My first first descent was the sketchiest thing I’ve ever done.
After reaching the summit of Komsomol Peak, I was elated. I had just free-soloed the Northwest face, possibly the first person ever to do so. I had stashed my skis on the far side of the summit ridge, so I traversed from the summit back over the knife edge, climbed up and down some snow on the sub-summit, and waited for the sun to heat the face.
The biggest surprise about the climb was how fast I accomplished it. It took me about two and a half hours from the base of the face to the summit. The first time I tried it, it took me that long to get one-third of the way due to weight on my back and the snow conditions. This time, I decided to leave the rope at home, thinking that I would be able to down-climb the standard route to a point where the snow would be warmed up by ambient temperatures, therefore making it possible to ski the hardest part. I was wrong by about 300 vertical feet.
After a couple of hours perched on the summit block, I decided to put my skis on and slowly work my way down the standard route. The snow on the West face was cold corn; grippy and easy to turn on. After about 10 turns, I moved over a wind-lip on to the northwest face, and immediately had to self-arrest with my whippet. It was still completely frozen ice-snow.
This was my first indication I had dropped in too early for the face. I carefully slid down to a rock outcropping, and saw that this was the key down-climb to get to the snow I was hoping would be warmer. The down-climb was simple enough, a small sliver of snow was just wide enough for both boots. I put my skis on my back and kick-stepped about 50 vertical feet.
At the bottom I got my skis back on and peeked over the edge. The face was probably around 55 degrees, and a few pole-whacks indicated it was still very frozen. At the bottom of the fall line was a blind rollover that would shoot an out-of-control skier over some big cliffs. In other words, this line was steep, frozen, and very exposed. I hesitated for a while, but the wind was picking up and the clouds kept getting denser as they blocked out the sun. I know now I should have stayed put on the summit for at least two more hours, but on the exposed ridge I was freezing up and feeling the nerves. Better yet, I should have had my rope and rappelled this part. With no rope and the wind picking up, I very carefully inched my skis over the lip, and as soon as both skis were on the face I lost almost all control.
I planted my whippet with all my weight on it, but it failed to get purchase for about 30 feet. I wasn’t sliding very fast with both of my skis scraping as hard as possible to stop and the whippet, but I was completely helpless until my skis finally found purchase.
I was completely stuck. I did not have the ability to move in any direction but down. Taking off my skis would have sent them (and possibly me) to the bottom of the face. I felt like any movement that would take pressure of my inside edges would have led to a nasty slide, so I was too nervous to take off my pack to get my ice axes. I took a deep breath, tried to clear my head, and realized that with enough kick steps, I could side-step down the chute very carefully.
The only time I’ve heard describe skiing 55+ degree faces was when Chris Davenport and Neil Beidelman skied the south face of Capitol Peak. As Davenport wrote, “Anyway, we…were immediately faced with several hundred feet of 60-degree turns. When you make a turn at this angle, you actually drop a few feet before your skis touch the snow again.” Instead of turning though, I was side-stepping what felt like a vertical face, only four inches at a time for a half hour. Since I was moving slower, I was definitely thinking much more about the consequences of a misstep and they were certainly staring me in the eyes as well.
The whole thing took about a half hour before I reached a point where I felt safe. During this time, my GoPro died as well. I had 26 minutes of the 30 minute side-step on film, but as you can imagine, it isn’t much fun to watch. Once I traversed past the exposure, I took a break to catch my breath and reflect on what had just happened. I had been staring gross bodily harm in the face for nearly a half hour, but I was safe, in-tact, and only really puckered. I skied the now soft-snow on the lower face quickly and continuously, got to the bottom, and just stared at the mountain for a while. I was not super happy about what I had done, but I had done it and was safe.
At this point, I cannot say I was proud about how I skied it, if you want to call it that (I’m still hesitant to call it anything but a “first descent with skis on”). The thing I would have preferred the most would have been a rope and a couple of rappels over the middle part, but the weight of the rope in addition to the camping gear for the day-long approach 24 hours before the summit day was horrendous the first time I tried it, and without it, I made much better time on the climb. Also, waiting longer for the face to warm up is especially tricky, the bottom half of the face was very ripe corn when I got to it and a few hours later there would have been a risk of wet avalanches, which I had seen evidence of during my first attempt. I guess, at the end of the day, this is a very complicated ski, and without a rappel in the middle, it would be nearly impossible to do unless you botch it up like I did.
I’m open to criticism at this point, but just remember it would be better if you put your advice into action and come to Kazakhstan to see it with your own eyes. Those here who have climbed the standard route of the west ridge, including a few local guides, have given me some major congrats, but would never think about attempting this route.
I have no plans of returning to this route, for what it’s worth.
Extra-credit, graphic story on why I went home early:
I returned to my basecamp on Bogdanovich glacier, where I feasted on campfood and relaxed on the flat ground in mostly nice temperatures. The next day I was planning to tour to the top of Karlytau Peak, then traverse to Panfilov Peak to meet Matt and Mackenzie. This plan was thwarted in the middle of the night, however, when I woke up around 12:30am in a panic. I got out of the bivy very worried for no apparent reason. I decided to try to go pee, and when I released my bladder to let the stream flow, I also lost control of my bowels and I sharted. I immediately assumed a squat position and had some horrendously explosive diarrhea, well out-of-reach of toilet paper. I wiped with snow and my stomach started to make crazy gurgling noises, and after using some hand sanitizer I took and anti-diarrhea pill to avoid shitting on the moraine again.
I tossed and turned in the bivy for an hour, with my stomach trying to mutiny out of my body. When I flipped on my left side, I felt the bile in my throat rising. I miraculously unzipped my sleeping bag, the bivy door, and the fly door in half a second, and then projectile vomited with my head out of the door. I puked a few more times before putting my head down and finally returning to sleep.
The next day, I ignored my alarm until the sun hit my camp and turned the bivy into an easy bake oven. I scrubbed the puke-covered gear with snow, and then packed my things for the hike back to Talgar Pass. It took twice as long in my drained state than the approach did until I made it to the lift for a ride back to town. People here have hypothesized that it might have been a bad dried apricot, while others think it might have been me being so adrenilinated from the descent that my bowels and stomach unclenched 12 hours after the descent. Either way, I was drained for two weeks, and took my time returning to the Tian Shan.