Sunday, September 3, 2017

Peak Lenin: part 2

If you haven't read "part 1" yet I recommend doing so first.

The route between ABC and Camp 2 (C2) is glaciated and features the biggest objective hazards of the route (excluding the altitude itself), with numerous crevasses and also some overhead hazard from avalanche paths on the north face. I was happy to be able to tie into the same rope as Stephan and Rafael in order to get up there a bit more safely. We set out around 4am in order to get off the route before the heat of the day caused snow bridges to start weakening and the avy hazard to start increasing.

Raphael and Stephan cruising over the glacier towards C2.
They would sporadically break in to singing traditional Austrian climbing songs mid stride- a custom I'm planning on emulating in the future.
The route itself was technically straight forward, the steepest slope being in the mid/ high 30s. And the few sections which were heavily crevassed featured fixed ropes, but there weren't many people actually clipping in to them. The crux of the route of was crossing a 3 metre snowbridge which spanned a crevasse and required a small mantle move made somewhat awkward by the heavy pack. We made slow but steady progress, stopping once an hour for a drink break and to take photos. By a little past 9am we were in C2 and set about getting tents pitched.

I was happily surprised to find that the campsite had a source of running water, meaning that we were saved the hassle of melting snow.

After digging and chipping out a small platform for the tent I settled in for a day of rest, utterly unaware the I was in for the most uncomfortable tent bound experience I've ever had in my life, for a reason which was completely unexpected at an altitude of 5400metres: the heat! By around 11am the sun was blazing down and it felt like the surrounding slopes were refracting all the energy directly onto the camp site. There wasn't a breath of wind, and the tents turned into little pressure cookers: I measured 47 degrees celsius (117 farenheit) in my tent, whilst another guy whose tent was at a lower site measured 52 celsius. Outside wasn't much better in terms of temperature and it had the significant drawback of serious sunburn being unavoidable if you weren't properly covered up. The end result was me lying prostrate on cool floor of my tent in my boxer shorts and periodically cooling myself down with handfuls of snow. Not exactly what I'd been expecting.

Once the sun dipped behind the ridge around 5pm the mercury plummeted, meaning that I went from lounging around in a state of mild heat stroke to happily wrapped in a sleeping bag rated to -20 in the space of one hour.

The following day I joined Rafael and Rob on an acclimatisation effort up to C3 and Peak Razdelnaya at 6148m. In the process improving on my five year old max altitude record. To be perfectly honest I was feeling pretty terrible above 6K; dizzy spells, heavy breathing even at rest and a level of effort which I'd usually associate with an ascent rate of 1200m/ hour, not the 200m/hour which I was actually covering. More disconcerting however was the bizarre mental state I found myself in, which could best be describe as a sort of dissociation from myself: a strange sense of derealization complete with mild dolly zoom effects. I was present enough to understand that it would be wise to clip into the skis and start descending pronto, and once I'd dropped a few hundred metres the symptoms were gone.

Modelling my improvised nose guard at around 6050m, near Camp 3. Photo by Georgio.

A little video captured by Ernst.

The following day I went back up to C3 solo. The ascent only took 2.5 hours this time and I was feeling a lot better so opted to hang out and spend 3-4 hours at that altitude in order to squeeze a bit more acclimatisation out of the day. Whilst I was sitting around I met a fellow from Almaty in Kazakhstan who was going for a ski descent of the north face the following day. Sitting in his tent he showed me photos from some of the skiing he has access to close to his home town- and I found myself with another location on my list of future ski trips. He made this video which does a pretty good job in summarising the trip and ski conditions (and features a quality soundtrack).

Spent another night at C2 and the next morning left a bunch of gear (gas, food, warm/high altitude clothes) in my tent before skiing back down to ABC for a rest day. (I had two tents on the mountain; one which was more spacious and comfortable albeit heavy for BC/ABC, and one smaller/lighter high altitude tent for the upper mountain).

Skiing back down the glacier to ABC
I opted to descend the glacier on skis rather than being roped up. It went smoothly and actually offered some enjoyable firn snow. I was a little apprehensive about negotiating the crux solo, and was mildly alarmed to discover that the snow bridge which we had crossed three days prior had collapsed completely, leaving a 3 metre wide chasm that I couldn't see the bottom of.

We had crossed this crevasse on a snowbridge just a few days prior.
Halfway down the route I turned to a stop near a climber who was sitting on his pack. He asked for my help and I sidled over to see what the situation was. He explained that he was part of a guided group who was ascending to C2, but he had started showing symptoms of a pulmonary edema and had wisely opted to descend back to ABC. There was another client from the same group with him helping him down, but the guide was no where to be seen. He was was still able to move under his own power, but needed to rest often, and wanted me to alert the company who was organising his trip down at ABC. I got his details, watched as he gave himself a dex injection and continued the descent, trying to find a good balance between moving fast and not making any stupid mistakes as I contoured between the crevasses. Once I arrived at his ABC I found the guy in charge of radio communications with their guides and it became obvious that the guide himself was utterly clueless as to the situation which had unfolded. There conversation went something like this:
ABC: What is your location?
Guide: I'm nearly at Camp 2.
ABC: Do you have a client with AMS who is descending?
Guide: I don't know, some of the group were slow, so we left them to continue the ascent on their own.

Wildly lax approach that some of the local outfits seemed to have...

Rest day activities at ABC
By this stage, after a little over two weeks on the mountain ABC was a beacon of comfort: the relatively rich air, the smooth gravel the tents are pitched on and the luxury of a pit toilet- all of it felt like a fancy hotel after being higher on the mountain. After a 1.5 days of rest down at ABC it was time to head up high again for a summit push. According to the vague weather reports there was going to be a high pressure system moving in in a few days time, and it seemed that this would time perfectly with a summit day. There were also a bunch of other climbers from ABC who I'd gotten to know over the previous weeks who were on the same schedule, and it appeared that around 7 others would also be making a summit attempt on the same day.

The  climb back up to C2 was much easier than the last time, owing to a lighter pack and being better acclimated. The glacier was obviously melting rapidly though, with numerous crevasses having opened up in the previous two days. The rest of the day at C2 was uneventful save for a mishap at the lower area of the camp where a German guide punched through some rotten snow, fell 6 metres down a crevasse and had to be evacuated down to ABC from where he got a heli-evac the following day after apparently suffering a few spine fractures.

The next morning it was simply a matter of repeating the climb to C3 and spending the remainder of the day hanging out with Stephan and Raphael: melting snow and drinking tea. I went to bed around 6pm, listening to music on my mp3 player and anticipating the day to come.

Camp 3 and the summit of Lenin looming in the distance
My alarm sounded at 2am and I didn't waste any time re-boiling 3 litres of water (which I had kept warm in my sleeping bag overnight) and drinking some Nesquick for breakfast before crawling out of my sleeping bag and into the night. I could see lights on in the other tents and hear folks getting organised for the climb, but rather than wait around I clicked in to my skis and started out a little before 3am.

The route started with a 100 metre descent down to a col, the snow conditions left a bit to be desired, and with the limited light from my headlamp I was careful and skied tentatively. Down at the col I put crampons on and strapped the skis to my pack. The wind was stiff and the temps cold enough that I climbed up in both my synthetic jackets. The first 400-500 metres of climbing followed a windswept ridge, in some places snow whilst in other places scree, at an incline in the upper 20s/ lower 30s. I passed two climbers in this section and continued up, finally reaching (the rarely used) Camp 4. The next section of the route was rather flat and proved a welcome relief to my oxygen starved lungs. As I continued plodding slowly onward I was witness to a spectacular sunrise. Cruising along alone at an altitude of 6500m and having these incredible views open up was pretty special.

Sunrise from 6500metres.
The "crux" of the summit day is a section called "the knife" which is basically just a broad fin of snow about 45 degrees and 50 vertical metres with a fixed rope on it. If you've got an axe and know how to use it (and don't feel too wobbly from the altitude) you don't really need to use the rope, but I still clipped my tibloc on to it for a bit of extra security as I booted up. I was feeling a bit wrecked from the altitude (but making steady progress) and decided that with the reports I'd read about the upper most section of the regular route rarely being skiable due to lack of snow cover I stashed my skis below the knife- figuring that there was no need to waste my energy carrying skis up to the summit if I wasn't going to be able to use them on the descent

The final stretch to the summit isn't really visible from below and is quite meandering. But the snow conditions turned out to be decent enough that skiing would indeed have been possible for at least 70% of the route. Oh well... At this stage I didn't really give a fuck, I just wanted to tag the summit and get back down to an elevation where I could breathe some thicker air.

My pace slowed considerably and I fell in to the habit of walking for 10-50 metres and then stopping for a quick break. The entire time I was focused on proper breathing technique, forcefully pushing all the air out of my lungs in order to maximise my oxygen uptake, but even this was proving inadequate on the final 200 metres. The convexity and irregularities of the upper part of the route meant that I only got a view of the summit when it was 15 metres away. I sat down next to the bust of Lenin's head a little past 9am, having spent about 6 hours on the ascent from C3. I spent about 15 minutes on the summit, took a few photos and headed down.

On the way I passed Paul, Georgio, Troels, Raphael, Stephan and Kyle, stoked that they were all guaranteed to make the summit themselves. After what felt like a very long time I was back at C3, feeling pretty terrible, and contemplating heading down to C2 and some thicker air. I decided to drink some water and rest in the tent and wait for the others to return however. And after dozing in my tent for an hour I suddenly felt like myself again, and the prospect of the heat down in C2 was very unappealing. 

Raphael and Stephan about half an hour from the summit
The following morning I woke at 6.30am, packed up camp and skied down to C2 where I met Raphael and Stephan who had hiked down a little earlier. I'd already decided to descend the glacier on a rope due to its rapidly melting state and was happy to be able to tie in to theirs again. At ABC I packed up the other tent and a bunch of extra gear I had stashed down there. I had been hoping to pay one of the dudes with a horse some money to carry some of my gear the 12 km back to BC, but sadly they had already headed down. So I drank a litre of coke, ate some walnuts, stuffed some nasvai under my lip and got some help lifting the monster 34kg load onto my back for the walk back down. By 2.30pm I reached BC and organised a car for the drive back to Osh for later that afternoon. At BC I jumped on some scales and discovered that I had lost 7kg over the 18 days I spent on the mountain. By 10pm that night we were back in Osh, pretty wild to have woken at 6100m and gone to sleep at 900m.

It felt pretty marvellous to get back to civilisation. And I spent the next week hanging out with Stephan and Raphael in Osh and travelling up to Bishkek in a shared taxi with them. We ate a lot(!) of food and got some really cool shirts at the Osh Bazaar.

Thanks to Bjarte for the camaraderie on the lower parts of the mountain and to Raphael & Stephan for the same on the upper parts, as well as all the other cool people I met for helping make the trip such a memorable climb/ski.

Also thanks to Höjdmeter for the support with gear. 
And Expedition Foods for the discount on their excellent freeze dried meals.
And Markus P for lending me his sleeping bag.


  1. Great write-up of your trip to Peak Lenin Kaj! Must have been pretty tough to make it up to over 7000m in less than 3 weeks. Respect!

    1. Cheers Hannah! From chatting with others on the mountain I think 15-20 days is pretty standard for the round trip- but it's also worth mentioning that I was pretty lucky with the weather
      The fellow from Almaty I met managed a round trip of 9 days!!