Showing posts with label climbing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label climbing. Show all posts

Monday, May 15, 2017

Retrospective (July, 2012): Muztagh Ata--Pamirs 2, Hazenberg 0


The Long and Winding Road to Muztagh Ata

My first view of Muztagh Ata back in 1998, across Lake Karakol
After an unsuccessful attempt on Peak Lenin in early July, and a fun but misadventure-filled hiking excursion in Kyrgyzstan with my friend Eric, Monday, July 30th, 2012 found Eric and I joining a number of other clients of Asia Mountains climbing into an overstuffed minivan at the Asia Mountains headquarters in Bishkek, headed to climb Muztagh Ata (literally "The Father of Ice Mountains") in far western China.  We loaded a ridiculous quantity of gear into the van, with my ski bag a particular challenge.  There were other sets of skis, but none that were quite as long as mine, and it took some fancy arranging to get them to fit in.  We were a diverse group:  Eric and myself; an Austrian couple (Enrico and Anna) with whom I would spend a lot of time over the next three weeks; Sergey Baranov (a mountain guide from Almaty) and a friend of his; a couple of Georgian climbers, one of them fairly old but a Snow Leopard (someone who has summited the five 7000-metre peaks in the former USSR); and a couple of other climbers who made so little impression on me that I can’t even remember where they were from, or what they looked like.  By 11 am we were loaded and trundling out of Bishkek, headed south to the town of Naryn.

Duuuude!  Channeling my inner Messner in Bishkek
Compared to my attempt on Peak Lenin, our expedition to Muztagh Ata was a much bigger, more complicated undertaking.  From Bishkek, I took an hour-long flight to Osh and then a four-hour drive to get to Peak Lenin Base Camp, and was there in time for a late lunch.  From Bishkek we would drive for three days and walk for another to get to Muztagh Ata base camp.  Because it was a cross-border expedition, there was a lot more bureaucracy involved, especially for crossing the border at the Torugart Pass.  Crucially, it also meant that Asia Mountains, who had run base camp and Camp One on Peak Lenin very professionally and efficiently, and who were organizing this climb as well, had to work with a Chinese partner company for services in base camp.  All this travel, border crossing and using a Chinese company added up to a climb that cost almost three times as much as Peak Lenin had, but it was still not an excessive sum for a trip that would last 24 days, Bishkek to Bishkek, and would cover all expenses.

It was an uneventful drive to Naryn along smooth tarmac most of the way; with a lunch stop at Kochkar, we were in Naryn by 5 pm, where we stayed at a large apartment owned by Asia Mountains.  We had a wander around town and down to the river before dinner, admiring the concrete brutalist Soviet architecture of the town and enjoying the rushing highland river that flowed through town.  Maria, our vivacious Asia Mountains representative, chatted animatedly as we walked around town, before leading us back to the apartment for a big, hearty meal.  We were in bed early, ready for an early start the next morning to get to Kashgar.

Both Eric and I had been to Kashgar before, as we had both travelled along the Karakoram Highway from Pakistan in the past; I had ridden my bicycle with my sisters and their partners back in 1998, while Eric had visited the same year while he was working as a doctor in Afghanistan.  Neither of us had visited the city since then, and I looked forward to seeing what had changed in a city that I had really liked for its Central Asian culture, its old town, its old men and its great hats, not to mention its mythical Sunday Market.

Another washout of the road to Kashgar (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
The day did not go well.  We left Naryn at 8:30 and bumped along under threatening dark skies on a pretty poor road through the lovely scenery of the At Bati valley, getting to the border by 12:30.  Sadly, we had to bypass the turnoff to the ancient Tash Rabat caravanserai that is supposed to be a highlight of this route. Torugart is not a standard border crossing; all crossings have to be pre-approved by the Chinese, and Chinese transport has to be pre-arranged to come pick you up at the border to take you to Kashgar.  Even cycle tourists aren’t allowed to pedal their way between the border and the pass in either direction, a pointless piece of Chinese killjoy regulation.  We unloaded our mountain of gear from the Kyrgyz minivan, ate our picnic lunches that Maria had brought with us from Naryn, and waited for the Chinese bus to arrive.  We waited a long time, and arrived bearing news of flash floods that had delayed them on the way from Kashgar.  We got onto the bus, wrangled our mountaineering gear in with us (there was a lot more room in the Chinese bus) and set off. 

Me contemplating the washed-out road (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
Those dark clouds that we had seen on the way to the border had gotten to the Chinese side of the frontier and released their moisture in great torrents as we drove downhill.  It ordinarily takes only about 3 hours to get to Kashgar from Torugart, and we anticipated being in Kashgar by 6.  It didn’t work out that way.  We ran into not just one, but four flash floods actively in flood.  Each one required a lengthy wait for the water to drop, or for rubble to be cleared by hand to allow us to continue.  There were also spots where deluges had come and gone, but the rocks and mud left behind required hard work to clear them.  To add spice to the mix, we had a prolonged border crossing at the Chinese border post (downhill from the actual frontier), an overturned truck on the road, another truck mired in mud, and an enormous traffic jam of trucks in front of us.  It was long, hard, frustrating travel, and we arrived at our hotel in Kashgar at 10:30 pm after eight and a half hours of travel.  We arrived at our huge Chinese hotel to be told that since we had arrived so late, the restaurant was closed.  We were all starving, so our Chinese guide took us out to a late-night Uighur restaurant where a big feast of laghman (fried fat noodles, a local Uighur specialty) and shashlik staved off starvation.  We then returned to the Shinde Hotel and collapsed into bed.

Another delay on the road to Kashgar
Eric and I woke up the next morning in our room on the 13th floor of the hotel to the sound of loudspeakers.  We looked out the window and spotted workers at the company across the street gathered outside to listen to some sort of harangue from their boss.  The view from the hotel took us completely by surprise.  Gone was the mid-sized town, full of old Central Asian adobe low-rise buildings, that we had seen in 1998.  In its place rose an enormous Chinese metropolis, full of high-rise blocks and construction cranes.  Broad avenues and neon signs, indistinguishable from hundreds of other new Chinese cities, had been constructed over the demolished old neighbourhoods.  Looking down, most of the pedestrians we saw looked Chinese rather than Uighur, and we could see Chinese soldiers patrolling ostentatiously on the street.

Some blatant falsehoods at the Eid Gah Mosque, Kashgar
We had an underwhelming hotel breakfast, then had an hour to wait while our bus driver had a flat tire fixed, a souvenir of the rocks we had driven across on one of the washouts the day before.  We walked to the Eid Gah Mosque, one of the oldest and largest mosques in Xinjiang and the focus of the former old town.  There was a huge new Chinese-style pedestrian square outside the mosque’s front entrance, built by demolishing a few blocks of old buildings, allegedly to allow quick access to the area by Chinese troops in the case of unrest.  There were dozens of hotels and souvenir shops all around the mosque, giving it a faintly Disneyland air.  Inside, though, it was still as spectacular as I remembered it.  At the main entrance, however, there was a fatuous sign put up by the government about how they were promoting harmony between ethnic groups and guaranteeing religious freedom. Xinjiang has been even more of a hotbed of opposition to Chinese rule over the past 15 years than Tibet, and Kashgar has been one of the more active areas for protests and anti-Chinese attacks.  The Uighurs, a group of Turkic-speaking Muslims who have inhabited the area for the past 1200 years or so, are less than enthusiastic about being part of Communist China, about being swamped by ethnic Chinese immigrants from eastern China, about being economically marginalized, about being prevented from going on pilgrimage to Mecca, about being prevented from practicing their religion, and about being treated as inferiors by the ethnic Chinese.  As I write these words in 2017, the Chinese government has recently outlawed “religious” names for babies in Xinjiang, as well as beards for young men and “abnormal” beards for older men.  Essentially Xinjiang is a Chinese colony, with China borrowing from the American, Canadian, Australian, Argentinian and Israeli playbooks by importing huge numbers of “the right kind” of settlers from elsewhere to overwhelm the indigenous population and push them to the margins in order to cement central government control over the region.  According to what we heard in Kashgar, each city in Xinjiang has been twinned with a much larger city in eastern China; Kashgar’s twin city is the boom town of Shenzhen in the Pearl River Delta.  Each of the Chinese twin cities has to send a certain quota of new settlers every year to make sure that within a few years the Uighurs will be a minority, unable to cause further problems to the government in Beijing.

Our first good view of Il Pannetone
We mused on the wrenching changes as we set off on the repaired bus.  We drove south from Kashgar, in the direction of the Pakistani border.  We had a lunch stop in the small town of Opal, where numerous Chinese tour groups had stopped for food, along with a group of very glamorous Uighur fashion models.  From there we left behind the flat expanse of the Tarim Basin and headed up the Ghez Canyon, where a huge new hydroelectric development was disfiguring what had been a dramatic gorge.  When we emerged into the high plateau above the gorge, we found the extensive pasturelands for the Kyrgyz nomads that I remembered cycling across completely submerged in the waters of the new dam’s reservoir.  We made it to idyllic Lake Karakul, where we had camped very contentedly back in 1998, and drove around it to get to Subashi, a collection of rather ugly concrete yurts where we unloaded our luggage.  The views were awe-inspiring, with Kongur, the highest peak in the Pamirs, towering on the other side of the plateau, wreathed in cloud.  In the opposite direction loomed Muztagh Ata, which Eric had named Il Pannetone after its resemblance to this Italian dessert, looking enormous and spectacular, although with its summit also hidden in cloud.

We moved into our rather spartan quarters and then met Igor, the local representative and guide for Asia Mountains, who was accompanying the previous week’s group of Asia Mountains climbers back from a day off in nearby Tashkurgan.  We talked with him after an equally spartan meal about logistical details.  Just before the sun set, the clouds on Il Pannetone

lifted and with binoculars we were able to make out the line of camps leading almost to the summit of the mountain.  It all looked so close and easy.

The First Round

On the trudge from the end of the road to Base Camp, with the mountain behind
Thursday, August 2nd saw us finally arrive in base camp.  Another pretty sparse breakfast (an utter contrast with the lavish spreads we always had with Asia Mountains on Peak Lenin) at 8 am, and by 8:45 we had loaded our luggage onto a jeep and set off on foot to walk to base camp.  It was an easy, pleasant walk across a plain, through a few agonizingly cold rivers and then up old moraines to base camp.  It was a huge place, with well over 100 tents.  It was very Chinese, right down to the unspeakably filthy toilets.  We found the section of the camp that was Asia Mountains, and Eric and I settled into a large 4-man base camp tent that we had to put up ourselves because the base camp manager, a shifty Uighur named Akbar, hadn’t gotten around to erecting it.  Eric was not impressed with the lack of preparation, and it was a foreshadowing of things to come.  We had another underwhelming lunch, drank tea and then settled in for a nap.  The weather was glorious, with the summit perfectly clear; it would have been a perfect day for a summit attempt.  I loved being back in the wide-open spaces that I remembered from my long-ago bike trip.

After our nap, we awoke to find that Akbar had messed up by giving us the tent that he did.  We would have to move to a much smaller tent the next day; Eric was again not very impressed with Akbar’s general competence and acumen.  Both of us found our pulses racing as we tried to fall asleep; we were feeling the effects of being at 4400 metres above sea level.

Anna, unknown, Eric, me and Sergey in the dining tent (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
August 3rd was a rest day, spent in base camp.  We first moved to a new tent (which we had to put up ourselves again; it was beneath Akbar’s dignity to actually do any physical work), then spent the day lazing, eating, reading and chatting with other climbers, both Afto (the younger of the two Georgians, a surgeon from Tbilisi) and a group of Lithuanians who were using the services of another base camp company.  The Lithuanians had had a run-in with the Chinese army commander in charge of the base camp when they went for an acclimatization hike in the hills around the base of the mountain.  They had been arrested, threatened with deportation and slapped with a fine of US$ 300 per person for deviating from the usual mountaineering route.  The Chinese are hypersensitive about tourists in Xinjiang; the cycling route which we had followed in 1998 is now out of bounds, with the Chinese insisting that cyclists be loaded into buses or jeeps between Sust, Pakistan and Tashkurgan, Xinjiang.  As well, other climbers reported being threatened with arrest for having cellular data modems on their computers in base camp; all the Chinese were using them, as there was a cell phone tower right in base camp, but they were, apparently, forbidden to foreigners.  At least we were allowed to have Chinese SIM cards in our phones, which was just as well as we could use them for communication on the mountain, whereas walkie talkies were forbidden to foreigners.  We shook our heads at the insanity of it all.

Leaving Base Camp
Saturday, August 4th saw us make our first move up the mountain.  We paid a porter a pretty hefty sum (something like US$130) to carry our food and gas supplies up to Camp One while Eric and I walked up with our skis.  Although it was expensive, I thought that it might be worth it, as one of the many mistakes I had made on Peak Lenin was wearing myself out early in the climb carrying heavy bags from base camp to Camp One.  We awoke to pretty heavy snow, and lingered over breakfast waiting for the snowfall to stop.  Finally, around 10:30, we donned our packs, with our skis perched on the sides like giant antennas, and set off.  We had read that in most years you can walk in hiking boots all the way to Camp One, but this year had been a very cold, snowy summer on the mountain and the snowline was at 5100 metres, 250 metres below Camp One.  We trudged up the steep scree slope until a lunch stop at 12:30 at 4900 metres, where we gorged on raisins, nuts, cheese and Snickers bars and slugged down a couple of thermoses of tea while having an involved philosophical discussion.  By 1:20 we had shouldered packs again and were moving uphill, quite a bit slower now as altitude (and an upset stomach, in my case) started to bite.  Eric flagged even more than me, and it began to snow again.  By the time we reached the snowline, Eric had had enough and turned around to head back to base camp, stashing his skis beside the trail.  I put on my skis and climbing skins and slogged onwards, getting to Camp One, a random scattering of brightly coloured tents, just before 4:00 pm.  It was still snowing and there was a biting wind as I laboriously dug a platform for the tent in the snow, then erected the tent (just about losing a few fingers to frostbite in the process!).  I stashed my gear and the food and fuel that had been delivered by the porters, zipped up the fly and set off on foot downhill, having used the skis as anchors for guy ropes for the tent.

Eric on the way up from Base Camp
Having taken four and a half hours of actual movement to get up to Camp One, it took a little over an hour to scamper back downhill unencumbered by luggage and with thicker air to breathe with every downwards step.  It was snowing pretty steadily by the time I arrived back in base camp at 6:45, just in time for the first decent meal that Akbar and his acolytes had provided since we got to the mountain.  That night I managed to arrange something that had been bothering me since we had left Bishkek.  Our schedule for the trip had changed by a day, meaning that we would arrive back in Bishkek in the afternoon of Aug. 22nd, while my flight back to Switzerland was leaving that same morning.  I had tried unsuccessfully to change my flight while I was in Bishkek (Turkish Airlines were uncompromising:  no change was possible without buying a new ticket), but now Asia Mountains had arranged a taxi to pick me up in Naryn on August 21st which would drive through the night directly to Bishkek airport in time for my flight.  I was relieved, and glad that on the Kyrgyz side of the border Asia Mountains was on the ball.

I love the sweeping openness and rounded shapes of the Pamirs!
August 5th saw us head uphill again to Camp One, this time to spend the night.  I slept well, although it had taken a while to fall asleep as my heart was racing again.  Eric slept less well, and was concerned that his body was not acclimatizing at all.  We had a leisurely morning, waiting for some of the freshly fallen snow to melt on the trail, and set off at 10.  I felt much stronger and quicker than I had the day before; maybe this time I would acclimatize more successfully than on Peak Lenin?  Eric was very slow, with laboured breathing, and I waited for him a long time at our lunch stop at 4900 metres, where we ate fried egg sandwiches.  I powered ahead to Camp One ahead of Eric after lunch, and arrived around 2:15, significantly quicker than the day before.  I set up the tent for the two of us, sorted through the food and started cooking dinner.  Enrico, our Austrian expedition mate, arrived at 3:45, while Eric and Anna (Enrico’s girlfriend) arrived at 4:30.  Eric was slow, but looked better than he had in the morning; he said that setting his own pace and not trying to keep up with me worked better for him.  I cooked up a storm:  bouillon with ham and butter, followed by potato puree with beans, tuna and olive oil.  Eric wasn’t very hungry, but I ate a huge feast, trying to avoid the weight loss that had plagued me on Peak Lenin.  As we lay in the tent reading after dinner (I was back to labouring through Proust), snug in our sleeping bags, snow began to tickle the outside of the tent again.  It seemed to be a very snowy summer indeed! 

Up at Camp One, after digging out a place for the tent
We both slept poorly that night as our bodies struggled with the lack of atmospheric pressure up at 5350 metres.  We awoke to continuing snow, and stayed in the tent for much of the morning, hoping that it would stop.  Enrico, in the neighbouring tent, had a satellite phone (also forbidden to foreigners, but he had managed to smuggle it through the border and past the base camp commander) that he used, among other things, to get weather updates from his father back in Austria who was checking Mountain-Forecast.com.  We had seen fairly promising weather forecasts down in base camp, but the latest from Austria sounded grim:  5 or 6 days of fairly steady snow and wind were now in the forecast.  We spent much of the day in the tent, emerging for a 45-minute sucker hole of sunny weather to brew up tea and bouillon.  As we reclined again in the tent, there was a sudden loud “bang” from the roof of the tent.  I scrambled outside, thinking that a chunk of ice had slid down from above and hit the tent, but I found nothing.  Looking more closely, I realized that one of the aluminum tent poles had suddenly shattered.  We disassembled the tent in the snow and put on a spare length of reinforcing aluminum tubing designed for precisely such an event, then re-erected the tent after re-levelling the snow under the tent, which had been decidedly tilted the previous night.  Supper was mashed potatoes and tuna, made pretty salty by some disappointing Russian bouillon cubes.  As I rinsed out a tea thermos, I fumbled it and had it rocket downhill on the snow out of sight.  I walked down after it, convinced that it couldn’t be that hard to find a silver thermos on white snow, but I was wrong; after 40 minutes of assiduous searching, I had to give up and retreat to the tent to warm up in my sleeping bag and continue plodding through Proust, wishing that he had hired a good editor.

An Unsatisfactory Break in Tashkurgan

I slept much better that night; perhaps I was becoming acclimatized.  Eric didn’t sleep terribly well, as his intestines were in revolt.  I was awoken a couple of times by howling winds, but managed to fall asleep again.  We awoke on August 7th to cold and wind and yet more snow, so we decided to move back down to base camp until the weather improved.  After tea and muesli, we packed up slowly and headed back down the mountain.  I skied down to the edge of the snowline and stashed my skis, but Eric’s new Dynafit bindings gave him so much trouble trying to put his skis on that in the end he gave up, left the skis at the tent and walked down across the snow.  It marked my first turns on Muztagh Ata, and the snow was deep and soft and surprisingly unslabby, given the winds we had had.  When Eric reached me, we set off on foot back towards base camp.  It was a setback, but at least we had more time for bad weather intervals than I had had on Peak Lenin.  By 1:30 we had trudged back into base camp, in time for another unsatisfying lunch.  The afternoon passed in a rapid series of weather changes:  several sunny patches (at least in base camp; the summit remained wreathed in cloud) with a huge hailstorm and a couple of snow squalls inbetween.  I sat around reading:  I was giving Proust a rest, and re-reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s masterpiece of travel writing A Time of Gifts at great speed, relieved to be free of Proust’s meanderings.  We caught up with Olympics news as well from new arrivals and from our phones:  Usain Bolt had won the 100 metres dash again, but Roger Federer had lost unexpectedly to Andy Murray in the tennis final.  We were in bed early to beat the cold that had descended after the final snowstorm.

The view from the Tagh Arma Pass back in 1998
Wednesday, August 8th, with more poor weather forecast on the mountain, Eric and I decided to take a day away from the mountain.  We awoke from our best night of sleep yet, stuck our heads out of the tent and found 15 cm of fresh snow on the ground; we had both slept so deeply for once that we hadn’t even heard the snow falling.  The light was lovely, and I scampered around taking photos, but it was clearly not a day to be heading back up the mountain.  We had a good breakfast for once and then hopped in a jeep that took us down to the road at Subashi in what my diary records as “a horrific bumpathon”.  We transferred there to a modern, smooth, fast Toyota Hi-Lux for the drive to Tashkurgan, a place that both Eric and I remembered as a charming town of mud-brick buildings and a crumbling medieval fort.  We were keen to achieve three things in town:  check our e-mail, have a massive, tasty lunch and soak in the hot springs outside town. 

The first sign that things were going to go a bit pear-shaped came as we approached the outskirts of Tashkurgan.  The Chinese have installed security video cameras over the highway, and our driver casually drove into the other lane of traffic to avoid the first one.  We asked him why, and it turned out that he didn’t have the proper permit to transport foreign tourists.  The next camera, a couple of kilometres later, was unavoidable because of a central median, and our driver pulled over just before it and called a taxi driver friend of his to come pick us up.  It felt farcical, especially since his friend was so slow in arriving that we could have walked to town more quickly.  We finally made it into town and were both open-mouthed in amazement.  Gone was the small outpost of adobe buildings.  In its place had arisen a big new Chinese instant city of concrete and bathroom tiles, at least ten times the size that I remembered from before.  Most of the faces in the street were Han Chinese, new settlers brought in from the east.  There were still Tajik and Kyrgyz faces to be seen, though, with distinctive sandy hair and green eyes that looked about 4000 km out of place, as though a colony of Scots and Hungarians had been dropped in this remote spot.  The Tajik women wore colourful, elaborate costumes and distinctive pillbox hats. 

We found a few ATMs to restock our supply of Chinese yuan, but our internet dreams foundered on the rock of Chinese government paranoia.  Our driver asked around for an internet joint, and led us to an unmarked door in a semi-derelict building of epic filth and dilapidation.  We made our way upstairs to a room where dozens of computers were in use.  Our Uighur driver asked the boss, a slovenly Chinese man with a cigarette and a pot belly sticking out below his dirty undershirt, and was told dismissively that “there is no internet”.  Given that all the clients were on the internet, this seemed unlikely and we pressed the case.  It turned out that foreigners weren’t allowed to use the internet by some government regulation.  The boss waved his hand at us in a gesture of contemptuous dismissal and shuffled off, leaving us frustrated.  We made a grocery run, picking up some delicious fresh flat Central Asian bread, toilet paper, a new phone battery for me and some beer.  Eric and I walked the streets, shaking our heads at the changes and at the Han Chinese attitude of contempt for the local inhabitants, uncomfortably reminiscent for me of white Canadian attitudes to our own First Nations peoples.  The main street was wide and brand new, with a bombastic cultural centre and a gaudy brothel the main features, and felt utterly unlike the sleepy village I had rather enjoyed back in 1998.

Eric and I on the Tagh Arma Pass in 2012.  The mountains haven't changed.
We set off for the hot springs, via another taxi-swap delay.  We found a Soviet-style sanatorium of considerable grim and wear; as my sister Audie once said in 1998 of Chinese bathrooms in general “4000 years of advanced civilization doesn’t get you a clean toilet”.  We paid 60 yuan (about US $ 10) each for a soak in a wooden bathtub lined with a 5 yuan plastic bag.  It was great to get clean after a week without bathing, but I would have to rate Tashkurgan pretty low on the list of great hot springs of the world.  There wasn’t even a decent restaurant for a big lunch.  We left at 3:00 to head back to base camp, pretty unsatisfied with our big day out.  On the way back our taxi driver had to take a back road across the Tagh Arma basin to dodge a police checkpoint, and we ignored a Chinese cop on a bus who was trying to flag us down out of the bus window.  We stopped for photos at the Tagh Arma pass between Tashkurgan and Muztagh Ata where a glorious sun-soaked panorama awaited us, with Kongur and Muztagh Ata gleaming high and white above the pastel shades of the grasslands below and the azure waters of Lake Karakul.  By 6:00 we were back in base camp, basking in glorious golden late-afternoon light and drinking some of our beer.

Supper was late, scanty and unappetizing when Akbar, our camp manager, finally brought it in.  Eric works as a consultant around the world, evaluating medical aid programs, and as such spends his time looking for money that’s spent fraudulently or inefficiently, or just pocketed.  His professional antennas were immediately up as soon as he met Akbar; as he said “I spend my life dealing with pricks like him, and I know he is stealing most of the money that Asia Mountains pays him for our food.”  And it was true that our base camp meals were scanty, miserable affairs, slow in delivery, cheap in execution and not what hungry mountaineers needed to keep up our strength.  Even the little things, like wiping the dining room table clean or clearing away dirty dishes, were beneath Akbar, and the few times we had gone to find him in the cook tent, we found him feasting on far better fare than we were served.  The contrast with Asia Mountain’s base camp and Camp One on Peak Lenin was extreme, and it was all because Asia Mountains legally had to employ a Chinese company to provide local services.  I heard a story that Igor, the tough Ukrainian mountain guide who was overseeing Asia Mountains clients on Muztagh Ata, had gotten so frustrated the week before our arrival with Akbar that he had chased him around the camp with an ice axe, hoping to scare him into doing his job.  It obviously hadn’t worked, but I wished I had been there to witness it.

The Second Round:  Climbing Solo

Wonderful light seen from Camp One
That night neither Eric nor I slept at all well.  I woke up at 3:00 am and could barely sleep afterwards.  Eric was much worse, with his heart pounding and an unsettling tightness in his chest.  As a doctor, Eric was aware that this sort of feeling was not A Good Thing, and he was worried about not just not acclimatizing, but even having a heart attack.  We had both talked about my friend Roger Payne’s deatha lot in the past few days, and Eric wasn’t keen on dying in the mountains and leaving a wife and two kids fatherless.  It was gloriously sunny and warm and we were planning to head back up the mountain again to take advantage of the weather window.  I made my morning pilgrimage to the awful latrine enclosure and left my Gore Tex jacket lying on a rock outside.  When I emerged, it was gone.  I hunted around, but it had clearly been taken, probably by some of the dodgy local youths who loitered around the camp hoping for work as porters.  I asked around among the various Uighur camp managers and was greeted with supreme unhelpfulness and shrugs of the shoulders.  After three quarters of an hour of this dumb show, I wandered off to the Chinese camp manager, the same stern military man who had arrested the Lithuanians, to see what he could do.  I was admitted into the presence of the great man and explained my predicament.  He issued brief orders in Chinese and sent a couple of minions out into the camp.  It took less than three minutes before my jacket was restored to me, and I thanked him before heading back to our tent, resolving never to leave anything lying out of sight again.

Anna soaking up rays in Camp One during a rare sunny spell
By 11:00 Eric and I were loaded up and ready to head back up the mountain.  Eric was immediately in distress, hardly able to breathe.  By the time we had made 100 vertical metres, he had made a decision.  Since he was not only not acclimatizing but getting worse, with heart and breathing problems, he was pulling the plug.  We said goodbye and he descended painfully back to base camp to start making arrangements for an early return to Bishkek with a previous Asia Mountains group.  His skis and some of his gear were up at Camp One, so a porter would have to come up and pick them up soon.  I watched him descend, sad that our joint expedition was coming to an end, but confident that he had made the right decision for himself (and maybe, in retrospect, I should have followed his lead).  I continued up to Camp One, feeling pretty fit and acclimatized for once, arriving at 3:00 pm, meaning that I had taken a little over three hours of walking, not counting a leisurely lunch stop.  I spent some time digging out my tent from the past few days of snow, then cooked up a big supper and chatted to Enrico and Anna before retreating into my tent before sunset to beat the cold.  I slept well, and was glad that I seemed to be acclimatizing much better to altitude than I had done on Peak Lenin.

Me on my way up to Camp Two (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
Friday August 10th found me up at 8:00 and on the phone with Eric and with Akbar, trying to get a porter sent up to get Eric’s luggage and skis, which I left packed neatly for pickup.  I then had breakfast and packed up my own tent and left at the ridiculously late hour of 11:15 to skin up to Camp Two.  It was a long, slow slog with all my gear, through swirling fog and cloud.  The first 250 vertical metres went pretty quickly, but the next 250 metres seemed to take forever as I negotiated a passage through crevasses in the underlying glacier I recovered a bit on the final 170 metres.  I stopped along the way for a couple of snack stops, as well as chatting with Igor, on his way downhill after summitting the day before with some of the previous Asia Mountains clients.  By 3:45 pm I had arrived at Camp 2, a scattering of tents at 6020 metres.  It took ages to find an empty tent platform (but less time than it would have taken to dig a new one!) and set up my tent.  I felt a bit dehydrated, but after soup and tea I felt a bit better.  The skies had cleared and I cooked outside, making a delicious pack of dehydrated chicken curry, watching a beautiful sunset.  In a reminder of how small and well-connected the 21st century world is, my cell phone rang after supper and I had a conversation with my mother, calling from Ottawa.  It was good to hear her voice.

Having talked with Anna and Enrico, with whom I was now teaming up a bit in the absence of Eric, I knew that different weather forecasts were contradicting each other.  Plan A, dependent on a two-day window of clear weather, was to take a rest day in Camp One and then do a long summit push on August 12th all the way from Camp Two.  I didn’t really feel like packing up my tent again to make camp higher up the mountain, and I hoped that I would be acclimatized and fit enough to do 1400 vertical metres in one big day. 

The next day, August 11th, Enrico and Anna and I tried to acclimatize a bit by skinning up towards Camp 2+, a couple of hundred metres above us, but we were turned back quite quickly by fog and snow.  I felt very fit and acclimatized, and the ski back down was fun, perhaps the most enjoyable part of the entire Muztagh Ata expedition.  We settled into our tents to eat, sleep and read as the snow fell, increasingly heavily, with the occasional clear patch to taunt us.

My tent at Camp Two, seen from Enrico and Anna's (photo:  Enrico Schirmer)
We woke up on August 12th to incessant heavy snow, thunder and lightning.  I got out of my tent a few times to shovel snow off so that I wouldn’t get buried and could still breathe.  I could feel my shovel and my jacket both buzzing with what my sister Audie calls “les abeilles”, the bees, as static electricity builds up.  I was concerned about being hit by lightning and was glad when the lightning finally abated.  The day passed slowly, and the night was miserable, as I came down with a headache, possibly from lack of ventilation.  I got up in the middle of the night to shovel snow again, then got up again at 4:00 am to check the weather.  Enrico, Anna and I had agreed to make a summit bid that morning if the skies were clear, but instead snow was belting down, driven horizontally by howling winds.  We shouted to each other across the wind, confirming that we weren’t going anywhere uphill, and went back to bed.  I got up feeling like death:  tired, with a headache and no inclination to spend another stormy night in the tent.  Enrico also felt bad, so we decided to descend for a night of recovery in base camp, leaving our tents up.

I set off first at 10:30 with a pair of Polish female climbers, Agnieszka and Jana, hoping that we could keep an eye on each other through the crevasse field, but they were so agonizingly slow (they were on snowshoes, not skis) that I got cold waiting for them and decided to ski down on my own.  I made it through the crevasse field, finding the safe snow bridges that I had tried to memorize on the way up, and then ran into a complete whiteout.  I took it very slowly, trying to follow the ascent tracks as best I could.  I was so relieved to make it to Camp One unscathed that I celebrated by falling spectacularly in the whiteout.  I was unhurt, but I took it a bit slower from that point onwards.  I emptied my cache of spare fuel and food from Camp One and put it in my pack to take back down to base camp; with Eric gone, I needed only half as much as I had planned for.  I stashed my skis at the ski line again, along with my ski boots, put on my hiking boots and raced down the track.  I noticed that the snow line had descended noticeably down the mountain since the first time we had come up, what with all the fresh snow.  The fact that the snow line was getting lower in the middle of what should have been the hottest month of summer was not comforting!

Wind flag over the summit of Il Pannetone
I was back in base camp by 1:30 (descending on skis certainly saved a lot of time and energy!) and found Igor there, looking deeply depressed.  He had checked his e-mail and learned that Dasha Yashina, the glamorous mountain guide I had met a few weeks earlier on Peak Lenin, had died a few days earlier falling through a cornice on Pik Pobedy (Victory Peak), another of the Snow Leopard peaks in Kyrgyzstan.  It was a summer of close encounters with death in the mountains, and Dasha’s death made me more resolved to be as safe as I could be in my decision-making.  I chatted with other climbers in base camp, relieved not to be huddled in my tiny tent in a snowstorm, and then had a wonderfully relaxed Akbar-less supper with Enrico and Anna, who had arrived later that afternoon.  Eric had departed the day before, and I was alone in the base camp tent, free to sprawl all over the tent.

Tuesday, August 14th found us campbound again.  I had slept very deeply, but had awoken at 3:30 am and had spent the rest of the night reading Montaigne in my sleeping bag.  It was still snowing, and the snow kept up for most of the day.  I lazed in my tent and chatted with Terri on the phone.  We were running out of days on the mountain; we were leaving base camp on August 19th, and with all the snow we had had, we had only a couple of days left for potential summit bids.  Terri begged me not to do anything foolish in pursuit of the summit, and I agreed.  We had a delicious lunch of pasta, the best lunch we had had since our arrival, and the weather finally cleared in the afternoon, letting me sit out in the sun reading and even get in a bit of much-needed laundry.  It started raining at 5:30, sending me scuttling back inside.  The rain rapidly turned to driving snow.  Snow or shine, Enrico, Anna and I were committed to heading uphill the next day, making one last attempt to get to the summit.

The Final Failure

My tent buried in the snow at Camp Two.  The expedition in microcosm
Wednesday, August 15th found me up at 7:30 am after a deep sleep interrupted by the terrifying noise of rockfall close to camp.  It sounded as though rocks were about to land right on my tent, and I leapt up to see what was going on.  It was actually a fair distance away, but it got my heart pounding.  Enrico and Anna were already on their way by the time I got going at 9:10.  I charged uphill, feeling good, and caught up to them by the time I got to the former snowline at 11:00 (the hiking path was under snow for quite a distance below that!).  I put on my skis and skins and continued up to Camp One, getting there by 12:15.  After a snack break I set off again uphill.  I was breaking trail through quite deep snow, and it was physically hard work.  There was a lot of fog and wind as I picked my way gingerly through the crevasses, glad for the bamboo poles that someone had erected to keep people on the safe path.  I was going pretty slowly, but I was still faster than anyone else other than a party of three Spaniards on snowshoes.  I got to Camp Two by 5:45 and could barely see my tent; only the very tip of the roof protruded above a deep covering of new snow.  It took an hour and a half of hard shovelling to excavate it, but by 7:15 I was wrestling with my stove:  my matches weren’t lighting, and my lighter didn’t work.  Luckily Enrico and Anna had arrived and I borrowed a lighter from them.  I cooked up a feast of noodles and dehy, and contemplated how I felt.  I was a bit sunburnt (or windburnt), and I felt a touch of snowblindness, despite wearing my ski goggles.  I was pretty tired after a long, hard day of trail-breaking, and looking uphill I didn’t see a single track, which meant that it was going to be hard work to get higher up.  I was going to need allies to co-operate in the task ahead.

A map of our climbing route (in red); image copyright Central Asia Travel
Thursday, August 16th was a disappointing day.  I slept until 10:00 am, tired from the previous day’s exertions.  We awoke (of course) to snow and wind, and Enrico, Anna and I were resigned to the prospect of another enforced rest day.  At 12:30 though the sky cleared and a bunch of climbers came through from below, including a big group of Austrians and Germans from an outfit called the Summit Club, led by two mountain guides.  I decided that we should take advantage of the trail-breaking services and started to pack up.  Before I got started, though, I got a request on the phone from below to dig out another tent.  Volodya, a Russian climber, had left his tent standing at Camp Two for Afto and his Georgian friend to use, but Afto wasn’t coming up the mountain again either, having given up, so now Volodya’s tent was abandoned at Camp Two.  I agreed to dig it out and pack it up so that a porter could come up and collect it.  It was surprisingly hard work (it was even more buried than mine had been) and I was somewhat annoyed that I was tidying up someone else’s mess, but by 3:00 pm I had packed up his tent and my own and started the climb up to Camp Three, trying to make use of the break in the weather.  I was slow and out of breath, feeling every kilogram on my back and on my feet.  I didn’t catch up to anyone, but at least there was a decent well-trodden track to follow.  I got up to Camp Three, a forlorn collection of tents at 6500 m, by 5:45, under cloudy, threatening skies, the sun having vanished not long after I left camp.  I felt worn out and took ages to set up camp.  My camp neighbours, a French group, gave me a delicious gift of pastrami, which served as an appetizer to some slightly soupy dehydrated stroganoff.  I had more appetite than I had had the night before, which was a promising sign.  It was significantly cold in the tent, and I broke out one of the chemical toe-warmers that Terri had left me to keep my tootsies warm in the sleeping bag.  

Just as I was settling into my sleeping bag, hoping for clear weather in the morning for a summit bid, my cell phone rang.  It was Igor, and he wanted to know if I saw anything unusual going on in camp.  I stuck my head out of my tent and looked around; everything looked normal, I reported.  Igor told me that he had heard that a dead body had been found in Camp Three, of a Polish man who had stayed in Camp Three a few days ago when everybody else had retreated.  A team of porters was being sent up the next day to collect the body.  It was another grim reminder of how things could go badly on high mountains, and something to think about as I tried to get some sleep for our last possible try on the summit the next day.  The latest weather forecast called for clearing skies at daybreak, and we set our alarms for a 6:30 am departure.

I woke up at 5:15 to the sound of snow; yet another supposed weather window turned out to be a meteorological mirage.  I was about to give up and fall back asleep when I heard the Summit Club expedition head past with their headlamps on.  I got myself ready, keen to follow in their tracks.  I felt like death, with a headache, dry mouth and little appetite; this was by far the highest altitude I had ever slept at, and it had been rough on my body.  I forced down some muesli and tea, but the last mouthful of tea was too much for my body, and suddenly I was on my knees in the vestibule vomiting.  I cleaned myself up as best I could, but it was hardly an auspicious start to proceedings. 

At 7:30 I set off into the fog, ahead of Enrico and Anna but behind the French.  The visibility was awful, and I was moving too slowly, averaging only 150 vertical metres per hour; at that rate it would take 7 hours to summit, and I was bound to get slower as I got higher.  My fingers felt cold despite my heavy mountaineering mitts, rated to -40 degrees.  I had never had serious problems with cold fingers in all my mountaineering and skiing experiences, and I was worried.  I tossed in chemical hand-warmers and kept going.  I was moving terribly slowly:  I would count 15 strides on my skis, then stop for 30 gasping breaths.  I felt tired, slow, weak and unmotivated.  The weather wasn’t improving either.  By 10:00 I had had enough; I was clearly not strong enough to make it, and I was leery of going higher into the complete whiteout in case I got lost.  My altimeter said that I was at 6840 m, only 350 metres above Camp Three and still 700 metres below the summit.  I sat down in the snow and caught my breath.  Anna and Enrico had come to the same conclusion, and sat down some distance away.  I tore off my climbing skins, locked down my heels and shouted over that I was headed back down.  They said that they would follow me shortly; I found out afterwards that Enrico was in the midst of proposing to Anna.  He had planned to ask her at the summit, but this, the highest point of the climb, would have to do. 

Skiing back down from Camp Two after giving up on the summit
At first I slid slowly down the up track, unable to see five metres in front of me.  After a while, though, I popped out into clear visibility and carved some satisfying wide GS turns in the snow, back to the tent.  I packed up as quickly as I could and set off downhill, hoping for a fun run down to the edge of the snow line, despite the heavy pack on my back.  Alas, it was not to be.  I had a fun swoosh down to Camp Two, but then I hit the densest pea-soup fog of the entire expedition, right where I needed it least, crossing the crevasse field.  It was seriously scary trying to get through the crevasses, unable to see anything and aware from previous trips how many death traps there were all around me.  I actually sat down for 20 minutes at one point, hoping for other people to pass by or for the fog to lift a bit.  It suddenly started to get quite warm and I was aware of how thirsty I was.  I skidded slowly and carefully down the ascending track until I was clear of the crevasses, then made a few turns back and forth across the track until I got to Camp One.  The sun made a sudden, unexpected appearance and I flew down the final few turns until I ran out of snow.  By 3:45 I was donning my hiking boots and strapping my skis and ski boots to the outside of the pack.  It was a heavy but quick trudge down to base camp, and by 4:45 I was back in base camp, unpacking wet gear in a steady drizzle.  The weather really was starting to drive me nuts, and I was glad to be off the mountain for good.  I chatted with various other climbing groups, especially a bunch of Slovenians who had just arrived, and then settled into supper and celebratory beers with Anna and Enrico, who had just arrived in their newly engaged state.  I slept in Igor’s empty tent that night just to be further from the scary rockfall that had disturbed my sleep the last time I was in base camp.

The Long Farewell 

The rest of the expedition was a never-ending gong show, a sad anti-climax to what had been an anti-climactic climbing season.  I spent Saturday, August 18th lazing around base camp in an orgy of sloth and lassitude.  I was actually keen to get going, but we had to wait for everyone to be down the mountains.  I had also heard that the Chinese government had suddenly and inexplicably decided to honour the Muslim holiday of Eid el Fitr by closing the Torugart Pass for three days so that the Muslim border guards could have a holiday.  Those three days, of course, included the day that we were scheduled to cross, so we could either hurry up and try to cross a day early, or wait two days in Kashgar.  In the end the call from head office was that we would cross the border later, rather than earlier.  This meant that I would definitely miss my flight in Bishkek, which meant that I would have to buy a new Turkish Airlines ticket to get back to Switzerland.  I was not amused, and frankly baffled why a Chinese government hostile to religion in general and Uighur Muslims in general would suddenly decide to be religiously sensitive, and why they hadn’t let anyone know until a few days beforehand. 

I slept strangely, with intense dreams and heavy, laboured breathing punctuated by waking up to spasms in my leg muscles.  I guess it was my need for oxygen in my exhausted muscles overwhelming the thin air available in base camp.  My gums and the roof of my mouth were sore too, and I wondered if I had sunburnt them on the last day, as was the case for my poor, tenderized lips.  

Enrico and Sergey at Kashgar Night Market
The next day, Sunday, August 19th was a day of comical ineptitude.  We had packed up our skis, our tents and all our gear the day before, and were ready for Akbar to arrange a lift for our gear down the mountain.  Instead he sneaked off early in the morning, grabbing lift with the Summit Club climbers (who had summited the day I turned around, climbing on through the fog using 2 GPSes; they had seen nothing at the summit, and had come perilously close to skiing off a cliff en route) and escaping to Kashgar, leaving us Asia Mountains folks to fend for ourselves.  Igor was incensed, but not surprised.  It was the first day of Eid, and the Uighur drivers just wanted to get home to celebrate with their families.  In the end another expedition company took pity on us and found us transport for our gear while we walked down to Subashi.  Akbar had taken off hours before, but we managed, eventually, to find a lift to Kashgar courtesy of another mountaineering outfit.  It was a final middle finger from Akbar, the man Eric had so quickly and accurately diagnosed as a thief and a prick.  By now, with the early departure of the Georgians, Eric and a couple of other climbers, our party was only myself, Enrico, Anna, Sergey, his friend and Igor. We got back to the Xinde Hotel by 7:15 pm and went out to the Kashgar Night Market for a huge celebratory feast of lots of kebabs and even more draft beer.  It was release from the endless frustration of the horrible weather and interacting with the unspeakable Akbar, and we got fairly merry by the time we headed back to the hotel.

Igor and I after a few kebabs and more than a few beers at Kashgar Night Market
The border was definitely closed, so we had two days to kill in Kashgar.  The Summit Club expedition was staying at our hotel, and we exchanged different ideas on how to get back to Bishkek to catch our flights.  It was possible to fly from Kashgar to Urumqi, and then on to Bishkek, but the cost was 600 euros, with something like 300 euros for excess baggage.  I opted for a new Turkish Airlines ticket instead for 950 euros; it took almost 2 hours on Skype to get it all done.  A day of poking around the new sterilized tourist version of the old city of Kashgar and eating a monstrous lunch was followed by another raucous night at the Night Market, this time with the Austrians from Summit Club, ending with us sitting up very, very late in the hotel lobby with beer, whiskey and mountaineering stories.  The Austrians had dubbed me “Young Messner” because of my unruly hair and beard; you be the judge.
The real Reinhold Messner

On Tuesday I slept until noon, then went out with Igor and another Russian mountain guide to lunch at the Altun Orde restaurant, where we ate well and drank some of the best tea I had ever had; the other guide was a tea connoisseur and we lingered over numerous pots of spiced, scented green and black teas late into the afternoon.  It felt finally as though I was back on the Silk Road for the first time since finishing my Silk Road bike trip three years before, and seemed a fitting end to the expedition.

Elderly man, Kashgar, 1998
Wednesday, August 22nd was an endurance fest of bad roads and incompetence (on the Chinese side of the border, anyway).  We drove straight through to Bishkek instead of stopping in Naryn, as we all had flights to catch, and didn’t get back to the Asia Mountains guesthouse until after midnight.  I was relieved to get out of China and the oppressive paranoia of the government.  I have spent a lot of time in remote corners of China in the past (1998, 2001, 2002, 2004) and, since I was always on my bicycle, I was able to avoid the worst of the Chinese government's control-freakery, but this year was much worse. A final morning of last-minute errands (reconfirming my ticket, getting rid of excess Chinese yuan and Kyrgyz som, buying much-needed dental floss) and then I was at the airport, ready to leave behind Central Asia for now, and big mountain summits forever.  

Kashgar, 1998
Overall, my experiences over the summer had been a very mixed bag.  I had loved trekking in Ladakh with Terri in June, but Peak Lenin had been physically exhausting and hampered by bad weather.  Trekking with Eric had been fun, but his twisted ankle had unfortunately shortened that trip.  I had given my best on Muztagh Ata, and had had a chance to summit, but the endless waiting for good weather had been psychologically draining and not the most fun use I could have put those 23 days to.  Had I had a crystal ball, I would have skipped both Peak Lenin and Muztagh Ata and just spent those 7 weeks doing more trekking in India and Kyrgyzstan instead.  On the other hand, as my mountaineer friend Sion says, “If you don’t go, you won’t know!”  I had gone, and now I knew.  Now it was time for a reunion with Terri and a return to teaching in Leysin, a day late, my beard making me look vaguely like a Taliban.  Ironically, after not acclimatizing at all well on either peak, I returned to Leysin with my red blood count up so high that I was soon setting personal bests on my bicycle on all our local climbs.  Maybe high altitude was good for something, if not for reaching summits?

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.