Above my head there’s a loud bang, as though a gigantic door is slamming shut. The snowy whirlwind condenses into foamy syrup. “The most important thing is not to breathe…don’t breathe!” I clutch my ice axe and press my head against the ice. A mass of snow rumbles and hisses past, tugging at my legs softly but persistently. Seconds later, more snow. I shake off the powder, and my thoughts gallop: If I had stood a meter lower, it would be over…Vitalya could not have held me…the rock protected me…there is no place for the tent… this is bad, but where is it better?”
It’s nearly dark, though there must be at least an hour still before sunset. In the gloom and blowing snow, I can barely see my partner standing under a rock wall 20 meters to my left. From above, to the left, to the right, comes the roar of large avalanches. As the next flies over me, I press into the ice again. I have to get back to Vitalya. There’s no good tent site where he’s standing, but at least the crazy snow trains are not running past him. The avalanches seem to be falling every three to four minutes. Immediately after the next slide I leap from behind the protection of the rock, race across the snowy couloir, and arrive at the belay as thunder announces the arrival of the next train.
“Did you look to the right? How are things there?”
“Total shit. A river of avalanches.”
“So, we have to dig in right here.”
A glacier hangs overhead; who knows what might break off in this horrid weather. We had planned to spend the night much higher and farther to the right, in a relatively safe place, but the conditions and weather have decided otherwise. The blizzard does not let up. We chop at brutally hard ice for three hours by headlamp, trying to carve a tent platform. The slope is very steep, and the work progresses slowly. Finally we hit rock and have to take seats on a narrow shelf, half of our tiny tent hanging in the air. We anchor the tent to the rock and Fix a sleeping pad above it to deflect the snow.
The snowfall is not quite as scary now, and at 10:30 p.m. we crawl into the tent. We anchor everything: backpacks, boots, gloves. We drink and eat as much as we can; we are still only at 5,400 meters, and our appetites are strong. Around 1 a.m. we go to sleep, facing each other on a single pad. We each have a down jacket, and half sleeping bags cover our legs. We are not cold yet. The mountain rumbles all night, but gradually calms. By morning the avalanches have stopped shaking our squalid dwelling.
My obsession with this line on Pik Pobeda began four years ago, but really it dates to long-ago 1976. That’s when, in a second-hand bookstore, I accidentally bought The Spring Behind Nine Ranges, a simple black-and-white picture book that changed the course of my life. “The elderly colonel cried in the tent. Cried, because he summited Pobeda, and because he returned from Pobeda….” Those photos of Pik Pobeda—the name mean “victory”—grabbed hold of me and never let go. As soon as summertime comes, like an old regimental horse reacting to the sound of a trumpet, I am eager to go only one place: the South Inylchek Glacier, below Pobeda.
Since 2006 Vitaly Gorelik and I had focused our thoughts on the north face of “our” mountain. Our goal was a new line between the Dollar Route (Smirnov, 1986) to Pobeda’s 7,439-meter main summit and the classic route to 6,918-meter Pobeda West (Medzmariashvilli, 1961). Standing on Dikiy Pass, at the foot of the Medzmariashvilli Route, one can see a vague buttress on the north face that leads directly to the Camel, a minor peak on Pobeda’s west ridge. It’s called the Camel because huge cornices give the skyline a distinctive humped shape; it’s an apt name, but like most camels this one is vicious and treacherous. The southern slopes are prone to avalanches that can be a serious hazard to summiting Pobeda via its west ridge. To the north, where our route lies, the Camel is also prone to avalanche. We hoped to reach it by climbing bands of brown, black, and dirty-yellow rocks below. The overhanging walls of glacial ice to either side of these rocks reminded us of the bushy brows of certain former leaders of our country. Together with the snow that accumulates on the face during foul weather, they presented a serious danger.
Vitaly is 42 years old and lives in wonderful Akademgorodok, next door to me. Together with various friends, we celebrate holidays, drink, ski, and climb mountains. We climbed together on the west wall of K2 in 2007. Vitaly is an all-rounder, reliable on both rock and ice. He was undoubtedly the leader on Pobeda.
The mountain had easily defeated our first two attempts, in 2006 and 2008. Each time, a crazy snowfall started the night before we were to begin climbing. We woke to a cacophony of uninterrupted avalanches and ran down the glacier, while Pobeda rumbled and sighed, as if to say, “Next time, guys, I am not now in the mood.” But as we boarded the helicopter to leave base camp, Pobeda would give us a sunny smile. “See you next summer, boys!”
In 2009, adapting ourselves to the mountain, we postponed our arrival for a week and a half, so we wouldn’t begin climbing the face until the end of August. To summit Pobeda you need very good acclimatization, and usually I go to the Himalaya to climb an easy 8,000er, or I climb Khan Tengri two or three times, before attempting Pobeda. I had already climbed Manaslu in 2009, and Vitaly acclimatizes quickly, so we planned only one ascent of Khan Tengri.
By the middle of August we had been to Khan Tengri’s summit, at around 7,000 meters, taken a rest, and prepared to meet our “one and only.” The weather began to deteriorate, with a little snowfall every afternoon. This rang the alarm—we needed to hurry. The north face does not get much sun, and one huge storm can close the mountain for the season.
On August 18 we catch a ride up the glacier by helicopter and walk for several hours to advanced base camp on the glacier under Dikiy Pass. The day is bright but not very warm; it already feels like fall on the glacier. We walk over for a look at the approach. The bergschrund appears to be mostly covered with snow—difficult, but possible. There are few fresh traces of avalanches or falling ice, raising our hopes. In the evening we drink a beer, eat a little, talk for a while, and go to sleep. In the night it starts snowing.
Is this again the end? Should we return to base camp for sympathetic words that never give consolation? We are smothered in fury and disappointment. We drink tea and decide to sit in the tent for a day. From time to time the tent flutters in the wind from nearby avalanches. We wait for a miracle. If we turn back, there will not be time for a new attempt.
And the miracle happens! After midday the snowfall stops, the fog disappears, and the wall eventually becomes quiet. Stars gleam in the dark-blue evening sky. It is absolutely silent.
Early on the morning of August 20 we hurry for two kilometers along the base of the wall, exposed to the dangers from above. “Hurry” is an exaggeration. Knee-deep snow slows us, but we move as fast as we can to the bergschrund. Under its protection we catch our breath, take a gulp from the thermos, and quickly begin moving again. For now the wall is silent. The bergschrund is not bridged, as it had seemed from below. It takes an hour and a half to overcome an overhanging five-meter wall, using aid. At midday there is a huge ice avalanche to our left, and two hours later a big powder avalanche from the right crosses our tracks below. The mountain is letting her dogs out.
Above the second bergschrund, we are absolutely unprotected on a snow slope, so we head up toward the shelter of some rocks. We had hoped to climb much farther today, at least to the level of the serac that now hangs overhead. As soon as we arrive at the rocks, snow starts falling again. (It has already been snowing for some time in the vicinity of Pobeda West, nearly two kilometers overhead.) Pobeda has awoken and begun to grumble. It’s time to look for shelter.
Above my head something bangs, as though a gigantic door is slamming shut. The snowy whirlwind condenses into foamy syrup….
We are exhausted from the previous day’s adventures and do not want to get up. There is no wind, and the sun is shining, but we are cold in the shade. When we light the stove, the ice covering our tent evaporates. After breakfast we crawl out into the chilly air. That glacier still hangs above our heads. We should get out of here.
We work our way up to the right. The ice is amazingly hard, like steel plate, though it had looked like névé from below. Slowly we climb out of danger from the left glacier, only to find ourselves in danger under the right one. We squeeze ourselves alongside rocks that create an illusion of safety. Dusk catches us on a steep, hard ice slope. Nothing can be done about it, but at least it is relatively safe. We chop the ice endlessly to dig out a platform. At midnight we try to make ourselves comfortable in our cramped house, melting ice for water and cooking supper. The night skies are clear, and this is nice, but it is too cold.
The third day is much like the second. Again we climb steep, nearly impenetrable ice. We work slowly, but gradually climb out from under the most dangerous avalanche terrain and icefalls. We spend the night under a belt of yellow rock, the spot we had hoped to reach on our first day. As always, we work late and only crawl into the tent near midnight. The platform supports just half of the tent. We will only be able to lie down side by side for two nights out of the seven on this route. Our fingertips are splitting from all the work we do with half-frozen hands, and it’s desperately hard to manipulate the lighter to ignite our stove. Only after we warm up inside the sleeping bags can we work the lighter and turn on the gas.
Now we finally begin climbing the upper rock wall, if you can call it rock. We can carve handholds in the rotten yellow stone with ice tools; the smell of sulfur fills our nostrils. The belay anchors are scary. Holds break under our hands and feet. And now the weather deteriorates again. The wind blows, and spindrift pours down the wall. We finish the yellow rock band in the dark. Again, there is no place for the tent. At around 6,000 meters, by the light of headlamps, we find a rock big enough for two people to sit. We erect the tent over us but repeatedly fall off the rock ledge during the night.
Thanks to God, the weather is totally calm and sunny on the morning of our fifth day on the face. Even though we are still in the shade, it’s nice. We can even take pictures. I have a simple point-and-shoot camera (we call it “soap dish”); a good camera is too heavy and inconvenient on a two-person climb. With a soap dish you can sometimes take good pictures with one hand. We climb semi-rotten rocks all day. It’s definitely not easy, but it’s a pleasure compared to the previous day. At the end of the day, we find a wonderful tent platform on a névé slope. We drink and eat to make up for the previous days.
The following day the weather is again cold but clear, and all day we climb snow-covered rock. It is steep, but the rock is better, and cams and pitons provide good protection. (We will pass five different rock types during this ascent.) We often belay using ice screws in the frozen runnels between picturesque rocks—they resemble whimsical gargoyles. We chop the crest off a névé ridge at 6,500 meters for a tent platform and enjoy our second consecutive good night.
In the morning, however, the weather is worse. It is our seventh day on the wall—we had hoped to climb it in five—and the ridge top is not far above, but the next rock band is steep and covered with a thin layer of ice. The climbing is extremely difficult. We have to pendulum a couple of times. Now and then Vitaly has to rappel after finishing a lead and jumar back up with his pack. Thank God, the rock is solid. Small powder avalanches never give us the opportunity to relax. That night there is no place for the tent, and we are back to the old routine, piling snow on a rock slab, trying to level out a platform. Inside the tent is wet from our breath, and we struggle to light the stove. We can’t light the matches, and our fingers hurt too much to work the lighter. We nearly give up and just lie shivering in our sleeping bags. But in another hour, after warming the lighters, we manage to light the stove, melt snow, and prepare food. Immediately the world becomes not so awful. Life is good.
Above, we can see the snowy ridge leading to the Camel. But soon we are dealing with the infamous Tien Shan snow—and with hard ice underneath. When you step on such snow, it does not consolidate but instead flows like a river onto the belayer. We have to work with maximal caution so we don’t clumsily peel off the whole slope. Slowly, slowly, we crawl upward. Our limbs are like robotic arms under the guidance of a half-dead processor. The trench we carve could be seen by telescope from base camp, many kilometers away, but by late afternoon it is snowing hard and the trench is obliterated.
It seems we must be close to the cornices of the Camel, but we can see nothing. We navigate by feel. The wind blows the warmth out of us. It’s okay when we stomp our feet into the snow and climb, but as soon as we stop to belay we feel doomed. At some point during the nightmare of the blizzard, for a fraction of a second the Camel is lit by the evening sun, a grayish-pink giant. It takes another two or three hours to reach the crest. There is no place for the tent, so without discussion we continue along the ridge, circling below the south side of the Camel. Only primitive thoughts occupy our minds: “Careful…hope we don’t fall…God, help us….” At 11 p.m., after traversing along vertical walls, we find ourselves back on the ridge top. We anchor the tent with ice screws, so it won’t blow away in the hurricane winds. We squirm into the sleeping bags with our boots on; if the tent is destroyed, we want to be ready.
In the morning, August 28, the hurricane is still blowing. We do not even discuss going to Pobeda’s main summit, though it would only be an hour and a half away in good conditions. We just want to escape, to survive. At 8 a.m. there is zero visibility. At 10 a.m., no visibility. At 12 p.m., no visibility. We lie in the tent with our clothes on, so we can make a break for it as soon as it clears. Finally, at 2 p.m., we gain some visibility. We immediately gather our stuff and start moving back along the ridge toward Pobeda West, toward home.
The clouds rush toward us; the ridge seems endless. We often have to stop to wait for small openings in the clouds, so we won’t stray off the ridge. Our energy and power have vanished. At last we turn down off Pobeda West and quickly lose altitude. We spend one more night out, at 6,400 meters, among big boulders. Our gas is gone, and our batteries are dead. The wind rips at our tent like a dog tearing a rug.
Late at night on our 10th day we reach camp and friends and warmth and tea and vodka. When we wake the next day, we are astonished to find that neither of us has frostbite. We each have lost 12 to 14 kilograms. The weather deteriorates completely, and we have to wait four days for a helicopter to carry us toward home. Only then do we see the mountain again. It is absolutely white.
Area: Tengri Tag, Kyrgyzstan
Ascent: Alpine-style first ascent of the “Camel Buttress” (ca 2,000m, 6B) on the north face of Pik Pobeda, Vitaly Gorelik and Gleb Sokolov, August 20–29, 2009. The two men spent eight days climbing the face and finished on the west ridge at ca 6,950m. They descended via the Medzmariashvilli Route over the 6,918m summit of Pobeda West (Vazha Pshavela Peak).
A Note About the Author:
Gleb Sokolov, 55 at the time of this ascent, lives in Novosibirsk, Russia, and works as a photographer. He has completed more than 50 ascents of 7,000-meter peaks, including a speed ascent of 7,439m Pik Pobeda (20 hours) and an eight-day solo traverse of the massif. In 2003, he led a new route on the north face of 7,100m Pik Armenia, continuing over the summit of Pobeda.
Translated from the Russian by Ekaterina Vorotnikova.