Finally, Mustagata wrap-up. It was a great climb. As far as I know, we are the first team to have reached the top from this route. This is not 100% certain, though, and I would like to know about any other ascents and attempts from this line. To re-hash, we climbed up the slope on the right (or south side) of the Kartamak glacier. I now call this the traditional route, since it was the original line to be climbed by the Chinese way back but was given up for the present route (or normal route) that everyone climbs because of camel transport problems at that time.
Now I can admit that I was worrying about a few unknowns on the route. Although we did extensive research ahead of time there was still the question of possible large crevasses between camp 2 and camp 3 and just above camp 3 towards the summit at around the 7000-meter elevation. We hauled up hundreds of meters of fixing line just in case. None of it was used up there. The route simply flowed. Potential ice fields and obstacles never materialized. From base camp to the summit it was one beautiful line. (Ok, we did put in 100 meters of fixed line but that was right above camp 1 to make “perfectly” safe a short section where there were possibly some hidden crevasses.)
Because I was worrying about crevasses and ice fields, guide Jonathan Sullivan and two of our Tibetan climbers, Aden and Tseping, went to basecamp five days before the group. The idea was for them to push the route and summit early. However, a five-day storm hit when they were posed to make a summit bid, and they had to come down. Murphy’s Law never fails.
It all started on July 12th as five of us (Aden, Jonathan S., Yang Wei, Urs, and Jon O.) pushed the route to camp 3, carrying one tent. The WEATHER hit a couple hours after leaving camp 2. White out conditions, heavy southern winds, and thunderstorms. As one storm suddenly thundered directly overhead Urs and me threw our packs on the slope and hunkered down for 20 minutes in the snow, hoping not to be hit by lightning. Visibility dropped from 400m to 20m. None-the-less, through heavy whiteout and whipping winds we kept pushing on. Finally the Garmin GPS read 6800 meters and we were on a relatively flat (15 degree) slope. We dug two tent platforms and had no idea what was around us. Winter wonderland.
Urs and me dropped our loads, wished Jonathan, Aden, and Yang clear skis for tomorrow, and then quickly descended by ski back to camp 2. The following day Urs and me had an incredibly fun time skiing back down to basecamp. High on the mountain the weather stayed socked in for the next 4 days.
By this time the rest of the team had already slept at least one night at camp 2, were super acclimatized, and resting at basecamp for a couple of days before the big summit push. On July 15 the entire remaining team (except the Norwegians) left for camp 1. The weather finally seamed to be turning for the better. A cold front had blown in, radically changing the snow conditions on the mountain. Prior to this the snow at camp 1 was wet and soft. When you stepped into the snow pack, you literary sank in beyond your knee. The whole mountain was melting off. Then one evening everything froze up. Around camp 1 it was an extremely hard frozen snow pack. Much better conditions to snowshoe and skin up. However, you had to walk carefully on the slippery surface. The snowshoes provided just enough bite, and the slope was gentle enough for the skins on our skis to work.
On July 16 we all made camp 2. That evening more extreme winds and large snowfall. Spindrift buried our tents. But in the morning it was perfect weather again. After our Tibetan climbers dug out the tents, everyone except Kristine and Gary made the trip to camp 3. Kristine had a throbbing headache and Gary had stomach problems.
On July 18 at just after 6:00AM local time we were on our way to the summit. I headed out early with our two Tibetan climbers, Dorje and Tenzing, to find the route. We were hoping Aden could have found the way earlier, but after four nights at camp 3 in terrible weather he eventually had to descend back to basecamp for rest. So, unfortunately, Aden was not able to accompany us to the summit. The three of us skirted the lower right side of a line of huge crevasses that extended vertically up the mountain. These crevasses were the top portion of Kartamak Glacier. We had to find a way through this broken up ice field in order to get onto the summit slope. The route was stunning as it meandered along the lip of a huge crevasse, but did not offer much promise for passing over. Then, suddenly, all crevasses ended at 7050-meter elevation and we were looking at a straight line shot to the top. We stripped off our harnesses, left the ropes, and continued the climb to the summit.
Dorje and Tenzing went ahead and tirelessly broke trail. The snow was again soft and deep. Then suddenly Dorje came running down the slope. What was wrong? “I have bad diarrhea”, he said. It must have been pretty bad since he continued down the mountain.
The rest of us continued up. Soon, we were looking down on Mustagata’s 7277-meter high sub-peak Kalaxong. Near the top it is so flat that you do not actually see the true summit until throwing distance. Everyone persevered. The snow shoeing and skinning up on skis was slow. Finally, the rock cluster and prayer flags popped into view. Success! Urs, Ron, Mathew, Leo, Tenzing, and Jon were on the top.
It was late in the afternoon when we reached the summit, the wind was whipping, and the air was clear. We were treated to magnificent views of surrounding peaks. After a short stay we all descended back to camp 3. It was almost a 12 hour day round-trip. The snow conditions for skiing were awesome. On the way down we found a better route with no crevasses. Urs continued down to camp 1 that same day. He was on skis and could fly, making it between camps in no time. The rest of us stayed at camp 3.
When we returned to camp 3 Kristine, Gary, Espen, Marius, Awang, and Tseping had arrived. On July 19 they left first thing in the morning for the summit and made good time. Gary was still having stomach problems but forged ahead none-the-less.
Out of our team of 17 climbers, 12 reached the summit this year. We were also the only team at the new basecamp, which everyone seemed to enjoy.
Matthew Philliskirk (UK)
Jäggi Urs Walter (SWITZERLAND)
Jonathan Sullivan (USA) - Guide
Ronald Lester (USA)
Gary Charles Kellund (USA)
Yuan, Wei (CHINA)
Tom Jørgensen (DENMARK)
Leonardo Rub (USA)
Kristine O'brien (USA)
Jon Otto (USA) – Leader