Eggplant Mountain – 茄子山 – May, 2021

Eggplant Mountain (茄子山) from the road.

Mid-way through 2021 – I had been limited to travel, and thus climbing, within the borders of China for well over a year.  Further, unfortunately, most high altitude mountaineering opportunities inside of China had been rendered inaccessible to foreigners during the COVID pandemic; rock climbing had become the only realistic realm of mountain-related goal setting and training for me.

The idea of tackling a big wall came about in late 2020 while hunkering through a severe winter windstorm at 4500m in central YunNan province.  The prospect of a big, challenging climb in warmer weather was deeply appealing, and we had six months’ time to train and prepare.  My friend and I even had a route in mind; Blue Glacier 蓝冰川 China’s longest sport rock route.  As 2021’s rock climbing season got well underway we soon found ourselves planning the climb for a team of four, representing China, Canada, Indonesia, and France. 

Blue Glacier, a peculiar name for a rock route covering hundreds of metres of golden granite slab, is one of two routes on ~2200m Eggplant Mountain, the other being Elf Fingers 精灵手指, a seldom-climbed trad line.  The routes were opened in 2016, and are perfect representatives of the wonderful growth in mountain sports and related development which has taken off in China.  Blue Glacier covers 520m over 19 pitches, and goes at 5.12a/A0. 

Eggplant Mountain – 茄子山 – Blue Glacier topo.

Our climb began with a delayed flight from Shanghai to Xi’An, the provincial capital of Shaanxi.  Shaanxi is known for the Terracotta army excavation, for the ancient city walls of Xi’An, and for Hua Shan.  Hua Shan, one of China’s five holy mountains, is a touristic granite peak accessible by cable car and frequently painted in watercolor as a symbolic representation of China’s cultural landscape.  Nearby Xi’An are rural valleys walled by impressive mountains of sheer granite with an elegant aesthetic to rival that of more famous Hua Shan, but undeveloped for tourism.  Eggplant Mountain stands deep within one such valley, past a large hydro dam. Because of the dam infrastructure, the road in is only accessible by road after 6:30 p.m.; we were able to access the road early by contacting a local villager in advance for permission.  The beginning of the roadside approach hike to Eggplant mountain can be found at coordinates 33.95422, 109.11861.

Day 1: We drove for around 90 minutes from the airport, stopping for food and water along the way.  We parked our rental car nearby a guesthouse by the base of the approach hike, sorted out our equipment, and began the bushwack up to the wall.  The approach hike was extremely well marked with red trail tags, and took us roughly 45 minutes to ascend.  While quite overgrown, the trail tags made the way clear enough to easily follow.

Once at the wall, we split into two teams, and climbed the first four pitches to a forested bivvy ledge.  While we hauled our supplies up using a pulley system, in hindsight we had light enough equipment and food needs that climbing with packs on would have been a preferable strategy.  Hauling cost more time than climbing for the first four easy pitches, and was exacerbated in difficulty by the low-angled slabby rock generating friction on our bags.

Rough and ready dinner at the ledge bivvy.

We arrived at the bivvy ledge by nightfall, and got busy eating as much of our food as we could.  We slept under the stars with harnesses on, anchored to a tree.  The bivvy ledge has a shallow ceiling above it, and while the ledge is small, it would remain dry in rain.

Day 2: Our itinerary for the main climbing day was as follows;

4:45 a.m. Wake up
5:15 a.m. Start preparing
7:40 a.m. Begin pitch 5
2:20 p.m. Arrive at the large ledge below pitch 19, spend almost an hour finding pitch 19
3:20 p.m. Arrive at the top of pitch 19, summit

We didn’t make a focused effort towards sending each pitch, and aided where we failed to onsight in order to keep moving.  The 12a crux pitch wasn’t too bad, involving only one tricky, reachy move to a high bolt placement.  Pitch 19 wasn’t easy to find, and involved walking through the exposed forest behind the ledge at the top of pitch 18 for some five to ten minutes.  We were able to access the base of pitch 19 by walking to climber’s right.  Overall the quality of the rock on the route was extremely good, albeit dominated by slab climbing with thin hands and feet. 

We raced against rainclouds the entire day, with a little bit of light drizzle hitting us here and there on the way up.  The sky properly opened up as we began our descent, and we completed the rappels in torrential downpour and driving wind.  We got down in 8 simul-rappels, using two 70m ropes; one for pitch 19, five for the main wall to the bivvy ledge, and two for the big lower slab. 

Mist and rain on descent
Blue Glacier – Day one drone footage (by _mr_hu_)
Blue Glacier – Day two drone footage (by _mr_hu_)

The hike back to our car was a miserable affair, slippery and much more difficult in the dark.  By the time we began hiking all four of us were completely soaked, drenched to the skin.  Our boots were filled with water, our ropes were waterlogged and twice as heavy, and we were freezing cold – but we were ecstatic to have made it up and down safely!  The descent hike took us almost two hours, and wouldn’t have been possible without the red trail tags. 

Back in the car, our adventure wasn’t over yet.  The wind and rainstorm had knocked a large tree down, blocking the only road out of the valley.  Drenched, all of our jackets completely waterlogged, we couldn’t leave the warmth of our car heater for more than a few minutes without beginning to shiver uncontrollably with cold.  I made an initial foray out into the wind to take stock of the tree and vainly push at it with a few farmers who had arrived.  Back in the car minutes later, my teeth chattering, it seemed like the situation was hopeless.  As another car full of locals arrived, however, we realized that we could make an impact if we all joined in – the four of us ran out of the car, yelling, got behind the tree with the others, and levered it off of the road in a minute flat! 

We foolishly decided to stay in the city rather than at the airport, and discovered too late that very few of the hotels in Xi’An would take foreigners.  It took us hours to find a place to stay where we could also park our car, leaving us with only a few thin hours of sleep before flights back to Shanghai the next morning.

Here is the official topographic map and guide to Eggplant Mountain (in Mandarin):

Tianhaizi – 田海子山 – February 2021

Tianhaizi, from the approach at ~4000m.

Tianhaizi: Location and Introduction

Tianhaizi / 田海子山 is a 6070m mountain located in China’s Sichuan province, within the Daxue Shan / 大雪山 (‘big snow mountain’) range. Tianhaizi is the closest major 6000m peak to the nearby town of Kangding.

The Daxue Shan range is also known as the Gongga range, after its major highpoint of Gongga Shan / Minya Konka. Gonga is an incredibly impressive and topographically prominent 7556m peak with only a handful of prior summits, and a shockingly bad track record of fatal climbing accidents. Tianhaizi, while nowhere near Gonga’s difficulty nor notoriety, has a reputation for being a challenging mountain to attempt without a large team and fixed ropes.

Topographic surveys in the 1930s assigned the name Lamo-She to the cluster of peaks of which Tianhaizi is a part, but locals all call the mountain by its Chinese name.

Looking down the approach valley and into the Daxue Shan range at sunset. From left to right are Jiazi Feng/嘉子峰, Aidejia Feng/爱德嘉峰, and Little Gonga/小贡嘎.

Tianhaizhi has a fascinating climbing history, in that its first ascent was made quite recently – by a 1993 American team led by the legendary Fred Beckey. Although Beckey himself didn’t accompany the summit team, visiting a piece of his legacy proved to be interesting; locals still had stories about him, and one long-time logistics fixer regaled me with tales of then 70-year-old Beckey hitting on his 20 year old daughter! You can read the AAC trip report of the first ascent here. Local officials, perhaps half a dozen of them, all told us that the mountain had seen no prior winter summit.

Tianhaizi: The Soccer Game

For a decade plus the entire wilderness area around Tianhaizi shuts down for winter due to fire risks associated with dry conditions in the alpine forests, and only locals with legitimate economic need are allowed to enter the high mountains. Securing permission to bypass the forest-fire controls put my partner and I through incredibly arduous hoop jumping, telephone tag, and delicate negotiation. This was an ordeal of politicking unlike any I have ever experienced prior, and an absolute roller coaster of emotions. Our hopes of being granted access would be lifted through some minor progress only to be crushed, again and again, in what felt like endless cycles of red tape.

I sent messages to my friends and family while in the midst of this, and looking back at them they read with a certain Kafkaesque despair. There are four or five instances along the lines of “We aren’t making much progress. The contact in the Athletics Department doesn’t know who to call, and the local government guys we met yesterday don’t want to give us their names or phone numbers” interjected with such gems as “we randomly met a guy in the hostel who knows everyone, things are looking up!” and “all this, just for a chance to suffer in freezing squalor for a week”.

Throughout, whilst visiting three disparate government offices in person and making phone contact with about a dozen functionaries and aficionados, we were continually met with fear and skepticism. No foreign tourists had visited Kangding in ages, and everyone around us was concerned about COVID. Producing our negative test results and year-old passport entry stamps helped to cool things off, but the tension created by our very presence didn’t make things any smoother!

After playing soccer for three days, each office and official deftly kicking the ball to the next, we finally found success in the shape of a liability waiver, the fruits of a last ditch persuasive effort. My partner, a native Mandarin speaker, was able to secure the fabled form by walking a tightrope of anger, logic, emotion, and pleading coercion. This final, penultimate conversation was masterful to behold, and made me realize how much room for improvement remains in my spoken Chinese ability. We signed and thumb-printed a document promising not to start any forest fires, and that done, we were on the road and into the mountains!

The cluster of peaks Tianhaizi is a part of, Baihaizi at left and Tianhaizi in center, from nearby Kangding.

Tianhaizi: Planning Around Pandemics

The decision to attempt a winter Tianhaizi climb was born of perseverance tempered by impenetrable limitations. Despite relatively stable circumstances within Mainland China, international travel outside of China had become impossible for me due to the COVID19 pandemic. This unfortunate situation prevented access to my preferred (and far more realistic) winter Himalayan goals in India or Nepal, or to on-season climbs in South America. Coming into the 2021 winter season I had missed the 2020 summer season entirely, breaking a four-year streak of 7000m expeditions in Central Asia. Worse yet, following a successful winter climb in Nepal in early 2020 I had failed on a string of ‘easy’ 5000m and 6000m walkups within Mainland China, mostly due to horrible off-season weather. While 2020 concluded as a solid sport-climbing year on rock for me, I felt an irrepressible urge to get back to high altitude.

I have long focused on maintaining momentum in my climbing, and I do believe that my approach of steadily pushing higher and harder has been working well for me. The prospect of missing this winter season and ‘missing out’ on opportunity crushed my spirits. Pandemic controls severely curtailed potential winter climbing goals; foreign nationals remained banned from accessing many national parks or obtaining permits for most interesting climbs. As an example, all of the moderate 5000m climbs around the Siguniang Shan area, where I had climbed in the winter of 2016, remained off limits to foreigners.

When a friend suggested Tianhaizi, and we discovered that a permit would be possible, the gears of preparation immediately began to grind. Having a short term goal to train for once again gave me focus and determination. In reflection, my borderline obsession with mountaineering is a double edged sword capable of cutting deeply in both directions; whilst failures hurt and a total lack of access leads into depression, setting arbitrary personal goals to work for generates an intense motivation and can cumulatively build tenacity.

Our winter Tianhaizi permit.

Tianhaizi: Approach Hike

After we had untangled the complexities of access permission, we were able to drive by car to the mouth of the valley used to approach Tianhaizi. This journey takes just over an hour from Kangding, following a well maintained and paved road the entire way.  We enjoyed a full view of Tianhaizi from the lower valley, but were unsettled by the state of the glacier. I could tell from a distance that the lower glacier, when compared to the photos we had collected while researching the route, was very dry and significantly diminished.

Baihaizi, left, and Tianhaizi, right, from near the road at 4000m.

The approach hike up the valley begins at 4000m, and we intended to set our basecamp at 4750m. I had anticipated the need for good acclimatization prior to activity at these elevations, and so we had conservatively pre-acclimated. Throughout our daytime adventures with red tape, navigating the intricacies of local bureaucracy, we had maintained a daily schedule of driving out of Kangding to Zheduo Shan, a nearby mountain with good road access. We drove by bus each day to 4300m, and then hiked to 4500-4600m where we would sit and rest for an hour before descending and hitchhiking back down to the city. The bus tickets cost only about 20 RMB per trip up. I had planned and scheduled to make this trip higher for three days in a row, and we ended up following that plan to perfection; we resolved our access issues while on the third day in Kangding. This structured acclimation strategy had us comfortably camping in our planned basecamp at 4750m on the first night.

Unfortunately the nature of the approach hike was particularly unpleasant. The valley to basecamp constitutes some 2km of easy hiking followed by a further 6km of hideous moraine composed of an endless jumble of unstable boulders. Moving across the boulder fields laden with heavy winter packs was fun for the first thirty minutes, and tortuously miserable thereafter! We spent a cumulative time of over 15 hours throughout the trip moving back and forth across these moraine boulders, delicately balancing and bracing for shifting, sliding rocks while keeping our eyes and ears tuned for the warning sounds of rockfall from above. We could hear the sounds of rock slide emanating from the valley walls around us throughout our nights at basecamp, and the entire upper valley felt very unstable.

Accessing the lower glacier at 5000m involved another hour and a half over moraine from our tent, with no suitably flat areas presenting us with higher camping opportunities. The valley was exposed to sunlight only between 10am and 4pm, which made for full-on winter conditions in camp and during our approach rotations. We experienced temperatures of around -20C inside of the tent at night, and figure that it was around -30C outside. We made quite good time throughout our attempt in spite of the cold and awkward terrain, and consistently worked ahead of the timeframes that we had anticipated based on our research.

Tianhaizi: Rockfall and Blue Ice

When we reached the gully which gains the toe of the glacier, we discovered poor conditions on the mountain. There was no snow cover to speak of, and the glacier access at 5000m which we had expected to involve a straightforward snow ramp instead presented us with around 60m of 50 degree blue ice, which we gingerly simul-soloed. Where the approach up the upper valley had involved exposure to easily avoidable rock slide, the gully which gained the glacier created a dangerous, bottle-necked shooting gallery. We had at least a dozen near misses within 1m of us, from rocks softball sized or larger, and my partner took a significant hit to the upper arm while protecting his head with it. While we were on descent in full shade a murderous block the size of a microwave hurtled down the gully towards us, spinning like a throwing axe as it bounced and careened some 10m off of the ground – and this was the final straw for me.

Me, at around 5350m.

I been warned in advance of rockfall on the route by my helpful contact in the Sichuan mountaineering association, but had not anticipated the degree of risk which we experienced. We encountered sustained rockfall dramatically worse than anticipated, made particularly bad by conditions on the mountain and in the valley; there had been no significant snowfall for months. The same dry conditions which created forest fire hazards lower down made for a glacier of naked blue ice, and for very little snow anywhere on the mountain. High winter winds that cleared away any remaining snow cover further exacerbated this inclement terrain. As a result, rocks perched atop or embedded within the surface of the exposed ice rained down nonstop, knocked free by winds or the daily thaw/freeze cycle.

Without snow cover the bone-dry glacier had also receded from key technical steps along the route. The dry glacier created tens of meters of bare rock and significant ice runouts where our research had led us to expect easy to moderate snow slopes and two or three 2-3m steps of rock and ice. I reviewed my photos of the upper mountain in basecamp, which revealed that the entire 600m of gain to the top, over 1km of summit ridge, was also made up of exposed blue ice. Realistically, even without the unacceptable risks of persistent rockfall, our 30m rope and four ice screws were inadequate for safely dealing with such extended climbing on 45 degree ice atop an exposed ridge. A running belay on screws could have gotten us much higher than our turnaround at 5350m, but a safe descent would have been nightmarish. We made the decision to end our attempt and retreat due to the objectively hazardous rockfall, and the knowledge that a summit was most likely beyond our ability given the state of the glacier.

Naked blue ice on the glacier. The lower edge of the upper summit ridge, and its small ice step, is visible in top center. It’s a lovely shade of blue!
Naked blue ice on the glacier.

Tianhaizi: Photographs

Tianhaizi: Final Thoughts

Despite an unsuccessful attempt, getting outdoors and trying was immeasurably better than staying home. The swathes of pristine blue ice, while unexpected, were gorgeous to see and to climb on. We did well in managing our acclimation and the challenges of winter camping at altitude, and did our best with the conditions that we found on the mountain. Our high point of 5350m at least involved some real climbing, and afforded us with good views of the upper mountain.

We went into our Tianhaizi attempt knowing full well that our odds of success were low. There was no documented prior winter ascent, and independent winter climbing in or near the Himalaya involves unique challenges created by wind and cold. The cold was a persistent presence throughout, and forced us to pay careful attention to our food intake and rest schedule.

The approach hike was unpleasant enough that I likely would not return to Tianhaizi in the future! Of course, I write this with the misery of crossing the boulder fields fresh in my mind; given time a second attempt in the October season might not be outside the realm of possibility.

Imja Tse (Island Peak) – February 2020

Imja Tse, from the approach to basecamp. The summit is the highest ridge to the left.

Imja Tse

Imja Tse is a 6183m mountain located in the Khumbu region of the Himalayas.  Despite being a significantly prominent mountain by the standards of any other country, Imja Tse is completely dwarfed by the imposing south face of Lhotse, the 8516m fourth highest mountain in the world which stands just a few kilometers to the north.  As Imja Tse is further surrounded by higher 6000m and 7000m peaks, when viewed from afar it is easy to understand the mountain’s colloquial name of ‘Island Peak’; it does indeed resemble an island within an icy, mountainous ocean.  Imja Tse is designated as a ‘Trekking Peak’ by the Nepal Mountaineering Association, which has practical implications for accessible and affordable permitting.  While the ‘Trekking Peak’ label does not implicate the difficulty of an ascent (some technically challenging climbs such as Cholatse are also designated as ‘Trekking Peaks’), Imja Tse by its normal route is not a difficult climb.  With fixed ropes and the infrastructure associated with the normal climbing seasons in place, it probably goes at around a PD+ grade.

Imja Tse in the distance, Chukhung below.
Imja Tse dwarfed by the south face of 8516m Lhotse (left), the fourth highest mountain in the world.
Imja Tse, from the approach to basecamp.

Going into my decision to climb Imja Tse in January and February, the middle of Nepal’s winter, involved several variables.  I had been interested in a winter Himalayan 6000m climb for some time, and in 2018 had made an attempt in northern India.  Extreme cold, incorrect route beta, and fatigue had all contributed to a non-summit.  Despite being unsuccessful, the trip had been good experience and a successful test of my winter equipment.  I intended to return to India in the winter of 2019 for a solo attempt, but thwarted by passport issues and a bad chest cold I never made it out of China.  In 2020 mountaineering permits for India looked uncertain; in part due to instability in the Kashmir region, in part due to environmental conservation efforts involving the closure of certain valleys.  Further, a solo attempt for 2020 was off the table for me – a close climbing partner and friend had disappeared in the mountains in late 2019 while climbing solo on a moderate route, and his death had deeply impacted my perspective.

As a result of this confluence of considerations the possibility of winter climbing in Nepal arose.  While I could only find limited information pertaining to winter ascents of the lower mountains in the Khumbu, I knew that it was possible. After all, all of the area’s 8000m mountains had seen winter ascents!  Nepal’s permitting system, while expensive (compared to alternatives in Central Asia or South America) during the normal pre-monsoon and post-monsoon seasons, is significantly cheaper for winter mountaineering permits, and tourist support in general becomes less expensive during the off-season.  While soloing in Nepal is possible, the nature of the bureaucratic red tape and well established tourist industry make it very smooth and affordable to arrange an experienced 1:1 local partner; without any friend available on the same time frames as I, this had become an essential consideration for me.  The prospect of a winter ascent without any crowds, without any fresh fixed ropes, and with the challenging weather conditions of winter began to look very appealing.

Schedule and Trip Report

The trip began with arrival in Kathmandu and a flight to Lukla two days later. Kathmandu was an enjoyable introduction to Nepal; colorful, flavorful, full of life. The atmosphere, pedestrian traffic, and general feel of the city were similar to my experiences in Indian Kashmir, but past the surface Kathmandu is very much its own unique place – for one there are images and services related to the Himalaya and to Mount Everest visible literally everywhere one looks in the tourist district. I had no issue getting some simple preparatory shopping completed, and had time to meet a Nepalese friend whom I’d known for many years when we had both lived in Northwest China.

I’d arranged the climbing, trekking, and camping permits in advance through a tourist agency, and they were all in order the day after I arrived – an enormous time-saver for marginal additional costs. I met my climbing partner, Ashok Tamang, and we spent a few hours talking shop and discussing our plans after going over each other’s equipment. At first impression Ashok was quite competent, and definitely knew what he was doing when it came to climbing – in the days to come we would spend hours upon hours sharing rock climbing and mountaineering stories. We quickly agreed upon the crevasse safety and basic technical gear that we’d both carry on the mountain.

Day 1: The flight to Lukla departed quite early in the morning, and after a harrowing landing on the sloping, minimalist airstrip of “the most dangerous airport in the world”, we found ourselves in Lukla at 8 o’clock in the morning. 11km of straightforward hiking and 5 hours later, we arrived in Josalle at 2750m where we would spend the night.

Day 2: The morning of the second day it registered with me that climbing in the Khumbu Himlaya would be unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. The teahouse in Jorsalle had served us a hot dinner the night before, and after sleeping overnight on a bed with a mattress we were greeted with a hot breakfast in the morning. Bar two nights spent waiting out winds at high camp, we would lodge in teahouses throughout the entire approach hike – a level of comfort, service, and nutritional consistency the likes of which I had never experienced before. The abundance of tea-houses in the Everest region makes approach hikes extraordinarily comfortable and, dare I say, quite easy. Sleeping in a warm bed every night, enjoying three hot meals per day, having steady access to bottled drinks, and having the option of very affordable porter support makes acclimation significantly more comfortable than anywhere else I have ever climbed.

Given the winter season there were only very few other people around; mostly Chinese nationals going trekking for their Chinese New Year vacation. Despite the lack of crowds, I could tell that the infrastructure was in place to support many thousands of tourists. Indeed, when entering the national park on this second day I was allowed to see the park’s data – tens of thousands swarm the area during the peak climbing and trekking seasons. I can only imagine the crowding, noise, and chaos which this must entail. Paradoxically, despite remaining an economically undeveloped rural area, the Khumbu is highly developed with tourist infrastructure in the form of guesthouses, restaurants, shops, and bridges – the seasonal tourist industry is the backbone of the region’s economy. I felt happy to have come in the middle of winter for my first visit.

On the second day we hiked 4.5km to Namche Bazaar at 3450m. Namche is the central settlement of the Sherpa people, and despite the lack of road access is like a small touristic city. Almost all of the facilities were closed for winter, but several comfortable guesthouses remained open – the food here was the best, by far, of the guesthouses I would stay at in the Khumbu.

Day 3: A five hour hike through gorgeous evergreen forest took us to Tengboche monastary at 3850m. Good weather allowed for nice views of Mount Everest, Lhotse, Ama Dablam, Thamserku, and Khangtega. Ama Dablam appears tantalizingly close from Tengboche, and was absolutely stunning to observe in the clear winter air. A Spanish team was on the mountain this winter, and would put several members on the summit just a few days after I left the monastery. The monastery itself was empty, the monks having all descended for the winter, but I was able to spend some time taking in its architecture and Buddhist artwork.

Everest, Lhotse, and Ama Dablam.
Ama Dablam.

Day 4: A three and a half hour hike to 4350m Dingboche, where we stayed in a lovely guesthouse with a large sunroom on the roof. Acclimation was going well, but this was the first night where I began to feel the effects of altitude. This day’s trek offered spectacular views of Cholatse, Taboche, and distant Lobuche East.

Lobuche East, true summit the highpoint to the left.
Taboche and Cholatse.

Day 5: A one hour and fifty minute hike took us to 4750m Chukkhung, the highest settlement below Imja Tse. The hike from Dingboche follows relatively close to the Lhotse South face, and passes the Jerzy Kukuczka memorial. After arriving in Chukkung I made a quick acclimation hike to 5100m on the Chukkhung Ri hill behind the settlement, taking about two hours round-trip. Despite this hike being quite easy, the winter wind and cold began to make themselves felt. Chukkhung would later prove to be bitterly cold at night. That said, having a bed and a teahouse to stay in at Chukkhung made the approach hike an absolute luxury to this point.

Day 6: Resting in Chukking for acclimation. I met two other Canadian climbers headed for Imja Tse. They were a few days ahead of my schedule, and intended to move up the next day.

Day 7: Resting in Chukking for acclimation. There were high winds this day, and an uninspiring weather forecast calling for 100km winds for the following days. The two Canadians and one Chinese moved up today, in preparation for a summit bid.

Day 8: A two hour hike to Imja Tse basecamp at 5080m. The two Canadians and one Chinese climber had summited in the morning, but had battled horrific wind conditions which nearly shut them down. The Canadians told me that the beginning of their climb in the dark had been colder than their experience on Denali, due to the wind. Basecamp was windy when we arrived, and the forecast didn’t look promising. We pitched our tent and hunkered down for an afternoon of rest. That evening winds were howling on the upper mountain, and despite the sheltered location of basecamp our tent shook profusely with each gust. After a brief discussion Ashok and I agreed to wait for another day – not an impact given our extra food supplies and spare time.

Day 9: We departed our tent at 3:15 a.m. under a clear sky and low winds. The route first crosses a large moraine, circling around the mountain to the east before heading up a gully of good quality rock. There was some class 3 scrambling, but generally this section was fun and easy. After topping out of the gully, we finally had a clear view of Imja Tse’s glacier and icefall. We crossed a narrow and exposed ridge of good rock to the toe of the glacier, where we stopped to hydrate and put on our crampons.

Crossing through the Icefall was interesting, in part because I was surprised at how dry the conditions were. High winter winds and low precipitation meant that the glacier was particularly ‘naked’, leaving all of the crevasses highly visible and open. It looked as if the mountain hadn’t seen snow in weeks. An old boot track was visible; it had melted out from the high traffic of the autumn high season and then frozen into place. The icefall wasn’t difficult, and reminded me of the lower glacier traverse right out of basecamp on Pik Korzhenevskaya in Tajikistan. It was bitterly cold, and I needed to don my down pants and storm parka.

Passing through Imja Tse’s icefall.

Past the icefall we gained a large plateau below Imja Tse’s summit ridge. The glacier was bone-dry and opened up, bergshrund crevasses gaping. The ridge itself was so barren and exposed that an ascent wouldn’t be viable – the clear route to take went straight up the face of the summit pyramid. The frozen boot track marking the way like a road chopped into the ice was something I had never seen before. In hindsight, this was perhaps the driest glacier I have ever been on.

The summit pyramid across the glacial plateau, from just above the icefall. Summit is the visible highpoint. The line in the ice is a frozen boot track, left behind from the autumn season.

Crossing the plateau was trivial, and we soon found ourselves at the base of the face. A small ~5m ice step blocked the way, and the old fixed ropes on it looked unsafe. Ashok hadn’t been on the mountain since autumn and wasn’t sure of the ropes, so we agreed to avoid jugging the lines. From here I led on Ashok’s belay, avoiding the fixed ropes in favor of the 30m/8mm rope I’d brought, placing a single screw for protection. The step wasn’t difficult, but balance was a bit tricky given that I only had my 75cm ice ax. Above the step I anchored off onto two of the old fixed lines plus a second screw, and belayed Ashok up.

The small ice step at the base of the face, Ashok on rappel.

Directly above the little ice step we discovered a significant ~1m crevasse splitting the middle of the face. We agreed to belay the jump across on my anchor while clipping into the two dodgy fixed lines as a secondary backup. I went first, then belayed Ashok up after me.

Crevasse splitting the face. Take a look at the old fixed ropes some ~10m down!
Belaying Ashok over the crevasse.

Above the crevasse the going was smooth, with a few straightforward sections of exposed low-angle rock. The conditions were very dry and icy, but the moderate slope wasn’t too difficult. I clipped into the old fixed lines as backup, but led the rest of the way up without an ascender; the fixed ropes were bleached white from sun exposure, and we were unsure of the state of anchors higher up. Never fully commit to an old fixed rope on the way up, without having had the chance to properly inspect anchors and integrity.

Looking up the face, towards the summit.

Before we knew it, there was nowhere higher to go. It was 11:15 a.m. and we had made it! The summit was decorated with some old prayer flags. A hefty boulder with an assortment of crooked pickets served as the anchor for the old fixed lines which we had been so dubious of. It was cold and windy at the top, and we stayed only long enough to take some photographs. With clear skies the views of surrounding mountains were exceptional.

Looking down the summit ridge from the summit of Imja Tse. The face is to the left.
View from Imja Tse’s summit. Ama Dablam is the prominent peak to the left. To the far right, the nearest prominent peaks are Taboche and Cholatse.
View from Imja Tse’s summit. Makalu is the prominent peak center. Baruntse is the prominent peak to the right.
Lhotse South Face, from near the summit of Imja Tse. Lhotse is the central peak, Lhotse Shar is the pyramidal peak to the right.

After checking the anchor at the top, we opted to rap down on the two old fixed lines. They were somewhat frozen and fraying, making them a massive hassle to run through prussik and gear, but using two felt safe enough given that they were separately anchored the entire way down. The rest of the descent was quick, and soon we were back at our tent. We packed up and hiked back to Chukkhung, arriving at 7:15 p.m. The hike back was notable for the snowstorm which hit halfway in, making the path somewhat difficult to find.

Imja Tse at sunset, from basecamp.

Day 10: Exit hike from Chukkhung to Tengboche.

Day 11: Exit hike Tengboche to Namche.

Day 12: Exit hike Namche to Lukla – the final uphill stretch coming into Lukla was a nice workout.

Day 13: Rest in Lukla, waiting for our flight scheduled the next day.

Day 14: After many hours of delay, our airplane finally arrived in Lukla and took us back to Kathmandu, where we celebrated with a pair of tandoori chickens and some Everest beer. On return to Kathmandu the news that I had been reading about the COVID19 outbreak in China began to take on greater clarity; my return flights to Shanghai were abruptly cancelled by the airlines. I departed Kathmandu two days later on a flight to Canada, where I would spend an unplanned month before eventually making my way back to China. Two weeks after I departed Kathmandu the Nepalese government announced the shut down of the spring climbing season; there would be no April/May climbing in the Khumbu.

Other Images

Thoughts on Imja Tse

Winter Imja Tse was a good experience for my first trip to Nepal. Partnered with an experienced local guide who knew the route well the climb wasn’t too challenging, but leading everything on the mountain was still rewarding for me. While not the most difficult, Imja Tse is still of relatively high altitude and does involve a significant icefall and glacier – in hindsight I am satisfied that I didn’t go alone. It was very nice to be the only two people on the mountain, and to generally enjoy the Khumbu area with very few crowds. The trip wasn’t too expensive, largely due to the winter season, but I was still surprised by the level of support and tourist infrastructure in place. I do not think that I would enjoy the area anywhere near as much during the normal spring and autumn high seasons.

Winter in Nepal has a lot of potential. With cheaper permits and cheaper access, and no crowds, there’s a bit more sense of adventure to be had if one is willing to brave the frigid winds. Inspired by the fact that this season saw winter Ama Dablam summits, I am already putting together plans for more ambitious winter goals in the Khumbu area, and am hopeful to return in 2021. Finishing my objective of a 6000m Himalayan summit in winter felt good, but was also somewhat easier than expected. My experience in Nepal involved none of the absolutely grueling load carries and -40C winter camping which I had been through in the northern Indian Himalaya. A return to northern India for more winter climbing attempts likely also remains in the books for me, if I am provided the opportunity, as that particular sort of rugged winter mountaineering still represents the sort of challenge which I am interested in working towards.


Orizaba ThumbZhongyangjian Shan – 中央尖山 – August 2012
Three days of hiking deep into Taiwan’s central mountains to 3705m Zhongyangjian Shan, one of Taiwan’s remotest and most visually awe-inspiring mountains.

Orizaba ThumbSnow Mountain North Peak – 雪山北峰 – July 2012
Two days spent hiking the north ridge of Snow Mountain, Taiwan’s second highest at 3886m. A rough camp on top of the ridge, terrific views, tremendous cliff faces, and exciting terrain.

Orizaba ThumbChilai Shan – 奇萊山 – May 2012
Famous for accidents and foul weather, ‘black’ Chilai Shan is one of Taiwan’s most beautiful mountains. A two day hike in perfect weather across the main Chilai ridge, from the steep and imposing 3607m North Peak to the aesthetically positioned 3560m Main Peak.

Orizaba ThumbWuling Sixiu Mountains – 武陵四秀 – May 2012
The incredibly scenic Wuling Sixiu mountains are a series of four 3000m+ mountains east of Snow Mountain. A three day trip with great views of the surrounding mountain ridges, and fantastic hiking terrain.

Orizaba ThumbNorth / West Hehuan Shan – 合歡山 – April/May 2012
One night of camping and one day of hiking on Hehuan Shan’s North/West 3000m+ ridgeline. Pastoral alpine meadows, rhododendron flowers, and fantastic views.

Orizaba ThumbJade Mountain Seven Peaks – 玉山七峰 – April 2012
3952m Jade Mountain is Taiwan’s highest. An ambitious three day journey up the Main Peak of Jade, along with six other nearby 3000m+ mountains.

Orizaba ThumbBeidawu Shan – 北大武山 – March 2012
Taiwan’s southernmost 3000m+ mountain, Beidawu Shan is famous as one of Taiwan’s five sacred mountains. Two days of hiking with great views of the ‘cloud ocean’, interesting history, and a highly enjoyable trail.

Orizaba ThumbNanhuda Shan – 南湖大山 – February 2012
A four day trip up remote 3742m Nanhuda Shan in terrible weather. Constant rain, sleet, and fog obscured the views, but Nanhuda Shan still offered up some very enjoyable hiking terrain.

Orizaba ThumbSnow Mountain Main Peak – 雪山主峰 – January 2012
Across snowfields, into an ancient forest, and up through a unique glacial cirque. Three days hiking up Taiwan’s 3886m second highest in the middle of winter. Snow, winter weather, and wonderful scenery.

Orizaba ThumbJade Mountain Main Peak – 玉山主峰 – December 2011
Along a steep cliff face and through a deep mountain valley, inclement weather near the top didn’t prevent this from being an enjoyable climb. A two day trip to the 3952m Main Peak of Jade Mountain, Taiwan’s highest.

Noshaq – July 2019


Noshaq, from basecamp at 4650m.


Noshaq, from the near the edge of the glacial moraine at the mountain’s base.


Despite being the 52nd highest mountain in the world, standing at 7492m, Noshaq is not well known outside of niche circles.  By most measures Noshaq cannot fairly be described as beautiful or aesthetically pleasing, and is about as far as is possible from being a ‘popular’ mountain to climb, located as it is within the Wakhan Corridor of northeast Afghanistan.  The mountain is nonetheless notable as Afghanistan’s highpoint, the second highest summit of the Hindu Kush range, and the westernmost 7000m mountain in the world.  Notwithstanding its obscurity within the modern climbing world, Noshaq has a storied early history. Noshaq was first ascended by a Japanese team in 1960, and in 1972 saw a summit by the legendary Reinhold Messner.  A year later Noshaq became the first 7000m peak to see a winter ascent when a Polish team reached the top in February of 1973, a feat which as of yet remains unrepeated.


Noshaq at Sunrise.

From 1979 well into the early 2000s Noshaq fell off the radar of the mountaineering community due to Afghanistan’s ongoing political instability, sectarian violence, and outright war.  The first Afghan ascents of the mountain took place in 2009 when Wakhan locals Malang and Amruddin, two of a team of four Afghan climbers supported by French guides, reached the top.  Both men are still active in the Wakhan, and offer services as fixers and tour operators.  Their accomplishment attracting considerable international attention to Noshaq for the first time in decades.  The valley which leads to Noshaq Basecamp has since been de-mined, relative stability has returned to Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor, and each summer season for the past several years has seen a few teams making attempts on the mountain.  In 2018 the first Afghan female gained the summit of Noshaq, climbing with an American NGO team.

The Wakhan corridor is a natural barrier between the Pamir, Karakoram, and Hindu Kush mountain ranges, a narrow fertile valley wedged between high mountain peaks.  The area is remote, difficult to access, and is both culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of Afghanistan, predominantly populated as it is by the Wakhi people.  The Wakhan has been relatively safe for the past ten years or so, and has never seen an established Taliban presence.

Our 2019 expedition to Noshaq was initiated by my American friend Pat, who began to pull together a variety of interested climbers he’d partnered with in the past, or whom had good vouching.  Over the course of several months the group resolved into a team of seven, representing the USA, Estonia, Denmark, Canada, Spain, and Hong Kong.  Our expedition was successful, and four of our seven summited Noshaq.  I did not summit, on account of a severe lung infection which hit me hard after an initial rope-fixing foray and summit attempt.  I was unable to shake off symptoms of pneumonia or bronchitis, including a debilitatingly productive cough.  With significantly compromised respiration I ultimately ended up struggling just to get off of the mountain.

Getting There

The Wakhan is difficult to access.  Land travel from Kabul, Afghanistan, is extremely unsafe and is absolutely not a viable option.  The border with China is closed, and will likely remain so for the indefinite future.  There are no established airports, and the tiny airstrip in Afghan Ishkashim is limited to special, non-commercial use.


The beautiful Wakhan Corridor.

Support exists in the Afghan Wakhan as one of the first Afghan Noshaq summiteers, Malang, now operates a small tour company there.  His right-hand man Azim Ziahee is an absolutely incredible fixer and problem solver whose support was invaluable to our expedition.

Further good news is that it is possible to access the Afghan Wakhan via Tajikistan, crossing the Tajik/Afghan border at Ishkashim.  While this sounds daunting at first glance, as a process it is relatively straightforward.  For the sake of accuracy, brevity, and clarity, I have written out a detailed step by step process:

1. Obtain an e-visa for Tajikistan. This can be done at . The process is straightforward enough, but pay attention when submitting payment.  If a mistake is made in entering credit card information, the system can lock the application.  Ensure that you pay the additional fee for a GBAO, Gorno-Badakhsan Autonomous Region, permit.

2. Fly into Dushanbe, or otherwise enter Tajikistan. Dushanbe is a relatively developed city, and has a rather nice supermarket in the main mall. This is absolutely the best place for obtaining supplies anywhere nearby.

3. Buy a SIM card at the ‘Megaphone’ (Tajik’s largest wireless carrier) in the central mall. Tajikistan has a solid 4G network, and prepaid SIM cards are very affordable. The Tajik Megaphone network is accessible from the settled parts of the Afghan Wakhan corridor, or at least from locations with good line of sight.   Getting a Tajik SIM is highly advised, as doing so will make the entire trip significantly smoother.  A Tajik SIM card is the only reliable means of accessing the internet from the Afghan Wakhan.

4. On entry to Tajikistan, immediately apply for a second e-Visa. Set the entry date to some ~10 days in the future; e-visa validity is good for entry on or after the listed date. This second e-visa will be used to re-enter Tajikistan at the end of the expedition.  It is not possible to obtain a Tajik visa at the Afghan land border.  It is not possible to cross the Afghan land border into Tajikistan without a visa.  It is difficult and slow to apply for a Tajik e-Visa from Afghanistan, due to the absence of stable internet infrastructure.  This second e-Visa will likely be approved at some point during the approach hike to Noshaq Basecamp.  As such, it is wise to have it emailed to a trusted friend or family member, who can confirm its receipt via satphone, and then forward it to your Afghan fixer/operator.  It is easy to print documents in Afghan Ishkashim.

5. Drive to Khorugh, in Tajikistan. The drive takes roughly 14-16 hours from Dushanbe, on bad roads. The drive from Dushanbe to Khorugh is significantly more expensive than the drive back, because there isn’t much demand for travel in that direction!  Azim and Malang should be able to assist in arranging transportation.  If a Russian speaker is in the party, it will be possible to arrange transportation once on the ground in Dushanbe.  LAL hostel in Khorugh is a decent place to spend the night.  Bring plenty of food and water for the car ride, as there aren’t many places to stop along the way.  Expect at least one flat tire.

6. Visit the Afghan Consulate in Khorugh to apply for an Afghan tourist visa. I can provide GPS coordinates of the Consulate if desired. The application requires 5 visa photos, the small size which is also used by China.  Inexpensive photos can be taken in Khorugh, but it is much faster if you already have your own.  The visa application is relatively straightforward, but does require a handwritten letter of intent.  The cost in 2019 was $220 USD for Americans, $150 for all other nationalities, and must be paid in cash.  We were told that Japanese, South Korean, and Russian passport holders are presently unable to apply for a visa.  The application took roughly two hours to process, after which time we retrieved our passports with visa stickers inserted.

7. Drive to the border crossing in Tajik Ishkashim. The drive takes about 2-3 hours from Khorugh. The border crossing is on a bridge, in the middle of the large river which separates the Tajik and Afghan Wakhan.  The border crossing is slow, as passports must be processed on both sides.  We experienced no issues crossing the border.  Azim met us with cars on the Afghan side.

8. Drive to Afghan Ishkashim, just a half hour from the border, where one can overnight. We paid $30 USD for bed and board, and while expensive, this appeared to be the standard rate throughout the Afghan Wakhan.

9. Register with the police in Ishkashim and obtain permits for entering the mountains. We needed an additional five photos for this, but took them in Ishkashim at a cost of about $1. The paperwork was easy to sort out with Azim’s assistance.  Qazi-Deh, the village from which the Noshaq approach begins, is roughly one hour’s drive from Ishkashim.

Route Description

Noshaq Map

An outline of camp locations and of our climbing routes to 5500m Camp 1.  The summit is located at the far left of the ridge, behind where it is marked in this image.

I have accurate GPS waypoints for campsites, major landmarks, and for the summit.  Please contact me if you want a copy.

It is worth noting the consistent weather patterns which we experienced on Noshaq.  Every morning was clear, with low winds.  Every day on the mountain, bar two days in the middle of the expedition, we experienced whiteout, snowfall, and significantly increased winds starting between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., and lasting until after sunset.

Qazi-Deh to Basecamp

Qazi-Deh, a small village at around 2600m, is the starting point for the approach to Noshaq Basecamp.  Qazi-Deh is Malang’s home village, and everyone there knows him; there are comfortable enough guesthouses available.  We paid $30 per night for room and board in 2019.  The full approach from Qazi-Deh to Noshaq Basecamp is typically completed over a 3-4 day timeframe.

The mouth of the valley leading to Noshaq can be found 2km east of Qazi-Deh, and a well-marked path leads due south, away from the houses and fields.  The first few kilometers of the approach cover easy terrain, a rocky path following the valley river.  Abandoned farms line the lower valley, and the area is mostly quite barren.  Further along are small areas of surprisingly dense greenery, rich with trees and moss cultivated by the glacial meltwaters of the river.  This easy, pleasant terrain continues all the way to the standard campsite for the first night, a pastoral grove of trees and grass beside the river at about 3200m.  This location is known to porters, and they will plan to stop here to overnight and graze the donkeys.  Porters warned our party of landmines around this area, and cautioned us not to leave the path or wander towards the nearby hills.   This first night’s campsite is roughly 14.5km from Qazi-Deh, or 12.5km from the mouth of the valley.

As the route ascends the terrain gradually becomes more severe, crossing scree fields and traversing landslide-prone slopes of rock high above the river valley.  One section is notably unstable and lengthy; an enormous scree traverse of considerable difficulty for the donkeys.  Porters know the way well, and will keep the donkeys under close watch here.  Unfortunately this is also where the path becomes steeper and gains a considerable amount of altitude.  Past the traverse is a long swath of glacial moraine and scree fields, churned leftovers of the receding glaciers which flow off of surrounding mountains.

Most parties stop at around 4200m to overnight, breaking the second leg of the approach into two days so as to avoid an overly rapid ascent.  A direct hike from the riverside campsite at 3200m to basecamp at 4650m covers 16.75km.  Basecamp itself is large, with numerous good tent platforms.  There is a water source in the form of a small stream which emerges from the ground – it stops flowing overnight, but swells considerably each afternoon.

Basecamp to 5500m Camp 1

From basecamp a well-cairned boot track follows a ridge of moraine all the way to the snout of a melted out glacier.  This lower glacier should be dry and open, crevasses thin and easily spotted, and can safely be crossed in hiking boots.  There are many ways across, of varying complexity, and we cairned a few different paths.

From the base of the mountain there are two easy to spot and relatively straightforward routes to Camp 1.  The first option, which we had read about prior to our expedition, is ‘the glacier route’, an ascent up Noshaq’s prominent central glacier.  The path of least resistance begins at the base of an obvious ramp, far to climber’s left when facing the mountain from basecamp.  Upon seeing the mountain’s condition in person we decided not to explore this option, and did not scout access to the base of the ramp.  We rationalized that the hassle of roping for each transition up and down, the objective hazard of significant exposure underneath the large seracs which guard the sides of the ramp, and the general risks inherent to heavily crevassed terrain made the glacier a poor choice.

We opted to take the second clear option, and ascend a gully more or less directly in front of a climber observing the mountain from basecamp.  About 100m of loose scree leads into this gully from the edge of the melted out lower glacier, and a large boulder at the bottom served as a convenient cache spot and easily identifiable landmark.  I have marked this gully in the above image of Noshaq, and have an accurate GPS waypoint for the base of the gully.  The weather was warm throughout our climb, and snow conditions on the mountain rapidly deteriorated throughout the expedition.  The route to Camp 1 had fully declined into a slippery, melted-out nightmare of ice, rockfall, and steep scree by the time we made our final descent.  As such, we ended up climbing this section via three different variations, which I have colored red, blue, and green in the above image.

Red indicates our initial line of ascent, made while there was still a snowpack available.  We began by climbing directly up the gully on soft but decent snow, comfortably switchbacking as much as possible.  The upper gully is characterized by a steep ‘snow triangle’ which, as evidenced by debris, had avalanched some time before our arrival.  As the terrain grew steeper we traversed right, ascended a short section of scrambling to the far right side of the snow triangle, and then made an easy traverse back across.  When covered in snow this traverse was straightforward enough for each of us to comfortably solo, and felt quite secure.  Unfortunately, as the mountain melted out a hideous layer of hard ice was revealed, making for unacceptable exposure to an ugly runout.  In such slippery conditions I wouldn’t want to cross without at minimum a running belay on screws, as self arrest would be impossible and a slip would result in a catastrophic fall down the icy upper gully.  From the left-hand side of the snow triangle we ascended alongside a rocky ridge to the area where the red route shown above splits into a blue line.  From here the red line indicates the safest means of ascent, scrambling up and over the rocks directly below Camp 1.  The blue line shows a variation which many of us opted to take when snow conditions were good; a brief traverse onto well consolidated glacier, and back across along the ridge/ramp which finishes the top of the ‘glacier route’.  While a nice ascent option if provided good snow, with poor conditions this variation was not viable.

The green line in the above image indicates an alternative line of ascent and descent.  The rocky ridge to the left of the gully and snow triangle, while composed of steep, loose, hideous scree, is far preferable when the gully and snow triangle traverse are melting out.  Rockfall was a constant hazard on this ridge; wear a helmet and establish a clear communication routine with partners.  Despite the rockfall, this ridge felt much safer and more secure than the icy and exposed snow triangle traverse.


Climbing to 5500m Camp 1.

Camp 1 itself is a sizeable, flat area atop a rocky ridge.  There is abundant tent space, and plenty of accessible snow for cooking.  Amongst the rocks there were a fair number of propane/butane gas cartridges both unopened and partially used.

5500m Camp 1 to 6200m Camp 2

The route to 6200m Camp 2 is straightforward, and follows the ridge quite directly.  There are some interesting little features below Camp 2; a short but easy ridge traverse and several protruding rock steps which collectively require about a dozen metres of scrambling.  One prominent step just a few hundred metres above Camp 1 can be climbed to the left, over class 4 terrain, or to the right, over easy snow and simple rock scrambling.  We discovered a fixed rope on the left side of this particular rock step, and while it turned out to be of good integrity, other old fixed lines discovered higher up were core shot.  Never weight a fixed line of unknown origin if you haven’t inspected both it and its anchor.  There are several small plateaus along the ridge which would be suitable for camping, but the standard spot for Camp 2 at 6200m is by far the largest and best of them.  While the ridge is not glaciated, and thus is not crevassed, it is imperative that climbers attentively stay on route; the glacier is only some 5-10 metres to climber’s left, and a significant bergschrund/moat separates it from the rock of the ridgeline.  I sustained an unroped, armpit-deep fall into this moat/bergschrund just above Camp 1, with only my enormous backpack and quick ice ax reflex saving me.  Unbeknownst to us, our boot track had been passing dangerously close to this crack throughout the expedition.


Climbing to 6200m Camp 2. Photo by Pat.

I have not marked this section of ascent on the photo, as it is relatively direct and quite straightforward to navigate.

6200m Camp 2 to 6500-6700m Camp 3

From Camp 2 the route continues directly up the ridge, towards the imposing rock wall which waits above.  The ridge broadens above Camp 2, and in a whiteout it can be difficult to ascertain one’s location relative to camp – we did well by paying careful attention to the size and location of prominent rocky sections, and using them to navigate on descent .  Higher up, the ridge steadily becomes rockier and slightly steeper.  Crossing over the patches of exposed rock is easier than breaking trail through snow, and besides one or two metres of scrambling is mostly just scree slogging.  There are several options for a Camp 3 location, with good tent platforms on rocky plateaus at 6500m and 6700m.

Camp 3 to Summit

I did not achieve Noshaq’s summit, but did make it to 7100m on the summit plateau, to the base of the summit ridge.

From high camp between 6500-6900m the rock quality improves, but also becomes much steeper.  I would classify several sections in this area as Class 4.  At around 6900m the route terminates in an obvious ridge, slightly corniced.  From this ridge, about 100m of rock stands directly in front of the climber.  To climber’s right the wall is steeper, and drops sharply off into Pakistan. Far to climber’s left lies steep and crevassed glacier.

Rock Step

The rock band at 6900m.  We ascended to the left.  Photo: Eric


Our route of ascent in red, rappel in green.  Photo and route: Eric

On our first summit attempt we ascended the middle-left of the rock wall, up a fairly obvious weakness in the terrain.  Altogether we climbed three pitches of about 40m each.  Eric, one of two Americans on our team, confidently led all three and was able to place good cams for protection – he used one of each BD small red through BD big red.  In different conditions screws could also be useful here.  With Eric’s help I have marked the route of ascent in red, and the rappel route in green.  The first and second pitches were easy, perhaps 5.6, and fairly secure.  Due to its being a traverse, and on account of deep, loose snow, the third pitch was a somewhat sketchy 5.7 and poorly protected.  We found good pitons at the top of the third pitch.


Eric leading the third pitch.


Following the second pitch.

While ascending, we noticed a fixed line further to our left.  This fixed line ascended significantly easier terrain, perhaps Class 4 or ~5.4.  From the top of our three pitch route, we were able to easily access this old fixed rope, to discover that it was thoroughly core-shot.  We re-fixed this rope, and used this easier route for descent.  Later, it was used for jumared ascent during the successful summit bid.  While this route of ascent is considerably easier, accessing it involves a significant traverse along the base of the rock wall.  The snow in this area was deep and unconsolidated in 2019, making it an unintuitive option.   If I return to Noshaq, I will likely endeavor to ascend the rock wall via this variation, budgeting an entire day from high camp to break trail to its base, ascend it, and fix it prior to any serious summit attempt.

Above the rock difficulties is Noshaq’s enormous summit plateau.  The terrain is gently sloped, but most definitely glaciated; climbers should rope up.  In the past, many teams have fixed a high camp on the plateau, as there is abundant space very suitable for tents. The summit itself lies at the far eastern termination of the significant ridge standing atop the plateau.  Crossing the plateau, ascending the ridge, and crossing the ridge to the summit covers roughly 1.6km of distance.  My teammates informed me that they climbed a few meters of Class 3 scrambling in order to gain the ridge itself.

Schedule and Trip Report

Noshaq Climbing Schedule

Noshaq Altitude Schedule

July 8th
Dushanbe to Khorugh

Arrived in Dushanbe at 3:45 a.m., on the same airplane as Maria and Pat.  There were significant delays at customs, as Pat had to sort out a landing visa.  Met Eric and Ludwig at the airport at around 6:30 a.m.  We had many errands to complete – grocery, gas, SIM cards, picking Andreas up from his hostel.  There was limited time for food or rest, and we were all exhausted.  We departed Dushanbe at around 10 a.m. and arrived in Khorugh at 2 a.m. the next day, taking about 14 hours total for the drive.  The drive was hot and unpleasant, on bad roads most of the way.  We were utterly exhausted by the time we reached Khorugh!

After meeting Ray in Khorugh our team was fully assembled.  In total we numbered seven; myself, Pat (USA), Eric (USA), Marie (Estonia), Ludwig (Spain), Andreas (Denmark), and Ray (Hong Kong).  While experience within the team varied, everyone seemed keen.

July 9th
Khorugh to Afghan Ishkashim

We met Ray at LAL hostel, where we slept for a few hours.  Good WiFi, showers, and acceptable food were to be had.  We went to the Consulate General of Afghanistan at 9 a.m., and applied for our tourist visas.  A few hours later we drove to the border, where we crossed into Afghanistan.  Azim, our highly capable fixer, met us with cars and drove us for about 30 minutes to Afghan Ishkashim, where we were finally able to slow down and rest properly.  We had a good meal here, and met Malang, one of the first two Afghan nationals to summit Noshaq.  Malang is an interesting and exceptional man.

We have transited from Dushanbe to Afghan Ishkashim in around 40 hours, a breakneck pace.  Everything has felt rushed, albeit relatively smooth.  If ever repeating this journey I would likely try to pace things in a more relaxed manner, perhaps taking one additional day in Dushanbe and departing for Khorugh at around 6 a.m.

July 10th
Afghan Ishkashim to 3225m Approach Camp

We registered with police in Ishkashim.  With Azim’s help the paperwork involved in this was smooth and easy.  We then drove for about one hour to Qazi-Deh, the village at 2600m where the approach hike to Noshaq basecamp begins.  Here we sorted out porters and donkeys.  In the past, expeditions have had porters carry all gear to basecamp manually.  Happily, for our approach the porters were able to take donkeys all the way to basecamp, which significantly improved their work situation.  Malang told us that this is only the second time donkeys have been able to make the entire approach.

We began the approach hike in the heat of the day at 2:30 p.m.  We covered 14.5km in just over four hours, arriving at our first night’s campsite at 6:45 p.m.  The campsite is at 3225m, and we were already beginning to feel the impact of altitude.  The campsite is very pastoral, in a grassy scattering of trees alongside a branching stream of the main river.  There was easy access to water and good camping spots.  Porters warned us not to venture towards the nearby mountains, on the premise that there may still be landmines in the area.  The first day’s approach was very dry and dusty, and once in camp all of us were complaining of itchy throats and nostrils.

July 11th
3225m Approach Camp to 4650m Noshaq Basecamp

9 a.m. start, 7 p.m. arrival.  We hiked 3225m to 4650m in roughly ten hours.  All of us are very tired, and this was perhaps too much altitude for one day, with over 1400m of gain.  The porters were all doing well, as the donkeys carried everything all the way to basecamp, and were very happy to be paid, ecstatic when we gave each of them a $10 tip.  The basecamp was nice, with a good water source and several rock wind walls for tents.  Eric, Ludwig and I made it to basecamp about an hour ahead of the remainder of the team, and handled checking luggage and paying the porters.  I was experiencing mild AMS on arrival in basecamp, and tried to sleep early.  The dust and grit from the second half of the approach had irritated my throat, and a persistent dry cough made breathing uncomfortable while lying down.

July 12th
Carry to 5000m

I carried a light load to 5000m, at the edge of the dry glacier, and then descended to basecamp to rest.  Still experiencing mild AMS, I didn’t want to push myself too hard.  Tagging 5000m so quickly is not normal for me, and thus far the acclimation schedule has felt extremely rushed.  The remainder of the team went higher for a few hours while I turned back to basecamp.

July 13th
Carry to 5000m

The six others on the team decided to make a carry all the way to 5500m Camp 1 today.  I decided not to go, as I absolutely did not feel ready to clear 5000m.  The team departed at 9 a.m., while I rested all morning.  I departed basecamp at 12:35 p.m., and moved my cache at 5000m to the boulder at the base of the gully, also at around 5000m.  I met with Eric and Andreas as they descended, but hiked back to basecamp by myself.

Thus far the rushed pace and accelerated acclimation schedule has been pushed forward mostly by Ludwig’s tight timeframe – he has a strict departure flight – and by Eric’s intention to try and climb the Uzbekistan highpoint after Noshaq.  If I return to Noshaq, I will likely slow down the initial acclimation schedule by spreading the approach hike over three days, and spending an extra rest day in basecamp.

July 14th
Rest day at 4650m Noshaq Basecamp

July 15th
4650m Noshaq Basecamp to 5500m Camp 1

We agreed that we would move to Camp 1 today – fast, but somewhat reasonable given that I felt well and had twice tagged 5000m.  As I had already moved most of my equipment up to the cache boulder at 5000m, lightening the load from basecamp, I felt good about making the move in a single carry.  I departed basecamp at 9:05 a.m., collected my cache at 10:15 a.m., and reached 5500m Camp 1 at 3:30 p.m.  My single carry bag was very heavy, and I felt slow ascending the gully.  Indeed, I took up the rear of the team the entire way, the others all moving faster quite far ahead of me.

There were a few class 3 moves across rotten rock on the way up, and a little bit of exposure on steep terrain.  It was an enormous relief to reach 5500m Camp 1 and take my bag off.  I quickly pitched my tent on the rocks.  The cough which I had been nursing since basecamp persisted, still from the throat rather than the lungs.  My throat felt dry and irritated, and I figured that if the dusty two day approach had caused the cough, then the dry air at altitude was developing it.

July 16th
Hike to 6000m

We departed camp at 11:30 a.m. with the intention of making an acclimation hike, and reached 6000m at 3:15 p.m.  The route along this section of ridge above 5500m Camp 1 passes several rock steps, one of which had an old fixed rope placed on it – I didn’t climb the rope, and opted for a more secure scrambling option.  On descent I inspected the rope’s anchor, rapped it carefully, and hacked it out of the ice – it turned out that the scramble circumnavigating the rope was faster for the remainder of the expedition, but finding and recovering this fixed line still felt promising.  Eric led the way up the ridge, breaking trail and finding the most efficient lines past the rock steps.  I once again took up the rear for most of the hike, trying to pace myself, and thus climbing slowly.  At 6000m we realized that Camp 2 was higher up, but decided to turn around due to deteriorating weather.

July 17th
Rest day at 5500m Camp 1

July 18th
5500m Camp 1 to 6200m Camp 2

We decided to move higher today.  We departed at 9:20 a.m., and arrived at 6200m Camp 2 at 3:10 p.m.  I once again made a single carry and ascended with an atrociously heavy bag.  I felt lightheaded on arrival, and had abnormal difficulty trying to focus on setting up my tent; mild AMS.  Eric, Andreas, and I arrived at camp first, followed by Marie.  Eric once again broke trail most of the way from 5500m Camp 1.  Pat, Ray, and Ludwig opted to stop lower down and complete the move up on the following day.  In hindsight, this was a wise decision for acclimation.

July 19th
Hike to 6700m

Feeling much better after a full night’s sleep, Eric, Andreas and I decided to make an acclimation hike and try to scout the rock feature below the summit plateau.  We departed camp at 11:15 a.m., and reached 6700m at 2:15 p.m.  I broke trail for about half an hour right out of basecamp, Andreas for over an hour, and Eric broke trail for the remainder of the way.  This had become a recurrent theme; throughout the trip Eric was the best acclimated of us all, was likely the strongest, and always moved the fastest.  At points he outpaced Andreas and I while trail breaking deep snow.

As we ascended the weather began to deteriorate.  At around 6600m we were moving through intermittent whiteout, and climbing increasingly steep terrain.  A hundred metres later at 6700m, feeling the altitude, I decided to head back to camp rather than continue pushing higher in terrible visibility.  Andreas and Eric continued into the whiteout as I descended alone.  Snow had already filled our boot track, and my descent involved plenty of postholing.  Despite poor conditions, I was back at camp in just 30 minutes, arriving at 2:45 p.m.

July 20th
Rest day at 6200m Camp 2

The remainder of the team all arrived at Camp 2.

July 21st
Summit attempt to 7100m

Eric, Andreas, and I decided to make a summit attempt on this day.  At the last minute Ray opted to join us, and Ludwig decided he would try to get as high as he could despite his poor acclimation.  Pat and Maria chose to wait.

We departed 6200m Camp 2 under a bright moon at 2:10 a.m.  The hike to 6700m was mostly uneventful, although Ray lagged far behind Eric, Andreas and I.  We were unaware that Ray had lost his mitts in the wind until much later, when he caught up to us at about 6900m.  From 6700m to 6900m the terrain became much steeper, slowing us down as we broke trail through deep snow.  Eric led most of the way, with Andreas and I taking over only for short sections.

At 6900m we reached the base of the rock section.  It was here that Ray caught up with us.  As he was without his mitts, we persuaded him that he needed to descend.  Eric led three pitches through the rock band as Andreas and I belayed and cleaned.  Protection was pretty O.K. for most of it, and Eric was able to place good cams.  Only the third pitch was difficult or sketchy, due to a traversing section on loose, deep snow with marginal protection.  We found good pitons at the top of the third pitch, and a piton or two along the way, indicating to us that the route we took had been climbed in the past.  Our three pitch route roughly ascended to climber’s left, and finished in a prominent notch in the rock.  Although I cannot visually identify our route in any of our photographs of the rock band (see the route description, above), the notch is visible to the left, along the ridgeline.

The top of pitch 3 found us at the base of the summit plateau, albeit on a 40 degree slope.  From here I could spot the top of the fixed line we had seen on ascent; I made a GPS waypoint, so that we could easily return to it for our descent.  The decision to descend via a different route was made due to perceived difficulty in setting fixed ropes on the traversing pitches we had just ascended. Rather than messing about with rapping the route we had climbed, we figured that it would be faster and safer to re-anchor and secure the more direct fixed rope that we had spotted.  In hindsight, this was probably a very good decision.

From our last anchor I led a short ~10m section of steep snow to a flatter area, where I belayed Eric and Andreas up on a picket and my ax.  We roped up to continue a bit higher, away from the edge, and cached our rock gear.


Crossing the summit plateau.  Photo by Eric.

We stayed roped up for the entire summit plateau crossing, quite certain that it was glaciated.  Eric and I took the ends of the rope team, placing Andreas in the middle, and I volunteered to break the first trail.  The snow was ankle to knee deep, but the terrain was gently sloped.  We had begun to really feel the altitude, and moved at a painfully slow pace despite our good condition.  It was here that the weather abruptly began to worsen – intermittent whiteout and increasingly heavy snowfall.  As the weather got progressively worse, and given our snail’s pace, I suggested that we bail.  Andreas seemed undecided, but Eric was adamant that we continue pushing.  We all still felt great, albeit tired, so I agreed that we continue.  I broke trail for about an hour to the base of the summit ridge, where Eric took over.

From here we climbed for another hour, or so, into worsening whiteout conditions.  Wind was picking up, and it was getting colder.  Visibility was down to 20-30m.  I once again broached the topic of descent, and this time Andreas agreed.  We rationalized that we were pacing such that we might summit by 5-6 p.m., but would then be left descending in the dark, or bivvying on the summit plateau.  We still had to fix ropes, or at the very least rappel our route of ascent.  We had a stove and gas with us, had extra water and extra layers, and bivvying was on the table as an option until we decided that to do so would be to invite frostbite.  As a team we agreed to turn back.  It was 12:30 p.m., and our elevation was a bit over 7100m.

Back at the edge of the summit plateau I took charge of rope-fixing.  I tried to work quickly, but by this point was tired and hypoxic.  Easy knots took a few tries to dress correctly, and I was constantly having to double, triple check everything I did.  Skills which I practice every weekend on rock had become clumsy and molasses-slow due to cold and fatigue.  I was able to salvage most of the anchor gear left with the old fixed line, and back it up nicely with fresh runners.  The old rope was core shot, so I cut the bad section out and replaced it with some of the static line that we had carried up with us.  I made sure to keep the old rope attached and accessible, as I wanted to follow its line of descent.  Anchors and rope all sorted, I rapped while hacking the old rope out of the snow and ice.  I was thus was able to follow it down and find a solid cordelette anchor, which had been left on a big boulder.

I backed the cord up with a piton and a sewn runner.  From here the ridge that we had ascended from was visible, below and to skier’s left.  Eric and Andreas arrived at the boulder, and we agreed that it would be easiest if I tried to fix a second line to the ridge.  I took the first rap again, traversing and breaking through knee to waist deep snow along the base of the rock wall, placing a single intermediate anchor part way.  It took almost 80m of rope to reach to ridge, costing us Andreas’ 60m climbing rope and most of the remaining static line which we had carried up.  I securely tied the system off onto a large boulder.


Andreas rapping the second fixed line.  I am visible on the ridge. Photo by Eric.

The fixed lines completed, I found myself shivering uncontrollably in the wind and deep snow.  The weather was truly heinous by now, with moderate winds, total whiteout, and steady snowfall.  As Andreas and Eric rapped across to me, I put on my down pants and storm mitts.  My throat was bothering me, and I was wracked with fits of coughing.

Descending back to 6200m Camp 2 was a nightmarish slog through deep snow, the whiteout limiting visibility to some 20m.  I was exhausted by this point, coughing and staggering, and found myself moving far slower than I had just two days earlier on the same terrain.  Several times I postholed waist deep and had to sit, breathing for a minute, before pulling myself out.  We returned to camp at 7:10 p.m., a 17 hour day.

July 22nd
6200m Camp 2 to 4650m Noshaq Basecamp

I woke up feeling terrible.  I was coughing uncontrollably, and the cough had developed into a wet, productive one.  I had no symptoms of AMS and felt strong aside from the cough; I quickly ruled out HAPE.  In regards to climbing, there was much disagreement and discussion as to the best course of action to take next.  Andreas also had a cough, although only from his throat, and like myself felt that he needed to descend and rest before another attempt.  Ludwig had made it to 6800m on the 21st, and then descended all the way to basecamp; he had to leave to catch his airplane.  Eric wanted to move up immediately in preparation for a second summit bid.  Pat and Marie were undecided, but tempted to move up and take a shot at the summit.  The deciding factor ended up being food.  I only had two days supply remaining, Andreas had nothing, and Eric was running low.

Eventually Eric, Andreas, and I decided to return to basecamp to rest and recover.  Pat, Marie, and Ray would descend to Camp 1, where they had a food cache.  On descent we met three Polish climbers who had arrived while we were on the upper mountain – they were the only other team to attempt Noshaq this season.  Much of the route was melted out on descent, and turned to either scree or ice.  We departed 6200m Camp 2 at 12:00 noon, reached 5500m Camp 1 at 12:45 p.m., and reached Basecamp at 2:20 p.m.  We cooked pasta with sausage when we arrived, and while it looked like dog’s breakfast, it tasted delicious.  Some three hours after Eric, Andreas and I arrived in basecamp, we saw Marie approaching across the moraine.  We feared bad news, and were relieved to learn that she, Pat, and Ray had descended only because their food cache had been raided and eaten by the ravens which inhabit the valley.

It so happened that 7.22 and 7.23 were the only two days of the entire expedition when weather remained clear of afternoon whiteout and snowfall.  Unfortunately this wasn’t of much benefit to us, given we used these as rest days.

July 23rd
Rest day at 4650m Noshaq Basecamp

I slept poorly, waking up several times throughout the night due to uncontrollable coughing, able to sleep only once my lungs were cleared.  I was continually coughing up thick chunks of yellowish phlegm, in startling quantity.  I was unable to breathe deeply without my lungs bubbling, which triggered coughing fits.  Shallow breathing felt fine, and I otherwise felt strong and healthy, with a good appetite.  Marie let me use her asthma puffer, which helped suppress the cough for an hour or so after use, but didn’t alleviate my difficulty breathing.

July 24th
4650m Noshaq Basecamp to 6200m Camp 2

The team wanted to move back up to make a summit bid.  My cough was only marginally better after a full day’s rest, but accompanying the others was my only chance – in my condition I knew that holding back in basecamp and making a solo attempt later wouldn’t be possible.

We departed basecamp at 9:40 a.m., reached 5500m Camp 1 at 2:40 p.m., and 6200m Camp 2 at 6:40 p.m. – 9 hours in total, covering more than 1500m of elevation gain at a very slow pace.  I moved slowly due to terrible conditions in the gully and relentless productive coughing.  Much of the route had melted out into dangerously icy conditions, and the traverse across the ‘snow triangle’ (see route description above) was insecure and dangerous – we probably should have taken the time to place a running belay, or even pitch it out.  Ray took a ~5m fall on ice, but luckily was completely unhurt and able to continue.  Ray later stopped at 5500m Camp 1, too tired to continue to 6200m Camp 2.  The route to 6200m Camp 2 felt endless, rest stepping forever in the punishing sun, and later in whiteout and snow.

I was physically very tired when arriving at 6200m Camp 2, and trying to manage my cough.  I focused on getting food and water prepared, along with hot water bottles to sleep with.

July 25th
6200m Camp 2 to 6500m Camp 3

I slept poorly, unable to rest properly due to my cough and difficulty breathing.  The plan was to ascend to 6700m today, in order to place a high camp in anticipation of making a summit bid on the 26th.  Eric and Andreas left on time, while the rest of us took our time getting ready.

We departed camp at 11:00 a.m., and reached 6500m at 2:00 p.m., 300m in a slow two hours.  I was still tired from the big ascent the day prior, and significantly impacted by my cough and breathing troubles.  Given the nice tent platforms at 6500m, I decided that I should stop for the night.  Pat and Marie, seeing that I was in poor shape, decided to camp with me rather than continue to 6700m, where Andreas and Eric waited.  We agreed to depart for a summit bid at 2 a.m. the next day.

July 26th
6500m Camp 3 to 4650m Noshaq Basecamp

Ready to leave at 2 a.m., I waited another hour for Pat and Marie to get ready before starting upwards at 3 a.m.  Eric and Andreas’ headlights were visible above us; they had started at midnight.  By 4 a.m. I realized that I was moving too slowly, couldn’t breathe properly, and was coughing too much to continue.  I turned around at around 6650-6700m, and was back in my tent by 4:30 a.m., where I immediately went back to sleep.  I slept until 9 a.m., and realized that Ray had also descended.  His headlight had broken, and ill equipped for managing the fixed lines he had turned back.

Ray and I packed up our equipment and started down together at 10:15 a.m.  We reached 6200m Camp 2 at 10:45 a.m., 5500m Camp 1 at 12:45 p.m., and basecamp at 4:45 p.m.

The descent was quite difficult for me, and validated my decision to abort the summit bid.  I struggled to breathe properly due to the amount of fluid in my lungs, and had to stop every 40-60 minutes in order to aggressively cough and clear them.  I was coughing up roughly 3 popcorn kernel sized chunks of phlegm each time, yet more kept accumulating.  Despite this, I still exhibited no symptoms of AMS – this was a lung infection, not HAPE.

About 100m above 5500m Camp 1, just a few meters to the side of our old boot track, I punched through into a crevasse, a hidden moat where the glacier meets the rock of the ridge.  I fell armpit-deep into the crack.  My enormous descent backpack lodged against the crevasse edge, and I was also able to plant my ax pick in time to help stop the fall.  Looking down I could see that the ice slot went some fifteen to twenty meters deep, and my legs dangled over a dark void.  I reacted quickly, and spread my weight onto my arms and ax, back in the direction I had been coming from.  I shouted at Ray in Chinese – that I was in a crack and for him to stay where he was.  Using my trekking pole and ax, fueled by adrenaline, I was able to physically haul myself out and back onto the snow slope.  My heart rate through the roof, breathing heavily from the burst of heavy exertion, I collapsed in a fit of uncontrollable coughing.  This was by far the worst unroped crevasse encounter I had ever had, and a full fall could have been catastrophic.  We had moved unroped over this area throughout the expedition, feeling secure in the knowledge that we were on a ridge.  In hindsight, it is possible that the entirety of the  saddle area above 5500m Camp 1 is in fact glaciated; if returning to Noshaq, I would make a point of roping up on this section.

From 5500m Camp 1 the descent became significantly worse.  The route was severely melted out, and crossing the snow triangle was no longer a safe option; it was a bulletproof sheet of ice.  We opted to descend the rocky ridge to climber’s left of our ascent gully.  This option was significantly safer than the ice of the gully, but did expose us to unpleasantly unstable scree prone to rockfall.  We gingerly made our way down, taking almost three hours to get to the cache boulder at the base of the gully.

From the cache boulder it took another hour to reach basecamp, where I collapsed into my tent, utterly annihilated and struggling to breathe well.  Andreas and Eric arrived several hours later, before sunset, having successfully summited before noon.  They were in good spirits, despite Andreas visibly suffering from his throat issue.  Pat and Marie got in contact with us via satphone; they had summited and were safely back in their tents at 6500m.

July 27th
Rest day at 4650m Noshaq Basecamp

Pat and Marie made it back to basecamp in the afternoon.  A small earthquake hit in the morning, dislodging enormous boulders onto the path between basecamp and the dry glacier.

July 28th
4650m Noshaq Basecamp to Qazi-Deh

The porters arrived in basecamp with donkeys, in the middle of a snowstorm.  Throughout the expedition weather had followed the pattern of afternoon whiteout on the upper mountain, some days earlier and some days later.  This, however, was the first and only day we experienced snow in basecamp itself, and it came down hard and heavy.  One of the Polish team assisted us in weighing everything, and helped negotiate a firm rate with the porters.


Donkeys waiting in basecamp.

We loaded up the donkeys with bags, with one porter carrying an additional bag that didn’t fit, and began to head down.  Within fifteen minutes of departing basecamp we broke through the cloud ceiling, and were greeted with a view of blue sky and open valleys.  Between the earthquake and the storm in basecamp, it was if the mountain had been angered by the summits, and wanted us gone.


Descending below the clouds, and into open valley.

We made the entire descent hike in a single day, taking some eleven hours to cover the 2000m of descent and 31km of distance.  It felt like a death march for me, my clogged lungs and productive cough still adversely impacting my breathing and endurance.

Back in Qazi-Deh we sorted out payment for the porters, tipped each of them $20 for making the descent in a single day, and feasted on chicken and naan bread.

July 29th
Qazi-Deh to Khorugh

We departed Qazi-Deh for the Tajik border, and crossed back into Tajikistan.  Pat and Andreas had visa problems, in that neither of them had successfully acquired their second e-visa, and were denied entry.  Process the e-visa payment with care, to avoid having the application soft-locked.  They made it across the next day, but only after making some phone calls to the American embassy.  A car arranged by Azim met us on the Tajik side of the river, and those of us who had crossed over headed to LAL in Khorugh, where we would spend the night.  Eric and Ray departed for Dushanbe the next day, while Marie and I waited for Pat and Andreas – the four of us would later make an interesting land journey all the way across Tajikistan, to Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan.

Thoughts on Noshaq

Four of our seven summited the mountain, making the expedition a success.  I contributed meaningfully to the trip, especially by taking responsibility for the work required to fix all of the ropes and help open the route up for the others.  I performed well throughout the expedition, at least until I was hit hard by the respiratory infection, after the first unsuccessful summit attempt.  Our four were the only summits of the year, as the three Polish climbers who arrived after us were hit by a streak of relentless bad weather which forced them to turn around from a highpoint of around 7300m.

I was disappointed that I didn’t summit, especially given that I’d climbed strong up until I became sick.  Well after the expedition’s conclusion, in hindsight my non-summit continues to bother me.  I feel that I should have made it.  Looking at my journal from the climb, I can rationally see that there was no chance of success once I became ill.  There was no way I could have ‘pushed harder’ or ‘been tougher’ and somehow made the summit – certainly not responsibly, without putting myself, and by extension the others in the team, in danger.  Alluding that my coughing fits and difficulty breathing were dramatization of a mild chest infection is disingenuous – the photos I took showing how much phlegm my lungs were producing, the sheer quantity of what I was coughing up, and my journal writing from the moment should serve to dispel my irrational ‘what if’ hindsight thinking.  I have never before been so sick in the mountains, as on this trip.  In spite of this, I still think about it.  What if I had waited a day longer before the first attempt?  What if we had moved camp that day instead?  What if we had pushed on that day, and bivvied somewhere secure after summiting?  What could I have done differently, to avoid getting so debilitatingly sick?

Our coordination and teamwork could have been stronger on Noshaq.  In our group I had only previously climbed with two people, Pat and Marie.  Of the six others on the team I only had prior technical climbing involving ropework, communication on terrain, and gear placement with Pat.  Our coordination as a group on the mountain wasn’t always predicated on good communication, clearly defined expectations, or scheduling.  This was in part due to a lack of familiarity across each person’s habits, style, and routines. We had no radios on the mountain, and relying on satphones for communication made for significant message delays and numerous small miscommunications throughout the trip, some involving minor variations in route finding, others resulting in misallocated equipment.

Throughout the expedition Eric had ended up with a disproportionate amount of the more physically demanding work, in that he thanklessly undertook the majority of trail breaking, with Andreas and to a lesser extent myself filling in the gaps.  Eric also handled all of the significant lead climbing.  This issue likely could have been resolved with clearer communication of expectations at the beginning of the expedition, and a fairer arrangement for breaking the route – on carry days our pacing was entirely irrelevant to intended outcomes, and it wouldn’t have mattered if someone slower had lead.

Likewise, the expedition felt rushed as a result of what were arguably unrealistic time expectations; Ludwig was climbing on a very slim time budget, and Eric was motivated to finish as soon as possible so as to attempt a second mountain.  Our acclimation schedule was the fastest that I have ever followed.  While I exercised my better judgement at the beginning of the climb – in hindsight the choice to delay my first trip to 5500m Camp 1 was a great decision – I eventually felt compelled to ‘keep up’.  The severity of the respiratory infection that I experienced was definitely exacerbated by rushed acclimation, and arguably would not have hit me at all had I not pushed myself as hard and as fast as I did.

These issues could likely have been eased had we worked together on a warm up climb or practice route of lower intensity and significance, before starting on Noshaq.  Radios would have made a huge difference towards smooth and responsive communication, and would have alleviated most, if not all, of the minor miscommunications which occurred.  Nightly planning meetings, even for just a few minutes at a time, routinely and formally arranged, would have helped keep expectations in check and given everyone an opportunity to voice opinions on pacing and strategy.  Our group was large enough that hiring a private meteorologist to provide weather forecasting would have been economical, and could have made a significant impact on our terrible luck with weather – whiteout and snowfall every single day that we were moving above 5500m, the only two bluebird days spent resting in basecamp!

Noshaq is remote, big, short on looks, and chiefly composed of loathsome choss.  When I try to tell people what I was climbing on all summer, they first ask me where on earth it’s even located, then raise an eyebrow and ask me why I’d ever consider going there.  That said, for better or for worse, I know that I need to return to Noshaq.

Ojos del Salado – February 2017


Ojos del Salado from el Arenal, still many kilometers from high camp.

Ojos del Salado Trip Report

I visited Argentina for a second time in February 2017, with the goal of climbing the 6893m Ojos del Salado.  Ojos is the second highest mountain on the South American continent, the highest volcano in the world, and given its location on the Chilean/Argentinean border is also the highest mountain in Chile.  As with most volcanoes, Ojos by its normal routes is considered an easy climb, and is entirely non-technical barring a section of scrambling near the very top of the mountain.  That said, its location deep within the high Atacama desert makes for a unique environment, offering its own particular challenges.

An ascent of Ojos del Salado has two possible starting points – Chilean or Argentinean.  The Chilean route is very well developed, with huts conveniently placed all along the way, and is very accessible via 4×4; where records have been set for highest driving altitudes.  Climbers commonly begin the climb on this side with a drive to 5200m.  The Argentinean approach is the polar opposite; remote, desolate, inaccessible, wild.

In researching and planning my 2017 winter expedition, I sought an opportunity both to challenge myself and to develop the range of my expedition experience.  The ~43km, extremely remote approach to Ojos from the Argentinean side had been on my radar for quite some time, and appealed to me as an ideal objective.  I knew that the climb itself was comparable to Aconcagua, if not easier, and decided that the land approach from Argentina would add desirable complexity and difficulty to an attempt.

I decided to make a solo attempt, approaching over land through the high Atacama desert.  I would begin unacclimated, and utilize the desert approach for my acclimation.  The isolation of the area, the distance involved, and the relatively high altitude of the entire affair comprised a compelling test of my training and logistical planning skills.  I would need absolute self-sufficiency and robust physical endurance in order to succeed.

Attempting Ojos from Argentina entails getting to Fiambala, a dusty little town in northwest Argentina.  In late January I flew in to Buenos Aires, hopped a cheap domestic flight to La Rioja, and from there rode a run down bus to Fiambala.  The same can also be done via Catamarca instead of La Rioja, if the flights are more accessible or less expensive.  In Fiambala I hoped either to find a well-regarded local fixer and operator, Jonson Reynoso, or to sort out independent transportation to the Refugio Cazadero Grande at the side of Highway 60, a roadside emergency shelter in the middle of nowhere, where the approach to Ojos begins.

Jonson is a legend in the area, and is the go-to person for any and all logistical needs in the high Atacama.  I had read about Jonson on Summitpost and had seen his name mentioned in numerous trip reports, but was unable to find a means of contacting him ahead of my trip – I figured that I’d show up in Fiambala and sort things out when I got there.  Jonson can be contacted via his email, which I now have; please send me a message if you need his address.

I arrived in Fiambala at dusk, and with my terrible Spanish managed to get a taxi from the bus station.  I told the taxi driver “Jonson Reynoso, Ojos del Salado”, and he immediately knew where to go.  We pulled up in front of Jonson’s office as the sun was setting, and there he was, larger than life, standing in the doorway.  I introduced myself, told him that I wanted to climb Ojos, and we arranged for a drive at 4 a.m. the next morning.  In Jonson’s office I met an Irish climber who had returned from Ojos that afternoon, having made an unsupported but pre-acclimated approach in much the same manner I planned to.  He had barely made it off the mountain, a vicious snowstorm having completely buried his tent as he descended from the summit, and only a GPS waypoint of his campsite location had saved him.  He warned me that conditions would likely be poor in the high desert.

The next morning, we loaded up the car and I began my approach.  From the roadside Jonson’s 4×4 was able to cover an additional 10km across open desert, to Quemadito at the head of the Cazadero valley.  From this point, Ojos highcamp is roughly 43km away.

It would be apt to describe the Atacama as a place of death.  While the Cazadero river in the lower valley supports surprisingly abundant life, sparse flora and large herds of vicuña, as one ascends higher the river soon runs dry.  The mummified corpses of dead vicuña rest alongside the path, preserved by the aridity and heat.  Past 4400m or so there remains nothing but rock, dust, and sand – the terrain is devoid of life.  Water was  scarce, and to obtain it I often had to walk as far as 1km to distant fields of ice penitentes, which I chopped, bagged, and hauled back to my camp.  One stretch of  about 14km near the middle of the approach lacked any water whatsoever, necessitating a single carry crossing.  Without a sat phone the approach in its entirety objectively is unsafe, with even a sprained ankle representing a potentially fatal injury.  The nearest road is days away, and the nearest human settlement is over 100km distant.

Ultimately, I did not succeed in summiting Ojos del Salado.  I did make it to ~6400m on the mountain, where 60-70km/h winds and knee deep snow prevented further progress.  Violent winds roared straight down the mountain from Chile to the northwest, threatening to knock me over entirely.  Without ax and crampons firmly planted to brace myself during gusts, I was at times unable to even maintain my balance.

The unusually deep snow was the result of unnaturally heavy precipitation throughout the days of my approach; five consecutive days translated into heavy snow higher up.  After I made the decision to bail on my summit attempt, Jonson informed me via sat phone that the four day weather forecast remained poor.  With barely enough food remaining to stick it out for several days and wait for a weather window, and rationalizing that the soft snow would take more time than I had to consolidate properly, I decided to descend.  In hindsight, I can infer that the mountain’s conditions had likely remained poor since the Irish climber’s lucky descent.

In total I covered 170km above 4000m, shuttling loads of equipment and food, with more than half that distance higher than 5000m.  I didn’t actually see the mountain itself until the sixth day of the approach, when I reached the Portezuelo Negro pass leading into the high plateau of el Arenal which sprawls below the mountain.  I spent a total of 10 days to reach my high camp at ~6000m, in large part due to beginning the climb completely unacclimated, and further owing to my acclimation strategy of rotating loads higher so as to ‘climb high, sleep low’ the entire way up.  I made the descent from my high camp to the pickup at Quemadito over three days, a single carry with an extremely heavy pack.  During the approach hike I spent eight consecutive days completely isolated, no other human being within sight.  One local man lives in the Cazadero valley, where he raises mules, but he does not venture higher than the lower river valley.  It is worth noting that a cache of ~3 days food supply, dry garbage, and extra equipment which I had left some ~15km into the approach was raided in my absence.  Upon my return the equipment and food had been stolen, but the garbage left behind for me to carry down.

Although the expedition without summiting was by definition unsuccessful, I do not feel much sense of regret or deep disappointment.  I had completed a difficult solo land approach across the high Atacama, and had attained the base of the mountain.  The grueling approach, and particularly the descent hike, had tested my mental focus and tolerance for physical suffering.  I remain convinced that the hideous conditions on the upper mountain made my summit, alone, impossible to accomplish, and as a result I feel that there wasn’t much I could have done differently.  Weather is fickle, yet sometimes absolute in its impacts.

I fully intend to return to Ojos del Salado in order to finish what I started, but would absolutely not consider approaching from the Argentinean side.  When I do return, I will focus on gaining the summit, will ascend via the Chilean side, and pre-acclimate with a few other 5000m-6000m peaks.

Ojos del Salado Photographs

Life in the Atacama

Camel Peak West – 骆驼峰西峰 – February 2016 (中文)


Camel Peak, the west summit to the left.





Camel Peak (center), Yangmantai (right), and Changping Valley.





My Chinese Mountaineering Association Climbing Permit.

My climbing permit.






Hunter Peak.


Hunter Peak (left) and a cleft peak of unknown name.


The frozen valley river framed distant ridges and peaks.


Shuangqiao Valley.



Yaomei Feng (left) and the other three sisters (San Feng, Er Feng, and Da Feng, left to right) above upper Rilong.





My sturdy packhorse.

第一天: 由于在公园办公室的突发状况,我的出发推迟了。黄先生和我在喇嘛庙于中午12点出发,喇嘛庙是一个巨大且新建的佛教寺庙,位于长坪沟约3400米的地方。长坪沟的山脚下有一个大约四千米的木板制的道路,我在那里遇到了几个当地的牧民。幺妹峰从远处望去很突出。


Lama Temple and Yaomei Feng.


Yaomei Feng above Changping Valley.


Yaomei Feng above Changping Valley.


Yaomei Feng.



Large swathes of ice covered sections of the valley and were impassable for the horse.



Pomiu Feng.


Pomiu Feng.


Sharp mountains, names unknown.


Livestock grazing on the riverbanks.



The wooden cabin at Muluozi.


Camel Peak from Muluozi.


My first night’s campsite.


第二天: 在我享受了一顿悠闲的早餐后,我们整理好行装和马,在中午十一点半时出发。在木骡子上方,我们遇到了更多的冰,只能沿着河岸慢慢行走。大段的河流都被冻住了。



Changping Valley from the trail to highcamp. Mr. Huang and horse in bottom right corner.




Yaomei Feng from my highcamp.


Yaomei Feng and Changping Valley from my highcamp.


Camel Peak, from near my highcamp. West summit to the left, East summit to the right.


第三天: 我将我的闹钟设定到早上五点半,特意在寒冷的清晨出发。我醒来就发现一夜之间,雪足足下了30-40厘米,给大地铺上了一层软软的白色粉末。早上六点半,我整理好我的装备,吃了顿简单的早餐便开始了我的行程。湛湛蓝天,没有一丝云彩,但狂风卷起了阵阵浪花。



Morning view towards Camel Peak, slightly above my highcamp.


Deep snow over the moraine made progress above highcamp slow.



Looking down the snow-covered moraine, from near the base of Camel’s glacier.


My route of ascent, avoiding climbing directly up the main slopes wherever possible.

My route of ascent, avoiding the main slopes wherever possible. From left to right are the west summit, false west summit, and east summit.



Looking down the lower glacier towards the moraine.



Looking towards the false west summit, from below the east summit.

Looking towards the false west summit, from below the east summit.


The false west summit, across the saddle.



Jagged peaks to the west of Changping Valley.


Looking back across the saddle towards the east summit.


The base of the false west summit.

The southern base of the false west summit, from the saddle.


Ascending, curving up and around the false west summit through steep, deep snow.



Looking across the final ridge from below the west summit. In the distance from left to right are Yangmantai, the east summit, and the false west summit (the snow covered point below and in front of the east summit).



Looking across the final ridge towards the west summit.



Looking down the summit rock wall from roughly halfway up.


Looking down Changping Valley from below the west summit.



The west summit of Camel Peak.


The west summit of Camel Peak, Yangmantai and the east peak behind.


Atop Camel West.




Looking across the moraine, on the way back to highcamp.

第四天: 早上八点半我们醒来,吃了些早餐,把一些装备放在马上,开始了漫长的越过长坪沟的路程。我们只带了一些面包和水,从4700米的高营地,徒步走到了3200米的喇嘛庙,全长33千米,高1500米,总时长7.5小时。回到日隆,我洗了澡,然后吃了辣牛肉火锅来庆祝我的胜利。


Looking down Changping Valley, descending from high camp.




Camel Peak and Yangmantai.


Yaomei Feng.






Pik Korzhenevskaya – August 2018


Pik Korzhenevskaya, viewed from the approach to Pik Chetyreh.


Pik Korzhenevskaya from the east, viewed from the summit of Pik Chetyreh.

Pik Korzhenevska and
Moskvina Glades Basecamp

Tajikistan’s 7105m Pik Korzhenevskaya isn’t the most famous 7000m mountain, but is undeniably a peak of extraordinary beauty.  Korzhenevskaya is named for the wife of the Russian geographer who discovered the peak, and the compliment in this gesture is clear to understand as soon as one sets eyes upon the mountain’s profile; the mountain’s eastern aspect is a gorgeous pyramid of snow and rock rising high above the surrounding valleys, both gargantuan and elegant in its lines.  The standard climbing route is as inspiring as the mountain’s figure, and after navigating the lower mountain follows the exposed southern ridge line for over 1,000 vertical meters directly to the summit.  Pik Korzhenevskaya is one of five 7000m peaks of the old Soviet Union, and thus is a required objective for any mountaineer who aspires to earn the Snow Leopard climbing award granted to those who attain their summits.

The Moskvina Glades basecamp used for ascents of Korzhenevskaya doubles as the basecamp for the highest peak in the area, 7495m Pik Kommunizma / Pik Somoni.  This makes for a largish international population of varying ability and experience.  The basecamp itself is operated by the Pamir Peaks company, who are the only game in town for logistics.  The basecamp is decidedly rough and ready, and essentially only accessible by helicopter.  The helicopter departs from the small town of Djirgital, a full day’s drive from Dushanbe, and operates on an unreliable, delay-prone schedule.  Approach via foot is possible but very difficult, and in 2018 only two individuals made the trek into basecamp, both later opting to fly on the way out. The helicopter crashed several days after my departure from basecamp, killing five.

There is no sensible alternative to using the Moskvina Glades basecamp, and it is far better than nothing – I would be doing a grave disservice not to compliment the wonderful sauna facility built from a repurposed shipping container, and would be wasting my energy were I to complain about any perceived inadequacies.  One would do well to bring spare food, stomach medicine, water purification tabs, and all personal equipment – especially ropes.  I kept a detailed diary throughout my time in basecamp and on the mountain, which I have summarized into this page.


Pik Somoni, viewed from the summit of Pik Korzhenevskaya.

Route Description

The normal route is somewhat convoluted, at least until ~6100m where it gains the south ridge.  The below images are of a map drawn by my Polish friend Konrad, who graciously gave me permission to share it.  His descriptions are written in Polish, but it nonetheless should serve as a visual aid for understanding the route.  I have color coded the camps and route sections in the image adjacent to the original drawing.  Below, I have written my own detailed descriptions for each section of the route.

4200m Basecamp to 5100m Camp 1

Besides summit day this is the longest section of the route.  Immediately outside of basecamp the route crosses a section of glacier.  This area melts rapidly in the daytime, and the cleanest route through will change day by day.  While crampons aren’t needed, it is well advised to mark one’s path with cairns or wands.  There will be a variety of easy ways through to the other side, and it is best to route find rather than waste time climbing vertical ice walls.

On the other side a well worn footpath switchbacks up grassy hills.  The route continues to be well marked as it crosses a section of river.  The boot track soon transitions onto rock, and while the direction should be mostly obvious one should keep an eye open for cairns.  There are several class 3 moves in this rocky section, as the route gains altitude.  After crossing a significant river below a large waterfall the route becomes harder to visualize, but large cairns should still be in sight.  Ascending several hundred meters of hideous scree takes one onto a rocky plateau adjacent to an icefall; 5100m Camp 1.

5100m Camp 1 to 5300m Camp 1.5, to 5600m Camp 2

The route out of Camp 1 starts on a visibly worn boot track and is fairly obvious.  It ascends an icefall adjacent to a meltwater waterfall, involving several steep sections of glacial ice.  Without fixed ropes in place the competent use of crampons and axe are essential for ascending, and this area becomes congested when large groups are on the mountain.  Fixed lines were placed along this part of the route in 2018, but the ‘rope’ used was merely unrated ~6mm nylon twine with no sheath.  Beware; ropes of this quality, along with their suspect anchors, are not to be fully trusted for hauling body weight on an ascender.  This is a steep, slightly technical section.

Above the icefall is a muddy river, and on its bank is 5300m Camp 1.5, a popular alternative to Camp 1.  The water here will need to be filtered for debris.

Continuing across the muddy river, the route gains the glacier proper.  This section of lower glacier is rapidly melting out and was a hazardous crevasse field in 2018.  The cracks are numerous and large, and the snowbridges were changing day by day.  Crossing after early morning is ill advised, and crossing at any time of day unroped represents a terribly risky exposure to a bad fall.  I watched this section of glacier visibly transform during my time on the mountain, with enormous crevasses opening and forcing rerouting.  The old Camp 2 at ~5800m no longer exists, as the glacier has completely receded several hundred meters away from the rock face which the camp used to to sit alongside.  5600m Camp 3 now sits on a flat area of snow, above the worst of the crevasses.


Looking up the lower glacier towards 5600m Camp 2, from 5300m Camp 1.5.  Camp 2 is out of sight, but would be located in the middle-left of this image. 6100m Camp 3 is visible in this image, where the rock meets the snow along the skyline in the upper right of the picture.

5600m Camp 2 to 6100m Camp 3

Above 5600m Camp 2 the glacier improves significantly and involves far fewer crevasse hazards.  The route continues to ascend the hanging glacier visible in the above image (ascending to the right, in the image above), crossing several slopes of moderate steepness.  A bergshrund must be crossed at around ~5900m.  This section was fixed with nylon twine in 2018.  6100m Camp 3 sits at the top of the glacier, at the very base of the south ridge, and is visible to climbers as a notch in the rock.  It is a small space, and suitable for only 4-5 tent platforms.


The bergshrund.  6100m Camp 3 is visible in this image as a notch of snow against the sky, in the top right corner of the picture.


My tent at 6100m Camp 3.

The three photos below are not mine, but are of my partner Pat and I.  Credit to Dave from Lithuania for taking such excellent shots of us arriving at Camp 3, and for being so kind in sharing them with me.

6100m Camp 3 to 6300m Camp 4

Past 6100m Camp 3 the route ascends roughly ten meters of rotten, low class 5 rock in order to gain the south ridge.  Old fixed lines were in place on this section, with good anchors tied off on large boulders.  This short rock step is the most technical section of the entire climb, but is made trivial by fixed ropes.  Above the rocks one must ascend a section of narrow, exposed ridgeline before gaining the nicely sized plateau of 6300m Camp 4.


6300m Camp 4, Pik Somoni in the distance.

6300m Camp 4 to 7105m Summit

The route to the summit is delightfully direct, and follows the ridge line straight to the base of the summit pyramid.  The ridge is very exposed in places, and involves several short slopes up to ~65 degrees.  One of these slopes was iced over on my ascent, and I fixed my 30m rope on it.  The route steepens at the base of the summit pyramid, but there were sturdy old fixed lines in place.  The flat, broad summit was marked with only a single tent pole.

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Looking down the south ridge after fixing my line, en route to the summit.


The summit pyramid.

Schedule and Trip Report

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Acclimation near Dushanbe

Prior to flying into the Moskvina Glades basecamp and beginning Pik Korzhenevskaya, I spent five days hiking in mountains nearby Dushanbe with Estonian friends.  The hike was very pretty, and served as a great warmup.  I do not know the name of the range which we hiked in, but do know that it wasn’t the Fan Mountains! We reached a high point of around ~3,500m and spent a night above 3,000m for acclimation.  A few days spent between 2,000m-3,000m made a significant difference in providing some pre-acclimation to make for a smoother transition higher.

July 14th
Arrive 4330m Moskvina Glades basecamp.
Acclimation hike to 4700m.

Helicopter into basecamp with Estonian friends.  Acclimation hike to 4700m along the approach to Pik Chetyreh.

July 15th
Acclimation hike to 4800m.

Carried 10kg of equipment to ~4800m in preparation for an attempt on Pik Chetyreh.  Lots of scree and loose rock on this section of the approach.

July 16th
Move to 5100m.

Left Moskvina at 9:30 a.m., arrived at 5100m Pik Chetyreh basecamp at 4:30 p.m., 7 hours.  See my Pik Chetyreh trip report for more details of this climb.

July 17th
Ascend 6230m Pik Chetyreh, sleep 5100m.

5:30 a.m. start, 2:30 p.m. at 6230m Pik Chetyreh summit (likely main summit, possibly a sightly lower sub-summit; see trip report), 7:00 p.m. back in tent.  13.5 hour day.

July 18th
Descend to 4330m basecamp.

7:30 a.m. depart Pik Chetyreh basecamp, 10:00 a.m. arrive Moskvina.  Descent on scree was unpleasant with a heavy bag.

July 19th-20th
Rest days at 4330m basecamp.

Two full rest days.

July 21st
Move to 5600m Camp 2.

My friend Pat and I departed Moskvina Glades basecamp at 6:20 a.m., making the long approach hike to 5100m Camp 1 in just over 4 hours and arriving at 10:40 a.m.  At Camp 1 we spent some time arranging equipment and changing boots for the next leg of the climb on snow and ice.  We ascended the icefall/waterfall past Camp 1 and reached 5300m Camp 1.5 at around 1:00 p.m.  After a short rest and some conversation with other climbers staying at the camp we continued onto the hideous lower glacier.  The snow was melting out in the early afternoon sun, and conditions were miserable.  Knowing what we were getting into when planning to climb from basecamp to Camp 2 in one push, we had agreed that we’d turn around if afternoon conditions were too unsafe.  With care and a steady pace we made good progress across the sketchy terrain, and arrived at 5600m Camp 2 at 3:00 p.m.

July 22nd
Move to 6000m.

We departed Camp 2 at 11:00 a.m. – in hindsight far too late in the day and a costly mistake.  Snow conditions were predictably terrible in the afternoon heat and slowed our progress significantly.  No climbers had been further then just above the bergshrund, or roughly ~5900 on the route, and below the bergshrund we found ourselves slogging through mostly unbroken mush.  Crossing the bergshrund itself was tricky due to the soft snow, and above we realized that a significant traverse across a steep slope made unstable by melt separated us from the proper location for Camp 3.  Late in the day, and tired from breaking trail through slush, we opted to ascend the rock ridge directly above the bergshrund.  We pitched it into two 20m pitches of rotten ice and loose rock, with a single screw and a picket for protection.  Atop the ridge at ~6,000m we dug a tent platform and hunkered down for the night.  Had we departed Camp 2 earlier, or had I been willing to take on the full traverse in the slushy conditions, we likely could have moved to the proper 6100m Camp 3.

July 23rd
Move to 6100m Camp 3.

Starting early, we packed up and completed the traverse to the normal 6100m Camp 3.  The traverse only took about an hour and made me question whether or not my call to camp atop the ridge the day before had been wise – we likely could have completed the traverse the day prior in roughly the same amount of time, albeit with terrible, soft snow conditions.   At 6100m Camp 3 we met six other climbers who had ascended from 5600m Camp 2 that day.  We dug a good platform for our tent, and spent the remainder of the day resting.

July 24th
Descend to 5600m Camp 2.

Moderate wind, snowfall, and cloud cover made for a thoroughly uninviting looking summit ridge.  All eight of us agreed that a summit push would be ill advised in the conditions, especially given that we would be breaking trail and opening the route for the season.  Two of the other climbers decided that they would head higher in the afternoon to check, and if necessary replace, the fixed lines on the rock step above camp.  After breakfast Pat climbed up to the base of the ridge, breaking trail to scope out the rock.  When he returned, we discovered that we were almost out of propane – we had packed for four days, and had used most of our supplies.  Facing more inclement weather for the next few days, we opted to pack up and descend immediately rather than try to wait a day or two for a summit shot.  The six other climbers stayed and all summited the next day, the first of the season, albeit in very poor, difficult conditions.

Pat and I departed at 12 p.m., and reached 5600m Camp 2 in just an hour.  Unfortunately, once again arriving in the afternoon, we realized that the glacier below Camp 2 was out of condition for a descent lower; crevasses were open, snow bridges were marginal, and the snow was even softer than our first crossing on ascent.  We opted to stay in Camp 2 with what we had, scrounging some spare propane which Pat had stashed earlier.  We sat throughout the afternoon with nothing to do but look down over the glacier, and were surprised when, at 3:30 p.m., we saw figures ascending solo and unroped.  The first climber, an extraordinarily strong and very experienced Bulgarian named Ivan, made it without incident.  Regardless, it was agonizing watching him gingerly ascend the melting death trap of cracks.  The second, a Chinese climber whom I’d met earlier in basecamp, wasn’t as fortunate.  When his first snowbridge blew, dropping him waist-deep into the monster crevasse below, Pat and I quickly scrambled to rope up and get rescue gear racked; we were certain that we’d need to venture out into the crevasse field to try and recover him from a fall.  Luckily, as he went in he was able to struggle, flail, and pull himself out – only to fall through, waist-deep again, on the next bridge.  Somehow escaping unscathed after his second punch-through, he greeted us below Camp 2.  It turned out that he had ascended with no down parka, no sleeping bag, and no gas or stove.  By sharing equipment we devised a rough and ready sleeping situation good enough to keep three people warm, and we spent a cold night huddled together, squatting an empty 3-person guide tent out of necessity.

July 25th
Descend to 4330m basecamp.

Departed 5600m Camp 2 at 6:15 a.m., early so as to ensure stability when crossing the crevasse field below camp.  Arrived at 5100m Camp 1 around 8:00 a.m., to find a lot of congestion on the narrow route up the frozen waterfall.  Had a very limited supply of water coming from 5600m Camp 2, but was able to fill my bottle with clean, fresh glacial melt at 5100m Camp 1.  Thirst quenched, and leaving a large cache at Camp 1, I was able to maintain a brisk pace for the remainder of the hike down.  Arrived back in basecamp at 10:30 a.m.

July 26th-28th
Rest days at 4330m basecamp.

Three full rest days.

July 29th
Move to 5100m Camp 1.

Facing a dodgy weather forecast, Pat and I nonetheless decided to ascend to 5100m Camp 1, if only to recover the gear which we had cached there.  We left basecamp at 11:00 a.m., and arrived at 5100m Camp 1 at 3:20 p.m.

From around ~4700m onwards deep snow covered the route, and with snow still falling steadily it was clear that the route was out of condition.  Descending climbers, many unsuccessful in their summit bids the day prior, reported waist deep snow above 5600m Camp 2.  We figured that we would carry on and see conditions for ourselves, and accepted that we might merely be on a gear recovery mission.  As we met more people descending, among them climbers we knew, we continued to hear the same description of waist-deep snow conditions on the upper mountain.

At 5100m Camp 1 we pitched our tents and hunkered down, the snow steadily continuing to blanket everything.

July 30th
Rest day at 5100m Camp 1.

It continued to snow.  We opted to wait rather than to descend, in the hopes that the weather would shift.  The weather didn’t shift.

July 31st
Descend to 4330m basecamp.

As it continued snowing, we gave in to the fact that the weather was not going to cooperate with our plans, and packed our cached equipment for the descent to basecamp.  The descent was slow with heavy bags, and the snow covered path made navigating the rock scrambling trickier.  We departed at 10:20 a.m. and reached basecamp at 1:20 p.m.

August 1st
Rest day at 4330m basecamp.

Weather remained inclement, and having cleared all of our equipment off of Korzhenevskaya we began to prepare ourselves for an attempt on Pik Somoni.

August 2nd
Move to 5100m Camp 1.

The weather began to improve overnight.  Rather than wait another 2-3 days to begin a Pik Somoni attempt alongside Estonian friends, we opted to return to Korzhenevskaya and take another shot.  Another Estonian friend, Marie, joined Pat and I.  We repacked all the equipment we had brought down two days prior – a psychologically arduous task, knowing that we could have simply left it all at 5100m Camp 1!  We took our time, in no rush given our intent to overnight on the rocks at Camp 1, and departed basecamp at 2:20 p.m., reaching 5100m Camp 1 at 6:20 p.m.

August 3rd
Move to 6100m Camp 3.

We departed 5100m Camp 1 early so as to ensure a safe crossing of the crevasse fields below 5600m Camp 2.  Left 5100m Camp 1 at 6:20 a.m., arrived at 5600m Camp 2 at 9:10 a.m.  The route had changed significantly since my first crossing of this section, and crevasses were fully opened up, snowbridges collapsed.  Circumnavigating the cracks made the route longer, and generally not much better than it had been a week earlier.

We took a short rest, and began from 5600m Camp 2 at 10:10 a.m., reaching 6100m Camp 3 at 2:40 p.m.  The route above Camp 2 was straightforward enough, and in much better condition that my earlier ascent of it – the recent heavy snowfall had consolidated very nicely.  The bergshrund was nicely frozen up, and a smooth climb this time around.

At Camp 3 we dug tent platforms, and began to prepare for a summit bid the following morning.

August 4th
Move to 6300m Camp 4.

We awoke early to discover relatively high winds.  We quickly made the decision to go back to sleep and use the day for a move to 6300m Camp 4, from where we would have a shorter shot at the summit.  We departed after lunch at 11:50 a.m., and arrived at Camp 3 at 1:30 p.m.  The move up wasn’t difficult, gaining the summit ridge via a moderate rock step.  Later in the afternoon saw the arrival of two Polish friends, Piotr and Konrad, who would later join us on the climb to the summit.

Camp 3 is a generously sized plateau a few hundred meters up the ridge, with enough space for several tents.  We spent the afternoon eating, hydrating, and resting.  In my notes I remarked that I “hydrated more than 2L, ate a full meal, lots of snacks, hot cocoa, nuts, gels, granola bars, some oats.  Stomach is full, feel very warm and comfortable.”  I had a healthy appetite at high camp, and with plenty of time to take the day slowly was able to thoroughly fuel up for the next day’s climb.

August 5th
Ascend 7105m Pik Korzhenevskaya, sleep 6300m.

We planned to start early, but given our good pace in the days prior opted not to push an alpine start so as to avoid the cold of night.  I woke up at 3:30 and took my time eating a light breakfast – instant noodles with half a liter of soup broth – drinking coffee, and preparing equipment for the summit push.  I brought 1L of hot tea and 1L of hot electrolyte mix in my down parka, along with Honey Stingers gels and crunchy granola bars for snacks.  As usual, I carried my storm mitts and down pants in my summit bag.

I left my tent at 5:00 a.m., feeling strong.  I made a steady pace up the ridge; snow conditions were perfect, there was almost no wind, and overhead the sky was blue and free of clouds.   At around 6800m I briefly stopped to fix my rope to an iced over slope which I figured I’d want to rap on descent, but otherwise took only a few hydration breaks.  I reached the summit without incident at 11:30 a.m., and spent almost an hour completely alone at the top.  Konrad was the first to arrive, and after he helped me to take some photographs I began to descend.  I departed the summit at around 12:20 p.m., and was back in my tent at 6300m Camp 4 at around 2:35 p.m.  The descent was relatively smooth, although it is notable that several sections of ridge are distinctly ‘no fall zones’ due to the narrow terrain and severe drop-offs.


On the summit of Pik Korzhenevskaya.

August 6th
Descend to 4330m basecamp.

Cleaned camp, packed all equipment into a massive descent bag, and headed down the mountain.  I departed 6300m Camp 4 at 9:00 a.m. with Pat and Marie, and reached 5100m Camp 1 at 1:00 p.m., where I stopped to take a rest.  I left 5100m Camp 1 at 2:30 p.m. and reached basecamp at 5:30 p.m., in time for a delightful sauna and a dinner of borscht in the mess hall.

August 7th
Rest day at 4330m basecamp.

August 8th
Depart basecamp via helicopter

I lucked out, and got onto an emergency evacuation helicopter back to Djirgital – there was room for several passengers in addition to the evacuee.  This was enormously fortunate, as the helicopter’s normal schedule is infrequent and prone to unexpected delays – Pat remained in basecamp, and would later wait over a week for an exit helicopter after he summited Pik Somoni.  A few days after my departure the helicopter crashed, killing five.  I spent the remaining 6 days of my trip getting food poisoning and resting in the sweltering heat of summer Dushanbe.  I stayed in the City Hostel, an excellent place, and rented the basement out with other climbers who were also waiting for flights home.  I was happy to meet my Estonian friends in town when they returned from Moskvina Glades just a day before my departure.

I was delighted to have summited Korzhenevskaya after two false starts, and pleased to have made it up Pik Chetyreh despite our team being woefully underequipped.  I felt some sense of personal regret for not having made any attempt whatsoever on Pik Somoni, especially since the loss of time stemming from our decision to halt the first attempt on Korzhenevskaya was largely responsible.  I feel strongly that I will return to Moskvina Glades again in a few years time, likely after fully pre-acclimating on another 7000m mountain.

Pik Chetyreh – July 2018


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.


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.


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.


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.  Looking carefully at images from the top, and photos I later took from Korzhenevskaya, it is possible that perspective is deceptive and that they are a part of a different mountain entirely.  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.

Shuksan Thumb

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.