Away to Chuckmuck
Patchy clouds had vanished, leaving a beautiful starry sky above 4200 meter camp. Dark tents flapped languidly in the gentle wind. Light spilled from the mess tent, a giant white cone glowing dimly with the light of half a dozen head lamps. I’d been sleeping unusually well and did not feel like eating at 2am, but the porters insisted we have bread, cheese and chai tea before taking off for the summit. Darkness pressed around us, pushing at the edges of small light pools broadcast from the headlamps we all wore. Even though our days at 4200 meters had been cold enough to warrant wearing a light jacket or two, the night seemed impossibly warm. While absentmindedly musing about the temperature, the call for the advance team came. As one of the four who was being sent ahead to get camp set up, I took off to join my fellow climbers, shouldered my pack and noted of the time: 3:42 am.
An hour into the climb I developed a stomach cramp which made me want to fold in half. Though bothersome, the cramp didn’t warrant turning around, so I plodded onward, my giant La Sportiva Spantik boots crunching loudly on the dusty basalt gravel beneath my feet. Bright yellow leather at my feet contrasted nicely with black stones. Orion peeked over the shoulder of the Painful Mountain. Inspired by the little pool of color around my feet and the constellations spattered across the sky, I started composing poetry in my head.
First blue, then pale blue and finally pale grey, the sky lit up. The mountain’s ice cap, smooth and white from afar, appeared as we climbed to the top of a spur. The unsure footing of uneven rock gave way to the unsure footing of rough icy terrain. The same summer sun which prompted sweltering, sweaty days in the valley had melted the upper layer of the snow each day. The same frigid nights which coated all the rocks with sparkly frost crystals refroze whatever the sun thawed. Finally, near constant wind deposited moisture, covering the Painful Mountain’s ice cap in a forest of delicate frost crystals, about the shape and size of human hands reaching into the wind.
With crampons on our feet, we crashed through the surface hoar crystals, fancy glass chandeliers which seemed to hang uphill as if magically defying gravity. Even though I felt lousy, the trip to the summit of the Painful Mountain seemed rather brief. Once on the snow, a few short inclines and one steep stretch brought us to the highest point on the mountain. Like most summits I’ve been to, the place itself is pretty blah. Imagine heaping up a dump truck load of snow on your front lawn. Now let a hundred grade school age children trample the snow into a mashed down hump. The summit of the Painful Mountain looks very similar to this, but has 3000 meters of additional mountain below. Granted, the 3000 meters of mountain under the trampled snow lump make for a fantastic view. Hills and valleys stretch out from the edges, rumpling the ground like a wrinkly tree skirt around a Christmas tree. If you look closely or use binoculars, white specks appear all around, like a tiny sprinkling of fake snowflakes on the tree skirt. These are nomad villages.
While our group of four crowded around the dome of snow taking pictures, the sun rose steadily. Suddenly, clouds appeared and the ever present wind moved them onto the summit. Nomad village specks disappeared. The 3000 meters of mountain below us disappeared. Only the trampled snow lump remained. The fog woke us from our collective “I just summited!” reverie, reminding us that we had places to go and things to do. Chuckmuck, the highest camp on the Painful Mountain, awaited us and standing around would only see us get cold.
Once off the nicely smoothed out summit, we resumed crashing through the ice crystals which blanketed the ice cap on top of the Painful Mountain. Clouds once again cleared, providing us a view of a giant saddle. A faint trail led across the white expanse, disappearing at the base of what appeared to be an ice cliff. Closer inspection revealed that the cliff was but a steep ice incline, easily ascended when wearing crampons. A five minute downhill walk on the other side of the ice not-cliff brought us to McDonalds – a destroyed storage building surrounded by a massive trash heap left by highly irresponsible campers from 2009-11. Perhaps the camp’s name, Chuckmuck, was derived from the burnt mucky trash that had been chucked all around the area. Extreme mountaineers on remote and difficult peaks occasionally leave their camps behind, often escaping with just their lives. But that hadn’t been the case here. The Painful Mountain was a relatively easy climb – nearly 1000 people did it each year. Burning an entire camp just because you were too careless and lazy to pack your gear out was a despicable thing to do.
Adding insult to injury, naming the hut McDonald’s was pretty cruel, too. After six days of bad food and a long hungry climb to the summit of the Painful Mountain, thoughts of McDonald’s seemed pretty surreal. Even a cheap, greasy burger would be better than no burger at all. Thoughts of food reminded me that I was hungry, which only contributed to feelings of exhaustion. My legs flopped downhill in front of me, crunching through the flaky frost coating the icy ground. First tents, then people and finally our duffel bags appeared on the horizon. Chuckmuck. Camp. The end of our journey for the day.
Ten restless seconds sitting on a duffel constituted my power nap. I got a second wind and suggested we begin setting up camp immediately. The Old Chap wisely instructed me to rest, eat and lose some of my eagerness. Busy trying to break strings of cheese connecting my spoon to a bag of freeze dried lasagna, I mentally mapped what I could see of Chuckmuck. Handicapped by the oxygen-poor air at over 5000 meters, my directionally challenged mind couldn’t figure out where north south east and west might be. To be honest, though, I really didn’t care. The mess tent, a giant orange geodesic dome perched in the middle of a sloping ice plateau, became the center of the world.
Directions in this tent-centric world were given in terms of in front of, behind, uphill and downhill from the tent. An expanse of snow extended for a couple hundred meters directly outside the mess tent’s almond-shaped entrance before abruptly falling off into a massive gorge far larger than the Grand Canyon. The edge of the chasm arced uphill and to the left, eventually terminating on a second summit which overlooked what appeared to be a half-buried basketball of phenomenal size – our dining hall. Following the edge of the chasm downhill from the tent was cautioned against, since crevasses began to form as the slope angle increased. Since the edge overlooked an 3400 meter deep gash running the length of the Painful Mountain, we generally kept our distance.
The most important direction was “behind,” because we decided to put home a couple hundred yards behind the mess tent. The horizon was dominated by a spine-like rocky ridge. A saddle of snow lay below this ridge, cradling a rocky island. Presented the option to clear tent platforms on the rocks or hack platforms out of the ice and use our precious body heat to melt ice into waterbeds, our team decided to camp on the rocks.
Sightseeing and lasagna finished, we kicked into gear, preparing to make camp. Carrying our duffels downhill to our chosen camp site demonstrated the effects of altitude: the hundred meter walk downhill made me short of breath. I staggered, walked crookedly and gasped for more air. Life at Chuckmuck was going to be interesting. Within a few hours, a small tent city had grown up like a colony of vibrant yellow barnacles. A regular jungle of guy lines emanated from each tent to ensure that no one would fly away during a windy night. Legend had it that in previous years, tents pitched on this very rock island had been ripped to shreds by severe winds. A short walk around the island revealed shredded remains of a tent, perhaps confirming the story.
High winds didn’t worry me too much. Our tents were among the toughest mountaineering shelters money could buy. I untied and shed my outer boots, leaving them in my tent’s vestibule as I crawled in to unpack my backpack. I didn’t get much farther than pulling out a sleeping bag and pad, because a place to lie down and rest proved too tempting to refuse. In a semi conscious state, I hypothesized about what our team’s next move might be. While it was tempting to think we’d conquered the Painful Mountain, I recalled the wise words of a Polish climber, “The summit is in base camp.” 3400 meters of mountain now separated us from the bottom of the mountain. Though excited about the future, I didn’t bother forecasting what adventures might stand between our team and the safety of base camp.