Pik Chetyreh – July 2018

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Pik Chetyreh, from nearby Moskvina basecamp.

Pik Chetyreh

I visited Tajikistan in the summer of 2018, with the intention of making an attempt on 7105m Pik Korzhenevskaya.  The basecamp for Korzhenevskaya, Moskvina Glades, sits at around ~4300m, and is accessed by helicopter.  Moskvina is remote, far from civilization, and nestled deep within Central Asia’s Pamirs it is surrounded by impressive 6000m mountains.

6230m Pik Chetyreh is impossible to ignore once in Moskvina basecamp, as its prominant, aesthetic pyramid rises on the northeast skyline with remarkable independence; no other summits are nearby to distract one’s perspective of it.  As the vast majority of climbers who make their way to Moskvina do so in order to attempt the pair of mighty 7000m giants, Pik Korzhenevskaya and Pik Kommunizma, Pik Chetyreh sees little traffic.  Nonetheless, the mountain has been climbed many, many times as acclimation prior to beginning on the higher, more committing 7000ers.  It is not hard to imagine the decision making which many before me went through in choosing to attempt it; the mountain is beautiful, and its shape alone is alluring enough to justify a climb.  Besides, a 6000m peak is always a worthy challenge, even if only for acclimation!

On setting my eyes upon Chetyreh for the first time, I knew that I would take a shot at it.  It looked close to basecamp, and appeared relatively simple.  When I found two similarly minded others, a duo composed of an extraordinarily experienced Welshman, Chris, and a friendly Lithuanian, Dave, the plan quickly came together.  We’d head up packed light, just for three days, and have an easy acclimation climb above 6200m.

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Pik Chetyreh, from roughly halfway through the approach hike.

Climbing Route

In the above photographs, our route of ascent can be described as switch-backing up the right-hand skyline ridge – which is quite wide and very gentle lower down – all the way to the upper section of exposed rocks.  At the upper rocks we then traversed a few dozen meters left, out on to the face, and up to the closest of three summits along the inside of two rock bands. We did not traverse so far left as to cross the ridge which cuts down the middle of the mountain in the above photo, and almost ascended the skyline ridge in its entirety. From the lowest exposed sections of rock and upwards the climbing became fairly steep, and I was very happy to have two tools with me, especially when down climbing on descent.  Two 60m ropes would make descent much safer, as two 60m rappels would cover all of the steepest terrain.

Approach

The approach from Moskvina basecamp took us around 7 hours, packed relatively light.  The approach was much slower than anticipated, as while totaling only ~5km, it was made slow by the endless scree and unstable moraine which had to be crossed.  Past the lower moraine we encountered quite a bit of rockfall, and were well advised by experienced Russian climbers when they warned us to avoid moving below any slopes during the warmth of afternoon.  Past the moraine, the three of us roped up to cross the broken glacier which lay ahead of us.  A small bergshrund had to be crossed, easily climbed on stable snow, and immediately  followed by a ~150m traverse above large, otherwise impassable crevasses.  The final section of approach crossed a long, wide glacial plateau, covered in ankle deep snow and riddled with small crevasses.  I led the full glaciated section of our approach hike, and punched through twice on the plateau – not an issue with two partners behind me.  We made our basecamp at around 5100m, one of the few sections free of crevasses, and right near the base of the wide, skyline ridge described above.

Climb

Our climb did not end up being as clean as we had thought it would.  We left our tents at around 5 a.m., as the sun was just beginning to crack the horizon and dispel the chill of a brisk Pamir night.  The ascent to the first rocky section was smooth and fast, with Chris maintaining a measured pace and making even switchbacks on excellent morning snow conditions.  Above the rocks Chris continued to lead, and quite commendably ended up taking point all the way to the summit.  At the first section of exposed rock the climbing began to get steeper, but remained easy to moderate.  Further above, we eventually reached the upper sections of exposed rocks, and could no longer ascend directly up the ridgeline.  We crossed out onto the face, and began moving up through some easy mixed terrain on loose snow and chossy rock.

It was in this short mixed section – easy enough climbing, but not so easy to downclimb – that I began to seriously question the wisdom of my continuing.  How were we to get down?  I knew that I would not be confident downclimbing more than a few of the moves we had been making, and was cognizant of the fact that with just one 30m rope and limited pro – just two of Chris’s ice screws and my one picket – rapping wasn’t much of an option for us. After heated discussion, in a bad location, we agreed that we would be able to try descending via another gully, and continued to ascend.  In hindsight, the decision to continue upwards was the correct choice, and much safer than trying to descend the mixed moves which we had climbed.  The terrain soon cooled off, welcoming us back onto straightforward snow, and we found ourselves on the summit ridge.  Hypoxic and tired, we had climbed for 9 hours and 15 minutes, reaching the top at around 2:15 p.m.

The summit views were spectacular, and offered us full perspective of both Korzhenevskaya and Kommunizma, along with views of innumerable 6000m peaks to the north and east, remote and wild.  Behind our high point were two additional summits, and we were uncertain whether they were on par with the point we stood upon, slightly higher, or slightly lower.  The Russian guides in basecamp had told us that the true summit was the one closest to basecamp, which described the prominent ridge we stood upon, and we decided that it was acceptable to call it good.  We didn’t stay at the top long, and quickly began to descend.

We were in over our heads descending the upper mountain.  Without gear to rappel, we had no choice but to down climb the steep snow of a fresh gully, adjacent to our path of ascent.  Chris fell just below the summit, but arrested himself well, and between this and my arrest backing him up didn’t slide very far. After his slip I led the remainder of the descent, carefully placing my tools and gingerly kicking good steps, aware that nothing was protecting a fall but caution and stable, steady movement.  Dave fell three times on the down climb and traverse across the face, with Chris and I catching each of the falls with quick self arrest, fueled by adrenaline.  It was an unpleasant, dangerous finish to the climb, the likes of which I hope to never repeat.  I should have brought a second 30m rope, to rappel on alongside the 30m line which we used to tie in.  We should have had more screws than the two which Chris had the good foresight to have packed.  We all should have had two tools.  Ideally, we should have had two 60m ropes and several spare pickets.  We made it back to the lowest exposed rocks safely, and from there we trudged down the rest of the mountain, me breaking trail through now-soft, knee deep slush.  The sun works wonders in the Pamirs, even at high elevations, and everything melts out in the afternoon!

The day after our summit we descended, and returned to Moskvina basecamp in around 4.5 hours.  Rockfall in the moraine was more severe on our descent day.  The bergshrund crossing was getting periodically showered with golf ball sized rocks – particularly unnerving when I wanted to place a picket before crossing.  Back in basecamp Pik Chetyreh remained as charismatic as before, albeit far more satisfying to look upon having visited its summit.

 

Mount Shuksan – July 2017

We climbed Washington State’s 2783m Mount Shuksan over 3 days in early July, 2017, via the Fisher Chimneys and Southeast Rib. The climb was particularly fun, one of the most enjoyable I’ve recently undertaken.

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Mount Shuksan

We began with a false start ‘warmup’ hike in/out of Lake Ann due to a bad stove nozzle, which resulted in a full bottle of gas being wasted. The approach was very much snow covered, and route finding was a little bit tricky – having a GPS track was useful. After making the approach once, our subsequent gas-retrieval and exit hikes were easy enough!

After doubling down on the approach hike, we counted ‘the first day’ as our third hike to Lake Ann, where we camped overnight. On the second day we climbed to the summit from Lake Ann, via the Fischer Chimneys route. The chimneys involved loads of cool class 3 scrambling, the glacier above the chimneys offered easy but beautiful snow slopes, and the southeast rib of the summit pyramid presented us with four pitches of interesting, low class 5 rock which was straightforward enough to securely solo (I climbed the rib in my beater Koflach shells) in its entirety.  We made ~6 rappels on the way down, several in the summit pyramid gully to avoid downclimbing on snow covered rock, and two in the chimneys for a greater sense of security. It took us about 6:45 to climb from our tent to the top, without rushing.  On the final day we hiked out to the car. Below are images from the climb.

 

Alpamayo – August 2017

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Alpamayo’s southwest face.

Alpamayo

Alpamayo is a stunning pyramid of ice and snow, its steep faces gorgeously fluted with spine-like runnels of ice. Located in the heart of Peru’s beautiful Cordillera Blanca, Alpamayo’s northern aspect is that of a perfectly symmetrical ice pyramid, while it’s southwestern face and standard climbing route rises above the surrounding glacier like an enormous flake of sheer ice, vertical runnels forming a complex texture of natural snow gulleys. At 5947m Alpamayo is not quite high enough to scratch the magic 6000m mark which makes so many climbs in South America popular objectives, yet Alpamayo’s southwest face is nonetheless one of Peru’s most sought-after climbs due to it’s powerful aesthetic appeal and delightfully high quality climbing.

I had been keen on an Alpamayo attempt for several years, but had as yet not been confident enough in my ice ability to take a shot at the steep, relatively technical face. For quite some time Alpamayo was just a dream, an idea, not something which represented a realistic objective for me. I knew that this state of affairs would change if I wanted it to; 6000m and 7000m high altitude climbs had likewise been mere dreams of mine in the not-so-distant past.

In the two years leading into 2017 I had gotten significantly more experience climbing on steeper snow and easy ice, had been doing a lot of multipitch rock climbing throughout the work year, and finally felt comfortable with the systems involved in a climb of Alpamayo’s technical scope. With no local partners for a climb, I contacted my friend Edgar in Ecuador – it so turned out that Edgar was free at the same time as me in August, and we started talking about a plan. Edgar is a strong, experienced guide whom I had climbed with several times previously, and I knew that with him on the rope a summit of Alpamayo would be a realistic objective. After sorting out dates and a rough itinerary for flights, the goal solidified into something real, and I began to put more effort into the upper body endurance elements of my mostly cardiovascular focused training regime.  In Huaraz Edgar’s friend Flavio, also an experienced Ecuadorian climber, joined us for a solid team of three.

Acclimatization Strategy

Prior to Peru I spent roughly three weeks in Kyrgyzstan making a solo climb of 7134m Pik Lenin. My intention was to come into Peru pre-acclimated, saving time and expense by enabling a fast and efficient shot at Alpamayo without spending days acclimating ahead of time. I had effectively utilized a similar strategy the year prior in order to make an overnight climb of Mount Elbrus, and was keen to repeat the efficiency and success of that expedition. Finishing on Pik Lenin much earlier than expected, I spent ten days at sea level after getting off of the mountain. I was quite nervous that such a significant rest period would adversely affect my strong acclimation, or compromise it altogether, but these fears were ultimately unfounded. Despite the ten day break from altitude the strategy worked perfectly; throughout the entire climb of Alpamayo I never felt any adverse effects from altitude, and operated very comfortably, extremely well acclimated throughout. Edgar, living above 3000m in Ecuador and constantly climbing Ecuador’s variety of 5000-6000m volcanoes, was likewise well acclimatized from the outset of the trip.

Photographs

Itinerary and Trip Report

Day 1: August 16th
Cashapampa ~2900m to Llama Corral ~3700m. 3:00 hours.

After a long drive disrupted by striking school teachers blocking the road out of Huaraz, we arrived at Cashapampa around lunch time.  We ate a quick meal of chicken and potatoes, sorted out Donkeys for carrying our gear, and then headed up the start of the Santa Cruz valley trek which doubles as the approach trail to Alpamayo’s base camp.  The hiking was hot, dusty and sweaty, the afternoon sun oppressive.  In Llama corral we pitched camp, bought some bottles of cola from a small shop, and slept early.

Day 2: August 17th
Llama Corral ~3700m to Alpamayo Basecamp ~4300m. 3:30 hours.

Another day of approach hiking across long stretches of dry, level ground.  We passed several gorgeous high glacial lakes, and enjoyed fantastic views of surrounding peaks.  We turned left off of the Santa Cruz trek and onto a path heading up through steep forest, taking us to Alpamayo Basecamp.

Day 3: August 18th
Alpamayo Basecamp ~4300m to Moraine Camp ~4900m. 2:45 hours.

Due to our strong acclimation, we decided on an aggressive strategy for our summit attempt.  We would attempt the summit from Moraine Camp, rather than making the long carry over the Quitaraju-Alpamayo Col to the Col Camp/High Camp.  While we knew that this would add some 3-4 hours to the summit bid, we also knew that it would save a lot of energy, avoiding a gear carry over the steep and technical Col.  From Basecamp we no longer enjoyed donkey support, and so we left early after breakfast with heavy bags full of equipment.  The hike to Moraine Camp follows a trail of switchbacks up through brush and onto bouldery moraine, with clear views of surrounding mountains.  The moraine itself has several flat spots for tents – we chose to camp as close as possible to a small stream.

Day 4: August 19th
Moraine Camp ~4900m to Alpamayo Summit 5947m. Descent to Alpamayo Basecamp ~4300m.

4:00 hours, Moraine Camp to the base of the face.
5:00 hours on the face, to the summit of Alpamayo. 1:00 hour on the summit. 7:15 Hours from the summit to Moraine Camp. 1:00 Hour from Moraine Camp to Alpamayo Basecamp.
We departed Moraine Camp at 10:30 p.m., and got down to Basecamp at 5:50 p.m. making for a big day of over 19 hours on the move.

From our tents to the base of the snow we walked for around an hour, crossing large boulders and chossy moraine.  From the snowline, the climb to the Quitaraju-Alpamayo Col ascends steep slopes, and although we didn’t feel the need to belay any of it I was very happy with our decision not to haul all of our gear up.  It took us a full four hours to reach the base of the wall in the middle of the face, where we arrived at around 2:30 a.m.  A team of four Germans was around 30 minutes behind us.

I had heard from an Ecuadorian climber in Kyrgyzstan, and others in Huaraz, that the French Direct route was in great condition this season – and we weren’t disappointed.  Gaining the face involved a big move onto overhanging snow above the bergshrund, which Edgar led in style, and seconding it clean felt burly and strong.  Pitch 1 above the bergshrund was a moderate snow slope of around 55-60 degrees, with each subsequent pitch getting progressively steeper and icier.  The climbing was sustained, but the snow condition was firm and crisp – tooling and frontpointing upwards felt delightfully secure and fun.  This being the longest pitched snow route I’d ever undertaken, at eight 50-60m pitches, I focused on my stamina, controlled my breathing, and tried to move carefully and efficiently up the face.  Around Pitch 5 I realized that we were roughly halfway up and were going to make it to the top; this sense of impending success fuelled the remaining three pitches.  Pitch 8, the last, was rock hard 75-80 degree water ice riddled with pockets, large swathes of it thinly plastered over rock.  A final crux above the ice involved a few balance moves onto the summit cornice – and we were on top!  The German team followed onto the summit directly behind us, and were very friendly despite having had to climb below us (and all the ice chunks we knocked down) for the entire route, and wait for us to sort out some rope tangles below the final ice pitch.

We were extraordinarily lucky to have direct access to Alpamayo’s true summit – something of a rarity.  The true summit is often inaccessible, or very dangerous, guarded by a traverse across the unstable and extremely exposed summit ridge, but this season the French Direct route terminated directly below the highest point on the ridge.  We spent roughly an hour on top taking photos of the gorgeous views and enjoying the sense of success.  Rappelling the face involved eight raps off of good v-thread anchors, and after a break to shed layers and hydrate at the Col our descent to Moraine Camp took another three raps.

At Moraine Camp we immediately began packing up for a descent to Basecamp, keen to get as low as possible so as to avoid spending an extra night camping.  The trudge down to basecamp was heavy and uncomfortable, all three of us tired from the long day.  We arrived at basecamp just before sunset, and had enough time to eat a quick meal before heading to sleep, exhausted and satisfied with our accomplishment.

Day 5: August 20th
Alpamayo Basecamp ~4300m to Cashapampa ~2900m. 5:00 hours, with time spent swimming in the high glacial lake between Base Camp and Llama Corral.

Feeling worn out, we took our time descending from Basecamp to Cashapampa.  With the donkeys carrying almost all of our gear and leftover food, we enjoyed light packs and good speed down the long, gently sloped trail.  Between Bascamp and Llama Corral we stopped to swim in a gorgeous glacial lake; it was freezing cold but refreshing!  In Cashapampa we ate a big meal, drank some cold beers, and started the drive back to Huaraz.

Pik Lenin – August 2017

I summited 7134m Pik Lenin on August 2nd, 2017. I climbed solo above 5300m Camp 2, using a basecamp support package for 3500m Basecamp and 4400m Advanced Basecamp (“Camp 1”) from Central Asian Travel. I roped with other independent climbers while crossing the heavily crevassed lower glacier between 4400m Advanced Base Camp and 5300m Camp 2. Images and details from my unsuccessful 2016 Pik Lenin expedition can be found here.

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Pik Lenin, from 3500m Basecamp.

In July of 2016 I made an unsuccessful attempt on Pik Lenin.  Afterwards, the mountain and my non-summit had persistently lingered on my mind.  I thought about the climb almost daily, dwelling upon my feelings of disappointment and considering what had gone wrong.

In February of 2017 I made a rather unpleasant, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt on a solo of 6893m Ojos del Salado from the Argentine side, via an approach across the vast and barren high altitude Atacama Desert.  While unsuccessful, reaching only ~6350m due to thigh deep snow, extreme winds, and an incoming storm, I was surprised afterwards by my feelings of acceptance.  The solo approach from an unacclimated start had been so gruelling that I was glad just to have made it to the base of Ojos, and the snow/weather conditions so poor that progress beyond my high point would indeed have been impossible for me; the non-summit had been entirely out of my control.

I didn’t feel the same way about Pik Lenin.  I felt that I had made a mistake, that I should have continued and forged on instead of turning around, that I had given up too easily and let myself down.  I decided to return and try again.

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Pik Lenin.

Below are images from the expedition, a calendar/schedule of my 2017 climb, and a day-by-day trip report.

Pik Lenin 2017 Photographs

Pik Lenin 2017 Trip Report

2017 Lenin Calendar

My 2017 Expedition Schedule.

July 20th

A 7.5 hour drive from Osh to Pik Lenin basecamp, arriving at 6:00 p.m.  I ate dinner and immediately went to sleep, still jetlagged due to the transition from North America.

July 21st

A relaxed hike took me to 3950m on nearby Pik Petrovski.  Having climbed to the summit the year prior, I opted to stop after an hour of hiking and relax instead of pushing myself to move higher.  A rapid descent down a scree slope took me back to basecamp.

July 22nd

One of my bags had not made it to Bishkek, missing the London/Moscow transfer.  Within were all of my climbing clothes.  I opted to take a full rest day in basecamp, and as luck would have it, the bag arrived just after midnight on a truck from Osh.  Central Asian Travel’s Osh manager had sorted the delayed luggage’s transit from Bishkek to Osh, and delivered it on the next basecamp supply truck.  Very impressive.

July 23rd

Loaded horses with 32kg of equipment and food, taking a ~12kg bag for myself.  Hiked to Advanced Basecamp 4400m, 9:45 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. or 5 hours at a leisurely pace.  I hiked accompanied by a Ukrainian soloist whom I had happened to meet several years prior on Aconcagua.  It rained steadily throughout the day, transitioning into wet snow as we reached Advanced Basecamp.

July 24th

After lunch I took a leisurely hike to 4760m up a nearby scree ridge.  Stopped hiking after an hour, rested in the sun for about an hour, and then made a quick descent back to Advanced Basecamp.

July 25th

I roped up with the Ukrainian soloist who had hiked to Advanced Basecamp with me, and we made an acclimation climb up to 5000m on the route to Camp 2.  We began at 4:15 a.m. and reached 5000m at 9:00 a.m., a time of 4:45.  At 5000m we took a break for about half an hour and then headed back down.  We began early in order to avoid poor snow conditions and ensure that snowbridges would be in good shape.

The route was in decent condition, albeit with many more crevasses than I had encountered the year prior.  A large avalanche had hit the route to Camp 2 about a week earlier, along the flat traverse below a heavily corniced section of the North Face immediately prior to Camp 2, and an early start in cold, stable conditions would also help to mitigate our exposure to another event.

July 26th

I roped up with my Ukrainian friend once again for a carry to 5300m Camp 2 – fairly essential practice given the volume and state of the crevasses on route.  I opted to take up all the supplies I would need for 8 days on the mountain in one foul shot on this carry, and thus make it the only truly heavy load of the entire climb.  Rather than bring a second heavy load with me during my summit bid, which would burn energy and time when I would need it most, I had decided ahead of time that getting the carrying over with all at once was both manageable and reasonable given the technically easy nature of the route to Camp 2.

We departed 4400m Advanced Basecamp at 4:20 a.m., and arrived at 5300m Camp 2 at 11:40 a.m., a very slow time of 7:20.  We took a slow, easy pace with our heavy bags, slowing further when the morning sun turned the route into a horrible furnace of soft snow and glare.  On arrival I immediately pitched and anchored out my tent, cooked lunch, and took a nap.

July 27th

After breakfast I packed a light bag and climbed to 6100m Camp 3, 9:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m., or three hours.  The route out of Camp 2 follows a ~35-40 degree slope before traversing across gentle terrain to the base of Pik Razdelnaya.  A final slope of increasing steepness, to around 40-45 degrees, leads to Camp 3 at 6100m-6150m on the summit of Pik Razdelnaya.  I rested for half an hour at 6100m and then descended to 5300m Camp 2, taking one hour.  I had a headache on return to Camp 2, and to my dismay discovered that I had packed an empty Ibuprofen blisterpack.  I took a nap, spent the afternoon reading, and struggled to eat a full dinner.

July 28th

I had initially planned to make a second acclimation hike to 6100m today, but woke up feeling lethargic and uncomfortable.  I had a minor headache and no appetite; mild AMS.  I began my acclimation hike, but stopped at around 5500m and decided that I should take a full rest day instead.  While I didn’t feel terrible enough to warrant descending, I had a fairly unpleasant rest day roasting in the heat of my tent.

July 29th

I packed a light bag and descended from 5300m Camp 2 to 4400m Advanced Basecamp, leaving my tent and supplies well anchored.  I departed at 7:00 a.m., and reached ABC at 8:50 a.m.  I descended alone, unable to find another independent climber to rope with, gingerly making my way across the crevasses.  In ABC I spent the remainder of the day resting, checking the weather forecast for a possible summit window.

July 30th

The forecast showed a few days of favourable weather, followed by an abrupt spike in wind speeds.  I took a full rest day, and prepared to begin my summit bid on the 31st.

July 31st

With an extremely lightweight bag, I departed for 5300m Camp 2 roped up with an independent Czech climber.  We began climbing at 4:15 a.m. and arrived in Camp 2 at 9:00 a.m., taking 4:45.  The weather was perfect, clear and windless, and the climb much easier than my load carry several days before.

August 1st

I packed all of my equipment and supplies and climbed from 5300m Camp 2 to 5800m, near the base of the final slope below 6100m Camp 3.  I departed Camp 2 at 10:30 a.m., and arrived at my 5800m “Camp 2.5” at 1:00 p.m., taking 2:30 while moving at a leisurely pace.  Here I stopped and pitched my tent.

I had decided in advance that I would forego sleeping at 6100m Camp 3, and instead use this spot at 5800m as the high camp from which I would launch my summit bid.  I had made this decision for several reasons.  First, Camp 3 is filthy. Human waste and dirty snow is everywhere, making it very difficult to prepare clean water.  This had likely contributed to the stomach issues I had experienced in 2016.  Second, Camp 3 is fairly high, making it difficult to eat and sleep well.  I knew from prior experience that camping 300m lower would have a significant positive influence on my appetite and sleep.  Third, Camp 3 is very exposed, and I knew from my three nights there in 2016 that in high wind or storm it would be a particularly unpleasant place to be based.

While I was nervous that the additional 300m of altitude gain on summit day would be quite significant when undertaken prior to the already very long summit ridge (almost 6km above 6000m), I also felt strong, and confident in my endurance.  Given that the ridge to the summit descends ~100m immediately past Camp 3, I was setting myself up for a 1400m summit day.  I had decided that the tradeoffs of using a lower high camp were worth it, and indeed I enjoyed a quiet, pleasant afternoon of rest and abundant eating.  I checked the weather forecast on my satellite phone before going to sleep; it called for 25km/h winds and light snowfall.

August 2nd

Awake around 3 a.m., I managed to eat a light meal and drink some water.  I packed two litres of water with electrolyte mix (one heavily caffeinated), some snacks, my down pants, and my storm gloves into a summit pack.  I left my tent at 4:20 a.m., intentionally late compared to the standard departure times used by most who climb Lenin. I left late because I knew the route to be of very moderate difficulty, and because I wanted to minimize the time spent climbing in darkness and the cold of night.

I crossed the ridge towards the slope to Razdelnaya and Camp 3 and began to ascend, reaching Camp 3 at 5:40 a.m. as the sun began to rise, taking 1:20 from my tent.  Without stopping in Camp 3 I descended ~100m to the saddle between Razdelnaya and Lenin’s summit ridge, where I continued upwards on moderate snow slopes.  The sun began to cast a glow over the mountain, warming things up and providing superb views of the surrounding mountains and the massive glacier far below.

I began to pass other climbers, a few having turned around.  I soon reached the base of ‘The Knife’, a short ~50-55 degree snow slope sporting a fixed rope of dubious anchorage, and front pointed up it with my 70cm straight shaft ice ax and trekking pole.  From the top of the knife the route continued along gentle slopes for what felt like an eternity.  The entire summit ridge from Camp 3 to the high point is well above 6000m and is almost 6km long.

At around 11:45 I met a friendly French Canadian climber whom I had spoken with in Camp 2 days earlier; he was descending from the summit, was encouraging, and told me that I was getting close to the top.  I enjoyed the bright sunshine and blue skies, and made steady pace with a focused, controlled rest stepping rhythm.  Around half an hour later the weather abruptly and somewhat violently worsened.  A strong wind picked up, clouds rolled over the mountain, and snow began to fall.  I double checked my phone battery, confirmed that my GPS was tracking correctly, and continued on.

I soon found myself ascending across the upper summit ridge in deteriorating visibility.  At around 12:30 p.m. I reached the upper plateau of rolling hills and false summits, where I encountered a group of climbers debating their course of action.  Another climber descending from the summit was telling them that the summit was still about an hour away, and further that he felt the worsening conditions made the upper slopes too dangerous to proceed.  Confident in my GPS navigation, holding a litre of water, still feeling strong, well prepared with abundant backup layers in the form of my down pants and storm mittens, and still feeling quite comfortably warm in my extremities, I continued past them.  Ten minutes later the summit came into view, one climber descending from it and a third figure standing atop.

I reached the summit at 12:45 p.m., 8:25 from my tent at 5800m and 7:05 from Camp 3 at 6100m.  I spent about 3 minutes quickly taking a few dozen photographs of the summit and of myself.  The climber who was on top when I arrived was Russian, alone and preparing to descend.  While he did not speak English, nor I Russian, I introduced myself and offered to accompany him down with my GPS, to which he happily agreed.  We began down through an absolute whiteout.

The descent was long and psychologically arduous.  Moving in atrocious visibility and high winds, which felt as if gusts were reaching into the ~70km/h range, my GPS track was the only thing keeping me headed in the right direction and off of the slopes leading down to Lenin’s north face.  Below the slope of ‘The Knife’ visibility improved somewhat, but progress remained slow.  As we reached the saddle between Razdelnaya and Lenin’s summit ridge we met three friendly Ukrainians whom I had run into twice previously on the mountain.

Only about 100m of distance and 80m of vertical away from Camp 3, the GPS nonetheless remained absolutely essential for navigation in the poor visibility.  As we broke trail through now-knee-deep snow, electric shocks buzzed our hair; thunder boomed in the distance.  Rather than risk being struck by lightning, we removed all of our metal equipment, tossed it in a heap several meters away from us, and grounded ourselves for roughly half an hour until the thunder ceased.  I reached Camp 3 at 7:20 p.m., and continued down to my 5800m high camp, getting back into my tent at 8:00 p.m., making for a fifteen and a half hour day.

August 3rd

The storm continued all night, dumping a good 20-30 cm of fresh snow.  High winds continued in the early morning, and I resigned myself to the fact that I might have to wait a day before descending.  Around 9:00 a.m. the wind began to calm somewhat, and I quickly began packing my equipment for descent.  I departed my camp at 10:20 a.m., and started the slog back down to Camp 2.

Along the way I met a pair of friendly and experienced Czech climbers who agreed to rope up for the final descent from 5300m Camp 2 to Advanced Basecamp.  I was delighted to have a group of three on my rope for the lower glacier, as while conditions were wet enough for crevasses to be easily visible, the route was made somewhat riskier for now being snow covered.  We reached Advanced Basecamp at 3:00 p.m., an unpleasant and slow descent on loose, wet snow while hauling heavy bags.

August 4th – 5th

I descended from Advanced Basecamp to Basecamp, using horses to haul some ~30kg of equipment down.  The day after arriving in Basecamp I drove back to Osh.

Pik Lenin – July 2016

7134m Pik Lenin is well known for predominantly two reasons; as one of the “easiest” 7000m climbs in the world, and as the site of the worst mountaineering accident, by fatality count, to ever occur. The mountain’s designation as “easy” strikes me as an inside joke of sorts. The climb is very much a non-technical glacier slog, and Lenin is frequently summited by relatively inexperienced climbers. However, the high altitude, long distances, expedition nature of climbing from an unacclimated start, and the fierce weather of the area make Lenin a considerably more involving climb than its mild technical grade may initially suggest.  Images and a detailed trip report from my successful 2017 Pik Lenin expedition can be found here.

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View of Pik Lenin from near the summit of Pik Petrovski.

In deciding to attempt Pik Lenin I felt that I would be following a very logical approach to making my first 7000m summit. A non-technical 7000m mountain seemed a good progression from walk-up and moderately technical 6000m climbs. The nature of the climb also seemed conducive to undertaking the expedition independently above basecamp, and perhaps even entirely solo – as much as one can ‘solo’ a mountain as popular as Lenin. After a fairly moderate five month training cycle I sorted out service for access and basecamp logistics, hiring Kyrgyz operator Ak-Sai Travel for this, planned out a balanced supply of food for my high camps, put together an acclimation plan, and booked airfare for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

Ultimately, my attempt on Pik Lenin was unsuccessful. My acclimation routine, rotations up the mountain, and high camp move all went very, very well. However, during my summit bid I experienced an upset stomach and unstable bowels, and this paired with 40-50km/h morning winds caused my decision to turn myself around and descend from only ~6400m. Flight timeframes and energy were not conducive to a second summit attempt, and so I left Kyrgyzstan without a summit, a profound sense of disappointment weighing upon me.

Below is a calendar/schedule of my acclimation and climb, as well as a collection of images from my 2016 Pik Lenin expedition.

Pik Lenin Calendar

My 2016 Expedition Schedule.

Mount Elbrus – August 2016

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Mount Elbrus from the south.

At 5642m Mt. Elbrus is considered by most to be the highest summit of Europe.  Located in southern Russia within the Caucasus mountain range near the border with Georgia, Elbrus stands just within the widely accepted boundaries of the European continent.  A dormant volcano, Elbrus is gently sloped and a non-technical climb.

Trip Report

I had planned to make a quick ascent of Elbrus after climbing 7134m Pik Lenin in Kyrgyzstan, due to the low cost associated with getting to Russia from Kyrgyzstan and the even lower cost of basic logistics support once within Russia.  I was unsuccessful on Pik Lenin, and found myself headed to the Caucasus mountains intent on finding some redemption.

My trip began in the Mineralnye Vody airport, where a driver from Pilgrim Tours picked me up and drove me ~5 hours to their hotel in Terskol, a small tourist town nearby Elbrus.  Terskol is a ski resort village, and in the summer caters mostly to climbers.  Elbrus is a very popular climb, and lots of climbers from all over the world were around.  Already acclimated from climbing on Pik Lenin, I planned to begin my ascent the next afternoon and turned in early.

Day 1: I took a taxi about 5km into Azau in the early afternoon.  In Azau a cable car runs from 2350m up to 4050m.  I used the cable car to access the base of Elbrus’ glacier, and the beginning of the southern ‘standard’ climbing route.  This shaves 1700m off of the climb, quite considerable.  Use of the cable car is considered standard practice when climbing the southern route and is the same, I suppose, as making an approach via vehicle when climbing similarly sized mountains elsewhere.  Regardless, using a gondola to access the base of the mountain gave me an odd feeling.  Elbrus’ southern side is highly developed, and gondola access was only the first of several infrastructural elements which I would encounter.  I found myself considering the difference which the Gondola made and reflecting on climbs in Peru and in China, as well as my recently attempted ascent of Pik Lenin, and how such climbs are made considerably more difficult due to the long approaches which they entail.

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The Gondola in Azau

The gondola stops at several stations on the way up.  One such station, the Barrels Hut at 3700m, is where many climbers opt to stay for acclimation.  I continued higher, to the 4050m Diesel Hut station at the base of the climbing route.

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The Barrels Hut.

At 4050m I left the gondola and was surprised to find the lower glacier quite crowded.  A large number of people, some clearly climbers acclimating, others Russian day-hikers, were all over the place.  Snowmobile drivers were selling rides higher, and the noise of their engines was everywhere.  Snowcats were taking large groups of people up the slope, and a variety of ugly buildings stood amongst the rocks.

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Snowmobiles and snowcats at the 4050m station.

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Snowcats were moving up and down the lower slopes.

I had read that Elbrus was crowded during the climbing season, but wasn’t prepared for what I encountered.  The lower mountain was unattractive, noisy, and overdeveloped.  I began to hike upwards at a leisurely pace, and stopped around 4 p.m. at ~4300m to pitch my tent in the rocks.

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My campsite at ~4300m

Day 2:  The forecast had called for 30+cm of snowfall, and so I woke up at around 1 a.m. to check the weather.  The skies above were clear but a thunderstorm was booming, lightning flashing to the south.  A snowcat loaded with climbers drove past – evidently many choose to use them for a ride higher before beginning their summit push.  I went back to sleep.  Awake again around 4 a.m. and the thunderheads had moved off, so I began preparing to head upwards.  The sun cracked the horizon, and the sky began to resemble a watercolour painting, awash with pastel colours.

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Sunrise from my tent.

Above the mountain was tinged purple with alpenglow, and with no other climbers around was quite a pretty sight.

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Elbrus at sunrise.

I began moving upwards at 5:15 a.m.  I focused on my breathing and foot placement, and it felt great to be rest-stepping upwards at a clean and steady pace.  Already acclimatized from 20 days of climbing on Pik Lenin, with a climax of three nights at 6100m, moving at this relatively low elevation of ~4500m felt easy and smooth.  The slope was gentle, no more than ~30 degrees, and the snow condition was good.

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The view down the lower slopes of Mt. Elbrus.

I first encountered other climbers at the base of the east summit, and soon was passing small groups.  The weather was holding nicely, with only low winds.  Clouds were building to the south, but were still quite far away.  The terrain was very easy, with the route following a gentle slope to the base of the east summit and then traversing westward below it towards the saddle between east and west summits.  I continued steadily, not rushing or pushing my breathing, and focused on maintaining my pace.

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Heading towards the saddle between summits, the west summit in view.

The route dropped a bit into the saddle, a large level area, before beginning up the west summit block.  The slope was somewhat steeper here, but still no more than an easy ~40 degrees.  I was happy to have brought two trekking poles, opting to carry my ax in my pack.  Atop the west summit block I walked across nearly level terrain towards a distant highpoint, and then continued on past it towards another.  As I got closer, I saw others atop it and realized that this was the summit.  I reached the top at 11:25 a.m.

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The west summit of Mt. Elbrus.

The clouds began to move in, obscuring views.  The top was marked by a peculiar rock and several plaques.

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Elbrus’ west summit marker.

The other climbers, a friendly Polish group, left as I arrived and I spent 15 minutes or so alone on top. With clouds rolling past, light snow beginning to fall, and the wind picking up I began to descend.  Through periodic gaps in cloud the east summit stood ahead of me.  As the weather was worsening, I decided to continue descending and abandoned any thoughts of tagging the top of the lower 5621m east summit.

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The east summit of Elbrus, from near the west summit.

The weather deteriorated further on the way down, and I found myself walking through a whiteout.  Near the base of the east summit a buried snowcat – likely having been there for quite some time – served as an easy to spot landmark.

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The descent was very fast and I reached my tent at 1:15 p.m., where I took a one hour nap before packing up my equipment and heading down towards the gondola.  The weather had begun to clear somewhat, although dark storm clouds still haunted the horizon.  View of the Caucasus to the south were interesting, but marred by the ugly buildings clustered around the gondola station.

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The Caucasus to the south.

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Taking the gondola down to Azau.

I was back in Azau by 4 p.m., where a cold beer and some lunch in a cafe were a welcome celebration.

Thoughts on Mt. Elbrus

Mt. Elbrus was an easy climb, and somewhat uninspiring due to the overdevelopment on the southern side of the mountain and the lack of any technical challenges.  I had been repeatedly told that the north side of the mountain is wilder, undeveloped, and a much better choice for a proper expedition, but my time constraints and solo climbing dictated my choice of the southern normal route.  The climb was long, with over 1300 m of elevation gain between my tent and the summit, but completely non-technical.  Due to good snow conditions I didn’t feel the need to use my ice ax during the climb, and was more comfortable with two trekking poles for balance on the gentle slopes.  The famously unstable weather reared its head during my descent, and I can see how the mountain has developed a reputation for being dangerous as a result of this.  Disoriented in the frequent whiteout storms a climber could easily get lost and descend the wrong direction, or manage to get off route and into a crevasse.  Every year numerous climbers die on Elbrus’ slope, many due to weather instability, and the climb – like all high altitude mountains – isn’t to be taken lightly.

Coming into the climb pre-acclimatized and completing the climb solo in a single ‘overnight’ push with the use of a simple campsite was a good choice, as doing so saved me the time consuming process of acclimating on the mountain itself.  This is a strategy which I definitely intend to use again in the future, and its success for me on Elbrus served as a valuable lesson.  I am glad that I climbed Elbrus in a financially inexpensive manner, as the mountain isn’t particularly beautiful, remote, high, or challenging.  I wouldn’t go back to Elbrus, and wouldn’t really recommend undertaking the costs of flying to Russia just to climb Elbrus by itself.

Access

Climbing Elbrus does involve some red tape.  I utilized the service of Pilgrim Tours for a very basic logistics package.  They provided me with my permits, airport transfers, a ride into Azau, and a hotel room.  They were professional, their services are very reasonably priced, and they have a lot of experience with the mountain.  I would strongly recommend them.

Mount Kinabalu – February 2016

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Kinabalu, from near the park entrance.

4096m Mount Kinabalu is Malaysia’s highest mountain.  Kinabalu stands on the island of Borneo, in Malaysia’s Sabah province.  Kinabalu is an accessible trekking peak famous for its sunrises, spectacular clouds, and the many interesting rock formations found on the upper mountain.

We began our hike in Kinabalu National Park, where we arrived by bus in the early afternoon.  We had booked a climbing package in advance, going directly through the national park.  After doing a good amount of research this appeared to be the least expensive means of hiking.  The park rules mandate that all hikers be accompanied by a local guide, and a multi-day hike with an overnight in the Laban Rata resthouse (a hotel) was also mandatory without special permission when we hiked.  This makes hiking Kinabalu quite expensive when compared to comparable mountains in Taiwan or China.

After an evening resting in a dorm room within the national park, we were up at around 8 a.m. to meet our guide and begin the hike.  A short drive in a park bus took us to the trailhead.  The first day of the hike was steady and laid back, with no need for much rush.  Our destination was the Laban Rate resthouse, located at 3272m below the bare rock of the upper mountain, where we would spend the evening before heading for the top the next morning.  The hiking trail is a well maintained path through dense forest, with an abundance of stairs.  We were lucky not to see any precipitation on the way up, although clouds and mist flowed past us through the forest as we ascended.

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Hiking through the lower forests.

We reached the Laban Rata guesthouse in the early afternoon.  Given the slow pace we had taken, it struck me that there isn’t much reason to hike Kinabalu across two days.  Indeed at Laban Rata we met a British hiker who decided to head for the summit that afternoon rather than wait until morning, and did so with daylight still remaining when he returned.  Laban Rata is a well stocked hotel, and meals were included with the room booking.

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Laban Rata.

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View of the upper mountain from Laban Rata.

After dinner the clouds began to rise, and we were treated to a fantastic light show as the sun set.

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Sunset from Laban Rata.

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Sunset from Laban Rata.

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Sunset from Laban Rata

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Sunset from Laban Rata.

Overnight it rained heavily.  We woke up at around 1 a.m. and ate breakfast, ready to get started.  The rain stopped, and we began hiking alongside the crowd at 2:30 a.m.  Above Laban Rata the trail first follows stairs and a dirt path, and later begins to ascend over bare rock.  Kinabalu’s rock is wonderful granite, grippy and textured.  Fixed ropes were in place along steeper sections, but with my trekking poles for support they weren’t really needed.  The steepest section involved a little bit of easy scrambling, and above it we reached the checkpoint hut below the mountain’s enormous plateau.  From here the going was easy, following a guideline across mostly level rock towards the plateau’s highpoint.  Reaching the summit before the sun, I joined the crowd of other hikers waiting for the sunrise.

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The signpost on Kinabalu’s summit.

The sunrise was far less impressive than the vast sea of clouds which obscured it.  Low’s Gully was impressively deep, stretching out beyond the edge of the summit plateau.

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Sunrise from the summit.

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Low’s Gully, from Kinabalu summit.

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Looking down the guideline which stretches across the summit plateau.

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The summit plateau.

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The summit plateau.

The way down from the top was a lot more enjoyable than the ascent, and I jogging downwards across the grippy rock.  Returning to Laban Rata for a second breakfast, we took a nap before making the long walk back down to the trailhead and park entrance.

 

Kinabalu was a very straightforward hike across easy terrain.  The low altitude of the mountain doesn’t pose significant difficulty, and the extensive infrastructure in place on and around the mountain makes the hike very accessible.  The cost to hire a guide, book a room in Laban Rata, and cover meals was relatively a lot more expensive than ‘free’ mountains elsewhere which still offer equally interesting terrain.  The hike is not particularly challenging.

Despite all of this the upper mountain does offer some impressive and beautiful rock, and the cloud formations we encountered were quite lovely.  Living close to Malaysia and already visiting for tourism, hiking Kinabalu was particularly accessible for me and worth the two day time commitment.  I wouldn’t recommend travelling specifically for Kinabalu, but a hike as part of a grander travel itinerary makes sense provided that the price of access isn’t too off-putting.  From some perspectives it might be a better idea to save the money and put it towards a trip to South America or China instead!

We booked our hike through Sutera Sanctuary Lodges, the company which directly manages the park’s restaurants, dorms, and Laban Rata resthouse.  In planning our trip their rate was the least expensive I could find, likely because they are the direct service provider which other companies book through.  Their website is http://www.suteraharbour.com/ and while the site has no mention of Kinabalu they can be contacted about bookings via email.