There's a reason I didn't much like the Boy Scouts
Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
19Trip End Nov 20, 2007
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Several decades ago, when I was in the Boy Scouts, my scout master, who was my friend Jim Anderson's father, had the bright idea that we should earn our winter camping merit badge. I don't remember any of the requirements except the one that we actually go winter camping, three times, voluntarily, in what proved to be a cold winter even by Iowa standards.
Camping gear in the late 60s in Iowa included a lot of cotton. My own sleeping bag was a Sears special with flannel lining in a pheasant motif (I still have it) and was perfect for "camping out" on the living room floor on a Saturday night with a friend or two who had come over to watch the late-night creature feature and eat popcorn. It was pretty heavy and bulky for a scrawny kid to haul around in the woods, and it could probably have been generously described as a three-season bag as long as the three seasons were late spring, summer, and early fall. I was damned uncomfortable three weekends that winter, and the following summer, when we moved to another town, I made no effort to find another scout troop.
After our hike to Shipton's Arch Tuesday morning, we drove back to Kashgar, traded our two Jeeps for the minibus, and drove south to Karakel Lake, near the base of Mustag Ata, another of the mountains around Kashgar that has a connection to Eric Shipton. Dinner was at a yurt restaurant in the tiny village wedged between the highway and the lake. Our entourage came along, so we were still supported in a style that would embarrass the Boy Scouts, including a hot water bottle for each of us just before bedtime for the foot of our sleeping bags. Winter was coming early to the area, though, so the predicted overnight low was considerably lower than the 35 degrees that Snow Lion Expedition materials had suggested we come prepared for, and a hot water bottle doesn't stay hot forever. (Snow Lion covered for us by providing good sleeping bags, sleeping bag pads, and, for me, a heavier jacket than I had brought to China when I left Seattle, two weeks before the tour began.)
Come bedtime, everyone but Gary and me quickly disappeared into their tents. We marveled at all of the stars we could see, and Gary started pointing out constellations. I would gladly have stayed out there with him if only to gaze up at more stars than I'd seen at one time in several years, but I was already getting chilly, and that hot water bottle was calling me. Camping gear technology has improved since the late 60s, and you can now stay warm while winter camping even in Iowa-winter temperatures. However, you still need to go outside if you want to pee in the middle of the night. (Not strictly required, I heard from Gary, but I don't plan to go winter camping enough to learn about the alternatives.) When you come back, whatever heat your body may have imparted to your sleeping bag earlier in the evening has fled into the ether, and the hot water bottle isn't. If you're naturally underinsulated, if you're camping at 12,000 feet (which has the effect of slowing digestion and, thereby, reducing the available energy that could otherwise produce heat), and if the overnight low is 18 degrees, you might stay just cold enough not to be able to sleep for the rest of the night. I did.
Moving around Wednesday morning warmed me up, a breakfast heavy on the carbs gave me more energy, and the view of snow-covered Mustag Ata on a brilliantly clear day helped me forget that I don't much like the cold. After breakfast, we loaded back into the minibus and drove a few miles further south before leaving the road and driving toward Mustag Ata. Not too close, of course, partly because the bus wouldn't make it far and partly because we didn't want to miss too much of the gasping agony of hiking up and down increasingly steep ridges to get an up-close view of a glacier. Shipton would have rolled his eyes at such a histrionic description-he made it almost to the top of Mustag Ata, something over 25,000 feet, I think (7546 meters), and got frostbite in the process-but the 14,770 feet that we reached was about twice the elevation I'd ever hiked at, much more challenging than what I'd trained for or than Snow Lion had so much as hinted at, and a few hundred feet higher than any peak in the lower 48 United States.
Gary's encouragement and regular reminders about high-elevation hiking technique were the only reasons I made it to the ridge where we reached our greatest elevation. (Breathe deeply. Short, slow steps. If you have to stop to catch your breath, you're walking too fast.) Because we were hiking roughly across the base of the mountain, into and out of one drainage channel after another, we kept losing elevation that we'd already gained. Between the want of oxygen at that elevation and the increasing steepness of the climbs as we drew closer to the mountain, I was taking smaller and slower steps than I hope to be taking at sea level when I'm in my 90s. After three hours or more of this, I pointed at the top of the next ridge and told Gary that was it. If that wasn't the last ridge, I was giving up and heading back down. He responded by offering to carry my pack and by telling me of a time that he'd carried his own pack and those of three others on a tour he was leading, while also holding the hand of a little old lady who was having a hard time on the climb. No thanks, I'll make it on my own, I told him. (I recounted this exchange at dinner that night, and Gary confessed to shaming me into continuing. We all had a good laugh.)
At the crest of that last ridge, we stuck around just long enough to take the obligatory pictures (including one that I took of Gary's wrist watch/altimeter showing 14,770 feet), then we pointed ourselves downhill and practically floated down to that night's camp. Even the occasional short climb on the way down couldn't detract from the buoyant feeling that came with making it to the top of that last ridge with everyone else. I stopped wondering whether I would have come on the tour had I known this day would be so hard, but any interest I once had in climbing Mt. Rainier has been extinguished.
Folks turned in right after dinner. Thanks to an extra blanket that Taher had snagged for me at the village at Karakel Lake, some extra pains I took to ensure that my feet were well insulated from the ground, and an overnight low of 24 instead of 18, I slept pretty well that night. Thursday's jaunt to the highway was flat or downhill the entire way, and after a three-hour bus ride, we were back in Kashgar in plenty of time to take a shower before dinner.