Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

At 11.28 on 28th July we encountered the unsmiling face of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Actually, it was a life sized bronze bust showing the characteristic features of the architect of the Soviet state who died in 1924. Mountain summits around the world are crowned with a variety of adornments from metal crosses (and revolving restaurants) in Switzerland to Buddhist prayer flags in Tibet and Nepal. So it does not seem unreasonable that that the summit of Peak Lenin 7134m on the Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan border should feature a statue of it's eponymous politician.

Our journey to the mountain was not without incident. A mix up at Moscow's down at heel domestic airport left us marooned in the S7 business lounge (not nearly as grand as it sounds) for 24 hrs. On arrival in Kyrgyzstan a 6hr drive took us to the pleasantly situated Base Camp (3610m) in a grassy meadow with clear blue lakes, squealing marmots and dramatic mountain views. After two days of acclimatisation hikes we trekked the rough trail to ABC (4,400m) and installed ourselves in the large (standing room!) tents that were to be our homes for the next 16 days.

Five competing companies operate fully serviced Base Camps for visiting climbers. Each is capable of housing 30-70 people. Our company, Tien Shan Travels, was a smaller operator running a small and friendly operation. A few days of acclimatisation hikes on the surrounding hills prepared us for the climb ahead. During the first week in ABC the weather was generally unsettled. Rain and snow were daily occurrences, the summit was rarely visible, and we wondered if stable weather would ever arrive. We made two acclimatisation trips onto the mountain, first spending a night at Camp 2 (5350m), and then spending nights at Camp 2 and Camp 3 (6130m). The slopes were mostly moderately angled with short steeper sections, and we made early starts to avoid being caught in the heat of the strong daytime sun.

By the time we were ready for a summit bid the weather had improved and the entire mountain was visible most days, with a pattern of clear mornings and more cloudy afternoons. Plumes of spindrift billowed from the upper slopes and we could see the tell tale signs of strong winds. However the weather forecasts were not sufficiently reliable to indicate which of our four potential summit days would be the calmest. We had two rest days at ABC and set of for our 3rd and final rotation on the mountain on 26th July. One of the team chose to climb no higher than Camp 3 and the 28th was chosen as the summit day for the 3 remaining climbers and 3 Russian guides.

As we left the relative comfort of Camp 3 at 02.00 it was cold and clear with a strong breeze blowing. Unusually for a summit day the initial section of the route drops 100m to a small saddle before starting the long ascent towards the top. While the difference in altitude between Camp 3 and the summit is 1000m the total height climbed is 1200m, with the final 100m being a 'sting in the tail' to regain Camp 3 at the end of a long day. The cold wind continued all day, rarely dropping below 25-30 mph. Some sections of the route were slightly more sheltered and some were slightly more exposed but the wind continued to blow. One climber and one Russian guide turned around at 6450m, leaving a party of four to continue. As dawn broke around 05.00 the first light of the sun enabled to us see the progress made and confirmed that we were on schedule to complete the climb in good time. An hour later the rising sun brought some welcome warmth to cold hands and feet, although the chill wind continued to blow.

We made steady progress up the moderately angled ridge, slowing for occasional steep sections. The GPS recorded a distance of a little under 5km for the climb, but it felt further. The altimeter was accurate in showing the remaining ascent but the final km contained several false summits and it was not clear where the true top lay until we were actually standing on it. The climb had taken 9.30hrs of constant effort and felt as hard as an 8,000m summit day. We took pictures with the Lenin statue and admired the views over the surrounding peaks and valleys. A short distance above our heads clouds were developing in the fast moving air and we took this as a sign that the weather could be about to deteriorate. After no more than five minutes on the top we began the descent. The way down would not have been obvious in poor visibility but fortunately the cloud base did not drop any lower and we made it back to Camp 3 in 4.30hrs completing a 14hr day. Only three other people climbed to the summit on the same day and we were lucky to have such a popular peak largely to ourselves.

The Kyrgyz authorities do not keep accurate records of the number of climbers who attempt Peak Lenin each year but our Russian guides estimated around 1,000. They also suggested that the probable success rate is around 25%. The fact that the route has few technical difficulties often leads to Peak Lenin being wrongly being described as an 'easy' climb. In fact it is quite a tough climb for a 7,000m peak, but the difficulties are entirely due to distances and height gains rather than steepness.

Thanks to Sean, Ian and Enfys for being a great team and to Andrei, Radek and Alex for being a great support crew, and to the BC and ABC teams from Tien Shan Travels for good food (often at anti-social hours), hot showers and cold beers. This was a Jagged Globe expedition and this report also appears on the Jagged Globe website.

David Hamilton
1st Aug 2017

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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Hartshill
Nuneaton
Warwickshire
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Email:  david@highadventure.org.uk

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