My first 7000m peak at the age of 19
Different people who inhabited the neighbouring valleys of Khan Tengri composed a great number of exciting legends about this mysterious summit. One of these legends says that ghosts dwelling the mountains every night kindled a huge bonfire at the summit of Khan-Tengri. The Khan Tengri is the Snow Leopard King, the place where Genghis Khan mediated before his major conquests.
In 2010 I joined a high altitude mountaineering expedition to the Tien Shan Mountain Range, in Kazakhstan. The main aim of the expedition was to climb Khan Tengri (7010m) via the Solamatov Route on the north side of the mountain. The Khan Tengri expedition was organized by the Romanian Explorers Club and comprised eight members. My climbing partner, Aurel Salasan (27 years old) and myself (19 years old) were the youngest people participating in the expedition.
Shortly after my baccalaureate exam in June 2010, I left for Kazakhstan from Bucharest International Airport in very high spirits. After all, I had been studying, training and fundraising for too long and the time for adventure had finally arrived. I was young, but very ambitious and mentally focused for my age. The team I was in comprised a group of mature but hilarious individuals of various ages, all aiming to conquer the Lord of Spirits – the northernmost 7000m peak in the world.
We landed in Almaty, the old capital of Kazakhstan early in the morning. At the airport, we were picked up by a jeep, which took us to Karkara Base Camp (2000m) in the foothills of Tien Shan. The four hour drive was fantastic as we drove through spectacular gorges and steep meadows. Karkara Camp was situated in a picturesque gorge with slopes covered with fir and juniper trees. A racing river was cutting the gorge very steeply providing considerable energy to the local environment. One the southern side of the river our tents were pitched whereas on the northern side, a helicopter landing pad, several yurts and a few horses were guarding the peaceful meadow. The yurt is a portable, bent dwelling structure traditionally used by nomads as their home in the steppes of Central Asia. The structure of yurts comprises a crown or compression wheel, usually steam bent, supported by roof ribs, which are bent down at the end where they meet the lattice wall.
We spent three days in Karkara, acclimatising and getting accustomed to the local food. On the fourth day we left Karkara Camp on board an ex-Soviet military helicopter. The pilots, two Russians, failed to defeat the Russian stereotype as two bottles of vodka, one half empty and one two thirds full were placed next to the helicopter’s joystick. Every now and then the pilots were dragging a sip while flying the old Russian beast. It was good to know that everyone in the helicopter was in good hands. Nevertheless, the view from the helicopter’s small circular windows was absolutely brilliant. First, we flew over gentle green hills and river valleys. Slowly we were getting introduced to the high topography landscape until a vast sea of snow capped mountains and crevassed glaciers was all we could see below us and towards the horizon. The jagged peaks and huge debris flows instilled much respect. We were flying above the mighty Tien Shan range with two tipsy pilots – what else could you wish from life? True adventure, at its best!
The Hard Work
We landed on the northern tributary of Engilchek Glacier roughly an hour from boarding in Karkara Camp. In front of us, 3000m of vertical rock and ice rose dramatically like the Machareus citadel of Gustave Flaubert. Behind us was the base camp – a collection of yurts and rectangular tents placed between the moraines, erratics and other glacial debris of Engilchek Glacier. The camp included sleeping tents, a large kitchen tent and three toilet tents, from which you could admire Khan Tengri in all its splendour, as there was no door. This was to be our home for the next three weeks. Every day you could hear a bell jingling three times: in the morning, at noon and in the evening. This jingle marked the call for breakfast, lunch and diner respectively. The kitchen tent was by far the largest structure in the camp. Enough to accommodate 100 people, the tent was the main hub where socialising took place. Three girls and two chefs were cooking massive amounts of food for 100 hungry climbers. I don’t remember all of the food I ate but I am almost certain that I tried all types of meat ranging from horse, to goat, beef and even yak.
We spent three days in base camp after which we began an advanced acclimatisation process. First we climbed to Camp I located at 4600m on the northwestern ridge also known as Solamatov Ridge. This is the classical route on the northern side of the mountain estimated at 5B difficulty in the Russian grading system. The ascent followed a steep snow slope all the way to Camp I. We took considerable food and cooking gas supplies as well as camping gear in order to establish a well equipped camp from which to tackle the higher ground. It took us several hours to reach Camp I, but the effort was worthwhile as the view towards the Chinese border was outstanding: 6000m peaks covered in a white and thick coat of ice were guarding the border. We returned to base camp where we rested for a day.
The following day we climbed back to Camp I and even hit the 5000m – elevation line but had to return due to the strong wind. We slept in Camp I for the night. Unfortunately, the weather was terrible during the night and in the morning we were forced to return to Base Camp as the snowstorm was predicted to last a few days. Four days later we reached Camp II at 5560m. The ascent to Camp II was on steep mixt terrain, occasionally equipped with fixed ropes, some of which were rather unreliable. Surprisingly the weather conditions worsened again while climbing the steep ridge to Camp II and we had to descend to lower ground once more.
After the snowstorm we climbed back to Camp II and established a proper base. The next day we even reached Chapaev’s shoulder at 6150m after a long and tiresome ascent on vertical mixt terrain. The view from the top however was fabulous. You could see all the major 6000 and 7000m peaks in the Tien Shan range including Pik Pobeda 7439m – the highest mountain in the whole massif. We descended back to Camp II where we witnessed a marvellous sunset that projected on the upper section of Khan Tengri, which was made of marble. This in turn resulted in a reflection of a strong red colour similar to that of blood (hence the name – The Blood Mountain). It was a truly blissful moment. While we were admiring the sunset, we met two Irish climbers, which later became our summit push partners. One of them, Michael O’Connell proved to be the son in law of the president of Ireland.
The next day we packed Camp II and moved our headquarters to Camp III located at 5900m on the west ridge of Khan Tengri. While climbing, we were struck by a sinister feeling, as the lenticular cloud formations and abnormal heat for that elevation indicated that the weather was getting worse. There was no turning back as we only had 10 days left to climb the mountain and descend back to base camp. We decided to take the risk.
Camp III was located in the saddle between Khan Tengri and Chapaev. As anticipated the weather conditions worsen during the night and in the morning we were not too shocked to realize that the tent was entirely buried in snow. Fortunately we brought a shovel with us and after several sessions of digging, the tent was exposed to the elements again. The bad part however was that the snow continued for the next 7 days. Every night and most of the day the blizzard kept us hostage in our yellow tent. We couldn’t even go out to pee. To make matters even worse, we only had food for 4 days, not enough to properly feed us for an entire week. We were therefore forced to rationalize it in order to sustain us for the length of this bloody storm. The freeze-dried food, chocolate and energy bars soon became a luxury and all we could think of was food, whether a warm, crunchy bread or a big juicy steak. Fortunately, we were not alone in this situation as the two Irishmen were in the same position. In fact the four of us were the only ones in Camp III. So we organized “small parties” in the two tents to make time run faster. These were simply moments when four big guys forced each other into a two-person tent and tried to socialize while a foot or an arm was smuggled around our necks. Nevertheless, these sessions did make time move faster and kept us positively motivated. In fact we became quite good friends and despite our extreme situation, jokes were being made constantly. I have to say that it was during these “small parties” that I got introduced to the Scottish shortbread, which in those circumstances, the sweet delight was a pure orgasm for my taste buds. It is important to stay positive when everything around you is grim.
The Summit Push
On day seven the storm finally stopped. We received a message from our team members in base camp through the satellite phone that the weather conditions will improve over the next three days and that this will be our only chance to summit. Although we were drained both mentally and physically after the long storm and close to starving conditions we were determined to make the most of our “weather window”. The day before the summit push was spent preparing for the ascent, sorting out the remaining chocolate bars and reducing the weight of the pack so that we can climb as fast as possible.
The evening was calm but very cold (-25°C). We woke up at 2am and started climbing by 3:30am. The outside temperature dropped to -35°C. It was so cold that we could barely move. After two hours of climbing, I begun to loose sense of my toes and soon I begun to worry that I might get frostbite. Since we were climbing behind the sun we had to wait until 11am when the sun was high enough in the sky to warm the western face, which we were climbing. I remember longing for some sunrays, just to warm my toes a little bit. The climb was technical, perhaps the most technically difficult section of the whole route. I have to admit that climbing at over 6000m, below -30 °C temperature, and weakened after a long storm was not easy. But we did it anyway, and after 10 hours of hard climbing we were on the summit of Khan Tengri at just over 7000m. The view was indeed outstanding and the satisfaction in our brains reached unprecedented levels. Our effort and excellent teamwork paid off. Well done to my partner, Aurel Salasan!
We descended the 3000m back to base in just under 30 hours. While entering the kitchen we were greeted by massive applause from the rest of climbers stationed on the glacier. Moreover, they even organised a small party to celebrate our accomplishment and epic battle with the snowstorm in Camp III at 6000m. The return home was peaceful and nutritious as we visited many restaurants on our way home to recharge our batteries. With this ascent I became the youngest Romanian to climb above an altitude of 7000m.