The Deadly Summer in Tien Shan (Pobeda – 2000).

By Dmitri Nichiporov

July 29 was the day. Eager for new adventures, we arrived in the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, ready to face the challenge of peak Pobeda. After a year of contemplation and discussions about climbing one of the tallest peaks in Tien Shan, we arrived in Bishkek, full of energy and expectations. Besides myself, our group consisted of Andrey and Sergei, my traditional climbing companions, and two new members. Tamara and Olga shared our ambitious plan of summiting Pobeda, the world’s northernmost 7,000-m peak. The massive body of this peak that sits on the border between Kyrgyzstan and China was our goal of the season.

The early Asian morning was promising another hot and hazy day as we stood by the doors of Dostuck trekking company, which was responsible for our border and climbing permits. Suddenly, I heard the clatter of a bike on a dirt road, and moments later Garth, an American whom I had met in the Kyrgyz mountains before, skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust in front of our group. His broad grin evidenced how happy he was to see us. Soon we were engaged in a lively, mixed Russian-English exchange of the latest Bishkek news and our plans of getting to the base camp on the glacier. It seemed that Garth was well informed of what was going on in the local mountaineering world, as he had already signed on the list of those who wished to reach Engilchek glacier. Ak Sai Travel, another trekking company, had a truck ready to go to the Maida Adyr staging post the next morning, and it seemed there was room for our group, too. We went to see the Ak Sai director, and quickly struck the deal.

This year we changed the location of our Base Camp and set it on the opposite side of South Engilchek glacier, closer to the foot of Pobeda. We pitched our two sleeping tents and the food tent at the confluence moraine of South Engilchek and Zviozdochka (Little Star) glaciers, next to a huddle of three of four other base camps run by different companies. Staying close to these camps and maintaining good relationships with their residents, we could pay occasional visits to their mess tents for a leisurely chat accompanied by a cup of hot tea and a snack.

Climbing in high mountains requires proper acclimatization. Although our primary goal was peak Pobeda, we chose to climb to Camp 2 (5,300 m) on the slopes of Khan Tengri as the first phase of our acclimatization itinerary. Again, as one year before, we ascended the steep hanging glacier and passed through the dangerous icefall whose most perilous section climbers dubbed “Bottleneck”. The familiar mountain looked very much like in the previous year. Only the crevasses and the seracs formed a different pattern. Unlike in a human life, one year is merely an instant in the life of a huge mountain...

With the first phase of acclimatization accomplished, we returned to Base Camp. Now we were ready to try something different – and more serious. To the south of our moraine, across Zviozdochka glacier, the massive 2,500-m high North Face of Pobeda was towering in the clouds over those who were about to venture into the mountain’s icy domain.

The safest route to climb Pobeda begins on Zviozdochka glacier and leads through an icefall under Diki (Wild) pass. On the saddle, climbers must turn left and follow the broad snow ridge to reach the first of the three consecutive rock sections, separated with extensive tilting snow fields. Above the third rock band, the broad ridge levels out and leads to the shoulder summit of main Pobeda called Vazha Pschavela (6,900 m) named after a Georgian national poet of the 19 – 20 centuries. Turning left on Pschavela, the route then follows along the narrow 5-km corniced ridge to the foot of the summit pyramid. Here, beside the huge rock called Obelisk, is a traditional place for the assault camp.

When we returned from Camp 2 on Khan Tengri, a couple of groups had already made reconnaissance sallies to find a way through the Diki icefall. Early on August 7, we followed in their path, and the rising sun saw us negotiating the upper seracs below Diki pass. By afternoon, we reached the altitude of 5,800 m and busied ourselves with digging an ice cave in a steep slope. The cave was to provide comfort for our group and to offer protection from wind and avalanches. The night passed peacefully, with thousands of stars in the ink-black sky.

Having cached the gear that we did not expect to need in the near future, we continued upwards. The white and brown outcrops of the first rock band above the cave revealed the structure of the mountain, which consists of marble and limestone. After a few hours of easy climbing, we reached the altitude of 6,300 m where a tilting snow field soared to the second rock section. My plan was to spend a night here and return to Base Camp, thus completing phase two of our acclimatization.

Through the night, however, the weather spoiled, and the dim daybreak of August 9 (which was my birthday) revealed that we were trapped in a complete whiteout with no chances for safe descent. We had to stay in our tent for the whole day. By dusk, we had to face the reality of staying in the same spot for a second night.

“Well, Dima,” said Andrey. “Happy birthday. This one has not been particularly boisterous, but we’ve seen bad weather before. Let’s go to sleep and see what tomorrow will have to offer.”

But, as it soon turned out, the birthday was not over yet. Everybody was fast asleep when at 10:35 PM the soft “Whooff” of snow awakened us, and our tent sagged under a heavy load.

“Avalanche! We’re buried!.. Cut the tent -- we must get out quickly!” called my comrades. I could hear them panting in the darkness. I groped for the downhill side of the tent. It felt like part of the wall was not buried.

“It’s okay, you guys just don’t panic. Maybe we can still salvage the tent; let’s try to dig out,” I suggested.

“No way, we’re all gonna suffocate here. Cut it now, do it,” Andrey pleaded.

“All right, all right, just calm down... Got the knife... Cutting.”

A second later, I scrambled out into the night, and my friends followed me. It was pitch dark outside, and snowing heavily. Myriads of snowflakes danced in a mute shower in the beam of my flashlight, as though trying to conceal the ripped tent and to soothe our troubled group. Through the hole in the fabric, we retrieved our gear, and got dressed.

The next task was to find a way to wait out the night. Before the storm began, I had judged the slope as free from avalanche danger. Now I reckoned that since the avalanche had fallen, the slope must be relatively safe again. Using a shovel, we enlarged the tent site and transformed it into a sort of a snow grotto. Then, with the tent wands serving as a rooftop, we covered the grotto up with the remains of the flysheet, crawled inside and prepared to doze away the rest of the night.

It was 1:30 AM when a second avalanche hit. This one was, undoubtedly, big. Fortunately, the main mass of the slide jumped over our heads to roar down into the black emptiness. The avalanche only stripped the flysheet from our makeshift shelter and ‘sprinkled’ Olga and me with 2 feet of snow. Never had I burrowed out of the snow with greater ardor!

“The message is not to be disregarded,” I thought to myself, surfacing. “Joking apart. We gotta get our butts out of here, and the sooner we do it, the better,” I decided. I probed the night with the beam of the flashlight. A soft wall of snowflakes reduced the world to the size of an apartment room. I knew that sixty feet from our place to the right there was an overhanging rock. Crossing the slope with rapidly accumulating fresh snow was risky, but staying where we were was more dangerous still. Choosing the lesser of two evils, we traversed the slope one by one to the safety of the rocks and tried to make ourselves comfortable for the rest of the night.

The milky void continued to dump snow in enormous quantities for one more day, leaving us trapped in the whiteout. To bide our time, we attempted to dig a cave, but the snow near the rocks was porous and fragile, and the cave soon collapsed. Fortunately, nobody was in it at the time.

It was not long before the end of our second day in the snow trap that the weather showed signs of improvement. Early the next morning we started our descent. Never before had I experienced deeper snow. With the very fist step, I sank to my waist in the soft fluffy powder. Breaking a trail with my backpack on proved impossible, so I dragged the pack beside me, struggling my way straight down. The trench behind me was at times chest-deep. My comrades followed in my steps, keeping distance.

This unnerving journey continued all day and terminated at dusk below the saddle of Diki pass, near the upper seracs of the icefall. The weather had left no trace of the old trail, and we spent 6 hours of the next day negotiating the leaning ice towers and looming crevasses. Below the icefall, my tension eased, although the rest of the way to Base Camp still required many hours of thigh-deep trail breaking.

Halfway between the icefall and the base camp, we ran across a group of tourists from Novosibirsk who were heading from Base Camp to upper Zviozdochka. They were using snowshoes and, apparently, were not nearly as hampered by the heavy snow. We gratefully used their tracks to arrive in BC late the same night.

The base camp residents also survived an unprecedented snowfall. It had forced everybody to struggle for their tents, working with a shovel every few hours. Yet, what everyone was talking about was the gruesome news of the climbing season. A German climber had fallen to his death on the north slopes of Khan Tengri. A group of Moscow tourists had met with an avalanche on the south side, below the Bottleneck. Two members were injured; one of them was hit with an ice block on the forehead and suffered light concussion. Two Polish climbers had been trapped on the upper slopes near Vazha Pschavela, but, thanks to daily radio communications, they stayed in contact with the base camp. The men reported they were camping in a safe place and had enough supplies of food and gas. Despite the poor weather, their messages remained optimistic.

Five days passed in the cozy comfort of Base Camp. We relaxed after the ordeal on Pobeda and indulged ourselves in the camp sauna. When the weather was good, we would warm our bones in the hot rays of the Asian sun in daytime, and marvel at the ineffable beauty of the starry sky at nights. Billions of stars sparkled against the black velvet of the sky. Blue Vega shone the shimmering light out of the cosmic depths, while the stardust of the Milky Way cast its soft illumination upon the sleeping mountains around Base Camp...

The climbing season was in full blast when Tamara and Sergei received a message from Dostuk company in Bishkek. The message said that their tickets had been booked for an early date, which meant that our comrades would not have enough time for a second go to Pobeda. Olga had problems with her tooth, and a doctor in BC did not recommend her going to high altitudes again. Upset with the news, we sat around our stacked-rock dining table to consider the situation. It seemed that our team would have to split up. Only Andrey and I were ready to repeat the ascent of the ridge, if only to retrieve our equipment that had been buried in the ice cave at 5,800 m. We hated to part with such valuable items as a photo camera, an ice axe, gas cartridges, and warm clothes and to leave them as a present to the mountain. However, our biggest problem at the moment was the tent. Our tent was in tatters, and going without one was out of the question. The problem required a solution, and soon. Rambling through the base camps and asking around if anybody was willing to sell a tent, I was directed to the British expedition that was packing to go home. After much thinking and discussion with his fellow climbers, Steve, the expedition leader, made the decision.

“Dmitri, I see you need a tent badly...” Steve paused for a while. “All right, you want a tent, you will get it. It is really a good one. Just have good luck on Pobeda.” His comrades smiled and nodded in support to Steve’s words.

My joy and relief defied description, as the biggest obstacle to continue climbing had been removed. One minor problem remained, however. I had frostbite on my right toe, which a doctor in BC qualified as 2nd degree. All things considered, Andrey and I agreed that it would not be wise to push for Pobeda. Counting the remaining days, we decided to try and climb a shorter and familiar route on Khan Tengri.

At 7 AM on August 22 Andrey and I left a snow cave at 5,900 m on the south slope of Khan Tengri pass.

“Andrey, you’re ready?” I asked my comrade.

“Yeah, just need a few minutes to fix my harness. You go first,” Andrey replied.

“All right. See you soon,” I said and jumared up the fixed line to the saddle.

The cold wind on the saddle was merciless. Blowing relentlessly, it gave rise to huge snow buntings that were swirling in the thin air like small tornadoes. The gusts of wind made moving difficult, and at times breathing was all but impossible. I hoped that near the West Ridge the wind would die out, but this did not happen. The wind on the ridge was no less severe than on the saddle. At 6,100 m I stopped for a short rest and peered into the mixed rock and ice slope to the right of me. Somewhere here, the body of a Belorussian climber was lying. He had fallen to his death about two weeks before, after surviving a cold bivouac. With no energy left, his mind dimmed by oxygen depletion, he must have walked off a rock ledge to meet his death 1,000 feet below.

I resumed climbing, but the pain in my frostbitten toe persisted, sending signals to my brain that something had to be done. At 6,300 m I realized that adding extra layers to my clothing had no effect, and if I continued upwards, I would have at least 10 hours of exposure to the wind. My body was pleading for a break. Reluctant to make a decision, I waited for Andrey.

“Hey, listen, it is good I caught up with you,” I picked up my comrade’s words through the howling wind. Andrey emerged from behind a rock and unclipped from the fixed line.

“How are you?” I asked him between the gusts.

“Pretty shitty, to be honest,” was the reply. “Feeling like I’m gonna pass out. The damn wind...” He looked tired.

“So, how about going down?” I asked.

“Good idea. I don’t think we will regret it,” agreed Andrey.

“OK. We’re turning back.”

By the time we returned to the comfort of Base Camp the climbing season in the Khan Tengri – Pobeda region was almost over, but not so was the sad news. The Novosibirsk tourists whom we had met on Zviozdochka glacier suffered from a slab avalanche that took its terrible toll: two members were buried under the snow. One was fatally injured; the other suffocated.

We spent a couple of remaining days on the moraine, packing up and waiting for the helicopter to take us back to the sun-parched Maida Adyr outpost. The leisurely time before departure is always good for thinking. Gazing at the North Face of Pobeda, I contemplated the events of the past month. Of course, we underestimated the speed at which the weather can turn on Pobeda. The unprecedented snowfall made the formerly harmless slope into a veritable killer. It would have been wise to dig a cave instead of camping in a tent or, at least, pitch it under the protection of rocks.

A team that challenges Pobeda must be highly motivated, each member experienced and prepared to act efficiently in strenuous conditions. Such nuisances as foul weather and cold temps should not discourage or depress the climbers.

This season 6 teams from 4 countries tried to climb Pobeda, and all failed. Their efforts to establish intermediate camps and break the trail between the camps were obliterated by the heaviest snow dump in many years. No one could go beyond 7,000 m this year.

One positive result of our attempt is we gave it a try. I saw that the austere monster could be climbable. True, the mountain will always be a serious challenge, but, with proper preparation and, weather permitting, the route can be done. Maybe the next year, who knows...

August - September 2000.

D. Nichiporov.

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January 11, 2007

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