We said farewell to Arken and the next day drove from Mingyol around to the north side of the range, hoping to find the route Shipton had finally taken to the arch.
To guide us, we had only the quirky Russian maps and a copy of Diana Shipton's book, The Antique Land. Her story of life in Kashgar includes more details than her husband's book of their successful attempt from the north.
To me this approach seemed just as difficult: The arch was completely hidden. The conglomerate rock was rugged and the country complex. The canyons and towers were jammed together so tightly that we began to think we could wander out there for days.
Suddenly we found our way blocked by a herd of sheep. They stared at us; we stared dumbly back. Only when a dog barked did we look up to see a young Kyrgyz shepherd perched on the slope above.
The boy scrambled down, and we showed him a sketch of the arch from Diana's book. He studied it for a moment, then smiled and gestured for us to follow him—back the way we had come, over a low hill to another canyon, and up that for two miles (3 kilomters) through some tight narrows, until... well, let Eric Shipton tell it: "At last, emerging from one of these clefts, we were confronted with a sight that made us gasp with surprise and excitement. The gorge widened into a valley which ended a quarter of a mile away in a grassy slope leading to a U-shaped col. Above and beyond the col stood a curtain of rock, pierced by a graceful arch."
Now we too had a grandstand view of the arch, towering hundreds of feet above us. Its window opened on a turbulent scene of strangely sculpted towers and canyons. At our feet the ground fell away in a sheer gorge, its bottom too deep to see. A strong wind rushed through from the south, funneled by the arch, and in the distance, some hundred miles or so across a stormy sea of brown desert, rose the gleaming, ice-covered Pamirs.
The scene made me dizzy. I was not prepared for the grandeur of the arch, nor for the "buzzers"—rocks dislodged by the wind that plunged down from the upper reaches of the arch. They fell fast, too fast to see, ripping the air with a vicious vhzzzzzzz, followed long seconds later by the hard crack of stone on stone far below and out of sight. I couldn't help flinching every time one came by.
"Amazing," said Sam, standing beside me, "that this heaping pile of choss is standing at all." Choss, a climber's term, means loose, treacherous rock, the kind climbers avoid at all costs. The towers, consisting entirely of rounded cobbles in a poorly cemented conglomerate, seemed to be crumbling as we watched.
Despite the unstable nature of the rock, we had to climb it, as Shipton would have. So two days later we returned with climbing gear and set about getting to the top. The rock was too loose for any route except the skyline ridge, a narrow, rounded crest about two feet wide. Mark, Sam, and Nancy—all expert climbers—spent a day establishing a route to the summit. Gordon and I followed on their ropes. It was not difficult climbing, but we had to set our feet very carefully and never trust any one stone.