in pursuit of the Snow Leopard Award
The beginning of a dream, the start of a long journey
It all started a few years back when I read an article about The Snow Leopard award. Two Brits with big plans were trying to conquer 5 x 7000m peaks in one season and set a record for the fastest team doing this. It’s a great challenge but one doesn’t have to do them all in one season in order to the accredited with this distinct prize. Unfortunately one of the climbers got hit by a rock and they had to retreat. His name is Jon Gupta, now a high altitude guide and the one that taught me the basics of mountaineering years ago.
Now it was my time to start this journey. Together with a friend, Dragos Ionescu, we formed a Romanian team set to be the first from our country to reach all 5 summits. A project for the next 3 years in which we will be climbing Lenin Peak (Ibn Sina) first as the easiest one in order to familiarise with the area and life at altitude and finish with the hardest, Khan Tengri and Pobeda.
With the help of Mr Zhunus Baglan, the president of Kazakhstan Mountaineering Association we planned our first ascent hiring a local agency to take care of logistics – Ak-sai Travel. Everything went according to plan and they did a great job. We decided not to use guide, my belief being that if you can’t do it yourself, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all.
The day all started – 28th July 2018
We departed in the afternoon but things did not go as smooth as planned. Without being able to buy extra luggage, we were forced to pay the outrageous 15€ per kg the airline asked. Having had to drag our kit bags through the airport between desks we were already late when the luggage band broke down blocking everything and forming a massive queue. Before boarding we had to ask multiple members of staff to make sure our equipment got loaded into the plane. Conclusion – avoid Air Astana if you can and buy your ticket at least 6 month in advance.
The flights were long but planes spacious and comfortable enough for economy class. More painful were the stops of over 10 hours in Astana and Almaty. Pretty much nobody speaks English and the few bistros and coffee shops only accept cash and rip you off on conversion to local currency. The only restaurant in Astana airport had higher prices than in London and more staff than customers: £26 for 2 beers a salad and some chips. Later on we left the airport and found a local shop just across the street with prices 20 times lower. If only we had known.
29th July – After 30 hours we finally arrived in Bishkek but our problems didn’t end there. The border agents have difficulty in processing our electronic Visa. It was nothing wrong with it, but they did not know how to do it. After almost an hour of waiting they let us go. Luckily the Ak-sai driver was still waiting for us. After meeting Olga, the expedition organiser the final destination was Ak Keme hotel. Too far away from the centre and too old and dusty for the 4* it has been given. If you book with the same agency the hotel is always the same. The rooms are old and bed not very comfortable. The balcony is nice though and views over Bishkek with the snowy peaks beautiful. The service at the pool terrace is slow and expensive and often don’t have much from the menu. Its better to go at the Hookah bar just outside. Good vibes and decent prices.
Down the road there is a bank and an ATM. Further down to the main boulevard a few supermarkets open till late. 10 minutes away Dolce Vita pizzeria is a good option. Good pizza but high prices. The bill comes with a 15% service charge on top.
30th July – The next morning we were picked up and taken back to the airport for the 8 a.m. flight to Osh. Tenzin airlines operates a few old and small planes and the luggage limit is 15kg for check in and 5kg for cabin. Extra weight can be taken at a rate between 0.5 to 3$/kg depending on the flight hour. If you pay in dollars, tip the cashier who pretends to accept only local currency. We stuffed our hand packs with what probably was double the allowance and checked in. At security they tried to keep all the spare batteries claiming that should have been checked in. The flight only takes about 40 minutes, plane is small, with little room for legs and dirty. There is a rattle sound coming from outside and we pray not to hit any turbulence.
Arrived in Osh, the airport is so small that nobody even checks passports and the exit can be seen the moment you step in. We meet our driver and the rest of the group and we are ready to start the 7 hours journey to the Base Camp. The minibus, an old German relic from the 50’s, with no suspensions and a strong smell of rotten potatoes, struggled to keep up with the steep mountain roads but eventually took us to the destination. Lunch was served traditionally in a local Kyrgyz house. It was very good but did give us some stomach problems not being used to the local cuisine.
Once arrived in BC, we meet Mikail, the administrator, and took our tent. Spacious enough and with wooden floor and mats. The views over the high mountains and Peak Lenin itself are breathtaking. The dinning tent is permanently open and big enough to fit over 100 people. The food, not the best considering they have car access. There is a small bar where alcohol, juice, wine and bear can be purchased with prices between 2 and 10$. Sauna is also available at the rate of 25$/hour. But the best thing is the unlimited hot shower. Toilets are a bit fitly and basically just holes in the ground. There are water taps but only if you have a strong stomach. Boiled water is available in the dining tent. There is also permanent electricity, including a power socket in the tent. The downside is that the camp is full of light and disturbs your sleep. Earplugs and eye masks are a must.
31st July – The next day was quite relaxed and together with the group we took walk to the lakes near the camp. A bit short and effortless for a first acclimatisation day but considering the long flight, happy to accept it. The rest of the day was spent enjoying the sun and socialising. It’s funny how mountain brings people together. There is no social status, race or religion. There is a group of climbers with the same purpose: reach the summit and get back safe and have a good time doing so. Some of those people were to become friends at the end of the expedition.
1st August – The third day also marked the start of the climb. While most of the climbers were happy just to go up to 4000m in their trainers me and Dragos were keen in reaching the top of Petrovsky Peak at 4700m. Two others and a guide joined us and a few hours later we all stood on the summit. The climb starts gently from the base camp following the mountain face until it joins the ridge at the lowest point. Sharply turns left and start gaining altitude. Hiking poles and trainers/boots would be sufficient for this 4 hour loop hike. Just after joining the descending route the actual climb starts. At first with easy scrambling before joining the steeper snowy slopes. Crampons and ice axe are required. A rope is an extra safety measure but not mandatory. Eventually after almost 700m and 1-2 hours from the junction one reaches the summit ridge. A semi circle line leading to a rocky top. A good acclimatisation day. The descent is quick but dusty. One comes down by a big gully with loose rotten rock to meet the river behind the camp. This was also the last day in Base camp. Time to enjoy a last hot water shower.
2nd August – Early morning, around 7 a.m. the porters gather to pick up climber’s extra gear for the higher camps. The higher, the more expensive – 3/6/12$ per kg for each length. We filled up the packs, about 20kg each, and sent another 32kg on a horse.
After breakfast the guides arranged a car for our group to take us higher on the mountain shortening the length of the hike with 4km out of 14km. Once arrived at the drop off point Mikail gave everyone the paperwork for higher camps. It is only then that he realised we didn’t pay for the guides. It was time to go on our own which we would have done it at some point anyway. The trail to Camp 1 is not marked but clear enough that you won’t get lost. It’s mostly uphill so it’s hard work with a heavy pack but easy enough that you can wear hiking shoes. Sometimes the snow lined drops under 4000m in which case boots would be the better option. There is a lot of crumbled rock and sand therefore a lot of dust. Before the camp a fast glacier river cuts the way. You can take a horse for 5$ or man up, take your shoes off and cross it. Be aware that the water only has a few degrees above freezing levels. Once at the camp we meet Vladimir, the administrator, who likes alcohol a bit too much and Vlad, his helper, who deals with the tents and the bar.
Some of the tents are broken and after a long chat with Vlad, he gave us a new one by the river. There’s a lot of drift during the night though and we regretted swapping after I got sick.
3rd August – What was suppose to be an acclimatisation day turned into a visit to the camp doctor and the toilet. I woke up with a headache and high fever and a bad stomach. I decided to stay at camp and recover. A small stupid mistake can ruin months of training and effort put in organising the expedition. I was too tired and felt asleep with the head out of the sleeping in the drift coming from the river. Missing a weather window it’s a luxury you often can not afford. Dragos joined the rest of the group and stuck with the initial plan. It was no point of holding him back. I washed some clothes, had some sleep and by evening I was already feeling better.
The good weather is holding and forecast is excellent for the upcoming days so we decided to leave for Camp 2 in the morning. Joseba, the basque climber in our group, decides to join us.
4th August – Porridge again. Every morning the same breakfast. Sometimes if you’re lucky there are some leftover cheese and cheap salami. Important calories to miss even before the climb started. Lunch and dinner are ok but freshness of the meat questionable. Just can’t seem to get rid of the diarrhea. The fever is gone and I am well again. At 3 a.m. we departed for Camp 2, while the guides decided to keep the rest of the group behind for an extra rest day.
It was a warm night, with clear sky and no wind. The approach is long and unpleasant, having to cross moraines and 2 glaciers. After an hour and a half we reach the wall. It’s only now when the climb really starts. Most of the parties rope up. It’s not technical but steep and a lot of crevasses along the way. We decide only to equip our crampons and harnesses just in case. There is a fix rope in place but most choose not to use it as it follows the most direct but steep way up. Shortly after, a huge crevasse is secured with a metal ladder. Nobody says a word, we just follow the trail trying to avoid the minefield that lies ahead of us. Eventually the sun comes up and the temperature rises. I’m sweating and immediately regret my decision of wearing thick insulated pants. Before reaching Camp 2, the path drops in altitude only to gain it again and make the finish harder.
Camp 2 is more or less a shit hole. The only good think about it is the running glacier water which saved us hours from melting snow. Everything else is old and not maintained. Tents have uneven platforms and rips in it. Some have vomit or even excrement inside. The one given to us was on a rocky slope, half of it just hanging in the air. We obviously took another one. They are too small with enough space for one. So sleeping two inside was a nightmare. I kept sliding all night over Dragos and didn’t get much sleep. A path that rises from the tents takes you to a cliff – the loo. Here navigation skills are very handy and trying no to step in anything it’s a challenge. On top of everything, the camp is located under a big wall with constant rockfall danger.
5th August – Another early start, this time to Camp 3. The plan was to spend as much time as possible there before descending back. We only took water, food and a stove leaving everything else in the tent.
The start is steep and takes about an hour to get to the shoulder. From there, the higher camp can be clearly seen on a sunny day. It slowly gains altitude until it reaches the last steep slope just under the camp 35-40 degrees at that altitude it’s no easy job. There are very few crevasses and there is no need to rope up. The camp is right at the top and 20 minutes away, Razdelnaya Peak. No crampons needed, you can just walk to it.
The same porter from the lower camp takes care of the tents and assigns them to climbers. If you didn’t pay for one through the agency, a small bribe and he will sort you out. The tents are pitched on small snow platforms and apart from the cuts in the fabric, probably from crampons, in decent condition. Dragos wasn’t feeling well so me and Joseba went for Razdelnaya Peak. We descended right after our return as Dragos’s condition wasn’t getting any better. Sadly we had to cut short our acclimatisation window.
6th August – Even though I was a bit worried that we haven’t spent enough time at the higher camp we decided to go back to Camp 1 and rest for the summit push. We left at the first light carrying back down all the gear. It’s only after an hour that I realised the mistake. Food, the extra mat, all the summit clothing could have been left in the storage tent. A stupid mistake that was going to cost me 30$ for the 5kg I sent back on a porter. I did not want to risk a back injury after feeling some pain in the past days. Carrying a 20+kg pack at that altitude is no easy job. Sometimes you learn the hard way.
At camp 1 we found out that the weather forecast is not good. Bad weather and fresh snow every day for the next week. They only use “mountain weather” as their source which hasn’t always been reliable. After checking other websites we discussed the situation with the Spanish team and Joseba. His In-reach GPS receives updated weather info every day. A weather window was predicted after the next day which meant we had to decide. Trust one forecast, go down to BC and wait a week with only one chance for the summit bid or go up again the next night after just one resting day and be ready to summit if the weather window comes. If the weather is bad we would descend and still have time for a second attempt. Hopefully enough energy as well.
After a long debate we decided to take a chance and go for the summit. We took a radio and dropped the 5kg extra weight to Strava, the superman porter with a record of 72kg on his back to higher camps.
7th August – After just 8 days since arriving at BC we were making our summit bid. The 2.30 a.m. wake up call should have been early enough for us to be ready to go before the breakfast. And yet we were late. It took us over an hour to finish packing and get kit-ed. The breakfast – porridge again and a few cheese slices melted on a plate. The Spanish team wasn’t ready either so we waited. At 4.30 a.m. we were finally ready to start the summit bid.
It was warm and raining. The higher were camps covered in clouds. I started having second thoughts about our decision but it was too late to turn back. We repeated the route to Camp 2, but this time the crevasse were much wider and snow bridges gone so we roped up – 30m of 7.8mm was just enough for 4 people.
By the time we reached the shoulder I was exhausted. The lack of food in the morning and diarrhea dehydrated me too much till the point where every step became a struggle. I immediately regretted rushing for the summit without proper rest. The thought of turning back crossed my mind and I unclipped from the rope. However the guys wouldn’t let me go so I continued munching on a Cliff bar. At 12 sharp just when Vladimir called us on the radio for location we reached the camp – almost 7 hours. Too slow, but understandable considering the lack of energy.
This time we chose better tents and took one each determined to get better sleep.
8th August – Same way up to Camp 3 but this time with a much heavier pack. Something close to 20kg. I was still feeling hungry after a light breakfast and even though I had enough dehydrated packs it just wouldn’t go in. With energy levels low but better than the previous day we reached the higher camp after 3 hours of effort. Once the sun is up everything starts melting and the snow becomes slush. It’s hard work at that altitude. At camp once again we each take a tent and immediately start melting snow. I try to eat my dehydrated pasta but what once tasted good now disgusts me and I barely manage to get down half of it. It’s already snowing and visibility is no more than a few meters. We go to sleep hoping the sky will clear in a few hours.
9th August – I open my tent and see star light. It’s time. Water froze inside the insulated bottle so it must be really cold. Again I force myself to eat something but way too little. By the time we packed and were ready to go it was almost 4 a.m. We are over an hour late, I haven’t boiled enough water and forgot to strip down the pack. We’re also the last to leave camp.
In the distance a few lights started to ascend. They are already at the rock band so must have camped there. At first we descend into a small col only to gain back the altitude and reach a rocky face. It’s too dark to see anything else but the person in front and the path through the rocks and scree. It’s very windy and cold but all my layers are wide open. A hard shell under my puffy jacket was unnecessary but too late to be removed. I was hoping it would be worm enough and I would take the down layer off. At -25C that wasn’t gonna happen. By the time we reached the snow plateau a lot of the climbers would have turned back because of the cold. My thumbs started to feel numb and my toes painful. I was hoping that when the sun will rise they will start warming up again. But it didn’t. We continued ascending but soon I stopped. Dragos was getting very cold so we agreed to split. I took the boots off and the socks. My toes looked purple but could still move them. I desperately start rubbing them for a good few minutes until the blood came back. I emptied most of my belongings in a dry bag, keeping just the water, a Cliff bar and a pair of gloves and left everything else under a rock. Unfortunately it wasn’t long until my toes felt numb again. This time I used some hand warmers inside my socks but with no effect. All this process delayed me with almost an hour and everyone else was already far ahead. I set myself a 30 minutes turn around time if nothing was going to change. I was about to give up when out of nowhere a climber appeared. In his 50’s, he was moving slowly and taking frequent breaks. In a poor English he asked if I am feeling all right, offering me some toe warmers after finding out my trouble. After a few minutes I could feel my toes again. It worked! We start ascending together and the warmer I got the faster I became. The sun was out now and shining and it wasn’t long enough until we caught up with a guide and his clients. As the terrain got steeper, Roman, the Russian climber, got slower and slower. I didn’t not want to leave him behind. After all he saved me from turning back, so I waited. We were now at the fixed rope, a 45-50 degree iced face cornice-ed and exposed. With a hand on the rope and other on a walking stick I managed to get on top of it without taking my ice axe out. Carrying a harness and jumar set up for 50m is unnecessary extra weight. It will make the climb safer but at the price of 1kg. For such a short fixed rope it’s not worth it despite what the guides suggest.
The route continues over another snow plateau before starting to gain altitude on mixed ground. Slowly we make progress and struggle for each breath. The thin air makes you gasp. After a few fake summits I meet Dragos. He was already returning after reaching the summit but was suffering from cold so I let him continue. Not too long after we meet the Spanish team who summited as well. Finally the summit is visible and 20 minutes later me and Roman stood on the top. It was 12.30. Unfortunately our success was shadowed by not sharing the joy of reaching the top with my climbing partner.
It is almost impossible to describe the moment. Mixed emotions rushed through my head. A few photos, a short video and a good look at the view. Breathtaking. I looked around for any higher points to make sure we are in fact on the true summit and start descending. We were left alone and while there is an urgency to get down as quickly as possible, this is when most accidents occur. Roman started to complain about abdominal pain and we decide to go slowly. It was warm and less windy now and I felt pain in my toes and fingers. At the rock band we were able to see multiple parties on the other side of the col. We got down and start ascending as well. The snow was melted and huge holes started to appear so we opted for the rocky slab on the left. It was slow hard work as the energy levels were almost zero. Before the camp the weather closed in and it started snowing. I said good bye to Roman and went in my tent. After consulting with Dragos we decided to spend the night at Camp 3 and opt for an early start to reach the valley next morning.
10th August – Breathing view and an amazing sunrise. It was about 5 a.m. and still very cold. It had been a hard night with wind and snow. Water froze in the thermal flask so we didn’t have much to drink. It also didn’t make sens to waste time melting snow when there is running water at the lower camp. We descended quickly breaking trail through fresh snow and joined the Spanish team that were having breakfast at Camp 2. We all continued to the valley. Fortunately none of us felt in a crevasse. After reaching Camp 1, we packed the extra kit and arranged for porters. At lunch the success was celebrated with some whiskey, exchanged details and said our goodbyes as the others decided to stay for the night. We collected the certification for the summit from Vladimir, the camp administrator, and left. After dropping my pack in the river and getting caught in the rain we reached base camp just before dinner.
11th – 14th August – For the next few days we rested and wondered on the nearby hills. Initially the plan was to try and climb another peak, or even a different route to Lenin but I had enough of tent life and also not keen on climbing again in the same boots that destroyed my feet. So instead I packed my bags and left to Osh while Dragos stayed at the camp. We had 5 days left, enough for a short holiday around Kyrgyzstan.
The expedition was a success and we gained a lot of experience. We also did mistakes and learned from them. It wasn’t a hard climb but rather long and exhausting. There is a permanent avalanche and crevase danger between Camp 1 and 2. The summit day has over 1000m of ascent and requires good physical and mental preparation. Having suffered from stomach problems pretty much every day and then starved at the higher camps, bringing something else than just dehydrated packs is essential. My Spantik boots weren’t as comfortable as I though they would be. Too rigid and heavy, too warm for the acclimatization days and not warm enough on the summit bid. Therefore next year I will be using my G5’s for as long as I can and swap to 8000m boots for higher up. There are a lot more that needs improvements but in the end we summited and came back home safe and that’s all that matters.