part 1

Summit Day Part 2  Mustagata

As the summit monkey crawled off my back, the frostbite ape took root.

4:45 pm

As he disappeared, I struggled with the skins. Every time I leaned over to strip them off, I almost passed out. Bending over cut my air supply. Eventually I hyperventilated with fifteen breaths per ski. Humans aren't meant to be up at these heights. I was feeling like a diver at the end of his tank. That did the job. I was ready for my “easy” descent. Moving across the frozen ice, I forgot how to ski in bad conditions. I was like a sail being pushed by the winds with no method of steering until I got off the plateau. There I found some semi-ski able crud in which I struggled to make a turn. I retrieved my backpack and caught up with Christian. He was moving faster than me and he had snowshoes. This skiing notion was starting to feel overrated. I struggled with turns all the way back to camp 3 or what was left of it. My tent was the only indicator of any outpost there. Asu was there making sure we descended safely. He and I retreated to my tent. It was late afternoon and it was still very cold. The temperature never rose above zero, the wind a constant companion. Christian came strolling in and he departed with Asu, leaving me to break down our camp 3. First, I had to make water and that didn't work out any better than my morning attempt.

6:00 pm

I sipped what was left and proceeded to vomit. This wasn't good. I vomited three more times. This wasn't in my plan. I couldn't descend in this condition. I would have to wait. For 20 minutes I sat there unsure of what to do. My hand was frozen but I had to dig out the tent anchors. With my ice axe I dug and chipped way down into the frozen blocks. The anchors were lodged and I freed about half before cutting the rest. Stuffing everything into my pack was a labor intensive event. It took over an hour. There were things I just threw in there just to get moving. My daylight was burning up fast. Shouldering this pack it seemed about 50 lbs. of gear. There was all my equipment from four days on the mountain and no water at all. I was thirsty but the promise of a speedy return on skis propelled downhill. I could be in camp one in an hour. I had to get moving.

(Between camp 2 and 3)

Between camp 2 and 3 had taken us five hours to climb. I figured to make the ski descent in fifteen minutes. Normal conditions would have made that possible but this crud was barely ski able. With the pack it was now survival skiing; each turn took all my reserves as the snow was like frozen cement and I had a gyroscope attached to my backside. If a turn was possible, it would require a break to catch my breath. It was still above 21000 feet at this point. As the spot where camp 2 had been came into view I took my eyes off the snow. There were two crevasses that funneled down and I had some difficulty navigating with the fading sun. Pretty soon I was tumbling headlong down the glacier as my pack shifted ; a failed turn meant no edge would purchase on the ice. I attempted to rise but had fallen in a weird, contorted position facing downhill. It took a few minutes for me to get righted, the pack was now officially a huge pain in the rear.

           Mr. Liu was famous in China.  He owned a prominent ski resort and is seen being interviewed by North Face sponsored skiers.  He took that picture of me skiing to camp 1.  Click his picture for more on the indefatigable Mr. Liu and his resort.


8:20 pm

Dusting the snow off me and out of my pants and inside my clothing, I rose to the sun setting directly in front of my direction of travel. This meant only one thing. My ski descent was over. Adding them to my pack meant another twelve pounds. I fumbled for the crampons and headlamp. This day just got a heck of a lot longer now with 65 pounds on my back and no snowshoes. It was 8:43 pm. I had 3000 feet to camp one, the steepest section of the climb. As I reached for the headlamp a potential nightmare unfolded. Having stuffed all that gear into the pack, I struggled to locate the headlamp. In frustration for having a useless left hand I jerked it out after stubbing my frozen fingers on something deep inside that mess. As it came flying out, so did the headlamp, my beacon for safe descent. It landed on the frozen snow and began careening down the glacier. In horror I leapt across the pack, throwing myself on the light just before it reached terminal velocity. In the meantime, my unsecured pack got the same idea which I addressed in the same fashion. It was a complete yard sale at 20000 feet on Mustagata held together by a one armed Tennessee hillbilly who was as dehydrated as a plum in August.

(my view after the fall)

It was fully dark when I got this gypsy wagon moving down the hill. Here was I with an overloaded backpack, skis reaching up towards heaven and gear strapped in every nook and cranny postholing up to my waist in crud made for snowshoes or skis, that I couldn't make turn. I stepped in pre stepped tracks hoping they would be firmer. Half the time they were good, half the time I sunk down to America. Sometimes taking advantage I would just sit there up to my waist and make a short break of it. It got to where I could make fifteen or twenty steps before laying back on my rear, It was easy to do, the ground was so close to my butt.  Three hours passed and the stars came out to make one of the most beautiful nights I have ever seen. Forfeiting elevation meant I was able to actually take time to enjoy this beautiful, windless evening high in the Chinese Pamirs. There was no one above me on Mustagata; I had her to myself. I was also overcome with a great sense of peace and well being. It was as if God spoke to me and said, “It will be okay. You are safe. I am with you. Take your time, be patient.”

11:30 pm

From that moment, I was in a state of harmony with the environment. My breaks were more frequent as I gazed across the milky way into a star-scape unblemished by man made lights. I was in one of the most remote places on earth, descending a dangerous ice slope with one crampon having thrown one in a posthole some while back. Some steps were solid, others were total slips on the uncramponed boot spinning me and the behemoth pack sideways. I gripped the poles in preparation for a self arrest which never happened. It was 11.30 pm. I had been out now for almost 15 hours.

(camp 1 on a sunny day from a few hundred feet above)

Camp one was at 17400 feet. I could overshoot it if not careful. My lamp wouldn't reach the shoulder on which our tents had been perched, so I relied on the altimeter which gave conflicting readings. 3 hours, I should be close. Camp 1 was on dry land. No more ice, just scree. I fantasized about water. It pulled me down the hill. At midnight I reached the shoulder and safety. There were 3 tents and the remainder of my gear. Brian had packed up that camp and carried what he could. I saw my pile atop the duffel bag. For a minute, I imagined a quart of water sitting atop my stuff. What a fantasy, a dehydrated delusion. I had them before in similar situations.

(setting up camp 1 in typical weather)

12:00 am 7/22/11

This, however, turned out to be real. As I reached for the imaginary jug fully expecting it to vaporize with my touch, the plastic swished with its half frozen contents. Brian had left me some water at camp 1! I almost began to weep. I drank half the quart quickly saying another prayer as I shed my down parka in preparation for the final leg of 3000 more feet into base camp. I heard snoring in the three remaining tents. Figuring it to be the “Sherpa” or Tibetan climbers, I loaded my pack even more. Now 70 lbs. at least, I scrambled down the scree field towards home.

12:30 am

3ooo more feet separated me from my home away from home. It is interesting how 14,400 feet came to represent a low elevation. As the moon rose at my back, I stripped clothing until I was in my long johns and an undershirt. My pack was busting at the seams and felt like 100 lbs. (it was only 70). On the loose scree my leather boots slipped and twisted under the strain. I deposited the ski boots at camp one.

(two views of camp 1)

3:00 am 7/22/11

Donkeys would be carrying some gear and I just didn't have any more room. At one point, I completely fell down and slid 6 feet. The final descent from camp 1 took me three hours. As I stumbled into basecamp there was no fanfare or water. Everyone was asleep. It didn't matter. I dove headlong into the tent and collapsed for three hours. It was 3 am. I had been moving for 21 hours.

(sheep were there to welcome me back "home")

At 630 am the breakfast bell rang. As I sat bolt upright wondering if I had just dreamed the whole thing, I overheard Arnold and Brian and speculating on my whereabouts. Apparently they thought I had remained in camp 3. You can imagine their surprise when I came rolling out of the tent. The snoring at camp 1 was all my fellow summiteers so I was the first person they had seen who had departed for the top some 24 hours ago. Their jaws literally dropped and they began taking care of my hands by preparing a bowl of warm water with iodine. I drank a cup of coffee and devoured some breakfast but not until I thanked Brian for the water at camp 1. He was worried about me and I explained that the radio did not work. I had tried unsuccessfully to contact him throughout the day with no success. He would call me but couldn't hear my response. I had left the handset on throughout the climb but it didn't do either of us any good.

(staff went to work getting my hands thawed properly)

So we waited for our team mates to come rolling in from camp 1 and by lunch time, here was Andrea, Eric, Christian and the Tibetan climbing staff. Our team was safe and ready to depart. It was a joyous occasion. The following day we broke camp and began the trek out. Two days later at John's Cafe in Kashgar I met three Belgians who summited from the normal route. Two of them had four fingers that were completely black from the knuckle to the tips. Their feet fared no better. It was a forced bivouac below the summit that caused their frostbite. In a snow cave they hunkered down, likely without much to crawl into or make water. It was obvious that they would lose fingers and toes. It made me feel embarrassed for even complaining. My pain increased as the days progressed. I don't think they had very much live tissue to hurt. Before I knew what would happen, I imagined having to consider that eventuality. I put my arm around one of the guys. He looked at me with cloudy eyes.

Brian and I enjoy a final sunset over the Kongur Massif

I think about them every day. One morning, one of my team mates approached me after the climb. He had been having dreams that he awakened in the same shape as the Belgians. Survivor's guilt, it is called. Today, I sit in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber every morning. It's probably overkill but the doctors want to make sure it heals 100%. The Belgians went home for amputation. So little separates each of us on this earth and I pray for those guys for whom my treatments would have no effect. As I later learned, dehydration is the primary cause of frostbite at high altitudes.  It makes sense.  Had my stove performed with the substandard Chinese fuel, this would not have been an issue.  I think they used a thinner metal on the cans because of the enormous condensate and inability to retain heat.  We had employed varying brands in other countries at similar altitude with no such performance issues. Kovea is the brand and it was our only option.

Storm after Storm

2011 had been a trying year for me in many ways.  Two events prior to the expedition almost derailed the climb altogether.  In late April, a freak storm pounded my home in Knoxville causing 15,000 dollars worth of damage to the structures.  I scrambled to deal with that, making my domicile livable while simultaneously struggling with passport and visa issues that looked as if they may not arrive in time due to problems with first my own and then the Chinese governments.  I told Brian that patience was my theme for this journey.  Almost without fail, every time I came strolling into camp, the daily storm was at full gale.  Just long enough for me to get the tent set up and watch the winds and snow relent for unbelievable sunsets.  It was a running joke.  Summit day was no different. I suppose you could say I was really hoping to put one in the win column.  When one of our team asked how we pushed up in that weather, I didn't tell them I was playing chicken with the mountain.  I guess you could say that Mustagata and I both gave up a little something.

well, it is "John's" cafe, isn't it?

I wanted to convey a small idea of what it took to make this expedition possible. I get “high” with a little help from my friends. I carried all my gear in an expedition bag given to me by Uncle Larry. We dined on Jerky donated by Mike (which I had to ration). I flew on a buddy pass of Brian's, skied on skies purchased by birthday money from Mom and Dad, read a Bible Grady provided, slept in Skidmore's tent on the summit push, took meds provided by Dan and Holly and Mike Holmes. (that celebrex was the closest thing to pain pills I had) and descended safely thanks to the prayers of my family, especially Aunt Shelby and Mom which likely had something to do with me snagging that last Beijing seat to the states.

Comments on the blog were more appreciated than you know and the Muir Faction and Martin “Scooter” helped push us up that hill too. Arnold and Asu were the perfect fit for me and Brian along with a team that worked together like when Eric helped us set up camp in the cold weather or James put us up in Beijing on the return. Brian took care of me all the way home by toting 100 lbs. of my gear through multiple taxis, terminals and countries. I realized even more what an important part of my extended family the SouthernHighlanders are and was treated with grace by my colleagues at Maryville Academy and my referral sources at the court and probation. There are no one man expeditions. We all climb up on the backs of our friends and I appreciate the benevolence of everyone.

Brian inspects the loading of gear for our departure

A bit haggard ,frostbitten and in need of a shave.

yours truly negotiates the swollen glacial melt.

Post climb celebration in Kashgar.  Buff, Andrea and Arnold.

I tended to avoid this delicacy.

Progression of frostbite on fingers.  Left shot was day after summit.  Fingers swelled outward.  Second picture is Aug 2, and last picture is August 13. (Toe shots omitted and reserved for paying customers only)  In the end four fingers and two toes affected.  The toes are back to 70%.  My fingers will take a while longer.  Dr. Dan says that peripheral nerves can take up to 6 mos to heal.  I'm hoping to halve that with hyperbaric treatments.

Arnold demonstrates use of the Gamow Bag on the mountain.  It is a sort of portable hyperbaric chamber.

Our home away from home.  Basecamp 14,400ft

            ( Add this 20,000 leagues Jules Verne side trip to the expedition cost at $500 a pop. 3 mornings down, 7 to go!)

And finally, my Dad receives news feeds to his radio stations from Knoxville.  You can imagine his surprise when he cued up this gem below.

  It was my  little belated 70th birthday present to him.    RADIO SPOT


Expedition team:
. Arnold Coster (leader) – Netherlands
. Ms. Martha Johnson – USA
. Andrea Rigotti – Italy/Australia
. Tim Wells, USA
. James Shipton – UK
. Christian Konow – Germany
. Erik Olerud – USA
. Lu Jian – China
. Mehdi Attarha – Canada
. Dana Lynge (Trekker) – USA
. Francois Niering – Switzerland, Base Camp support only.
. Romain Pipoz – Switzerland, Base Camp support only.
. John Quillen – USA, Base Camp support only.
. Brian Moran – USA, Base Camp support only.
. Yang Bo – China, Base Camp support only.
. Wang XiaoYuan – China, Base Camp support only.

All in all, we couldn't have asked for a better team to share this beautiful mountain and country.

This next section is devoted to the photographic genius of Christian Konow, my ad hoc partner. Click for a large volume of photos in chronological order.  Beware, the thumbnails page is 25 megabites so do not attempt if you have a slow connection speed.

Christians photos