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The Wall: Two climbers on the north face of Khan Tengri

Preface

The world has gone crazy for records of all kinds. For that reason I want to say right away that we do not make our ascents for the sake of setting records. It’s simply the case that when you undertake some pursuit for a long time, you want to accomplish something that hasn’t been done and to show that, if a person wants something enough, then surely he’ll achieve it. Moreover, we never go into the mountains in order to struggle or die for an idea. We go in order to live another page of our life.

This ascent was distinguished from our others by silence. We enjoyed the silence. Between us there arose such a rapport that we spoke without words and sensed each other without sounds or gestures. Our souls virtually grew together into a single whole. The source from which we drew our energy was the Wall; we had never encountered a more willful and beautiful mountain. We were walking along the road that has no end; we simply dissolved into our surroundings. That is why we were able to push ahead for so long. Every day vouchsafed to us by fate was a gift, and all its manifestations made us happy, even the sudden hurricane—wind of such strength you would think it miraculous, and perhaps it was.

Even when it seemed that we had reached the point of no return, we were certain that this path continued, the path leading back home. And the more we were pulled homeward, the greater the strength with which nature rained down its forces upon us, as though wanting to say, “Where are you hurrying off to, wasting the remnants of your strength? Your home is right here. Relax, you’ve already arrived at where you wanted to go.” Nature, as it were, reminded us that man should have no attachments; they only hinder his ability to live and to make true decisions, free from the past. There is only the present.

In my expeditions with Pasha, time long ago stopped playing any role. Time simply does not exist. We are happy that we are climbing together again. It doesn’t matter where we are climbing to, how much we are climbing—there is no end, there is no beginning. This was and will be forever: me, Pasha, and the mountain. When the expedition is over, we come to the surface, and then from the sea onto dry land, but only so as to again be on the sea of salty sensations, which are so good for the soul.

That’s the way it was this time too.…

August 15. We fly in to the Northern Inyl’chek Glacier as usual, at the beginning of August. The acclimatization proceeds smoothly, and by the 15th we are ready for takeoff. We decide to leave at 2 a.m., but we have hardly gone out when we are plunged into thick mist. Without talking we sprawl in our tents, and at 4 a.m., when it clears up, Pasha asks, “Well, what do you think, shall we start?”

I reflect a bit, then say, “We won’t have time to cross the lower snowfields; we could end up under an avalanche. Let’s wait.” It turns out we are right: during the next few days horrid weather rages, and this time we avoid the trap the weather has set for us.

But there is nothing more difficult than waiting. The days drag on and the weather does not improve. The Wall rises above us in a white shroud, and it seems this year an ascent will not shine for us. I accept the caprices of nature with equanimity. If it’s impossible to change the situation, then take it for what it is. To be honest, I m even happy about the poor weather because it is the sole good argument for backing off from the Wall. This is the first time that I hadn’t wanted to go into the mountains. We had already been on the Wall, in 2003, and we knew just how hard it was. At the time, I had decided this place would never see me again. During the year I hoped Pasha would not succeed in finding sponsors for this expedition. But in May he called and screamed into the phone, “Everything’s first class! We’re going!” The mousetrap snapped shut, and so now I wander along the Wall, casting elliptical glances at it. Will it let us up or not?

August 19. The sky clears and in the evening frost sets in, a sign of good weather. Once again we check over our packs. There’s some tension over the fact that we re taking only four canisters of gas, but Pasha stresses a quick climb, and I yield to his arguments.

August 20. At 3 a.m. the whole sky is filled with stars but it’s not cold. We are dressed just as we were in 2003, in the absolute minimum: long underwear, fleece suits, and windproof outer layers. In our packs we have only light down sweaters, spare gloves, and mittens. With headlamps we cross the zone of crevasses, and when the sunrise begins to glimmer we’re already standing below our route. Everything is clear and businesslike: Pashka (I have many nicknames for my friend) is in the lead, and I’m following. This sequence became established between us long ago and does not upset me. I am able to lead, but I’m better at carrying heavy loads and Pasha has no equals when it comes to climbing mixed sections. This wall is no plaything, and for that reason each person does what he does best.

Little by little the mountain wakes up. It clears itself of the snow that has accumulated during the past week and sprays us with dry avalanches. Our ice tools and crampons hold us fast to the ice, and we move quickly up our planned path. The weather is brilliant, and in good spirits we rush upward. Because of our work we don’t notice that the day is late until the sun appears to the right of the wall, reminding us that we have only an hour of daylight left. We putz about until darkness without finding a suitable site, so we have to swing our tools and cut out a shelf for a sitting bivy. Having finished our business, we sit down, cover ourselves in the tent, and begin to melt ice and prepare dinner, which this day consists of red caviar (no joke) with dry biscuits and tea. First class! Below, like a tiny star, our base camp twinkles. We’re at an altitude of 4,800 meters. We are completely satisfied with the amount of work we’ve done. Only one thing irritates us: we can’t remove our boots because they might drop.

August 21. The weather is good; a few clouds are floating in the sky. We breakfast and then head onto the route. Ahead wait complicated rocky sections. And again our tools satisfy: they cling to the rock faces covered in snow, finding invisible catches. Evening comes. Pasha keeps climbing and climbing, and still there is no tent site. I begin to get angry: “How many walls do you need to climb to understand that you have to start looking for a campsite two hours before sunset? You can see that the mountain is not disposed to give us gifts! It’s time to stop and carve out a ledge.” If you start late on the sleeping arrangements, then you’ll start late the next day. The body demands a certain amount of rest. Finally, we find a suitable place, and in an hour of stamping down snow we create a small platform. We cover it with the remnants from our water bottle and our own urine in order to “cement” it, and then we set up the tent.

Inside we remove our boots with delight. We need to let our feet relax completely and restore themselves; otherwise frostbite is inevitable. We prepare dinner and then sink into sleep.

And suddenly, in complete darkness, an avalanche comes down upon us from who knows where. Something hard hits me on my head. This is courting disaster. Thank God, the tent remains standing and there is no visible damage to it. We drink 50 milliliters of vodka to relax and sit back to sleep. But just in case, we spend the rest of the night wearing our helmets.

August 22. In the morning we discover that the avalanche has swept away our shovel, which we left outside the tent. That’s too bad: we’d planned to use it as a snow anchor on the upper snowfields. The weather is good and so, not lingering, we set to work. Pasha climbs in the direction of a rocky triangle. It seems the rock face is close, but this is an illusion. To reach it we must plow and plow. Turning a corner, we discover a scrap of old rope frozen in the ice. Hooray! These must be the ropes from Myslovsky’s team, we decide. Such finds always warm the heart and bolster one’s confidence. Pasha climbs a vertical section with the aid of his ice tools, and I catch myself thinking, “And how is he any worse than the great Mauro Bole, the Italian with the nickname Bubu, who is praised across the globe for his technical prowess?”

“The fixed ropes are ready,” Pavlik cries unexpectedly quickly, and I, loaded down with rope, hoist the hated pack and climb upward. After consulting with each other, we decide to stop early to set up camp—we have to conserve our strength. In spite of the wind we quickly set up the tent and reinforce it with help of our ice axes. Gathering a bag of snow for preparing water, we tumble into the tent. The wind gets stronger, but our home is warm and cozy, the stove hums, dinner is cooking. Finally we can pull off our boots. Such bliss cannot be experienced while lying on the couch! Happy, we sink into sleep.

August 23. In the morning, looking out of the tent, I notice narrow feathers of clouds in the sky. In general this means the weather is changing. “Well, okay, time will tell,” I think. We set about preparing breakfast. And then, yet another surprise: the stove refuses to work. Now that’s a problem! We begin to consider our options and there aren’t many. If we don’t repair the stove, we’ll have to descend. That’s the deal. Going for lightness, we did not bring pliers, and without them it’s difficult to disassemble the stove. But, as they say, “If you’ve been eaten, there are at least two ways out.” With the aid of a small file we twist the fuel injector of the stove against the latch of a carabiner. Unsealing it, we discover that some kind of dirt has fallen inside. It’s not clear how, but facts are facts.

After losing half a day repairing the stove, we set out. Awaiting us is the rocky triangle, the crux of the lower part of the wall. Pasha takes the lead while I belay. After many years I’m now accustomed to the feeling of waiting for a fall. It s wonderful to think the leader has it harder, which is usually true. But I would not hasten to divide our work into hard and easy. Try sitting immobile in the wind and cold for a few hours, visualizing the actions you 11 take in case of a leader fall. From this point of view, it is easier to be climbing than to be constantly in a state of nervous tension. Pasha runs out the whole rope without any protection, and my belay station is anchored with one stopper. “That’s precious little to hold a fall, I think. The face is snow-covered and devoid of cracks, like much of Khan’s northern wall. One has to know how to climb confidently with his ice tools. This my partner clearly demonstrates.

Above, we reach more snowfields, and for Pashka this insecure work in loose snow is the most difficult. On our last climb together he had a failure of nerves and I had to take the lead. It will be interesting to see how he conducts himself this time. I’m prepared to take his place, but it will be better if he masters himself and works through it. Step by step, overcoming the shifting show, we slowly make our way to the next rocky ridge. Although the snow is deep, there is no avalanche danger and we gain ground monotonously, hour after hour, meter after meter. We climb together to traverse some rock and scramble up an inside corner to a small ridge. Ahead of us are the slanting sheep s brows, covered in snow. As usual, toward evening the wind becomes stronger. We are in luck: we find a suitable tent site, one where we can actually lie down.

August 24. This day is like the previous one, just like two drops of water. The shattered rock faces again give way to deep, loose snow. After floundering in this “cream of wheat,” exhausted, we climb onto a huge, two-meter by two-meter platform of thin slate slabs, which the Red Army soldiers laid during their climb in 1988.

August 25. The sky is socked in with clouds; the weather has decidedly worsened. We feel the exhaustion that has slowly accrued during the last few days. Pasha’s boots are a cause for concern. Although they are advanced models, they are half a size too small and his toes are squeezed all the time. We climb up a snowy ribbon at the level of the “wine glass” and finally, hooray, reach a belt of reddish rock, our cherished goal. A vertical chimney pulls us into its belly. Steep, very steep. Pavel leads upward for a long time. From above, snow and large chunks of ice fly down onto me. I twist and turn away from them as best I can. When it is already completely dark, I hear, “The fixed ropes are ready.” I pull myself up and see that, under a cupola-shaped rock overhang a meter and a half tall, my Pavlik sits and obstinately hacks into a snowdrift. By the light of our headlamps, we set up the tent with difficulty. It’s a sitting bivy again, but we're thankful. Everything else is the usual: we have to melt snow, prepare dinner, sit down to sleep in the pose of meditating monks. The wind roars the whole night. What is it bringing us?

August 26. Altitude around 6,350 meters. The wind does not abate. Very cold. After such a night, one s condition is loathsome. Pasha goes out ahead. I belay and mentally prepare to take down our camp. Today will not be easy: there are many horizontal sections and no way of avoiding pendulums. Climbing two pitches, we turn to the right. It seems to me that Pasha is off route. But when he stumbles upon an empty box of sugar, stuck by chance into a fissure, I calm down.

The next pitch is of the category “super,” starting in a chimney that leads to a shattered vertical wall. Usually, in places where the probability of a fall is high, Pasha commands, “Watch me! But he proceeds through this section without hesitation. All that remains is for me not to lag behind. From time to time Pasha rubs his hands together to warm his frozen fingers. It has become perceptibly colder; now that we’re above the col to our right, as we expected, the wind is considerably stronger. Wherever you look it’s blowing. But we have only one path home: via the summit. We’ve managed to climb too high to turn back now.

On a small snowy ledge we carve out a platform about half the size of the tent bottom and make this our little home. Inside the tent, I suddenly notice that I’m shaking all over. I really froze today. With melancholy I look at our last gas container; it will last only a day, maybe a day and a half. The only hope is the cache that we left on the summit in 2003. Pavlik is also suffering from the cold; his toes have noticeably whitened. Has he really got frostbite? I want to think positively. After all, we took Trental before we went into the mountains to improve our circulation. I’m becoming more and more worried about some kind of pain in my stomach. There’s nothing to be done—I have to bear with it. Outside the wind is gaining strength. Usually, after dark it subsides a bit, but today it seems to have forgotten this and blows at full force.

August 27. Outside storm-force winds are blowing. At such moments we take longer than usual to prepare to leave, as if considering whether to stay or wait it out. It’s already around midday (to the extent that we can tell by feel, because we have no watch and there is no sun) before we reluctantly crawl outside. The storm is raging around us. It’s a good thing that yesterday we fixed about 20 meters above our bivouac site. Pasha begins to climb slowly up the fixed rope, while I pack up camp. The wind is howling like we’re in a wind tunnel, a horrible shriek all around us. Through the wind a sound reaches me: “The fixed ropes are rea.…” I understand that it’s my turn. In a second my glasses are pasted over with snow and I’m blind. There’s no possibility—and no sense—of cleaning my glasses, and so I proceed blindly up the rope. I begin to gasp for breath. There is no oxygen: the wind is carrying it away, leaving a vacuum. My heart is working like a machine gun just at the point of overheating and jamming up. Bad thoughts creep into my mind: “Probably, this is how Salavat died on Makalu—his heart wore out.” Dismissing these stupid thoughts, I force myself to crawl to Pavlik. He is thoroughly frozen. Through the shriek of the wind I hear, “Set up the tent, we have to wait it out.” We still harbor the faint glimmer of hope that the storm will not last forever.

We nestle together like tiny fledglings on a narrow ledge, sitting on our packs and hiding under the tent. How long we sit there I don’t know. It seems an eternity to us. We’ve long since lost the feeling in our feet, like they are made of wood, and the wind does not decrease for one second. One of us, I don’t remember which, comes up with a great idea: descend to our platform below. With unbelievable effort we descend and set up the tent. Crawling into it, we pray for one thing: “Just don’t let it be torn to pieces!” Somehow we melt snow and assuage our thirst and hunger. A spark from the stove starts to melt a hole in the wall of the tent, the size of a fist, but it doesn’t burn completely through. Again we’re lucky! We pass the night without closing our eyes.

August 28. We listen closely to the howling wind in the hope of catching the least indication of a change for the better. Sometimes it seems that the wind is abating and then we look at each other: “Well, what do you think, shall we work today?” We can’t lie about very long—our gas has almost run out. We have to go! Most of the chimney has been climbed; just a little remains. All around the snowstorm still rages, but at times we can see blue sky through a break in the clouds. Slowly, step by step, Pavlik gains tempo, and at last we finish the endless chimney. A steep, rocky ridge juts into the sky, and it still seems a long way to the top. We proceed simultaneously on some sections, by turns at others. The ascent seems endless, but ahead we can see the white summit capped by huge plumes of snow. Finally we stumble across a light- blue auxiliary rope. “Hooray! We’re on the upper part of Kuzmin’s route. We’ve climbed the Wall!”

In our tent we try to burn the residual gas from our last canister, but it’s in vain. We chew a little snow. Although we’re tired, for some reason we can’t sleep. We lie and talk. According to our schedule, today is the day we were supposed to evacuate our base camp. If the last helicopter leaves, we’ll have a very hard time. Imperceptibly, the conversation moves to the topic of our coming expedition to K2.I confess that I haven’t yet decided whether to take part in this project. Pasha, as if not hearing me, continues to talk of the beauty of the face, about equipment and clothing. We sink into sleep, ignorant of the tribulations waiting for us. The wind continues to roar, but we don’t care because the Wall has been climbed.

August 29. For breakfast we gnaw at some dry biscuits, which give us heartburn. But we have to eat something. Today we have to climb to the summit and descend at least as far as the col. We have to find our cache with the gas canisters—then everything will be fine. Outside: hurricane force winds, although the sun is shining. Getting ourselves together, we move out slowly, very slowly. Where has our strength gone? After an hour we crawl out of the deep snow onto a firm crust of ice. Next to a line of footprints lies a lemon. Unbounded joy! We break apart this frozen fruit from overseas and divide it fraternally. In our souls everything is transfigured.

Ahead of us looms the tripod, long awaited and familiar to the point of pain. The summit! This is where our cache should be. We walk around and look under every stone. Alas, it’s nowhere. If only we could find this cheapskate climber! We clip into the fixed rope on the normal route and descend. At 6,400 meters we find some abandoned sugar, crackers, nuts, two frozen apples, and two cucumbers. Okay, that’s something. But to our great regret, we find no gas canisters. We drag ourselves downward. Our strength continually ebbs. We go 100 meters and collapse into the snow, then move the next 100 meters. “If only somebody has waited,” goes round and round in my mind. “Just one more day and we’ll arrive.”

We reach the col around 3 p.m. The sun is shining brilliantly and the wind is roaring. Tossing down our packs, we start to rummage in the garbage bags that someone has left at the col. Four canisters! They appear to be empty, but perhaps we can squeeze something out of them. We start to set up the tent, but, just as we’ve always feared, a burst of wind tears the tent out of our hands and carries it away toward the Northern Inyl’chek. I stand as if paralyzed, imagining how we will spend the night in a shallow snow cave. With unbelievable speed, considering his condition, Pavlik runs through deep snow after the tent and just as it appears above the cornices he catches one end of it and falls into the snow. “Cornices!” is all I manage to cry. Pasha remains lying in the snow a long time, regaining consciousness. But the tent is securely clutched in his hand. We’re going to survive!

The canisters we found turn out to be empty. Have you ever eaten fluffy snow? There’s no nourishment in that. For an hour and a half we swing a frying pan with snow, mixing the snow with some kind of powder from overseas we’d found in the garbage. And, O miracle! After shaking it about, the snow becomes moist and we enjoy some rather nice ice cream. Only after eating three bowls of this delicacy is our thirst somewhat assuaged. Pavlik’s fingers are black and blistered. I prepare an injection of prednisolone. We can’t feel our feet. We don’t know what’s wrong with them because we don’t remove our boots—we stay ready to leave at a moment s notice, even at night, if only the wind will abate. My stomach doesn’t give me any peace; apparently an ulcer has developed. I’m forced to go on ketorol, which relieves the pain in my feet and stomach.

August 30. Morning does not bring any improvement in the weather. There’s a strong wind and visibility is only 50 meters. I give another injection of prednisolone to Pashka. At close to noon it clears up and we set off. Slowly we ascend Peak Chapaev, seemingly without end. The mountain does not want to release us. The visibility deteriorates to the point that we can't even see the flags marking the route. We stay roped up in case of crevasses. Up to our belts in snow, battling gusts of hurricane-force winds, we creep up to 6,150 meters on the shoulder of Chapaev. It’s all downhill now. We toss our tattered rope and I go ahead, pulling the fixed ropes out of deep snow.

Slowly we descend into Camp 2 at 5,600 meters. Surely no one is there. By the standard of the Tien Shan Range, it is already the beginning of winter. And suddenly: “Pasha! Look! A tent, or am I wrong?” I call hoarsely, “Hey, below, water, water!”

We have not had anything to drink in three days. No one responds to my cry. “Probably there’s no one there,” I think. And then a head sticks out of the tent.

Afterword

Everything that happened to us has already happened to many others. Although you don’t refuse journalists the right to use enthusiastic epithets like “super-extreme,” “first-ever,” “high-speed,” and so on, I’m certain their efforts are futile. We didn’t climb for such reasons, even if only because no achievements can justify frostbitten fingers and undermined health. If someone tells you something different, he’s simply not being sincere with you; indeed, he’s not being sincere with himself.

People often ask me, “How much are you paid for your ascents?” They have forgotten that there are things one can’t pay for, even for lots of money. How much does goodness cost? How much does friendship cost? How much does love cost? Answer me, people! How much does the feeling of happiness cost, when you’re standing on a summit? You can’t buy happiness—you arrive at happiness through the losses and experiences that life and mountains give. People: be happy!

Summary:

Area: Tien Shan Range, Kyrgyzstan

Ascent: First two-person ascent of the north face of Khan Tengri (6,995 meters) in alpine style, via a linkup of the Studenin Route, the Myslovsky Route, and the upper chimney of the Zacharov Route, Pavel Shabalin and Ilias Tukhvatullin, August 20-29,2005, followed by a day and a half of descent.

A Note About the Author:

Ilias Tukhvatullin from Tashkent, Uzbekistan, has climbed new routes on the north faces of Ak-Su North and Mt. Everest, as well as the first winter ascent of Ak-Su North’s north face, all with Pavel Shabalin and various partners.