Monday, May 8, 2017

Retrospective (July 2012): Peak Lenin: Pamirs 1, Hazenberg 0

Thunder Bay, May 8th

Asia Mountains base camp and its orange tents
This post may mark an all-time record for me in terms of not writing up my adventures at the time, and letting things slide.  It's been almost 5 years since I spent six weeks trying to live out my Reinhold Messner mountaineering fantasies in the Pamir Mountains of Central Asia, and only now am I finally sitting down to try to capture the experience in cyberspace.  The fact that I have now written something like 49 blog posts since I left Leysin in June of 2015 means that I can no longer be tagged with my friend Kent Foster's once-accurate label of "the world's laziest blogger", but there is still improvement to be made, including writing about adventures that happened during the five-year-long blur of working in Leysin.  I really enjoyed living in the Alps (even if there were only 2 good snow winters out of the 5 I spent there), but between teaching, sports and travel, I hardly had time to put fingers to keyboard in the service of travel writing.  I am trying belatedly to make up for lost time.

In the summer of 2012, after a wonderful month spent hiking in the high-altitude trekker's paradise of Ladakh with Terri, we went our separate ways; she to return to work at her school in Leysin, me to further adventures in Kyrgyzstan and China; having two and a half months off every summer was one of the biggest perks of teaching at LAS!  I had first planned to climb Peak Lenin, reputedly the easiest 7000-metre peak in the world, back in 2002 during my Silk Road bike ride.  I was going to meet up with my sisters Audie and Saakje in Kyrgyzstan for another XTreme Dorks adventure, but an attack of rheumatic fever that laid me low for 6 months put the kibosh on further riding or any thoughts of mountaineering.  A decade further on, after a couple of seasons of ski touring in the Alps, I thought I would be in as good shape as I would ever be in for mountaineering, especially after a month of acclimatization in Ladakh.  Once I had decided to try my luck on Peak Lenin, it was easy to tack on another mountain that had been on my mental radar for 14 years, since my bike ride (the original XTreme Dorks expedition) along the Karakoram Highway way back in 1998.  Muztagh Ata is a huge peak (at 7546 m it's 400 m higher than Peak Lenin), but it's a deceptively simple-looking snow ramp that looks relatively simple to climb.  My friend Eric, with whom I used to play tennis back in Yangon days, had also been thinking of Muztagh Ata and we decided to do an expedition together.  I had about seven weeks before I had to get back to Leysin for the start of the school year, and it seemed like exactly the right amount of time for two big peaks.

The various climbing routes; I was on route 2, the Normal Route
In the end, I decided to pay Asia Mountains, a well-regarded company based in Bishkek, to provide base camp services on Peak Lenin, and to do the same for both of us at Muztagh Ata.  It's not strictly speaking necessary to hire a company for Peak Lenin, but almost everyone ends up doing so, since security of your possessions can be an issue there, and it's also nice to have some good food and comfort at base camp before and after being up on the slopes of the mountain.  On Muztagh Ata, given the Chinese government's bureaucracy, paranoia and obsession with border security, it's obligatory (and much more expensive!).

The flight from Delhi to Bishkek took forever, as I was flying on Turkish Airlines and flew all the way back to Istanbul only to backtrack the same distance east again.  I got to Bishkek, dropped off my skis with Alyona from Asia Mountains (they were storing them until I needed them for Muztagh Ata), hopped on a domestic flight to Osh and was picked up at the airport by a car and driver from Asia Mountains.  We stopped off in town for me to buy food at the supermarket and pick up a stove and gas canisters at the Asia Mountains office, then headed into the mountains.  It took four hours to drive to the base camp for Peak Lenin, a bit faster than the three days it took me on a bicycle back in 2004.  In the intervening eight years, the Chinese had paved the road, so that what was once a rutted dirt track was now almost entirely smooth asphalt.  It's a spectacular drive, up a long valley from Osh, then up and over the hairpins of the 3615-metre Taldyk Pass where my cycling partner Antoine and I once had to hole up in a yurt overnight during a howling blizzard. It was beautiful sunny weather this time and we swept steeply downhill to the crossroads town of Sary Tash, where roads lead east to China over the Irkeshtam Pass, west to Dushanbe (Tajikistan) and south to the Pamir Highway through eastern Tajikistan.  Antoine and I had headed south back in 2004, but we had stopped and looked southwest longingly towards the huge white shape of Peak Lenin. This year the vehicle turned west for thirty kilometres before leaving the main road and bumping along a jeep track for an hour up a green and pleasant valley to Asia Mountains' base camp, which was to be my home away from home for the next two weeks.

I had last been atop a really high mountain peak back in 2001 with my sisters Audie and Saakje and their respective partners Serge and Lucas, on one of our XTreme Dorks adventures.  That year, after hiking the Inca Trail in Peru and spending time on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia, followed by more hiking in the altiplano in Chile, we had climbed Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America.  At 6961 metres, it was less than 200 metres shorter than Peak Lenin, so I assumed that with similar acclimatization, I would be able to use a similar approach to climbing Peak Lenin.  Back then we had hiked in for two days from the road at Puente del Inca to the base camp at Plaza de Mulas, then ascended slowly to Camps One and Two (Canada and Nido de Condores), pausing to acclimatize at each camp for a couple of days while ferrying supplies further up the mountain.  Finally we did a big day to summit from Nido, doing about 1000 vertical metres, before returning to camp.  I envisioned a similar slow ascent on Peak Lenin, starting with ferrying gear to Camp One (Advanced Base Camp), staying there, then ferrying gear up to Camp Two and Camp Three before a summit dash from Camp Three.  I had my mountaineering tent, sleeping bag and mattress, plenty of food (including freeze-dried rations and some bacon, cheese, soup and noodles I had bought in Osh), fuel (small camping cylinders), cooking gear and a Kindle.  I felt ready!

Marmot near Peak Lenin Base Camp
There are a series of widely spaced base camps spread along the Achik Tash meadows at about 3650 metres above sea level, each run by a different mountaineering company.  You don’t absolutely need to stay in one of them, but they’re relatively inexpensive and provide a measure of security against pilfering.  Asia Mountains had a neat encampment of yurts at the foot of an old glacial moraine with a splendid view of the mountain and the rest of the Trans-Alai range, and plenty of marmots running around.  I was put in my own big orange half-cylinder tent and soon afterwards repaired to the dining tent to eat sumptuously.  This is the other advantage of using a base camp outfit like Asia Mountains:  at Base Camp and Camp One there are full-time professional cooks preparing meals that aren’t dehydrated noodles and soups.  I settled in for a great feed, and then packed my gear for an early departure the next morning. 

There were a number of groups at base camp that night.  There were 3 Muscovites (Nastya, Irina and Volodya) who were climbing together, and a group of 8 Slovenians, including a professional mountain guide named Branko.  As well there was a young Spanish snowboarder, Marcos, who was keen to make a snowboard descent of the mountain, but who was suffering from persistent dysentery and off to Osh to see a doctor.  I would see a lot of these folks over the next two weeks, and it was good to meet such a fun group of travellers and mountaineers.

How other expeditions move gear to Camp One
The next day, Thursday July 5th, was a long, tough day.  My idea was to shuttle a load to Camp 1 to get my body used to carrying a heavy load, and to use the old acclimatization adage of “climb high, sleep low”.  I was up by 7 am, breakfasting at 8 (on a delicious spread of eggs, bread, yoghurt, jam and other goodies in the mess tent) and underway by 9.  My pack was really, really heavy, maybe as much as 30 kg, and it was hard going.  I had been told that it was a 4-hour hike to Camp 1, but it ended up taking almost 6 hours.  The heavy pack was definitely a factor in slowing me down (I could have hired a horse to take my gear there, but I thought it was a better idea to get some carrying into my legs, after a month of having horses carry my gear in Ladakh), but I seemed to be ridiculously unacclimatized to altitude.  This was quite strange, as I had spent most of the previous month above 4000 metres in Ladakh and had been completely acclimatized to that altitude.  I found myself really panting for breath on uphills.  I also, because I underestimated the time, didn’t have enough snack food and water with me. 

Between Base Camp and Camp One; Camp One is up the glacier to the right
The path led up the valley that the base camp was located in, through carpets of beautiful wildflowers, and then through gorgeous Onion Meadow (full, unsurprisingly, of wild onions with their pretty purple flowers).  I then left the valley and the greenery and made my way up a ridge of red rock to the top of Traveller’s Pass, topping out at 11:15.  There was a sweeping view out into the next valley (in which Camp One is located), and at the top I met a garrulous, enthusiastic retired Englishman with whom I chatted about trekking and mountains for an enjoyable (but windy) half hour.  I thought that I was close to Camp One, but it was another three hours of tough walking, often up and down across steep moraine scree slopes.  I was getting hungrier and thirstier (there was no water after I left Onion Meadow) and puzzled as to where Camp One might be.  I was almost on top of it before it appeared, a series of widely-scattered tents clusters at 4400 metres above sea level, one for each mountaineering company.  At 2:40 pm, leg-weary, surprisingly tired and very hungry, I got to the Asia Mountains camp (the closest one, luckily), dropped my load and tucked into a magnificent lunch in the mess tent.  While eating, I met three more skiers, companions of the ill snowboarder Marcos.  I was starting to wonder whether I should have brought my skis to Peak Lenin too, but it seemed to be a long trudge before skis could become useful.  I was shown to my small tent, where I stashed my gear before setting off back to base camp at a much more rapid rate, passing dozens of fat orange marmots in Onion Meadow.  By 7 pm I was back at base camp, just in time for another huge feast.  My calves felt empty and sore, and my left ankle wasn’t at all happy.  I went to bed tired but also worried about my lack of acclimatization and the excessive weight of food and supplies that I was lugging around.

Scenery between base camp and Camp One
That night I slept fitfully, as though unacclimatized to 3700 metres.  In the morning, I packed up the remainder of my gear (substantially lighter this time) and set off at 9:00 again.  The weather was cloudier, colder and windier than the day before, with a few fitful snowflakes, and I walked slowly but steadily, taking a snack break below the Traveller’s Pass.  I felt a bit fitter than the day before, but it still took me until 2:40 pm to get to Camp One, exactly the same time as the day before.  I tucked into another sizeable feed before sorting out my gear, trying to reduce weight for the following day.  The rest of the afternoon passed agreeably reading and napping in my tent.  The weather was ominous, with heavy thunder and fairly heavy snowfall, the tiny sharp ice pellets known as graupel.  Over supper I talked a lot with Nastya, Irina and Volodya, milking them for information.  They, as well as a couple of Asia Mountains guides who were at dinner, were dubious of me walking to Camp Two the next day alone, as there are some serious crevasses in the underlying glacier.  I arranged to set off with them the next day so that I could rope up with them in case of a fall into a crevasse.  However that evening, as we sat around the dining table reading and chatting, the graupel continued to fall steadily.  The Russian trio eventually decided to postpone moving uphill for a day, and I was happy to take a day off as well after two days that had been substantially longer and harder than I had anticipated.

Fresh snow at Camp One, with the summit behind
Saturday, July 7th was a deliciously lazy day.  When we woke up there was a good 20 cm of fresh snow and my Asia Mountains tent nearly collapsed under the weight of it, and nobody opted to head further up until the snow had a chance to settle or melt.  I had slept poorly again, getting up several times in the night to pee, and tossing restlessly with a racing pulse.  I had to admit that I wasn’t at all acclimatized to this relatively low altitude of 4400 m, despite the previous month’s hiking.  I found it mysterious and not at all reassuring; part of my planning for the mountain had been predicated on being acclimatized and fit and moving uphill relatively rapidly.  Between the bad weather and the lack of acclimatization, this relatively rapid pace seemed unlikely to work.  I packed a bag to take to Camp Two the next morning; again I was planning to do two carries to Camp Two, sleeping at Camp One inbetween.

Beautiful view of the summit from Camp One
Those of us heading uphill the next morning were up in the dark at 4:30 am (I slept through a couple of alarms and was only woken by the noise made by other climbers getting ready).  By 5 am we were at breakfast, and by 6:15 am we were underway.  This early start was said to be necessary to get firm ice on the glacier as well as to beat the heat in the much-feared Skovorodka (the Frying Pan) just below Camp Two.  Once again I felt poorly acclimatized, panting and moving slowly.  I stuck with the three Russians until we had gotten over a pretty scary crevasse that we crossed with a running leap, aided by a rope pull from ahead (Volodya had leapt it cleanly without the rope, but Nastya and Irina and I were grateful for some assistance).  We stayed roped up on the flat section of the glacier, reputedly the most crevasse-ridden part, and then up the first steep pitch, but then I let them move ahead as I was moving like a slug.  The distance between us widened rapidly as I laboriously trudged up the slope, easily the slowest climber on the mountain.  

Climbers retreating downhill from Camp Two across the Frying Pan
By noon I had only made it to an altitude of 5000 m, and it was 2:00 pm before I entered the Frying Pan.  It lived up to its name, with no wind to cool me and the UV radiation off the flat snow and ice roasting me.  It seemed unbearably hot, and it seemed to take forever for me to cross this open space, past an avalanche-prone slope.  In 1990 avalanches, triggered by earthquakes, wiped out Camp Two in its previous location underneath this slope; 43 climbers died in what is still the largest single death toll in mountaineering history.  The snow had softened enough in the afternoon heat that I was constantly sinking in to mid-thigh, further reducing my snail’s pace.  It was 5:00 pm when I staggered, completely spent, into Camp Two, a compact village of perhaps 25 tents on a fairly steep slope at 5350 metres above sea level.  It had taken me almost 11 hours to cover what fit, acclimatized climbers usually do in 5 hours.  My lack of fitness and lack of altitude acclimatization was clearly evident. 

Since it was so late in the day, there was no question of retreating back to Camp One that evening.  I put up my Crux mountaineering tent, first digging a new tent platform into the snow slope with my avalanche shovel.  I was on my own now; Asia Mountains’ tents and food stopped at Camp One.  I used my shovel handle and blade (separately), my ice axe and two ice screws to fasten down the guy ropes of the tent.  I set up the tent, melted some snow (always a slow process) and cooked up bouillon with croutons, eggs and cheese, chatting with a couple of ultralight mountaineers from Kamchatka squeezed into one tiny tent.   I made some instant ramen noodles as well, but I just couldn’t stomach them, so I put them aside for breakfast instead.  One item that I hadn’t brought up from Camp One was my ThermaRest air mattress, so I made do with my foamie undermattress, not ideal on the snow.  I was very cold and bone tired when I crawled into bed at 7:30 pm.

I was in my sleeping bag for over 12 hours that night, although the second half of the night my slumber was disturbed by the sound of howling winds.  I had heard from other climbers who had been further up the mountain that it was unrelentingly windy once they got above Camp Two, and now the winds were scouring our camp as well.

The peak reflected in Irina's sunglasses
I felt really tired and sore when I got up, and it took two groggy hours to melt snow and cook up some breakfast.  By 10:30 I was headed back down the mountain with an empty backpack, leaving my tent erected and my gear and food inside.  It took only 3 easy hours to descend what it had taken 11 hours to ascend, and much of that time was spent on the flat part of the glacier on the final approach back to Camp One.  I had been dreading the killer crevasse all day, wondering whether I would have the nerve to leap it on my own, and yet I never even saw it on the descent; in only one day the glacier had moved far enough for it to fill in the crevasse by itself.  It was more than a little unnerving to find the ground beneath my feet so rapidly changeable.  When I got back to Camp One, I was glad to tuck into a hearty stew and some freshly baked bread.  In my absence Marcos, the snowboarder, had returned healthy from Osh and had been moved into my tent as my tentmate.  I had a sociable afternoon and evening chatting with him, and with Asia Mountains’ most glamorous guide, the young powerhouse climber Dasha Yashina, as well as her client Alex Goldfarb, a Russian-born Harvard Medical School researcher on kidney function.  I fell asleep to the disconcerting booming echoes of seracs falling somewhere up on the glacier.

Showing off my crampons, with the summit ridge behind

The next morning was Tuesday, July 10th, and I was up at 4 am (I heard my alarm this time!), breakfasting at 5 and off by 5:30.  The skies were clear and cold, and Jupiter, Venus and Mercury were all glittering in the pre-dawn sky.  The snow and ice were much harder than two days previously, and I finally felt as though I might be getting a bit better acclimatized; perhaps retreating back from 5350 m to 4400 m had improved things.  I had another load of food, fuel and gear in my bag, although it was definitely lighter than two days before.  I was still slower than most climbers on the mountain (particularly the professional guides and porters, who scampered past me), but I was at Camp Two by 12:30, seven hours after setting off.  On the way I was passed by Dasha and Alex, and met Volodya, Nastya and Irina retreating back to Camp One for a rest, along with my Kamchatka neighbours.  Six of the eight Slovenians I had met in base camp were on their way up as well.  It was good weather and everyone was on the move. 

Camp Two that afternoon was oppressively hot and still, with UV radiation pouring off the snow.  I tried to nap in my tent, but it was too hot.  I repacked a load of food that I planned to carry up to Camp Three the next day, cooked up some eggs and scarfed down as much nuts, cheese and bouillon as I could stomach.  I had been talked into buying no fewer than 10 gas canisters from the Asia Mountains office in Osh, but only now did I finish the first of them; I was clearly carrying an excessive supply.  After lunch the first clouds of the day rolled in and soon enough it was snowing again, blowing through a small gap in the fly where I had melted the zipper in a fit of inattention earlier in the day.  More eggs and more hideously indigestible ramen noodles, along with my first package of dehydrated rations (a potato stew), with lots of butter melted into it for extra calories, did for supper. 

That evening I lay in my tent listening to the wind howl.  I had been gathering intelligence from other groups of climbers, and what I heard didn’t sound very good.  Although the next stage, up to Camp Three, was shorter than either of the previous two legs in terms of horizontal distance, it was still another 800 vertical metres, and via a somewhat convoluted route up a ridge, over a bump (Razdelnaya Peak) and then down to a slightly sheltered spot where Camp Three is usually pitched.  The accepted figure for time held that it would be three hours to Razdelnaya, and then another hour to reach the camp.  The 4 Canadian med students I had met at Osh airport had been up towards Camp Three that day and had been turned back by howling winds halfway.  I heard that it was in fact the first day of the season that anyone had made it as far up as Camp Three, although that didn’t seem entirely plausible.  The winds were said to be strong enough to pick you up off your feet, and to have been this strong for a week.  I wrote up a plan in my diary that evening that saw me on top of the mountain five days later, then went to sleep.

Wednesday, July 11th marked a week since my arrival at base camp, and I was up early to crisp, cold, clear weather.  I felt tired and groggy, so I had a leisurely breakfast omelette, then sat lazing and talking, trying to overcome lassitude.  My plan was to carry a load of supplies up the mountain to Camp Three, stash them there, and then come back to Camp Two.  At 9:45 I set off up the steep slope right behind camp.  I made good time, reaching the top of the pitch within an hour.  As began walking along the relatively level ground from there, somebody flipped the weather switch and suddenly clouds started to roll in, driven by a pounding wind.  I struggled onwards, trying to follow previous tracks (not an easy task, given the blowing snow that was filling them in), and talking to groups retreating from above; several groups had turned back before Camp Three, and nobody recommended going onwards, as the wind just got worse with altitude.  I kept trudging, but at noon, atop a knoll at about 5700 metres, I decided to turn back in the face of some of the worst winds I had ever felt on a mountain.  I buried my food and gas canisters in the snow, marked it with a distinctive arrangement of rocks and turned back at 12:30.  It took only half an hour to race back to camp, blown downhill by a wind that seemed to have a malevolent personality of its own.  Camp Two was also raked by the same gale-force winds and I spent the afternoon sheltering from the wind, eating a ton and chatting with Dasha while dramatic clouds formed over the ridge before being ripped away by gusts.  It was awe-inspiring, but hardly confidence-inspiring. 

Dasha Yashina
I passed out in my tent for two hours of oblivious sleep and woke up to continuing gales.  For the first time I found myself wondering if I was really going to be able to summit, between the terrible weather, unseasonably deep snow, continuing lack of acclimatization and physical weakness.  I had been shocked that afternoon to feel how much leg muscle I had lost during my week on the mountain; the only other time I had ever experienced that was during my bout of rheumatic fever in Urumqi back in 2002, and that hadn’t ended at all well.  I continued to be puzzled at how poorly my body was reacting to altitudes that I had had no problem with a month earlier.  I also found myself tearing up with emotion as I lay reading classic poems on my Kindle in the tent, and remembered that this had been an early sign of physical breakdown on my bike in the weeks before Urumqi.  The fact that far more experienced climbers than myself were also talking about the low odds of success also gave me pause for thought.  I had read beforehand that about 29% of climbers on Peak Lenin are successful, and I was beginning to see why that might be.

That night I lay in my tent, unable to fall asleep because of the deafening roar of the wind and the crackling and shaking of my tent.  I was glad that I had such a well-constructed tent, but it didn’t make sleeping any easier.  I finally passed out from pure exhaustion at 2 am.  When I awoke at 8 am, the winds had dropped slightly, but were still fearsome.  Most of the climbers in Camp Two were on their way downhill, and I saw several tents that had completely shredded during the night.  I decided to sit tight and see how the weather developed, and spent the day lying in my tent reading, napping and eating.  By evening there were only a handful of us left in camp, and my diary records that the two things that concerned me the most were the continuing evaporation of muscle from my legs and my butt, and the fact that snow was being driven up under the flap of the fly and onto the mesh of the inner tent, from where it fell in a fine dust onto me and my sleeping bag to melt and increase the misery factor.

My view from the tent in Camp Two
Friday, July 13th was a decisive day.  I barely slept again as the wind continued its sonic assault, and I awoke tired, sore and weak.  I had breakfast, then trudged uphill with an empty backpack to fetch the fuel and food I had cached two days earlier.  Even without carrying a load, I was slower and weaker than I had been before, and was barely able to stagger up to the cache.  This made my mind up.  It was going to take far longer than the time I had allotted for Peak Lenin to get acclimatized and fit, and given the weather, success was going to be doubtful for anybody in this weather window.  I returned to Camp Two, packed up everything and set off on the long, heavy trudge back downhill to the sybaritic comforts of Camp One.  Just as I approached Camp One, I met a group of several British climbers with whom I had a good chat; one of them, a hard-looking nurse named Tim, would end up being the only climber (other than mountain guides) that I met on the mountain who would end up summiting.  I settled into my Asia Mountains tent and had an enormous meal, trying to regain some of the weight I had lost over the past week.  I felt very disappointed not to have summited, but I figured that I might as well rebuild my strength and focus on making my Muztagh Ata ascent a more successful enterprise.  Ironically the weather had improved, and everyone else in Camp One was planning to move up to Camp Two the next day, even as I was descending.  I was assailed by self-doubt; was I just being a wimp, or was it the right move?

Lovely sunset colours seen from Camp One
The next day I lazed around Camp One, eating, reading, taking pictures and waiting for a horse to carry my luggage back to base camp; I had decided that carrying heavy loads hadn’t helped me acclimatize; it had just made me tired, and wasted my leg muscles.  After lunch a horse and owner appeared from Base Camp and I negotiated a price to carry my gear.  It was amazing how easy it was to walk downhill, breathing progressively thicker and thicker air, unencumbered by weight.  We set off at 3, and by 6 o’clock I was back in a big orange tent, overjoyed to be surrounded by green grass, wildflowers, marmots and relative warmth.  After being in the lifeless white desert of the high mountains, this profusion of plants and animals was balm to a bruised and battered soul.  I spent the evening chatting with Dasha’s client Alex, and playing chess in the mess tent against a couple of my fellow climbers.  Alex and Dasha's presence in base camp wasn't surprising; the standard Russian/post-Soviet plan of attack on a big mountain like this was always to establish camps up the mountain, then retreat to base camp for a couple of days to rest up and recover before moving briskly up the mountain to the summit.  Dasha and Alex were planning on heading up to Camp One the next day to start their final push to the summit.

At Peak Lenin base camp, with the peak just out of view to the left
I spent Sunday, July 15th in Base Camp, in beautiful weather, as there was no jeep available to take me back to Osh until the next day.  I walked, talked with climbers, took photos and sunned myself in the afternoon warmth.  I felt a bit of envy looking uphill at what looked like good climbing conditions on the slopes of Peak Lenin, but it still looked windy higher up, with flags of spindrift hanging from the ridges and the summit.  That evening, after more chess (I love the fact that the post-Soviet world is so full of keen chess players!), I drew up a list of mistakes I had made, and reasons why I was leaving Peak Lenin empty-handed. It read:
  • Insufficient time budgeted (the ultimate root of the failure)
  • Insufficient sense of how big a mountain Peak Lenin is, and how much distance is involved
  • Too few rest days budgeted in
  • Not appreciating the importance of descending to recharge physically and mentally
  • Carrying too heavy a load
  • Assuming that my Ladakh acclimatization would carry over  
  • Not realizing the extent to which my muscles would waste at high altitude (it had never been an issue before) 
  • Overestimating my own physical strength and stamina
  • Underestimating the effects of heat and glare, particularly on the climb across the Frying Pan
  • Letting myself get physically run down
  • Wearing myself out on the first two days unneccesarily
  • Relying too much on analogy with my experience on Aconcagua
  •  The fact that I was now 43, instead of 32 as I had been on Aconcagua
  • Overconfidence
  • Extraordinary wind 
  • Deeper snow than usual for this time of year
  • A probable mild case of sunstroke on the first trip across the Frying Pan
I started reading up on Muztagh Ata, and trying to sketch out a plan of attack; it may have been Pamirs 1, Hazenberg 0 but I was going to try to equalize the score on the next mountain!

Alex Goldfarb saying prayers in base camp
On Monday, July 16th, barely 12 days after arriving in base camp, I found myself being driven back to Osh by the same driver as before, Marat.  Four hours later I was deposited in the Sunrise II guesthouse and went out to try to get a flight back to Bishkek.  There was nothing until Wednesday, so I had an enforced day of eating, reading and catching up on e-mail.  I also finally got a Kyrgyz SIM card for my phone, and used it to call Terri in Switzerland.  When I got through, she was in tears, and told me that Roger Payne, her neighbour in Leysin and a close personal friend, a man whom I knew well, had been killed a few days earlier in a massiveavalanche while guiding two clients up Mont Blanc.  A huge slab of ice and snow had hurtled down hundreds of metres off Mont Maudit and killed Roger, his two clients and six other climbers in one of the worst climbing accidents in recent years in the Alps.  Terri was devastated at his sudden death, and it put my own “failure” on Peak Lenin into sobering perspective; I hadn’t summited, but at least I was safely down in the lowlands afterwards.  Roger’s death would hang over my thoughts and my decision-making over the weeks to come.   Roger had left behind his climbing partner and wife to grieve for him; I really didn't want to impose the same burden of grief on Terri, so I was determined to err on the side of caution.

Finally, on Wednesday, July 18th, exactly two weeks after flying from Bishkek to Osh, I flew in the opposite direction, headed to the Asia Mountains hotel/headquarters and met up with my friend Eric, ready for the next phase of this summer of Central Asian mountain adventures.

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