“The challenges were daunting,” says Pete Athans of scaling a set of crumbling cliffs—more mud than rock—for the benefit of science. Last summer, the seven-time Everest summiter co-led a National Geographic expedition to Mustang, in north-central Nepal, to explore mysterious man-made cave systems carved 700 feet high into the cliffsides. “At times we were climbing what looked like overhanging drip sand castles,” Athans says. “We’d kick at a feature that we thought was a massive boulder, only to watch it collapse and fall in a cloud of sand and dust.” Locals have long reported seeing old manuscripts fluttering out of one cave, but they never had the means to explore it. The redoubt was simply too high up and the rock too unstable.
With special permission from the Nepalese government, Athans and climber Renan Ozturk fixed three-foot-long anchors deep into the crumbling walls. The going was slow: At one point, it took 14 hours to cover 328 feet. The duo eventually reached a series of tunnels and shafts, fixing a route inside the cliffs while dodging rockfall. “It was like climbing through a dust storm,” Ozturk says. After working their way to the top of the complex, the climbers traversed from one opening to the next and soon entered a large domed room littered with more than 8,000 ancient manuscript folios, the illuminated pages filled with images of pre-Buddhist Bön deities. “It was the first time in my career that I got to use climbing techniques for something other than mountaineering,” Athans says.
After collecting the manuscripts, Athans and Ozturk carefully lowered them in rucksacks to the base of the cliff, where monks from Mustang’s central monastery in nearby Lo Manthang did an initial cleaning of the impossibly tough handmade scrolls by thrashing them against rocks. The expedition’s anthropologist, Oxford professor Charles Ramble, then deciphered the folios. Most, he explained, date from the 15th century and suggest that Mustang’s very first kings, though Buddhist, also practiced Bön. Evidence of the two religions coexisting was unsettling for some Lo Manthang residents, who consider Bön a primitive theology, full of black magic and arcane rituals.
Now the focus of the expedition shifts from exploring the caverns to preserving these fast-eroding, hard-to-reach sites. “We took some serious risks,” says Ozturk, who at one point used his body as an anchor while hoisting others into the caves. “I don’t think anyone other than our team is going to be cruising into these caves again anytime soon.” —Broughton Coburn; Photograph by Kristoffer EricksonTune in to PBS for a two-part National Geographic Special on the Mustang Caves Expedition, The Lost Caves of Mustang and Secrets of Shangri-la, premiering November 18.