Expedition Leader &
The idea of putting ourselves to the test on some fairly challenging and high summit came to us in the last year. With Mounts Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Elbrus already behind our backs, the next logical step would be one of those 7,000-meter peaks in the mountains of Pamir or Tien Shan. While it was before time for us to brave Pobeda Peak (7,439 m) or Communism Peak (7,495 m), such less challenging and more accessible summits as Peak Korzhenevskaya (7,105 m) or Lenin Peak (7,134 m) were quite to our liking, and it only remained to pick either one of the two. Originally we were more inclined toward Peak Korzhenevskaya. However, political tensions in Tajikistan left us no choice, so we ended up buying tickets to Kyrgyzstan all the way to the town of Osh, which is closest to the Lenin Peak Base Camp. Besides the regular teammates Ilya Slutskiy and Andrei Budnik, this time the team was joined by the mountain-loving Alfa-Bank managing director Rafael Nagapetyants, with whom I ascended the Northern Ridge of Mount Everest in 2007.
Under the Soviets, only trained mountaineers would be allowed to scale such summits at Lenin Peak, which is only natural - all risks are multiplied at such heights. This is why we've made a responsible approach to our preparations. Two months before setting out, each team member started to train under personalized program with a particular focus on selection and procurement of high-altitude gear, most of which we had to order in Europe and the USA.
On July 20, we boarded a plane in Moscow on our way to Osh. We planned our program in such a way as to avoid any wasted time, and traveled without any stops from Osh directly to the Lenin Peak Base Camp at an altitude of 3,600 meters. The Base Camp met us with rain and heavy clouds, so that we saw the mountain itself only two days later. On its snow-clad slopes we were going to spend the next 20 days of our lives at temperatures falling to minus 30 Celsius, sleeping in tents and crossing huge crevices in the glacier.
The acclimatization schedule on high mountains is rather specific. You cannot scale a mountain at a run, so to speak. Along the entire route on Lenin Peak, there are intermediate camps located approximately one kilometer apart in terms of altitude. After spending a night in one camp, alpinists then descend to a lower camp to rest for a day or two, and then ascend to a higher camp to spend another night there. It slightly resembles deep-sea diving, where you cannot rise to the top from a great depth abruptly - you have to make stops along the way up for decompression. Unlike in diving, in alpinism this process is much longer and sometimes takes months. For instance, the acclimatization program before the assault of Mount Everest (8,848 m) takes two months, for 8,000-meter summits - 40 days, for 7,000-meter peaks - 20 to 25 days, and so forth. Acclimatization is a highly individual process that takes place with different symptoms and at a different rate for everybody. This is why when you are climbing as a team, it is essential for all team members to be in the same condition by the time of the assault. Otherwise, you will run the risk of an insufficiently acclimatized team member going up too slowly and holding back the entire team. Moreover, such team members run a higher risk of cold injury or developing brain or lung edema, in which case the ascent may turn into a rescue operation. Our team had its own acclimatization schedule. Although rather lengthy, it guaranteed that everyone would be feeling fine by the time of the assault.
According to this schedule, we had a very complicated daily program, and only protracted bad weather conditions could make their adjustments to the plan. An accurate weather forecast in the mountains is the cornerstone of safety and success. The Frenchmen have always been and remain the best weather forecasters. Few expeditions to Mount Everest are possible without their services, which, incidentally, are quite pricey. For instance, one day of weather forecast ordered from METEOFRANCE equals to Euro 300. So, in order to be forewarned about what the elements will have in store for the team during the assault, large expeditions spend fairly large amounts on the weather forecast and never regret the expense. We did not have a METEOFRANCE forecast on Lenin Peak, so we could only count on the opinions of the local Aqsaqals, who could interpret the smallest cloud as a harbinger of good or bad weather.
This year's weather conditions on Lenin Peak were extremely volatile. Perhaps this is why almost every day there was a rescue party on the mountain slopes, saving some hapless alpinist with cold injury or early stages of brain or lung edema. The mountain seemed to be telling us that it was not to be trifled with, so we strictly adhered to our acclimatization schedule, getting ourselves in the right mindset for the assault. The assault is the most critical phase of the ascent. On Lenin Peak, the assault lasts for four days on average, with the ascent taking three days and the descent - one day. For this phase, our team was to be joined by two experienced guides who would watch our backs. One of them was the famous Moscow-based alpinist Oleg Banar, and the second - Almaty native Viktor Portenko who ascended Lenin Peak five times. They had both pre-acclimatized and spent the night at an altitude of 6,100 m before joining us.
Volatile weather disrupted our acclimatization schedule somewhat. We planned to spend at least one night at an altitude above 6,000 meters before the assault. However, hurricane-force wind and rainstorm prevented us from scaling above the 5,850-meter mark, and we had to turn around and go down for a night at the 5,300-meter camp. Then we returned to our Base Camp at 3,600 meters where we rested and recovered for two days. Then we headed back up, gradually moving from camp to camp. Due to insufficient acclimatization, our assault was delayed somewhat - instead of three days it took four, since we decided to climb to the summit not from the 6,100-meter camp (from where 99% of alpinists start their assault), but from the 6,500-meter camp. In this way we considerably shortened the path to the summit during the assault day while also preserving a chance of descending to the 4,300-meter camp on the same day and leaving fro Osh on the following day. Sticking to this plan, at the 6,500-meter mark we called Moscow via satellite phone and moved our plane tickets from August 13th to August 9th, thereby eliminating our chances of a second attempt. Practically, there is seldom a chance of a second attempt on such high mountains. As a rule, the body is so exhausted after an unsuccessful fist attempt that very few alpinists dare a second attempt. Still, we believed we would succeed: despite the strong wind, the weather was suitable for the assault; we had a fine-tuned team; plus we had Viktor and Oleg to watch our backs.
At 4 a.m. on August 7, we started the assault. Naturally, our team was the first, since all the other teams left their tents at just about the same time, albeit from an altitude of 6,100 m. The main difficulty we faced besides the altitude was the route "key" at the 6,700 meter mark - a very steep "snow blade" with drop-offs on both sides of the crest. The previous teams secured this section with ropes, which simplified our task somewhat, so by sunrise we were already past this section on a wide snowy plateau that would gradually take us to the summit. All difficulties remained behind our backs, we were virtually a few hours from our goal - it seemed we could already discern the summit in the pre-dawn fog, and we only had to endure a little while longer. Almost the entire route was behind our backs. We spent two and a half weeks to cover it, so we stopped for a minute to muster our strength for the final push. At that moment Ilya noticed that Viktor, who was the last in our roped team, started to behave strangely. We got the impression that he was very tired and started to lose his coordination. Ilya waved me over and we inspected Viktor together. He said he had a sudden headache and objects started to swim before his eyes. I had repeatedly witnessed such cases, and it became clear to me that these were symptoms of brain edema. After asking Viktor a few test questions, I became further convinced in my assumption. It was a matter of hours. We urgently had to start moving Viktor down to where a doctor could take care of him. Otherwise, the consequences could be severe. We discussed the situation with the guys. The straight road to the top was ahead of us. Twenty days of intense work on the mountain were behind us. But a person was dying right there among us and we decided to turn back without thinking. I thawed frozen dexamethasone ampoules in my mouth and injected Viktor in his thigh right through his pants. Dexamethasone is a potent glucocorticoid steroid that activates the hormonal system. It is often used during rescue operations in the Himalayas. By the moment of the injection, Viktor's speech had already become slurred, he could not stand on his feet, could not see almost anything and had no realization of what was happening around him. Some time after the injection he came around, but his eyesight did not recover. He could start a slow descent with our help.
We started descending to our assault camp at the 6,500-meter mark. We were passed by alpinists going to the summit, but at that moment we could not care about the summit any less. We were contacted via radio first by a doctor from the Bank Camp, who ascertained the symptoms, then we had a direct contact with an Almaty doctor, who started to tell us what drugs Viktor needed then and in what quantities. Of course, both doctors kept telling us that Viktor had to be transported to the base as soon as possible. At the 4,300-meter camp a horse was ready to transport Viktor to the Base Camp, from where he would be taken first by car and then by plane to an Almaty hospital.
Roughly four hours after turning back, we got Viktor to the 6,100-meter camp. At this point we learned over radio that another rescue operation, a more serious one than ours, was starting at 7,000 meters mark. It turns out we stopped several hundred meters short of a cold-injured Korean, who got lost at an altitude of 7,000 meters last night and spent the night unconscious. All alpinists who passed us on their way up were helping to transport the Korean. Down at the base people were trying to have a helicopter up to at least 6,000 meters to airlift the injured alpinist. However, strong gusts of wind prevented the pilots from getting that high up. The helicopter landed at the Base Camp at 3,600 meters, and the pilots waited for the Korean to be taken down to at least 4,300 meters. In the meantime, we continued our descent and found ourselves at the 5,300-meter camp after several more hours, where rescue workers with a stretcher came to our assistance. From this point onward Viktor's life was no longer in danger, although there remained the question of whether or not the doctors would be able to restore his eyesight. The rescue workers took Viktor down. After resting for a while at the 5,300-meter camp we also resumed our descent.
The summit of Lenin Peak towered above us. Strong wind was blowing up "snow flags" on its slopes. Somewhere there, two kilometers up, a small group of alpinists was trying to save the dying Korean. During the eight hours that it took us to get to the 5,300-meter camp with Viktor, they managed to bring the Korean down only 300 vertical meters. Rescue workers' radios did not stay silent for a moment. Fresh forces were going up. But it was obvious that they would not be able to bring the Korean down that day. We spent some time discussing the fact that had not it been for the situation with Viktor, we would have been involved in a different rescue operation right then, which would also prevent us from reaching the summit. Thankfully, despite his blindness, Viktor walked most of the way down. Meanwhile, we would have to carry the Korean for two days. That would have void our plane tickets for the 9th and our plans of returning to Moscow by the start of the work week.
The last rescue team left the 4,300-meter camp at 3 a.m., by that time they had carried the Korean to the 6,100-meter camp. By then we were already in our tents, preparing to leave in a few hours for the Base Camp where a car to Osh already awaited us. At that time Viktor was already onboard a plan to an Almaty hospital where he would undergo an operation. Although extremely exhausted, we all were alive and virtually unharmed. Andrei Budnik had a little frostbite on his toes; we all lost ten pounds of weight each and were burnt by the scorching sun. Of course, most disappointing of all was the fact that the goal to which we aspired for such a long time remained outside our reach.
In Soviet alpinism there was a rule that if a team turns back due to a rescue operation, the summit is still credited to the team's record. Yet in our days we climb mountains not for the sake of sports categories, which is why the realization of this fact did nothing to sweeten the bitter pill. May everything turn out fine for Viktor with God's help. We will still have our chance at climbing our mountains.