starts through the blinding snow on the knife-blade ridge. It’s so steep he has to climb with one foot on each side of the ridge—one foot in China, and one foot in Kyrgystan.
Then it happens. We all start to hear an intense vibrating hum in our ears,”ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ”.
Jerry yells out in terror. He has been shocked in his hand and his scalp. The hair hanging outside of Jed’s hat stands straight up. We all retreat back down the ridge to a safe spot to regroup. Doug doubts Jerry’s claim of being shocked, and two seconds later, Doug is shocked too and now panicking along with Jerry. We bail.
We were in an electrical cloud storm with the summit only a couple hundred feet away. We made the decision that we have one attempt for the summit (that is all our supplies, time, and energy would allow, or maybe we would never come down). Of course, as we start to decide how we are going to get down this mountain, the storm clears within ten minutes and we all stare at the
Someone asks if we should go. No. We had our chance; we cannot compromise our safety. It already looks like we will have another unexpected bivy on our descent. We start what looks like the best way down.
After an hour negotiating how we will descend, we realize we cannot go down this way. The recent snow has made our descent route very avalanche prone. Confusion, worry, and desperation set in. We need to get off this mountain.
Snow starts again. We decide we have to try and go down the way we came up. How can we rappel or down-climb this route with our little gear, fatigue, and intensely dangerous weather, let alone find the same route down? We go, one person down-climbing to an anchor point setting gear, two others rappelling the 8.8 line, and the last man down-climbing carefully while removing the
Surprise Birthday Party
I start off the morning again singing happy birthday to Jerry; he also turns 27 on this expedition. Jerry rousts everyone up in a panic—he feels a storm is going to take us out unless we get back down to basecamp. We are frozen. It takes a couple hours to get our boots on, pack up, and find courage to try this frightening descent route. We have no energy. Believe it or
None of us have ever been so dehydrated; our muscles cramp with every move. I volunteer to go first and set anchors. We have to rappel—hopefully we can find rock horns and other features to rappel from. We have so little gear. We make the first few rappels without worry, suffering only from cold. The clouds come in hard. We are all so tired. Hallucinations are common.
As I set up one of the anchors, I feel as if I’m drowning. What seems to be about 10,000 bags of bleached white sugar falls over my head like a waterfall; I gasp for breath. The snow is building above, and we are getting flushed with these waterfall avalanches every several minutes.
We find ourselves in a huge snow and ice gully that looks as if it will lead to the glacier. We decide to down-climb it, all together and roped up. We descend the snow and ice couloir about 1000 feet. The sun peaks at us. Every time we stop to rest, even for a moment, we fall asleep, just for a second, then realize where we are. We finally arrive at the glacier, open crevasses,
We start walking back to our camp, about an hour away, literally falling into every next step. Half way back, as our hallucinations increase, we are caught in a white out, and have to sit for a half an hour before moving on. Huge crevasses and icefalls lie in every direction and travelling without knowing exactly where we are going could prove fatal. I don’t know if any of us
Actually, strange as it might seem, I don’t know if any of us have been so happy either. We survived, with smiles, an incredible adventure.
We make camp, dig off all the snow from our tent, and eat and drink until we fall asleep.
We slept in until about 10:00 A.M. today. Ate and drank, and ate and drank. Realizing we needed more rest, we lounged until the late afternoon. Around 4:00 P.M., we packed up and started back to the main base camp. In the evening we retreat several thousand feet down and a few miles back to our camp in the middle of a maze of glaciers.
One more small crux (of course) before the safety zone. Just as darkness laid its blanket over us, we found ourselves in the middle of a glacier field loaded with crevasses—if caught in the dark we would have to make camp. Just before it would be necessary for headlamps, a path suitable for glissading down on our butts revealed itself, and we slid to the talus. We walked
An hour and a half later, we fell back to our main supply store and camp. Soup and Luna bars galore, then dream land. The new route we climbed, almost a first ascent by a couple hundred feet (actually, I am really glad it worked out this way, so memorable, spicy, original, and exciting, I would not change anything about these last two weeks), took
Saturday: rest day, organization day, lounge day—you name it.
I sit and type this dispatch worrying about battery power on the computer, though it seems like it will work just fine. We ate and drank all day in the sun, and now prepare for another climb—a vertical big wall style climb with splitter cracks and exposed, breath taking pitches. Unfortunately, with some of our gear being stolen, equipment limitations will dictate how big,
Thoughts and retrospective on this week: We had intended to do an easy walk up this peak—from where we have our main store and base camp, and according to our maps, it looked as so. Due to dangerous hanging seracs and glaciers that stopped our original line of travel, we chose the route you’ve read about.
I am amazed and impressed, compared to many other expeditions I have been on, at the team work, group dynamics, emotions, and real human kindness and caring we’ve offered and received from each other. Jed and Doug just met Jerry. I have not seen Jerry in years, and I have not climbed with Jed before.
Another adventure and unknown climb of intensity starts again within a day—enthusiasm, in its most true form, lives and breaths within our group.
A few words from the team:
Within the world of climbers the word “adventure” gets tossed around quite freely, everyone having there own definition of the word. For me the meaning is very specific—venturing into the unknown. There is no adventure in the journey with an end that is predictable or even probable. On August 12, we headed up the glacier towards Peak 5697, which we have named Grand
So I sit here in base camp, with a sun burnt tongue, cracked lips, numb fingers, and sore muscles, wondering what adventure awaits tomorrow.
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