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)

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