This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Chapter 8: Four years later ... 1994


Three weeks before I was due to leave for China I gave up my job as a medical journalist in Auckland and went shopping tor camping gear. After three years of writing about constipation and cough remedies, I was free to fulfil my ambition to be an explorer of sorts.

My immediate plan was to spend a couple of weeks trekking in New Zealand's Southern Alps, testing my gear and getting myself fit for the Chinese adventure. I traipsed round the camping shops of Auckland, feeling guilty as I handed over money for extravagant items such as a bladder water bag ('developed by the Israeli Army'), a head-torch, two pairs of Thorlo socks ("Satisfaction guaranteed or your money refunded'), and a set of extra small billy cans.

There were some larger items I'd had my eye on for some time: an MSR International stove that could burn on almost any kind of fuel, and a Thermarest sleeping mat. I also treated myself to a second-hand Olympus OM10 camera, with a polaroid lens filter for mountain pictures. These items I added to my existing inventory of outdoor gear: a MacPac Eclipse lightweight tent, a bulky English sleeping bag, ice axe, crampons, fleece jacket. And thus equipped, I set off for Mount Cook.

A Mount Cook Airlines Avro 748 turboprop dropped me off in -d field at Lake Pukaki, about 12 miles from Mt Cook village. This airport consisted of a shed, a windsock and a Maori coach driver who doubled-up as air traffic controller with his headphones and table-tennis hats to see off the plane. He dropped me off in the rain at Mt Cook village, from where I trudged up to a campsite full of Germans.

The talk was all about a young Japanese woman who had gone missing while on a day walk up to the Mueller Hut with her mother.

The next morning, when the rain cleared, I did this walk myself. It was a steep, slippery track up through the dripping bush to a couple of ponds wishfully known as the Sealy Tarns. Beyond was a tussock and scree slope that led up to the ridge of Mt Ollivier. Just before the Second World War, this had been Sir Edmund Hillary's first real peak.

I found the going quite tough, especially with my heavily loaded backpack. But after a while I established a steady rhythm of breathing, counting 1-2-3-4, which enabled me to proceed slowly hut without stopping every five minutes. Nearer the top of the ever-steeper slope I passed a party of what I took to be Japanese climbers: short, stocky, tough-looking men with an English leader.

On reaching the ridge-plateau I discovered how easy it must have been for the Japanese woman to have disappeared: the plateau was basically a collection of huge boulders and rocks piled on top of each other, creating many spaces and hidden crevasses, some up to 30 feet deep. It would take weeks to search every
single nook and cranny. The Japanese woman had probably wandered off the track and fallen down one of these many holes.

Meanwhile, the mist blew in and I carried on the last few steps to the Muelier Hut. It was an exhilarating feeling to be the first to arrive. My only company was a group of mischievous green keas, the New Zealand alpine parrot. They hopped about on the hut's water tank and peered curiously through the window at me, tilting their heads intuitively.

Within a couple of hours several other hikers had arrived, including the 'Japanese' party, who turned out to be a squad of Gurkhas from Hong Kong, on a training holiday in New Zealand. The hut was soon jammed with sweaty trampers brewing up tea on roaring Primus stoves, and the atmosphere was cosy. Outside, the mist lifted slightly to reveal the menacing ice walls hanging from Mt Sefton opposite. Every ten minutes there would be a roaring noise as huge chunks of ice broke off and avalanched down into the valley. Now I could understand why climbers feared avalanches so much.

That evening trampers from Germany. Britain, Israel, and France huddled round candles in the hut. New Zealand's mountain huts were well equipped: cutlery, stoves, mattresses, and even a radio link to the National Park HQ. As we sat in the nickering gloom I asked the English Gurkha captain if the British Army in Hong Kong did a lot of expeditions into the Chinese mountains. Apparently not, he told me. Serving soldiers were discouraged from visiting communist countries such as China while on duty.

The next morning I did a quick dash up to the nearby 'summit' of Ollivier, which was actually nothing more man a dimple in the pile of rocks, and then fled back down to Mt Cook village. That evening, I sneaked into the posh Hermitage hotel, where rich Taiwanese parties dined by candlelight, able to admire the mountain views while safely insulated behind large windows. No primuses there.

Over the next four days I attempted the Copland Track, an 'alpine tramp' that led from Mt Cook over the Main Divide to the lush West Coast rainforest. In typical macho-kiwi understatement the route was described as 'exposed in places'. This meant it was a full-on mountain climb up a very precarious ridge. The first time I tried it I took the wrong route out of a steep gully and had to retire, exhausted and bleeding, minus my watch, back to the first hut. The next day I tried again, accompanied by a middle-aged couple from Christchurch, who turned back after three hours when they saw how steep the route was.

After a lot of floundering round in a stream, I managed to scrabble my way up a scree slope out onto the slabs of the narrow ridge, from where the route led up a thousand metres to a barrel-shaped emergency shelter. On either side of the ridge were sharp drop-offs, with little chance of arresting a fall. I managed to reach the shelter by lunchtime and retired inside, my hands shaking, to brew up some tea. The going so far had been scary, and when I saw the gradient of the final snow slope ahead I wanted to chicken out. But I couldn’t turn back: that would be equally hazardous.



So I set off alone and reluctant with my ice axe and crampons, for a terrifying 40 minutes of 'plugging' up the soft snow. During the whole time I did not dare look down or behind me, but kept my eyes firmly on my boots as I followed a zig-zag pattern up towards the sharp ridge. Just when I thought I'd reached safety, when the snow flattened out to meet the razor-edge ridge, I faced another problem: the snow had melted back about three feet from the rock, leaving a gaping crevasse about twenty feet deep. After putting my foot through the snow at the lip, I managed to leap these last few feet. to land bloodily on a small platform of rock. I was on top. Behind me the pyramid of Mt Cook dazzled white against a clear blue sky, almost near enough to touch. Ahead was a yawning valley that led down into the mists and foliage of the West Coast.



Going down the western side was a lot easier: no snow slopes or steep drops to contend with. Many hours later, on the verge of nightfall, I staggered into the Douglas Rock hut in the middle of the Copland valley, absolutely worn out. I had crossed countless streams and hobbled down miles of mountain track to reach this point, still two days walk from the West Coast highway. And when I eventually did emerge into the sunshine and coffee shops of Fox Glacier township two days later, I felt like a superhuman, definitely superior to the mere tourists taking their twenty-minute tea breaks from their coaches.

Three days later I met disaster. Recovered from my Copland rigours, I hitched down to Mt Aspiring National Park and attempted a track known as the Cascade Saddle. The scenery was more Scottish than Swiss: brooding crags and long tussock grass, forests and streams. After a restless day cooped up in a hut because of rain, I rushed out up into the hills, eager to reach the 'Saddle'.

The track led up through a beech forest before opening out into a steeper hillside of scrub, gullies and crags. The tops were still shrouded in wet cloud and the knee-high grass underfoot was slippery. But after the perils of the Copland, this was straightforward grunting, I thought. My guard was down.

aspiring pylon

I made good progress up to lunchtime and had almost reached the 'Saddle' when I stopped for a breather and slipped off the straps of my rucksack. Leaning back to stretch my aching shoulders, the pack toppled over and rolled away down the slope. I leapt to my feet 10 chase after it. but the bag picked up speed and disappeared over the lip of a gully. Only Just in time I managed to stop myself going over the edge with it. I peered over into the gully hut could see nothing beyond a hundred foot drop. My stuff had gone, just like that; all I had left the ice axe I was using as a walking stick.

Stunned for a few seconds, I couldn't believe what had just happened. I rushed back down the track in search of my pack, but soon realised there was no hope of finding it. The gully was deep and inaccessible, and my bag had probably carried on rolling right down into the forest. The vast expanse of hillside was dotted with holes, any of which might have swallowed by bag. My bag, and all my newly-acquired, uninsured kit, was gone for good - over the edge.

aspiring pylon

'Come back in four years. A flood might have flushed it out by then,' laughed the policeman in nearby Wanaka when I reported my loss. I had returned to the Mt Aspiring mountain hut and cadged $50 off the kind warden to live off, until my wife wired me some funds down from Auckland.

“Not a good start” she said over the phone.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of http://www.chinesemedicalnews.com  Originally from Yorkshire.

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