Note: The past week has mostly been a hypoxic haze, but I’m eager to write before the violence of this experience gets whitewashed and fades into the ether. I just reread Mark Twlight’s Kiss or Kill before the trip, so my attempt at dark and blunt language and certainly the musical quotes are an ode to his writing.
I’m still relatively new to the high altitude game, and even a brief glance at mountaineering literature will reveal that it’s a cruel one. Starting off with expeditions to Nepal and the Tien Shan, I felt obligated to follow the established system to avoid becoming a statistic. This summer, I was ready for autonomy, and to establish my own rules of engagement. In poetic fashion, I was swiftly put in my place by the one true rule of the alpine: the mountain decides.
I showed up to Lenin more or less emotionless. I was happy to get started this summer, but I was never that excited about Lenin. It’s something of an awful thing to say, but I never really cared that much about what happened here. Overrun with hundreds tourists and climbers aiming for the world’s “easiest 7000m peak,” it’s a somewhat chaotic and commercial scene. I’d managed to snag a spot on Lenin in order to make the dates for my whole summer work…our fieldwork wrapped up in Mongolia a few weeks earlier than I’d originally planned, and the first chopper to Korzhenevskaya and Communism would be a while later. I conveniently decided, “why not climb all three of the Pamir’s seven thousanders?” and this summer’s expedition was born.
Boris and I spent the day flying from Bishkek to Osh, then bouncing in an unbearably hot bus for the eight-ish hour ride to base camp. I was definitely happy to get to Achik Tash, mainly because the cool fresh air felt familiar and signified the start to the summer’s climbs. Base camp is pretty posh, with electricity and hot showers every now and then. The next morning, we saddled enormous packs and hit the trail towards camp 1.
My original plans were to spend three or four days shuttling loads and acclimatizing to camp 1, essentially an advanced base camp on the Lenin Glacier. Boris came in with nine days of prior acclimatization near Bishkek, so he was ready to charge up the mountain. “Ok, a little compromise never hurt anyone,” I thought. During my past few big international trips, I’ve been working on a particular style of “Asian apathy” wherein I essentially drop my objectives down a notch and just say screw it when things don’t work out for a few days. This is pretty essential in Nepal and Mongolia, where sticking to an American sense of purpose is useless.
The hike up to camp 1 was challenging, perhaps ten miles, up and over the high “Traveller’s Pass”, then skirting steep slopes and moraines along the Lenin Glacier to the 14,500 ft camp. Soon after Traveller’s Pass, we were hit with our first storm of the trip, which would become a regular occurrence. This is early season in the Pamir, which is to say, unpredictable and unforgiving. After battling through freezing rain and snow, the sun came out again, but my back was giving out. Right from the start, I’d bitten off too big a slice of pain cake, and was going to pay the price. Just minutes from the camp, as I shouldered my pack for the last time, the major muscles of my back seized. Upon arriving breathless in camp, I was too exasperated to do much more than lie horizontally and put hot water bottles on my back.
Boris, still in the driver’s seat, had booked us a 3:30 AM breakfast before an excessively early carry to camp 2. I’ll take slightly softer snow for a full night’s sleep thank you very much. It felt like the summit bid already! The night before, I knew there was no way my back would give me another hard day’s work. Still, we awoke and dressed, ate the damn breakfast, then went back to sleep after I nixed our plans. Later that morning, we took a gentle walk up a 15,500 ft hill near camp, and I was pleased to feel my back returning to normal. The next morning, we had another predawn breakfast, and started up the glacier shortly before sunrise. A relatively long, nearly two-mile approach to the bottom of the route started things off. Our first trip up the glacier was a bit of a challenge, with relatively big packs, essentially no acclimatization for me, and by the time we reached the upper portions, brutal heat in the so-called “Frying Pan.” In a cruel aspect of mountaineering, these cold places also reflect tremendous amounts of bright sun, sapping your energy and fluids in a heartbeat.
Upon reaching the 17,500 ft camp 2, I soon realized that I’d have my work cut out for me to stay healthy this high only 3.5 days into the trip. I tried to hydrate and eat the best I could, but soon, the vaguely familiar light altitude headache crept in. I rested, then made myself a tasty meal of palak paneer and bread. That night, I battled headache and light dizziness before nausea finally got the best of me at five the next morning. “Ok, maybe it is reasonable that we don’t go upstairs today,” Boris said after I’d hardly finished vomiting. No kidding. I wanted out, and I knew that the off switch to altitude hell was just a few hours down the glacier. We discussed, off and on, our plans until nearly two PM. I even climbed up the headwall to about 18,000 ft to get the blood circulating a bit more. At this point, I was getting a little pissed. “You should do what you want to do but I’m going down.” I quickly packed my things and raced down to camp 1 in a little under two hours.
I needed to head down to get a few more things for the summit push anyhow, so the next day, I rolled down to base camp, feeling energetic, free and finally unencumbered by plans. No more bending to the will of others. All wounds from here would be self-inflicted.
After a glorious night at base camp, I realized I was actually enormously pleased with the first part of the trip. Sure, I’d suffered at camp 2, but my body was following all the rules and I’d managed to gain some pretty nice acclimatization in a short period of time. I still had about a week and a half to put a summit attempt together. In base camp, I met Ismail and Rufat, two strong and experienced climbers from Azerbaijan who were heading up to the summit. We decided to head up together, with me planning on going to at least camp 3 for acclimatization, and perhaps the summit. I was now feeling really strong on the lower mountain, and even up to camp 2, I was beginning to hit my stride. That evening, after dinner, a Russian guide named Slava and I ran down the glacier to help an exhausted Dutch climber lying in the snow. After helping him to camp, I started to feel my own discomfort creep in. I probably overate with Rufat and Ismail, and vomited my meal and fluids that evening. The night was hell. I writhed in discomfort. Insult to injury was that I shared a tent with Frank, the Dutch climber, and people would repeatedly come by to check on him, exhausted but content as could be in his sleeping bag, while I suffered. In the early morning, I vomited more, losing the last of my fluids. I slept in, and by the time I was ready to boil water in the morning, it was already beginning to swelter. I made a small amount of water, and hardly able to eat or drink, I shouldered my relatively heavy pack and headed towards camp three in the heat of the day. By the time I reached the top of the headwall, I was completely dehydrated and exhausted. Heat instantly changed to whiteout, and I dragged ass the last few hours to camp three in a storm.
That evening, I had a gel and a few swigs of water for dinner before passing out in an altitude-induced haze. Heavy snows came and went during the evening, and at one point, I remember thanking Slava immensely for un-burying my tent from the increasing load of snow. During a break in the storm, I vomited my pathetic dinner and handful of worthless Russian drugs. No point in self-pity…this was all my own doing.
At four, I awoke to clear and calm skies. My flawed logic was that it would ultimately be easier to “knock the bastard off” as Hillary would say, than to regroup and try again later. Acclimatization vs. weather, the classic alpine tradeoff. Lately, I’ve sprung at these opportunities with success, plus, I’ve always been confident in my ability to put in an epic climbing day with inadequate preparation.
Summit day started wonderfully. Though dehydrated, I moved at a steady and gentle pace, opting to ease into the difficult day. Half a dozen of us wandered up the broad lower portions of the summit ridge. Sunrise warmed us but I was already becoming concerned about my fluids. I put in my headphones to stay conscious and to somehow remain connected to humanity.
“I’m makin’ short term goals when the weather folds”
A bank of clouds lapped up against Lenin’s flanks thousands of feet below. Only a few peaks in the Tajik Pamir poked out like islands. The world that we call home was impossibly far below and out of sight. Life above 6000m consists mainly of the swish of nylon and gasping for air. Music faded in and out of my narrow consciousness.
“I gotta get away from this day to day runnin’ around, everybody knows this is nowhere”
We finally crested the first buttress and got a clear view ahead. A broad rocky ridge led to a steep constriction in the distance. I could tell the summit day would be just as long as advertised. I stopped for a brief break and chat with Ismail and two Polish climbers.
“Murder was the case that they gave me. Dear God, I wonder can you save me?”
I felt bad for mooching a swig of Ismail’s sports drink at the last stop, but I was already down to little over half a liter and I started the day by vomiting bile. My O2 saturation the night before was in the 50s, well into ICU territory. This was the closest I’d ever cut it physiologically.
“Gotta find a new world where the people understand, how to treat one another throughout the land, everybody pack up and go with me”
Alongside came a Russian skier. Out ahead, breaking trail we could see Slava gaining distance despite the skis and shovel on his pack. Slava is truly a character. He wore a t-shirt, flip flops and shorts in camp 2, and this winter went 59 days with just water just to see what would happen. I envied his acclimatization.
“We don’t never get a piece of the pie, work 50 years, retire then die, stay po.’ Rich folks is the criminal”
Black nationalist hip hop pounded, but the music was now as distant as the world below. We approached the Knife, the technical crux of the climb. It started gentle enough, but soon the world dropped away for thousands of feet on both sides. One Polish man was feeling strong, and went ahead leaving Ismail and I to suffer alone up the slope. I kicked and thrashed up the knee to thigh deep snow, bypassing the pathetic and poorly placed fixed rope ostensibly protecting the final pitch. With snow this soft, it wasn’t necessary anyhow.
“We’ve been through some things together, with trunks of memories still to come. We found things to do in stormy weather, long may you run”
My toes had been freezing since the start, despite a new technique I was sure would be better than last year’s freeze fest on Khan Tengri. I slowly and deliberately removed each inner boot, then ripped off the pathetic chemical warmers and took off my liner sock to make some wiggle room. I rubbed my toes before reversing the process. Any action too fast was quickly disciplined by a fit of panting in the thin air.
“Well I stand up next to a mountain, and I chop it down with the edge of my hand”
By now, Ismail and the Polish duo were long ahead, leaving me to struggle alone. I opted for a shortcut around a rock buttress, for which I was rewarded with unbearably deep snow. It was here that I noticed that my left crampon was detached, but frozen stiff. At least I’m past the crux, I thought. I marched on, my left foot hobbled. And besides, I was nearing the summit or so I thought.
“Only fox that I love is a red one, only black man that Fox love is in jail or a dead one”
I crested the next buttress in deteriorating weather. The wind picked up and visibility dropped. Snow began to sting the back of my neck. I gained on Ismail and the Polish across a vast white plateau. It was impossible to judge distance and pace in the vast white plain of ever softening snow.
“But something is happening here and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?”
The three in front of me ground to a halt. Snow conditions were now desperate and we knew that climbing independently was out of the question. The stronger Pole laid down the law, “Twenty steps, then switch,” he shouted. I stepped as gingerly as I could into the lead, but with each pace I plunged inevitably to my knee or worse. It was a flat out race effort, and even there, I couldn’t manage more than a few steps at a time without doubling over. After our turn breaking trail, we each collapsed to the side of the track, the other three continuing on. This lasted hours.
“It’s better to burn out than to fade away, my my hey hey”
At last, in a clearing of the storm, I saw a figure standing on a distant point. Slava must be on the summit. With renewed energy, the others picked up the pace leaving me in the dust. I knew my dehydration and exhaustion afforded me no opportunity to increase the pace. Ismail yelled at me a couple times to pick it up, but I was no match for the new tempo. I was past pulling my weight. Reclassified as a straggler.
I didn’t even get my hopes up the last few meters below the summit. Only when I saw the cross did I know that my trial was somewhat complete. Too tired for a hero shot, I knelt on the summit, the hardest of my life. I smiled at the dark thought that Lenin must do this to a lot of people, taking vengeance on its title as “easiest 7000er.” Like many other popular and commercial mountains, it makes up for the lack of technical difficulty with a convoluted and impossibly long normal route. I’ll take the “technicality” of Khan any day.
“I’m just a Virginia boy, she dug the boys from Kentucky and Tennessee”
Twenty-three thousand four hundred and six feet. I took the last sip of my water and put it in my pack. At least I have no need for breaks now. I collected a rock sample for Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. I hope this works for Dragos. I’ve sampled in 110 degree Utah heat, running with a heavy pack for miles across the desert. In terms of hardest science I’ve ever done, it’s not even close. I plunge stepped down the deep snow back to the plateau. Already I was descending too fast, and had to stop and take breaks just to slow down my breathing. Too soon, we reached the first of several uphill sections on the descent. This ridge must have been designed by an evil genius. The climb simply wouldn’t give up. My left crampon finally completely detatched. Still frozen, I had Ismail strap it to my pack. I would downclimb the Knife with one crampon and no axe.
“I’m from where they overthrow democratic leaders, not for the people but for the Wall Street Journal readers”
We met Dasha, a ridiculously fit guide who participates in 6-day trail races. She was in good spirits, and I shamelessly asked for water. She had none, so I stuffed some snow in my mouth, just to tease myself with the moisture. The Pole wanted to break, but I pressed on, no need to stop and get more tired. We’d now been on the move for over twelve hours. As we neared the end of the final plateau before descending the buttress to camp, the weather whirled in.
“I’ve been down on the endless highway, I passed on the solid line. Now at last I’m home to you, I feel like makin’ up for lost time”
I caught up to a Kyrgyz guide and his client. Still nearly at 22,000 feet, our visibility dropped to nothing. I screamed over the wind, “You know how to get down?” My GPS tucked into my pants pocket, he pulled out his, and started walking a line and deliberately plunging through the ever deepening snow. Our tracks from the ascent were long gone. I could feel my nose freezing and pulled my balaclava tight across my face and tightened my hood. Unfortunately, we were moving too fast for the client, and I had no choice but to press on as the guide stopped. I led the Pole into the maelstrom. We reached a cairn marking the top of the buttress and stepped onto the ever-steepening face. We were now only 700m from camp, but the mountain would not let up.
Judging slope, stability and scale were simply impossible. The sky blended into the slope. Rocks I thought were hundreds of meters in the distance proved to be just a few steps away. I repeatedly triggered small wind slab avalanches that rolled down into Tajikistan. The Pole screamed over the wind that he was worried about descending past camp. Hell, I was too, but the GPS was all we had. One hundred fifty meters to go. The Pole yelled and gestured to the right. I traversed across a fifty-degree face to an arête, then continued my descent. In the distance below, roundish rocks appeared. I looked for ages but couldn’t tell if they were tents. Finally, just feet from camp, I realized I’d made it. I yelled for Andrei and Graham, the Kyrgyz guide and his client.
Camp three was a ghost town. But soon enough, I heard a zipper and Andrei appeared, holding a juice bottle for me. I took a few swigs, shoveled out my buried tent, and dove into my sleeping bag. At least there was no need to cook dinner with my stomach problem. That night, I inevitably vomited more bile and bloody mucus. Without a drop of water, I settled back into my altitude-induced slumber and waited for morning.
You’re not done ‘til you’re down
I awoke to sunshine and boiled a cup of water and set about packing my things. I knew there was no point in a leisurely morning, I wouldn’t be able to eat anyway. A half hour struggle with my frozen boots left me exasperated and in a familiar panting fit. I ascended Razdelnaya with a heavy pack, reminiscent of my brutal slog up Chapaev after last year’s Khan Tengri climb. The snow was just as soft as ever. An overly cheerful Brit was intent on congratulating me and chatting all about the route. Dude, all I want is water and to get the hell out of here.
I plunged down the Razdelnaya headwall and made it back to camp 2 in remarkable time. There, I met a still cheerful Dasha, whose client this time hooked me up with some tea and chocolate. I felt bad about mooching, but I knew I was running on fumes and needed to make it to camp one before will power ran out. I stashed my stove in a tent for Boris and gathered the last of my things including books and rock samples. WHY?!?
In the heat of the day, I plunged across the Frying Pan, thankfully for the last time, and met Boris setting off for his summit bid. We had a really nice chat and I continued down towards the glacier. I hopped the crevasses, wary for melting snow bridges this late in the day. At last, I reached the flat portion of the glacier, but the heat was unprecedented. It was by far the warmest day of the season so far. I dunked my hat in glacial meltwater, but could hardly cool off in the stagnant air. After over an hour of walking and resting every few paces across the interminable glacier and moraine, I caught sight of our camp. Just then a wave of nausea crossed me and I dry heaved. So much for a hero’s return. But before long, I marched into camp, dropped my pack and was cheerfully greeted enthusiastically with, “Felicitaciones” and “Que tal?” from my Spanish friends, the ordeal finally behind me.
Upon return to base camp the next day, I learned I’d lost nearly twenty pounds during my ten day trial on the mountain. In base camp, the staff baked a lovely cake and had a little ceremony for Rufat, Ismail and I, who were the second party to summit this season and the first from our organization. It’s been a little strange to get such praise after the summit. The same happened last year on Khan. Everyone swarms you and wants route information, emails and photos. The increased attention from the Iranians is most intense. Personally, I feel like I’m moving past the materialistic consumption of summits, and I’m experiencing mostly relief after my so-called success on Lenin. I’ve spent the past few days in base camp resting, eating, repairing gear, washing clothes, hanging out with new British, Spanish, Azerbaijani, Iranian and Russian friends, and trying to work on a manuscript for my PhD. The stomach issue cleared up as soon as I descended, and I’m finally feeling fully recovered.
It’s extremely beautiful here, sitting in a meadow of alpine wildflowers. Through all of the discomfort of last week, I was always still blown away by the natural beauty, and that aspect of this adventure has been amazing since the trip began in Mongolia. I ended up collecting nine samples from a range of elevations for Dragos Zaharescu at the University of Arizona and Biosphere 2 through Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. I hope these will contribute to our understanding of microbial life at extreme elevations and their role in shaping the high altitude landscape.
I’m planning on going for a run or climb before I leave for Tajikistan on the 26th. We’ll drive to Djirgital, then take Tajikistan’s only helicopter to base camp on the 27th. I have no word yet on Boris’ summit attempt, but he’s due back in base camp later today or tomorrow, so we’ll catch up soon. Just in the past day or two did I get some renewed excitement about my upcoming alpine adventures. I still have some tricks up my sleeve.