We humans ultimately consist of a mixture of contrasts; hope and despair, light and shade, stress and contentment, fear and joy. No-one can claim to live a fulfilled life if they choose to exist only in the median range of these abstractions. There were times on the expedition when I questioned myself, my motivations, and even questioned my sanity. The monotony of Base Camp in particular, allowed time for introspection. Whilst lying on the cold floor of the yurt, my mind would drift towards common themes, such as the prospect of my warm bed at home, the allure of society’s vices, and the familiarity and predictability of the Western world. No trace of hardship or danger. At such moments, it was the appeal of security offered by a ‘regular’ life that dominated; the spirit which dooms the canary to its caged existence, the natural tendency of this evolved ape to follow the path of least resistance.
On the other hand, as I gazed towards the Pamir Mountains under moonlight and saw Lenin Peak beckon me with its shimmering glaciers, I became re-inspired, gripped by a dream once again, and I felt a desperate need to get the adventure underway.
This is the story of that adventure, typed up from the notebook that I kept with me on the mountain.
Day 1 – 2 (Base Camp) – 15/08/16
The rumbles of thunder seems to have left us, the product of storms that barely grazed us and now drift across the plains to the North. They are some of the highest plains on Earth, but lower than the alpine meadow in which we now reside. The storm may have passed, but in its wake lies a capricious blanket of cloud, which resolutely obscures the towering walls of ice to the South, and spits sleet at us intermittently. We are currently sat at Base Camp, 3700m above sea level. Therein lies the explanation for the penetrating chill in the air, yet undoubtedly this bleak encampment shall echo in our recollection as the epitome of paradise as we progress further up the mountain, fondly dreaming of the warmth, comfort and safety it so benignly offers.
I am getting ahead of myself, perhaps because my mind is so keen to project my thoughts forward at this moment in time, but instead I shall cast my mind back, and attempt to briefly recount how we arrived here.
The events that unfolded immediately after landing at Osh Airport all transpired extremely smoothly. This was surprising for James and I, not because we hadn’t planned ahead, but because in a country as economically corrupt as Kyrgyzstan, we could not be 100% sure that our prior arrangements with a seemingly dubious agency would actually come through. Nevertheless, our trust was well placed, and our contact was waiting for us as promised; not only present in person, but complete with a vehicle and the border zone permits that had been arranged so last-minute. There was one slight hitch though, the result of details lost in translation.
We had planned to spend the day in Osh, in order to buy some gas for our Jetboils prior to spending a restful night in a guesthouse, followed by a lift to the Pamir Mountains the following day. However, according to our impetuous contact, the drive to Base Camp was a ‘now or never’ situation. Initial protestations aside, we became compliant once we learned that we could procure our precious cooking gas from Base Camp after all, and thus soon warmed to the idea of an extra day of acclimatisation.
The drive took about five hours, and I am ashamed to admit that I slept through a lot of it, despite originally intending to watch the Kyrgyz countryside pass me by. It is not often that one gets such an opportunity, but travel-induced drowsiness overpowered me. The final hour was entirely off-road, and uncomfortable for passengers. The benefit of this discomfort was the way in which it caused one to become so unavoidably awake. The contrast in scenery to that we had left behind was nothing less than striking. Surrounding Osh was rolling terrain, dust and stifling heat; but here, in this new world of ours, the mountains on the horizon could no longer be mistaken for hills. A great plain lay ahead of us, devoid of trees, but certainly not devoid of life, with herds of cattle and horses roaming freely, feeding upon the barren grassland. In fact, it was more of a plateau than a plain, due to its 3000m elevation, and across this open expanse we caught our first glimpse of the Pamir Mountains. The tiredness vacated my body all at once, forced out by emotions that escape articulation. The peaks were terribly imposing, even from such a distance. Clearly there is a reason why this mountain range is often referred to as ‘the roof of the world’. Clouds swirled around the stoic giants, occasionally revealing a lofty ridgeline or glacier, but leaving much to the imagination. Indeed, I was not able to discern where the upper limits of the mountains ended and lower limits of the sky began – the overwhelming immensity of the panorama caused two to become one. Lenin Peak itself was the most gargantuan of all the outcrops, and it only grew larger as we progressed along the bumpy, winding road that led to Base Camp.
If I haven’t made it clear enough already, Lenin Peak is a big beast (7134m in height), and as a result it must be tackled in a particular manner in order to avoid certain death. To be specific; one needs to acclimatise, which, in the simplest terms, means climbing high and sleeping low, slowly adapting to the low air pressure and accruing the extra red blood cells required to survive at extreme altitude. Combine that with the overwhelming distances involved, and the associated crippling fatigue, and therein lies the reason for having several camps on the mountain. In total, there are four (including Base Camp), but some people choose to add a fifth on the West ridge. Base Camp is self-explanatory. Sitting at 3700m in a large meadow, it is well kitted out, and our accommodation currently consists of a traditional nomadic yurt, both spacious and comfortable, complete with hot meals available on request from our generous hosts. I’m sure I will come to describe the higher camps in greater detail in future log entries, but for now it is sufficient to say that they will undoubtedly depreciate exponentially in terms of facilities and air temperature. It already feels cold here – summertime snowfall is not uncommon at this altitude.
Anyway, we arrived at Base Camp at about 13:00, which left plenty of hours in the day. We went for a quick walk up to the Onion Fields at 3900m before coming down for dinner and retiring for a very early night. I woke up at midnight needing a piss, but any annoyance I felt at my sleep being disturbed rapidly dissolved as I stepped outside and looked around. The skies had cleared and the moon shone onto Lenin Peak, illuminating the serac-covered snow field of the North Face, limned against the dark canvas of deep night. Even the stars overhead seemed to tremble at the mountain’s transcendence. The West ridge – the last leg of our planned route – was clearly visible, but at that moment it seemed like an impossible dream, far beyond the reach of mortal men. And yet dreams are what sustain us. I returned to bed that night with mixed feelings that kept me from sleep for a little while.
This morning we awoke fairly early, with the goal of completing a decent acclimatisation climb before the weather deteriorated. To the West of Base Camp is an appealing ridgeline that eventually culminates in a 4800m peak overlooking a corrie. The final sections looked to be steep and icy, and (to put it simply) we could not be arsed with it, so we instead set the goal of reaching the preliminary peak which boasted a respectable altitude of 4339m. That was higher than James had ever been before, and only 470m lower than my personal best effort (Mont Blanc), therefore we figured that if we could do it in good time without suffering any ill effects then it would bode well for the future. Needless to say, we were up and down in four and a half hours, which was very satisfactory. Whilst on our descent (most of which we ran), we passed several teams who still had half the climb remaining. Unfortunately for them, the storm that had been accurately forecasted was not far away. The sky darkened rapidly, and began bombarding us with hailstones as we made our final 1km dash to the yurt. The teams who are still up on the ridge must have had a really bad time of it, but I suppose it’s their fault for having a lie-in!
Day 3 (Base Camp – Camp 1) – 16/08/16
After two days at Base Camp, we felt ready to move onto the next location. Officially called ‘Camp One’, it is more commonly referred to as ‘Advanced Base Camp’, as it still offers many amenities (albeit at twice the price). A distance of 12km and a height gain of 700m separated us from this objective, a big challenge on its own, notwithstanding the fact we had 92kg of kit between us. Fortunately, the spring snow had mostly disappeared from the route, allowing access for horses. The locals are more than happy to ferry kit for climbers, at a price of $2 a kilogram. Unfortunately though, we didn’t bring much cash with us, so 25kg was all we could afford to hand over, and the remaining 67kg had go on our backs.
We started off at about 08:30, overtaking a lot of people in the first hour. The trek to the Onion Field was familiar to us, but as we climbed over the Puteshestvennikov Pass at 4000m (dodging falling rocks on the way up), we were treated to an amazing vista. A mind-blowing view lay before us – a crazy expanse of mountains and glaciers, the scale of which was hard to comprehend, let alone describe. We pushed on and contoured the Western side of the valley, our pace slowing as the altitude and weight began to take its toll on our bodies. Hours passed, the scenery never ceased to inspire awe, but our legs and lungs were showing signs of fatigue. We were thankful indeed when we spotted the tents of Camp One sitting on a moraine of the huge Lenin Glacier. But then we saw more tents, in various directions. Begrudgingly, I lost the game of rock-paper-scissors and had to be the one to run ahead and scout for the ‘Fortune Tour’ encampment. After I found it I returned to discover James asleep on the path where I had left him. One last burst of energy enabled us to cross an icefield and ascend some scree, and then at last we were re-united with the rest of our kit at 4400m altitude.
Needless to say, our tiny Vango tent was erected in record time, and it was with great satisfaction that we climbed into our sleeping bags. I think my sleeping bag is my favourite place in the world. James is suffering from a migraine (almost certainly altitude related) so he went to sleep before last-light, whereas I have stayed up a little later to work on the plan. I have been informed that a nearby 5200m peak offers a much better acclimatisation option than a trip up to Camp Two and back, due to it being inherently safer and less time-consuming. We could climb it in half a day, sleep up there, and then head back early the following day, expending minimal energy and potentially gaining a lot of new red blood cells. But first we need a full day off to rest. Patience is the key to this mountain. Patience is the key to many things.
Day 4 (Camp 1) – 17/08/16
We awoke at about 8am this morning, mainly due to the heat of the powerful sun. Strangely though, it had snowed overnight, which created a paradoxical environment. The fresh snow on the moraine did not linger for more than about an hour. With nothing much on the agenda, we were content to have a lazy day consisting of eating, napping, kit admin, and paying $20 for some temperamental Wi-Fi. We have also treated ourselves to a stay in one of the large expedition tents, in which I now reside as I write. It is so fucking bright here. The thin canvas does not offer much respite from the blinding snowfields that surround us, especially when the sun is shining. Groups of climbers have been in and out all day, some going up the glacier, and some just returning. Everyone appears to be a bit pessimistic about the conditions higher up. It seems to have been a while since the summit was last attained. On the other hand, James and I are very much looking forward to our little adventure tomorrow, especially if the weather forecast holds true. His headache has improved a bit too.
Day 5 (Camp 1 – 5050m) – 18/08/16
It’s never a good start to the day when you wake up to discover your sleeping bag is wet. We were both perplexed as to how it happened, surely condensation alone couldn’t drench a bag. No leak in the roof was evident. We were also 95% sure that we hadn’t simultaneously pissed ourselves. Anyway, our departure was delayed by an hour and a half as we dried them out as best we could. We set off at about 08:45. The weather was more of what we have become accustomed to; snow flurries punctuated by intermittent patches of blue sky and burning sunshine. Sometimes we caught glimpses of the highest peaks, but most of the time they stayed hidden in cloud. Lenin seemed to be particularly shy today. We weren’t actually entirely sure where we were going for most of the day, directed only by vague information from a Kazakh mountain guide, and the antiquated Soviet-era map I possessed. We crossed a large glacial moraine to our South-West before spotting a promising track on a spur that dissected the valley. So we climbed it, hoping all the while that it wouldn’t be a wasted effort. A couple of hours later, we were in a corrie, and then crossed a small snowfield to reach the base of the final climb to our objective. Our altitude at that point was 4750m, and we sure were feeling it – a couple of other teams overtook us as we gasped for air. No problem, we weren’t in a rush.
A steep 300m climb later and we were on top the ridge. I’m bit concerned about James though; his headache has returned with a vengeance. He was a lot slower than me on the climb, and needed regular breaks, which isn’t typical of him at all. We actually set up camp here just in time; the snow that had been threatening to dump on us all day, finally came down. This wasn’t a problem, and we weren’t worried, but then an ominous thunderclap permeated through the enveloping whiteness. This development instantly changed the tone. At 5050m altitude, in a conductive tent, we were acutely aware of how exposed to lightning strikes we were. We were literally inside an electrical storm, and I swear the very air around us felt like it was charged with static. A nerve-racking 30 minutes ensued, with several more instances of thunder, before the storm passed us by, leaving clearer air in its wake. So now we wait, cooking food, melting snow, pissing in our piss bottles, waiting for dawn and the promise of a 5200m peak under clear skies.
Day 6 (5050m – Camp 1) – 19/08/16
I awoke with a severe hangover. At least that is what it felt like – the familiar combination of splitting headache and parched throat. This acclimatisation lark is bloody unpleasant. My enthusiasm for the short ridge-traverse to the summit had completely disappeared. No words on the subject were exchanged, but I knew James felt the same. He looked even more ill than I did. Our morning routine commenced at a slow pace, due to both the punishing cold and our sluggish condition. When the teams around us packed up and headed down, we opted to follow suit. The weather was not as good as we had been expecting because there was a lot of cloud, but now and again it opened up and we were treated the spectacular view of the plains to the North. The Alay Mountains could be seen on the horizon, the smaller neighbours of the Pamir Mountains. It appeared to me as the archetype of visual juxtaposition What great, temporal force of nature could have carved out such a bizarre landscape?
The route back to Camp One was simple, and it took us no longer than two hours. This gave us a whole afternoon of rest and recuperation, causing me to decide that we are ready to venture out onto the treacherous Lenin glacier as soon as tomorrow morning. Our night at 5000m was spent mostly in discomfort, so I cannot imagine that Camp Two at 5300m will be an improvement, but why delay the inevitable? In all seriousness though, this is where the expedition begins properly. Life is about to get tough, and we will be taking more than a few risks.
Day 7 (Camp 1 – Camp 2) – 20/08/16
We overslept by an hour and woke at 04:00. This stressed me out because I did not want to be among the last teams making the daring trek to Camp Two. Our control over the hazards that lie ahead is minimal, but at least we can mitigate some of them by always being on the move before the sun climbs too high in the sky. The sun is our enemy out here. Most of the route is visible from Camp One, and also visible was a vast field of fresh avalanche debris. The slide must have occurred yesterday, and it looked like it had broken off from the very top of the North face. Some sections of the trail had been obliterated, but fortunately no-one had been caught in it, or at least we hadn’t heard any news to that effect. There hasn’t been any heavy snowfall for some time, so I can only assume that wind-slab was to blame. We have been repeatedly told that it is windy as fuck on the West ridge. Too windy and too cold. I guess we’ll find out.
Spurred on by a mixture of fear and excitement, we were on the glacier, roped up and good to go by 06:00 with only a few teams ahead of us. A two-man team is not ideal for traversing glaciers, because if one of us were to take a crevasse fall, there is no guarantee that the other man will be able to self-arrest and put in a good anchor. It is in fact very possible that he would be dragged in to join his fellow climber in an unpleasant death. The matter of the rescue procedure is also fairly complex, assuming the fallen climber is still alive. We had practiced our haulage systems but weren’t sure how well they would work in a real situation. In short, it would be best to avoid the crevasses. Easier said than done when you can’t see half of the bastards. In our packs were our sleeping bags, the tent, accompanying essentials, victuals to be consumed, as well as two extra day’s rations to cache – one each for Camp Two and Three. The distant echoes of collapsing seracs from indeterminate locations rippled through the dawn air, which didn’t do our fragile nerves any favours. But there was no avoiding it, it was time to go up.
For the most part, the climb was tedious and exhausting, but there were some exciting sections. The first visible crevasses were thin enough to be jumped over, but they were forgotten when compared to the yawning chasms just 100m higher up. They had to be carefully negotiated. A 50m section of the climb was so steep it was protected with fixed lines, but we chose to ignore them and free-climbed up the route, relishing the exposure. The debris field was even more terrifying when observed close up; some of the ice boulders were the size of cars, and several huge crevasses had been completely filled by the avalanche. This encouraged us to pick up the pace slightly, but our progress still felt so painfully slow. It’s like walking in slow-motion.
Later in the morning, when the camp was in sight, we had a lucky escape. The last mile is a traverse under the towering slopes of the north face, across a snow field that is fairly level, and heavily crevassed (despite appearances to the contrary). In our ignorance, and due to the illusion of safety (some other teams hadn’t even bothered to rope up), we took our five minute rest stop next to each other rather than 20m apart. James commented something about the beauty of our surroundings, and he was right: a tranquil river of ice snaked through the valley below us, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. I retorted that one should not forget the danger too. At that moment, right on cue, I took a singular step to my left, and was horrified when my foot went through the snow and found nothing but void underneath. I hastily retrieved it, and stared at the black space next to me, realizing that we were both sat atop a huge crevasse! I stayed completely still. The snow bridge could have collapsed at any moment. James seemed to be in a safer position, so I told him to move away carefully and tighten the rope, thus enabling me to move from my precarious predicament. To my astonishment he first asked whether I would like my share of hot juice from the flask he was holding. “Fucking chuck it”, was my reply. Duly he did just that, and I was able to escape without further drama.
Thirty incident-free minutes later, we were at Camp Two, in a location known as ‘The Frying Pan’. The camp had been relocated slightly, since an avalanche in 1990 had scored a direct hit, tragically ending the lives of 43 climbers. Most of the bodies were never found, and the body parts that now litter the moraine below have never been formally identified. Anyway, Camp Two in late-season 2016 is not a nice place; rubbish everywhere, old tents everywhere, piss everywhere, and of course – crevasses. It’s amazing how pleasantly hot it gets here in the daytime though. It is now 14:00 and I am not in my sleeping bag because the tent is like a sauna. We’ll be setting off early tomorrow, but there is plenty of time to rest before then.
Day 8 (Camp 2 – Camp 3 – Camp 1) – 21/08/16
The route to Camp Three – another excursion into the unknown. I had studied the map intently, and read various descriptions online, but I still did not know quite what to expect. We were only popping up briefly for acclimatisation purposes, so we left the tent erected with the majority of our kit inside. It was nice to climb light and reap the benefits of the improved speed and agility, but it was soon countered as the air got even thinner. The climb got steeper too. What had looked from afar to be a small incline on the spur, actually turned out to be a 600m, seemingly interminable battle against gravity. It ended eventually though, as all hills do. Once on top, we pretty much stumbled into Camp Three, only four hours after setting off from Camp Two. The weather had been incredibly good all morning, so I was certain that successful summiteers would soon be returning from the West ridge. We didn’t see any though.
Camp Three is a desolate place. At 6100m above sea level it is desperately cold and exposed, with no immediate higher ground to the South to buffer the constant onslaught of the wind. Some tents were almost completely buried by spindrift, and the only signs of life were a Russian guide and his client attempting to salvage theirs. For some reason he got really pissed off when I asked him to take a photo. We pushed on through the camp and admired the view towards Tajikistan. In fact, we were probably already in Tajikistan at that point because Lenin Peak’s summit ridge officially denotes the border. Anyway, it was our first proper look at the Pamir range, because the immensity of Lenin Peak itself had blocked our view up to that point. Nothing but huge mountains filled the vista, and everything was coated in ice and snow. It looked so inaccessible, so inhabitable, so wild and pure. It is a region of the globe that humans have so far failed to tame, and hopefully it remains inviolate for many years to come.
However, we could ill-afford to linger (James’s beard had started to freeze), so after caching some food in a location that we hoped we would re-discover, we made a rapid descent back down to Camp Two. Once there, we ummed and ahh’d for an hour or two about the perils of heading back down to Camp One in the heat of the day, before being eventually incited to pack our kit up when we saw others leaving. We buried the tent along with another food cache and reached Camp One just 90 minutes later. I was glad that James led that section because I became so drenched in sweat that my sunglasses steamed up, rendering me effectively blind. However, I dared not remove them for fear of going blind for real from all the UV rays. My knees were also giving me a lot of pain, which was very aggravating. Even more aggravating was staggering into Camp One to discover that the Wi-Fi was broken. This sounds petty, but I’m keen to check the weather forecast, not to mention the need to let our loved ones know we are still in one piece.
We spent the evening in the warmth of the communal yurt, drinking tea and playing cards. A large Spanish team sat opposite us, and they were in extremely high spirits – chatting jovially and singing along to Led Zeppelin. The reason for their morale soon became apparent. Well, two reasons really. First was surely the copious infusions of cannabis oil in their tea, and the second was the pizza buffet that was carried to their table. The size of this meal can only be described as stupendous. The aroma wafted in our direction and I have seldom felt so envious. We were so grateful when we were offered the leftovers, and before long we were part of the group, chatting along merrily. It was surreal; stuffing our faces with pizza at 4400m, listening to classic rock, and generally revelling in the company of stoned Spaniards.
Day 9 (Camp 1 – Base Camp) – 22/08/16
A rest day. We had spent the night in one of the Gucci expedition tents courtesy of ‘Central Asia Tour’. It was $5 more than the shack that ‘Fortune Tour’ offered, but at least the former wasn’t populated with horseflies. We waited at Camp One until 16:00, only be told that the Wi-Fi was still broken, then begrudgingly made our way down to Base Camp. It feels no warmer at 3700m, but it is nice to see grass again. We bought two beers each, drank them over some cards (I fucking wish we knew of more card games than just Shithead and Twist), then retired to bed in one of the smelly yurts.
Day 10 (Base Camp) – 23/08/16
Another rest day. Spending time down here should give our bodies a chance to properly recover and produce more red blood cells. It has been a day of complete inactivity, which is not my speciality. I have also finished the only book I brought with me. The most notable happening was us sneaking into one of the more luxurious Base Camps for a free hot shower. This evening we were joined in our yurt by a very tired looking Russian dude who announced he had just came all the way down from the summit, solo. Very impressive. During all our time here, and conversations with dozens of teams, he is the first person we have encountered who has been successful. Most people have been content with reaching Camp Three. James and I have more ambition than that, despite the fact that the odds are massively stacked against us. I have extracted as much information from him about the summit route as the language barrier allows.
Day 11 (Base Camp – Camp 1) – 24/08/16
Another rest day, kind of. We trekked back up to Camp One this afternoon. Thankfully our kit was exactly where we had left it. Our summit bid has officially begun! The weather forecast is lining up perfectly with our plan; the winds which have plagued climbers all season look like they’re set to drop off on the morning of the 27th, and this is combined with the promise of clear skies. We cannot realistically ask for a better outlook. This evening we treated ourselves to a meal from the ‘Central Asia Tour’ kitchen. We have enviously watched other climbers enjoy these meals on several past occasions, but tonight it was our turn to indulge. We were served what was alleged to be the Kyrgyz national dish, known locally as ‘munte’. It was delicious, and now we are lying in bed with full stomachs and high hopes. I think we can do it.
Author’s Note: This is where my Lenin Peak logbook ends. Evidently I was too focused on the task ahead to waste any energy writing my diary. Or perhaps just lazy – I have a habit of not finishing logbooks. Anyway, I shall describe the rest of the expedition retrospectively.
Day 12 (Camp 1 – Camp 2) – 25/08/16
There was no sleeping through the alarm on this morning; we were exceedingly efficient and on the glacier ahead of schedule. I led most of the route. I think the toil of the previous 11 days was starting to catch up with me at this point. I hadn’t been eating as well as James, because I’m a very fussy eater and (with the exception of munte) found the local food hard to stomach. Regardless of the reason, I felt weak, which was very frustrating. James and I are usually fairly evenly matched when it comes to fitness, but I was a long way from my prime. I was therefore quite surprised when we arrived at Camp Two a full 30 minutes faster than we had done the first time around. It took us a little while to find where we had buried our tent and food, but after an hour of concerted digging it was exhumed. By then we were so used to tent routine that everything was conducted unconsciously: pitch the tent, collect clean snow, get in your sleeping bag, melt snow, boil water, cook food, make a hot drink, put water bottles, your boots and gas in your sleeping bag, then sleep. Or at least attempt to sleep.
Day 13 (Camp 2 – Camp 3) – 26/08/16
We took a little longer on the climb to Camp Three the second time around, partially due to the extra weight we were carrying, but mostly due to an awareness of the need to preserve energy. Upon arriving, we began searching for a suitable campsite, because this time we were there to stay. We did not know for how long. To our disgust, we soon discovered that there was excrement everywhere. Incidentally, as I was to learn later on, going for a shit at 6100m in -30 Celsius wind-chill ranks in my top ten worst experiences ever. Hygiene had been an issue throughout the whole trip, but at least at the lower camps there were semblances of toilets in designated areas. We realised that we would have to walk pretty damn far to ensure we collected clean snow for drinking water. We needed to find our food too. This time my GPS pinpointed the site of the food cache without any difficulty, and I was relieved to find it was undisturbed. All that was left to do was dig in the tent as much as possible. We hoped that if we built the walls sufficiently high, then we would get some protection from the relentless wind. It would have been disastrous if our tent failed us up there.
We were suffering. My fingers were sore and lacking in dexterity, my lips were cracked and bleeding, and I was plagued with painful coughing fits. Whenever I tried to sleep I would wake up only minutes later gasping for air, as if I was being asphyxiated. And the cold…. there was just no escape from the cold. Ice crystals blanketed everything in the tent. The simplest of tasks became a battle. I started to dread the next time I would need to piss, just because it required me to partly extract myself from the depths of my sleeping bag.
I think the following quote sums up our experience, from the Polar diary of Umberto Cagni, referring to the long Arctic Night: “The spirit gets blunted more and more and the mind of everybody is invaded by an odd indifference for everything not material and not present …Every remembrance of the time when we led a less animal-like existence engenders longing, and with it a remote kind of suffering.” While Camp Three felt like the Cagni’s Arctic; isolated, cruel, and fucking freezing, it also provided the opportunity of perspective. Only three things really mattered to me up there; our subsistence, our safety, and the summit. In theory we had enough food to hold out up there for two days, perhaps three at a push. This allowed for more than one summit attempt, which had been the plan all along. But in truth, I knew we had only one shot, and it came tomorrow. Our bodies would only degrade further the longer we spent waiting on the ridge, and the weather window would close as quickly as it had opened.
Day 14 (Camp 3 – Summit – Camp 3) – 27/08/16
I was so fucked on this day that I don’t think my description of it is as good as James’s. He recalls the following:
“We had been asleep only for a few hours when the alarm interrupted our much-needed rest. The time was 01:30. The wind, which had been easing off as we went to sleep, was now howling outside of the tent. Condensation billowed from our burnt lungs, filling up the tent and freezing instantly on the low hanging roof. After fourteen days of hard toil we were now camped at an altitude of 6100m, on the edge of the final desolate encampment before the summit of Peak Lenin.
I extracted the water and gas, along with my boots, from the inside of my sleeping bag, where they had been all night in order to prevent them from freezing solid. Slowly, I got to work boiling the water for coffee and porridge. As the water was boiling I closed my eyes and recalled the events of the previous two weeks.
We had set off from Base Camp heavily laden; each carrying 34kg of food and equipment that would be needed to keep us alive over the course of our adventure. As we were to attempt the mountain independently, without a professional guide or porters, it was entirely up to the two of us to transport the kit we would need up to the higher camps. These trips to progressively higher altitudes, where we would bury supplies, also served well in helping us to acclimatise to the significantly harder respiration further up the mountain. In order to minimisethe risk from objective dangers such as avalanche or crevasse fall, we would always move early, usually breaking camp at around 04:00 am, while the mountain was still well frozen. Occasionally the heavy silence would be broken and the boom of falling seracs or the roar of an avalanche would echo around the mountains. These ominous reverberations constantly tormented us, along with the cracks and hisses that accompany walking on a glacier, or the tinkling of rocks tumbling down some distant couloir. The physiological effects of extreme altitude also wore us down. Every step of the climb was a battle; heart rates would sky rocket, oxygen-starved muscles would scream in protest and the deafening pound of blood rushing to the brain was constant. Each day was fraught with its own unique brand of suffering, punctuated only by brief moments of lucidity in which the sheer beauty of the vast, grandiose landscape could be fleetingly savoured.
It was 03:30 am before we had managed to dress and eat. The cold sapped our strength and the wind, as it battered our small tent, ate our motivation. Everything was frozen, making the smallest of tasks a monumental undertaking. Outside of the tent the cold was absolute and my beard was frozen almost instantly. We stumbled down 200m of snow slope, moving fast in order to warm up, and found ourselves at the start of the summit ridge. Five kilometres, and more than a thousand vertical metres, separated us from the summit. Far ahead of us two distant head torches twinkled faintly. We were the second party to leave the final camp.
Grudgingly, we began to climb. Gusts of icy wind blasted spindrift into our faces and chilled us to the core. The wind-chill was undoubtedly -40 Celsius or less. The narrow beams of ethereal light from our head torches were only just bright enough to navigate with, and the dark voids on either side of us loomed threateningly. Sunrise was still more than four hours away, and with no sign of it on the horizon, a wonderful blanket of stars covered the sky. We pressed on, heads bowed, pausing frequently to gasp for oxygen.
It soon became clear that Simon’s gloves were not up to their task. His fingers had become painfully cold and were starting to lose feeling in the tips. Inside of my thick mittens my hands were warm, so we decided to swap. We would crack on while Simon’s hands thawed and then swap back once mine had become intolerably cold. Wearily, we resumed our trudge up and along the seemingly endless ridge.
When the first beams of light cracked over the jagged horizon I fell to my knees in celebration. The joy that I felt for these rays of sunlight that were to release us from the cruel, bitter frost of utter dark was immeasurable. We had reached a height of 6500m, and the ridge was becoming much steeper. The incline increased up to a sharp point beyond which we could see no further. The knowledge that direct sunlight lay somewhere over the top of this steep section, as well as a cup of hot chocolate, gave us new strength and we completed the climb without too much trouble. Soon afterwards we were bathed in glorious sunshine with the Pamir Mountains spread below as far as the eye could see. Countless snow-capped peaks and ridges protruded defiantly from the earth swollen with thousands of tons of ice. It was incredible and surreal. To be so high above these incredible mountains felt impossible; we were beyond miniscule in this vast landscape.
We continued to climb. Our pace grew ever slower and frequent rest periods became necessary. We fried in the intense UV and our throats were so parched from the harsh, dry air that swallowing became impossible. Eventually we rounded a crag to find ourselves gazing over one final snowfield towards the summit plateau. We checked the altimeter. We had reached over 7000m, but the highest point of the plateau still seemed a long way off, hidden from view by false summits. We started moving lethargically across the last snowfield and once across stopped for snacks and water. It was at this point Simon vocalized thoughts about turning back. The altitude, as well as exhaustion, was really slowing us down and every metre we gained only added to the struggle. But the weather had become calm, the sky a deep, luxurious blue. with the only hints of cloud far below us. We pushed on.
We stumbled onto the summit, 7134m, at 10:48 am. I sat down amongst the flags, next to the bust of Vladimir Lenin that some lunatics had managed to place on the summit, as Simon climbed the last few steps. He looked down at me, a huge, dazed grin plastered across his face, before collapsing on top of me. We rolled over, took a photo and then sat in silence for about a minute, lost to the moment. There was almost no wind now and we towered over the landscape in a dreamlike state of tranquillity. Simon looked round suddenly, and murmured, “I’m going back down”.
We rose, and began to stagger back down the mountain.”
James struggled the most with the effects of altitude during the acclimatisation phase, but never to the point of complete debilitation. So I was just as surprised as he was – when on the summit ridge at 6500m – I started slowing down. This time it was my turn to be looked after. My turn to suffer. The effect that altitude sickness has on the mind and body is hard to describe, but the overriding sensations I remember were ones of nausea, weakness, and de-personalisation. The important thing to do when these symptoms appear is to immediately go back down, otherwise collapse and eventual death tends to be the result. In my stubbornness I opted to keep on climbing. This is where my memory of summit day starts to fade, but at about 7000m I had an ephemeral moment of lucidity. The summit was only about 30 minutes away, and yet I felt utterly spent. Forming coherent sentences was extremely hard work indeed, but I was able to tell James that I wanted to go back down.
Mountaineering is the purest form of escapism. At that point in that godforsaken place, every other decision I had ever made in the last 24 years seemed to be only a triviality; for the only choice I had left was concerning my life. But for some reason, I chose to risk it, to put everything on the line, to gamble with my very existence – and so, a few minutes later, I was tortuously moving uphill again. I wanted the summit badly. Perhaps too badly, for I was breaking rule number one; I was taking a risk that was unjustifiable. I was knocking on death’s door and hoping that he wouldn’t answer. I was able to stagger the last few metres onto the summit, where I collapsed on top of James in an embrace, overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. Unlike on Mont Blanc (summited a year previously), there were no tears, for I was simply too out of it. We could not linger up there, because every second I spent above 6500m was negatively impacting on my survivability. Obligatory summit photos done, I was on the route back to Camp Three, extremely thankful that gravity was on my side. I’m still not entirely sure how I made it. I was certainly delirious for most of the return journey; my mind almost fully severed from my body, focusing only on staying conscious and putting one foot in front of the other. I wanted to stop and rest more than anything, but I was concerned that I might never get up again.
The next vivid memory that I can recount was the last few metres to the tent – the ultimate safe haven – which at that point seemed more luxurious than any 5* hotel I had ever stayed in. I fell through the unzipped doors and immediately lit the Jetboil to prepare a celebratory cup of tea. 10 hours had elapsed since we initially left this place, which wasn’t bad considering that the average for a summit push is 15. James arrived approximately 20 minutes after me. In my involuntary absence he had taken it upon himself to carry our shared pack back singlehandedly. This was a truly superhuman effort, and the resultant fatigue was evident. The combination of exhaustion and euphoria was a strange feeling. We then both slept for about 18 hours.
Day 15 (and onwards)
One memory that really sticks in my mind from the descent from Camp Three is the excruciating pain in my knees as we came down the glacier. Other than that though, we made the long march back to Base Camp all in one day and thankfully without incident. Once there, we had to wait a couple of days before a lift back to Osh became available. The climbing season had finished and everything was shutting down. We knew that in a matter of weeks this benign valley would be ravaged by autumn’s storms and snows. Then winter would follow, and the mercury would plummet to unimaginable lows. We had summited just in time.
I turned to the South one last time before we left the valley. The mountain looked no different. The same outline on the horizon – so distant, so impossibly huge. It felt like I was just waking up from an exceptionally long slumber. Then the doubt crept in. The same doubt one has when they awake from the midst of a dream and are thrust back into the vagaries of reality. Was it true? Did it happen? I clutched at my precious memories like a man who has nothing else left to defend. Dreams sustain us, but they can also drive us mad. Perhaps Lenin Peak can only be conquered by those who dare dream they can do so. Not many humans put themselves in such situations, and fewer still prevail victorious. But the ignominy of failure never mattered to me. The worst outcome would have been to lose sight of my dreams.
The wind, that faithful messenger of the mountain, whispered to me in soft tones. For once, I was listening.
“Only in dreams can I be approached, only in dreams can I be understood.”
Of course. I had really known it all along – dreams are the gateway to the purest form of reality. One just has to be stubborn enough to suffer for them.