What a beginning that was! I only received the formal invitation necessary for visa application one day before the departure, no money left again, they treat us like dirt here in Tajikistan and when we finally reached the basecamp after three days of delays, Michal suffered a serious case of food poisoning… And when he got out of it and we went up to Pik Chetyrek to acclimatize, we got half buried in a sudden snow storm and had to fight for our lives to get down in one piece… But that’s forgotten now. Now we go to Korzhenevskaya!
Stones, stones, stones, … and stones
The path to camp one is something like a bad dream. Up and down through the Moskvina glacier, where it takes us over an hour to find the way through in spite of the fact I’ve already been here twice before, followed by a boring slog through endless scree slopes. And then there’s the front of the glacier at about 4800 meters – forty meters high vertical wall of melting ice bombarding the path bellow with countless boulders. Pretty… I run ahead passing a few Czechs and Slovaks from the big Pamir7000 group and reach the camp in the early afternoon. Three other Czechs are waiting there and offering me the last free platform for a tent. They say this camp sucks and they’re going to continue to the higher one. It’s easy, they say. Some 300 meters up, only a few patches of 30° ice, they say. Well, I could do that, too…
I wait for Michal, pass him that last free platform for a tent and start walking up the glacier on my own. Bullshit… First of all, this is not ice. Loads of fine black gravel are melted into this stuff and I never know if my crampons are holding or not. Second of all, this is not 30°. More like forty on average, sometimes more. I guess i’m lost or something. Unfortunately, I only realized that too late to be able to return back and find my way again. Shit! I switch the trekking sticks for my single blunt ice axe with a shaking hand while trying to forget about how deep the crevasse down there actually was. The one i’d land into had my foot slipped. The steep section ends in style with a small vertical step. Never before have I hammered my ice axe as deep as here, on it’s lip. Uff…
But I can see the higher camp one now. It sits on a beautiful scree spur on the edge of the glacier. Just a few tents, clean water… And a view of the Traverse and the summit wall. It’s still quite a distance from here. And since nobody’s up there yet, we’ll take a rest day tomorrow and plan the summit for the fifth.
We start early today. Unusually early. That’s because the Traverse awaits ahead and that kilometer high wall above tends to throw down all sorts of garbage when the sun hits it in the afternoon. You don’t wanna be there then… After a rather boring start the glacier suddenly steepens and we even have to use fixed ropes for the first time. Two of them are hanging in the steepest part of some 45° ice. We’re waiting there for about an hour, patiently letting the somewhat desperately looking English expedition descend from the camp two. Desperately looking or not, most of them summited the mountain in the end, but that’s another story.
The Traverse itself begins right after the ropes. Normally there are fixed ropes all over the place, but not this year. The sun starts to shine into the wall now and every now and then a stone flies by with the characteristic “whoosh”, which always gives me the creeps. We decided to skip the miniature camp two cramped under an overhanging section of the wall and keep ascending all the way to the camp three on the ridge. We’re acclimatized already, so why wait?
The lower camp three sits at 6100 meters and it’s setting is breathtaking. Or it would be, if we’d be actually able to see it through a dense fog surrounding us on all sides. It also looks like a shitload of work since there are no natural platforms and to make one we’ll have to displace about a ton of snow from the sharp knife-like ridge. Oh well, off we go! Finished after less than two hours by which time the only two climbers trying to reach the higher camp three today returned back, saying the snow is deep and heavy and there is no way we could start our summit push from here. Ok, whatever. The weather looks fine so far, so we’ll only move to the higher camp three tomorrow and go for the summit the day after…
Blowing in the wind
I hate those summit day mornings so much! Half past three at night, freezing cold and the whole inside of the tent is covered with large ice crystals from our breathing overnight. And what a shitty night that was! I left my tent in the camp one as a backup so we’re both cramped in Michal’s tiny North Face. The summit is not that far from here, but the first four guys reaching it yesterday came back with frostbitten faces and gibbered something about fourteen hours in a waist-deep snow. That’s why we rather start at four.
From the very beginning it’s clear there’s no fourteen hours. The snow is rock-hard now and we walk comfortably along the four lines of yesterday’s meter-deep tracks. But there’s a downside as well. It’s deadly cold out here and the much awaited sunrise didn’t help much. My feet are slowly growing numb and I can’t get the blood flowing any more so after changing up to higher gear I charge ahead to warm myself. The summit ridge is longer than it looks from bellow. It slowly winds up and down and sometimes I feel like I’m not gaining any height at all. And man, is it exposed! The kilometer high wall with the Traverse bellow gapes right under my left foot. If I slipped here, I wouldn’t stand a chance… For the last 100 meters the ridge changes to a pyramid of large stones glued together by melting ice. A few tangled fixed ropes from the time Breznev was in the Kremlin are fluttering in the wind, but yesterday’s tracks are turning right towards the glacier. I decide to follow them. True, it means a bit of swimming in two meters of powder snow, but anything’s better than those ropes! All what’s left now is a small rocky band, a few steps in a growing wind and here we go! I wasn’t too hard, was it? A quick assessment of the situation – Michal is some half an hour behind, my feet are slowly melting in the sun and I just discovered my forgotten mp3 player in the left pocket. Great, so now I can enjoy the summit properly for once! Perfect weather, half past eight… There’s no hurry.
Way back to the camp is easy. You just need to stay focused since the wall is still there. We keep meeting numerous groups of Ukrainians who gradually started pouring out of the tents below. The last one is charming – 100 meters above the camp, resting heavily on his backpack, half past one in the afternoon: “How much longer to the summit?”. “At least five hours!”, I try to be optimistic. “Hm, it took me three to get here from the camp!” I mean, seriously? I don’t know. They always taught us it’s a good idea to start the summit push before 9am, but what do I know. Maybe they just wanted to make the climb harder. Anyway, quite a lot of them summited that day and nobody died, so why not.
We’re back in the tent just in time for lunch so we can spend the rest of the day regaining some precious strength for tomorrow’s descend. We decided to go all the way down to the basecamp because compared to the camp one, there is enough food, beer and vodka in the basecamp. All of which we want… On the down side, that means an extremely long day by the end of which I got lost in that fucking Moskvina glacier again. The basecamp chief greets us in front of the mess tent with a free dinner. We’re drowning a can of celebratory Baltika beer and go to bed almost immediately. We need to rest now for there’s another mountain waiting for us in a few days and we’re gonna have to dig even deeper to succeed on that one.