I can do that!

I CAN DO THAT

"No helicopter rescue available" was the warning for five women when they set their sights on climbing and skiing a 7546m peak in China. How this would effect their lives became apparent later.

We knew we had wildly different expectations of the trip when we found out Squash had 28 pairs of knickers. The rest of us only had 5. This was to keep us going during a 3 week attempt to climb and ski Mount Mustagata, a 7546m peak rising from the desert in Asia.

Mustagata, in north west China, is a classic high ski peak. It is a continuous, untechnical (few places where you have to carry skis and use ice axes/crampons to ascend) skin up and ski down of nothing over 30 degrees gradient. A great challenge for 3 skiers, 2 snowboarders, all women who love skiing powder and got a bit carried away.

Our experience varied from Suzy, a passionate ski mountaineer who has skied Elbrus and Denali to Carole, Mother of two whose previous height record was top of the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix We also had Squash, the snowboard dudette and Ali B, so small her backpack is normally bigger than her.

It’s not often you see skis on a camel. This was part of the long journey for us and our kit to basecamp at 4500m. To get to the skiing we had to hike a further 800m to camp one at 5300m, a trip that became a tedious friend during the up and down of acclimatisation.

The surreal idea of skiing uphill to find untracked powder and untamed mountain first attracted us when the virgin stuff became harder to find. Three years ago on a boring foot descent of the slippy scree on Aconcagua, a 7000m peak in Argentina, we realised we would rather be on skis and boards and the idea of skiing big mountains was born. Ski mountaineering offers a wicked combination of meditative ascents demanding endurance with exhilarating descents often in great snow. Skiing powder at altitude is like suffocating with pleasure. A bit masochistic.

Prior to the trip we each followed a weird and wonderful East meets West six month training programme which included weights, yoga, walking, chi gong, acupuncture and consuming a vast array of supplements such as ginko biloba (supposed to be good for circulation). Sounds bizarre but it really worked.

Amongst the other people on the mountain most were American snowshoers who use Mustagata as a precursor to Everest. Experience varied massively from a woman who had almost summited the Big One to a British snowboarder whose previous uphill experience consisted of 2 hours at Tamworth Snowdome.

At altitude one mostly drinks and wees. Getting enough fluid is crucial for acclimatisation, as is gaining height. As we traipsed up and down the mountain with the occasional bit of perfect powder to ski, it became clear who was looking stronger and who weaker. We became increasingly worried about one guy, Friendly Jon. An incredibly fit guy – sub 3 hour marathon – he seemed to be finding things unduly difficult.

This effort was interspersed with basecamp rest days where we spent a lot of time taking clothes on and off getting the rays in. The bizarre sight of Squash in a bikini whilst Ali and Carole snuggled in down jackets was not uncommon due to massive temperature fluctuations with cloud cover. Whilst Suzy trawled the camp looking for a bat and ball and frisbee playmate, Carole got her crochet out, Ali was bendy yoga woman and Squash applied beauty products to stop her lips and skin making a bid for freedom…and all without a mirror. Friendly Jon, however was still suffering. Mustagata is a remote, uncommercial mountain with no medical tent, doctor or rescue services, which some mountains have. To get down one walked or took a 6 hour donkey ride.

Leaving the relative comfort of basecamp introduced us to the joys of melting and boiling snow for water. Up high every spare moment is dedicated to this task. To drink the recommended 5 litres of water a day took hours and hours of dedication to the fickle stoves.

On one acclimatisation climb sleeping at camp one we were woken by appalling news. Friendly Jon had died during the night at basecamp. (We discovered later he died of a pulmonary embolism caused by a deep vein thrombosis.) Our motivation for being there deserted us and we questioned what we should do, why we were there and our next moves. After tearful discussion we decided to continue up to camp 2. The mountain now had less and more meaning. It was less important to summit and more important to respect what the mountain offered us and what the rigours of the climb and altitude could do to us.

The turmoil of these few days made philosophers of us all. Why were we there? Carole said her home life is so comfortable, she likens the mountain to swimming in the cold sea. Ali B loves the beauty and mountain life. Squash loves the challenge of seeing what her body can do and making mischief at basecamp. For Suzy being with her favourite people and doing the sport she loves free of Western distractions is the key. The elemental, raw life made us all feel curiously alive.

On our final summit bid we reached camp 3 at 6800m in beautiful weather. Then the wind blew. We desperately boiled water through the night with uncooperative stoves trying to keep warm with layers of kit. Most people didn’t continue from here due to illness or dehydration but at 5am we edged out of our sleeping bags into the teeth of a gale, no skin exposed. The slow snow slog started. Mesmorised by the wind, cold and lack of oxygen we crept up towards the summit. Imagine being on a stepping machine in a freezer with a vicious giant fan blowing and a plastic bag over your head. One step every six breaths, falling asleep on your poles inbetween. Three hours into the climb we were told it was a further three to four hours to summit, so after this time we stopped to gather as a group underneath what looked like the summit so we could get there together. But it wasn’t the summit.. At 7400m it was the false summit. Weather was coming in and we had missed our time window, so we took to our skis and boards delighted to have got so far. To celebrate Carole even got her crochet out. Surely an extreme crochet record?

And the ski down from 7400m to 5300m. I would love to say it was fabulous but it was appalling breakable crust and then a bit of spring snow. It had taken us 24 hours to skin up and I hour 20 to ski down. A hilarious ratio.

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