In early August Alexander Kirikov and I completed what we believed at the time to be a new route on Khan Tengri. It began from the standard site of Camp 2 (5,300m) on the classic route from the south up the Semenovsky Glacier and then followed a beautiful, logical, and relatively easy line up the southwest face, between the Normal Route (Russian 5A, Pogrebetskogo, 1931) up the west ridge, and the 1964 Romanov Route up the south-south-west or Marble Rib (6A). We named our line Zmeyka (little snake) due to its sinuous nature and graded it 5B. I felt that it was generally safe and could be recommended to soloists. However, only later we discovered it was not new.
Historically, Soviet mountaineering was a highly structured affair, with climbers progressing through “categories” towards gaining their Master of Sport. More experienced alpinists participated in Soviet Championships. Ascents were recorded, and new routes, particularly at high altitude, were recorded in great detail and submitted to the USSR Classification Committee of the Federation of Alpinism. So it is strange that a report of a new route on Khan Tengri climbed in 1982 by Eugeniy Kondakov and his Ukrainian team was either not completed or it was lost. A description of their line appears in the standard Putevoditel guide by Solomatin, and in several other sources, but it is vague to say the least.
There was a lot of snow on the slopes of Khan Tengri this August, and it quickly became soft in the calm weather and hot sun we experienced. This forced us to camp early and spend a comfortable night enjoying a little cognac and making long philosophical discussions about the meaning of life. The second day on the face saw us moving on or alongside the twisting rock rib. The large snow slope to the right looked tempting, but who knows what could have been in store for us: A gigantic ride on an avalanche, melting out 1,000 years later as objects of research studies and to the astonishment of our descendants? We only roped up for the upper part of the ridge, and even there moved together.
Camp 4 was pitched between two large boulders and again provided a comfortable site. However, during the night the wind picked up, and it started to snow. By morning there was no change.
We continued climbing. Crampons held perfectly on the rock, and we found Peckers, angle pins, Friends, and nuts very useful for protection. The upper wall is a huge chunk of marble, but in the bad weather was covered in ice crystals, which appeared as though someone had spilled a sea of acid down the slope.
We spent two nights at Camp 5, located on the ridge beneath a rock. The wind was so strong that we spent the whole time inside the tent fully dressed with our boots on, scared that our home would be blown away. It was extremely cold.
On August 8 we left late for the summit, the wind having only begun to decrease at 10 a.m. We wore down jackets and insulated pants on top of our Goretex suits. Close to the top the rock became steeper, but it was always possible to set up a good belay. The wind froze whimsical patterns on the slope; leaves and needles protruded from boulders. At 5:30 p.m. we reached the summit in blue sky, the rays of the setting sun, and relative calmness, while below is was still total shit. The entire summit area was covered in ice fronds, like millions of frozen children, or maybe little devils, trying to reach us with their glistening hands. It was enchanting but also a little terrifying. We tried to tread carefully as we descended to the fixed ropes of the west ridge, the maelstrom, and home.
Gleb Sokolov, Russia, Supplied by Anna Piunova, mountain.ru, translated by Ekaterina Vorotnikova
Editor’s note: Kirikov and Sokolov, the latter with intimate knowledge of the mountain having climbed it more than 20 times, followed the little-known 1982 Ukrainian route, though it now appears as though a similar line may have been climbed in 1936 during the third ascent of Khan Tengri by Eugeniy and Vitaly Abalakov, Michael Dadiomova, Leon Gutman, and Lorenz Saladin. These five were ostensibly repeating the west ridge but there was much snow on the mountain and they had only a photo from above 6,000m given to them by Pogrebetskiy. They ended up taking the easiest way at the time. Their descent from the summit proved something of an epic. All suffered frostbite and the great Swiss explorer Saladin died of his injuries less than two weeks later.