Sunshine and optimism in the High Pamirs: my attempt on Peak Lenin

If I’d known about the climbing history of 7134m Peak Lenin in the Central Asian Pamirs, then I might have thought twice about going there. But before I go on to describe two of history’s lesser known but biggest mountaineering disasters, I’m going to start with some good news and some background.

Lying on the border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Peak Lenin was first discovered in 1871 by the Russian naturalist and explorer Alexei Fedchenko, who was to die on Mont Blanc two years later. He discovered and mapped the Trans-Alai range (a sub-range of the Pamirs), and noted in his diary that:

“No single speck of black we saw, the entire mountain was covered in snow.”

He measured it to be 7620m, a figure that turned out to be wildly inaccurate, and named it Kaufman Peak after Konstantin Kaufman, the first Governor-General of Turkestan.

Peak Lenin from Kyrgyzstan (Photo: Allen Valge)
Peak Lenin from Kyrgyzstan (Photo: Allen Valge)

Early attempts to climb it were made from the southern side in Tajikistan. In 1928 an expedition organised by the USSR Academy of Science completed an extensive exploration of the area, put names to several mountains and changed the name of Kaufman Peak to Peak Lenin, after some other obscure politician (in 2006 the government of Tajikistan renamed it Abu Ali ibn Sina Peak, which is as good a reason as any to call it Peak Lenin).

The first ascent of Peak Lenin was made that same year, 1928. An Austrian team started from the south and climbed to the top via a 5820m col on the mountain’s east ridge. Eugen Allwein, Karl Wien and Erwin Schneider reached the summit at 3.30pm on 25 September, in extremely cold conditions which left them with badly frostbitten feet. And for any mountaineering geeks reading this (I have my hand in the air): although they didn’t know it at the time, it was the highest mountain that had ever been climbed, beating the record of the Scottish doctor Alexander Kellas, who climbed 7128m Pauhunri in northern Sikkim in 1911 (Kellas, who died during the 1921 Everest expedition, was himself unaware of his record). Erwin Schneider extended his own record two years later when he climbed 7462m Jongsong Peak near Kangchenjunga.

In 1929 a Russian Bolshevik revolutionary called Nikolai Krylenko made a solo attempt by the same route, getting to within 280m of the summit (the 5820m col has since been named Krylenko Pass in his honour). During a ski descent to the north side he observed that Peak Lenin would be easier to climb from its northern approach. In 1934 this was proved to be true when an expedition led by the brothers Vitali and Yevgeni Abalakov made the first ascent of Peak Lenin by what is now the standard Razdelnaya Route along the west ridge.

Peak Lenin climbing routes from the Kyrgyzstan side (Photo: Dmitriy Page)
Peak Lenin climbing routes from the Kyrgyzstan side (Photo: Dmitriy Page)

In 1937 a Soviet pilot by the name of Lipkin was forced to crash land below the east ridge on the north side of the mountain while attempting an air drop of climbing supplies. Parts of his aircraft still remain in a place now known as Lipkin Rocks. In addition to the Razdelnaya Route, a second route up Peak Lenin from the north, known as the Lipkin Route, passes these rocks to join the east ridge to the summit. It is therefore possible to traverse the mountain from east to west by ascending the Lipkin Route and returning to base camp on the north side via the Razdelnaya. This traverse was to play a notable part in the tragic events of 1974.

The British mountaineering legend Doug Scott devotes just four paragraphs of his photographic autobiography Himalayan Climber to his historic first ascent of Peak Lenin via the Northeast Ridge in 1974. One of these paragraphs describes a request by the Russian authorities for the British team to raise a Union Flag during an elaborate opening ceremony. The Russians had assembled a gathering of 160 climbers, many of them among the world’s best, for an international mountaineering festival on Peak Lenin and the surrounding mountains.

At the last count no fewer 73 books have been written about the 1996 Everest disaster (actually, that’s probably a slight exaggeration), one of which, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, is about to be released as a major Hollywood blockbuster movie, presumably inviting more spin-offs. Eight climbers lost their lives in that tragedy, tarnishing the reputation of commercial mountaineering on Everest ever since. One of the reasons for the astonishing notoriety of this particular mountaineering disaster is undoubtedly that it happened on Everest, the world’s highest mountain, but another factor was probably Krakauer’s book, the first of the 73, which was written with a journalist’s eye for a story.

From what I can tell there have been just two books written about the 1974 Peak Lenin disaster (or series of disasters). One of these by Vladimir Shataev, who lost his wife in the tragedy, is not easily available in English translation. The other one, Robert Craig’s Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs, is as good an account of a mountaineering tragedy I’ve read. This is because, unlike other books in the disaster porn genre, it is not written with a journalist’s eye for a story, and is simply an honest and wise account by the deputy leader of the American team, written sensitively, to no agenda, with a desire to establish the truth without apportioning blame.

Robert Craig's book Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs is a must read if you're going to climb Peak Lenin and want to scare the living daylights out of yourself before you leave
Robert Craig’s book Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs is a must read if you’re going to climb Peak Lenin and want to scare the living daylights out of yourself before you leave

Craig, who died earlier this year at the age of 90, was a member of the 1953 American K2 expedition, when Pete Schoening saved seven climbers from certain death in one of the most famous ice-axe arrests in mountaineering history. Schoening was himself leader of the 1974 Peak Lenin expedition.

The book is slow to get going. Five pages of the first chapter are set aside for mini bios of all 17 members of the American team, some of whom only feature briefly in the story. It makes me yawn just thinking about those five pages, though I imagine they would be interesting if you’re one of the team’s mother.

But from the fourth chapter the book is unputdownable (and if that’s not a word then it is now). Eleven members of the American team were caught in an avalanche triggered by an earthquake on the Lipkin Route, heading up to Krylenko Pass. All of them were buried, but by a miracle they all survived. Other members of the 160-strong delegation were scattered about the mountain when the earthquake happened, and five members of an Estonian team were killed in a separate avalanche.

Craig described these events in the third person, because he wasn’t one of the eleven, but his own story came in the next chapter, and it was rather more heart-wrenching. With three team mates, John Roskelley, Gary Ullin and John Marts, he was attempting to climb a smaller 5920m peak known as Peak 19 when the earthquake struck. Avalanches fell around them, but initially they were spared.

Later that night Craig was sharing a two-man tent with Ullin when he was woken suddenly during the night. He had fallen asleep with one arm resting outside his sleeping bag, and this may just have saved his life.

“The next thing I remember was a kind of hissing in my ears, a shout from the other tent, a kind of popping as the tent collapsed over Gary and me, and the building up of an enormous weight on my body as the avalanche engulfed our tent platform.” Robert Craig, Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs

With his free arm he was able to create a tiny air pocket around his face. There was no response from Ullin lying somewhere a foot away from him, hidden by the snow. He was dead, having probably been suffocated instantly. Craig lay motionless for 20 minutes, nursing the increasingly stale air around his face, until he felt movement around his feet as Roskelley and Marts arrived to dig him out.

All their climbing equipment was buried in a snow cave, and they were unable to locate it with only their hands to dig with, but they did manage to retrieve a radio. They spent two hypothermic nights on that dangerous avalanche-prone face, before a brave helicopter pilot was able to fly close enough to drop a shovel which enabled them to locate their equipment and climb back down to safety.

These initial tragedies were just a foreword in the overall disaster. There was unseasonably bad weather that year, and day after day of rain and storm at base camp left metres of snow on the mountain. With regular earth tremors, avalanches remained a high risk, but it was human error that led to the final tragic climax. With little improvement in the weather, climbers appeared to become increasingly desperate and ascended in conditions where they may have been wiser remaining at base camp.

There were around 40 of them on the mountain when a severe storm was forecast. Over the radio Russian climbing legend and event organiser Vitali Abalakov ordered people off the mountain, but few obeyed. A Swiss member of an international women’s team died of exhaustion while retreating in a storm high up on the Razdelnaya Route, but it was the 8-strong Russian women’s team that were to suffer the greatest tragedy.

They were attempting the Lipkin traverse, and arrived on the summit exhausted while the storm was in its early stages. They met other climbers there, who urged them to return via the Lipkin, the route they knew, as quickly as possible.

But the Russian women were determined to complete the traverse and proceeded to pitch their tents on the broad summit plateau. The tents were made from wooden poles, with toggles rather than zips for closure, and wholly unsuited to the conditions. By the morning they had collapsed and were engulfed in snow, while the storm showed no sign of abating. Two of the women were dying and unable to help themselves, but their team mates were reluctant to leave them while they were still alive.

From the comfort of an armchair this refusal to abandon their comrades seems admirable, but it ultimately led to the deaths of all of them. Over the next day and a half they remained in radio contact with helpless climbers at base camp, who did their best to urge them down as one-by-one they died of exposure and exhaustion.

At 8.30pm on the second day of their ordeal their leader, Elvira Shataeva, made her last transmission.

“Now we are two. And now we will all die. We are very sorry. We tried but we could not … Please forgive us. We love you. Goodbye.”

In all 15 climbers had been killed in four separate incidents. While some had lost their lives by making the wrong decision, others had simply done what climbers do, and taken a calculated risk when, unknown to them, the odds were stacked against them.

Unlike the 1996 Everest disaster, when the victims had been inexperienced commercial climbers and their guides, the victims in 1974 on Peak Lenin were all experienced climbers. Interestingly much of Robert Craig’s focus in the early chapters is on a 50-strong Austrian tour group led by Marcus Schmuck. Schmuck made the first ascent of 8051m Broad Peak in 1957 with his more famous compatriots Hermann Buhl and Kurt Diemberger. He became one of the pioneers of commercial mountaineering in the Himalayas, and made one of the first commercial trips to an 8000m peak, Cho Oyu, in the 1980s.

In the more subdued early part of his book Craig discussed how the 50 commercial clients on Peak Lenin seemed unable to fit in with the other climbers. He was unable to explain why, and although he was not judgemental there is an undercurrent of resentment, and trepidation for what may happen with such a large group of less experienced climbers sharing the mountain with them. After Chapter 4 this tour group dropped out of the story, and didn’t feature in any of the later chapters which covered the tragedies. I can only assume they (or their leader Marcus Schmuck) chose to heed the weather forecasts and remain in base camp during the storm.

Since 1996 commercial mountaineering on Everest has been the focus of furious debate in the media, most of it negative. Somewhere buried in all this is the essence of Jon Krakauer’s journalist’s eye for the story, and it may help to explain why the greater tragedy on Peak Lenin, when 15 more experienced climbers lost their lives, has received very little attention. On the other hand it may just be because Everest is Everest, and it always will receive more attention.

Peak Lenin from Sary Mogol (Photo: Nihongarden / Wikimedia Commons)
Peak Lenin from Sary Mogol (Photo: Nihongarden / Wikimedia Commons)

In an eerie reflection of events on Everest this year, tragedy revisited Peak Lenin in 1990, when another earthquake triggered a huge serac collapse at Camp 2 on the Razdelnaya Route, at 5300m in a place known as the Frying Pan. There were 45 climbers camped there at the time, and only two of them survived. Just one body was recovered, which illustrates how totally the camp was destroyed. In terms of sheer numbers, it was probably the biggest disaster in mountaineering history, unless you count the earthquake on Huascaran, the highest mountain in Peru, in 1970, which caused a significant part of the mountain to collapse, and launched a catastrophic flood which obliterated an entire town a few miles downstream.

It’s worth putting these events in perspective. 1700 people were killed on the UK’s roads in 2013, but that didn’t stop me getting in my car and driving in relative safety. If I lived in America I could reflect on the fact that thousands more are shot dead every year, but people still leave their houses each morning and return later.

Hence the title of this blog post. After describing two of mountaineering’s biggest tragedies I now have the task of explaining that I’m about to leave for an attempt on Peak Lenin, that I hope to have good weather and reach the summit, and that I’m rather more confident of returning home safely with many happy memories. I’m a safe and cautious climber, and these things have happened on every expedition I’ve been on so far.

Despite the storms and the high altitude, Peak Lenin by its standard route is considered one of the more straightforward 7000m peaks, with many successful ascents every year. An example of an ascent which went right was sent to me by Californian climber Hari Mix, whom I met on the Everest trail last year. It’s an entertaining read, made all the more so for being written in the style of Mark Twight. Like Hari I will be attempting to climb the mountain in a relatively short timeframe for such a high peak, so doubtless I will also be biting off a big slice of pain cake.

Mountaineering is not without risk, but the risks are calculated, and worth taking for the benefits they bring. I will continue to share those benefits with you by writing about them when I return.

I will be climbing by the Razdelnaya Route with the British mountaineering operator Jagged Globe, in a team led by Robert Anderson, who is best-known for leading a successful ascent of Everest by a new route on the Kangshung Face in 1988. Robert was also my expedition leader when I attempted Cho Oyu in 2010. Like Marcus Schmuck’s team in 1974, we are in safe hands, but contrary to the expectations of those of you who may have stumbled upon this post after watching Everest The Movie (yes, I know it’s not been released yet, but I’m just looking into my crystal ball), we commercial clients are also capable of making our own decisions and using our own climbing skills from time to time.

We may not mingle with the big guns much, but that’s OK. There will be room on the mountain for all of us, and we can still be friends. More importantly, we can all enjoy the climb and come back alive.

To receive my weekly blog post about mountains and occasional info about new releases, join my mailing list and get a free ebook.

4 thoughts on “Sunshine and optimism in the High Pamirs: my attempt on Peak Lenin

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Lively discussion is welcome, but if you think your comment might offend please read the commenting guidelines before posting.