Khan Tengri is very pretty, and its summit pyramid must be one of the most stunning in the world. For many a mountaineer it would have been a dream come true to find him/herself in my shoes on the 22nd of July, driving from Almaty, Kazakhstan, towards the mountain range of Tian Shan. However, I was anything but excited about the upcoming climb on one of the five seven-thousanders of the post-soviet space. Even before leaving for Almaty, while waiting at the registration desk at Pulkovo 2 airport in St. Petersburg, I could not shake off the strangest of feelings – anger at myself for going, so soon after Everest with so little time before my next big expedition in the Himalaya. In spite of myself, I kept looking at the gates, where I’d just said a rushed good-bye to my mother – her first husband and my sister’s father, assistant-professor of biology at St. Petersburg State University and mountaineering instructor, died on a climb in the vicinity of Khan Tengri. Later, already in Kazakhstan, I thought much about my pre-departure conversation with a friend, a shaman, whose advice and love had helped me through many troubles in the past: ‘your heart is good;’ she said, ‘do what it tells you, and you will never err.’ As I walked through the hot streets of the summer Almaty before departing for the mountains, I was painfully conscious of having ignored my friend’s – and my heart’s – advice. A young Kazakh climber’s death at Camp 2 on Khan just a few days before the start of my own expedition did not add to my sense of tranquility. Yet, I carried on stubbornly, regretting every step I was making in what I sensed so keenly to be the wrong direction.
When our international climbing team arrived at the Khan Tengri North base camp by helicopter, I looked at the beautiful mountain, rising directly in front of me, and, for the first time in my mountaineering experience, wanted none of it. My team mates’ excitement, nevertheless, was beginning to find its way into my heart, too, as we chatted about our expectations. We were a group of ten: five Spaniards, three Russians, a Singaporean, and myself. I quickly became the expedition’s interpreter, given that I speak some Spanish and English. I was also to be responsible for the group’s scarce communication with our guide team – men of few words. Headed by an illustrious Kazakh mountaineer and ‘conqueror’ of all the 14 eight-thousanders, it consisted of my private guide, another climber’s private assistant and two group assistants. I would also help out other foreign mountaineers with their problems and quarrels with ‘Uncle Mukha’, the perpetually drunk bear-like creature with a painfully loud voice and complete lack of self-control. The base camp of Kan Tengri Expeditions, which Mukha was in charge of, was a spacial representation of himself: a collection of decrepit Soviet-time tents, forever-damp, cold and dirty, scattered on the glacier at the altitude of about 4000m. The largest of them was the green dining- and kitchen tent, where the climbers and guides ate (and drank…), and where, too, the base camp’s warm-hearted cook was working restlessly at creating palatable dishes out of the little she had at her disposal: potatoes, cheap pasta, stale bread, milk powder and some meat.
‘Outside. After eating. Training. In full gear,’ the expedition leader announced during our first lunch at base camp. Two ropes, fixed to a small wall of ice outside the dining tent offered a practice ground for us to check our equipment and for the guides to evaluate our skills. My private guide offered me useful gear advice, which I gladly took, and the brief practice session which followed proved that all was in order – with the gear and the skills. Next morning we would walk some 200m up the North Inylchek Glacier to help us acclimatize, and on the day after we would head up the mountain for our first acclimatization rotation: we would carry tents, gas and food to set up Camp 1, where we would spend one night; then, we would climb light towards Camp 2; after that we would head down to base camp for a rest day. Having got our tents, food and gas ready, we went to have dinner,
and met with a man, who’d just got swept off the climbing route by an avalanche. Although he wasn’t badly hurt, we was, understandably, in shock – as were many of my team mates: the website of Kan Tengri Expeditions advertises the route on the North side of Khan as steep and challenging but free of the danger of avalanches.
‘You just have to make sure you’re not on the slope between base camp and Camp 1 after 10 am,’ shouted Uncle Mukha.
Next morning we stood by the dining tent, prepared to leave for Camp 1 at 10 am sharp. A huge avalanche once again swept the slope to the right of our route of ascent. Watching the thick cloud of snow rise high into the air from the foot of the mountain, our team exchanged glances helplessly when the guides urged us to start for the hill. We crossed the glacier and, without roping up, travelled up the steep slope of hard snow and ice. My guide and I led the way, and as I walked up the unpleasant path recalling how to perform a self-arrest on such terrain, I promised myself that that would be my first and last foray up Khan Tengri – I didn’t like it. We arrived at Camp 1 first and started setting up the tent. When it was ready, I fetched snow to melt for water, and, welcoming my tent mate, got the gas burner working to brew our tea and dinner. At abound 4 pm the climbers left their tents again for a short foray above Camp 1 – to practice descending steep snow slopes without the use of a rappel device: the group descent would take forever if each member used, say, a figure eight. Descents, as my regular readers know, are not exactly my forte, and I was skeptical about the ways of performing them we were being taught by our expedition leader. However, having practiced with my guide, I felt comfortable enough to use one of the methods the next day, when we climbed steeply up towards Camp 2 for 3-4 hours, and then descended to base camp.
At dinner at base camp I felt relieved, having no intention to come back to the mountain: mountaineering often calls for daring, but daring is nothing more than foolhardiness if the risk is not justified by a true passion for one’s goal; for Khan I felt no such passion. The group spent the next day resting and preparing food and gas for the second acclimatization rotation: we would climb up to and spend the night at Camp 1; then, we would follow the steep ridge with a couple of rocky sections all the way up to Camp 2, where we would rest for the night; after that we would climb to the shoulder of Chapaev Peak at 6100m, returning to Camp 2 for another night; then, we would come back to base camp for a 2-day rest and preparation for the summit push. I don’t know why I decided to join my team for another rotation, after all. I remembered that I had come to Khan to see how my bronchi, injured on Everest, would perform, and how my body would react to a new physical challenge; I was yet to see all that, and I would stay until I have.
Thus, loaded with gas, food, clothes and other necessities for 3 nights on the mountain, the expedition was yet again leaving base camp. Once more the information on the Kan Tengri Expeditions website proved misleading – there would be no snow caves in either Camp 2 or Camp 3 – so the climbers (all except my tent mate and me, who shared the tent, carried by one of our private guides) would have to drag their own tents up the very steep hill. Even without a tent in it, my pack seemed much heavier than what I usually carry, and my spine and knees complained a bit on the way up. Still, the weight was not unmanageable, the weather – good, and, aside from the problems with cough, which I’d anticipated, all was going strangely well for me. The only surprising thing was that even now, after quite a few days on Khan, I still felt nothing for the mountain and approached the climbing as little more than a stamina test. Even as I stood at 6100m, on the shoulder of Chapaev, it was at the storm clouds gathering, swelling up with snow, that I was looking in wonderment – not the summit pyramid of Khan Tengri, beautiful but, somehow, uninteresting to me. I decided there and then that I would not go for the summit: I know mountain gods to be jealous – they want all of you or none of you – and I was giving very little of myself to Khan. I thought, and still think, that climbing a mountain you don’t truly want is like sleeping with someone you don’t love: it may bring physical, superficial, satisfaction but little else; ultimately, it’s not worth bothering about.
Back at base camp I communicated my decision to Mukha, my guide and my friends. All were taken aback by the news. ‘If anyone can climb this mountain, it’s you,’ several of my team mates insisted, ‘you can’t leave!’ ‘But I don’t want to climb it,’ was my strange reply, ‘and I have to save some strength for the next one…’ While the team was resting before the summit push, I was waiting for the helicopter – the only means of transportation in that region. The weather was bad for two days, and for two days I packed in the morning and unpacked after Mukha would shout that there would be no chopper that day. On the third day, I packed my backpack instead of the duffel bag, and, to my team mates’ joy, announced I would climb with them. They had become so dear to me that I wanted to see them reach the summit, to celebrate their success at base camp and return to Almaty together. In the grim environment of base camp, at higher camps and every step of the way we had been supporting each other, and I did not want to miss the end of my friends’ story. It was for the people and not the mountain that I stayed.
The helicopter for Karkara arrived the moment my backpack – with 7 days’ worth of food, gas, and clothes – was ready. As I watched the chopper take off with other climbers on board, I endeavored not to regret too much not being among them. Meanwhile, the climbers and the guides of our expedition were ready to leave at 3 pm and, shouldering our terribly heavy loads, we moved towards Khan for the last time.
The events of the three following days would teach me my hardest lessons in patience yet – and put me on an operating table. Recounting these events accurately would inevitably involve passing judgements on the behavior and actions of more people than myself, and I am not keen on doing so. What I will say is that I had to abandon my summit attempt at Camp 2. Then… then, eventually, I made it back to St. Petersburg and to qualified medical help. I am feeling much better now as I prepare to leave for Kathmandu, ready and willing to put my Khan Tengri experience behind. I have learnt a lot from it, and hope it serves me well on my upcoming expedition in the Nepal Himalaya.