Av: andre hangaard
In August 2013 me and my climbing partner spent three weeks on Pik Lenin. That season the weather was very unstable and we missed out on the few good weather windows which came across our way. Still we had a great adventure and the scenery was magnificent. As we descended from C3 I was almost sure that I one day would return and try this big mountain again. I made a video of our events on the mountain in 2013 which can be seen here.
”-You see those dark clouds?” Rumen said. “-They are coming in our direction. Doesn’t look very good…” We were at around 6.400 m, the well-recognized ‘Knife’ ridge was not far away and we were both full of energy. However, somehow I realized that Rumen, the nice Bulgarian climber who joined us on the summit bid, was right. It didn’t look promising with those thick threatening dark clouds starting to build up around us. Also it was already rather late. Due to the windy night, we delayed our start.
It’s never fun to turn around on a mountain, especially not after so many days of preparing and anticipation. Although it was the only wise thing to do. We both knew that. Pik Lenin in a storm up at 6.500 m is a very dangerous place to be. We started our descent back to Camp 3 at 6.100 m and soon we were back in the tents, sipping hot tea and looking back at the summit ridge, which soon was to be dressed in hostile clouds.
Six years later, on Friday 12 of July 2019, I landed at Osh International Airport, Kirgizstan, at 04:30 h in the morning. It was dark and the air was hot. I was met by the Ak-Sai representative in the arrival hall after receiving my two heavy duffels from the baggage claim. At least one of the most nerve wracking moments of my upcoming adventure were eliminated: My 40 kgs of baggage got safely to my starting point. What a huge relief!
The Sunrise hotel is located about 3 km outside the city centre. I didn’t really mind, since Osh is a rather busy town with a lot of traffic and noise. I had 24 hours in Osh until pick-up to Base camp. After getting some rest, I went out for a walk in the very hot and dry weather. Many memories came back from 2013 when I was there with Johan the last time.
The minivan arrived in the late afternoon at Achik-Tash, the Base Camp situated at 3.600 m, almost three weeks earlier than the last time I arrived, six years ago. Michail, Ak-Sai Travel’s Base Camp Manager, gave us a warm welcome and informed us how the camp was organized. To me it all felt very familiar, although many years had passed. The Saturday afternoon was grey and the clouds came in low. Pik Lenin was lurking in the background. Only the base of the huge mountain was visible. The rain was drizzling so it was nice to slip into the big two-man tent to get settled and sort gear.
The large mess tent where the meal is served had changed a bit and instead of serving readymade plates with food, Ak-Sai now offered a great and generous buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The food was very fresh and tasted good. Even though it was in the beginning of the season, the mess tent was packed with people. During dinner I made friends with some other climbers at my table from Canada and Russia who I would expect to bump into every now and then during the weeks ahead. A short and intense rainfall put an end to the first day and left a muddy mess outside my big Redfox tent.
It was a peaceful and calm feeling when standing outside in the crispy morning, brushing teeth at the simple washing stand beside the tents, surrounded by the great Pamir mountains. The following day I undertook a nice hike around the base of Pik Petrovsky, immediately to the west of the Base Camp. Climbing up to and reaching above 4.000 m did good for my acclimatisation and gave a nice overview of the snow situation.
Arriving to Advanced Base Camp (ABC) felt good. It had taken me 3 hours with my backpack full of freeze dried meals, stove and cloths. The yellow Red Fox tents were erected between huge piles of snow and the wooden terrace looked like a little island in the snow landscape. I reported my arrival to Zdravko, the camp manager, and thanks to my swift hiking pace, I came right in time to enjoy lunch, which was part of my aim when leaving Base Camp right after breakfast. After a long day of almost 25 km of hiking I arrived back in Base Camp. I felt tired.
I’m not sure whether the aggressive air-conditioner at the Sun Rise Hotel in Osh could be blamed or not but anyhow I felt how a cold was coming up. I sincerely felt a bit stressed over this since I knew how bad a cold could impact my further ventures on the mountain. I went for a visit to the base camp doctor who gave me a check-up and a spray for my throat and some pills against coughing. As we all know it’s ridiculously easy to catch a cold and get sick at high altitude but so hard to get rid of it. The coughing remained and accompanied me throughout the entire expedition.
That is why I’m convinced that I made the right decision to use one of my extremely valuable spare days just to lay flat and rest at Base Camp for one entire day. It was rather boring I must say. But it did good.
After having regained some strength I set off for the Advance Base Camp on my fifth day. Moving there felt good and I felt reasonably recovered. 60 kgs of my gear followed by horse but still my backpack did not feel very light. The weather was excellent. Only a few clouds.
At ABC I was assigned a tent by Elvira who bossed over the accommodations. Outside the tent I was directed to, the Tyrolean flag was hanging and I soon found out that my tent buddy was a nice young Austrian guy from the slopes of the Grossglockner in beautiful Tyrol. It turned out that Dominik Salcher* was there to participate in the Pik Lenin Sky Marathon in the beginning of August. Soon it was pretty clear that Dominik and me played in different leagues. His business was to basically run up the mountain. Straight from the ABC. But even the young Tyrolean needed to acclimatize. Thus his early arrival…
“-You should have a partner when crossing the glacier” Zdravko said. He was definitely right about that. After having scouted the beginning of the Lenin glacier the previous day I agreed. A number of crevasses crossed the route which required my full attention. Some of the snow bridges didn’t look too stable, especially not after 12 o’clock noon.
So it happened that I left ABC at 4:40 h in the morning and roped up with Dominik in complete darkness. I still have hard to understand how I managed to climb to Camp 2 in only 4 hours. Needless to mention we were the first team out and could enjoy the beautiful scenery all by ourselves. At the steepest section in the icefall the slope was around 45° and a fixed rope was attached. Also some more fixed ropes were available at the most scary crevasse crossings. I guess they were primary there to aid the porters who soloed the routes in the afternoon and occasionally clipped in.
As we went early in the morning the snow was hard and our crampons made good purchase. With a steady and continuous pace we moved up across the vast snow slopes of the huge Lenin Glacier and soon I saw the red and yellow dots which indicated todays goal; Camp 2 at 5.300 m. Drained on energy (me - not him) we pitched tents and unloaded our gear. Obviously, I carried more than Dominik since I planned only to do two load carries to Camp 2. Dominik’s plan was to acclimatize and move back and forth a number of times.
Camp 2 is nicknamed ‘The Frying pan’. It gets terribly hot there at noon when the sun is most powerful. The snow soon gets slushy. Therefore, we did not hang around for a long time. After a sip of tea we mounted our empty packs and begun our descent back to ABC. On our descent, we encountered numerous of climbing teams. The Pik Lenin season was in full swing and the weather seemed to stay good.
After over a week in the Pamir mountains I felt pretty good. No headache but still some coughing every now and then. The weather was still good. Every morning I was greeted by a clear sky as blue as a deep blue silk cloth. I just asked myself; when is it going to change? We all know that the weather on Pik Lenin is extremely unpredictable and changes quickly. Two days of good weather is usually followed by three days of bad weather and so the pattern continues. Soon I thought I needed to pay the price since I felt the good weather window was very much getting overdue.
When it was time to pack up for the final departure from ABC I told Dominik I wanted to go by myself. I did not want to follow his speed once more since I was afraid of burning too much of my energy. I knew I would need every bit of it in the days to come. I knew the route and I knew what to look out for. I left once more at 04:30 h and reached Camp 2 after around 6.5 hours, which still was considered a fairly decent time.
It felt good to have left the safe zone of the Base Camps. Now it all begun and everything was now entirely up to me. I had managed to install myself with all my gear and I had plenty of food and enough gas. Despite of that, I had the luxury to have a two-man tent of my own and the warmest and most comfortable sleeping bag. On my rest day at Camp 2, I could not resist to climb up the steep gully behind Camp, just as I did in 2013. The views were great.
However I felt the high altitude kick in so I did not climb higher than up to the crest. Although it gave me a very good overview of the continuing route up to Camp 3 at 6.100 m and Pik Razdelnaya. This time the track was laid as one big steep direct climb instead of numerous switchbacks, which was the case last time. The tracks were good but in the afternoon the snow got slushy and required attention on the descent.
Camp 2 is not my favourite camp on Pik Lenin. The camp is at the foot of a huge rock wall and is spread out over a slope. In the upper section of the camp, most tents are placed, but it’s hard to find a flat spot there. The ground is a maze of rock, gravel and some occasional crevasses that lurks between the guy lines. If you are not slipping on ice you can very easily take a fall across a tent or tumble over a rock when going for a pee.
Back in 2013 Johan and I put up our big Hilleberg tent at the lower area. There it’s more space but it’s more exposed to rock fall from the nearby wall. The reason why the majority of climbers try to seek a spot on the upper section despite its bad comfort, is probably because it’s considered to be safer up there. In 1990 when Pik Lenin was the scene of the most fatal mountain accident of all times, an avalanche, triggered by an earthquake, swiped the entire Camp 2 away. Besides that, it’s possible to find running water during day time on the upper area.
Believe it or not but the weather was still perfect when I set out on my move to Camp 3. Distance wise it’s not far from Camp 2 to Camp 3, but the elevation is 800 m and the last part up to Pik Razdelnaya on which Camp 3 is situated, is very steep, probably around 45° and when carrying a pack of around 15-20 kgs it doesn’t get easier.
On this trip I was accompanied by another climber. The Swiss female trail runner athlete Sophie Audrey climbed with me up the gully. The climbing community is small. Sophie was an acquaintance of my Swiss friend Andrej Gerber with whom I’ve been on several climbing trips with. It started to seem that I only encountered trail running athletes on this trip! Well at least we were not roped together so…
In fact I left my climbing gear at Camp 2. There is no more glaciated terrain between Camp 2 and the summit. Having said that, I in all honesty did encounter one or two smaller crevasses on top of the crest after the gully.
On the eleventh day I moved to Camp 3 at 6.100 m. If Camp 2 was a crowded and cramped dump, Camp 3 was much more airy and spacious. Maybe simply because it was on top of a huge icy hill just a couple of hundred meters east of Pik Razdelnaya 6.148 m, which I climbed the day before on my first load carry up to Camp 3. If an official +6000 m mountain summit happens to be within a 20 minutes snow hike, it would be a crime not to summit it.
I was impressed by how the numerous of fixed tents were neatly arranged in straight lines by companies like Ak-Sai, Central Asia Travel, Asia Outdoor etc. It was like a little remote artic village up there. The “main street” led south, crossing the border to Tajikistan. When following the tracks I realized it led me to the area used where the climbers relieved themselves. Here it was very important to watch steps carefully.
The weather still remained good. However, over a plov-dish and hot tea down at ABC, two Portuguese climbers told me that fierce winds were about to approach and soon hit the mountain. It felt that the good weather days finally soon would come to an end and that I did not have too many days left to linger around. On the day after arrival at Camp 3, Sophie decided to try for the summit instead of taking an extra rest day at camp.
Myself I was convinced that I would benefit from a last rest day and that it wouldn’t harm me to spend one full day up at 6.100 m. Also this was part of my planning. In fact this was on day 12 and I was exactly in sync with my timetable. Despite my extra spare day I took while at Base Camp. The reason why is that my initial plan was to add a day by putting a tent at Camp 4, doing an high camp at around 6.400 m on the plateau, which would cut time on summit day.
However, at this point the weather was still good and it was not close to the cold I experienced six years ago, so due to these two facts, I was pretty convinced that I could aim for a very early start from Camp 3 straight to the summit. Thus the Camp 4 plan was abandoned.
The night that Sophie left the winds indeed felt stronger and the notorious flapping sound of tent cloth kept me awake for many hours in my tent. I wondered how she was doing up there. After breakfast I heard the voice of Sophie back in camp. She had to abandon her climb due to very strong winds.
We shared some hot tea before she descended down to ABC later in the morning. Tired after her attempt she was going down to rest and later return for a second attempt. That sounded like a very wise decision. She was a determined climber who would not give up.
Meanwhile I had called ABC over my VHF radio. Zdravko at ABC called climbing teams on the mountain four times during the day to ask about position, progress and plans. It felt comfortable to hear is friendly voice, although most of the radio traffic was in Russian, which I didn’t understand. When I was called up I told him about my plans for the following day, Zdravko encouraged me, and told me the weather would be good and wished my good luck. Over and out.
After having digested this very positive information, I started with my preparations with the aim to set off for the summit during the night to come at 3:00 h. I carefully prepared my backpack with the items I needed for the climb, stuffed the pockets of my down jacket with power bars, boiled my two litres of tea and double and triple checked my batteries for my headlight, camera, GPS and satellite responder.
The freeze dried meal went down and I drunk as much tea as I could possibly do. When I took a last glimpse out of my tent when zipping up, I saw stars. That is always a very welcoming sight. I was able to retreat to my sleeping bag right after 18:00 h. The night was a lot more quite than the night before. The winds did not blow as fiercely as during the previous night and when my alarm clock went off at 01:30 h it felt that I really had gotten a couple of hours of sleep.
As the temperatures were below zero it was difficult to store water as it would freeze solid in my tent. My two Nalgene bottles I had put in my sleeping bag, but for the water used for my light breakfast I melted some snow I had collected the night before. Using my MSR Windburner it fortunately did not take long to get a cup of hot coffee. The porridge was not as enjoyable though…
Full of excitement I put my remaining cloth on. I was quite confident in my clothing as I did not expect extreme cold nor too bad winds. My huge Milo down jacket was like a monster which really would fight the cold. In my Spantik boots I placed toe heaters under my socks.
Outside it was not completely dark due to moonlight. I left Camp 3 at 03:00 h sharp and walked passed the neat line of tents. There was no activity. It was so peaceful up at this remote corner of the world. The annoying thing with Camp 3 when it comes to the summit bid, is that you first need to descend roughly 200 m to the saddle in order to climb the first steep section which leads up to the huge plateau.
The trail was well beaten and I quickly reached the bottom of the saddle and started the switchbacks in a slow but steady pace. Further up the big hill I saw distant flashes from other climbers headlamps and soon I could see silhouettes of people.
When I came to the top of the gully where the terrain was flattening, I took a small rest, adjusting my headlamp and chatted briefly with one of the sherpa guides who sat on a rock and drank some tea. He was part of a large group of around 12-14 climbers, many of which I had met in Base camp before. Although it was impossible to recognize anyone behind facemasks, helmets and goggles.
At around 5:00 h I was making my way through the huge plateau over which I crossed together with Rumen in 2013. I tried to recognize the landscape from my last visit and to find traces of a Camp 4, but no tents were erected up there. The day was slowly emerging and my headlamp begun to die. Probably the batteries got too cold. But route finding was easy.
The “Knife” came closer, a perilous ridgeline with vertical drop-offs, which is considered to be the crux of the entire route and one of the important landmarks. I noticed two more climbers ahead of me in the distance, but I caught up with them before the steep flank. A fixed rope was hanging from the top of the Knife but the snow was hard and firm and it was no problem to climb the ridge, which was 45°at the most.
After having climbed the Knife I had gained some altitude. I guess this was around 6.500 m and from here the terrain seemed to flatten out slightly. The trail was still good and route finding was easy. I was so excited to discover how the world looked up here. I had thought about it ever since I had to turn around six years ago.
From what I had read in several trip reports this section was considered endless. To some extend it felt very true. Behind the next corner another snow filled valley opened up just to be followed by the next hill which was followed by another snow field.
This continued for a long time but when I came around the last corner, a huge snow field was folding out in front of me and behind it I saw the base of the summit, building up over some rocky sections. I realized that I would have not more than roughly 20 min more to climb and that I was actually finally about to reach the summit of Pik Lenin! When I checked my Suunto wristwatch, I saw that I had passed the 7000 m mark.
The time was 10:30 h and it had taken me 7 hrs and 30 minutes.
Suddenly I walked up to the odd looking heap of items which marked the highest point of Pik Lenin. The small statue of Vladimir Lenin, which I had seen on so many summit pictures actually stood there too. Although a couple of meters below the summit. Maybe it was loose and could be carried around?
When not moving I could starting to feel the cold. I tried to send a satellite text message from the summit but I had to give up as it got too painful to fiddle around with those small buttons with bare fingers. I tried to capture as much as possible of the view with my camera.
To the south I saw the easy recognizable Pik Ismoil Somoni (better known as Pik Kommunizma) 7.495 m and the neighbouring Pik Korzjenevskaja 7.105 m jetting up in the sky. I also managed to identify Pik Garmo east of Pik Ismoil Somoni.
In vain I tried to spot the Chinese giant Muztagh Ata of 7.546 m in the east, but misty clouds made it impossible. Rather quickly 30 minutes passed. On the nearby slope below I saw a yellow dot approaching and I realized that soon I would share the summit with a fellow climber.
The young woman didn’t speak much English but besides that, tiredness and the present cold didn’t invite to any extensive conversations. We smiled and shot some pictures of each other. Later I found out that her name was Oksana Stefanishina** from Sotji. Not very surprisingly she was supposed to participate in the soon upcoming Pik Lenin Sky Marathon and summiting was part of her acclimatization plan.
After one full hour of breath-taking views it was time for decent. The time was 11:30 h and I knew I had a long descent ahead of me before I was back in some kind of safety at C3.
Descending the snow fields went rather smooth and after a while I met the large group I encountered the same night. They seemed to move slow but steady and I guessed they all would make the summit.
The down climb went rather uneventful. When I came to the Knife where the ridge was very narrow I had a great view down on the enormous Lenin glacier. Far below, I would find ABC and even further in the horizon, Base camp wold be standing on the lovely green meadows at Achik-Tash.
After the Knife, tiredness kicked in and the plateau felt endless. It also became warm and I had to take off some of my layers. At around 15.00 h I started to down climb the hill to reach the saddle. At the bottom of the saddle fatigue came and when I realized I needed to ascend some 200 m in order to reach Camp 3, I really had to focus to gather my strength and step by step conquer the last obstacle.
When walking into Camp 3 I passed Ak-Sai’s guide tent where I heard the Ak-Sai man talked with Zdravko over the radio. He handed me a hot cup of tea while reporting to Zdravko that I had summited and safely returned to camp.
That night I slept very good except for some bad coughing now and then which for sure got cursed by fellow climbers in the nearby tents. I was glad that I soon could leave the rather exposed place.
The descent went uneventful. Since I was going solo I could not cross the Lenin glacier by myself due to the potential crevasse danger, so therefore I was forced to do a layover at Camp 2 before I could tackle the glacier in the early morning.
Because of the heavy weight of my pack, I was not able to move very fast. With my entire equipment and garbage bag to be carried down, I guess my pack was between 25-30 kgs. At the steepest section in the icefall I used the fixed ropes to rappel, using my rappel device.
The distance between Camp 1 and ABC felt endless, but nevertheless the characteristic roof top of the big Ak-Sai tent at ABC came closer and when I finally could place my pack on solid ground and take off my stinking Spantiks, big relief spread in my mind. The hike back to BC was more of a pleasure hike. Many of the climbers I met on my return, greeted me and asked curious questions about the summit.
Due to the fact that I had catered for some extra spare days, I now unexpectedly had some extra time to kill. My flight arrangements back to Sweden was not possible to reschedule due to full flights out of Moscow. After a full day’s rest at Base Camp I decided to climb the nearby Pik Petrovsky (4.910 m). On my acclimatisation hike 16 days ago, a lot more snow was up on the slopes. Now a lot of snow had melted away and on the steep icefield I had to cross to gain the ridge, there was only a thin cover of snow on some sections. When down climbing, I had to face the slope and do some good old front pointing. Also my ice axe came into action.
The Pik Petrovsky suddenly became more alpine than Pik Lenin.The surroundings of the summit was great and provided a magnificent view of the gigantic north face of Pik Lenin. It made a good ending to my adventures in the Pamir.
On day 19 the minivan rolled out of Base Camp. When the driver drove through the river basin still on campground, the sky opened up and a heavy rainshower hit Achik-Tash with full power. The rain turned into hail and the dirt road became even dirtier. The weather conditions didn’t bother me that much any longer though. When our van turned north bound at Sary-Tash the sun came back and would certainly stay for a while. Soon I would spend some days in Osh with temperatures of above +35c.
The icy climate on Camp 3 already felt distant.
* * *
In the literature I’ve come across, this route is graded 5a in the Russian grading system. In the UIAA climbing scale I think it would be AD-.
* Dominik Salcher (Austria) summited on 5 August. He was the male winner of the Lenin Peak Sky Marathon 2019. Dominik raced from ABC to the summit of Pik Lenin in 5 hrs and 10 minutes.
** Oksana Stefanishina (Russia) summited on 5 August. She was the female winner of the Lenin Peak Sky Marathon 2019. Oksana raced from ABC to the summit of Pik Lenin in 8 hrs and 10 minutes.
Day 1: Transfer Osh-BC (7.5 hrs) cloudy, rain in the evening
Day 2: Rest day BC, hike up to 4.200m towards Pik Petrovsky, (total 4 hrs) cloudy, rain in the evening
Day 3: Load carry BC to ABC (3 hrs) and return to BC (3 hrs) sunny, rain in the evening
Day 4: Rest day BC (no activity) sunny and clear
Day 5: Load carry/move BC to ABC (3 hrs) sunny, light snow in the evening
Day 6: Rest day ABC, hike up to glacier 4.700m (total 3.5 hrs) sunny and clear
Day 7: Load carry ABC to C2 (4.5 hrs) and return to ABC (2.5 hrs) sunny and clear
Day 8: Load carry/move ABC to C2 (6.5 hrs) sunny, light snow in the evening
Day 9: Rest day C2, hike up to 5.700m, sunny/cloudy
Day 10: Load carry C2 to C3 (4 hrs), summit Pik Razdelnaya and return to C2, sunny and clear
Day 11: Load carry/move C2 to C3 (4 hrs), sunny and clear
Day 12: Rest day C3, sunny and clear
Day 13: Summit Pik Lenin (7.5 hrs) and return to C3 (4.5 hrs) 1 hr on summit, sunny and clear
Day 14: C3 to C2, sunny and clear
Day 15: C2 to ABC, cloudy
Day 16: ABC to BC, cloudy
Day 17: Rest day BC, cloudy
Day 18: Summit Pik Petrovsky, cloudy, rain in the evening
Day 19: Transfer BC-Osh, cloudy, heavy rain, sun
(* only used on summit day)
Three items that proved very handy and convenient for me on the mountain.
(*Discounted due to returning customer)
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