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Peristroika Pays Off: Part III: Khan Tengri


by Jim Dockery

December 29, 2001

Originally Published Rock & Ice #45

We had expected to be met at the airport in Alma Ata by an official of the Soviet Sports Agency, but after half an hour trying in vain to ask questions, we sat down to nervously wait. For the first time we were experiencing the difficulties of independent travel in the Soviet Union. We were only on our own for a couple of hours, but language difficulties left us totally lost and helpless.

A very apologetic Victor finally arrived. We traveled by bus to our hotel, several grades above our accommodations in Leninabad. The shady, tree lined streets of Alma Ata, the capital of Kirghizia, were a marked contrast to dry, barren Leninabad. We enjoyed touring the thriving farmers' market by day, and drinking beer (pivo) in the hotel bar at night. Our Intourist hotel (for foreigners) was the only place in this Moslem republic where we saw alcohol sold.

The bus to the mountains picked us up at noon on our second day in town. It was a pleasant six hour ride, first through fruit growing valleys, then up onto a high, grassy plateau reminiscent of eastern Washington. We arrived at basecamp too late for dinner, but a sumptuous ''snack" was quickly prepared for us. This camp was very well run by Boris Studyenyin, a Soviet "International Master of Sport." Boris is a balding, friendly, bear of a man, who runs his camps with total authority. Going strong into his fifties, the loss of a number of fingertips to frostbite has had little effect on his vice-like handshake, or on his climbing, as attested by an impressive list of first ascents in the area.

We were the last of a number of foreign expeditions to visit that summer. We paired up to sleep in large walk-in tents equipped with electric lights run on a gasoline powered generator. The excellent meals were served in a huge wooden floored army tent. A special tent was set up for hot showers! The accommodations made it easy to wait for the weather to improve enough to helicopter into the mountains. After two lazy days I began to worry about losing my acclimatization. Some of our Leningrad friends had told us it was not unusual to spend an entire trip waiting to fly in.

Finally we were told to be ready at 6 a.m. on the third morning. We sat, then lay napping, on our packs. It was afternoon by the time we took off, five of us piled in with a mountain of food.

Hills had hidden the mountains from camp, so we popped a porthole style window and stuck our heads out for our first view. The wide, grassy plain beyond the hills was dusted with new snow where it rose to meet the huge, icy peaks. Heavy overcast made for a gray and somber mood. We were not sure it would break up enough to allow us to make camp on the North Engilcheck Glacier, but the camp manager reported a clearing, so we went for it. We were too busy photographing the amazing peaks on either side to worry about the flying until we shot down into a 100-meter gap between the glacier and the cloud ceiling. As we rounded the next bend in the valley, the promised clearing materialized and we landed on the glacier a couple hundred meters from camp.

The accommodations were just as nice as those at the roadhead, with identical sleeping tents (complete with electric lights) and excellent food served by our smiling cook, Sasha. By late afternoon the rest of the crew had arrived on a second flight.

After a light snow during the night, the day dawned clear, revealing an incredible view of the surrounding peaks. I was especially in awe of the huge north face of Khan Tengri. None of us had seen a good photograph, so the massive reality was overpowering. We were amazed that the Russians had climbed the rocky main face in 1973. This must have been one of the hardest climbs of its day, although I never read a report of it in the Western climbing press. Luckily we could avoid these difficulties by climbing a snow-and-ice ridge on a satellite peak to the west. From its top, our route would descend the saddle between the two peaks, then climb the final 1000 meter west ridge of the summit pyramid.

We spent our first day walking up the glacier to take in the view and acclimatize. That evening at dinner we discussed tactics. The Soviets had fixed ropes on all the difficult mixed sections of the route. If we soloed the easy parts, then clipped a jumar on the fixed ropes, we could climb without our own ropes or hardware, saving a lot of weight and time. The problem was that none of us had ever employed such tactics before, and it seemed like cheating. Given our limited time, we decided that the fixed ropes were our only chance for the summit. The striking beauty of Khan Tengri had already captured all our hearts.

We were drinking tea just after dark when a Japanese team, descending Khan Tengri,radioed for help. Someone had fallen near the bottom of the route. A group of Soviets grabbed their packs and set out by headlamp across the glacier while the rest of us gathered on top of the moraine to watch their lights climb slowly upward. When their radio report finally came, it confirmed the worst: the expedition leader had somehow come off the fixed ropes and fallen to his death. He was their strongest climber.

Sobbing from the Japanese tents was a somber serenade as I tried to sleep that night. My desire to climb remained, but it was tempered with the realization that I could die in the attempt. After years in the game, I'd had my share of close calls, and knew the risks, but the scale and altitude here were different. However, I had been climbing well, with the self-confidence essential for difficult climbing. Without confidence you are paralyzed, but too much might lead you across the fine line of ability and conditions.

Was any climb worth risking my life? Was life worth living without risk? When I was younger - and unattached - this "flirt with death" aspect of alpine climbing added to the intensity and increased my concentration. I had reasoned that I might die tomorrow in a car crash, or nuclear war, so why not live today to the fullest? And what better way than climbing! As I pulled my sleeping bag around my ears to shut out the wailing, I couldn't believe the change that middle age and a commitment of love and marriage had made in my attitude.

The cold, clear light of dawn washed away dark thoughts of death. As I hiked up the moraine, the joy of movement once again brought me back to myself. I will never be satisfied to just look when I can climb.

We all wanted another day to acclimatize and or fight dysentery, so five of us spent the day walking up an easy snow route behind camp, while the others rested. The Japanese team flew out.

Late that afternoon, a huge avalanche poured into the amphitheater formed by the main north face and the ridge we planned to climb. The mood in camp that night was quiet and subdued. I still wanted to climb - especially after all the work to get here. If I chickened out without even trying, I'd never forgive myself.

Tom, Yann, Frith, and I took the next day off to rest and pack for Khan Tengri. We had saved our freeze-dried food for this climb because lightweight food is unavailable in the Soviet Union. Soviet climbers carry potatoes and even whole frozen fish strapped to their packs.

Yesterday's avalanche had convinced Mark and I to climb the face of the satellite peak instead of following the normal route which traverses around the toe of the ridge into the amphitheater. We went directly up the shallow trench in the snow made by the Japanese climber's body as it was lowered down the mountain. Five hundred meters up, we traversed over to the ridge crest and clipped onto the first fixed ropes. Tom, Yann, and Frith caught up with us when we stopped to rest and eat.

The climbing was boring, but nerve-wracking. Whenever it got steep we just clipped the old fixed ropes. I never fully trusted them, however, nor could I get John Harlin's death on the Eiger Direct out of my mind. Was it safer to be first onto the ropes, or last? Would the passage of two more people be just enough to cut the rope for the third? Just when I had convinced myself it was OK, I came to an anchor consisting of two funky ice pitons in rotten, frozen rock. What the hell, I thought, might as well keep going - I'd just have to rappel the ropes if I went down!

It was early afternoon when Mark, Yann, and I pulled onto a bench 1,200 meters up, where we intended to bivouac. We had been told there was a large ice cave, but it was not immediately obvious, so we spread out our bivi sacs and started brewing up. Luckily the weather was perfect, so we could lay out inner boots to dry, and cook in comfort.

Tom and Frith arrived a bit later and set up their small tent. Spirits were high as we guzzled juice and ate dinner. Everyone was feeling strong, conditions were good, and the weather seemed to be cooperating.

Snow pelting my bivi sac woke me the next morning. Mark, Yann, and I quickly stuffed our packs and set out in search of the promised cave. Luckily we found it 100 meters up from the bench. A hole in the slope turned out to be the entrance to a small crevasse. Although we couldn't warm it up because the entrance was above the floor and allowed in spindrift, it was a still a lot better than sitting out the storm in our sacs.

After resting in the cave all morning, we were amazed when Rob and Sue showed up late that afternoon along with a Soviet team of four. Although the storm had not amounted to much lower down, it increased in intensity as they climbed until they were battling snow and high winds. Rob and Sue were beat, so we cooked them dinner while the Soviets worked on enlarging another chamber in the crevasse.

Snow was still filtering into the cave the next morning, so we slept in. We were surprised again when Tom and Frith arrived, ready to climb. The snow we had seen was just spindrift blowing around. While Rob and Sue rested, we set out up the last mixed slopes of the satellite peak with the Soviets. The fixed ropes lay over some difficult sections of poor rock I wouldn't have enjoyed leading. Route finding would also have been problematic on the many narrow, alternating bands of rock and snow.

The view from the top of the satellite peak was fantastic - icy summits as far as the eye could see to the west, Khan Tengri's final 1000 meter pyramid to the east, and the huge bulk of Peak Pobedy to the south, blocking the view into China.

We climbed down easily, with a final rappel over a bergschrund, to the high camp the Soviets had established. By evening almost 20 people had arrived, including a number who'd climbed the easier southern side from a basecamp on the South Engilcheck Glacier. After a summer of many expeditions we found plenty of caves. Yann, Mark, and I picked one at the end of the line and spent an hour cleaning and enlarging it. Tom and Frith arrived just in time for dinner.

I crawled out the next morning raring to go, but a sharp wind quickly blew me back into the cave. I poured the contents of my pack out onto my sleeping bag, put on every piece of clothing I had, then repacked. In the process I missed one essential item that had been pushed under a fold of fabric.

It was the coldest morning I have ever experienced. The windchill in the shadow of the west face was incredible. Thankfully the climbing was easy, similar to the Hornli Ridge of the Matterhorn, so we could keep moving. We climbed separately, to avoid doubling up on the fixed ropes, until we came upon a tent left by a Czech team. We all squeezed in, to escape the wind, and wait for the sun.

Getting ready to crawl out I was stunned to discover I didn't have my prescription sunglasses. I tried an old Eskimo trick, covering my glasses with duct tape and leaving only narrow slits to see through. One hundred meters above the tent, and three hundred meters from the top I had to admit defeat. It took too long to find holds on the steep sections, and my eyes were already sore.

I wished the others good luck pulled the tape off, squinted my eyes, and hurried down. I didn't have time to be disappointed or mad at myself - I had to reach the cave before the intense high-altitude glare blinded me. I had recently read an article on the permanent damage associated with snow blindness, so I moved with newfound energy. I realized that I could see through my black silk balaclava well enough on easy ground. When I had to find a fixed rope, or do a tricky traverse, I tried to look at rock, not snow. The fixed ropes were a real godsend now. With their aid, I was only suffering from a slight headache by the time I reached camp. I passed a number of Soviet climbers on their way up. They could not understand why I was descending. Either they have tougher eyes than mine, or they would accept such pain as a reasonable price to pay for the summit. The hideous sunburns I saw on a number of them leads me to believe the latter. Two of the Soviets from our basecamp had stayed behind to man the radio. I was glad when they invited me to accompany them on their summit attempt the next day. We had a pleasant rest day watching the ant like progress of the climbers strung out along the ridge.

The wind battered me when I emerged from the cave the next morning. It was hard to compare such extremes, but it felt even colder than it did the day before, and there was a cloud cap forming over the summit. I ate some kasha with Diema and Vello in their cave, then the three of us started up the ridge. A Czech team that had arrived the day before was also setting out.

The cloud cap spread, the wind grew, and our extremities froze. By the time we reached the first rocks it was obvious we would have to retreat. The Czechs came to the same conclusion, so we all scurried back to the caves together.

Later that morning I watched the rest of our team descend the south side of the mountain. It had been decided we would walk down the Semendvckiy Glacier to the south basecamp to avoid rappelling the worn fixed ropes on the steeper north side. A helicopter would ferry us back around to our own basecamp.

Diema, Vello, and I decided to wait with the Czech team, hoping the weather would improve enough to allow another summit attempt. We thought we had two or three days leeway, but basecamp radioed that we should come down the next day. Vello signed off and told me, "We will 'misunderstand' their order to mean the day after our summit climb."

Vello's English was excellent. I spent the day in their cave discussing the political climate in his home republic of Estonia, and the six seasons he'd spent in Antarctica working as a meteorologist. Diema works near Alma Ata as an engineer for one of the few alpine ski areas in the country. With Vello's help translating, he and I talked about skiing, and our mutual love of photography. Like the five day visa-less "screw up" in Leningrad during the first part of my vacation, my forgotten sunglasses were a blessing in disguise, giving me insights into the lives and aspirations of two Soviets from widely divergent areas.

The sky was completely overcast our third morning at high camp, so we packed to descend. Walking down the glacier with my new friends, I was content with my climb. It would have been nice to make Khan Tengri's summit, but what did another point of rock and ice really matter? More important was my prime objective on the expedition - to make friends, and get a feel for the life of "normal" (If any climber can be considered normal!) people in the Soviet Union. I found them to be some of the warmest, friendliest people I have ever met. Their hospitality washed away the last vestiges of my boyhood nightmares about "the evil empire" seeking my destruction.


22 August 1989, 6600 meters, West Ridge Khan Tengri.

Jim has forgotten his sunglasses. The other four of us suggest ways to beat the intense sun, but prudently, Jim descends. We are not concerned about his going it alone - but I am very disappointed. Jim has been climbing faster than the rest of us, and I've looked forward to his 99 summit photos. (He gives a motordrive a run for its money!)

We part, and each of us faces the almost too-big-for-a-jumar 13mm braided hemp, usually followed by doubled clothesline. I once thought that uniformity was the rule in the Soviet Union, but in reality the problem of quality control is pervasive. Titanium pitons anchor this exotic collection of fixed lines. Be it fixed ropes in the Soviet Union, or free climbing at home, it is still the typical climbing situation - you are totally relaxed, or mortally terrified.

A steep rock pitch (5.6-5.8) at 6800 meters has a thick fixed line; after a couple of hundred feet, we leave the ropes and move onto easier terrain. I trail Yann Merrand who jumped on the lines ahead of me. The aerobic machine in me needed no more motivation than the promise of the summit, but Yann noticed that I was gaining on him and his competitive juices started flowing. I don't understand how anyone could move more quickly at 7000 meters, but I tell my legs to push harder anyway. Despite my efforts, Yann almost instantly doubles the distance between us.

On the summit Yann raises his ice axe and jumar above his head as I take photos. Our fulfillment has been diminished slightly by having used the fixed ropes, but we have bagged the peak. Alaskan Range-scale mountains spread out in all directions, and I plan a lifetime of climbing in a few seconds. Reflecting on some of my Alaska experiences, maybe those fixed ropes aren't so bad. Tom Hargis and Frith Meyer soon arrive, and we watch Tom waltz onto the summit cornice without a belay. I like Tom because he's always curious, but now I am afraid of losing him. We breathe relief when he rejoins us, and we begin the methodical descent. Two Soviets also shared the summit with us, and now those two rush downward. I use a figure-eight, they descend with only a carabiner clipped to the fixed lines. They are gambling, I tell myself, but maybe they know the mountain better than I. Jim greets us at the snow caves and informs us that his sunglasses were just where he left them, in his sleeping bag. We descend the next day while Jim tries for the summit, only to be thwarted by a storm. Such is the transitory nature of opportunity when we walk on the high peaks.

This comes from: Camp4
Live To Climb