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World-Record Holder Attempts to Conquer China’s Muztagata

In this essay, Dina Mishev learns that life’s hurdles help motivate some to achieve their goals

A woman wearing a backpack sits on a rock and watches a yak in the distance with Muztagata, a mountain in China, in the background.

Illustration by Chris Lyons


At a base camp at 16,000 feet on the side of a mountain in far western China, I sipped tea, ate rice flecked with anemic strips of dzo (a hybrid between a yak and a cow), thought of friends and family back in the U.S. getting ready to celebrate Independence Day, and considered whether I should quit what I had traveled halfway around the world to do.

Muztagata (MOOSE-ta-ga-ta) is the 49th highest mountain in the world, and I was there to climb and ski it. By the time I started thinking about quitting, I had already done much of the hard work: I had been living in a tent on its western flank for more than two weeks, suffered through five days of food poisoning (with a temperature of 102 degrees) and, more times than I could count, ferried myself and gear between our expedition’s base camp and camps higher up the mountain to acclimatize to the elevation and gradually get my body used to the increasingly thin air.

But the day before the team was to start its four-day push — spending one night each at Camps 1, 2 and 3 along the way — for the 24,757-foot-high summit, I realized getting to the top was no longer important to me. I wasn’t scared, sick or lacking confidence in my abilities and fitness. Surprisingly, I just found myself more interested in exploring the undulating plateau where our 11-member expedition had established base camp. Here, Muztagata’s glaciers ended and greenery, even if only ground cover because of the high altitude, started and continued, like a belt of life around the mountain’s middle for miles and miles.

From base camp, the plateau didn’t look like much, although it was brilliant with wildflowers. At camp we couldn’t see over the rocky rises nearest us but looking down on this plateau during my acclimatization hikes up and down the mountain, I saw a vast, wild landscape dotted with milky-green glacier-carved lakes, erratic boulders, tills (glacial drifts) and rivers swollen with water from melted snow. Using my camera’s zoom, I saw the yurts of nomadic herders as well as herds of goats, sheep and other animals. What would I discover if I followed my curiosity? Could I go against my natural tendencies and give up my goal?

Quitting is not an option

I possess stubbornness in spades and a high tolerance for physical discomfort — qualities that are necessary to climb high mountains in remote places. But a lot of stubborn people who know how to fight through pain don’t subject themselves to Muztagata. Truth be told, a lot of them don’t even subject themselves to the long-haul flight to China. But I had another motivator compelling me, one that most people do not. I have multiple sclerosis, an incurable, degenerative neurological disease that makes physically challenging myself and traveling feel as necessary to my well-being as eating or sleeping. “I might wake up tomorrow morning with a paralyzed leg or arm,” I thought to myself (and explained to family and friends) when first diagnosed. “I’ve got to do and see everything I want to while I can!”

For that reason, I grit things out. I don’t quit.

By the time I was on Muztagata, I was seven years out from my MS diagnosis and had persevered through a bleeding stomach to set the Guinness World Record for the most vertical feet skied uphill by a woman in 24 hours; sat on bike saddles for 10 hours during 200-mile road races; traveled to dozens of new countries; designed (and ran) 30-, 40- and 50-mile traverses of mountain ranges; climbed rocks and ice; and skied more than 100 days each winter, most times in the backcountry.

I completed most challenges without incident, but I sometimes paid the price for my unwillingness to quit or cancel when I should have. I tore the meniscus in my right knee while running the 42-mile rim-to-rim-to-rim route in the Grand Canyon — all because I refused to stop running when I felt the first twinges of pain in my knee. And despite being on the tail-end of an MS-caused bout of vertigo, I still participated in an ice-climbing camp in New Hampshire. The result: I climbed some, but not all that well. Had I just rescheduled for the following month, I would have climbed more and climbed better.

Despite the occasional setbacks, year after year I stuck to my MS-motivated philosophy: Quitting was bad; I could sleep when I was dead. It was imperative I do everything I could, while I could. And climbing and skiing down Muztagata was the ultimate do-what-I-can-while-I-can challenge, combining travel to a far-flung place with a serious physical challenge.

Into thin air

A prominent peak that resembles a serrated snowball because of its moderate steepness and heavily featured glaciers, Muztagata hulks over the Karakoram Highway near China’s borders with Pakistan and Tajikistan. It’s the highway I took from Kashgar, one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities, to a spot where I loaded my gear onto rented camels and then hiked eight miles and 3,000 vertical feet to the base camp.

Muztagata’s summit is about 3,000 feet higher in elevation than I have ever been and the air there contains about 8 percent effective oxygen (versus 20 percent at sea level). The two nights I spent in a tent at Camp 2 at about 20,000 feet — halfway between base camp and the summit — it felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. I couldn’t sleep, and the feeling of my chest cavity being crushed was so uncomfortable I couldn’t even concentrate to read the pages I had torn out of a novel (torn out so I wouldn’t have to carry the weight of the entire book).

Each morning following these sleepless nights, I donned a full-body down suit and began skiing up to Camp 3 to further acclimatize. For me, skiing uphill wasn’t all that difficult, but the lack of oxygen meant moving was slow and labored. And boring. To distract myself, I counted how many steps I took in a minute and the number of red and yellow flags guides had staked on the glacier to mark the route we should follow to avoid crevasses, the deep glacier cracks than can be hidden by thin layers of snow.

I felt like a brat for being bored while doing something most people never would, but boredom was better than quitting, and I could push through boredom.

Decision day

When the day came to start our official climb to the summit, I stuck to my original plan and left base camp with the rest of the group. But I spent the three hours skiing up to Camp 1 wrestling with the idea that maybe it’s possible to be too stubborn — too oriented toward achievement. Was travel about accomplishment, or about discovering awesomeness? If I quit, I would have three days to explore the plateau, something that, sitting at home planning this trip, I could never have known would have excited my imagination.

By the time we skied into Camp 1, I had made my decision: I was giving up — yes, me, giving up — on reaching the summit. I informed the lead guide, wished my teammates good luck, then skied back down to base camp, mentally noting landmarks that might help me find some of the lakes and yurts I wanted to see when I wandered the plateau. Stepping out of my skis at the bottom, a huge weight on my shoulders morphed into a huge smile on my face. I didn’t feel like a failure; rather, I was as proud of myself as if I had just set another world record. I was doing what would make me happy rather than what would make for better photos and a more exciting story.

The next three days were the best of my month on Muztagata. I found the largest of the milky-green lakes I had spotted from above and, on its shore, shared Nutella sandwiches — the expedition’s kitchen was very well-stocked — with a sheepherder and his son. I napped on a hillside covered with wildflowers and fell into such a deep sleep that when a marmot running past finally woke me, I didn’t immediately remember where I was. Seeing the flowers all around, my first thought was “why am I sleeping in a greenhouse?” A camel tended by a 10-year-old spit on me, which the youngster found the funniest thing ever. At a yurt, I traded a bracelet with a young mother for a glass of fermented mare’s milk, a local seasonal delicacy (and an acquired taste). We didn’t share a language, but our attempts at communication were anything but boring.

Since Muztagata, I’ve learned there’s a name for what I did in Camp 1 that day: “wise quitting.” Quit wisely and you’re freed from one goal and can channel your energy and resources into something more satisfying. Lesson learned.

Wyoming-based Dina Mishev is the editor of Jackson Hole magazine and a frequent contributor to The Washington Post Travel section.

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