Friday, 29 July 2011

Peak Lenin - As slow as a pregnant snail

After three rest days recovering from the acclimatisation climb, and sitting out some bad weather, we were ready to make our summit bid. To be honest I was surprised I managed the acclimatisation, having found it really tough (2 months of overland travel through Asia had not been good preparation), so was under no illusions about strolling to the summit. I had packed as minimally as possible and was ready to go hours before Alexander and Jaroslav again. As I tried to stay warm I wondered about Andy and Bob. No one had heard from them since we had seen them heading to Camp 3. More worryingly another team had been to Camp 3 for acclimatisation and had seen them neither at the camp nor at the alternative camp at the col. I had been becoming increasingly worried about them.
Across the glacier we headed back into the maze of crevasses. Today we reasonable weather as we headed to Camp 2. I hadn’t actually expected it to feel easier but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was and the acclimatisation had made all the difference. At Camp 2 I managed to have quite a reasonable night’s sleep and felt ready to go the next day. After waiting a couple of hours for Alexander and Jaroslav to get ready I was bored and cold. It was not necessary to be roped between Camp 2 and 3 so I set out breaking trail up the steep slope. It was exhausting work and the others soon caught me up. A Swiss team was now in sync with us. A giant of a man, Marcus, selflessly dump his rucksack (or luggage as he endearingly called it) and broke trail until the slope eased before returning to his rucksack to repeat the ascent. I became very familiar with the front of my boots and the next footprint, as for hours I trudged on upwards to the sound of my rasping breathes. Alex drew something in the snow and asked me what the English word was. I eventually managed to decipher the drawing and asked if he meant a snail. 'Yes', Alex said, 'we are as slow as a pregnant snail'. As we reached our previous high point we saw two figures making there way down from Camp 3 to my relief it was Andy and Bob. I later found out from two Polish guys that Andy and Bob had moved up to the rarely used Camp 4 where their lighters had stopped working and they ran out of matches meaning that they could not light their stove and therefore melt snow for water to drink or rehydrate their meals. It wasn't until I was back in Osh that I also found out that Andy had suffered frostbite to his right hand. This had thwarted their summit attempt.
After alternating the trail breaking with the Swiss we eventually made it to Camp 3 (6100 m). That night I slept terribly. I kept waking up gasping, thinking that I was underneath the duvet and needed to escape for air, except I was not underneath a duvet there just was no air. At 5 am I tried to force down some porridge. It sat like lead in my stomach. There was no need to rope up again so I set off, ahead of Alex and the Russians, plodding up the snow slope. The Swiss team was in front and I used their trail. I was now on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan and could see across the mountains of Tajikistan to the south and Kyrgyzstan to the north. After an hour or so the Russians had caught up with me and we continued together.

At Camp 4 the gradient flattened and there was a long stretch of deep snow. At this point one of the Swiss guys decided to turn back. We continued taking it in turns to break trail and altitude slowed us even more. Looking at the time it was now midday and we would need to turn back at 3 pm. We were only half way so I knew there was no chance of summitting. As we started the next steep section I had slowed, needing 3 breaths for every pace. I was slowing the team down and I didn't want ot get blamed for them not summitting so I decided to turn back. I was at the altitude of 6650 m.

Alone, I took my time on the return to Camp 3 I really started to appreciate the view and stillness of the mountains. I followed the trail back to Camp 4 and then dropped down to the col. The killer was the 100 m of ascent from the col back to Camp 3 which seemed to take forever. Exhausted I gladly accepted a cup of tea from one of the Swiss guys and then organised the tents.

The others returned at gone 7 pm. They hadn't managed to summit despite continuing upwards until 4 pm.

So that was it. No one had summitted yet this season. It wasn't until the following day that we heard on the radio, as we descended that, using our trail, another Russian team had made the summit. That day I descended to Camp 2 alone as my Russian team mates were taking forever in the morning. At Camp 2 it was roasting hot and I then boiled as I waited 3 hours for them to catch up so we could rope up across the glacier. Back at Camp 1 the kit needed to be organised so it could be put on the ponies to get it back to base camp the following day.

Walking alone back to base camp I could enjoy the views of the mountains. One thing that was immediately obvious was the smell of the grass and flowers. After 3 weeks of camping on the moraine or in the snow it was completely unfamiliar. I just wanted to roll in it. A night in base camp and then we were heading back to Osh but not before a celebration with the Russian who summitted and the Tien Shan Team who were very pleased to have got the first person to the top this season. The base camp staff had made a cake in the shape of cake Peak Lenin to celebrate.
Camp 1 to Camp 2

Camp 2 to Camp 3

Looking back to Camp 3 from the summit ridge (Tajikistan on the left, Kyrgystan on the right)

Back at Camp 3

Deep snow on the descent from Camp 3

Looking down on Camp 2

Looking back towards Camp 1

Volleyball at Base Camp with Peak Lenin in the background

Celebration at Base Camp - the man in the red jacket was the first to summit in the 2011 season

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Peak Lenin - Acclimatisation

Our tactic for climbing Peak Lenin in expedition style. This required spending many days acclimatising which involved climbing high before returning to Camp 1 (4500 m) to rest before ascending via Camps 2 (5300 m) and 3 (6100 m) and then the summit (7134 m). On my first day with the Russian team we crossed the glacier to the least fractured part, where it steepen, to try to gain an altitude of around 5000 m before returning to Camp 1.  
We caught up with Andy and Bob below the steep section where they seemed to have been taking a rest for a while. Alex, our guide, expertly negotiated the crevasses and at that point I realised that Andy was crawling out of a crevasse he had fallen in. They followed us through the steep section to where the angle eased again.
It was hard-work ploughing through the deep snow and this was with only carrying a day pack. The weather closed in when we were just below 5000 m and we returned to Camp 1 for the night. Late in the afternoon we could see Andy and Bob making painful progress on towards Camp 2. I wondered how I would fair the next day carrying a full pack. It felt like this day had been hard enough.
The following day it soon became apparent that Alexander and Jaroslav weren’t the most efficient in the mornings. Packed and ready to go I stood around stamping my feet to keep warm whilst they did, what, I never found out. After the acclimatisation walk the previous day I had realised that the weight of my rucksack would be absolutely crucial. This meant that anything not critical to survival was not included. Shelter, clothing, food, water and a means of cooking were critical, everything else was not. This meant no change of underwear, no means of washing including tooth brush and toothpaste and toilet roll were all eliminated. As you can image after the 3 days we spent moving up the mountain to acclimatise I felt pretty grubby.
With Alex I made the mistake of telling him that James was my boyfriend rather than my husband. This meant that I was still fair game. Despite my rather grubby state he continued to make passes at me. I began to revel in my grubbiness and leave my pee bottle (too cold to pee outside) lying about the tent but he still persisted. The dehydrated food that I ate also gave me terrible wind but still this didn’t put him off, if nothing else his persistence was admirable although a little irritating. He didn’t really have a lot of choice – I was the only woman on the mountain above Camp 1 at the time (in Camp 1 the camp manager for Tien Travel was a woman). Luckily I had a secondary line of defence – the considerable layers of clothing I wore as soon as we stopped walking. At night I would then be wrapped up in a micro-fleece liner, huge sleeping bag and a bivi bag with the draw cords pulled tight so only my nose was exposed.
Nearer Camp 2 the weather closed in and we were forced to pitch the tent until it clear so we could negotiate the crevasses safely. However we could not stay camped here as it was below an icefall and in an area at risk from avalanches - the site of the 43 deaths in 1990. When moving the tent to the correct site of Camp 2 we passed Andy and Bob camped directly below the icefall. They had spent the day there resting but when our guide pointed out the dangers of that site they followed us to Camp 2.
The next day the weather was good but the snow deep. It lay looking pristine white and beautiful but soon we were cursing it. We spent a day toiling through it to gain 400 more metres, a distance that looked like we could touch it in the morning. Andy and Bob followed. That evening more cognac and lemon, which stung my sunburned lips, this was acclimatisation Russian-style.
The next day we returned to Camp 1. As we retraced our steps we watched Andy and Bob carry on up to Camp 3. Despite the late start the descent was depressingly quick. Wanting to get back for a late lunch, and with my patience wearing a little thin with all the waiting about, as soon as we were able to unrope I set off back to camp at my own pace.
The human skull is a very distinct bone, it cannot be confused with an animal's. Alex turned it over with his walking pole. It was the back of a human skull with 4 or 5 vertebra still attached. Completely shocking to see but not surprising as 10 years ago so many people had died and their bodies had been swept down the glacier and entombed there. Now the glacier was melting and exhuming the harrowing reality of its history. This discovery made for a sobering walk on the final stretch back to Camp 1.

Team tent at Camp 2

The trail from Camp 2 to Camp 3

Moving towards Camp 3 - slowly

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Peak Lenin – Defecting to the Russian side

So, that was it, my chance at climbing Peak Lenin, something in the planning for a year was over, ruined by some mountain con man. I was faced with trying to get myself and all my stuff back to base camp and then to Osh. I turned to the Tien Shan Travel staff manning Camp 1 for some help and advice. The local Russian guides were gathered in the kitchen tent when I went to talk to them. I was upset, but I could have tried harder to hold back the tears. The men in the tent immediately tried to offer me vodka as a solution, but I insisted that I was British, and a cup of tea would suit me better. Over tea I explained the whole sorry mess. They were really helpful and offered several practical options which would allow me to continue the expedition. They directed me to a local guide, Alex, who was guiding two Russian clients but had had a third drop out. After some negotiation, organisation of kit, food and gas, and making sure that all parties involved were happy I became part of the Russian team.
I immediately knew that I had done the right thing leaving Andy and changing teams. I suddenly had the urge to write and take photos again. The worry of Andy’s competence had been more consuming than I’d imagined and I hadn’t felt creative at all, but now it had come back.

Peak Lenin is a 7134 m peak on the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan  border. It is renowned for being the technically easiest 7000 m peak – although, as I was to find out, there is no easy 7000 m ascent. Paradoxically, it is also infamous for being the site of the worst ever mountain accident. In 1990 an earthquake initiated a massive avalanche in the night. The avalanche wiped out Camp 2 killing 43 people.  Now Camp 2 is carefully located away for the avalanche prone slopes in a safer position. Peak Lenin is a significant peak in Soviet mountaineering as it is known as one of the Snow Leopard 5. If an individual manages to climb all of these 5 mountains located in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan it is seen as a great mountaineering feat and the person is known as a Snow Leopard.

My new team was made up of a local Kyrgyz Russian guide called Alex and his Russian clients, Alexander and Jaroslav, who were father and son. Alex spoke reasonable English but I was worried about communication with Alexander and Jaroslav. As it turned out that they appear to be practically mute through out the entire expedition, so it didn’t matter that I didn’t speak Russian, as they didn't really speak full-stop. They were, however, generous with their cognac which they would even carry up to Camp 3 at 6100 m and was accompanied with slices of fresh lemon.
Camp 1 in the snow

Friday, 22 July 2011

Peak Lenin – The showdown

The initial plan was for James and I to climb Peak Lenin together but when I saw a heavily discounted commercial expedition advertised from the UK I thought that by joining this trip it would allow James more time on his Winston Churchill Fellowship Research. It would also allow me to learn more about expeditionary mountaineering from an experienced guide. It seemed the perfect solution. However, if something looks too good to be true then it probably is.
I met the ‘guide’ and a single other client at one of the nicer hotels in Osh and that afternoon we had a rather haphazard shop in the market for expedition food. James joined us and helped to negotiate discounts for bulk buys of pasta and the like. The following day he waved us off and we drove the 6 hours to Peak Lenin Base Camp, a meadow below the mountain where a series of yurts which we pitched our tents next to.
My concern started when Andy, the ‘guide’, seemed to be referring to the wrong mountain during our first couple of days acclimatising in and around base camp. This was quite strange for someone who had been to Peak Lenin twice before. The mountain is quite distinct in its ugliness and I could easily recognise it from the postcards I’d seen in Bishkek, but to make doubly sure I scrutinised the map. This identified Peak Lenin as the same mountain – the highest one. But we all make embarrassing mistakes so I didn’t mention anything.
Over the next couple of days we acclimatised and spent time establishing ourselves at Camp 1 on the edge of the glacier. As with base camp, Camp 1 was also well managed by the agency we were using, Tien Shan Travel, who helped orangise a kitchen tent and the horses which bought the majority of our food and equipment up from base camp. Heavy snow fell during our first night at Camp 1 and the following day Andy changed the plan again and we went for a slightly aimless walk across the glacier before he decided, with some prompting, that a training session on crevasse rescue would be useful. He invited me to teach it. I declined and suggested that as a mountain guide I’d be interested to learn from him. It wasn’t any surprise to me that his demonstration was chaotic and lacking some fundamental detail, one element was even just plain dangerous. Not to bore you with the technical detail but it was now completely obvious to me that Andy was not the qualified mountain guide he had been making himself out to be. Not only that, but I doubted 95% of everything he said and seriously questioned his experience. There were so many other little things that were odd about Andy. For example he said that it was the first time he had ever seen a marmot. These fat rodents live in burrows across the mountainous regions of North America, Europe and Asia, for which the grassy approach slopes to Peak Lenin were no expectation. They would stand on their hind legs and whistle their alarm calls anytime we would get too close. It was completely shocking that someone could not understand the consequence of lying about their qualifications and experience, it’s not as if I was employing an accountant with the risk of them getting my accounts wrong.
I took Andy aside and as unemotionally as possible confronted him. He maintained that everything he had told me was true. I gave him two options, firstly, from the 5% of what he had told me that I could work out was true, I had deciphered that he did in fact have more high altitude mountain experience than me and therefore maybe with the other client, Bob, we could continue climbing but as if we were a group of friends, having equal say in the decision making. Financially this would mean I would not pay him as a guide (as he wasn’t one) but we would continue the expedition together. The second option was that I leave. After much mumbling about his insurance and other nonsensical things he responded by saying that I should leave. So I did.
Base Camp

Approach to Camp 1 with peak Lenin in the background (that's the one on the right Andy)