July 26, 2006
Mustagh Ata, a 24,757-foot peak in western China, is widely regarded amongst the climbing community as the world’s easiest 7,000-meter peak. After Mike Marolt and a four other Aspenites tackled the peak earlier this month, they realized that reputation may need clarification.”Mustagh Ata is huge,” Marolt wrote in his trip log, which is published online at wildsnow.com. “Sure you can skin climb it, but that doesn’t make it any smaller, or close up the crevasses, or improve the weather.”Marolt, his brother Steve and locals Jon Gibans, John Callahan and Jeremie Oates were in search of a high altitude fitness test in preparation for summit pushes on Everest and its neighboring peak Cho Oyu next April. They heeded the advice of those who had been drawn to Ata’s slopes in years past. In an interview Tuesday, Marolt said the Chinese peak drew reviews as impressive as its sheer size.Marolt remembered staring out the window on the flight into the city of Kashgar; mile after mile of glaciated peaks rose out of the earth, some in excess of 8,000 meters.”It was overwhelming. In a good way,” he said.He experienced the same feeling when he first glimpsed Mustagh Ata from the Karakoram Highway on June 30. His eyes scanned the 13,000 vertical feet of gentle climbing that stood between him and the top.
The group was able to skin up most of the mountain’s 20- to 30-degree slopes. They upped the difficulty, however, by making a summit push in 12 days, not the usual 24.The reason for such a quick ascent and ski descent was prompted by the need to determine how much their bodies could handle under such conditions, Marolt said. He also joked in his log that he was, “minimizing the time to avoid divorce.”In its haste, the team eliminated rest days to acclimatize, and immediately headed for Camp 1.”The pace was pretty fast,” Gibans said. “I probably had more mild headaches on this trip than on any other in my life. In my own comfort zone, I would’ve like to have a few more days. But, in some ways, I never thought I could go to that kind of altitude that quickly.” On its fourth day, the group encountered an ice fall that spanned nearly 2,500 feet of terrain between the first and second camps. During their time on the mountain, at least four climbers had fallen in this section, Marolt said. No one was killed. Weather became a major hindrance as the group continued to push upward. Whiteouts were common, and the severity of the wind was a concern. They did, however, have 6 inches of fresh powder on which to take the trip’s first turns, Marolt wrote. Skiing was the perfect antidote for the days of physical exertion.”It’s more than a grunt slogging at those altitudes,” Marolt said. “You definitely have to be fit, and have to enjoy the endurance aspect to all this. It wears you out. It’s like running a marathon every day.”
The group set up a second camp at 20,000 feet, then prepared for a long summit push. The group decided to set out for the top on Day 10, one day earlier than expected because of the threat of severe weather.
The weather was marginal when the group awoke at 3:30 a.m., but they decided to forge onward, Marolt said. The ascent was far from technical.Members of the team tethered themselves together with a rope and headed up, following the wands – flags attached to bamboo sticks – that a Swiss team had placed earlier.”It’s the bread crumb theory,” Marolt said. “You have to be able to retrace your steps. Without them, it’s easy to see how people could get lost up there.”They reached Camp 3 at 22,000 feet in time to see another group retreating, Marolt said. They borrowed a handful of wands. High winds and driving snow made travel between the wands slow as the group, now untethered, continued up the slope.
After they passed the 7,000-meter mark, the team continued to 24,000 feet to a point where the glacier leveled off, Marolt wrote. Here, the wands ran out. Marolt, then in the lead, failed to see a crevasse in front of him; he caught himself to avoid falling in as one ski fell from underneath him.”We couldn’t see the dangers that lay ahead,” Marolt remembered. “Under blue sky, it would’ve been no problem. But in those conditions, you get that kind of vertigo feeling. You get sick to your stomach because you can’t see anything.”If I had stepped another foot, there would’ve been hell to pay.”The group, wary of falling into a hidden crevasse or walking off one of the vertical walls bordering the route, paused for nearly an hour, Marolt said. Occasional breaks in the weather provided a glimpse of hope, but, when winds started blustering, they decided to retreat, following the wands laid out before them.
They could see the route in front of them once they passed Camp 2. They could finally enjoy the turns that followed.”It was kind of like running wind sprints with your mouth closed,” said Gibans, who made his first ski descent from above 20,000 feet. “The fact that we did ski from 7100 meters and change made it satisfying. It’s something you can tell your children.” Fatigue brought with it a sense of gratification, Marolt remembered. Life in the Himalayas was, once again, a humbling yet exhilarating experience. “We realized the term ‘easiest’ was relative,” Marolt wrote.Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org