14/August/2019: The night of our return to Advanced Base Camp at 4,300m was convivial, as the multi-national climbing groups shared some treats in our mess yurt such as Spanish wine (me), Jägermeister (young French climber) and home-made Genepis (older French climber Christian).
Christian only makes 2-3 liters per year of the fragrant green stuff, so it was a privilege to have a small glass. One person from each of the British and Russian groups ascending with the Kyrgyz Alpine Club/ITMC operator had dropped out since arriving at Advanced Base Camp/Camp II due to persistent headaches or nausea, which seems to be statistically likely in groups of 5-6. The ability to adjust to altitude is very individual, and Luuk, Evgenii and I could count ourselves genetically lucky to be able to ascend at the rate we did.
On the morning of 14 August, I decided to pay to have my gear portered on horseback down to Base Camp 3,700m and join the ride as a passenger. I am a barely competent rider, but thought this would be a rare opportunity to spend two hours on a horse and take the time to enjoy the scenery on the way down the glacier valley with a heart rate below 150bpm.
Near the front of the caravan I caught up with (in the middle picture above) is a horse which carries the plastic-wrapped body of a skier from the Sochi, Russia region. He died, as far as I understand, from Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS, in this case Cerebral Edema) when skiing down down the north face of Lenin on (or about) 12 August. His death, together with the deaths of the high-ranking Russian police officer on/about 31/July and a Kazakh climber who died around 20/August are very proximate reminders of the dangers of high-altitude mountaineering, and Pik Lenin as a mountain specifically. In my amateur capacity, I draw the following conclusions based on the information I received:
- The weather, including small deviations from the forecast, plays a very important part in a climber’s ability to summit, make decisions and survive. The Russian police officer died after separating from his group, who had decided to descend due to bad weather. He went on to summit solo, and likely got disoriented in the bad weather and fell several hundred meters to his death. His body was recovered after a week-long search at high expense. The Kazakh climber died from AMS as his group of three was lost in bad weather for several days.
- AMS can affect anyone, regardless of fitness, age or mental state. The experienced Mexican guide of American climber Max (30) suffered for days of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) at the hands of his capable client, which is a reminder of the high likelihood that an initial itinerary will get derailed (as ours also did) for one of several reasons. Being very attentive to the symptoms of AMS before they become debilitating is important.
- Staying with the group and being in the company of a guide were factors that the dead alpinists did not appear to have followed, to various degrees. While Evgenii’s experience on Lenin was modest, his ability to judge our state and condition while pushing for the summit at the limits of our capacity were crucial components of our success.
My hat off to partner Luuk, who at age 18 showed remarkable maturity and perseverance in the face of initial illness (a cough, which young Base Camp Doctor Shabdan deemed serious enough to order three days of rest), day after day of physical and mental stress, and some equipment shortcomings such as thin gloves to make the remarkably fast ascent. Compatibility of pace and mindset is very important for expeditions of this degree of difficulty, and Luuk (alongside Walid from the Elbrus 2018 climb) is as good as they come. Luuk and I parted ways in Osh after one of the best Shahslik meals in modern time.
In addition to the survival tips above, I have the following take-aways from this Pik Lenin expedition:
- The difference between 5,500-6,000m and 7,000+ meters is significant. The low temperatures, the need to live and sleep on ice and snow for several days, and the manner in which hypoxia affects your entire body and mind made for a much bigger challenge than the 2018 Three Peaks expedition. Fortunately, the vast majority of my equipment was up to the task, and my conditioning preparation was adequate.
- Wind and sun cover is important. I have persistent numbness in my fingertips (first degree frostbite) two weeks after summiting, and the second degree frostbite on my nose has just healed without continuing repercussions.
- While our choice of stove allowed us flexibility in cheap fuel choice, it made the process of boiling water from ice and snow much more time-consuming than if we had a JetBoil or similar enclosed model that 98% of other climbers seemed to use.
- Using local operators again worked well, and when comparing notes with those who used American or British operators, probably saved us 30% or more in cost. Pik Lenin is not an expensive mountain to climb, and in combination with a tour of the country or region (see the next post!), the costs get diluted even more.
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