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Sunday, November 11, 2018

Kyrgyzstan Climbing - So Close to the Summit!

After spending a night cold enough to freeze our water bottles solid, even inside out tents, we got up around 4AM to pack up, eat a quick breakfast, and start our first summit attempt.  Of course, it's dark at that time, so we all had our headlamps on.  The reasons for starting so early include the fact that the glacier is less likely to swallow you when the temperature is lowest, and that bad weather usually arrives in the afternoon.  So, the idea is to get up and back down before bad weather arrives.  This means the team is obliged to maintain a fast pace, with few stops.

As far as the guide's pre-trip research indicated, no one had climbed this mountain before, which meant there was no established route.  The guides conferred on a route by looking at satellite photos, and then looking at the mountain itself once we arrived at advanced base camp.  This photo shows advanced base camp (see tents at lower right) and our route from there to the glacier.  We would have to go around the vertical edge of that big white glacier, by climbing up beside a steep and icy waterfall, to reach the peak.  Once at the glacier, we took a sharp right passing off the right side of the photo, out of view from below.

The first several hundred vertical feet of climbing were on that terrible scree terrain; loose rocks of all sizes.  At one point, Syco grabbed onto a three-foot tall rock to pull himself up, but the rock rolled loose.  He fell, landing flat on his back, which scared the crap out of us.  Luckily, his backpack broke his fall, and the huge rock fell beside him, instead of on him. We were all relieved to see him back on his feet in no time, as if nothing happened.

This mishap reminded us of the story Dave had told the night before about a recent trip he led in Mongolia, where a woman on the climb suffered a compound fracture in her leg while high up the mountain, in a region where no helicopter rescue was available.  They had to splint her leg, give her antibiotics and pain killers, and physically carry her down the mountain.  Dave and Misha had told us there was little chance of a helicopter rescue here either, so the idea that something like that could happen on our trip was in all our minds. 

After an hour or so of hiking, a little bit of dawn light started to filter into the sky.

Here we are approaching one of the more difficult passages of the climb, just at the icy waterfall.  Misha is preparing the rope so we can do a bit of rock climbing alongside the waterfall to get over this vertical rocky section.  Misha is out front, holding a rope, scouting the way up.

This was pretty daunting.  Being roped together meant no one could take a step up until the person behind was ready.  The worst point was where there was no good grip for our feet or our hands. All we could do was scoot up using the friction of body on rock, praying we wouldn't slide backward down the rock face.  Falling, even when roped in, is no fun: think broken nose, broken teeth, etc.

An hour later, we'd put on crampons and hiked a good ways up the glacier. There's an art to hiking on a glacier while roped together.  First of all, never step on the rope. Second, match your pace to the person in front of you, so there is little slack. The less slack there is, the shorter their fall into a hidden crevasse would be.  Third, don't jerk the rope too taught behind you.  Fourth, each footfall must be as close as possible to the same as the person in front of you, since stepping anywhere else may break through the surface to a hidden crevasse.

Here we are arriving at a brief resting point on the ridge.  Those are Misha's hands, reeling in the rope as each person arrives on this rocky outcrop where we stopped to decide where to go next.  That's my brother John, head down, trudging up the incline.

This spot afforded a spectacular view into the next valley.

A panoramic view of the same valley.  This is a truly remote place, where very few humans, if any, ever go.  Yes, there are still a few places like that left on our planet.  It makes me sick to think most of you are looking at this on a mobile phone screen.  If so, at least do me a favor and turn your phone sideways!

At this point, I was pretty exhausted, with the climbing, and the pace of the climbing, but the group was all in favor of continuing to the peak.  After a brief break, where we all tried to have some water and a snack, we returned to the wide open glacier, heading toward the peak.  The hiking became steeper and steeper as we approached the peak, with nothing but wide open white glacier in all directions.  I was just behind Misha, who was leading.  As we moved up,  he slowed down, searching with his ice axe for anything solid to use as an anchor.  Finally, he stopped and looked around.  He turned back to talk to Dave, saying it wasn't safe to continue without any anchor points, as there was a danger the seven of us could set off an avalanche.  Dave agreed with Misha, and we were all content to defer to their expert judgment.  At the end of the trip, we learned that one of Misha's best friends, an elite mountain climbing guide had died in an avalanche about a month before, in bad weather on Lenin Peak.

Knowing we'd reached our high point for the day, we all paused and looked around.  Here's what the peak looked like from where I was.  We estimated we were between one and two hundred feet from the top.  So close!

The tracks we made are visible as a line across the glacier leading up to the point where we've stopped.

This view shows the entire valley, all the way back to our base camp; all the way back to where we saw our shepherd on horseback in my second article on this trip.  In the middle of the river bed, way down there, you can even see the giant boulder we hiked past in another photo from my first article on this trip.  The boulder looks like a big black speck in the river bed about one sixth of the way up from the edge of the glacier.

In this photo (taken by Syco), you can see how photography is a bit of a challenge in this situation.  My pack is resting against my leg. The camera had to be packed away any time we were on the move.  I could only take photos when the whole group was stopping for a time.  It took time to take off the pack, get out the camera, take a few photos, then pack it away again.

After this, we turned back and headed down the mountain.  It was then that Dave, at the lead of his rope, was checking for crevasses with his ice axe, and dropped into one suddenly.  Fortunately, everyone was doing just as they should, the rope was taught between team members, and Alan and Rhys immediately fell back and dug in with their crampons and ice axes, securing Dave at the edge of the crevasse.  He'd only sank in up to his chest, catching his crampons on the far side of the crevasse.  He was able to leverage himself back out of it.  You can imagine how frustrating it was that my camera was packed away at this point!

A short while later, we arrived back at the icy waterfall we'd climbed on the way up.  Misha spent a few minutes deciding the best way to descend.  Here's Rhys rappelling down the icy waterfall we'd passed on the way up.

The view of the valley from up here, at this time of day, was beautiful.

This article is the third in a series about a truly adventurous mountain climbing trip my brother and I took to a remote part of southeastern Kyrgyzstan, near the Chinese border.

Click here to see the first article, which as all about getting to base camp. 

Click here to see the second article, about setting up advanced base camp, and training on the glacier.

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