Ascent of Pik Lenin – Alpinist Style

74EFCDF3-5719-431C-991A-7E53C2FD9321.jpeg13/August/2019: With Luuk Karmarker ‘20, we summited Pik Lenin 7,134m just after noon on 12 August, having left Base Camp only five days earlier. The summit area had another 3-4 climbers in the ferocious wind, and we concluded our visit to the top after some hugs and photos in less than ten minutes. The ascent had started at 03:40 with an initial descent from Camp III of about 150m, which we knew would be particularly painful upon return to that final camp at 6,100m. The descent was followed by an exposed ridge which tested our equipment, as the 25km/hour wind made the ambient temperature feel like -25C. Luuk’s gloves quickly proved on the thin side, and he had to spend much of the time “shaking down” his arms, to keep the blood flowing to the fingertips. I removed my right (windward) high mountain glove at one point and made the amateur error of not securing it to my wrist, which saw it fly off out of the reach of even Luuk’s desperate lunge (and guide Evgenii’s exasperated admonition!). After considering for a moment a return to Camp III, we improvised by putting my left glove on my right hand and using a regular climbing glove on my left (leeward) hand, and kept pushing for the peak. An hour or two later brought another moment of doubt, as Evgenii, thanks to his many years of mountain rescue work, noticed my nose becoming white in the brutal wind. After initially considering a return to camp, he massaged the nose enough to confirm a return of blood flow, and again we pushed on as the light began to emerge over the next ridge.

AD41E06B-A79C-4C06-828C-7E613E7F533C.jpegThe summit has a flag of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the countries which share the border. It also features, more famously, a life-size bust of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. It is probable that the bust has been “renewed” every year or two, for which self-respecting cleptomaniac alpinist wouldn’t want a cheap metal bust of the architect and operator of the world’s greatest political experiment adorning the living room?! The summit provides excellent vistas of other 7,000m+ peaks such as Pik Komunisma, part of the “Snow Leopard Five” which many alpinists attempt after, or with, a Pik Lenin ascent.

The descent to Camp III was, as anticipated, arduous and I had to resort to a repetitive numbers game in my head to maintain the correct balance between the number of steps and breaks to breathe. We spent another cold night at Camp III and ate a small amount of borrowed freeze-dried food from Denali, Alaska specialist Dave and proceeded through the crevasse fields below Camp II to reach Advanced Base Camp (ABC) the following afternoon – as exhausted as we have ever been, but proud and delighted to bask for a moment in the congratulations of fellow climbers and guides.

We had formed strong connections with many of the other multi-national mountaineers in the camps on the way though, and much of the conversation centered around the pace at which we completed our summit attempt. On arrival at base camp on 5 August we already noted a drastic deterioration of the forecast from 13-16 August, and although long term forecasts are usually unreliable, this pattern remained more or less locked as the week progressed. Winds of 60-70-90km/h make a summit attempt impossible, and already winds of 30km/h make it dangerous enough to abandon a climb, such as happened to most, if not all on the morning of 13 August, the day after our successful bid. We therefore decided on 6 August with Evgenii to adopt on 7 August an unusually tight “Alpinist style” ascent of only five days from Base Camp to summit, a self-imposed  dare which worked. The usual time is typically 12-15 days. Our agreed safety valve was (aside from Evgenii carrying, as is standard, an Acetazolamide injection to treat Acute Mountain Sickness) to go down if at any time one of us felt worse.

Luuk and I are dedicating this expedition to a scholarship for a student from Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, which share this magnificent mountain. We are very grateful for the incredible support to date – please consider adding yours on the campaign page

A “return to civilization” (including seeing one’s ravaged face in the mirror and delivery pizza) and post-expedition thoughts will follow shortly here.

– Mik

 

 

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First Update and Photos from the Pik Lenin Expedition

Empi here. Mik started the journey to Pik Lenin from the Åland Islands this past Saturday morning, taking a ferry to Stockholm and flying to Bishkek. Below is his first update.

Pik Lenin: Osh and Base Camp 3,700m

6/August/2019: Writing this from the comparatively luxurious Central Asia Travel encampment a mere 200m and a river fording away from our more spartan Kyrgyz Alpine Club digs. WiFi is available here for a modest cost, and also at Advanced Base Camp at 4,400m, where will ascend to tomorrow and send a video and update with expedition partner Luuk.

Acclimatization is going according to plan so far, with a moderate hike to 4,200m this morning with guide Evgenii, 32 year old ethnic Russian from Bishkek. The green slopes at this altitude are covered in wildflowers and wild herbs such as thyme, wild onions and garlic, and a yellow poppy variety with medicinal properties.

I spent 24 hours in the city of Osh at roughly 1,000m elevation. Its 3,000 year history is not immediately evident, as the city center is dominated by the parliament building, an urban park along a raging river and one of the few remaining Lenin statues in the former Soviet Union.

The weather outlook for the anticipated summit attempt a little over a week from now looks unstable, with high winds. We will rely on our guide’s experience and advice to pick a possible ascent day.

 

Interview with Luuk – Pik Lenin Expedition Partner and UWCSEA Scholar

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29/July/2019: While making my own final preparations in my home province of Åland, Finland, I caught up with Luuk Karmarker, my expedition partner for the Pik Lenin climb.

 

M: Hi Luuk. The expedition is only a few days away now. How are you preparing yourself?
L: Since I came back from Singapore in June, I attended a 10-day Vipassana meditation course (Goenka method). I find this really useful. I signed up for it four months ago and I did it the last year when I went to climb Stok Kangri 6,153m. I am not sure this is really anything to do with mountaineering, but for me, the 10 days of total silence and solitude prepares the mind to balance, orient and reset. For the rest, I did not have much time or opportunity to climb anywhere other than the stairs in my house and bike. Where I live in Belgium, the terrain in slightly hilly, so that helps building both cardio muscles and stamina, which is required for the long hikes. I did some long walks with my heavy mountaineering boots and backpack of 23 kilos, to break into the shoes and get used to it. Pik Lenin is not very technical, so the focus is on stamina, willpower, and proper assessment of the conditions of risk.

M: You are a scholar at the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore. What do your classmates and teachers think about your expedition?
L: UWCSEA is generally beehive of activities, and there is hardly any time to think and digest the overload of information and events taking place around you in a proper way. Many of my peers, friends and teachers know about my climb, mostly from the emails sent by Alexandra and the UWCSEA communications team. I suppose I should have been a bit more active in talking about my climb. But this was my first year in a new school and a new country, so I had lot of adjusting to do.

M: Tell me a little about your mountaineering history. What and who inspired you to start?
L: I fell in love with mountains in India. My dad grew up in the mountains, so we decided to visit the Valley of Flowers and Hemkund Sahib, a Sikh shrine at 4600m during the 2016 summer holidays. The Nanda Devi Bio Reserve, is a truly mesmerizing place in the monsoon months. Despite enduring mountain sickness, a deadly scorpion bite, and gut wrenching food poisoning, I found the Himalayas awe-inspiring and I was instantly smitten. Back in Belgium, I found a climber/trekking club (Bergsportvereniging Provincie Antwerpen) that offered high altitude climbing/trekking courses and they graciously accepted me as one of their first teenage club members. We trained in the Belgian Ardennes from November until March when it is cold and there is some snow. Of course it is nothing like in the high Himalayas but it was a good break for me.

When I heard that I would be going to Singapore, I wanted to make a stopover enroute and trek in Himachal or Uttrakhand. I was avidly reading Shipton, Tilman and Smythe at the time and stories of these truly amazing adventurers inspired me a lot. One friend from school wanted to come along, but at the very last moment, he dropped out. However, I was determined to explore the mountains on my own. It took an effort to persuade my mom, but eventually she relented. I flew to Leh in July 2018. I was just about adequately prepared in terms of gear, so I did some acclimatization by spending time at Tso Moriri (4500m) and Khargungla pass (5400m). I trekked alone to Stok Kangri Base Camp, not really intending to summit. I did not book any agency and was planning to find a guide on the spot. I got my lucky break, when Harsh, another climber I befriended at Base Camp decided to be my partner. He had summited Stok earlier that week, so that gave me an immense boost of confidence. Stok is not a technical climb, but anything above 5000m is not to be taken lightly – the high altitude and risks that go with it are substantial.  

Before I started at UWC, I had already connected with some UWC alumni who are climbers. I had heard good things about Central Asia, especially as I would be on a shoestring budget. At UWCSEA I came to know about Mikael’s 3-Peak Challenge last year and it was just coincidental that we were both looking at Pik Lenin in 2019. I was also looking for ways to use my passion for supporting a worthy cause – so that too was a perfect fit. I think its going to be fantastic climbing together with Mikael as he has a lot of experience.

M: Your highest summit to date is Stok Kangri 6,153m. What did you learn from that experience?

L: I learnt a lot about myself and mountains while climbing Stok. At sea level no amount of training prepares you for the challenges of high altitude. When I climbed Stok, I had no idea about establishing and following protocols with my climbing partner, so we ascended pretty quickly. We kept going up, each of us getting progressively more tired, but neither signaled a stop. Just below the summit, totally exhausted, we had stopped to catch our breath, to drink and wait for daybreak, it was still dark at 3.30 am. We had gained almost 600-700m of altitude in something like 2 hours, which is rather fast. At high altitude, consequences of small mistakes are magnified – the way down was all the more grueling because I had no reserves of energy and was truly afraid that if I stopped, I would not be able to get back on my feet again. It was a lesson in pacing and testing my willpower. That’s when I knew I had to do this again.

M: How will Pik Lenin be different from that? How has that experience shaped your ambitions in mountaineering? There are many people eagerly watching the expedition. What do you hope to achieve in addition to the summit attempt?

L: For Pik Lenin, I have made good preparation. Having long term goals is important to me, so this time, my ideas are well sketched out. Up in the mountains, the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing. So this time I think I have made good gear choices. I also feel physically and mentally fit and ready to go. I will be going a week before Mikael arrives so that will give me some extra time to acclimatize.

Stok Kangri can be summited from Base Camp, and can be done in one day, so there is not much logistics involved, but at Pik Lenin we need to set up camp in at least 3 locations. The acclimatization is also done on location over at least two weeks. That means carrying everything (food, fuel, gear) up and down in stages. It’s a different setup and that’s what got me thinking. Ambition is sometimes born out of opportunity. So next year I am thinking of coming back to Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan and try maybe 2 or perhaps 3 summits in one season. I still don’t know if I am up to it, so experience at Pik Lenin will be a test, but if all goes well I would like to try for the Snow Leopard Challenge (summit all five +7000m peaks of the former Soviet Union).

Of course there is another twist to the story. That is the story related to fundraising for UWC scholars. This is so uplifting to know that well-wishers are contributing to our effort as well. I feel there is true collaboration across generations. Even before we have started, the campaign has raised over 30,000 Singapore dollars, which is amazing. I hope we can carry on this tradition. This is a true chance to make a difference in someone’s life. As a current scholar, it has indeed changed my life, so I am aware how important it is to give back. In a big way, it is thanks to Mikael that I am making this new adventure.

Footnote: at the time of writing Luuk has established himself at Base Camp and is ascending to Camp 1 with some of the gear needed for the summit attempt.

Return to the Air Crash Glacier – Les Bossons, Mont Blanc

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16/July/2019: With excellent weather, but no partner to join me for training in the middle of a work week, I opted for the fastest access from Geneva to a glacier and some wild back country. I aimed to set up overnight camp as high as possible near the Glacier des Bossons, which is a rapidly retreating steep glacier on the north side of the Mont Blanc massif, and practice the typical routines needed for an expedition such as Pik Lenin – pitching a tent inconspicuously, sourcing water, cooking, night-time procedures, breaking down the camp, and finally some crampon training on the glacier itself. Subconsciously I must also have been drawn to the location for its traumatic history, as two Air India flights crashed in practically the same spot in 1950 and 1966, a fact I was only alerted to on a previous hike (scroll down to the blog post from 21/June/2019!).

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The glacier edge about 250 meters away from my tent is a very ‘live’ reminder of the effects of climate change, as the glacier is shedding tons of ice and embedded rock every day. The ‘crack & thunder’ bangs woke me several times during the night, as the debris crashed down the couloir to the right – fortunately well away from my 2x1m somewhat flat tent area.

Just before dawn the next morning I climbed down to a flatter part of the Glacier called le Plateau des Pyramides, surprising a Chamois, the smaller and more timid of the two Alpine wild ruminant species. It was my first time on this part of the glacier and I was startled to discover dozens of pieces of aluminium wreckage, many in a distinct green colour, and some several feet long. Based on the larger piece of green wreckage displayed at the hut at the bottom of the climb, it would appear the majority were from the Air India 101 Kanchenjunga crash in 1966, rather than the AI245 Malabar Princess flight in 1950. The distinct red and white lettering of the Air India fuselage is clear on one of the pieces.

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Some anecdotal references to efforts to remove the crash debris from the site refer to ‘several tons’, but there is clearly much more being uncovered by the melting glacier.

The most human reminders were a part of a blue bag with a zipper and this shoe, which seemed to be of high quality leather, and a size 41.

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I felt it would be macabre to bring home any of the items, but intend to bring anyone interested to the site, as it is accessible in just over an hour from the trailhead near the Mont Blanc tunnel.

Pik Lenin 7,134m – Getting Physically and Mentally Ready

24 May 2019: Curiosity about the Pik Lenin expedition 4 to 18 August often centers on how to deal with the altitude and the physical preparation required. The latter is an element of greater direct control for a mountaineer, assuming the conditions, willingness and discipline is there, while the former essentially boils down to a combination of genetics and acclimatization technique once up at high altitudes.

The snow cover remains substantial in the Alps now in late May as a consequence of one of the snowier winters in recent years and a relatively cold and wet first half of May. The physical preparation focus has therefore been on cardiovascular fitness and leg strength at more modest altitude, while saving the 4,000m+ preparation for the month before the expedition. Two nearby mountains here are great training grounds for vertical training; Mont Salève (1,379m) and Le Môle (1,863m). Both offer fast access to the trailhead, and spectacular views from the top to the western Alps at the end of the grueling one hour+ speed hike.

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I’ve managed an 800 vertical meters per hour ascent rate with some consistency, and getting in the squat rack at the gym twice a week. Expedition partner Luuk, meanwhile, has been doing the best he can at sea level in Singapore with kettle bells and the like.

The altitude component preparation of the expedition is what concerns me more, since it will be a 1,200 meter increase over the previous high of Cotopaxi at 5,897m. Some people are genetically less prone to the negative effects of lower oxygen levels (fatigue, headache, nausea), while others become desperately ill even at 2-3,000m. I have no reason to believe I am at either end of that wide spectrum based on the previous experiences, and will simply follow the acclimatization guidance of our Pik Lenin guide Evgenii Patlay in August.

We are getting close to the launch of the Summits for Scholarships campaign with the UWCSEA Foundation – keep your eyes on this blog for updates next week!

https://give.funderbolt.com/uwcsea/mikaelm-sumforscholars

Mikael

Scholar Selected – Yelyzaveta from Donetsk, Ukraine

29/April/2019: Today I’m proud to announce that Yelyzaveta “Liza” Radionova is the recipient of the UWCSEA scholarship resulting from the 2018 Three Peak Challenge mountaineering expedition and fundraising campaign!fullsizeoutput_850fullsizeoutput_845fullsizeoutput_84f

Liza and her family left Donetsk in the summer of 2014 ahead of the advancing military campaign and the subsequent violence. She has completed her high school in Ukraine and is currently studying at the Ukrainian Leadership Academy in Kiev.

Liza believes a UWCSEA education will help her see the World through the eyes of others – a philosophy I can agree with strongly. She will start at UWCSEA in August 2019.

Check back here for updates on the Pik Lenin expedition with Luuk Carmaker UWCSEA ’20 shortly!

Mikael

Cotopaxi 5,897m – Living up to its Active Status

23 March 2019: Together with rockstar Ecuadorian/Chilean guide Gustavo Cevallos (ASEGUIM) and expedition partner Mahua, we summited Cotopaxi at 07:10. With the altitude gain required, the standard wake up at Refugio Jose Rivas 4,850m is at 23:00 the previous night, and we set off at 00:20.

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The night time ascent is about 1/3 gravel slog and 2/3 moderate glacier, in part made more challenging by the fresh snow which had delayed us by 24 hours. “Gus” insisted on strict adherence to crampon technique, in order to reduce fatigue and allow summiting around sunrise.

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In the end, we did not miss a gorgeous sunrise due to cloud cover, and the choking presence of sulfur fumes from the crater, which made us all cough and decide to descend fairly quickly, reaching the Refugio in two hours.

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Cotopaxi certainly sets the tone for adventures at higher altitudes, and Pik Lenin plans are shaping up well for August! Keep your eyes on this blog for the UWCSEA scholarship campaign for this climb, and thank you for your support!

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Los Illinizas – Wet Night at 4,750m

3F1F294A-7410-42D9-95BC-4E73C4E18BEE.jpeg20 March 2019: The second acclimatization climb took me and partner Mahua to the “smallest high mountain shelter in the Ecuadorian Andes” at 4,750m yesterday evening. It was already raining at the trailhead and the rain turned to sleet and snow about 200m below the summit, at which point I realized we had to pick up the pace to avoid risk of hypothermia and loss of visibility.

8272946B-AF94-43E2-8A83-5EFF89777C50.jpegFortunately we were greeted warmly at the shelter by guardian Freddy a.k.a “Gato”, three German climbers we had met on Rumiñahui the day before, and one American couple with an interesting story. Don Nguyen, living in Colorado from a Vietnamese refugee family, not only excels in high alpine mountaineering, guiding and rock climbing, but was the sole “survivor” in the 2016 edition of Naked and Afraid in Namibia! His competition partner had to abandon the challenge due to a burst implant. I am thoroughly questioning my years of studiously avoiding Reality TV.

But I digress. On arrival at the unheated shelter, the welcome was not sufficient to warm up our wet and very cold bodies. We had not expected the intensity of the precipitation, and even spare clothes in the packs were soaked through. Dinner of seafood paella cooked by Gato was enjoyed with a helping of translations of “wet to the bone” in German, Swedish and Vietnamese, and we then quickly shed the wet layers and got in the sleeping bags with a bottle of hot water under the armpit. Bedtime for the 12 of us (two young Germans with a guide joined us too) in the 25m2 shelter was about 18:15, and the gradual warming and drying effect of body heat made for a decent night’s sleep.

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The launching point of this leg of the expedition was the village of El Chaupi, which by all appearances is populated principally by indigenous Ecuadorians. Conversations with guides and our young driver to the trailhead indicate a certain neglect by the state with regard to funding for repairs of roads and infrastructure. I wonder if there will be any funding in the coming years to make the most basic of improvements to the Nuevos Horizontes shelter, such as sealing windows, something Mahua would appreciate in any future stay!

 

Rumiñahui 4,630m – In the Shadow of Cotopaxi

19 March 2019: I summited the central peak of Rumiñahui at 12:30 yesterday with expedition partner Mahua. Unlike her big sister Cotopaxi next door, the mountain is a dormant, heavily eroded stratovolcano with jagged peaks and fewer of the typical conical features of a volcano.

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The climb was a moderate hike for the first 500 vertical meters from the gorgeous Laguna de Limpiopungu bird reserve (3,900m), and a decent scree and talus (I always forget which is which!) scramble for the final 200m – all in heavy fog and driving rain. Visibility at the precarious summit was about 15 meters, so no glamour shots of Cotopaxi in this post, I’m afraid!
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Tomorrow morning Wednesday we attempt Ilinizas Norte (5,100m) from the Refugio Nuevos Horizontes (4,800m), an appropriate name for an expedition like this in new territory!

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