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Peak Lenin Expedition 2011

It’s now the beginning of September and after a highly eventful and emotional past 4 weeks, I have another long overdue blog to write, whilst I try my upmost to avoid getting burnt in this scorcher of a British summer. It does seem I have been slightly unlucky with the weather, missing the ‘real’ summer this April with a long revision period, however my luck changed during late July and early August as I ventured to Kyrgyzstan, a country famous for..?! What followed was the trip of a lifetime, consisting of a luckless yet indescribable expedition, a massive culture shock, and a brief stopover in Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan and the nation’s largest city. Kazakhstan of course being most famous for Borat Sagdiyev and Johnny the Monkey.

After the most brief of stop over’s where the plane toilets were out of order to prevent an explosion whilst re-fuelling, a 4 man team comprised of Ian, Dave.W, Wesley and myself buckled up and prepared for take-off whilst airport staff cycled round the plane on 1960’s push bikes, watching in amazement as a former USSR pushback tug managed to move the plane without breaking down.

Arriving into Bishkek Manas airport in the early hours of the 24th July, we were taken to the Alpinist hotel where we met up with Adam from Denmark, and Dave.P, the leader of the expedition and owner of Adventure Peaks.

All 6 of us, Ian, Dave.W, Wesley, Adam, Dave.P and myself were to attempt a new mountain for the company, Peak Lenin. At 7,134m above sea level, the climb provides a significant challenge, and as some of our group pointed out, Lenin was known for two things. Firstly the extreme weather that can be experienced, and secondly, being part Russian revolutionary and part Marxist dictator.

The first job was getting to the mountain, this involved firstly getting from Bishkek to the city of Osh. This was done simply by plane; an extremely old Antonov An-24 to be precise. Getting to the plane however proved to be more comical than the flight itself. This centred on getting through security once again at Manas Airport. To cut this part of the story short, I ended up sitting in the plane with my ice axe, crampons, trekking poles, and large knife in my hand luggage. The most baffling thing is that my hand luggage went through 2 x-ray machines, and the only thing that was of concern to the security guards and police men were the size of my climbing boots I was wearing. Later in the trip, I found out that the Avia Traffic Company, the airline we used to get to Osh was one of the air carriers banned in the European Union, as is every airline in Kyrgyzstan… This blacklist prevents any plane from banned airlines entering European airspace due to safety concerns from alleged poor maintenance and low safety standards.!

Once in Osh, a place where time has been standing still since the evolution of man, we got settled in to our hotel, and then went shopping round the local bazaar (market). It was at this point that things started getting confusing, and the culture shock really took hold. Firstly, every 2nd person had at least 1 gold tooth with every 5th person having a full mouth of gold teeth. Then, as we took to the streets, with no exaggeration, every 2nd or 3rd car was a nearly new Mercedes. This was in deep contrast to the infrastructure, where a sewer channel ran down the side of each street, and was used by the locals as drinking water and water to clean vegetables.

It is hard to explain Osh, or even Bishkek, except for saying they are worlds apart from anything you can experience in the western world. No description would do these cities justice, and no picture could ever capture the life of these places.

After a night in Osh, we set off for Peak Lenin some 6 hours away by mini bus, a Mercedes of course. The journey was as equally eventful as the previous 3 days. We started the drive by picking up some meat and bread for base camp. The raw bloody meat basically stuffed for the entire journey in a big plastic bag by our feet.. The journey got better however. After about 3 hours on the incomplete Chinese road which was being built as we journeyed, we stopped off for ‘lunch’ at what can only be described as a building. Inside, our driver asked the lady in Kyrgyz to make us all a meal. When our food was cooked, we received what I can only describe as a plate of shit. The cooking recipe was simple: 1 Large frying pan, 21 Eggs, 2 Litres of cooking oil, 3 Tins of spam. Serves 7. Out of our group, 3 people ate their meals. One of these people was our morbidly obese, chain smoking driver. The other two were Ian and Dave.W who also ate their meals.. Ian suffered gastro-intestinal problems for the remainder of the 3 week trip whilst Dave.W was fine leading to him aptly being renamed ‘The Dustbin’, the only place any normal human being would consider putting a plate of shit.

Before seeing what was for dessert, we set off for Peak Lenin base camp. The final hour of the drive was on the dustiest part of the journey. After about 15 minutes, we had a steady stream of dust coming through the windows, the holes in the windows, the open air vents, and the closed air vents. After 30 minutes, we reached hillier terrain where the vehicle promptly filled with engine smoke.

Finally, after about 6 hours on the ‘road’ (and I use road very loosely), we arrived at base camp. This is where I first noticed the altitude. At 3,600m, base camp is not the highest place in the world, however 6 hours previously we had been close to sea level, so it came as quite a shock when Ian and myself unloaded the van, including about 10 of the biggest water melons I have ever seen, each one weighing about 5 or 10kgs. The first melon was an easy task, however once we progressed onto melon number 3, I was already feeling the lack of oxygen. Describing what this feels like is extremely difficult, but initially, the feeling was like having a semi-permeable paper bag over your head, where after every 5 breaths, you need another half breath to compensate.

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The Climb

On the second day, it became clear to me that I was struggling to acclimatise quickly enough after an acclimatisation climb on Petrovskogo Peak. During this day, I was struggling to keep up with everyone else in the group. Eventually, I lost sight of the group, and didn’t see them again till the top of the days climb. Coming down, I was faster, however once back on the flat ground leading to base camp, I was exhausted and starting to realise how difficult the assent of the actual mountain would be.

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The next day after being reassured by Dave.P that I was just in the acclimatisation stage, I set off again with the group to climb up to ABC (advanced base camp) at 4,400m. I was feeling tired in the morning, however was woken up by the 25 minute journey in an old soviet war van which had done more miles than the clock could keep account of.  After disembarking the engine smoke filled van, we bided the old but deceivingly skilful driver farewell. The start of the walk went well, and unlike the previous day, I was not only keeping up, but was with Ian at the front of the group for the first half of the walk. Exhaustion however was never far behind me, and the higher I got, the more I felt it creep up upon me like inescapable jaws. Eventually, after 4 hours of walking, physically and mentally exhausted, I stumbled drunk into ABC. It was a feeling like no other, as Dave.P had to take my bag from me just so I could collapse onto the nearest rock. The place I was now in felt so alien and so hostile yet little did I know I would be spending a significantly higher amount of time here than most climbers. The other members of the team were also tired by the walk, but all seemed to have escaped from the effects of the altitude as I collapsed into the tent, breathing but unable to control my body which was screaming for a release from this pain, a release that didn’t exist.

At this altitude, things started to happen extremely slowly. Unzip the kit bag. 5 minute rest. Take out sleeping bag. 5 Minute rest. Blow up Thermarest. 5 minute rest. By this point, the altitude had almost completely shut down my body. All I could think to do was sleep. I lost my appetite for at least 3 days, I had a constant splitting headache regardless of the water intake; but worst of all, there was the overwhelming feeling of weakness. An indescribable, but tireless adversary.

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The next day, instead of getting the rest I desperately needed, the acclimatisation programme continued. This was a painful introduction to the world of high altitude mountaineering with muscles screaming out every step. The plan for the day was to move up from ABC and recce the route up to camp 2, with the aim of getting practice on the fixed ropes which spanned a steep section, and part of a crevasse field between the two camps. The day started reasonably well. Despite the lack of rest, I felt I was beginning to acclimatise, if very slowly, but perhaps I was adapting after all. We walked over tough terrain across the moraine field at the bottom of the glacier for an hour, before reaching the bottom of the crevasse field, where we geared and roped up. In spite of feeling better than the previous days, I was physically and mentally unprepared for the stress of moving together on a rope at high altitude. The terrain was technically very easy, with a few bottomless crevasses, but being at the back of the rope, my concern lay with keeping up with 5 other very fast team members who were obviously much more acclimatised than myself. Gritting my teeth however, I somehow managed to keep pace with the team. We climbed up to the base of the fixed ropes, and eventually I began to start enjoying the experience, the first time since we had arrived at the mountain. I love the technical elements of climbing and this was no exception. It was something I could excel at, which felt great considering how slowly I was moving on the non-technical ground. Reaching the top of the fixed ropes at about 4,700m, we turned round and headed back. Abbing down the fixed ropes first, I was starting to feel slightly more human again as my body continued the endless acclimatisation process. Adam even commented how well I was moving now in comparison to the morning which was a great confidence boost; especially considering that the night before in the mess tent, everyone had said how bad I was looking after the exhausting trek up to ABC, whilst I stared sickeningly at my bowl of soup.

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On the way back down to ABC, I somehow managed just to keep up with the group, and eventually saw our tents; home. Perhaps despite the pain, something was working, something was happening that would make this gradually easier and more bearable.

Strangely, sleep that night wasn’t easy. In fact, perhaps due to the next day’s planned climb, it became an unnerving and restless night.  The next day, we had planned to climb all the way to camp 2. We would be waking at 4am, and setting off in the dark. We had done a portion of the walk, but even though we didn’t have an accurate description of what still lay ahead, we knew it would be one of the toughest climbs on the mountain. This knowledge filled me with an uncontrollable anxiety. After no rest days, I was beginning to doubt myself, and how much longer I could last at this pace. When I was completely honest with myself, I knew I wouldn’t be able to make the distance the next day, I simply didn’t have the strength to tell myself otherwise; weak but still unable to rest.

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The next 14 days of the expedition are a complete blur, mostly indescribable even in my own mind, and I expect it will stay that way for some time.

In the very early hours of the next day; the day I was meant to be going up to camp 2 with the team, I woke up to perhaps the one feeling and sound I wasn’t expecting, and equally the one set of symptoms that I was dreading. At 4 in the morning, I had to ask Ian to get Dave.P.  I knew something was wrong, and instantly, HAPE came to mind. HAPE (high altitude pulmonary oedema) is essentially fluid on the lungs. The main hypothesis to explain the cause of HAPE surrounds the mechanisms of lung capillary pressure, where high pressure due to hypoxia (oxygen starvation) and a spontaneous change in the permeability of vascular endothelium leads to fluid entering the lungs. Dave.P. agreed with my diagnosis, that there was at least some obstruction, and advised I stayed at ABC. I subsequently missed the most important day of acclimatisation. (My symptoms of HAPE were subsequently diagnosed instead as a potential chest/bronchial infection once back in the UK).

Over the next week, an abstract world unfolded. During the 3 days post diagnosis, I spent most of my time in my tent, unable to comprehend this bewildering situation I was now in. I wanted more than anything to be home, but the ever optimistic side of me, the never say die attitude, kept me at ABC longing for both an answer to my question, and an opportunity, just one chance. In two days of sitting in my tent, I read a 530 page book which Ian had left for me. Ironically, it turned out to be one of the best books I had ever read; but equally ironically was that it contained references to both mountaineering, and Lenin, the dictator from Russia.

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On the 3rd day of confinement, and having done two long walks previously, I realised that my symptoms had almost miraculously abated. This was unexpected since HAPE, the original diagnosis rarely behaves in this way when the climber neither rests nor descends. So perhaps this was the chance I needed, the one opportunity where I could turn my expedition around.

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As my guide was somewhere high on the mountain, above a crevasse field, I needed to find another guide. Fortunately I was in luck, and found a young 22 year old, extremely tall Yaroslav. This was the 4th day after the HAPE diagnosis, and I was feeling fit. We woke at 4:30am in darkness, and after an extremely cold breakfast of spam and cheese, we left at 5am. We had a turn-around deadline of 12pm midday, giving us 7 hours to reach camp 2. Fortunately, I was feeling great and we were moving extremely quickly. We overtook every other team on the mountain, and after an exhausting assent of a particularly steep section above the fixed ropes, we reached the so called Skovorodka, or ‘frying pan’. The area is essentially a long flat traverse; however the sun and heat make it almost unbearable. At this point, camp 2 was in sight, and gradually, we inched our way towards it. After the final notorious snow slope which is purely energy sapping, we reached camp 2 in 5 hours, one of the fastest times for the climb.

After some chocolate, soup, and a precarious toilet break on an open scree slope, we geared up once again for the descent. This however was going to be a descent with a difference, and proved to be the most exhilarating part of the expedition. We set off at 12 after making the midday radio call to ABC, and after reaching the end of the flat plateau traverse, we ran down. Overtaking every team on the mountain once again, we essentially skied down the now sugary soft snow with our crampons. We reached the bottom of the climb in 1.5 hours, and could only think to laugh at how quick we had moved, as we looked up at the route where an endless stream of climbers moved, as small ants 100’s of meters above us. A long chat and multiple bags of peanuts and chocolate bars later, we resumed the long trudge through the glacial moraine back to ABC, just in time for a huge 4 course lunch of soup, potatoes, salad and meat.

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I had taken my opportunity to move higher, and it had gone perfectly unlike any other day on the mountain. From this point on however, my expedition had finished. Unknown to me, I would not use my crampons or ice axe on Lenin again.

I spent the next two days resting, and speaking on the radio to Dave.P, helping to coordinate any requirements back to the ABC and BC managers. In my head, I knew I was back to full fitness. My vitals were back at acceptable measures, and I consequently began to plan how I was going to reach the summit. I could no longer afford anymore guiding, so would have to rely on my team after they came down. I scrutinised the itinerary, and eventually came to the conclusion that the summit was a real possibility. The rest of the team was running almost 5 days early in their summit bid, and that gave me 5 days to make a summit push which was not out of the question. The timing was tight, but all I had to do was wait.

The next day was the summit day for the rest of the team. They started at 5am, high on the mountain. I was in radio contact with them at 9am, and they were making great progress. Adam and Wesley were at the front, only a few hundred vertical meters from the summit. I waited for the planned midday radio call, a call which never came. Likewise, the 3pm call never came. Finally at 5pm, the radio came to life, and a rough copy of the transcript follows:

Matthew: Matt at ABC to Dave, do you copy over? Dave.W: Copy you over. Matthew: Where are you over? Dave.W: We are back at camp 4, Dave.P is guiding Wesley down, he has lost a crampon, over. Matthew: Congratulations on the summit, I will pass on to ABC, radio when Wesley is back, and take care on the descent, over. Dave.W: No, we never reached the summit. None of us. Exhausted, just exhausting. Wesley struggling. -Out-

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From this point, events happened rapidly. My first thought was to keep in radio contact, to make sure the team came down safely. My thoughts then turned to a second summit attempt. Surely, we have enough time to try again, Dave.P especially will want a summit. The next morning came a call at 9am which took me by surprise, and confirmed all my doubts I had in reaching the summit.

Dave.P: Matt, this is Dave.P, I need you to arrange porterage down from camp 3, arrange porters for our kit back to BC, and set up our transport from BC to Osh; for 2 days time.

That was it. There was no coming back from this situation. Still, as much as I tried, I could not think of the reason why Dave.P wanted to leave the mountain so quickly. There was still enough time for a second attempt, and surely some of the other guys wanted to try. I sat in my tent for the rest of the day, thoughts of the mountain, home, friends and a few words of encouragement flying round in my mind. I listened to my iPod for the whole day in an effort to switch off. The same pattern followed during the next day, however at midday, my iPod ran out of battery, and I was left in my tent surrounded by Spanish and Russians, just waiting for the rest of the team to come back. I had not seen another English person for almost a week.

Finally, at around 4pm, I saw a familiar face, it was my tent partner Ian, and almost instantly, the thought came into my head… ‘The English are coming!!’ As soon as I saw the team, it struck me why they wanted to leave so quickly. They all looked so differently, so worn out and battered. They looked exhausted, gaunt, and lifeless. So different from the healthy people I had been surrounded by for the past 5 days.

Home Bound

We were now back as a team, and the following day, we descended back to BC. A few eventualities occurred which included throwing about 15 loaves of traditional round Kyrgyz bread like frisbees into the glacier below… For the marmots. We also ended up crossing a river by horseback after it had swollen significantly since the last time we crossed it.

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A final piece of excitement saw Adam slip over, subsequently injuring his knee, but narrowly missing hitting his head on a sharp rock behind him which made Dave.P understandably extremely nervous.

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The events of the next 4 days summed up the expedition quite well. We transferred from BC to Osh in the same mini bus, but this time instead of the meat on the floor, Dave.P had to contend with spilt diesel and the laziest child we had all observed in a long time. Our early departure meant flights, connections and hotels had to be changed including our international flights. Back in Osh, we had a bit more chance to walk about, while Ian and I climbed the famous hill in the centre of the city giving a great panorama. We also had a chance to meet the second team who were fresh faced and prepared to give the mountain a go after some encouragement and words of advice/experience from our team. The next day, we got the internal flight back to Bishkek with more fascinating security procedures, such as the ticket desk getting extremely confused with the fact the picture on my passport didn’t look like Wesley. Apparently this was due to ‘order issues’ however resulted in me narrowly escaping excess baggage fees. Once in the plane, Adam and I discussed the existence of divine light, the omnipresence of God, religious pluralism, and scientology, which seemed appropriate for the flight ahead. We then read a Russian ‘ladies’ magazine, which was highly educating, and to some extent proved the existence of the divine light. During the flight, Dave.P had a call from the agent and decided it was best that he pay the £500 to try to get home that night with an indefinite stay at Istanbul airport. Adam also chose to leave that night, so after arriving at a gothic styled B&B, we waited till midnight for their taxi back to the airport. It was at this point that I began to show symptoms of what I can only describe as chronic and explosive diarrhoea. This lasted for the rest of the expedition, and even after taking 12 Imodium tablets over the course of 48 hours (well over twice the stated dose), my body was still having a crisis. The day before the 9 hour flight home there was only one thing for it, to start taking a 7 day course of Ciprofloxacin. Fortunately, 12 Imodium tablets and a course of antibiotics stemmed the flow, and I was able to enjoy a final meal debate with Dave.W, Ian, and Wesley; where topics included the state of the Euro & IMF, the war on terror, the London riots, and a quick stint on the undervalued factory workers of Great Britain…

Alas, 9 hours after leaving Kyrgyzstan, we landed at Heathrow. All alive. Ten fingers, ten toes.

Where to Begin

The expedition and the month after it has been an emotional rollercoaster. During the expedition, despite prolonged stays in a tent, there is no time to truly think. I have still not been able to fully comprehend what happened during the expedition, and perhaps never will. However I now have the opportunity to learn from what I do know, and equally, I have an experience from which I can draw upon. The lessons I learnt on this expeditions were hard, and it was never going to be easy. However disappointed I am though, I do not want to convey the message that the mountain was easy, instead, perhaps unfortunately it was underestimated. Whilst we were at ABC, we were surrounded by approximately 300 other climbers. Only 6 made the summit whilst we were there.

Whilst the one chance I needed during the expedition never came in the way I expected, the expedition gave me another, more subtle opportunity. Expeditions like these give a rare glimpse to see the true character of both your team mates, and yourself. In this respect, I have had the opportunity to learn about myself in a way many other never get the chance. For this reason, in my eyes, the expedition was successful. It has given me valuable preparation and experience, and has taught me lessons that are not always found in everyday life. By the same token, just as in Scotland, I have found great friendship in my team mates, with bonds forged over an unforgettable experience; perhaps this is the most special and rewarding of outcomes.

My next expedition to Baruntse in Nepal begins in less than 2 months time. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous or feeling the pressure of this expedition; however equally, I wouldn’t be where I am today without self belief. So by believing in myself, applying what I have learnt, and with a bit of luck; I will become one step closer to realising my dream.

Finally, if you have managed to make it to the end of this blog, I salute you, and I also wanted to share one last piece. I took a letter with me to the mountain, which I read and found comfort in during the hardest and loneliest times. At the end was a quote that will forever stay with me:

“Dedication and commitment has got you to this stage. Determination and vision will drive you on. Realization and love will bring you home.”

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Photos courtesy of Ian Ellis, Dave Wilson & Myself.