Monday, July 23, 2007

Herbal Chicken & Oxygen Galore! (Mustagh Ata 2)

A reflection on my Mustagh Ata climb in July 2007....

My face feels like an apple crumble. There's a perpetual burnt flaky layer peeling off. The result of being toasted in the relentless sun and snow in the mountains. I'm now back in sunshine Singapore. Happy to be snuggling under duvet blankets instead of goose feather bags. Happy that I can control the aircon instead of being blasted by sub-zero winds and shaking ice flakes & snow off tents. And most importantly, happy that I've achieved my aim of reaching 7,000m on this climb.

After we rested in the town of Tashkorgan, we headed back to Basecamp to prepare for our summit attempt. It was 3 days each of 9hrs upward plodding from Camps 1 to 3. Thank goodness for the bright sunshine - warmth gives strength and always helps us take a few more steps forward. We'd done Camps 1 & 2 before so we were confident of reaching them. The route from Camp 2 to Camp 3 was new though, and it was sheer mental that took me through. Not to mention a necessity, or there would be no place to sleep if I did not reach the tents! Throughout the climb, I was moving along on a 4-count pacing. Each 4-count cycle translated into 2 trekking pole 'steps' + 2 footsteps, which meant.... 2 steps forward. Last I measured, each 4-count rhythm took abt 10-15secs! That was how slow I was moving....

On summit morning, we woke abt 5am to prepare. It was a squeeze - 3 girls in one tent - to eat, get dressed and be ready. Buckles and straps that normally clicked-on were suddenly jammed by the cold. Feet refused to squeeze into plastic boots, snow shoe straps that refused to catch.... Finally we were ready to move. It started off without much winds, but we were moving on an exposed snow slope. It was not steep or treacherous etc, it was just super super cold. Around us, the other mountain ranges basked in the rays of sunrise. I watched with envy as the sunrays warmed our surroundings.... everywhere else but our slope!

Mustag is 7,546m. I wasn't aiming for the peak - it was too much misery. I reached 7,000m on that summit morning, the magic number that brought me to a new threshold, and decided it was high enough. That "little" extra vertical 546m would have translated into 6-7hr of trudging. My 3 friends summitted after a gruelling 9h upward climb in the cold. I figured I wouldn't last that long in the blistering cold. I was down to zero internal insulation. I'm not sure how to describe, but it's the sort of cold that emanates from inside. Despite wearing 4 layers of all the right clothing, I was shivering involuntarily even on the move. After I made an early descent to my tent, I was still shivering while sitting inside it. Milo to the rescue! Yes, milo 3-in-1 sachet powder (no water) tasted excellent.

A good friend's gem of wisdom - going up is optional, coming down is not. Too many people underestimate and over-push, forgetting that they need energy to descend. I'm the kiasee-kiasu type. I prefer to leave a bit of reserve for emergencies. I prefer to be able to think and walk down the mountain, instead of being on a stretcher. As I was descending to Basecamp, there were 2 rescue ops alongside me. One was a Swiss lady skier who was in bad shape at Camp 3, apparently very bad Altitude Mountain Sickness. They had to bundle her in a sleeping mat and dragged her down the snow slopes. The other was a Korean body they had to bring down the mountain. A Korean team ran into trouble at Camp 3 last week - they were climbing without guides, alpine style. Three members were rescued from the tents after 2-3 days of no food & water. The 4th member (team leader) was later found frozen dead near the summit.

I've learnt a lot from this climb, never mind if I did not summit. People at Basecamp tried to justify my "failed" attempt and asked if I was sick or something. I simply replied that I've reached my personal goal of 7,000m and that was enough. I don't think they quite understand, for they seemed surprised. Like it was blasphemous to come to a mountain so high and not aim for the peak. Perhaps it wasn't meant to be a conquest of the mountain - be humble! - but a conquest of oneself. The mountain would embrace you if it so wished to. I am totally thankful for the wonderful weather throughout the climb, that allowed us to keep to our planned itinerary. And I am happy to be tested at 7,000m with very little AMS.

Til the next adventure :))

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Chicken-in-a-biscuit, Potato Chips & French Fries (Mustagh Ata 1)

Dear wonderful friends in sunny land(s),

In my last instalment, we signed off from the small town of Tashkorgan to begin our climb of mighty Mustagh Ata (7,564m). It's now 10days later, and nope, we're not done with our task yet.

The climb consists of 5 sections - Basecamp BC (4,400m), Camp1 (5,500m), Camp2 (6,200m), Camp3 (6,900m) and Summit (7,564m). What we've been doing for the past 10 days was going up and down from BC -> C1, back down, BC -> C1 stay overnight, down. BC -> C1 -> C2 stay overnight, down. Imagine the mountain as a canvas and you're painting. Every swoosh of the paintbrush paints a longer stroke than before. You get the picture. Except that each upward swoosh took an average of 7-9h, and each downward ~3-6h, depending on where we started. We were relatively lucky, with good weather & schedule on track.

That was how we spent our last 10 days. Acclimatizing. In between every swoosh, we get a 1-day break/ rest at basecamp. We've now completed our 'homework' of reaching C2 and staying a night, beforedescending to BC. We are now having a 2-day break before our summit attempt on 17th July. That's when we will go from BC -> C1(night) -> C2(night) -> C3(night) -> Summit -> and rapid descent hopefully to BC. That should take us abt 3-4 days non-break. Breathe!

All that swooshing sounds easy. But it's totally taxing. Basecamp is higher than the highest Mt. Kinabalu in SE Asia. We've now gone to C1 at 5,500m three times. That is like scaling Siguniang's Peak 3 times within 1 week. And C2 at 6,200m is like Island Peak of Nepal. When we next reach C3 at 6,900m, we would have covered Mt Aconcagua in Argentina. And we aren't even at the summit yet! Set in that context, it is all at once motivating and daunting.

Basecamp is a rather luxurious affair, the best I've witnessed. At least the logistics and tents look impressive. The guy who set it up was a recent basecamp manager at Everest, hence the semblance of orderliness. We each had a tent to ourselves at BC - the need for personal space & privacy during rest time was vital. There was just a simple problem - the food was horrible.

Food is an art to any true-blooded Sporean. In the mountains, we need it to replenish and repair. Our resting heartrates at Basecamp averaged 80-100. That was almost double our sea-level of 48-50ish. Just sitting around doing nothing, the basal metabolic rates have increased. On each swooshing of 7-9hr, we typically consumed 1pkt Gu-gel, some Oreos, vacuum-packed sausage &/ or chocs. In relative comparison, we take abt 3-4 gels per marathon. That was how much abuse our bodies were getting.

At Basecamp, food-oh-glorious was reduced to beneath functionality. There were tonnes of carbo, but nothing nutritious that allowed for recovery of loss muscles, strength etc. Vegetables were always cooked with mutton (!!), and after a week we were totally sick of the meat, despite it not reeking of mutton odour.

High altitude does funny tweaking to one's tastebuds. We started fantasizing of everything salty. Like chicken-in-a-biscuit, potato chips, french fries... We tried boiling YaKun style eggs, but alas, boiled water was not hot enough at Basecamp to cook it even after 15min of soaking. Then we tried asking our Cook to fry eggs sunny-side up - they turned up drenched in oil with cooked yolks. Sigh. Which was why we'd rather take this 4h journey each way from Basecamp out to this small town, to recuperate, wash-up before we head back tomorrow in preparation for summit.

Climbing is a lonely affair. I'm typically way behind (1-2hr) my team mates. It is fair that we do not expect our friends to wait in the cold. I think it's partly because I lack the reserves (aka fats) to keep up with all that swooshings, and also, weaker. But my years of running in silence has trained me to self-entertain without the use of iPods or devices. I am ace at self-talk, self-indulgence, conjuring up countless poems, songs and prayers just to get me through those taxing 7-9hrs of swooshings. I'm usually not a religious person, neither am I physically strong nor mental. But I've lost count of how many prayers I've mouthed in the last few days, to every almighty there could be, for good weather, for strength and resilience, to get through it.

I met a friend I knew from last year's ice-climbing. A guy I quite admire, for his raw passion in climbing, without the need for accolades. It was sheer luck/ fate that we were to meet again at Mustagh this season. He shared with me about the zen of climbing, or doing whatever we did, to enjoy the activity. I found it quite inspirational. It is like running in that 'state/zone'. I'm happy to keep his words with me, to focus on enjoying the process and not get stressed by summitting. As long as I've reached my greatest altitude to my best effort, I'm good with that result. Sunburnt face and all. Yes, zen.

Wish us luck for the next week! :)