The past few years, I've been perfecting the art of piggybacking mountaineering trips on my PhD field research. This summer, following four weeks of paleoclimate fieldwork in Mongolia, I headed Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to attempt the three 7000m "Snow Leopard" peaks of the Pamir Mountains. The trip began with Lenin Peak (7134m), supposedly one of the world's easiest 7000ers. Lack of acclimatization, terrible snow conditions and tremendous storms made the ascent anything but straightforward. From Lenin, I traveled to remote and chaotic Tajikistan, which sees only 4000 visitors per year. After several days of waiting, a diverse group of international climbers and I hitched a ride on Tajikistan's only helicopter to the heart of the Pamir, home to the world's largest alpine glaciers. After waiting out a weeklong storm, I managed to pull off my biggest dream of the past year...climbing Peak Korzhenevskaya (7105m) in a 23-hour round trip, over 3000m above base camp. My final objective of the season was 7495m Peak Communism. Shortly after impossibly deep snow conditions at 5800m forced me to turn back, a major accident reminded me of the one true rule of the alpine...the mountain decides.
Fast Tempo on Lenin
Due to Lenin’s reputation as one of the world’s easiest and most accessible 7000m peaks, there’s quite a bit of infrastructure at its 3600m base camp. While Lenin’s classical Razdelnaya route is overrun with climbers, there are many beautiful lines to attempt and an abundance of nice acclimatization peaks near base camp (I ended up climbing 4800m Peak Petrovsky in a nice half-day after my ascent of Lenin). Weather this year in the Pamir was unsettled at best, and difficult snow conditions shut down most early season attempts.
I only had 16 days for Lenin, so I jumped right into the climbing. Things started way too fast as I tried to keep up with my already acclimatized partner. After charging up the 16km to ABC (4400m), we went over the crevassed but straightforward route to camp 2 at ~5500m on just my third day from sea level. When I lost my dinner at 5 the next morning, my Russian teammate remarked, “OK, maybe is appropriate that we not go upstairs today.” While he continued up, I went back to BC to recover and get ready for a second trip up the mountain.
On my second round, I chose to go with a good forecast instead of optimal acclimatization. I joined a pair from Azerbaijan who were calm and supportive. I returned to camp 2 feeling amazing, but a stomach issue caused me to vomit. After losing my fluids the night before, I had a character-building day climbing the headwall on 6200m Razdelnaya in oppressive heat and then whiteout conditions. I reached camp 3 tired and off my game, but woke up feeling refreshed and under perfect skies. Summit day began well, but awful postholing above 6500m proved to be some of the most physically and mentally demanding work I’ve done. After grouping up with a Polish pair and one of my friends from Azerbaijan, we each traded turns breaking trail for 20 excruciating steps before collapsing in a fit of panting. On the summit, I had the last of my water and collected a rock sample for high altitude microbial life. Though it’s not my specialty, I loved the opportunity to combine scientific research into my expedition through Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. On the descent, I collected several more samples before being engulfed in yet another whiteout forcing us to navigate back to camp solely by GPS.
To the Icy Heart of the Pamir
I left Lenin BC for Tajikistan with a handful of other climbers from the UK, Azerbaijan, Russia and Romania. Getting into the world’s third least visited country Karamyk Pass isn’t easy. While it’s formally closed to foreigners, it just took some extra explaining and a few packs of cigarettes for the guards to get us in. As soon as we entered Tajikistan, things were immediately dysfunctional, and nearly everyone came down with stomach illness due to poor sanitation. After a few days of waiting in tiny Jergatol, we caught a ride on Tajikistan’s only helicopter to base camp on the Moskvin Glacier.
On my first full day, I headed up ~5700m Peak Vorobiova, a beautiful and straightforward climb above base camp. The views from the corniced summit are spectacular, and excellent camping opportunities on the route make this along with Peak Chetiroch (6200m) popular acclimatization peaks. Following Vorobiova, I made a three-day acclimatization/recon trip to Korzhenevskaya to prepare for my main objective of the season…a single push attempt of Korzhenevskaya.
After waiting out a weeklong storm, I camped just across the glacier from base camp to save time and effort in the morning. I started at a viciously early 12:15AM. I charged up a series of moraines, ledges and headwalls to 5100m camp 1, where I changed out of my 5oz road racing shoes and into mountain boots and crampons. From there, the route ascends rotten ice to 5300m to upper camp 1 then up a snow face and broad snow ridge to camp 2 at ~5700m. I encountered a difficult traverse involving postholing through rotten snow from 5700m to the exposed camp at 6100m marking the base of the summit ridge. There, as the sun rose, I changed socks and massaged my toes to bring back some sensation into my icy digits. I probed for my gear cache for nearly an hour. My stove, food, down jacket, harness and some other gear were most likely stolen. I tentatively decided to continue, though I had just over a liter of water and some crackers. The crux of Korzhenevskaya involves a short pitch of steep snow and rock at 6100m, but I found it fairly straightforward even without the assistance of fixed lines. Snow conditions on several towers above 6500m again became tedious. I reached the summit as high winds picked up and quickly started my descent in the late afternoon.
I managed to descend to the 6100m camp by twilight where I met some friends and had some food and tea. I switched on my headlamp as I descended the steep snow face to 5300m. As I descended into the thicker air, my energy returned, but by the time I reached 5100m, it was late and I’d been on the move for over 20 hours. I lost the route at the toe of the glacier, most likely due to tiredness alone, but rallied and made it back to my tent half an hour later after 23 hours of climbing. My dream of Korzhenevskaya’s Tsetlin route in a day was behind me.
Pik Kommunizma—Too Heavy
I returned to a mostly deserted base camp…a large group had just left for Peak Communism, while most climbers were still on Korzhenevskaya. With about five days of good forecast before I needed to leave base camp, I decided to race up the lower portion of Peak Communism’s classical Borodkin route to try to meet up with friends on the large plateau at 6000m. After several miles along the Walter Glacier, I raced across the infamous ramp threatened by seracs on Communism’s north wall. The base of the Borodkin was fun straightforward rock scrambling with a few fixed lines in exposed areas. Once above 5000m, snow conditions predictably deteriorated—postholing was becoming the theme of the summer, and I stomped out a tent platform at 5800m. The next morning, blazing heat made the snow impossible. After managing only 100m in two grueling hours swimming through neck-deep snow, I threw in the towel. I descended waist deep snow, happy to have the decision to leave the mountain simple and behind me.
Boom! In front of me, a huge fracture opened and I was soon in free fall, plummeting into a monster of a crevasse. During the fall, I had the presence of mind to stay upright and keep my arms up as the world darkened around me. I landed in a pile of debris 60-70 feet below and was completely buried. I thrashed my arms and cleared my head before more methodically extracting myself and frontpointing up an extremely fortuitous ramp to the world above. I was extremely lucky to survive the fall, and am absolutely shocked that I was uninjured. My helmet was in my pack, as I was climbing a seemingly safe portion of the rib that was unthreatened by rock or serac fall. I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my only major accident in the mountains, and my understanding of what happened will certainly evolve as I continue to grow. I take a greater appreciation for the commitment and risk inherent in soloing high mountains. Even though climbing unroped on that section of the Borodkin route is commonplace and fairly accepted, glaciated terrain is complex and unpredictable. High snowfall could have contributed to obscuring a crevasse that is plainly obvious and avoidable in most years.
My time in Central Asia followed an incredible arc of adventure. My trip certainly had intense and painful moments, but the richness of these life experiences is undeniable. I was mesmerized by the landscape from the wild braided rivers of northern Tajikistan to the beautiful faces of the central Pamir. Lasting friendships and amazing cultural encounters will stay with me forever. I look back on my times in Central Asia fondly, and I am grateful to the AAC for supporting me in following my dreams. May the Pamir stay magical!