In July 2012, British mountaineers Jon Gupta and Nick Valentine set out to achieve a first for the UK – The Snow Leopard Award.
This inimitable challenge is one of the hardest in the world and with good reason. It is such an achievement that in the 70s, the Snow Leopard was an acknowledged mountaineering award and today is still recognised in the Commonwealth of Independent States.
To receive the prestigious Snow Leopard Award, Jon and Nick must prove themselves by scaling all five 7,000m peaks – and they are hoping to do them back to back in true Alpine style. To give you a sense of the challenge involved, between 1981 and 2012 only 567 climbers have claimed this accolade!
The five peaks themselves are formidable and are recognised individually as extreme climbs. Situated on the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in Kyrgyzstan itself and on the Kyrgyzstan/Kazakhstan border, they are:
Jon and Nick have now returned from their amazing challenge and they managed to summit three of the five peaks! Unfortunately the weather was against them and at 6500m on Ibn Sina (Peak Lenin) they were forced to abandon their summit attempt.
Expedition dates: July 12th to September 1st, 2012
Authored by: Jon Gupta
Supported by: MONTANE®, British Mountaineering Council (BMC), JustBreathe, Lyon Equipment and Sunnto.
Endorsed by: Kenton Cool, Alan Hinkes, Duncan Bannatyne, Cory Richards and Mick Fowler
Location: Pamirs, Tajikistan and Tein Shan, Kyrgyzstan. Central Asia.
Expedition name: The Snow Leopard Award
Climbers: Jon Gupta and Nick Valentine
High altitude ascents (often guiding): Elbrus 5642m, Kilimanjaro 5895m (5 times), Denali 6192m, Cotopaxi 5897m, Island Peak 6189m (3 times), Ama Dablam 6812m (solo in 48hrs) and Aconcagua 6962m. Jon has also lead expeditions to Ecuador, Iceland, Morocco, Jordan and Greenland – so is pretty happy in most conditions! Has worked as a freelance leader since he was 18 and currently holds the qualifications of Winter Mountain Leader, International Mountain Leader (training) and Single Pitch Award. Alpine climbing experience and has summited thirteen 4000m+ and technical 3000m+ routes such as The Kuffner Arete (D) which he did with Nick. Numerous Scottish winter climbs at IV/V. Runs his own expedition company – Mountain Expeditions. Trekked and lived in the jungle in 2 different continents for over 3 months and has travelled in more than 35 countries!
Studied Outdoor Adventure Leadership and Management at university. Rock climbed all over the world from a young age, currently climbing around E3. Numerous winters enduring Scottish conditions and climbing at V/VI, including classics on such as Point Five Gully (V, 5) and Hoarmaster (VI, 6). 3 season of climbing in the Alps which ascents of classic such as – Frendo Spur, The Classic North Face route of the Tour Ronde and the Kuffner Arete. Nick is working as a Ski Instructor in Verbier (Switzerland) where he is pushing his Ski Mountaineering and Alpine climbing to the limit. Continuing his dream of becoming a mountain guide.
In July 2012 two British climbers Jon Gupta and Nick Valentine travelled to the Central Asia, and into the Tien Shan and Pamir’s mountain ranges of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There they established 3 different base camps and attempted to climb five peaks at over 7000m. Over the course of 50 days, the team climbed 4 of the peaks, reaching 3 summits and 6400m on the 4th. The highest of which was Peak Communism at 7,495m (50th highest mountain in the world)
The expedition team members met 3 years previous whist ice climbing in North Wales. We climbed together and worked well as a team, moving confidently and slick from the off. Although we come from different mountaineering back grounds, (Jon with a lot of high altitude and Nick with more technical alpine ascents) we put our heads together and came across this incredible high altitude challenge: The Snow Leopard Challenge.
We knew both of the mountain ranges but knew very little about what they had to offer. We also knew that not many British climbers often go there and that none had completed the Snow Leopard Challenge (the name given to climb all five of the 7000m peaks in the old Soviet Union)
The Pamirs are in Northern Tajikistan on the border with Kyrgyzstan and the Tein Shan are in east Kyrgyzstan on the border with China and Kazakhstan.
There were no existing accounts available belonging to an expedition having attempted all 5 in one season, although it had been done 14 times before. During planning, the primary source of information was from a previous expedition by a Polish climber who attempted the challenge the year before summiting 4 out of 5 peaks. Jon is friends with the Polish chap and spends time on Facebook and Skype talking to him about the mountains.
There is also plenty of information on the individual peaks on the internet. Peak Lenin is a popular first 7000er for many mountaineers. Khan Tengri is also offered by some expedition companies. Google brought up many good websites.
We used a logistical company to help arrange helicopters etc called Ak-Sai who were very good.
12th July 2012
Depart UK. We flew BMI to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) from London via Baku (Azerbaijan). Tried to sneak an upgrade form the air hostess and almost succeeded. The pilot got food poisoning and we had to stay in Baku overnight whilst they flew another pilot out. Stuck in the airport for 24 hours was highly over rated. BMI were generally very good, we paid £80 to have 2 extra duffle bags weighting 23kg each on the plane with us.
13th July 2012
Overnight in Baku arrive Bishkek 05:00 – A very long and boring wait, made better only my free alcohol in a lounge we got into. Finally we departed for a 5 hours night flight arriving in Bishkek at sunrise. We were greeted by our agency and transferred to a hotel in Bishkek where we collapsing for a few hours.
14th July 2012
Rest day in Bishkek. First stop Ak-Sai, our agency to meet with Dinara whom we had been corresponding. Dinara had been incredibly efficient at answering emails. We collected our paper work, chatted about a few things and went in search of a few last minute things.
15th July 2012
Morning flight to Osh. Transfer Osh-Achik-Tash BC. An early start back to the airport and few short arguments about excess luggage. They didn’t weight hand luggage and it also didn’t matter how big it was…so we took massive amounts of hand luggage! 50 minutes latter we were bundles into a bus with a few other bright eyed climbers and hit the road for 8 hours. The flight and transfer were sorted by Ak-Sai. Later that evening we arrived to Achik-Tash base camp and enjoyed a big dinner prepared by the base camp cooks before crashing out for the night.
16th July 2012
Trek to camp 1 and back to base camp. A beautiful morning welcomed us at base camp and after breakfast of porridge, eggs and cheap sausage we packed a ‘carry’ bag and headed out for camp 1. Trekking was beautiful, long green grass, huge glacial rivers, family sized yurts all surrounded by giant mountains. We followed a thin trail, regularly stopping for water and rest. Half way to camp 1 you cross into the main Lenin glacier a traverse some pretty steep scree sloped. Care should be taken here as there was plenty of small rock fall constantly coming down from above. Camp 1 is located on or next to the glacier and we were warmly welcomed by the Ak-Sai. We ate some food, stowed away all the kit we had carried up and made our way back to base camp.
17th July 2012
Move to camp 1 (Jon’s birthday). Another good weather day, and feeling fit and strong after a huge sleep. We packed the remaining kit and headed back up the same trail as the day before. Knowing the route and being slightly more acclimatised, we made good time rolling into camp before lunch.
18th July 2012
Rest day -Jon got ill during the night and spend most of it awake with diarrhea and vomiting. During the day we didn’t do anything other than relax. Poor weather came in during the evening and snow fell at all levels.
19th July 2012
Rest day -Jon is feeling week in the morning but at lunch finally managed to start eating again after 48 hours of not. Much fluid and eating and Jon gets stronger by the hour.
20th July 2012
Move to camp 2. Today we moved on the mountain proper, an hour hike over moraine and chossy rubble and we reach the bottom of the first slope. Here we roped up, as crevasses are plentiful. Conditions were ok, hot in the afternoon; small snow sluffs were common but nothing of much danger. We made it to camp 2 in 7 hours. Make sure you cover up and take sun block!
21st July 2012
Visit camp 3. Continuing our acclimatisation we tagged camp 3 today, both able to feel the altitude a bit, our hearts racing to keep up. We rested at 6100m for 2 hours, helped some other climbers put a tent up before racing down the mountain side to camp 2 in just over 45 minutes!
22nd July 2012
Camp 2 to camp 3. We departed after breakfast with full packs and feeling really strong. After the first big slope out of camp you join a wide ridge and turn left onto this and continue along as the ridge narrows and steepens below camp 3. This slope still takes at least an hour but we’re soon into camp and it’s before midday. Chance to rest and recuperate, get hydrated and eat some more. Moral was high in our little tent as it was a special day – it was beef biltong day!
23rd July 2012
Camp 3 to Camp 4. Instead of having a full rest day and feeling pretty rested form the half day before we decided to push 3 hours on to camp 4. Not many teams use camp 4, and go for a huge summit day from camp 3, but we thought it was a good idea, and I still think it is a good idea. With a strong northerly wind we dug our tent in and spent time anchoring it firmly before diving in to eat some dinner.
24th July 2012
Descent from C4 to C1. Overnight the weather turned really bad with really strong winds and a lot of snowfall. Neither of us slept at all. With the weather unrelenting but having cleared a little the summit was off as conditions were rubbish and we packed and got out. We raced down the way we had come, visibility coming in and out and made it back to camp 3 after an hour or so, the small 20m of up incline drawing every ounce of energy from us. With the realization that our chances on Lenin were over we were both gutted and climbed back down to camp 1 in silence, arriving early afternoon in a white out.
25th July 2012
Descent from C1 – to Base camp. Tired and deflated we descended from camp 1 back to base camp with ease now fully acclimatised. For Jon this was the first time he had failed on a major peak and he hadn’t prepared himself not to succeed so took it pretty hard for a few days. We spend the afternoon sorting gear, re-packing and taking a shower. At base camp there is a facility to take a hot shower which is amazing!
26th July 2012
Transfer to Djirgital via Karamyk (Kyrgyz-Tadjik border). Overnight at Djirgital.
This journey was long and interesting with some unbelievable scenery. We passed through quite a few check points and the boarder control which took a while. Less than 4000 tourist visas are issued a year in Tajikistan!! A representative from Ak-Sai came with us to liaise with officials and wave cigarettes and vodka at those that need a little ‘extra help’!
27th July 2012
Wait in Djirjital. This part of our trip had been out sauced to Pamir Peaks who are the only provider of any sort of base camp for these two mountains. The base camp is open for around 1 month. The base camp is managed by an entertaining chap and few others who work there who are nice. There is Wi-Fi which is expensive and alcohol is available. They have ‘guides’ in for the season to ‘open the mountain’ and fix lines for the guided groups. These chaps are neither qualified nor (other than 1) experienced. There advice was wrong or should at least be taken with a pinch of salt. We climbed both mountains before the guides had been on them and there was nothing we couldn’t free climb!
28th July 2012
Wait in Djirjital. There is nothing to do here at all. No internet of any sort anywhere, and no sign of that ever happening either. No ATMs. Quite a depressing place. There are very few restaurants/places to eat – and they only serve local dish of fried rice and carrots or some other dodgy looking foods. Not great. Melons are plentiful though!
29th July 2012
Flight to Moskvina Base Camp (4200 m). Finally the chopper arrived and we jumped on board with all of our luggage and some other climbers. In all there were 4 helicopter rides that day, bringing in supplies, climbers and lots of kit! The ride is about 40 minutes and chopper can seat about 18 people or so plus kit. Rumor has it there is only 1 commercial helicopter in Tajikistan and it belongs to the President – we were in this chopper!
30th July 2012
Camp 2 5300m. We left base camp after breakfast and headed across the old dry glacier right by base camp, we found a quick way through and 20 minutes later we came out the other side and began the first upwards scree slope on to the mountain proper. From here we climbed through a steep boulder field and some slabs to gain a further ridge. After dropping down the other side we came to our first ‘danger’ point – crossing in front of the toe of the glacier that was very imposing and impressive, with ice and rocks falling by the second. Taking it in turns, whilst the other one watched out, we ran across the front of it as fast as we could. From here we gained more altitude with the glacier collapsing on one side and a huge chossy rock face spitting rocks of all sizes down its face on the other. We pushed on through this section and eventually, after another 30 minutes of steep ground, arrived at 5100m (Camp 1).
After a short break we decided to push on through to camp 2 at 5300m, this again meant running a short gauntlet of falling rocks as we in the afternoon. We raced up the short gully to the safety of Camp 2. Here we met the only other team pushing through for a quick summit, 2 Romanians, Nico and Lucian.
We dug out our tent space, pitched out tent and set to melting snow/ice for water and dinner. From the porch of our tent we had an incredible view back where we had come and out towards the mighty Peak Communism (7495m).
31st July 2012
Camp 3 5800m. With the idea of reaching the 6100m camp and hoping the snow would be firmer we left camp early at 06:00 quickly gaining a broad snow ridge at 5500m. Hard work break trail through knee deep snow, regularly falling through up to our thighs. This was incredibly slow and hard work as well as being very frustrating but we swapped leads and eventually gained an altitude of 5800m from where the long traverse to 6100m (camp 4) began. We took a short break here to catch our breath and enjoy the cloud free sky/amazing views. In almost all directions huge unknown mountains plastered in snow and ice stood silently in the sunlight, most of which have never been climbed and probably never will be.
Traversing underneath the entire main face of the mountain can be dangerous with crevasses, daily avalanches and continuous rock fall coming down from above at any time, particularly from midday once the sun has warmed the higher slopes. Half way along we reached the safety of camp 3 at 5900m and decided it was too dangerous to continue through the afternoon. We pitched our inner tent and stayed here until 20:00 – once the sun had set and the temperatures plumped below 0 degrees. Hoping the deep snow would be firm and the risk of avalanche and rock fall was at a minimum we set off. Unfortunately the snow was still soft, and deep, so we were instantly back into the same routine of falling at least knee deep with every step. A firm crust had formed but every step broke through to a soft layer below. What should have taken us 1 1/2 hours took 4 hours of maximum effort and frustration. Eventually just before midnight we arrived at a col at the beginning of the summit ridge and dug out a small space for our tent in freezing conditions.
1st August 2012
Camp 4 6400m. Outside at around 07:00 was a perfect windless, cloudless morning. The sea of huge mountains expanding out on the other side of the ridge we hadn’t had the chance to see until this camp. After enjoying some freeze dried breakfast and packing away all our kit (whilst desperately trying to keep our hands warm!) we traversed round to the start of the main summit ridge proper.
Here we are faced with the main technical section on the mountain, a steep snow and rock step of about 50m. Nick took the lead and climbed the section with ease. The snow conditions were awful and snow stakes were placed more for peace of mind than real protection. Nick had to practically swim through some sections of the steep snow pushing huge piles of loose snow out the way to continue up the route eventually digging out on old rock with some evidence of rope tat that he used to make an anchor and bring me up to him.
Soon we were above this section and fully on the summit ridge. The ridge leads from here to the summit with a mix of super thin and exposed snow crests, broader snow ridges and a couple of short rock bands higher up. We pushed on up through deep snow, ploughing our way through knee to waist deep snow for 2 hours until we reached the small plateau and the perfect site for Camp 5 at 6400m.
We dug in our tent and set about getting as prepared as possible for the summit attempt the next day. Melted litter after litter of snow for drinking and cooking, we eat as much as we could, and prepared a clothes and packs for the next day. For the first time we would only have to carry the absolutely minimum (2littlers of water, down jacket, spare gloves and some snacks) Once sorted we rested and tried to sleep as much as possible.
2nd August 2012
Reaching the top (7105m) and descend to Camp 4. 03:30 alarm. During the night the winds had picked up and battered the tent about and no doubt moved the snow around. With freezing temperatures at around -25 degrees put on everything we had.
By 05:00 we were ready to go, all our layers on, and prepared to brace the frigid cold and go for the summit 700m above us. As we emerged from the warmth of our tent the perfect summit day was dawning, a few very thin clouds down low in the valley and the gentle glow of the suns warmth far away on the horizon beginning to show we set out for the summit.
The ridge to the summit is long and beautiful, gently rising higher and higher with numerous false summits and mini plateaus. Both Nick and I had cold toes, we tried vigorously to wriggle them but the cold got the better of us. We stopped and jumped inside our small group shelter and spent some time warming our toes back to life.
Continuing up the ridge was sensational, the snow conditions often testing and deep as before but the setting was spectacular. By Midday we had made great progress and at around 6800m we had only a few sections of the ridge between us and the summit.
At 7000m we took one last break before pushing to the summit. This was a huge moment for both of us. Jon had been to 6900 and 6800 summits previously but never over 7000, and this meant a lot to him. For Nick a huge sense to achievement mixed with relieve that he was strong at this height, having previously only been to 4600m! We both felt energised to push through to the summit. Nothing could stop us now.
Finally at 14:00 we were at 7050m at the base of the summit triangle, a small section of rock that we traversed under then climbed up the snow ridge back on ourselves to the summit.
At 14:20 we took our final steps onto the summit. We had done it.
We descend by the same route back to our tents, which took 2-3 hours.
3rd August 2012
Descent to base camp. Another early start as our aim was to reach base camp in one day. We set of retracing the same route we had ascended and made good progress down and across the traverse, past our previous camps and finally to the massive glacier. From here it was 1-2 hour of loose rocky steps and scree sloped back to camp. A 12 hour day got us from high camp to base camp!
4th to 9th August 2012
Base camp. We had seriously lucked out with the weather and the next day it turned with snowfall and stronger winds up high, and cloud rolling in everyday. Luckily for us the Olympics had started and we enjoyed 5 days of Russian concentrated highlights!
We used our time wisely, washed some clothes, cleaned some kit, packed ready for out next ascent.
We even managed some ice climbing on the dry glacier next to base camp. Short steep pitches, we spent the day exploring and having fun.
10th August 2012
Camp 1 5300m. This part of the mountain is objectively the most dangerous as we had to cross a glacial ramp directly underneath a huge wall of hanging seracs for an hour or so. Move fast and start very early.
The rock ridge was interesting, super loose and choosy with some old threadbare fixed ropes about in dire states! They are not really necessary and the state of the ropes is bad. Still it was fun climbing, the views were spectacular and it was only us. After the ridge you ascend a short show field at 25%. By 11:30 we had reached 5300m and our site for Camp 1. We dug into the side of the mountain and erected out tent.
11th August 2012
Camp 2 5800m. After a delicious freeze dried breakfast of hot cereal with sultanas, and at least an hour of melting snow we set off in search of camp 2, 6100m. The going was super slow with deep snow on steep slopes making progress near impossible.
All over this face there are hidden crevasse, some of which are huge!! Rope up, and make sure you know crevasse rescue!
By early morning the cloud had come in and light snow began to fall. The goggles went on, hoods and zips done up we continued to push on upwards very slowly. Conditions were rubbish but we had gained some altitude.
12th August 2012
Camp 3 6100m. We continue up the wide ridge in deep snow, overcoming short steep ice sections and skirting huge seracs and crevasses.
We took turns to lead through knee to waist deep, soft powdery snow, not fun but certainly character building. Finally at 6100m we gained the top of the first rib at 6100m and could clearly see the 1.5km of the plateau between us and Peak Dushanbe, our next objective, and the second of the three peaks that make up Peak Communism.
We spent some time at 6100m, eating some lunch, re-hydrating and warming our feet before once again donning our packs and giving chase to the teams ahead of us.
Unfortunately you have to drop 300m of the precious meters you have just gained descending back down onto the Plateau before climbing again on the other side.
The Plateau was super hot and going was slow in sticky snow that balled up on our crampons every few steps requiring us to either stop to knock it off or walk with very heavy feet. After crossing the Plateau and gaining the lower slopes of Peak Dushanbe we were feeling the heat and the distance we had covered/height we had gained so decided to camp at around 6100m. After digging a platform on a steep slope we enjoyed a fantastic sunset and freeze dried meal before tucking into our sleeping bags while the winds picked up outside and temperatures plummeted.
You can camp anywhere on this face, just be aware of avalanches from above.
13th August 2012
Camp 4 6900m (Dushanbe peak). In the morning the inside of the tent was completely covered in ice from frozen condensation and any movement, either by us or by the wind, created a miniature snowstorm inside the tent, covering everything in ice crystals and waking us up every ten to fifteen minutes during the night, not the most relaxing night’s sleep!
In the porch of the tent we find everything covered in about six inches of fresh snow and the wind blasting snow around everywhere. After digging out the stove however we managed to warm some water, make some food and watch the wind whipping snow around outside for an hour or so before plucking up the courage to pack our stuff away and gain some attitude up the steep face of Peak Dushanbe.
Half way up the face you gain a rock ridge, the climbing was also much easier on the snow stripped rock, although a bit chossy and precarious in our crampons. The speed of our ascent increased massively after gaining the ridge and within another two hours we arrived at 6950m where we dug yet another platform for our tent and settled in for the night just under the summit of Peak Dushanbe with the Summit of Peak Communism just around the corner and suddenly feeling like it might be just within our grasp.
14th August 2012
Camp 5 7034m. The morning dawned bright but super cold, with the now commonplace ice inside our tent knocked off and breakfast eaten; we got ready for a battle to the summit and began breaking trail with the two guys from Kamchatka. However after just 5 minutes we both realised something would have to be done about our freezing hands and feet to avoid any cold injury and we headed back to the tent to try and thaw them out before continuing.
By the time we had pushed back to our turning point and climbed over the false summit we realised that we were too late for today.
We dropped the contents of our packs and headed down to move camp up the pathetic 75m we had gained that day, pitching up in a small col looking straight at the summit. This was a much better place to attempt the summit from, especially given the slow conditions.
15th August 2012
Reaching the top (7495m) and descend to Camp 5. We headed out at around 07:00 aiming for a 14:00 summit. We broken trail around to the beginning of the traverse and this is where the real summit push started and keen for another success we set out with the summit, looming 450m above us. After gaining the main slope and set a strong pace up the front face of Peak Communism. Switching leads we left a very strong trail up under the face. But had to stop again after an hour or two too warm up our freezing feet, our La Sportiva Spantiks were simply not good enough for these mountains.
After this and feeling strong we pushed onwards breaking trail with the Romanians up to the notch on the ridge in good time and stashing our bags, donning our down jackets and eying up the airy summit ridge winding off into the clouds. With a renewed gusto we balanced our way up wind affected snow and attempted to avoid big cornices and passed over two false summits in the beautiful afternoon light, before finally the true summit came into view. We led the way up the final steep snow slope and clambered onto the summit mound at exactly 4pm to a wave of emotion and fatigue.
After all of the struggle and hardship pushing a trail throughout to the summit this is when fatigue really kicked in and it took a lot of will power to battle back to our bags and to keep moving on downwards, however we were back to the traverse before nightfall and managed to get back to collapse in the tent just before 8pm. A perfect summit day.
16th August 2012
Descent to base camp. Super keen to try and get all the way to base camp in a day (a massive task), we left high camp at 09:00.
Nick began in front and instead of sticking to the rocks and zigzagging around we took a direct line down and began ploughing a channel down Dushanbe Peak from high camp to the plateau at 5800m (1300m of descent!). We switched a few times and enjoyed the speed at which we could undo what had taken hours/days to accomplish and enjoyed gasping in the slightly thicker air with each step – however at 6500m, wading through snow is still hard work! Soon we reached the plateau and the new temperatures meant we had to take off many of our layers to stop from overheating. We also took the opportunity to melt a few more litres of water.
From here, a morale destroying 300m climb was required to gain the other side of the plateau and the final main face back to camp 1 at 5300m. We split this in half and 2 desperate uphill hours later we reached the site of camp 2 at 6100m and realised it was all downhill from here! After a short break we began once again charging a trail through the deep snow towards the site of camp 1. From time to time one of us would stick a leg through a crevasse, pull it out and continue on our way, a little unnerving but the rope meant we had at least some lifeline, unlike the rest of the party who had been with us on summit day. We took the most direct route possible but even in the 6 days we had been up high the mountain had changed, new crevasses had opened up and the route was often determined by these new obstacles.
By 16:30 we had arrived to camp 1 to a hero’s welcome, other climbers were now starting their bids on Peak Communism and they were all here at camp 1. We said hello to familiar faces and friends we had made at base camp and continued on our way.
We zipped down the rocky ridge to gain the glacial ramp. After watching the hanging seracs for a short while we took off our crampons, harnesses and rope and packed them all way. With one last glance we stepped onto the glacier and ran as fast as we could for 20 minutes until we were out of the danger. From here it was across the lower glacier, and along the moraine back to camp. We stumbled into the dinning room at 19:15 and received a round of applause from all those at base camp who had heard the news of our summit the day before.
17th August 2012
Rest day at base camp. Dry kit, sort kit and pack kit. Rest, eat and hydrate!
18th August 2012
Helicopter flight to Djirgital. Transfer to Dushanbe. Overnight stay in guesthouse. The helicopter had been sorted and scheduled by Ak-Sai and again arrived on time and looking good. A few of us piled on with heaps of kit and enjoyed a 40min ride back out to Djirgital. At the airport (which see’s about 5 flights a year and is mainly used to graze cows on the grass fields around the old runway.) we piled into a minibus that was waiting for us and set off on a 10 hour ride down the Pamir highway!
This road is incredible, and takes you with in 100km of Afghanistan. A few check points are crossed but generally we stayed in the vehicle and the driver sorted things out. We stopped a few times to take pictures and sort a puncture out but eventually arrived to a hotel in the capital of Tajikistan, Dushanbe.
19th August 2012
Dushanbe. Sightseeing, washing clothes, hair cut, internet eating a lot of fast food and a few beers.
20th August 2012
Dushanbe. Same as the day before! Neither nick nor I really like Dushanbe very much as there isn’t a lot to do and everyone kept trying to rip us off all the time!
21st August 2012
Flight Dushanbe-Bishkek. Overnight stay in hotel. Transfer to Karaka Base Camp. All transfers were sorted by Ak-Sai (Everything in our Tajikistan part of the expedition was managed by Pamir Peaks). On arrival in Bishkek, we were met by an Ak-Sai guy who drove us into the city and to the offices to see Dinara (our brilliant contact). Here we collected a package from my parents, a postcard and swapped buses to a big 15 seat transit.
Heading out east towards china we ensured another mammoth 8 hour ride to Karaka, where Ak-Sai has a base camp. We arrived at midnight and had some tea before bed. They have tents here so you don’t need to put your own up. We also stopped on route to Karaka for some dinner at a small local restaurant. No one speaks English so it’s a case of look around and see what others are eating and point at something you like!! Usually rice and something.
22nd August 2012
Helicopter flight Karaka Base Camp to South Inylchek Base Camp. Up early for a rushed breakfast we were quickly ushered onto the helicopter alongside a dozen others, all of which were non climbers. As the ex-soviet machine lumbered into the air we took time to enjoy the change in scenery we had missed in the darkness the night before, totally different from anything we had seen during our expedition. We both agreed that we could be in Alaska or Canada, truly breathtaking.
Green hills and gentle streams turned into snow-capped peaks and raging glacial rivers as we gained altitude. Soon we were surrounded by giant, ominous looking peaks that were strangely inviting to us climbers, with meandering ridges and deep icy couloirs, a climbers paradise lay before us and because of their position in this part of the world these mountains were largely untouched by man. Deeper and deeper into the Tien Shan we flew passing hundreds of peaks that have never been climbed; until we reached the South Inylchek glacier base camp for Ak-Sai Travel nestled in amongst some glacial moraine.
On our arrival we realised that we were the last climbers of the season coming into base camp and many teams were leaving having spent the past few weeks attempting the peaks of Khan Tengri and Pobeda. In fact except for two other pairs of climbers, who were leaving 4 days later, we were the only ones left and base camp was effectively staying open for us! After a relaxed afternoon getting used to our new and very impressive surroundings, we packed our kit and spoke with the guides about our first climbing objective Khan Tengri.
It seems their advice was generally well meant and potentially aired on the side of caution but in short they didn’t think we should go, too dangerous! From the South you have to pass between Khan Tangri and Peak Chapaev through a very narrow valley which filters down continuous avalanches of snow, ice and rock all day and night. I couldn’t help but think that they assumed (rightly) that us two Brits were useless mountaineers and that we would then need rescuing and the guides were tired and wanted to go home – and too an extent I was right (on the latter).
23rd August 2012
Preparation day. Eat lots, drink lots, pack and sort kit for the ascent, choose meals.
24th August 2012
Camp 1 4200m. So we went, out of base camp, through some choosy moraine and across some deep river bottomed crevasses, out into the middle the 2rd biggest glacier in the world (outside the polar regions). It was only here for the first time that we both got a sense of how vast the glacier was and just how beautiful this part of the Tien Shan Mountains was, it was truly staggering. We headed directly up the glacier in an easterly direction for 6km heading straight for Khan Tengri itself. Unfortunately the weather came in and we spent most of the walk in mist and snow.
Camp 1 was at the mouth of our danger run, a 4 km long and 1600m climb up through the ever narrowing valley between Chapaev and Khan. Both peaks are stacked high with overhanging seracs and steep loose faces of rock and ice, at this point the glacier offers no protection from anything that might fall down, and completely at the mercy of fate.
This is pretty serious and can be potentially very dangerous if anything came down – it would get you. There was also clear signs that stuff did come down often and obviously quite large as well.
25th August 2012
Camp 3 5800m. Coincidentally there were also 6 guides heading up the glacier this same morning, they were going to camp 2 to rescue a Russian climber with sever High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE) who had been ill for 4 days and incapable of moving without help. As the glacier up to the col (Camp 2) was very complex with crevasses and route finding would be slow we decided to take advantage of the guides and traveled with them all the way up the glacier to camp 2. Although dangerous the morning was beautiful, we traveled by head torch in silence until the sun brought light and warmth to the crisp early morning air at around 06:00. The terrain was littered with high ice walls and deep crevasses everywhere, constantly moaning and creaking but never failing. By 08:00 we had gained 800m of altitude and entered into the ice field, a vast expanse of house size blocks of ice all heaped on top of each other. Our road though was a 30m high vertical ice face that had pre-fixed lines in from earlier in the season. We negotiated our way up these and topped out onto a safer part of the mountain, where the angle of the glacier lessened, it was here that two Russians had been camped and they were now in the hands of the 6 guides. Unfortunately the one with HACE was in a very bad way, unable to move or communicate properly, but with the guides and a doctor he was in the best possible care there was nothing we could do. From here it was a short distance to camp 2, we paused for some water and to enjoy the scenery then pushed on for a further 3 hours to camp 3, the col between the two peaks.
As we arrived at the col the weather closed out (as it did every afternoon bar 1) and the wind and snow began driving in. As we arrived at the col Nick noticed a small hole in the mountain side and scraped away some snow to reveal a snow cave – so we jumped right in. Silence and calmness welcomed and we enjoyed a pack of biscuits left behind from the previous occupants. Its hard to tell how old the cave was but it could have been years old or fresh from this season. Either way we decided to put up our tent just above it for the single reason that it would be far warmer! All afternoon and evening the wind smashed our tent around and the snow whipped up loads of spindrift that managed to find its way into everything, making life very difficult. We tried to melt some snow to cook diner but the JetBoil was playing up and would not light, we tried not to panic as without the JetBoil we were screwed and would have to descend. We realised this was due to a lack of oxygen in the tent, but the problem was that if we opened the tent to get some air we got blasted by snow, catch 22! Incredibly frustrated and hating everything in the world we finally got some water boiled and ate some diner before disappearing into our sleeping bags for the night, our plan was for the summit the next day but deep down neither of us felt we had the energy and a deep lethargy had set in!
The snow had blown all around the tent and effectively closed off any airflow, oxygen levels were clearly low in the tent!!
26th August 2012
Camp 4 6200m. 04:00, the alarm went off and if anything the weather had got worse. I peeked into the porch of the tent and confirmed my fear that everything was covered in piles of spindrift. We woke slowly and began the process of getting ready. Firstly, inner boots, down mitts, buff and a few other items got stuffed into the warmth of the sleeping bag and a 10 minute snooze was enjoyed. Next up, inner boots go on, salopettes go on, and Primaloft jackets are put on and then back inside the sleeping bag to warm up. Khan Tengri is a very cold mountain and it seemed to zap the warmth out of you in seconds. Next we got the JetBoil going (the gas had spent a warm night in Nick’s sleeping bag!) and boiled some water for breakfast, Nick enjoying some 10p noodles and Jon some porridge. At 06:05 we stepped out of the tent ready to go and got welcomed by strong winds and dark clouds pouring snow on us, we took a few steps in deep powder and turned around – neither of us wanted to go today and the weather was absolutely horrendous, we turned around and got back in the tent and went back to sleep feeling defeated.
At 09:00 Jon woke to sense of dripping on his face…he was being dripped on. The wind was still strong but the clouds had all gone and a clear blue sky surrounded us in all directions – typical! The sun was warming the frozen condensation in the tent and this was now dripping on us. We decided to make the most of the better weather and used the day to move to a higher camp, this would then shorten our summit day by a few hours and, all going well, we might be able to descend to base camp the same day. We tied into the rope at 10:30 and set of up a short steep slope to gain the ridge proper before turning directly up the west ridge of Khan Tengri – our road to the summit. Easy terrain allowed us to gain altitude slowly before narrowing and becoming rockier. From a distance we could clearly see a small col higher up which is where we were aiming for (6200m). The weather was now beautiful without a cloud in the sky and the winds had eased a little. On the north side of Khan’s West ridge are some huge cornices, clinging delicately to the ridge like a breaking wave. Cornices have claimed many lives across the world because from above they are very difficult to see, and if you stand on one you disappear, often a long way down the other side.
In higher spirits we arrived into camp 4 and set about putting up the tent in the rejuvenated strong winds. If we lost the tent here we would be in serious trouble so with some careful communication we worked together to secure the tent. This ‘camp site’ (enough space for 3 tents) was rocky so for the first time on this expedition we could only use rocks to ‘peg’ down our tent from the never ending winds. After 20 minutes we were confident to let go completely and our tent stood strong pinned to the ground with about a ton of rocks! We unpacked our kit and jumped inside our familiar home and enjoyed a long and relaxed afternoon sleeping in the tent. The sun shone directly at our small tent perched precariously on the knife edge ridge of Khan Tengri at 6200m all the way to sunset. Feeling 100% better, fully fed, watered and rested we were both super excited for our summit bid the following morning.
27th August 2012
Reaching the top (7010m) and descend to Camp 4. Finally Khan Tengri was opening its gates to us. We woke to a picture perfect morning, crisp and super cold we readied in the frigid temperatures with that summit feeling in our stomachs. Soon we were both out of the tent looking out across the orange tips of the highest Tien Shan peaks as they caught the first rays of morning’s sunshine. This was by far the coldest morning we had endured with temperatures easily below -25 degrees; my buff was frozen solid from the moisture in my breath within minutes.
Scared of freezing to death we set of up the long and impressive west ridge. The climbing began almost instantly and slowly our muscles warmed into action. The sun rose but gave us no heat as we remained in the shade until high on the ridge at 11:00 when it finally caught us up. Nowhere on the entire route is it flat for even a metre and the exposure is unrelenting. At midday we had crossed the main face and gained a new ridge that would lead to the summit. This short-lived but airy snow crest was a significant turning point as from here all that remains are few short rocky steps and the angle relenting up to the summit only 200m above.
At 13:30 we took a break feeling exhausted and severely dehydrated, we had slowed our pace significantly since midday and we not making very good progress. We could see the summit but it still felt so far away and with our turnaround time at 14:00 some doubt crept into the back of our minds. We drank and nibbled a small amount before reassuring each other to give it 100% and we would do it. We pushed hard for 30 minutes, hearts racing and breathing rapidly and made good time up the last snow field to gain a thin ridge.
This was ‘the moment’ on Khan Tengri when we allowed ourselves to believe we were going to summit, up until this moment there was always doubt.
15 minutes later the small wooden cross that signifies the summit stood only metres before us, we had done it, safely and successfully summited Khan Tengri 7010m the most technical of the Snow Leopards and most northerly 7000m peak in the world. A sublime feeling of success and we embraced each other as friends and climbing partners. We were the only people on the mountain and had enjoyed the solitude all the way to the summit.
At 14:30 we turned and began our descent, and at the same moment the weather came out of nowhere and engulfed us in a world of white. Stronger winds and snow began falling and the temperature dropped significantly, as if it was possible for it to get colder!?. We descended fast and soon removed down jackets and swapped mitts for gloves. The snow continued to fall as we descended the hundreds of metres back to camp, but nothing could take away the sense of achievement we were both feeling inside.
It took us nearly 3 hours to reach our tent, with a mix of down climbing and abseiling we were both arrived feeling very relieved to get our feet back on the small flat area around our tent. Our original plan of packing up and walking out to base camp was quickly abandoned due to the weather and we dived into the tent to escape the blizzard conditions.
28th August 2012
Descent to base camp. The next morning we woke early with the aim to pass through the dangerous ice fall area before the day got to warm so by 06:00 we were roping up and moving out from camp 4. Due to the never ending strong winds our tracks were still in the snow from 2 days before and we followed these down the ridge and back to the snow cave (where we had stashed a few things we didn’t need), from here we made good time down the open snowfields back to camp 2 and the top of the ice falls. Normally there is a line in here for descending but this was frozen into the mountain side so we put our rope in and abseiled the 30 metre sheer ice face, continuously aware of everything around us. From this point on, for at least an hour, our lives were at the mercy of the mountains around us, should they decide to avalanche we would be in a world of trouble!
By the time we had rigged the abseil and both got down it was nearly 10:00 and the temperatures were really hotting up. With little choice but to move as fast as we could we ran out from the safety of the ice wall and into the open. We made very good time, almost running some of it, continuously listening intently for any sounds of falling debris from above until we reached a small channel of safety between two ice blocks where we took a breather and drank some water. Because of the super cold temps at camp 4 we still had on our thermal leggings and our Primolft trousers, and our legs were dripping with sweat!
An hour later we had left behind the danger area and had made good progress back down the glacier towards camp 1. Just before rejoining the main Inychek glacier we stopped at a small stream and for the first time that day felt completely safe again. We drank litres of cold fresh water and stripped off the layers of clothing we no longer needed in the heat. We removed our crampons and harnesses and for the first time in days had the wonderful sense of being untied and free.
The walk to base camp was long but easy, we enjoyed a good pace on the vast flat glacier in the baking midday sun. We laughed about simple things and relived the pains of the cold, going to the toilet and the summit day highs and lows.
29th August 2012
Helicopter flight base camp to Karaka base camp. Transfer to Bishkek. Overnight in hotel. So a cat has 9 lives, maybe we do to, and we used one up on this ride. The chopper was very overloaded and in hindsight maybe we should have said something. After a few shuttles to move people from base camp onto the glacier we all loaded on and the engines whined with desperation as they tried to get some lift. We rose about 50m before bowing forward and them plummeting down to the glacier and hitting it with an almighty thud. The chopper bounced back up into the air and managed to hold on from here in. We made it out the 40 ride without anymore ingredients!
30th August 2012
Bishkek -The city doesn’t have much to offer, but we enjoyed some pizza and a few beers. Meet up with a few friends we had made on the mountain and even managed a dance in a night club! We had a local hair cut; there’s a really good hairdressers right next the offices for Ak-Sai. Below Ak-Sai there is an outdoor shop called RedFox which sells a selection of outdoor gear although not fully comprehensive.
31st August 2012
Bishkek. Another day of recovery, spent time by the pool of the hotel – Dragon Hotel. Anyone can use the pool (which is very nice) but it costs 10 Euros if you’re not in the hotel.
1st August 2012
Departure home. We flew home via Kazakhstan with no problems. When we checked in our luggage in Bishkek we had 32kg of excess weight and they wanted to charge us $560!! It was mainly freeze dried food so I left it there for when I go back in 2 years time.
We flew economy class from Heathrow to Baku in Azerbaijan and then blagged business class from Baku to Bishkek!! We flew with BMI which was fine. Baggage allowance was standard 23kg so we booked two extra and although they were weighting in at 30kg we managed to blag them on. The cost was £80 for the two extra bags. Our hand luggage was quite large and heavy!
All of our in country travel was arrange by Ak-Sai Travel. We took a short flight to Osh (Western Kyrgyzstan. We flew on 4 helicopter rides in 2 different helicopters and some very long private bus rides!! I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Ak-Sai.
Travel by road is a bit scary in places, particularly at night, but generally fine.
The mountains all have semi permanent base camps during the climbing season. These are well managed and run with some having showers and toilets tents etc. Generally these base camps are clean and well run, and a fun place to hang out with other climbers.
None of the cities are that nice, almost sadly a little suppressive post soviet collapse. The landscapes however are breathtaking and spectacular!
Our experience on rock was different on each peak.
Lenin : super loose shale on the day from base camp to Camp 1 along the steep traverse. Also small rocks tumbling down from above usually in isolated couloirs care to be taken.
Korzhenevskaya : wear helmet on almost all of these mountains, from when you cross in front of the glacier snout. Between here and camp 1, rock fall comes from high up in the cliffs on the left, a number of times we hit behind large boulders to avoid rock showers. Above camp one rock also came down, especially in the afternoon. Care and caution if possible cross early in the morning. Between 5800 and 6100 you do a long traverse all of which is directly under a steep cliff face. Take care after midday and especially from 14:00 onwards and rock showers are frequent.
Communism :When crossing the glacial ramp on day 1 to be careful mainly of huge serac falls and avalanches from above but also rock fall. Wear a helmet. We witnessed no rockfall during summit day although it would have been possible from the cliffs on the right hand side.
Khan Tengri : The only time rock could fall would be during summit day and generally the angle is not steep enough. Near the top of the traverse (2 hours before the summit) there is a steeper loose looking cliff that could potentially drop rocks but with little sign around that it does. The rock on the ground is very loose and choosy.
Snow and Ice
Generally the snow conditions were poor on all mountains, deep, unconsolidated and slow going. We encountered very little ice other than the glaciers and some patches on Peak Communism.
The weather was generally very poor all season, often very cold, windy and unsettled. Clear skies in the morning would turn into misty, cloudy afternoons then snow, sleet or rain. Most days there were plumes of spindrift pouring from the upper slopes of the highest peaks. Many days saw precipitation of some sort. On occasion it snowed or rained heavily for the whole day and into the evening. There was only one period of clear, low wind which lasted for 3 days when we climbed Korzhenevskaya.
A lot of snowfall throughout the season meant constantly deep snow pack and slow progress on all mountains but Khan Tengri.
The temperatures, when we did climb were extremely cold. Hands and feet had to be constantly warmed to avoid frostbite. Both Nick and Jon got frost nip of the toes on Peak Communism.
All waste/rubbish was carried off the mountains and back to base camp and then disposed of via the agency (Ak-Sai) – either burnt or flow back out.
Human waste was dealt with in the mountains as you would in most high altitude mountain environments.
Lenin – No technical climbing skills required other than glacial travel, self arrest and the obvious winter/high altitude camping skills. Single axe.
Korzhenevskaya – A few small sections of easy climbing to gain the high camps – one section where fixes lines are sometimes put in which would go at Scottish II. Snow was poor and deep hiding any anchors. There is a large rock at the top of this 50m section with loads of old tat around it. The summit ridge is narrow and exposed in parts, Alpine AD+ feeling, but we moved un-roped and without problems. Single axe.
Peak Communism – Basic rock scrambling is required on day one and some steeper icey/snow steeps on or around seracs on the first big face (Up to Scottish III). Huge crevasses and some avalanche danger. Same on Dushanbe Peak (the second section on Communism). Summit day had a long sustained steep open face for 450m at Scottish II. Single axe.
Khan Tengri – 3 day ascent. Day 1 all glacial. Day 2, steeper and more dangerous through the ‘bottle neck’. There is one 30m section of vertical/overhanging ice Scottish IV/V. This usually has fixed lines in it but then can get ripped out from snow/ice fall. From high camp to the summit it is all steep and usually fixed (often with good rope and bolts!) but if lead would go at Scottish III/IV but on mostly loose ground.
Both Jon and Nick were sponsored by MONTANE®. All of the clothing lived up to the high standard that would be expected from MONTANE® kit. Both had La Sportiva Spantiks and MONTANE® rucksacks.
We both used Mountain Equipment Snowline sleeping bags which performed really well. Both of us were more than satisfied with the overall performance of the bags. Possibly the only thing that needs changing is the zip which we found on occasion to be difficult to open/close especially in a hurry.
Jetboil stoves were used on the hill which as ever did the job very well.
Leki poles were supplied to Jon and Nick bought his own.
All of the climbing hardware and climbing harnesses were supplied by the individuals although much was new from a grant from Lyon Equipment. As ever and as expected the gear performed to a high standard.
Ropes was also from the Lyon Equipment grant – it was a Beal, and was excellent.
Mountain rations drink powders, bars, and supplements were supplied by Extreme Adventure Food. All of the products appeared to be well thought out giving a high return for weight. The bars were also very easy to eat at altitude.
Thanks to MONTANE®, Sunnto, Lyon Equipment, JustBreathe, and The British Mountaineering Council for support. Without you this trip would not have taken place.
Thanks to Kenton Cool, Alan Hinkes, Duncan Bannatyne, Cory Richards and Mick Fowler for the kind endorsements to our expedition.