Korzhenevskaya. 23,311 ft. 23 hours. Solo-ish.

Korzhenevskaya’s long and jagged summit ridge

At last, I’m climbing the world’s greatest mountains in my own style. I’d been meticulously planning on a dayclimb of Korzhenevskaya for over a year (mostly in secret from those who care about me most). I’ve assembled all the pieces necessary to have a great time in the mountains and leave the heavy pack behind. My acclimatization trip last week was also to scout and prep the route for yesterday’s big day. After waiting out a week of snow, and with all the pieces in place, I pounced. Things went quite well, although there were some significant changes to my plan.

I pitched a tent on the other side of the Moskvin Glacier from base camp. I didn’t want to waste a bunch of time wandering the convoluted, crevassed rubble pile in the middle of the night. The gravel and sand over the ice has quite a knack for making even the most graceful climbers look like complete novices. One section on my acclimatization climb was shin deep and had the consistency of wet concrete. Furthermore, I’d stashed my boots and crampons up at camp one, so I’d be starting the climb in an old, beat-up pair of 5 oz road racing flats (Stanford team issued Katana Racers for those of you in the know).

The weather moving in, high on summit day

The night before there was quite a bit of drama around the kitchen. The food here has been pretty rough…most in base camp have been sick and some people have been nothing but sick. I’ve even been hassled for days about asking for clean drinking water (it usually has a strong taste of soot as it’s boiled with wood). Anyhow, I learned that some others had complained much more seriously, and mentioned things on behalf of the few of us vegetarians, as our food is usually cooked with meat. This ended with me passive-aggressively being served a plate of plain burnt rice nearly an hour late. So much for crossing the glacier in daylight. I made quick work of the section to my tent and actually had quite little trouble routefinding. My shoes got a little wet, but I had three other pairs of socks for the summit day.

11:45 PM. The alarm went off viciously early. I only had about two hours of sleep, but sprung into action, quickly polishing off a gel and a handful of pretzels for breakfast and throwing the last few items into my pack. The route to camp one at 5100m (16,800 ft) is kind’ve a mess of use trails, moraine and talus. I’d really worked on memorizing the route, but I only had eyes on the trail once before. My visualization of unique rocks from multiple sides paid off, and I quickly made it to the 15,400 ft saddle without missing any of the critical ledge traverses. The route from there traverses more ledges and narrow dirt paths before dropping down to a few streams at the toe of a huge glacier. I kept my distance from the glacier, which constantly avalanches rock, and headed up the use trail on its left without event. I was practically running, reaching camp one in about an hour. There, I quickly found my gear cache, put on fresh socks and my climbing boots while eating and drinking a bit more. I carried my crampons a few hundred meters before strapping them on and setting off up the rotten couloir up to the 5300m camp. I was pleasantly surprised that the recent snowfall had made the route quite a bit more straightforward, and I crunched up the perfect early morning neve. Above 5300m, I opted to try a more direct route than I’d tried before, going to 5600m and then climbing directly up the face to 6100m. Unfortunately, upon reaching the 5600m camp, I missed the track to the base of the route, and was sent wandering across the face to the 5800m (19,000 ft) camp. Even more unfortunate was that no one had traversed back across the face to 6100m (20,200 ft), leaving me the unpleasant task of plunging through waist-deep snow alone in the dark. I eventually made it to the track at the base of Korzhenevskaya’s rock wall, and climbed steadily up to the 20,200 ft camp marking the base of the summit ridge.

The steep start of the summit ridge, 20,200 ft

A Russian climbs early on summit day

I made great time and hit the camp just at the very welcome sunrise. I removed my boots to massage my frozen toes and put on fresh socks. Things started to get bogged down when I looked for my gear cache, which I’d left well-secured a week earlier. After an hour of shoveling and probing with my axe, I’m fairly sure that a lot of my essential climbing equipment has been stolen. We’ll see what happens in the coming days, but I really would have liked my food, stove (for water) and down jacket. Quite a bit else is missing too, most of which I can borrow if I try Communism. Anyhow, this left me with about a liter and a half of water and some crackers. I turned my attention to the cliff above camp, climbing the mixed rock and snow (without my harness and gear…stolen) with relative ease. Quite quickly, I reached the 6400m (21,000 ft) high camp that nearly everyone uses for their summit bid. There, I met some members of the Russian 7 Summits Club team, and said hi to a friend, their guide Dimitri. We ended up sticking relatively close for the first few hundred meters, and I briefly roped up with Dimitri so we could check a route around a crevasse. For this reason, I hesitate to call my climb a solo. Even though I traveled independently throughout and was alone below 21,000 ft, there were certainly others along the route.

Spectacular views from Korzhenevskaya. Peak Chetrioch is the pyramid in the foreground

The summit ridge of Korzhenevskaya is quite beautiful. The surroundings are absolutely breathtaking, and the ridge winds up over several prominent snow towers before reaching the rocky summit. I could see a large group ahead making painstakingly slow progress on the first tower, my summit hopes plummeted. I simply didn’t have the time or energy to contribute much to this painstaking work. I couldn’t risk a night out, especially without the gear from my high cache. I took what I figured was a reasonable, if not selfish, action: I laid down and rested. Towards the end of the summit day, I managed to close the gap again in an attempt to help break trail, but by that point, the conditions had improved and the large group, including friends Boris, Laurent (Lux), Achim (Ger), Olga (Rus) topped out just before me.

On the summit of Korzhenevskaya 16 hours after starting from its base.

Approaching the summit of 7000m peaks, in my limited experience, really highlights the differences of these extreme altitudes. Operating up to 6000m (20,000 ft) can be difficult, but is quite manageable when acclimatized. I felt fantastic and was really cruising up to 20,000 on Korzhenevskaya. But up over 21-22,000 ft, it’s just so easy to get out of control with your breathing. Effort skyrockets. Putting together a series of steps is quite an ordeal. And it’s amazing, upon descent, energy and normality return as quickly as they left. I’ve quite a few done huge days like this in the Sierra, but this was my first time climbing over 9000 ft of vertical at such high elevations. I found the return of energy as the day went on quite unusual, but I simply had more oxygen available. I made it down to 6100m in a couple hours, where I met my French and French Canadian friends who forced delicious tea, fruit and cheesy mashed potatoes on me. Perfect dinner timing! This time, I found the way down to 5600m without too much trouble, and descended the fixed lines down the steep ice face with a few arm wraps as darkness fell. I slogged out to the 5300 and eventually the 5100m camp, where I reached my lower gear cache and had a handful of snacks and the last of my water before heading down.

Climbers descending Korzhenevskaya. The tents of the 21,000 ft high camp can be seen on the lower left.

Yours truly descending endless steep ridge. Photo ~22,000 ft.

By this point, sleep deprivation was starting to set in. The funny flickers of light that are the onset of hallucinations started becoming more and more vivid. At one point, I mistook a small rock for a critter. Spotting the cairns marking the faint trail became more and more difficult. I promptly lost the trail and found myself descending awful loose rock over ice into oblivion. I find these situations extremely challenging, and I’ve had a few of these experiences during 22-26ish hour climbs in the Sierra. They’re not good because you just want to sleep and you can still get hurt. My sense of balance was downright poor. After quite a while, I reached the toe of the glacier…ok, simple trail back to the pass and down the other side to the tent. I must have overshot the crossing, but I wisened up to the fact that I was simply descending a steepening drainage late in the night with a weakening headlamp battery and less than half a moon to help out. I stopped by the creek, drank some unfiltered water, had a snack and contemplated my options. I seriously considered bivying even though my tent was only an hour’s walk away if I could just find the trail. After some slow, pathetic reasoning, I realized that if I ascended the drainage, I’d certainly arrive at the glacier. “Because that’s the way it works,” I slurred out loud. I re-ascended a very painful few hundred meters before spotting the trail. After the cliffs on the other side of the pass, I lost the trail again, but this time, the navigation was much easier and I just beelined it for the last creek crossing. I imagined that the reflective tape of my tent was another climber’s headlamp and promptly passed out inside.

Peak Communism in evening light from high on Korzhenevskaya

This morning I hastily packed and made the quick glacier crossing back to base camp in time for breakfast. Camp is basically deserted, with a huge team of 15 or so on Peak Communism and nearly everyone else on Korzhenevskaya. I’ll rest for a bit and contemplate my options. I’m healthy, and a little sleepy, but not really sore or tired after my climb…just the way it should be.