Even from ten miles (sixteen kilometers) away, the arch was stunning the first time it came into view—an enormous Gothic window framed in stone, lit from behind by the afternoon sun. Five of us had arrived in a desert oasis called Mingyol in western China, having come halfway around the world on what some—including the jostling crowd of villagers around us—considered a curious quest: to reach, and then to climb, that tantalizing span of rock.
When we drove our dusty 4WD into their poplar-shaded village, people materialized from green fields and mud-walled homes, wondering who we were and what we wanted.
It was a pilgrimage of sorts that had brought us to this remote mountain range—a walk in the footsteps of the legendary British mountain explorer Eric Shipton. In his book Mountains of Tartary Shipton had described the "scores of bold pinnacles" we gazed at now, noting that one was "pierced by a hole" below its summit almost down to its base." Shipton tried to reach that arch, but three times a seemingly impenetrable maze of foothills, slot canyons, and sheer-walled towers stopped him short. After months of attempts he finally reached the arch but left it unclimbed.
We aimed to reach the arch too—and climb it in his memory. But we, like Shipton, would have to solve the riddles of this tortured terrain. Could anyone help us?
On the edge of the crowd an old, white-bearded man with a black hat and kind eyes gave a nod of recognition. He remembered an Englishman who was "about 40, not tall, but big," who had come to Mingyol by truck with his wife and friends. After 50 years of Chinese history, civil war, and revolution, we had found a living memory of Eric Shipton.
"Since Shipton," he added softly, "you are the first to come looking."
Even just looking, it was thrilling to be there. For years I had read Shipton's gripping accounts of mountain adventure from the Alps to East Africa, from Mount Everest to the untraveled glaciers of the Karakoram. I marveled at his achievements and admired his spirit.
Born in 1907, by age 22 Shipton had logged the first ascent of Nelion, one of Mount Kenya's twin summits. In 1931 he and five companions were the first to summit 25,447-foot (7,756 meters) Mount Kamet in northern India, at that time the highest peak ever climbed. In 1933 he climbed within a thousand feet of the top of Mount Everest and later pioneered the route that Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay used to reach the summit in 1953. He didn't make a big fuss—he just climbed and explored everything in sight. Before he died in 1977, he set standards and laid out dreams for others to pursue.