The Cyclists' Tale

The quoted items are from Siegfried's account.

"Mental disorder finally made its way into my life in July, 1998 after I had cycled from Lhasa to half between Everest Base Camp and Advanced Base Camp from the Tibetan side. The sight of this great mountain, together with my surprising lack of fatigue, made me decide to try to break the world record cycling at high altitude. "

All three of the cyclists were experienced at altitudes over 5000m. For example, Martin had cycled to the north Everest base camp (5800m) and had hiked on to the advanced base camp (c6300m).

As I was climbing Mustagh Ata, they were also wending their way up the mountain.

Because he cycled all the way from Kashgar, Martin didn't arrive in Base Camp until Day 4, one day after Luc and Siegfried. All three carried their bikes to Camp 1 (as required by the rules) but Martin and Siegfried used mules to help carry some of the other gear.

To shorten their carries, they established an intermediate camp at the start of the ice fall (c. 5740m).

"On August 4th, after two nights in Camp 1, Luc and I left for Camp 2 (6,200m) with our bikes. At least, that was our intention. Since we had started out late and because it took us almost three hours to get to the beginning of the crevasse section at 5,800m which was only halfway to Camp 2, we realized that there was no way we could get to Camp 2 the same day. So we decided right there and then that this place was very beautiful, quiet and relaxing: in short, the perfect spot to acclimatize!"

Day 11(Aug 6)
Luc and Siegfried carried their bikes to Camp 2, and returned to a lower camp.

"Another happy event was the success of a Dutch climbing team that stood out, among other things, for their thorough preparation and their high-tech amenities (satellite radio, e-mail capability, sun-powered PC). The earlier bad weather had kept them at bay for some time, but they finally managed to reach the summit on August 5th. We met them in Camp 1.5 as they were coming down with their skis and snowboards. Our happy encounter was slightly overshadowed by their story of the Slovenian climber who had died two weeks earlier. Although two Swiss climbers had buried him before, the snow had melted and exposed him again. So the Dutch guys had to bury him deeper."

Siegfried arriving at Camp 2 with his bicycle; Luc's boot at right.

"It was the next part that was the hardest. What seemed like a fairly straightforward section turned out to be the steepest of them all. Luc was feeling as strong as ever, and he didn't seem to mind the extra effort. But I was struggling with my snowshoes, which kept on sinking in the snow, wearing me out. At one point my boots got stuck under the front opening of the snowshoes, and I fell straight on my face in the snow. Next, I started sliding down and tried in vain to stand up straight again. Luc was trying to tell me something, but I couldn't hear him. After about five minutes of very heavy struggling against my snowshoes and my own weight, I had the lucidity to turn my body around (Luc had been shouting all the time to do exactly that), which allowed me to get up and get out of this slippery melted patch of snow. I barely made it to Camp 2, but felt really happy because I had finally found what I had been looking for all this time: the limits of my strength...

We stayed in Camp 2 for about 40 minutes, talking to Jim, who, as always, was hibernating in his tent. "

Day 13 (August 8)
Luc, Martin, and Siegfried all move to Camp 2 (6220m).

"Camp 2 felt different from Camp 1.5 in that there was much more snow, that breathing was even more difficult, and that the nights were getting darn cold. For softies like ourselves it was very difficult to do anything constructive before the sun came up. Every morning at around 7:30, lying deep in my comfortable sleeping bag, I would be thinking of George Harrison's classic "Here Comes The Sun." And when it did, life was beautiful. "

Day 14 (August 9)
Martin went down to near the ice-fall and returned with his bicycle. Luc and Siegfried rested and acclimatized at Camp 2.
By now time was starting to run out --- we had to back in Kashgar in 8 days --- and the cyclists decided they would try to take advantage of the current spell of good weather to break the record. Tomorrow (August 10) they would move up to as high a camp as possible (since they couldn't carry their bikes, which weighed almost 10kg each, and their gear, this would require that I carry a load up for them). The next day (August 11), they would try to reach at least 7000m and break the record.
Day 15 (August 10) Cyclists move to their highest camp

The cyclists setting out for their highest camp: Luc is breaking trail up the slope; Martin is next (at left), and Siegfried is just setting out; the monster pack they left for me to carry is at right; the tent is that of Peter and Stijn; Peter is in the yellow down jacket and Stijn is behind him.

The cyclists left very late (about midday) from Camp 2 (6220m) and Luc and Martin struggled breaking trail. By 5pm they had reached only 6500m, which is where they had to camp.

"we only left at noon, and I trailed Luc and Martin all the way. They had to wait for me every 30 minutes or so, as I was struggling to keep up. By 5pm we had to set up camp at 6,450m, a meager 250 meters above Camp 2. Luc and Martin gracefully accepted my apology... "

Day 16

I had now spent 3 days at Camp 2 since my ascent of Mustagh Ata, and I was curious to see whether I was faster (because better acclimatized) or slower (because of the debilitating effects of spending time at 6200m and of my summit climb). To decide, I set off at 6am from Camp 2 with designs again on the summit.

"The next morning (August 11th) we got up before sunrise for the first (and last) time and got ready in the freezing cold. By 7:15am, Jim passed by (he had set out from Camp 2 at 5:45am), said "hi" and went on up, in order to make a track for us. When I say that it was Jim who passed us, I mean that we assumed it was Jim; what happened was that someone came speeding by like lightning, followed closely by a shadow looking like Jim's and by a voice that sounded remarkably like Jim's..."

Unfortunately, this time there were no tracks above 6500m and the snow was softer and deeper. By midday, I had only reached the Slovenian tent at 7000m, whereas on my earlier climb I had reached 7400 by midday. Even allowing for the worse snow conditions, I decided I was slower than I had been. Perhaps I would have been faster above 7400m.

I abandoned my idea of going higher, and instead waited at 7000m for the cyclists so that I could witness their attempt on the record. With the help of my tracks, they arrived about 2:30pm and did break the record. (Our best estimate of the altitude from GPS and altimeter readings was between 7008 and 7030 metres --- about 23000 feet.)

"Half-an-hour later, a surprisingly strong Stijn arrived; he was going to try and summit the same day. Strangely enough, this day was the complete opposite of the day before. Whereas Martin and Luc were finding it hard to keep a steady pace, I felt really strong and caught up with Stijn in no time. The rest of the climb Stijn and I stayed together, resting every 50 meters or so, with Martin and Luc doing the same.

After about an hour we passed a small tent at 6,600m, which should have been our stop from the previous day. The idea had been to camp at 6,600m and aim for the summit today, a 950-meter climb which would not have been impossible. Instead, being stranded at 6,450m made us realize that getting to the summit would not be realistic.

As it was, Stijn and I were making nice progress, and we got to the world record mark of 6,960m at around 2pm. While Stijn was enjoying the scenery, I was slobbering all over our GPS, which read 6,965m. We had made it. Still, we wanted to go on, because Jim had told us there was a flat section at around 7,020m. About half an hour later we got to the place that Jim had said would be perfect for our record attempt. In all his wisdom he had foreseen that we weren't going to get to the top that day, or any other day.

So, we arrived at around 7,000m in pretty okay shape. Sure, we were tired and all, but I had expected it to be much worse. The only thing that was hard was actually doing something intensely physical, like unloading your bike and turning it upside down. It's difficult to describe the feeling you have when your body lacks the oxygen to cope with physical activity. To me, it is comparable to the feeling I get when I swim under water for as long as I can until I almost suffocate. That very last moment, just before you take a breath again, that's when your muscles and veins cramp up completely, but just for a couple of seconds.

After a short rest I had a look around the area surrounding our site. Right above our spot, 50 meters away at most, was the infamous little tent that had meant the beginning of the end for our Slovenian colleague, but that arguably saved the lives of three other people a few days later.

Martin and Luc arrived 20 minutes later and we got ready for our record attempt..."

Siegfried (with bicycle) and Stijn arriving at 7000m.

Martin arriving at 7000m.

Luc assembling his bicycle at 7000m; Stijn behind with the video camera.

Martin, about to ride his bike off the face of the earth.

"Needless to say that it took quite a few attempts before we did any normal cycling. If ever you get the chance to see our video, you'll think we were filming for "America's Funniest Videos" or "Mr. Bean's Cycling Escapades." Fortunately we all managed to cycle for a short distance on at least one occasion. By four o'clock we decided to return to our camp at 6,450m, all the time keeping in mind the words of an anonymous climber: "It is no use to reach the summit of a mountain and die during the descent. The success of mountain climbing lies in the ability of the climber to climb a mountain, return and tell the world about it."

By 7pm, we were all back at Camp 2.5, some more exhausted than others. But who cared? We had broken a Guinness World Record!"

Day 17 (August 12)
I descended from Camp 2 to Base Camp; Luc and Siegfried descended from their camp at 6500m to Camp 2 (6220m) and on to Camp 1; when Martin reached Camp 2 he was too tired to go further.
Day 18 (August 13)
The cyclists all reached base camp.

A very tired Martin arriving back at Base Camp.

Three happy cyclists: Luc, Martin, and Siegfried at Base Camp.

Day 19 (August 14)
Martin, Siegfried, and I return to Kashgar. Luc sets off to cycle back over the Karakoram highway to Gilgit.

Mustagh Ata disappears into the clouds as we walk back to Subashi.

The Alpinists' Tale

After Peter recovered from his altitude sickness (see Day 3), he and Stijn returned up the mountain. On Day 16 [the day the cyclists broke the record], they set off at 5:30am from Camp 2 (6220m) for the summit, but Peter quit after only about 30 minutes with cold hands. Stijn continued, but despite having the benefit of good tracks all the way, it took him about 9 hours to reach 7000m. There he abandoned his attempt on the summit and videotaped the cyclists. On Day 17 Peter and Stijn carried a load up to a high camp. On Day 18 (August 13), the weather was poor, and they assisted in carrying a Chinese climber critically ill with cerebral edema from Camp 2 to Camp 1. As we left (August 14), they were waiting in Base Camp for good weather so that they could return to their high camp and attempt the summit.

[From Siegfried 25/8/00: Peter and Stijn just got back today, they could only get to Camp 2 because there was just too much snow, more than we had had. I don't think there will be much summitting left on Mustagh this summer ...]