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.
People liked Eric Shipton. He made friends easily and kept the ones he made. Although he married only once, many women were drawn to him. Admirer Beatrice Weir was just 17 when she met him at a garden party in India. "Suddenly," she later said, "there appeared this extraordinary brown-faced man, fairly small, with strong legs and a strong body, a shock of hair and slightly weak chin. He had blazing blue eyes everyone used to talk about; he just sat and looked. It was indefinable. I melted like an ice cube."
Yet there was something distant about him, as if he held an important part of himself in reserve, as remote and wild as the mountains he loved so much. His greatest pleasure came from journeys into unknown, unmapped terrain, and he preferred to take the simplest way possible. Dismayed by the massive scale of a typical Everest expedition, he scorned the "small town of tents that sprung up each evening, the noise and racket of each fresh start, the sight of a huge army invading the peaceful valleys."
Instead, Shipton and his climbing partner, Bill Tilman, joked that they could "organise a Himalayan expedition in half an hour on the back of an envelope." Unusual in the 1930s, their no-frills style has since become the standard—lightweight, low impact, self-propelled, culturally sensitive, and motivated by the sheer joy of exploration.
All this was on my mind last May when Mark Newcomb, Nancy Feagin, Sam Lightner, Jr., Gordon Wiltsie, and I arrived in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province, with plans for our adventure—friends on a lighthearted, lightly ladened excursion to the far side of the planet. Our admiration for Shipton, and curiosity about his arch, had brought us together. We tried to imagine Kashgar as he would have seen it in 1940, when he arrived there to assume his post as British consul.
Among Britain's most remote diplomatic posts, Kashgar was Shipton's kind of place. Isolated, difficult to reach, steeped in the romance of Central Asia, the city lies on the edge of the vast Taklimakan Desert in the shadow of the continent's greatest mountain ranges. For some 2,000 years it served as a way station and trading center on the Silk Road. It was also a strategic vantage point for players in the "Great Game"—the political struggle for Asian dominance between Britain and Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the junction of shifting empires, the region was controlled by China, but rebellions, civil war, and conquest often tested that control. During Shipton's time there was no telling who might win.
By all accounts Shipton was an effective diplomat. He led excursions into the surrounding country, where he climbed mountains and combined hunting with exploring and even some amateur spying. Every month he sent to India secret reports filled with political analysis and information on rebellions, intrigues, troop movements, and Soviet activities in the region.
On forays outside of Kashgar he occasionally caught glimpses of the formation that local people called Tushuk Tash, or Hole Rock. Intrigued, he set out to find it. Three times he and his wife, Diana, along with other companions, tried to approach it from the south side. Three times the labyrinthine fortress of eroded rock south of the arch thwarted their efforts. Finally they found a successful approach from the north. Shipton put his hand on the arch, but he lacked the modern climbing equipment that would have allowed him to ascend it safely.
If he could visit Kashgar today, Shipton would probably wince at its new Chinese-style business district, crowded with what he called "that great scourge of modern civilization, the internal combustion engine." He'd feel more at home, as we did, among the old rhythms beyond the city center. Kashgar grew up in a vast green oasis fed by the melting snows of surrounding mountains—a huge garden of barley, wheat, vegetables, and melons. The city still resembles Shipton's "curious, medieval land," where donkey carts haul goods and people along tree-lined lanes and where country people pour into the city once a week to attend the Sunday bazaar, said to be the largest of its kind in Asia. Graybeards in black robes and fur-trimmed hats head for the stock market—where they argue the merits of camels, horses, fat-tailed sheep, and cattle—while their wives stream through rows of bright fabrics, household goods, carpets, and jewelry.
As for the big arch, although it lies just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Kashgar, it remains obscure. Our liaison in the city, Abdullah Hallick, had never been near it. Nor had his friends and neighbors. We had acquired a set of Russian topographic maps, but they were practically useless. The maps showed the mountains accurately, but in the core of the range, where it really mattered, their contour lines went haywire. The cartographers had simply given up. I called these areas Vales of Despair. The mapmaker's despair, that is—and our joy. Blank spots on the map are dishearteningly rare in these days of the global positioning system.
So to find the arch, we followed our imagi-nary companion Shipton—an expert in blank spots—to Mingyol, where we met the old man who remembered him. Entering the village that day, we found it a peaceful, shady place echoing with the sound of irrigation water, the soil damp beneath rows of poplars, cuckoos singing in the trees. It was home to some 50 Uygur and Kyrgyz families.
In Mingyol, Shipton had enlisted the help of a local villager to find the arch. His name was Usman Akhun, a man of "splendid physique and the easy rhythmical movements and self-assurance of an Alpine guide." Hoping that such an impressive character would be remembered, we asked around and were soon led to the home of Torogan Usman, the youngest son of Usman. He leaned on a shovel with a shy smile and told us that his father had died some years ago at an old age.
Curious neighbors gathered. I asked if anyone had been close to the arch, close enough to touch it. "Why would you want to?" one man replied, to laughter. I dug out one of Shipton's books and opened it to a picture of Usman (following page). This caused a stir. People passed the open book with sad looks. Some of the men took off their hats as it came to them. One elderly woman pressed it to her forehead with a mournful, keening sound.
Usman's elderly brother-in-law, Juma Akhun, explained the sadness: Shipton's group had been cheerful people, he said. Usman liked them and enjoyed traveling with them. But some years later, in the hard aftermath of Mao's communist revolution, there had been trouble. Some local people with what he called "wrong ideas about foreigners" had punished Usman for associating with an Englishman. In telling this, the old man's voice broke. Tears flowed into his beard, and I, mindful of Shipton's backcountry intelligence reports, did not press him for the painful details.
"I could take you to the arch," said a voice. I turned to see a slight, bald man. "Yes," said Arken Murat cheerfully. "I know the way."
It goes through deep canyons, he warned, dark and narrow and wet. We might have to swim. And when it rains, he added, "rocks come down!" He held his arms up and shook them to illustrate a flash flood. Then, grinning impishly, he asked his son to bring out his new green sneakers. He laced them tightly, then announced, "I can run like a deer. You'll never keep up!"
Piling into our 4WD, we drove three miles (five kilometers) to a canyon at the base of the range, where I began to wonder if Arken was playing a joke on us. This canyon seemed wrong; it was too far west. On the other hand, this landscape had foiled one of mountaineering's great explorers. When Arken charged up the canyon in his green sneakers, we followed.
Starting out, we could just see the pointed top of the arch but soon lost it behind high walls of unstable brown mudstone. For two hours we followed a small stream steeply uphill through a tangle of house-size boulders. We clambered over some and squeezed under others until we came to an abrupt change in the rock. Cliffs of hard gray conglomerate rose thousands of feet on either side of us. Our pulses quickened: Surely these were the "walls of the main massif" that Shipton had described five decades earlier in his book.
A few hundred yards farther, the cliffs closed in, blocking out the sky. As we picked our way upstream, twisting through shoulder-width narrows and scrambling up cold waterfalls, the canyon grew deeper and darker until it pinched down to a cavelike slit echoing with the sound of falling water. In a place like this in April 1947 Shipton encountered a frozen waterfall, a pillar of ice in a cul-de-sac so dark that he had to strike a match to see it. Unequipped for those conditions, he turned around.
So did we. It was getting late, and Arken said the first view of the arch was an hour away for him and three hours, he teased, for us. Either way we were out of time, stopped like Shipton at the bottom of a cold black pit.
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.
From the pointed summit I peered into a surreal landscape of twisted canyons and looming gray towers. I felt exposed and strangely vulnerable. Knowing that this chossy rock we stood on was suspended over open air made me queasy. Yet we still did not know how high the arch was. The world's biggest documented arches, all in the American Southwest, span voids of 300 feet (91 meters), so we knew we were dealing with a formation of unprecedented scale. How could we measure it?
There was one way, and I think Eric Shipton's eyes would have gleamed at the prospect. Using our ropes as measuring tapes, we could lower ourselves below the arch to its base, then hike, slither, and climb through the dark and puzzling slot canyons back to Mingyol. We would not only measure the arch but also cross the range and solve the mystery of the maze.
Fifty-three years earlier Shipton had peered into the chasm beneath the arch. "A mile away," he wrote, "the canyon was blocked by a massive tower... to pass it on either side or in either direction looked impossible." We weighed the hazards: falling rock, the chance of flash floods, uncertainty about the route ahead. In the end we gave in to the allure of the unknown, as I believe Shipton would have done.
Sam volunteered to take the upper section. The next morning he rappelled from the summit straight down the north face of the arch. I stood far below him on the facing hill as he worked carefully downward, a slow spider on a long thread, setting loose squadrons of buzzers. He made it to the edge of the opening, but there a strong wind set him swinging like a pendulum. Every time he swung under the arch, the rope would dislodge debris. A steady rain of pebbles hammered his helmet. Knowing that larger stones could follow, Sam scrambled back up the rope, having given us a ballpark measure of the arch's upper third—nearly 500 feet (152.4 meters).
Tightening our helmets against buzzers, we dropped straight below the arch on doubled ropes. Reaching the ends of our lines, we anchored ourselves to the wall and then pulled the ropes down from the anchors above. After the first rope came down, we were committed; no going back now.
Directly overhead, the arch split the sky. Sheer in places, embellished in others with mushroom shapes and wind-carved hollows, its underbelly was a Daliesque sculpture garden. After six rope lengths we were at the base of the arch, standing in a grotto and gazing up at what appeared to be an impossibly slender, impossibly fragile span of stone. We counted our rope lengths and were astonished: We had just dropped nearly a thousand feet. Added to the 500-foot (152.4 meters) upper section that we had measured earlier, it meant that Shipton's arch was about 1,500 feet (457.2 meters) high, with a 1,200-foot (366 meters) opening—far and away the tallest natural arch in the world.
When we were all at the bottom, Mark gave a tug. The ropes slipped through the last anchor and came whistling down around us. We coiled them, stuffed them into our packs, and turned to what we hoped was the way home—a dark slot angling into the cobbled bedrock of the labyrinth. Torn between anticipation and jitters over what lay ahead, we plunged into the slot. Above us soared Shipton's arch, but ahead lay undiscovered country, the kind that Shipton loved so well.