A hot, dry wind blew down from the barren hills surrounding Leninabad as we stepped off the plane. Checking into our hotel, we agreed that the dingy Intourist places looked like Hiltons in comparison. The bathrooms stunk, there was no hot water, and half the toilets and sinks didn't work - but our excitement with being in "Middle Asia" carried us through. Early the next morning we piled into a small bus for a hot six-hour ride across sparsely populated scrub land reminiscent of southern Wyoming. It cooled a bit as we traveled up a narrow dirt road into the foothills of the Pamir Alai. Our elation at being in the mountains dimmed when we saw the first rickety log bridge. It was the driver's first time up the canyon, and he didn't like the looks of the steep road beyond. He bravely drove across, after we all got out to lighten the load. The bridges got progressively worse, until he flatly refused to continue. We shouldered our packs and walked the last nine miles up to basecamp. Luckily, our supplies were following us in a large truck, so our loads were light during the 1000 meter elevation gain into the Ak-Su valley. All frustration with our unplanned hike faded when the fantastic twin peaks of Rocky and Snowy Ak-Su appeared through swirling clouds at the head of the valley. Although I had enjoyed the tourist aspects of the trip up to that point, these fabled mountains captured my heart and soul. As my eyes drank in the sharp ridges and icy slopes, I felt a magnetic desire for these peaks which promised the greatest challenges of my climbing career.
Summers in the Pamir Alai are typically dry, with occasional thunderstorms, but 1989 was different. Following a hearty breakfast of kasha (Russian porridge) we hiked up the valley. We were dismayed to see the granite we had hoped to climb encrusted with ice and snow. The summits were shrouded in thick clouds.
In the four-day rush from Seattle to basecamp most of the Americans became sick. We all used water filtration pumps, but somehow dysentery got through. Diarrhea, which continued to plague many people for the next month, can be extremely awkward when it hits mid-pitch, especially when the victim had to get out of bibs and a harness, yet stay tied in!
Our first climb was on 3,900 meter Domasnaja ("House," so named for its proximity to basecamp). Three teams took different routes up limestone ridges on the peak's complex 700 meter north face. Ivan and I carried a rope, but didn't bother with it for the moderate fifth class climbing we encountered. On top Ivan pulled a large two-way radio from his pack and contacted base camp. We were encouraged to take a radio on every climb, but none of the Americans bothered.
When the weather finally began to cooperate, Tom Hargis, Yan Merrand, Mark Bebie, and I set our sights on the west ridge of 5229 meter Pik Aleksander Bloka, the second highest peak in the area. This route dried off more quickly than our main objective - a traverse of Rocky and Snowy Ak-Su via the northeast ridge. We optimistically hoped to acclimatize on Bloka, then go on to Ak-Su when it cleared of snow. Weather and diarrhea sent Mark and I down the next day, while Tom and Yan battled the elements up an ice gully to the ridge crest, hoping in vain that it would clear (a typical Washington State mountaineering attitude). They stumbled into basecamp wet and bedraggled a day later.
We spent the next few days waiting for the rock to clear of snow. The highlight of this period was the banya (Russian for sauna). A hollow pile of rocks, like a blackened igloo, was set next to the river. We stoked a fire inside, until the inner rocks were red hot. The coals were then scooped out and an old canvas tent was quickly thrown over a framework of poles. The tent was doused with water, covered with plastic, then another layer of canvas. Finally we crawled into the dark scalding cavern to sit around the rocks. An icy dip in the river was followed by a shampoo and wash, rinsed off with warm water heated over another fire.
After our rest period, Ak-Su was still
choked up with snow, so Tom, Yan, Mark, and I set out to attempt
Bloka again. We bivied on Observation Peak, just below the glacier
and set out by headlamp early the next morning. Headlamps are rare in
Russia, and batteries almost as scarce. Soviet climbers rely on
candles in camp, and moonlight while climbing.
The glacier was straightforward and the snow and ice couloir moderate, until the last 50 meters where it steepened to a short, vertical wall just below the col. We roped up for this pitch, then stopped to change into rock shoes. Mark and I waited until Tom and Yan were two pitches up before starting so as to not crowd one another on belays.
Mark and I waited again when Yan hesitated on the second pitch, an ice filled 5.9 off-width. The overhanging start was unclimbable without extensive aid from ice screws he didn't have, so Yan traversed right, onto the steep face. The orange granite would have been delightful 5.8 in Yosemite, but, in the cold, early-morning shade at 5,000 meters, it was a finger-freezing horror show. I appreciated Yan's reluctance when I led it an hour later. Protection was scanty - a couple of RPs pounded into seams. A sloping ledge thirty feet below insured a nasty splat if I came off the most committing lead I had done in years. It took a major effort of will to leave the psychological security of each nut, after standing to warm my fingers. A spring of sport climbing in Germany had not prepared me for such a harsh reintroduction to alpinism. I marveled at Yan's lead into the unknown; at least I knew it could go.
By the time I traversed back into the crack above the ice to set a belay, Tom and Yan were out of sight. Mark and I hurried up two well protected crack pitches, then worked our way up right across a steep, smooth aid pitch to exit the wall into the sun.
The next pitch was complicated by ice jamming the dihedral. Things were going much slower than we had anticipated. Snow and ice on what should have been moderate pitches kept us from picking up steam. We were relieved to reach a snowy ledge below the "Swiss Cheese" formation which we had been told was a 5.10 pitch. The strangely eroded man-size huecos looked easy - I started up with confidence, only to be quickly repulsed by smooth, rounded holds and few protection possibilities. Traversing ten meters left to a one-inch crack on a steeper face, I free climbed up four meters, then hung off my first nut, gasping for breath.
I had never been this high before, so I conserved my strength by aiding up an undulating groove that cut vertically through the wall. Here and there I was forced to make some difficult free moves which could have been easy 5.10 at sea level, but which pushed my limits at 5,000 meters. Mark found that he couldn't fit through the chimney-like groove with the pack, so he took it off mid-pitch and dragged it with a sling. He was exhausted when he reached me, so I led the next pitch.
From the wide ledge at its end, I could see Tom and Yan descending toward us along the blocky summit ridge. Mark and I had a bite to eat and waited for them to tell us what the finish was like. The weather was perfect and we were feeling OK, but our slow pace worried us. Mark's headlamp battery had died, and we didn't want to descend in the moonless night. Frostbite would be a very real danger if we bivied in our rock shoes.
When Tom and Yan arrived, they said the
summit was three long pitches away. They had encountered some hard
climbing on the ridge crest, but thought we could find an easier way
on the snowy ledges below. Our rock shoes ruled that out.
The decision to retreat was easy. It was disappointing to be so close, but the burning desire necessary for a summit dash just wasn't there. We had two more weeks in the area, and an ascent of Ak-Su would more than make up for our failure on Bloka. We all rested another half hour on the ledge, taking pictures of the fantastic unclimbed peaks around us, then began the rappels.
After a break at basecamp, Yan and two Soviets went up on Ak-Su, but the rest of us decided that the unsettled weather and snow conditions made it too chancy. Mark and I returned to Bloka with Cal, Mike and Dave. While the others attempted the standard route that we had failed on, Mark and I tried a new ice route on the north face. Unfortunately, Mark came down with dysentery and we were forced to retreat. We never made it to the summit of Ak-Su, but got in some great climbing.
Our final two days were spent hiking and visiting the Kirghiz shepherds. These people are incredibly hospitable, but their dogs have been known to maul climbers descending late at night past their herds. Even during the day we always carried a handful of rocks when we approached their camps.
On the last day we were waiting for the truck to come and take us out, when Yan and I decided to start walking. About five kilometers down the road, two geologists in a van asked if we wanted a ride. Thinking we would amaze the gang with our hiking prowess, we gladly accepted, getting out at the first village.
As we stood beside the road, a number of men working on an irrigation ditch in a nearby field walked up to say hello. Strangers of any sort are rare, much less an American and a Frenchman. We were invited into a nearby mud-brick house, which was quite comfortable inside. Tea, bread, and jam were quickly spread out before us as we sat on richly brocaded blankets on the floor. When I asked if I could take a picture, they got very excited and hurried to dress up the children in their best clothes. I found this to be typical in the Soviet Union. Personal cameras are rare, so people consider it a treat to be photographed. I wrote down many addresses and sent snap shots back after I got home. All communication was with gestures, although Yan and the man of the house insisted on talking as if they understood each other.
After twenty minutes we figured we should go outside to watch for the truck. As I stopped to photograph tobacco drying on the porch, a man came out of the house and called me over. He too brought out tea. When I saw he had a chess board on a table I gestured that I played. I had just lost a knight when I heard the truck roaring into town. Everyone jammed together on top of our packs in the back of the truck for the six-hour ride. Even the dirty sheets and overflowing toilets of our hotel were welcome after that ordeal.
USSR I / USSR III