About a year ago when I realised that my summer vacation from nursing studies would last from mid June to mid July I began wondering about potential locations for a little adventure in the mountains. This isn't a season I'm used to having free from work and I wanted to go somewhere with my skis where these few months at the height of summer were actually prime season. After a bit of research I realised it was time to return to Kyrgyzstan (I was there in June/July 2010), but this time check out some higher peaks in the Pamir range.
Preliminary planning with Peter had me really excited about some potential lines on Pik Dzerzhinsky with Pik Lenin as a backup plan, or something to do afterwards when we were fully acclimatised. Some changes in the group lineup, with Peter unable to join us and Bjarte only being able to spend 10 days on the mountain, meant that plans evolved and were down graded to focusing on Lenin as the primary objective. The main reason simply being that the level of uncertainty and exposure on the aforementioned objectives was something that I was unwilling to stomach as a solo venture.
|Shopping in Osh bazaar. Photo by Bjarte|
|Shopping in Osh bazaar. Photo by Bjarte|
Bjarte and I met at Arlanda airport on July 12th and re-distributed some of the luggage before three unremarkable (albeit for getting stung for 10 kilos of overweight carry-on luggage at Istanbul to the tune of 10USD/kg) connecting flights to Osh. We had most of our food for the trip organised, but went to the bazaar to stock up on some dried fruit and nuts. We also got our transport from Osh to the Achik Tash basecamp organised with help from our wonderfully friendly and capable host Remi.
|Enroute to basecamp in a Lada Niva. Photo by Bjarte|
BC lies in a broad valley of green pasture at an altitude of 3600 metres. There are about half a dozen different operations which have bases there, offering accommodation in tents, meals in communal yurts, selling bottles of coca cola and vodka as well as gas canisters and souvenir t-shirts, some of the joints even have banya tents! We were going on a budget, self-supported style trip (like approximately 5% of the other people we met on the mountain) and only paid for a place to pitch our tent for the night, which also provided us with a measure of security against theft which we'd read could be a problem, in addition to access to their toilets and washbasins.
Motivation levels were sky high on day 1. With bluebird skies and the feeling that we had no time to lose, we decided to load up our backpacks with gear and food for higher on the mountain and ferry a load up to advanced base camp. This was a round trip of about 24km and 1100 metres of elevation gain with loads of around 25kg. Our progress on this first day can best be described as slow and steady, we were trying to be careful to manage our pace and exertion- careful not to wreck ourselves pointlessly. But in hindsight we were definitely pretty eager and probably pushed ourselves a bit too hard, something we would pay the price for in the coming days.
|Views from BC on day1|
|Bjarte carrying a load on our first rotation to ABC|
|Carrying a load to ABC with Peak Lenin looming in the background. Photo by Bjarte|
We got to ABC around midday and stashed the gear and food in a storage tent belonging to one of the tour operators. We met a young guy from Sweden who had just returned from Camp 2 and talked a little about the route and some of the objective hazards with the crevasses, seracs and avalanche paths and the importance of starting by 4am at the latest when ascending to C2. As we were standing around eating an energy bar for lunch and admiring the views we suddenly heard a few people shouting and looked up to see a huge (size 4) avalanche tearing down the north face and engulfing a section of the regular route between ABC and C2. Bjarte managed to snap the photo below.
|Avalanche. Photo by Bjarte|
Discussion with a few of the other guys milling around in ABC immediately turned to how there were definitely people on the route. (Bjarte learned from chatting to some folks at BC later in the week that 8 (?) people had been knocked off their feet by the air blast which preceded the powder cloud and pushed 50-100metres downslope- but miraculously no one was killed). The event left a lasting impression on everyone who witnessed it. These mountains were obviously unforgiving, and while the standard route to the summit, which is regularly described as being the "easiest 7000 metre peak", might be technically straight forward, "easy" does not equate to "safe".
We shouldered our packs and hiked back to basecamp, arriving in mid afternoon.
|Bjarte and David hiking back to BC.|
We were keen to test out the skis on day 2 and opted to do so on a small, rather flat looking glacier we had spied the previous day whilst hiking to ABC. Waking up at 5am we made a quick breakfast of porridge which I was uncharacteristically unable to stomach- my appetite was meagre to start with and the sight of the gloppy oats left me feeling queezy. Undeterred, we began our slow plod up to the glacier.
After an hour or two of slow hiking I was feeling pretty nauseous, and couldn't figure out if it was due to a) the altitude (nausea is a pretty common symptom of AMS), b) having eaten something bad or c) a combination of these two factors. Bjarte wisely pointed out that if I was feeling sick it was probably best to get it out, which proved simple enough: I simply thought about that morning's porridge for 10 seconds and before I knew it I was projectile vomiting up the contents of my stomach.
|In search of some skiing- early on day 2. Photo by Bjarte|
I felt a little better, but our pace was still miserably slow on account of the altitude. We eventually made it to the glacier and had a short break before getting out ski boots on and roping up for the glacier. We skinned up to about 4600m (only about 200m from the snout of the glacier) before deciding that with the deteriorating visibility we ought to follow our tracks and head back to camp. The skiing was pretty marginal, but it felt good to have already been out on the skis on day 2 of the trip.
|Bjarte skinning up a flat glacier on day 2.|
Getting back to camp in the early afternoon we were both feeling pretty wrecked and spent the remainder of the day dozing in the tent.
The next morning we had decided it was time to move a little bit higher and continue our acclimatisation, but were also uncertain as to whether it would be a smart move to head all the way up to ABC. We ended up hiking halfway and pitching our tent at 4000m where we spent the remainder of the day relaxing in the tent and discussing how we had probably been a little to enthusiastic and ambitious on our first two days, and that this might have something to do with how wasted we were feeling.
|R&R at 4000m|
Waking up the next morning, Bjarte told me that he hadn't slept a wink that night. Insomnia is another common symptom of AMS, and one which I have experience from in the past- lying awake in a tent for an entire night is shitty enough as it is, but given that sleep is when the body does it's best acclimating it is doubly frustrating that you aren't even getting the same benefit as your comfortably snoozing tent mate. Bjarte was keen to head down to BC for another night or two, but I was feeling relatively fine and the nausea which had plagued me the previous two days had abated, so we decided to meet up again in ABC in a few days time: Bjarte split back down to BC whilst I hiked up to ABC to continue acclimatising.
|Headed up to ABC again. Photo by Bjarte|
At the start of the hike I met two horseman who were transporting gear up to ABC- they told me that for 1USD per kg they would transport my mammoth backpack- I accepted happily. Arriving at ABC it was time to choose where to pitch the tent, this was going to be home for the next two weeks and there were a few factors to take in to consideration. After wandering around I decided to stay at a site just near ITMC (the Kyrgyz Apine Club's tour agency), which for only 20USD for the entire stay would give us access to their toilets and communal yurt. The real perk of staying at this site though was that there were a number of friendly English speaking climbers staying there, and with Bjarte at BC and only likely to have 2-3 days at ABC I figured it could be nice to have some folks to converse with.
The following two days I went out skiing solo, on some non-glaciated snow patches close to camp. There were a few narrow snow bands on the east face of Yukhin Peak (5100m) which skied nicely despite the thin and scratchy snow cover.
|The views from ABC. Photo by Bjarte|
Bjarte made it up to ABC feeling much better and more rested after his extra two nights at basecamp and slept really well the first night at this higher camp. By this stage we had both come to the conclusion that we had gone out way too hard on the first two days. Being accustomed to spending long days in the mountains back in Norway and logging plenty of vertical metres we had mistakenly fallen in to the trap of thinking we could basically just adjust our pace but still cover the same amount of terrain as what we were used to. In hindsight this was pretty stupid and naive. We had learned that climbing/skiing at altitude was really an entirely different activity, one which required enforced rest/ recovery days and a lot of time sitting around drinking tea in yurts. We opted to scale things down a notch from our original plans.
The following day we went for another ski on Peak Yukhin. Whilst the snow quality on these descents left a bit to be desired the views whenever you glanced upwards between turns were incredible: the immense north face of Lenin and the broken glacier in the valley in between was stunning and made for a worthy distraction from all the rocks we found ourselves skiing over.
|Bjarte skiing from Yukhin Peak.|
|Enjoying a few scratchy turns from the summmit of Yukhin Peak. Photo by Bjarte|
|Skiing back to ABC. Photo by Bjarte|
|Skiing back to ABC. Photo by Bjarte|
The next morning was overcast, with intermittent rain/sleet/snowfall. We took a day off from skiing and instead spent some time wandering around the dry glacier and drinking copious amounts of tea and Nesquick (#nectarofthegods). That afternoon the temperature dropped and it started snowing. Reports from higher on the mountain (relayed via VHF radio to the camp manager) said that it had snowed over 30cm in the preceding hours at Camp 3 (6100m), and I was glad not to have any plans of heading up to C2 that night.
|Wandering around the glacier on a weather day.|
We woke to about 10cm of fresh snow at ABC and quickly decided to make the most of the conditions with a little skiing. Knowing that the new snow was really only enough to disguise all the rocks we opted to ski a few short laps on the snowfield close to camp which was starting to feel very familiar. Bjarte was feeling pretty drained again and opted to wait whilst Rob (a skier from the UK also staying at ITMC ABC) and I took a few very short but fun laps in the rapidly warming snow.
|Rob enjoying a "bluebird pow day" near ABC.|
Back at camp by mid-morning it was time to make a decision: Bjarte was scheduled to leave from BC the following day in order to travel back to Norway and I suddenly had no climbing partner for the upper mountain. Of course this wasn't a surprise, I'd known that this was the plan from the outset, but for the past nine days I'd had mixed feelings about the prospect of heading higher on the mountain solo. There were a few new friends who said I was more than welcome to tie in to their rope to cross the crevassed glaciated section to Camp 2- which I was really grateful for. On the one hand I was still keen to head up higher on the mountain, despite the ups and downs I'd been feeling so far on account of the altitude. But on the other hand I wasn't relishing the prospect of spending a week sitting alone in a tent.
In the end, after a marathon bout of indecisiveness, I knew that after investing this much time, energy and money in to getting this far I would regret the decision of bailing now. I hugged Bjarte goodbye and made plans to join some of my new pals on the climb to Camp 2 the following morning with the alarm set for 2:50am.