Gary L. Clark
CHRIS PIZZO and Dick Dietz were right at home—pain and exhaustion are an essential part in the upbringing of serious expedition climbers and marathon runners. The two were attempting to climb the Peak of Communism in a single push from Camp III at 6200 meters (20,342 feet) on the shoulder of Pik Pravda, establishing two more camps on the way to the summit at 7492 meters (24,548 feet). The itinerary to this point had included no acclimatization climbs, and no rest days. It had long since become less of a climb than a pure test of physical endurance.
We had arrived a team of seven—six members of the Colorado Mountain Club and one expatriate of the sunny, solid granite of Yosemite. A quick tour of Moscow’s highlights prefaced an all-night flight to Osh, capitol of the Soviet Republic of Kirgiz. A small jet chartered for the occasion took us to a dirt runway scraped out of the alluvium of a glacial river. An unbelievably dusty and bumpy ride in the back of a truck brought us at last to the Base Camp of the Pamir International Climbing Camp, constructed at 3600 meters (11,811 feet) in the Alai valley below Pik Lenin.
As the lone American contingent in the camp, we were keenly aware of the legacy we had inherited. The previous participants had included some of the U.S.’s outstanding alpinists, and the all-star cast of the Soviet-American exchanges had left their mark with fine climbing accomplishments and personal diplomacy. The sense of representing our country was heightened during the Olympic-like opening ceremony complete with the raising of an avenue of flags of the 14 nations represented. Later that evening Dick Dietz represented us at a party for group leaders in a gastronomical endurance test which included such delicacies as fermented mare’s milk.
Early the next morning we set the spirit of the trip by hiking to the base of the beautiful north face of Pik Petrovsky. Two thousand feet of moderate technical climbing on perfect glacial ice brought us to the east ridge, where we joined the walkup route that had been done by at least six other teams that day. That the American team had no intention of following the crowd was established—a fact that puzzled, amused, and worried our Soviet hosts for the 28-day duration of the camp.
To begin with, we had planned our entire expedition around a route on the south side of Pik Kommunizma climbed by Malcolm Slesser on a joint British-Soviet expedition in 1962. Since he had written a book about the expedition, we had a wealth of information on their route, called the Georgian Couloir, but none whatsoever on other routes. To our surprise, we discovered that this was not the normal route at all, and our hosts were expecting all aspirant teams to fly to the north side of the mountain! Here they had constructed a Base Camp in a forest glen adjacent to the Fortambek Glacier, with support capabilities including meal service, meteorological forecasts, and a field hospital. From this camp the regular route begins with a short glacier crossing to gain a trail up a long loose ridge. The ridge leads to the famous firn plateau, a level slog of 13 km, all above 20,000 feet. Easy slopes on the east side lead to the southeast ridge, then to the top.1
After some negotiation, we arranged to be the lone exception to participation in the standard itinerary. As team after team departed via helicopter for the Fortambek we were busy packing duffle bags with the ropes and hardware we expected to need on our route. Our schedule was to be uncomfortably tight. After extended discussions with the Soviet “trainers”—consultants or guides assigned to help each team—we had planned for 22 days above Base Camp. This included an acclimatization climb of Pik Pravda a 6400-meter peak conveniently located directly on the path to Kommunizma. In this fashion, we hoped to climb a worthy objective, leaving a cache for the later main assault, then descend to Advance Base Camp for a few days of rest and acclimatization. We had learned that this was standard Soviet practice on big peaks and seems to be quite successful.
The helicopter ride was the first for many in the group and was almost worth the price of admission in itself. From Pik Lenin the trip to our anticipated landing at 3500 meters (11,483 feet) on the Garmo Glacier would require several hours. As we were free to move around the helicopter, stick our heads out the windows, and photograph the incredible scenery moving underneath, the ride was an exciting beginning to the expedition.
Our spirits waned upon landing—a check of the altimeter revealed we had been dropped at 2700 meters (8858 feet)—800 meters of altitude and 20 km added to an already ambitious itinerary.
The Soviets in residence at this fairly plush camp demonstrated some of their famous hospitality and our attitudes improved after a meal which lasted all evening and far into the night.
The morning of July 27 we began with enthusiasm, happy to be finally moving toward our objective in spite of the oppressive knowledge of the magnitude of the task. An airdrop on the Belaev Glacier at the anticipated site of Advance Base Camp had been only partially successful. A parachute failure meant a 1000-foot free-fall for our fuel supply, so we added this weight to our packs for the long carry up the Garmo and Belaev Glaciers. It would be difficult to improve on Malcolm Slesser’s description2 of a section of the Belaev, which could stand for the whole of the Garmo as well.… “There was nothing pretty about it, nor even majestic. The whole mass, from the toppling tenements in the centre, to the distorted, sun-wrought slivers, like large native carvings, that girt the edge, was littered with rock and slime …" Surely this must be one of the most dangerous and least enjoyable hikes on earth. The description of technical difficulties in Slesser’s book was only partially useful— the route had to be found by trial and error and engineered for load carrying, only to change so radically in the few weeks we were there that new route-finding was necessary on the return. Wands were nearly useless, as they disappeared within a few days in the consistent warm sun which characterizes the Pamir.
A bright spot in the early weeks was the camp at Siroc, a grassy plateau at the junction of the Belaev, Garmo, and Vavilova glaciers. We were aware of flowers, marmots, and monuments to dead climbers which should have been visited and photographed at this spectacular place. The demands of the itinerary meant that we did little other than stagger into camp, cook, and crash.
At Advance Base Camp we received a warm welcome from several Soviet camps supporting the climbing activities around the Belaev cirque. The most ambitious efforts were directed at the south face of Pik Kommunizma—an awesome 7500-foot wall of rock and ice. The Eiger Nordwand comes immediately to mind when viewing this face, then the realization that the base is 4000 feet above the summit of the Eiger. Two separate routes were under siege by groups from Moscow and Alma Ata. While we were in the area, one climber fell over 6500 feet to his death; sickness in the other party forced them to traverse off the face, so neither was successful in reaching the summit. Their efforts were on a scale associated with the major Himalayan face expeditions recently accomplished and heavily publicized by groups from the Western Hemisphere. The extent of Soviet accomplishment in severe alpinism with comparatively primitive tools and techniques is largely unappreciated in the rest of the mountaineering world.
Two impressions of climbing in the Soviet Union were firmly planted by our interactions with the large number of climbers at and above this Base Camp; first, the genuine warmth and hospitality of the climbers— it was impossible to pass a tent site without being invited in for tea and whatever food was in the tent. Secondly, the total lack of environmental consciousness. Empty tin cans were literally tossed over one’s shoulder after finishing the contents—many times landing amidst human waste. In some camps, even the rudimentary hygiene precaution of placing a latrine site below water sources was ignored. In this atmosphere, our usual fastidious habits were pointless. Perhaps because of the camp environment, the previously excellent health of the entire team suffered a severe blow as one member after another contracted a debilitating disease characterized by weakness, vomiting, and fever. We had no lack of medical advice—three of our members were M.D.’s and the medical kit had received expert planning. It was to our vast amusement, then, when a Soviet doctor in camp examined Roger Kirkpatrick, who was the sickest, and prescribed dried bread as treatment! Apparently, modern drugs are slow in supplanting folk cures, even among professionals in medicine. Only Dick Dietz and Steve Creer escaped the typical 24 hours of misery of the mysterious ailment, and Roger’s condition was serious enough to arrange a helicopter evacuation back to Lenin Base Camp, where a field hospital was available with ample supplies of dried bread.
From Advance Base Camp, we could see the Nekrossov Ridge in profile extending from the Belaev Glacier cirque at 5030 meters (16,503 feet) to the Pravda Plateau at 6200 meters (20,342 feet). This ridge had been recommended as a safer and more interesting route than the Georgian Couloir immediately to its left by several Soviet climbers who had done both. We began carries to the base of the ridge on August 3, now with six members and no rest/weather days in reserve. Double carries were sufficient to establish Camp I on the Belaev at 5030 meters (16,503 feet), Camp II at a spectacular and obvious site at the midpoint of the ridge at 5550 meters (18,209 feet) and Camp III on the plateau back of Pik Pravda at 6200 meters (20,342 feet).
The best climbing of the trip presented itself on this classic alpine ridge—the first half featuring devious route-finding through a short but spectacular icefall, then 500 feet of 60° ice. The second half offered a long knife-edge, corniced to the east into the Georgian Couloir, and finally 400 feet of steep rock. Unfortunately, the technical sections had been fixed prior to our attempt, turning the highest quality technical climbing of the trip into strenuous jümaring on terribly frayed ropes.
We were not all to enjoy these few days of quality climbing, though. Joan Winsor developed the now-familiar symptoms of disease X at Camp I, and after a rest day there, drove herself up the ridge to Camp II. Ralph Cale had volunteered to stay with her during this ordeal, while the remaining four members continued carrying to establish Camp III. Although they were again both healthy and reasonably strong, the decision was made that they would burden the summit attempt too heavily, not being as well acclimatized as the remainder of the team. We had degenerated from a compatible team effort to a contest of “survival of the fittest.” As Joan and Ralph began the long descent, we made a final carry onto the Pravda Plateau, then around the back of Pik Pravda to establish Camp IV at the base of the summit slopes of Pik Kommunizma at last. Once more the culling process operated. I was certain I would need three days to accomplish the final 4000 feet; only two were available in the itinerary. Steve Creer volunteered to go down as well, and Dick Dietz and Chris Pizzo packed for the summit attempt as we all tried to choke down some freeze-dried food and get some sleep in the flapping tent.
During our whole climb, a network of radio communications and telescopes had kept the camp leadership at Pik Lenin informed as to our status. The position of each team was updated on a large map using colored pins. To everyone’s bewilderment, the American group now required four pins to plot the position of seven people!
As five recuperated in comfortable Soviet camps, eating, sleeping, taking saunas, and developing friendships with Russians, Georgians, and Kazakhistanis, Dick and Chris beat out an exhausting 2500 feet to establish Camp V at the base of a Gibraltar-like formation on the south ridge. Managing to brew a few hot drinks while keeping the tent from collapsing, they spent a sleepless night.
In conditions of moderate wind but low temperatures, the final 1600 feet to the summit was begun at nine A.M. The cold and altitude affected both climbers, but they had sufficient reserve energy to toss a frisbee from the summit at one P.M. No sign of human activity was seen from the top, now well above the rest of the visible landscape. It was later learned that several other teams made the summit from the regular route later in the same day, the success rate being very high from the Fortambek side.
The descent was a four-day ordeal magnified by exhaustion, lack of food, and demoralization at the difficulty and danger of carrying ridiculous packs over the miserable surface of the Garmo Glacier.
Dick and Chris had the summit, and we all had memories of the scenery and the people. Whether it was worth it was a personal decision.
Note: Groups interested in attending this camp should write to: M. Monastyrski, Director International Mountaineering Camps, Moscow, G-69, Skatertnyi per. 4, U.S.S.R. The cost for all services while in the Soviet Union was $1200 per person in 1977. Camps are conducted in the Pamir and Caucasus Ranges.
1A French group, composed of Pierre Barnola, Bernard Constantin, François Cornet, Jacques Durville, Chantai Regnault, Charles Révilliod and Jean-Paul Zuanon, also made the first climb of Pik Kommunizma by members of their nation.
2Malcolm Slesser, Red Peak, Coward-McCann, New York, 1963, page 179.