Björn, Chris and I were planning to attempt the 7000 meter Peak Lenin, on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, in the middle of June, 2014. We decided it might be a good idea for the three of us to try to climb together at least once before I took off to travel the Pamir Highway at the end of May. Communication errors prevented Björn from joining Chris, Matt and I on Peak Molodezhnaya, so the following weekend we got together to try a climb of Peak Panfilov (4120 meters) and traverse the ridge to Peak Karlytau, the “Snow Dome” at the head of the Bogdanovitch Glacier, that also reaches above 4000 meters. This would give us a chance to spend the majority of the day above 4000 meters, which would potentially help us with the higher altitudes we would strive for the following month.
We found out during the week the sad news that Chris would not be able to join us on Peak Lenin, but he was still keen to try this traverse. He convinced his company to provide transportation up to the Alpengrad trailhead, which, as always, I was super thankful for as that road is only so much fun to walk. Alpengrad is a place I have frequented many times since my first climb on Peak Amangeldi way back in October, 2012. From there, we scrambled up Uchitel (Teacher) Pass, another place I had visited when I did the Uchitel to Pioneer Traverse with Matt and Riley last summer. This would turn out to be a slight mistake because the easier route we intended to take was actually after climbing Mametov Pass, further up the Alpengrad glacial valley.
The first sign that I had made a route finding mistake was a slinged horn off of Uchitel Pass dropping into the route of Panfilov, indicating the need of a rope. A quick assessment of the area below the horn proved that the horn was probably unnecessarily slinged; there was a fairly simple route down the rocks to the first part of the climb. We descended without issue, and immediately discovered the next part of the climb was pretty tricky as well. We traversed around the face trying to find the route, and finally I settled on a 5 meter low class 5 pitch that looked more difficult than it was. Chris and Björn followed, and I hoped the worse was over.
There was a small couloir of boot-deep snow I scrambled up quickly, only to discover what I thought was the most difficult part of the climb: a technical traverse with a lot of air under it. I don’t think it would have been too tough if dry, but the main problem was the primary ledge, where one’s feet obviously belonged for the first ten meters, was covered in a half meter of snow. I was kind of sketched out by this, as was Björn, but Chris and his brass balls volunteered to lead it using our minimal equipment of a borrowed harness and cord. I strapped him on belay with minimal pro available and a less-than-perfect system, but he one-upped us and made it across like a boss.
Chris set up the cord on another anchor, giving Björn and I a climbing “handrail” to make it across. One might say that this aid was far from safe, so we clipped in one at a time, took our time and made it across slowly and safely. The only casualty was my gloves, which fell out of my jacket pocket. Perhaps some of our mental weaknesses also perished as we faced the void below us inching our way to the next pitch.
The next part was like the first 5 meter pitch, but probably closer to 30 meters. Chris, well-rested after watching Björn and I inch our way across the traverse, took the lead, this time completely free climbing, and picked his way through what would be a mostly R-rated route in terms of protection. Björn and I watched, coaching him on potential route options, but there were few to take without a few leaps of faith.
Björn seconded and found Chris at the bottom of one mellow-but-very-loose arête climb. I was following their tracks, working on exiting a couloir-chimney, when I heard Björn swear loudly. This was concerning as I had no idea what had happened, but it turns out he only took a falling rock to the hand, the worst injury of the trip. We gathered at the top of the arête on some scree directly under the pointy summit, giving each other high-fives and smiles. The worst was over, we had made it, and we were all OK. Björn decided to use the words of Davinia, who had recently visited Almaty, to describe what we did as “F*cking mental.”
We took our time on the tip of the summit, taking lots of photos and having lots of laughs. I think when you complete an exposed climb like this, there is something psychological about the summit that makes mountaineering become more than a sport or hobby, but as something one cannot live without. I had experienced an even greater relief and stronger positive energy at the summit of Komsomol Peak the summer before after free-soloing the Northwest Face, but this feeling is exponentially increased when the experience is shared with partners, perhaps because other people have overcome the same fears and obstacles, and they too have the electric feeling that only a hard-earned summit in difficult circumstances can provide.
From the summit of Panfilov, the climbing and concerns changed dramatically. We strapped on crampons, wielded our ice axes, and had to be on the lookout for hidden crevasses. This seemed pretty simple, all things considered, and we successfully found our way to the summit of Peak Karlytau (summit shot at the top of this post).
There wasn’t much left to do after the summit but the long walk on Bogdonovitch Glacier to Talgar Pass. We were far to late too make it back to ride the gondola down, so we took our time and nursed blisters all the way to base of Shymbulak, where Chris’ company was waiting for us in the night. We spent over 14 hours in the mountains, and almost half of it was above 4000 meters. It was one of the longest days I have spent in the mountains above Almaty, but the feelings we had the next day (after some sleep) and the feeling I get thinking about this climb make it entirely worth the time and effort put in. Thanks for the great day, guys!
To see more photos from the day, please check out the Dropbox folder of Chris, Björn and I’s photos.