Mustagh Ata: Biking to a World Record|
Monday, August 22, 2005
|Courtesy of Siegfried Verheijke
|Siegfried hiking up Mustagh with his bike
As a sports aficionado (triathlon, mountain biking, etc.) I have always been fascinated with the Guinness Book of World Records. When I was a kid, my mum and dad would always buy me the newest edition of this printed compilation of utterly pointless, but quite exhilarating, achievements.
Reading through the book, I would always think up of possible records to set myself, like "stroking the greatest number of chickens to sleep in one day."
Unfortunately, I never got round to realizing these, for reasons of sanity. Mental disorder finally made its way into my life in July, 1998 after I had cycled from Lhasa to half between Everest Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp from the Tibetan side. The sight of this great mountain, together with my surprising lack of fatigue, made me decide to try to break the *world record cycling at high altitude.
A quick check on the Internet told me that the existing world record was 6,960 meters and that it was set on Mt. Aconcagua (Argentina) in 1991. A close friend then told me that the ideal mountain on which to break this record would be Mustagh Ata (Xinjiang Province, China): with its altitude of 7,546 meters and fairly gradual slope, it is considered to be the easiest peak above 7,000 meters in the world.
In October of 1999, I decided to try my luck on the Internet and posted a message looking for climbing partners on the major mountaineering websites in the world, including MountainZone.com. The response was great: all-in-all, 12 people from all over the planet said they wanted to join. Some of them were dreamers, and others couldn't cough up the cash, so by June of 2000 a small but inspired group of six people was left: Jim, a professor emeritus from the University of Michigan; Stijn and Peter, two students from Holland; Martin, a student and cyclist from Denmark; Luc, a kindergarten teacher and cyclist from Belgium; and myself, trade commissioner and cyclist, also from Belgium.
Jim was the most experienced of our group, and also the most doubtful about the three cyclists' technical climbing capabilities. The three of us had never been on a mountaineering expedition before, so I suppose that Jim had every right to be concerned about our inexperience and how it might jeopardize the success of the expedition.
Still, we decided to go ahead with our plan and make the best of it. I personally felt that the success of a non-technical expedition like this one lay more with the team members' ability to communicate with each other, and with each individual's mental endurance, rather than with pure technical skills. I tried to assure Jim that our mental strength would compensate for our lack of climbing prowess, but knew that he wouldn't be convinced until we actually achieved our goal.
Five out of six team members met in Beijing, where I live and work. Luc had decided he wanted another go at the Karakorum Highway (which he had cycled two years ago), so we agreed to meet up in Kashgar, the closest large city to Mustagh Ata.
We flew to Kashgar via Urumqi (Xinjiang's capital) on July 25th, where we spent one day stocking up on food, gas and other supplies. On July 27th at 10am, we left for Subashi Village, at the foot of the mountain, arriving at a deserted piece of grassland at 4pm. About 500 meters away was the village of Subashi, but apart from that, there was nothing else in sight, including camels, and camels were supposed to take our stuff up to Base Camp in two days!
After a few minutes the local villagers came over to check out our tents and gear. They showed specific interest in the bikes and our plastic mini soccer ball, which we had bought in Kashgar; you see, we did not only want to break the world record cycling at high altitude, we also wanted to organize the highest soccer game in the world!
We had decided to rest and acclimatize an extra day in Subashi, so logically Luc and I rode our bikes up a small mountain close by in the morning and then later on to Base Camp and back (a two-hour ride up), just to see how badly we could make ourselves feel. Jim, Stijn and Peter tackled some of the 5000-meter mountains nearby. Martin had not yet arrived as he was still cycling the 204km between Kashgar and Subashi. Yes, the nut had decided that cycling from Kashgar to Base Camp would be a great way to acclimatize! Nevermind how tired he would be just trying to get here...
That evening, Luc and I went on our third bike ride of the day, this time to Karakul Lake (12km away), where we got confirmation that the camels would be at our camp the next morning. On the morning of July 29th, just before the camels were to arrive, we had our first and only major crisis of the expedition: Peter was showing all the symptoms of pulmonary edema, and was definitely not a happy man. He had to be brought down to a lower altitude quickly. Stijn, being his regular climbing partner, volunteered to accompany him down to Ghez, a checkpoint between Kashgar and Subashi at 2,600 meters. We agreed that the four of us would go to Base Camp first and wait for them there, if and when Peter recovered.
At around noon, we all took off. Jim accompanied the camels and the luggage on foot, Luc and I went by bike. However, about halfway into the climb the two of us got stuck in front of a river, which had become too fast and too deep for us to cross safely with our bikes; as you know, these rivers always swell in the afternoons because of the melting snow coming down from the glaciers.
So we waited for the camels, had the bikes roped onto them, and crossed on the back of a mule. Disaster almost struck when our mule nearly collapsed and could just barely keep itself from throwing us all into the gushing river!
Once in Base Camp we agreed that a couple of days of couch potato-ness would be the perfect way to get used to the altitude. That's to say, that's how we felt up to the moment when we saw what is arguably the highest pool table in the world. Come snow or shine, that pool table would be ours for as long as we were in Base Camp!
Base Camp is a nice place to relax: you have the local mule owners, who are always willing to chat and there are mountaineers coming down all the time with interesting stories from above — this summer's most dramatic being the death of a Slovenian climber at 7,000 meters.
As for food, we had bought plenty of fresh vegetables, fruit and other stuff in Kashgar and had a cook prepare it gourmet style during our stay in Base Camp. Luc and I were excited about finally getting round to preparing our bikes for the ascent. It had taken us 18 months to decide what bikes to bring. In that time we had considered the likes of a BMX, a children's bike, a folding bike, and a high-tech detachable carbon bike. In the end, we decided that the costs of getting a super lightweight (7kg), custom-made bike were too high (USD $2,000-$4,000). So here we were, with our own regular mountain bikes. Actually, I had taken my sweet wife Lin's bike, as it was lighter than my own (1.3kg carbon frame) and easier to handle (no front shock). Lin wasn't very happy about it, but in the end conceded on my assurance that no harm would come to her treasured possession — ha!
|Courtesy of Siegfried Verheijke
|Siegfried on Mustagh
By the third day in Base Camp, our team was finally complete. Peter had recovered well in Ghez, and together with Stijn had taken a bus back to Karakul and Subashi the day after. And Martin arrived with his body, mind and bike fairly intact, despite torrential rains, landslides, blocked roads and a cute Kazakh girl along the way.
On that third day (July 31st), Luc and I took our bikes up to Camp 1. Jim had already taken up half a load the day before, and would move to Camp 1 one day ahead of us.
Taking up a bike that's hanging onto a half-empty backpack for a distance of 1,000 meters of vertical gain at this altitude is something else. The bike makes the backpack rather unstable and the hard part of carrying a bike up is not so much the weight in combination with the altitude, but rather this non-stop nagging feeling, bordering pain, of having something pull you back all the time. This feeling accompanied us all the way up the mountain, and will be, in our opinion, the single greatest challenge for anyone who is thinking of doing something similar in the future.
On August 2nd, two days after our first ascent to Camp 1, Luc and I established camp there. I was grateful to Luc for giving me a sweater and a down jacket to wear on the ascent; in my cerebral liquidity I had taken up all my warm clothes on the first ascent, so I had only two T-shirts left for my second ascent!
Luc's help on this occasion and later events made me realize that a key factor to climbing Mustagh Ata was teamwork: having someone around to help you out when needed, and being there for your climbing partner when they need you.
As Martin, Peter and Stijn were still a couple of days behind in their acclimatization process, they would come up later. Martin, however, was making good time, and would catch up in Camp 2.
In contrast to Base Camp, Camp 1 is a dull, uncomfortable place. Because of the steepness of the slope here, each tent has to be put up on a separate patch of stony ground. The view may be okay, but there is really nothing to do here but wait for your cerebral and pulmonary fluids to stabilize, so that you can move to Camp 2.
In Camp 1 we tried out my brand-new XGK stove for the first time. Luc was a fine cook, and the instant noodles, pickled vegetables and mashed potatoes were a real treat... No really, they were!
On August 4th, after two nights in Camp 1, Luc and I left for Camp 2 (6,200m) with our bikes. At least, that was our intention. Since we had started out late and because it took us almost three hours to get to the beginning of the crevasse section at 5,800m — which was only halfway to Camp 2, we realized that there was no way we could get to Camp 2 the same day. So we decided right there and then that this place was very beautiful, quiet and relaxing: in short, the perfect spot to acclimatize! Jim, of course, with sincere disdain, called us spineless whimps...
We went back to Camp 1 later that afternoon and moved to Camp 1.5 for good the next day, August 5th.
Now, Camp 1.5 is really a nice, beautiful and relaxing place; since most climbers never plan to stay anywhere between Camp 1 and Camp 2, there are basically no tents or people there. Everyone's passing through, and they have a short break here and keep you informed on what's happening up above or below, but no one ever stays.
Also, the views at Camp 1.5 are quite exceptional, and the fact that it is situated just in front of the "scary" crevasse section makes it all the more alluring.
Martin was going strong and arrived the following day. So things were looking good. Another happy event was the success of a Dutch climbing team that stood out, among other things, for their thorough preparation and their high-tech amenities (satellite radio, e-mail capability, sun-powered PC). The earlier bad weather had kept them at bay for some time, but they finally managed to reach the summit on August 5th. We met them in Camp 1.5 as they were coming down with their skis and snowboards.
Our happy encounter was slightly overshadowed by their story of the Slovenian climber who had died two weeks earlier. Although two Swiss climbers had buried him before, the snow had melted and exposed him again. So the Dutch guys had to bury him deeper.
As for the three of us, Martin, Luc and I, we were quite surprised at how good we felt. We had expected to experience at least some slight symptoms of altitude sickness, but no, they never appeared. In fact, Luc felt so good that he decided to try out his bike and take a crack at some downhill racing! He will never qualify for the X Games, though...
We set out for Camp 2 on August 6th on what would be a grueling day, at least for me. I really didn't feel like moving at all, what with the beautiful scenery and all ... But Luc, who had been pushing and helping me to get here so quickly in the first place, was right in saying that the current spell of good weather wouldn't last forever, and that we had to get moving.
The first part, right beyond our camp, was the notorious crevasse section, which didn't look or feel as dangerous as we had feared. Sure, you have to be careful and all, but the section is not that long or technically difficult - it takes about 15 minutes to get across. We did the section unroped, as our inexperience would have made it even more dangerous to do it roped.
It was the next part that was the hardest. What seemed like a fairly straightforward section turned out to be the steepest of them all. Luc was feeling as strong as ever, and he didn't seem to mind the extra effort. But I was struggling with my snowshoes, which kept on sinking in the snow, wearing me out. At one point my boots got stuck under the front opening of the snowshoes, and I fell straight on my face in the snow. Next, I started sliding down and tried in vain to stand up straight again. Luc was trying to tell me something, but I couldn't hear him. After about five minutes of very heavy struggling against my snowshoes and my own weight, I had the lucidity to turn my body around (Luc had been shouting all the time to do exactly that), which allowed me to get up and get out of this slippery melted patch of snow.
I barely made it to Camp 2, but felt really happy because I had finally found what I had been looking for all this time: the limits of my strength...
We stayed in Camp 2 for about 40 minutes, talking to Jim, who, as always, was hibernating in his tent.
Going back down to Camp 1.5 was a piece of cake, thanks to the heavy training I had had during the Spring season. During those months my 43kg (95lb) wife Lin had been a happy volunteer to serve as weight on my back during my stair-walking workouts.
Back in Camp 1.5 we met an American-Kazakh team that had set up their tent a few hours before, and where now enjoying a healthy game of cards. Not that that was anything special; but the fact that they were playing outside in the middle of a (mild) snowstorm was.
Not that I was any less "out there." I started to notice that my brain was playing tricks on me when I discovered that I had no warm clothes left in Camp 1.5; I had taken them all up to Camp 2. Fairly stupid, to say the least, and already the second time that that had happened. So, many thanks to Dave and his team for letting me use one of their windstopper jackets in Camp 1.5.
We moved to Camp 2 on August 8th. Camp 2 felt different from Camp 1.5 in that there was much more snow, that breathing was even more difficult, and that the nights were getting darn cold. For softies like ourselves it was very difficult to do anything constructive before the sun came up. Every morning at around 7:30, lying deep in my comfortable sleeping bag, I would be thinking of George Harrison's classic "Here Comes The Sun." And when it did, life was beautiful.
The first person we met when we arrived was Jim, who had summitted Mustagh Ata the day before! He had decided to go for it, as he wasn't sure if the weather would hold up. So he had left at 5:45am and gone straight to the top. Man, were we in awe of that guy.
In Camp 2 we also met up with the Kiwi/UK/South African team of Kevin, Nigel, and Brett. They had come up to Camp 2 in Concorde fashion and were enjoying a day of rest. I also talked to Jorge from Spain, who arguably is the fastest climber to have ever set foot on Mustagh Ata; a flyweight on Ferrari engines, the guy went from Camp 1 to Camp 2 in 1 hour and 54 minutes, whereas it takes the average person four to eight hours! Still, he thought WE were crazy trying to get our bikes up this mountain!
All in all, Jorge went from Camp 1 to Camp 2 an incredible four times, just for the fun of it, and because he had to wait for the rest of his team to get there! I talked him into trying to climb from Base Camp to the top in one day later on that week, but don't know if he ever made it, as the weather got worse after we left Mustagh Ata. Jorge, if you read this, let me know how you did.
We also encountered another phenomenon, by the name of Hans, "Crazy Hans" as we impolitely nicknamed him, is a 60-year-old Austrian with the body of an ox and the foreign language skills of a Christmas turkey on December 26.
On August 9, the rest of our team arrived in Camp 2. Martin, Stijn and Peter arrived early in the afternoon after spending the night a mere 100 meters below. Not trying to bridge that last stretch in dark and dangerous conditions was another example of how careful we were, and of the respect we felt for the mountain.
August 9th was also the day that I made an absolute ass of myself in front of the camera, in what must be the low point of our video footage. I had Stijn record my speech, in which I promised Luc and Martin that I'd help them get to the record height, even if it meant kicking their butts. I don't know what got into me (air, probably, and lots of it), but somehow I thought that they were not feeling as strong as before, and that I was getting stronger, ready to take the lead and guide them on, the way Luc had done up until now.
Needless to say, the next day (August 10th) was my worst. It took me ages to get ready, we only left at noon, and I trailed Luc and Martin all the way. They had to wait for me every 30 minutes or so, as I was struggling to keep up. By 5pm we had to set up camp at 6,450m, a meager 250 meters above Camp 2. Luc and Martin gracefully accepted my apology...
The next morning (August 11th) we got up before sunrise for the first (and last) time and got ready in the freezing cold. By 7:15am, Jim passed by (he had set out from Camp 2 at 5:45am), said "hi" and went on up, in order to make a track for us. When I say that it was Jim who passed us, I mean that we assumed it was Jim; what happened was that someone came speeding by like lightning, followed closely by a shadow looking like Jim's and by a voice that sounded remarkably like Jim's...
Half-an-hour later, a surprisingly strong Stijn arrived; he was going to try and summit the same day. Strangely enough, this day was the complete opposite of the day before. Whereas Martin and Luc were finding it hard to keep a steady pace, I felt really strong and caught up with Stijn in no time. The rest of the climb Stijn and I stayed together, resting every 50 meters or so, with Martin and Luc doing the same.
After about an hour we passed a small tent at 6,600m, which should have been our stop from the previous day. The idea had been to camp at 6,600m and aim for the summit today, a 950-meter climb which would not have been impossible. Instead, being stranded at 6,450m made us realize that getting to the summit would not be realistic.
|Courtesy of Siegfried Verheijke
|Siegfried biking on Mustagh
As it was, Stijn and I were making nice progress, and we got to the world record mark of 6,960m at around 2pm. While Stijn was enjoying the scenery, I was slobbering all over our GPS, which read 6,965m. We had made it. Still, we wanted to go on, because Jim had told us there was a flat section at around 7,020m.
About half an hour later we got to the place that Jim had said would be perfect for our record attempt. In all his wisdom he had foreseen that we weren't going to get to the top that day, or any other day.
So, we arrived at around 7,000m in pretty okay shape. Sure, we were tired and all, but I had expected it to be much worse. The only thing that was hard was actually doing something intensely physical, like unloading your bike and turning it upside down. It's difficult to describe the feeling you have when your body lacks the oxygen to cope with physical activity. To me, it is comparable to the feeling I get when I swim under water for as long as I can until I almost suffocate. That very last moment, just before you take a breath again, that's when your muscles and veins cramp up completely, but just for a couple of seconds.
After a short rest I had a look around the area surrounding our site. Right above our spot, 50 meters away at most, was the infamous little tent that had meant the beginning of the end for our Slovenian colleague, but that arguably saved the lives of three other people a few days later.
Martin and Luc arrived 20 minutes later and we got ready for our record attempt. Jim had made a track for us already, but it proved too soft to do any kind of cycling.
We decided to make our own track with the help of a plastic bag. But this was easier said than done. There's really not so much you can do at 7,000 meters. Every 10 seconds of activity means a minute of rest.
As a result, 30 minutes later we only had 15 meters of track, and even that wasn't all that great. There was just too much soft snow, at least one meter deep or so. Needless to say that it took quite a few attempts before we did any normal cycling. If ever you get the chance to see our video, you'll think we were filming for "America's Funniest Videos" or "Mr. Bean's Cycling Escapades."
Fortunately we all managed to cycle for a short distance on at least one occasion. By four o'clock we decided to return to our camp at 6,450m, all the time keeping in mind the words of an anonymous climber: "It is no use to reach the summit of a mountain and die during the descent. The success of mountain climbing lies in the ability of the climber to climb a mountain, return and tell the world about it."
By 7pm, we were all back at Camp 2.5, some more exhausted than others. But who cared? We had broken a Guinness World Record!
The next day we left for Base Camp at around 10am. Going down with all our gear plus the bike proved to be extremely difficult.
Fortunately for me, as we were walking down to Camp 2, we met Stijn and Peter, who were going up and needed my tent, stove and Therm-A-Rest. That shaved almost four kilos off my back, and it was cruising down all the way after that!
During our decent from Camp 2 to Camp 1, I finally had the chance to show my appreciation to Luc for all his support and assistance during our ascent. After Martin, who was completely exhausted, had decided to stay in Camp 2 for an extra day, Luc and I went for Camp 1. It took us quite some time to get there, and I had to keep on telling Luc at regular intervals that putting up a tent right where we were was out of the question. But somehow we made it, which is just another proof of the fact that walking in pairs or teams is much safer than alone; Luc talked me up the mountain, I talked him down, it's as simple as that.
Peter and Stijn stayed on Mustagh Ata for another week or so; first, they had to bring a young Chinese guy with cerebral edema down to Base Camp, after which they made a second attempt to reach the summit. Unfortunately, bad weather and fatigue kept them from going beyond Camp 2 again...
It took us another day to get to Kashgar, and we flew back to Beijing after that. All in all we got home with our bodies fairly intact; except for torturously aching lips and a slight case of hemorrhoids, everything was fine...
*Siegfried Verheijke is filing a claimant's report with the © Guinness Book of World Records.