The Highway To High- Pamirs Part 3 (Murghab to Karakul and Ad Hoc Mountaineering)

This was the one, the big Kahuna, the “piece de resistance”  (sic): The highest driving point of the entire trip! Tom had the con as he deftly steered the beaut from switchback to switchback, attempting to retain as much forward momentum as humanly possibly. Slowly, surely, the altitude reading on the Delorme inched up and up and up. To our rear, a stunning scene of mountain and road which required a photo.. Bugger – we had stopped and now only by the grace of British Leyland would we ever get going again up this monstrously steep track. But he did it, Tom nailed the hill start and within the blink of an eye we were there.
We switched off the engine and calmly (read smugly) watched a lorry completely fail to make it up the hill behind us. The air up here is excruciatingly thin, every movement seems to result in huffing and puffing, and our SPO2 readings dropped as low as 65% (norms 96-100%). Under the characteristically casual eye of our chief medic we told to stop worrying (man-up) and take some deep breaths. We proceeded to then do the most obvious thing… Don deck shoes, have a snowball fight and then walk up the nearby hill to see how high we could get. Turns out we got to about 4800 m and were rewarded with stunning views of the Tajik national park to our north.

It was here that we saw the road ahead of us, if anything, steeper than that that we had just ascended. And there, a mere speck upon that agonising stretch of asphalt, was a lone cyclist. The figure was doggedly persevering along  a stretch of road which must have been lifted straight out of Dis itself. When they had reached the pass we let go a mighty cheer and ran (literally, in Jon and Tom’s cases) to meet them. The lone cyclist (Anne) had taken refuge from the wind in front of the beaut, so we said hello and proceeded to proffer congratulations, cups of coffee and a snickers bar. Very impressed with her effort we all felt slightly guilty for taking the lazier option of driving this arduous route. Anne informed us that the road ahead was ok but that the nights got very cold indeed.

Thus forewarned, we started off to see if we could make it to the shores of The Black Lake (Karakul), as we had spied a lovely little sugar loaf like mountain on the map, perhaps a chance to ‘easily’ schnurrgle our way past the 5000m mark. The maps started to lie to us at this point, but we eventually found a track leading toward the shore of the lake and the mountain in question. In the failing light we crept around the hill and parked ourselves in a glorious little valley and had a genuine home cooked Yak stew, delicious.

The next morning, we had one thing on our minds – to get to 5000m. An un-named peak loomed above us, and at 5048m seemed just about perfect. The ascent of ‘Mount Bridget’ was on…

I’d like to say it was easy – I mean, we were at about 4000m anyway to start with.. but it wasn’t. The altitude was brutal, and not helped at all by the fact that none of us had done any exercise of note in the past 3 (or 12… ) months. Navigating on a map with a completely inappropriate scale (we just went ‘up’ really…), we picked our route and kept on going. The total human population in the area was one lone shepherd and his family, although he did have a lot of dogs for company! The reason for the necessity for dogs became clear a few k’s up the track… a number of large scrapings and holes in the ground, with a number of very large paw pad prints in the loose earth around them. Our first wolf den…?

With herds of sheep. goats and yak on the surrounding hillsides, and eagles soaring in the air above (well.. an eagle anyway…!), we continued our slow progress up the mountain. We were all feeling it by this stage, with Kat starting to show the signs of altitude, but we all soldiered on – determined to get past that 5000m point! Ditching our bags for the final push, we picked our way through boulders and shale, paused briefly to look down on an eagle gliding in the winds as we passed 5000m, and made it to the summit! We unfurled the Union flag and finally used the selfie stick in a way that in which Tom approved! SUCCESS!!! Now, which way is down…?

They always say that the descent is the most challenging part, and sure enough, with limited food and poor water admin (we just didn’t drink enough), we made it tough for ourselves. Choosing a steeper route down to try and help the slight feeling of nausea, we scrambled down a scree slope and into the valley. Choosing a different route back ended up being a brilliant decision, as we stumbled upon one of the highlights of the trip – a huge intact skull and horns of a Marco Polo sheep. Wow.

The descent seemed to last forever, but, in fading light, we made it back to the Beaut, and spend most of the evening trying to rehydrate ourselves, and thumb in as much pasta as possible! The feeling of elation could wait until the morning!!

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