A few nights ago I awoke at 2:00 to the jingle of my phone. Finding the willpower to extract myself from my sleeping bag is among my greatest challenges in the mountains, but I had no trouble getting dressed on this moonlight night. A sense of purpose filled me. The expedition has become simpler. Clearer.
The mission was unusual: retrieve my tent, stove, gas and a few other items from Camp 2 on Khan Tengri, return to base camp and recover as quickly as possible. After much deliberation, my focus has shifted entirely to Peak Pobeda, the colossal massif that presides over the Central Tien Shan.
I shouldered a nearly empty pack: just a pair of light gloves, a couple layers, a liter of water and three small snacks. Soon I was hopping across the glacier, only breaking my crisp rhythm to hop the occasional crevasse. The crunch of the ice felt good under my feet. The limitless freedom of the high mountains buoyed my spirit. This is the type of climbing I love most. Completely unencumbered. Light. Fast. Just my breath and the mountain at night.
Just above camp one, I reached my gear cache and swapped out my flimsy trail runners for clunky triple boots and crampons. As I donned my helmet and harness, a string of headlamps lit up the couloir above. One by one, I overtook the group. My rhythm intensified. Kick kick kick kick. I checked my watch. Over five hundred vertical meters per hour. This is how it feels to perform at my best. To be alive.
As a whiteout closed in, I took a swig of water and kicked upward into Khan’s infamous bottleneck. No rest until camp two. I danced in and out of giant popcorn, some blocks the size of buses, from a monster avalanche a few hours earlier.
I returned to base camp eight hours later, tired but content after the morning’s work. Now nothing other than waiting and targeting the right summit day remains. I believe in this team and our style. Paul is here, straight off Lenin Peak, where he spent four nights and five days in the solitary confinement of his tent at 20,000 ft in a blizzard. Juho, the Finnish phenom who turns twenty on Wednesday, is fresh off ascents of Lenin and Khan.
Storms continue to batter the summit of Pobeda with ruthless intensity. Nearly three feet of snow blankets the upper elevations each day. Sustained winds are at least 30 miles per hour. Temperatures colder than minus forty are commonplace.
The route involves a traverse of four miles of technical terrain, all over 23,000 ft. We require a summit day with less snow and wind. Now we settle into the rhythm of eating, resting, hiking, watching the sky and checking the forecast. The Ukrainians, Russians and Iranians have already begun their final push. We have spent countless hours discussing the forecast. We will know when the time is right.
One thing I’ve learned in the big mountains: you must believe. And once you believe, you must commit. This is serious business. We will know when it is time to go. And we will not hesitate.
I am strong. I am ready. I will try my hardest.