Ak-Su in Winter
Where the Russians get their ya-yas
by Pavel Chabaline and Igor Nefyodov, Russia translated by Yuri Kolomiets
The Laylak Ak-Su in the Pamir-Alai mountain range is a paradise for alpinists. An entire constellation of grandiose granite peaks juts from a narrow 20-kilometer strip of the Turkestan ridge. Every summer, outstanding mountain climbers gather there. On the area’s menu, there are rock formations for every taste. The north face Ak-Su North Peak is a delicacy for the gourmet: over 1500 meters of irreproachable granite. To feel the grandeur and power of this mountain, one needs to come to its base—or, even better, experience it on any of the 13 established routes. Until the winter season of 1998-’99, however, no one had succeeded in going to the top of Ak-Su in winter.
This winter saw the first two winter ascents of the peak’s north face, which had been attempted many times in previous years. The first team to reach the top was a group comprised of Pavel Chabaline (Kirov), Alexander Abramov (Moscow), and Ilyas Tukhvatullin (Tashkent, Uzbekistan). Together with a support group of two, the team flew into the area on December 6. Their ascent of the 1860-meter Cold Corner route (6A), which has an average angle of 76 degrees, began on December 8. After four days of preparation, the team started up the route, which they climbed in capsule-style. Forty-five pitches were ascended over ten days. The team reached the top of the wall on the night of December 21-22. After a cold night on top, they began their descent. The weather had been unstable during the ascent, with snowfall every three days. They sustained no frostbite or injuries despite night-time temperatures that reached -20°C and hurricane-force winds encountered on the ridge.
The second team was comprised of two men from Ekaterinburg, Mikhail Pershin and Igor Nefyodov. On December 13, after two days spent fixing ropes, they started climbing the 1988 Chaplinsky route (6B). This very steep face route is about 1860 meters long. The two spent six of their 19 days on the route waiting for good weather. They made the top of the wall late on December 31 in a complete whiteout with terrible winds and reached the summit in time for the new year. Figuring in the time they spent waiting for good weather, their total climbing time was about 13 days—rather good time for climbing this route, even in summer. Four rappels into the descent on January 1, they were stopped again by a terrible storm that forced them to wait another two days for “reasonably bad weather” before continuing down.
Both teams boasted climbers who had attempted the wall in previous winters. Pavel Chabaline is Mr. Ak-Su. He has made nine ascents of the wall, including a number of new routes. In 1995, he made an attempt on the wall in winter, climbing for a week before being forced to descend. Last summer, he took his skills to the Indian Himalaya, where he led every wall pitch of the 1998 Russian-American route on Changabang’s north face. Mikhail Pershin and Igor Nefyodov and a small group of their mates had made a go of Ak-Su’s north face via the Severe Beauty route in February, 1998. Low clouds and steady snowfall enveloped the mountain during their attempt. The wall is like a huge funnel, picking up snow all along the face and sloughing it off in dust-like avalanches onto mountaineers’ heads. Snow percolates through the finest holes of clothing, clogging eyes and ears and noses. Having managed only several rope lengths, Pershin and Nefyodov’s team had to give up. But one might say that it served as a kind of reconnaissance.
After preliminary work on their respective routes, both teams began climbing a day apart. What follows is the story of their climbs.
On December 21, 1998, at 6 p.m. local time, we stood on the top of Ak-Su Peak, Alexander “Sasha” Abramov for the first time, Ilyas Tukhvatullin for the fifth, me for the ninth time via the north face of my favorite mountain. One feature set this ascent apart from a long line of similar climbs. It was the first winter ascent of this wall.
The Laylak Valley is like a magnet for me, and every year I long to go there. Each climber has his or her own road, dreams and plans. It so happened that my climbing life since the early 1990s was closely connected with this mountain. But for all the most beautiful routes done, the new lines conceived and followed, there remained one dream: the wall in winter.
Three years ago, we had a go at it. After a week of struggle with bad weather and circumstances, we had to go down. I said then, “Now I know how to do it, but I do not know who else will.” Besides our attempt, another four had been made, all abortive. Nonetheless, the right moment came at last.
Even though the days are at their shortest, the best month for this climb is December with its more stable weather and minimal probability of prolonged snowfall. We planned to climb capsule style, working from various portaledge camps for several days on end while we fixed the next 300 to 400 meters of the route and hauled loads. The idea was to live there as long as necessary, be it two weeks, three weeks, a month. …
We were very lucky. The entire ascent, including fixing ropes and rappelling the route, took 16 days. We left our surplus petrol and food at our last bivouac, one rope length beneath the summit ridge. If necessary, we could have stayed there quite comfortably for another 16 days, and a bit more without comfort.
The main difference between winter and summer climbs is that in winter daylight is twice as short, you are twice as slow and you carry twice as much petrol and food. All in all, everything goes very slowly. The only advantage is an abundance of ice that does not melt. Conversely, the ice is very hard. I cannot imagine climbing on Ak-Su’s north face with any kind of ice tools, no matter how curved. Only ice sky hooks (“ice fifis”) work. In winter there is no point even to try without ice hooks. In fact, we made our entire ascent of the wall with either aid or ice hooks. Protection was arranged by means of a shorter version ice screw made especially for winter ice by the Ural company Alvo-Titan. Ordinary screws are too long for the shallow ice runnels. We had to sharpen the hooks two to three times a day, because the entire time the climbing was mixed and we were constantly changing from rock to ice and the other way around.
We took spare crampons and hooks, as we did not know how this bloody ironmongery would behave in such cold. We had a spare primus as well, plus a gas stove to heat the primus, plus a gas lamp, all put into different bags so we would not be stranded without cooking utensils. We once had a very nasty experience of four stoveless bivouacs—in summer, though.
Yet in general I do not consider technical difficulty to be the main problem on such walls. We had all done some winter “sixes” (the most difficult grade assigned to a climb in the Russian grading system- Ed.); the real problem is to survive and go on climbing without a considerable loss of strength, without losing momentum. Hence in winter you have an approach to such climbs that is, compared to summer ascents, essentially new. In summer you can put four people on a portaledge 1.3 meters by 1.8 meters—rough, but possible. In winter it is possible to fit only three.
Our first attempt at winter climbing on Ak-Su yielded a priceless experience. The main reason for our retreat was that we slowly turned into frozen lumps in our jackets and sleeping bags. The constant temperature difference inside the tent created moisture and hoar-frost on the walls and forced us to descend. This year a company made us special Thinsulate suits that did not imbibe moisture, so our things were always dry. The suits proved to be free of the typical “arctic drawbacks.” Loose fitting and not too thick (you could put the hood on over a helmet), they allowed us not just to move, but to climb. Two rectangular sleeping bags, zipped together, formed one collective bag, big, comfortable and, above all, warm and dry. Practically all our middle layers were made of fleece and wind-stop fabric. The latter is fully windproof, yet breathes. Gloves, mittens and balaclavas made of fleece completed the gentleman’s set.
All this gear was “baptized by fire” (by deep frost actually). On December 20, after having ascended the wall proper, we fixed six ropes in an ice gully on the other side of the ridge and ran up against a rock wall 200 meters long. In summer I would not even dream about tackling such a wall, but now all the rotten overhangs were frozen. Besides, the ridge proper was not at all attractive. What stuck in our minds was the last pitch: 15 meters of aid over a cornice, then 30 meters of overhanging rock “feathers” mixed with unstable blocks. I was scared to touch it at all, but had no choice. Hoping to get in a piece of gear, I hit a block with my hammer. I thought a grenade had exploded nearby. Sasha and Ilyas were standing 30 meters below, and there appeared a crack that connected all the way to the ice screws to which they were clipped. The descent of that pitch was so frightful we did not even dare to retrieve the abseil rope: our lives would have been at stake.
On December 21, we reached the top in a hurricane with -30C° temperatures and had to bivouac at 5200 meters. For shelter, we had a sheet of plastic, and for warmth, a gas stove unusable in such wind. You could say that that bivouac was a cold one. We sat it out in our new suits under a boulder, tied to the ropes, and the next day were down to our ledge by lunch. There, we rested and warmed ourselves until morning. The result: nobody got frostbite or fell ill.
Strange as it may sound, the wall proper did not bother us much. The real trouble we expected, and found, on the summit ridge. Quite often in summer there is a hell of wind up there; in winter, it is simply a kilometer-long snow plume accompanied by a jet’s roar. In addition, the ridge, with ten pitches plus traverses, pendulums and abseils, is far from being technically easy.
We rappelled our route. When going up, Sasha had placed bolts every 45 meters and marked them with five-meter thin red cords. They helped us greatly on our descent. We placed 26 bolts, and rapped from screws for the last ten abseils. On December 23, we were down once more.
Ak-Su again, a long, long way into Kyrgyzstan. The sun had yet to appear, and the wall looked cold and unaffable—the wall we had once before failed to climb. Man comes back to the place where he has failed unwillingly, but we returned to try to gain the summit once more. There were five of us: Mikhail Pershin and I, both from Ekaterinburg, and our mates, Andrey Belkov, cameraman, Andrey Selivanov, doctor, and Evgeny Novoseltsev. Our attempt the previous February had basically been thwarted by the weather. It was therefore decided to try the wall in December. We tested our big wall tactics with an ascent of a 220- meter unfinished monolithic concrete TV tower in Ekaterinburg, then started up Ak-Su on December 13. From that moment on, we could only descend if we gave up the ascent.
The days were short and the sun never hit the wall. The cracks were clogged with solid ice that split off into plates beneath the blows of the hammer. Only with a combination of ice hammer and ice fifi could we climb the difficult sections of verglassed rock.
But all this meant nothing in comparison to the weather. With that, there is nothing you can do but wait. Waiting exhausts the nerves while the stocks dwindle. Taking into account all these factors, we took 20 days’ food supply. But even that proved to be not enough. We would spend 19 days on the wall and four more on the descent. Ten days of the 23 would be lost to bad weather.
We began working, our hearts overflowing with joy and fear, with 40 kilos of iron, four ropes, a portaledge, and one goal for the two of us. We had chosen the Chaplinsky route (Russian Grade 6B, or roughly VI 5.10 A3, ca. 1800m), a rather difficult route, even in summer. Now it was winter, and nobody took us seriously. Pavel Chabaline wished us luck, but he preferred to go up along the Cold Corner route.
At the start, everything was all right. The weather was fine. We climbed through the first roof, managing one pitch per day. Ah, winter. But the wonderful feeling didn’t leave us: we were finally on the wall.
On our third night in the portaledge, a storm suddenly broke. It snowed heavily, and the walls of our “house” were covered with ice. Sitting in the tent, we sang songs at first, then read the book about hobbits by Tolkien that Belkov had palmed off to us at the last moment, then told each other stories from our military experiences. We had to shake the snow off constantly in order not to be crushed. It was good that we had taken the book. It was not so boring under those conditions.
It came to mind that the book was about us. The same small hole, outings there and back again, and the same thought: “Why the hell did we agree to do all this?”
While reading the book about the hobbit, we noticed that when he was hungry he dreamed about his favorite fried eggs with ham and a cup of coffee in the morning. It made our mouths water. Mikhail promised to cook those very same fried eggs after the descent. At the end of our adventure in the mountains, when we had only broth to eat, I would close my eyes and see that morning paradise and a birthday cake on the table.
The route was choked with ice and snow. Whereas free climbing is possible in summer, in winter it is only aid climbing or climbing with ice fifis. We constantly had to clear cracks to hammer in pitons. On the whole, this made for tense work all day long without relent.
The Chaplinsky Couloir was solid ice. With a blow of the hammer big dinner plates of ice broke off. We had to file our ice fifis and ice screws all the time.
We gained the upper ice slot above the “Cross” in the darkness. Swearing, we pitched our portaledge in the twinkling of an eye. Nothing could be seen, but we were in already.
And extreme conditions again. A Swedish primus stove, which we bought in Moscow, refused to bum normally. What the hell! The primus, adjusted to run on both petrol and gas, clogged up with both fuels the same way. It tried our patience every evening. Each time, as he turned it over in his hands, Mikhail threatened to break the stove into smithereens or crush it with a huge rock just after the descent. “Or maybe,” we said, “it would be better to exchange it for a Russian petrol stove?” A desperate thought indeed.
On December 30, having made the north face, we went out on the ridge. It was terribly cold, but we were happy to have done the wall. Only one day remained to the top.
Well, at last, on New Year’s Eve, we were there. New Year’s, on top of Ak-Su. It had never happened before. We gave thanks to Pavel Chabaline for leaving food for us: meat and lard, soup, chocolate. It really was a New Year’s present. It was snowing and the wind was strong. Since we couldn’t wait for midnight (we were too hungry), we greeted the new year a bit early. We wished each other the quickest possible descent and said good night. The next day, we would need to start going down.
January 1. The weather was not too good but we decided to descend regardless. We hoped to rush through the raps but couldn’t. The descent along the snow cornices and the awful knife-edge of the ridge didn’t make us happy. We couldn’t get through it with our loads, so we decided to rappel directly from the buttress to the cirque. I thought, “Nobody has ever done it this way.”
It was cloudy, snowing heavily and there was a strong wind and poor visibility. We succeeded in rapping only three pitches before we decided not to try any more. We found a postage-stamp spot of snow and dug in.
Two days passed. It seemed that it was beyond our powers. We were running short on food.
If we’re going, we thought, let’s go. We tied two ropes together with our haulbags beneath us and rapped down. We went through snow, down the wall, dropping, dropping. By then, we were doing it automatically. It was getting dark. Finally, Mikhail’s joyful cry: “The ground!” I still had about 30 meters to go. I threaded a rope but it stuck somewhere in the darkness. I no longer gave a damn about it, and, having left the end of the rope on the wall, I fell.
That was all. Deep snow under our feet. It wasn’t home yet, but at least we were on the ground.
The ascent had been most difficult in bad weather, when we had to spend time in the tent and it was impossible to say how much longer the weather would continue. The rivers of spindrift that forced us to dig out our tent streamed into the tent while we were outside. We had no problem with fuel, but it was hard with provisions. When we were down to just tea, we would go on dreaming or telling stories (about military service, mainly), but deep in our souls we felt like a cat on hot bricks. On the whole, we hadn’t been able to move six days out of 19 because of bad weather. Six days of captivity. It was no less difficult than working on the wall.
And there was also the lack of sunshine, the terrible cold, the hauling of loads, the work of the climbing itself, and the way leading us ever so slowly up to the ridge and then, at last, to the summit. The summit of our dreams. But all in all, life had continued, even under those extreme conditions. Our will never broke and we didn’t bore each other to death. Our resolution and sense of humor never left us in our singular controversy with the mountain. Now one may say that the problem of climbing the north face of Ak-Su North Peak in winter has been solved.
Of course we were glad to have made our contribution to the answer. Our victory had been no easy matter, and thus there was a bit of sadness. We left a piece of our souls behind. After descending from Everest on the first Soviet ascent of the mountain, Edward Myslovsky said, “There was a dream, and it came true. Now you need to find a new one.” I agree that a person must always have a dream. For now, exhaustion won’t let us think about anything else. But summer will come and bring new prospects, new ascents, new meetings with old friends, and new Everests that we will find impossible to turn down.
Summary of Statistics
Area: The Laylak Ak-Su Region of the Pamir Alai, Kyrgyzstan
First Winter Ascents: The Cold Comer route (6A, 1860m) on the north face of Ak-Su North Peak (5217m), December 12-23, Pavel Chabaline, Alexander Abramov, Ilyas Tukhvatullin; the Chaplinsky route (6B, 1860m), December 13-January 4, Igor Nefyodov and Mikhail Pershin
Personnel: Pavel Chabaline, Alexander Abramov, Ilyas Tukhavatullin; Nefyodov and Mikhail Pershin, Andrey Belkov, Andrey Selivanov, Evgeny Novoseltsev