29-May-2005 -- SUMMARY
Currently the best elevation data available, the Space Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) data, suggests that 33N 80E in the Nganglong Gangri in Western Tibet is the highest degree confluence point in the world. The journey by Greg Michaels and Robert Whitfield, from Lhasa to Kuba, the starting point for the final assault, was fraught with problems such as being caught half way up a mountain evading a check point by the Chinese military, freezing for days hitchhiking on roads with no traffic, being overtaken by our own rear left wheel in a jeep at midnight and having freezing mud up to our thighs when attempting to cross a river. The final assault, supported by three young Tibetan porters, was blessed by good weather and a fortunately accessible confluence point. The point was located near the top of a steep rock-strewn ridge with limited snow cover and was achieved in two days before the weather turned and freezing winds drove the team back to Kuba.
THE JOURNEY TO KUBA
We were largely unaware of the scale and intensity our journey would assume. It would take us 11 days to reach this confluence. The desolate expanse of territory from Lhasa to Kuba, spanned a distance of about 2000 km (1250 miles) across western Tibet where the elevation was almost entirely above 4000 meters (13200 feet) and more remote and extreme than other regions of Tibet.
In this environment of mountainous desert we were often sandblasted with a relentless icy wind, gust after gust. Even bundled in down jackets, our shivering often only stopped when the bright sun emerged for short periods and baked our skin.
The region was really a totally different world. We inched across distances, ever-seemingly long, dwarfed in an arid, barren environment with single vistas that would swallow entire countries. Time stretched on and our progress often seemed insignificant.
My partner, Robert Whitfield and I set out from Lhasa cheery-eyed and enthusiastic on May 18, 2005. Back in those days our clothes were still clean and the dirt hadn't caked in our wrinkles. Robert's beard was still patchy.
I met Robert in the dining lounge of the Pentoc Hotel in Lhasa. He hadn't heard of confluence hunting, but was attracted by the smell of adventure and was thoroughly intrigued. A former school teacher for Tibetan incarnate Lamas in Dalhousie back in 1964, he had met a number of the leading Tibetans in exile including the Dalai Lama. A former Finance Director for Airbus, he is now working to advance sustainable development. A 4 month overland trip from Beijing to St Peterburg had brought him to Lhasa. He had had some training in mountaineering, and gave me a few tips about risk management and using ice axes and bivy sacks. After our trip, his plan was to move on to the Karakorums to climb the Baltoro glacier to K2.
For the 1700 kilometers (1150 miles) between Lhasa and Ali, the largest city in western Tibet, there are only two roads, a northern one and a southern one, both of them dusty, bumpy, unpaved narrow roads that would sometimes vanish completely. Having reviewed our options, we decided to hitchhike to the general vicinity of the point. Seemingly important arteries on whole maps of Asia, the roads are the most prominent on the Tibetan plateau. However, as we found out, trucks and jeeps would often pass by at the rate of one or two per hour, and sometimes much less frequently than that. Usually, they either had no room or no interest in taking us along. Anxious to get to the confluence point, we had few rides and long waits.
We spent almost an entire day in a ditch by a roadside near a cluster of Tibetan houses. We stayed low in the ditch to minimize the effects of the cold wind and dust. Garbage was strewn around the ditch, and the carcass of a dog, long ago tossed out carelessly in the open by the villagers, had become dried and cured by the wind. After waiting all day we failed to get a ride, and had no choice but to set up tent. We took the only shelter from the wind, an area behind the wall of a house littered with feces and dead animal parts.
At the town of Saga we tried to sneak around a military checkpoint but were caught by a plain-clothed Tibetan with a military guard. We were taken to the military checkpoint and then to the police headquarters, where we were temporarily detained and told to turn back. The result was we had to backtrack to take the northern road, a process which cost us dearly. We lost nearly a day and a half.
We spent another day in a ditch at the desolate intersection between the northern and southern roads. We lodged ourselves deep into the ditch from morning almost until sunset, the dust from being windblasted caked to our skin and hair, turning us an ashy gray, our eyes often batting off eyelash-fulls of dust.
Fortunately, we were saved from setting up camp by a cheerful, good-natured Tibetan truck driver named Mucho. He was so kind that later, when we stopped at a grimy, dimly-lit truck stop for dinner, he insisted on paying for our instant-noodle dinners.
Then there was Mei Dou, another truck stop, where Mucho dropped us off. Seemingly endless, more than TWO days of waiting for a ride were spent at the bleak cluster of dissolving mud-brick structures at the center of a high altitude desert plain. At least in Mei Dou there was more sun than wind and I spent many nice hours reading next to the salt-fringed, turquoise hypersaline lake reflecting the soft brown hills.
We had some interesting experiences there due to the cheerful Tibetan accidentally driving off with Robert's bag full of valuables. Robert was hoping to get his bag back so I planned to go ahead and meet Robert later. Two days later the truck driver returned with a truck full of cargo - and with Robert's bag of valuables. I had not yet managed to catch a ride.
At this point we began to worry about my time constraints for returning to China-proper to start work tour-leading. We were well aware and anxious that because of our delays, we might not be able to attempt the confluence.
That night, a police officer to whom we had reported the lost goods, offered to drive us 60 km (38 miles) in a police jeep to the town of Tsochen, our second police ride of the trip! It was only 60 kilometers, but as much as we loved that truck stop, it was nice to move on.
Luckily, the next morning we caught a jeep. The driver demanded the fairly high price of 400 yuan per person, but it took us across the huge remaining distance to Ali in only a day and a half. It was now already May 25th. We had only until May 31st to get to the confluence, and the remaining stretch was the greatest challenge.
It was a relief to get to Ali, an unimpressive, primarily Chinese-style town situated in an impressive rocky, sand-swept, high-desert environment on the Tsenge Tsanpo river which eventually turns into the mighty river Indus. Ali had internet, showers, and substantial hotels, supermarkets and restaurant choices - all amenities I've never been able to find in western Tibet. But we were ready to move on to the confluence. We needed to re-stock on food supplies and we needed a reasonably-priced jeep and driver. We found both and headed off the next day.
Now May 26th, the goal was to travel north from Ali, along the road to Kashgar for about 100 kilometers (63 miles) until we reached a town called Risum where we would turn right. We had an attractive gold-painted Chinese version of a Jeep Wrangler. Our driver was a young Tibetan boy with a punky hairstyle who played a cassette with Chinese rap music. Another boy had come along. We drove through the desert and watched with amazement as several dust devils, as tall and narrow as waterspouts, danced next to the highway. We then cut through the Nganglong Gangri, a range of mountains running east-west with snowy jagged-rock peaks and lower sections skirted with aprons of sand.
At Risum, we came across one of the only roads to the east indicated on the map. Only about 1 vehicle per day even enters this road. Strangely the road goes for about 100 km (63 miles) and ends without reaching any prominent destination. But it led to our destination! We turned right.
Now north of the main Nganglong Gangri spine, the road led us down a pastoral, grassy valley with a meandering river and herds of grazing yak, sheep and horses. Occasionally we saw large black and white cranes and orange-brown geese by the river. Our destination was a small town called Kuba, the closest town to the confluence.
When everything is going according to plan, sometimes fate throws you a curve ball. Kuba was only about 5 or 10 kilometers (3 to 7 miles) away now: our jeep trip was almost complete. The boy was to drop us off in Kuba while we would continue on to the confluence and find other arrangements to get back. We could see a settlement we thought was Kuba in the distance. Suddenly the jeep's engine died.
The boy tried to restart it, but couldn't get it to turn over. He tried again and again, and the boys got out and worked in the engine for some time, all the while seeming to become more and more despondent.
We were still far away from anything, but Robert and I noticed a distant tractor driving on the opposite side of the valley, on the far side of the river. I figured it was worth a try so I waved at it. No response. I continued waving and waving, and finally it stopped. I ran down taking at least 5 minutes to get anywhere near the tractor.
The group with the tractor were local farmers, both young and old. After a lot of hesitation, the Tibetans seemed to understand my Chinese asking them to wait. In a frantic rush, I ran back, we paid off the jeep drivers, grabbed our heavy backpacks and returned to the river. The sudden plan was working. However, in the interest of time and convenience we had neglected possibly the most important aspect: How would we cross the river?
On the other side of the river the Tibetans watched and waited without expression and possibly without any clear idea about what we were doing. I took off my boots and proceeded barefoot across the ice-cold river with my big pack on my back, small pack on my front. Immediately I sank into freezing cold oozy mud. It was like quicksand. Like a dinosaur in a tar pit, I struggled to get out as I sank further and further past my knees and up to my thighs.
It was difficult but I managed to free myself. I tried to cross at a few other places but had the same result. Robert had a go but was equally unsuccessful. The Tibetans encouraged us. "It is not possible to cross!" I exclaimed, "Forget it! We'll go back and find another way."
But the Tibetans insisted. Finally some of them crossed the river themselves. We realized that the deep mud was only along our bank and that the river bottom was much firmer. It also became clear that with less weight we wouldn't sink as much. The Tibetans took some of our packs so that each of us only had one and soon we were wading through the icy waters.
Safely across, we asked if they could take us to Kuba and they signaled us to jump in the tractor. We had a very bumpy ride packed in the tractor's trailer with lots of Tibetans, bags and boxes of goods. But we didn't mind; it was a totally unexpected, but interesting way to enter the closest town to the confluence.
The tractor took us around a few bends, and then suddenly, there it was - Kuba. It wasn't where we had originally expected it. It was hidden away in a little arroyo, invisible from almost every point of view. It was actually a charming little village, surprisingly clean and devoid of litter, in strong contrast to the villages we had seen along the highway. Running through it were fresh-water streams, cobbled pathways and hidden alleyways amidst huddled mud-brick houses. Toward the top of the village were colorful religious monuments and stupas.
As it was nearly dark now, we set up tent in a pen next to a creek in the middle of a picturesque portion of the village. We cooked up some instant backpacker meals, to the stares of groups of local Tibetans peering with stunned amazement around and into our tent.
Our plan in Kuba was to hire horses to carry our bags up to the confluence. From Kuba we had about 15 km (9 miles) as the crow flies to get to the point. The altitude at Kuba was 4300 meters (14190 feet), and we knew we would need to climb to over 5800 meters (19140), a gain of over 1500 meters (4950 feet), and our packs were heavy with warm clothing, tent gear, cooking gear, ice axes and numerous other items.
So the next day, May 27th, we ventured around asking for horses to hire. We had no luck so we walked to nearby villages and settlements and, in one case, even hired a tractor to take us. We were a great curiosity for the local people who had probably not been exposed much to foreigners. As nice as they were, nobody had horses for us to hire. We expanded our search to yaks. We spent the entire day looking. I decided we had to come up with an alternative plan.
"How about people? Are there any people here who can carry our packs?" The demand turned out to be great. In fact, so great, that we believe our tractor driver refused to translate our request to other people so that he and his son could take our packs. Because he had proven himself untrustworthy and sinister on a number of accounts, we instead sought out people back in Kuba to help us with our bags. Finally finding people to assist us, we were ready to start our trek to the confluence the next day.
THE FINAL ASSAULT
Starting the first portion off by tractor, we were eager and excited about what we might see. We enjoyed the sunny morning of May 28th leading us into a day that contrasted significantly to the day before, a day of clouds, mist, and cold winds. With us we had Taishi and Sola, in their late teens, and Buju, about 26, to help us with our bags, and to carry their own huge bag of blankets, tsampa (barley powder), a big tea kettle and more. Driving the tractor was the same driver who had taken us from the river, a young, cheerful boy with a cowboy hat. Another passenger, the man we paid for the tractor, was a wrinkled, dark-skinned man with long hair in a ponytail. We assumed he was the boy's father.
Ahead of us was a long mountain valley and its main branch ramping us up from 4300 to 5300 meters (14190 to 17490 feet), and then ‘the confluence mountain’, a steep mountain to the right of the valley which had to be almost completely surmounted to reach the confluence point. We knew this from air photos and a 3D representation of the elevation data.
The mouth of the valley was about 14 km (8.75 miles) from the confluence. The tractor took us up the nearly flat beginning of the valley to within 11 or 12 km (6.88 or 7.5 miles) of the confluence, as the crow flies. We jumped out and started our trek.
There were empty cobblestone corrals for grazing animals and a broad stream valley often hidden beneath patches of snow and ice. The first part of the valley was flanked by steep brown mountains, and what appeared to be volcanic ash cliffs pocked with a few caves. We spent a few hours of the morning trekking up the valley until we got to 4900 meters (16170 feet), our altitude limit for camping on the first day. The general rule is to not increase your sleeping altitude more than 500 m (1650 feet) per day to avoid altitude sickness. It was only noon, and we were only about 7 km (4.38 miles) from the point.
We set up camp next to a jumble of large boulders and an ice swath covering the stream. What we could do with the rest of the time that day was leave the Tibetans at camp and hike up further, returning to camp that evening. We were eager to get a view of the steep mountain we needed to climb to get to the confluence. It was our biggest curiosity and concern. Was it too steep? Was it icy? Were there glaciers? There was a high chance that it would be too dangerous, and that we lacked the appropriate gear to climb it. Had we come all this way for nothing?
We proceeded up the valley. Several snowy peaks appeared as we closed in on the horizon. They turned out not to be ‘the confluence mountain’. One was a huge rocky spine of a ridge. It was likely an intrusive dyke, a geologic feature where magma long ago rose up vertically through a fissure. The general area had many of these seemingly unnatural linear dykes.
As we hiked up past 5000 meters (16500 feet) I started to suffer. I was severely out-of-breath and lethargic, likely signs of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) that I had experienced on last year's Tibetan confluence visit. At the time I thought I was just out of shape and pressed on. Robert shot ahead and often had to wait a long time for me.
Under 4 km (2.5 miles) from the confluence, finally we saw our mountain. It's surface was a mix of snow and rock, and it appeared as if it were steep. We would have to get a closer look.
The now completely frozen stream made a backward S-turn, gaining altitude quickly. It turned left into a broad valley, U-shaped in profile, a sign that it had been scoured by glaciers in the past. Our 'confluence mountain' was now in front of us to the right (northwest) side of this valley.
Apart from geese and cranes at the lower altitudes, and a few marmots peeking out of their holes, we hadn't seen many signs of animal life. At that point we spotted a lonely herd of yak grazing off to one side of this isolated valley, and Robert spotted the feces of a sizable carnivore. He would later find more evidence: paw prints of a large cat, probably a lynx or a snow leopard.
We proceeded up the valley to where the surface became plastered by windblown ice and snow. Using the GPS we tried to figure out exactly where on the mountain the confluence actually was. There were steep and hidden parts that could have been dangerous.
From triangulation, the confluence appeared to be near the top of the mountain, and it appeared as though it should accessible. Its location agreed with our 3D rendering of the SRTM data, which also showed a mysterious crater on the other side of the peak.
At this point our opinions reversed. Before seeing the mountain Robert was pessimistic about making it up the mountain. But now he was confident, while I was worried about the steepness.
I approached the foot of the confluence mountain. The altitude was about 5300 meters (17490 feet) leaving us over 500 meters (1650 feet) left to climb and less than 800 meters (2640 feet) horizontal distance away from the point - a steep ascent. It was now almost 4PM, and although I was eager, climbing the mountain would be a huge undertaking in such a short amount of time. Completely drained of energy from the AMS, I agreed with Robert that we should head back to camp. We backtracked the 7-plus kilometers (4.38 miles) to camp only to re-trek the 7 km again the next day, an undesirable undertaking for me with my level of exhaustion.
The next morning, May 29th, however, I woke up fairly refreshed. We packed up the tent, and the Tibetans proceeded on with us with all the gear. I lagged behind but the lethargy wasn't as severe. We reached the U-shaped valley in time for lunch, and then set up camp on the snow within sight of the confluence mountain. It was now around 2 PM.
Robert again thought we should delay the climb up the confluence mountain to the next day so that we would have a full day at our disposal. I argued against the idea. He thought I was too weak and that we should be fresh for the difficult climb. In my opinion, we had more than enough time (it didn't get dark until after 9PM), we should take advantage of the sunny weather, and I wasn't looking forward to waiting around all day in a snowy, windy, miserable place. The Tibetans, bundled up next to a yak-dropping fire they built, also made it clear that they weren't happy with our choice of campsites. Robert wouldn't budge.
I suggested we at least start up the mountain and test the climbing conditions, because the slope might be too steep and the numerous large boulders, too unstable. I thought we should also better delineate our best approach up the mountain. I convinced Robert that at least this was worth doing.
Since the Tibetans had our entire climb within sight, we tried to explain with great difficulty an emergency procedure if something were to happen to us during the climb. Once they realized that it was not a game they nodded in agreement to come and help us if we sent our signal, though we were not instilled with confidence that something wasn’t lost in translation. Already between 3 and 4 PM, we took our ice axes and headed to the foot of the mountain.
THE LAST SCRAMBLE
The entire confluence mountain was a jumbled chaos of boulders, some of which were the size of large automobiles. We began our steep climb of more than 500 m (1650 feet). The climb involved a lot of bouldering, using arms and legs to pull us up over ledges. Often after only one pull up we were out of breath.
We switchbacked and zigzagged up the mountain. Our approach seemed suitable. There were some steep sections but definitely nothing that wasn't doable. The boulders, for the most part, seemed stable. Robert was also impressed with my energy level. I watched him to assess what he thought about continuing. He nodded to me in affirmation.
As we made our way further up the mountain, there were more and more patches of snow. The snow was fairly soft, creating footholds, but also causing us to penetrate through the interstices of boulders. As we approached the confluence, Robert reviewed a lesson he had given me earlier on how to rescue yourself from a fall on steep snow with your ice axe. We began to use our ice axes for safety and for balance.
Finally, at around 6PM, we reached the confluence. We had done it! The highest confluence in the world! The efforts of so many days, weeks, months and years had finally come to fruition. It seemed almost surreal.
We were close to the top of the mountain. There was a great view over the U-shaped valley, of the very snowy ridge on the other side, and up toward the snowy peaks at the end of the valley. It was fortunate the confluence wasn't slightly to the west where a gully of snow would have made it difficult and dangerous to document. Our purple tent below could barely be resolved, and appeared as tiny as a pinpoint. We were flush with a feeling of success, yet somehow it just seemed like the next tick on our journey. We could not enjoy complete satisfaction until we made it down the confluence mountain, a difficult feat in itself. Despite some slips and on the steep terrain, we made it back to camp safe and sound.
We had difficulties returning, which are every bit as much of a part of a confluence effort. That night a freezing wind brought in cloudy, windy weather for the next day. Few of us got much sleep and I slept in all my gear. The next morning, after a breakfast cooked inside the tent, we made a hasty retreat back down the valley.
That night, the jeep that picked us up in Risum (notably arranged by the same people who gave us the fateful gold jeep) got a flat tire late at night, and then, while driving a few hours later, lost the wheel completely. As the driver wrestled to retain control of his vehicle, the left rear wheel shot past us, in a cloud of dust, into the night. After hours of searching, we spent another night of poor sleep - in the jeep.
Returning to Lhasa from Ali we opted for a marathon 70-hour bus ride (3 days and 3 nights) with no stops except for meals. This was our only option other than spending weeks hitchhiking back - and here it was Robert's turn to exhibit signs of AMS as we drove across several passes over 5,000 meters (16500 feet).
After concluding our colorful and belabored odyssey, we split paths, Robert toward Nepal and K2, and I, back to China-proper - having successfully reached the world's highest confluence.