Pik Chetyreh – July 2018

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Pik Chetyreh, from nearby Moskvina basecamp.

Pik Chetyreh

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

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

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

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Pik Chetyreh, from roughly halfway through the approach hike.

Climbing Route

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

Approach

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

Climb

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

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

The summit views were spectacular, and offered us full perspective of both Korzhenevskaya and Kommunizma, along with views of innumerable 6000m peaks to the north and east, remote and wild.  Behind our high point were two additional summits, and we were uncertain whether they were on par with the point we stood upon, slightly higher, or slightly lower.  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.

 

Pik Lenin – August 2017

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

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Pik Lenin, from 3500m Basecamp.

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

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

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

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Pik Lenin.

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

Pik Lenin 2017 Photographs

Pik Lenin 2017 Trip Report

2017 Lenin Calendar

My 2017 Expedition Schedule.

July 20th

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

July 21st

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

July 22nd

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

July 23rd

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

July 24th

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

July 25th

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

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

July 26th

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

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

July 27th

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

July 28th

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

July 29th

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

July 30th

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

July 31st

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

August 1st

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

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

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

August 2nd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 3rd

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

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

August 4th – 5th

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

Pik Lenin – July 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Pik Lenin Calendar

My 2016 Expedition Schedule.