The mountain is located in an extremely desolate place and has by many been dubbed as the hardest peak on earth to reach. Ulugh Muztagh is very hard to reach, but for example peaks like Kangzhagri, Rola Kangri and Kukushili are way more difficult to get to as they are hundreds of kilometers further into the wilderness.
Ulugh Muztagh is part of the central Kunlun Range and is situated on the high plateau itself at the border of Xizang(Tibet) and Xinjiang provinces. On the southern side the drop is only about 1500m to the huge flat surface of the Chang Tang, but in the north ridges and subpeaks form a confusing mess of tough topography. In the west and the east the main Kunlun range continues with small peaks for almost a thousand kilometers in each direction.
The debate about the peak's altitude
The elevation of the peak has been under debate until it got its first ascent in 1985. Famous explorer Littledale measured the peak to over 7700m and that height ended up in many famous and well known publications, for example Encyclopedia Brittanica and The Times World Atlas. The erronous elevation can still be found on many maps. Sometimes it has been given at 7723m and at others 7754m.
The former maintainer of this page actually advocated Littledale's measurements, probably to get more clients for his own commercial expeditions. He further stated the peak was unclimbed, as "the first summit party had climbed the wrong summit". As Summitpost has a lot of visitors the old version of this page contributed to the confusion and the former maintainer managed to get at least one expedition off the ground thanks to false statements. I should add, none of his plans worked out and the mountaineering parties under his lead got stranded a long way off the mountain.
Even after tons of criticism the maintainer didn't back off from his "scientific claims", but you could still find statements like the following on the page: "When however the peak was first climbed in 1985, the expedition party came to the conclusion that it was much lower, 6973 meter. Still the discussion did not came to a rest as many kept arguing that given the great difference in height there must have been some mistake and there could be another, higher peak in other parts of the range.
Ulugh Muztagh's true elevation is 6973m give or take a couple of meters. Period.
Its prominence is 1943m and that puts the peak in place number 22 in Xinjiang province, after for example well known giants like K2, Muztagh Ata and Pik Pobeda. See more about that here.
Ulugh Muztagh from the north-west. Photo: Petri Kaipiainen
Reaching the mountain is very difficult as the whole area, averaging 5000 meter in elevation, is completely roadless and uninhabited. The best places to start from is Qiemo in the north or Haotogou in the north-east.
From Qiemo, Xinjiang
Beyond Qiemo, towards the Central Kunlun chain, there is only a short stretch of road before the wilderness begins. About 70km of asphalt road takes you to a turn off leading to Tula. The Tula valley road is located in a river gorge and floodings are common. At some periods of the year no vehicle can travel here and flash floods are an ever present risk. In 2006 a huge project of improving the road was started, but the road builders have met many problems with washed away road sections and land slides.
About 30 km west of Tula, there's a small track leading south into the mountains. It's a dirt track in bad condition and to start with it's surrounded by steep mountain sides. Rock falls are common. When on the pre-plateau in between Altun Shan and Kunlun Shan the landscape opens up and some parts are easy traveling, but others offers large muddy areas and you also have to cross some major rivers. Your success in getting to Ulugh Muztagh all depends on the weather conditions. Early fall after the rains is the best time to, as the river water levels are low and mud has started to dry up after the late summer rains. Winter may also be an alternative in terms of access, but it becomes bitterly cold in November.
From Golmud and Hautogou, Qinghai
It may be easier to start from the east. Golmud in Qinghai Province is the last major town and from there it's a 4-6 hour drive to Hautogou, which is the last real town before the wilderness takes over. Asphalt road to Mangnai Zhen and then the dusty dirt track in the Tula valley. At a tent camp a huge, but shallow river has to be crossed.
The difficult tracks takes you to Fujian Shankou/Pass which i infamous for really deep and sticky mud. At times this pass isn't possible to cross at all due to snow. The pass is about 5100m high, so it's important you're acclimatized before arriving here. Take a right on the downhills from the pass to gain access to the Aqqikkol plains. Cross the Aqqikkol river, which is also wide but shallow and continue south. There are some tracks which will take you to the foot of Ulugh Muztagh, but without personal knowledge about the area, this can be a difficult and confusing undertaking. Make sure you and your guides know what they are doing. If something happens out here, there may be weeks back to civilization if the passes are closed or bad weather hits.
Red Tape & organizing the climb
Hu Fung Ling during the first ascent of Ulugh Muztagh
You need a visa to enter China. These are nowadays readily available for most nationals. A three month visa is the norm, but at the time writing citizens of the USA seems to have troubles getting more than one month. If you only get a one month visa, make sure you make an extension before heading into the wilderness, or you have to pay a fine for the overstay later on.
If you need a longer visa period than 3 months, Hong Kong is the place to go. Six months visas are easy to get and you can also get 1 and 2 year. Also in Hong Kong Americans have a harder time to get visas with longer validity.
At the time writing it's extremely hard to get a permit to any mountainous area in Xinjiang and also much harder to get a long term visa to China. This situation should get better in the beginning of 2010.
You need a climbing permit for Ulugh Muztagh. The mountain is below 7000m and is climbed and therefore the peak fee is set to 700$. You can officially be up to 10 persons + leader on the permit, but usually it's not hard to add more persons to the group.
The best ways to go is to go is to get in contact with Xinjiang Mountaineering Association in Kashgar.
In addition to the above, you have to pay for the Arjin/Altun Shan National Park, which you pass through en route to the peak. Prices vary as it depends on the purpose you're entering the park.
You also need a liaison officer and transport. The above mentioned organizer can take care of this and they also offer guides, translators, food services etc. Unfortunately there's almost impossible to arrange an expedition without the full kit with all the personal and loads of necessary and unnecessary vehicles.
Exploratory mountaineering. On the way to Ulugh Muztagh.
It's possible to pitch a tent anywhere in the area.
There's no risk of not finding a space for your tent. The Chang Tang, the plateau south of Ulugh Muztagh is 600 000 km/2 with only 30 000 inhabitants.
Be certain your tent is anchored well as sudden squalls are common and strong. Bring rock pegs for the tent. The ground can be hard.
A consideration is to at least be a little bit aware of the fact that there are quite a lot of big predators out on the plateau, especially on the southern side of the peak. These animals have hardly, if ever, seen humans and are therefore very curious and unafraid. We had wolves coming all the way up to our tents checking us out. Not that they would harm you, but if there's any food outside the tent or even inside the vestibule it may "disappear" if there are wolves around. Same thing goes for the huge ravens roaming the area.
There are also bears around and you better stay away from them. They do attack both the nomadic camps and nomads in the southern parts of the plateau from time to time. The time to be most careful is of course when the females are out walking with the cubs.
Weather considerations/When to climb
Late evening sky close to the Ulugh Muztagh massif.
Some general facts about the climate of the area are known, anual precipation, average temperatures and so on, but it's impossible to get any detailed information about currently prevailing conditions or short term weather forecast.
That's what mainly matters as the key to success on Ulugh Muztagh has more to do with getting there, then the climbing itself.
The best time on the mountain is also in the fall. More stabile weather and clear skies. Storms and precipitation are uncommon during this period.
Winter - good access as the water levels in the rivers are low and at most times vehicles can drive over them on the ice. The negative aspect is you have to be prepared for severe cold comparable with any other peak between 7000-8000m in the winter season.
Spring - Access may be ok, at least if you're willing to take the risk of getting to the peak. When it gets warmer the ice on the rivers and the plains melts very fast and you may haev difficulties to get out again. Flash floods are common in the narrow gorges. Beware!
Summer - The monsoon in the north is not as famous as the one in the Himalayas, but it creates a lot of problems for expeditions all the same. Rain, hail and snowstorms are common and an almost daily occurrence. Even the blizzards are usually accompanied by severe thunder in summer. You have to have plenty of time in order to wait out the bad weather on the peak and lots of luck to reach the peak at all.
Fall - the best time to go. When the summer rains are over, the water levels are back to normal in the rivers and the mud fields are drying up, you have a good chance of reaching the peak.
This section is dedicated to Lao Zhao Ziyung, who took these photos during the fall 2003 Finnish expedition to Ulugh Muztagh West peak.
Lao Zhao tragically died in a car accident in 2004. RIP.
Having fun - climbing ice
Ulugh Muztagh from afar
Free standing seracs
First Ascent of Ulugh Muztagh by Hu Fung Ling
Hu Fung Ling on the first ascent
When China was opening up for foreign mountaineers in the early eighties, it was Nick Clinch and an American team which first showed interest in obtaining a permit for Ulugh Muztagh. By that time it was still generally thought that it was actually higher than 7700 meter.
It took until 1985 before a permit finally was granted to an expedition. It was a joint American/Chinese team that got the lucky number for the permit. The leader was organizer and climber Nick Clinch, who had been involved in many famous ascents. The most well known is the first ascent of Gasherbrum I in 1958.
The expedition was quite a large undertaking and the members nicknamed their base camp "New Kunlun village". Considerable difficulties had to be overcome to get to the mountain and as the massif is quite large, the route finding and climbing turned out to be a big challenge.
However all the efforts did pay off and in the end 5 Chinese climbers, led by Hu Fung Ling managed to get to the summit. On the way down Hu took a long fall and had to be rescued. Apart from several other injuries, Hu froze his feet so badly that half of both had to be amputated.
Due to the time lost in rescuing Hu time proved too short for the other climbing members of the team to mount a second summit bid.
Maps + elevation information
Ulugh Muztagh from afar.
The elevation of Ulugh Muztagh is many times given at 7723m, 7721m as well as other figures well over 7000m. This mistake can be found in many publications. Even some of the larger and somewhat more reliable sources continue to print this error.
A few years ago professor Mi Desheng of the Lanzhou Institute of Glaciology and Geocreology produced a detailed map of the Ulugh Muztag area. This map is probably the most correct you can find anywhere. As such information is however slow to implement worldwide, one must expect that for a long time to come the old values will remain on a variety of maps and internet sites.
You can also contact Mi Desheng directly.
Lanzhou Institute of Glaciology and Geocreology
260 Donggang West Road, Lanzhou, China 730000
The map is published by:
Xi'an Cartographic Publishing House
124 Youyi East Road
Xi'an, China 710054
This map's order number is:
For general planning and the route to the peak, the TPC's (Tactical Pilotage Chart) for the area is good enough. The Russian equivalents are better, but harder to get.
You can check for example Omnimap for TPS's.
TPC overview page at MapTown: MapTown - Asia
Google Earth gives an idea about what the topography looks like in the area.
Finnish Expedition makes first ascent of Ulugh Muztagh II
One of the many strange rock formations in the area.
Date: Oct 30, 2003
The Finnish expedition arrived to the west terminus of the Yuilin glacier on Oct. 3:rd, altitude 5140m. From there ABC was built some 4 km to the west, northern side of the glacier. From there camp one was established at the foot of the west ridge at 5700m level. Camp two at 6440m level on the lower shoulder of the west ridge. The unclimbed west summit was reached by Marko Aho, Jari Ahtola, Antti Mäenpää and Kimmo Puoskari on October 12:th at 16:00. The climb was quite straight forward snow climb in good snow conditions, maximum 50 degrees at the sharp summit ridge, but in cloudy and somewhat windy weather. It took 17 days to reach BC from Quiemo, due to rough terrain and the fact that one truck had to be fixed in Quiemo and one climber evacuated with HAPE.
I have to contradict the opinion about the right time of trying to get to Ulugh Muztagh: it certainly seemed to us that the water levels were very low at this time of the year and we were able to return using a much shorter route, the one our guide refused to use on the way in. In this kind of conditions it is possible to reach Ulugh Muztagh west side from Queimo in just 2 days, if one manages to avoid all soft spots.
About maps: there are also Chinese 1:200000 topos that our guide had, and also russian topos (marked "secret", must be military maps) at the same scale that we were able to source from England (as hi-res scans on a CD). 6 sheets covered the whole route from the roadhead to the mountain. Those russian maps proved to be quite accurate. We also had the 1:100000 map of the mountain itself.
The vehicles used were two russian Ural 6x6 military trucks. Quite ideal for this kind of journey. The main problem was bad diesel fuel, which jellyfies in the cold much too easily. Fuel tanks & lines had to be heated every morning with propane torches before the engines could be started. The temperatures at above 4500m were generelly aroud zero to -5C during the day, about -15 to -20C at night. Sunny weather with occasionally heavy winds. Dust everywhere!