Warning: Lots of curse words in this post.
I didn’t mention that before departure the expedition company asked me for a favour. They asked if I would accept delivery of two expedition tents, brand new, which would be used by our team on the push up to the summit if we put in a camp at Lenz Rocks. They said they were asking because the customs procedure to send them to Russia would likely cause delays. I won’t go through my thought process about the request (I’m sure you’re thinking the same things right now), but in summary I agreed – subject to the company paying the cost to check an additional bag on my flight, and on the condition that someone would meet me at Moscow airport to take the tents from me. Unbelievably it took a few days for them to agree to this. Remember, I am a paying client, and this was my first time booking with the company.
Back to the trip. So after a really miserable evening and restless night I woke up and we went for breakfast in the dining hut. For some reason we didn’t pack up and leave for Camp Lenz until after midday. The weather was forecast to be good but we still had a good 5-6 hour climb up to reach our campsite at Lenz. We packed our gear and retraced our steps which took us 6 hours to complete.
By the time my roped team reached the campsite the other members had already started setting up tents. The wind had picked up, the sun was setting, it was around -10C and most of the team hadn’t got a clue what they were doing. Very few of them (all but the same experienced three of us) had ever pitched an expedition tent, let alone in high winds in very cold conditions wearing heavy gloves and down jackets. Of course the guides hadn’t used the free time that morning to show everyone how to pitch these particular tents, instead the three of us who were experienced had been paired up with those who were inexperienced to minimise the risks or take responsibility I guess.
As I was the last climber in the last roped team, my two teammates had already arrived at camp before me and had made a start erecting the tent. I arrived to find quite a frantic scene. I helped the guys finish constructing the tent and the head guide came rushing over. He grabbed the tent we were just about to pitch, moved it a few feet to the right and started securing it in place. He had moved the tent from the area I had been clearing of rocks (for a ‘comfy’ night’s sleep) right onto a huge boulder, and ignored my protests. How the boulder didn’t split the base of the tent I have no idea; it was around 1.5 wide, 2.5ft long and 6-8 inches high off the ground in a ‘C’ shape. This boulder was to be my bed for the night as I was the smallest of the three tent mates. I would use the top part of the boulder as a ‘pillow’, curl up around the middle and wedge my knees into the bottom part.
Before getting to sleep we of course had to eat supper. It was 8pm by this point and we needed to collect snow to melt for water. Again, no briefing done on this for the group. Fortunately the guide came round to check everyone was cooking and brought extra snow to melt. Despite the wind being low, probably 35-40kph, it was bitterly cold and getting in and out of the tent was a massive challenge with three people. Next step was lighting the stove. We had half a box of crap Russian matches and a gas stove that wouldn’t light no matter what I tried. I heard my climbing partner Bruce outside the tent and called him in to help – my tent mates had never used a gas stove before so weren’t any help. He had the knack and got the flame going first time so 8:30pm and we started melting snow. By 9pm we had safe water for drinking and for making dinner. A can of ‘stew’ which smelt like dog food was quickly rejected so noodle soup followed by a tiny pot of instant mashed potato was all we could muster. One of the tent mates decided he was too tired to eat or help so just slept while myself and the other cooked for the three of us. I accidentally spilt boiling water over the hand of my tent mate as I was trying to cook in the vestibule while sitting on my fucking boulder, it was really late and we had to get up to summit in just a few hours. I was pissed off.
We ate our food, turned off the stove which in combination with the soup and mashed potato meal had helped take the chill off the tent and I curled up around my boulder while the boys stretched out. It was only at that moment that I realised that the tent I was ‘sleeping’ in was some ancient piece of crap with duct taped holes and evidence of many uses. Where were the brand tents I carried for three hours on a train, dragged through Gatwick airport and transported through customs for the company to Moscow for our group to use?
Staying awake all night cuddling a boulder and listening to the wind is not something I’d recommend. It wasn’t long before the guide was back at the tent door to let us know we needed to wake up for breakfast. The thought of trying to get the stove on and melting more water for foul-looking porridge didn’t appeal to any of us, so snack bars it was. I felt like shit. I couldn’t even get my layers on. I told my tent mates I didn’t think I could do it. One of them (who had decided not to attempt the summit) told me it was a risky endeavour going for the summit anyway and maybe I should just stay behind. The other encouraged me and said I’d come that far and I should at least give it a try. He was right. I needed to try.
I put my layers on, exited the tent, put on my crampons, grabbed my axe, switched on my head torch and stood up. It was a very calm night, with a light wind of only 15-20kph but my mind just wasn’t in it. I found the guide and said to him I didn’t think I would be able to do it and he asked what I wanted to do. I told him I would try. I then expressed my concerns to Bruce and he gave me a word of encouragement. The next thing I know the rest of the team had disappeared into the dark and onwards up the slope in a trail of lights. I took a deep breath and started walking. My body was weak from being undernourished and exhausted, my mind was weak from being broken down after days of mental battles.
The snow was deep, around knee-high in places so it was very tiring. After about an hour I stumbled and dropped to my knees. Roped up I knew I had to get up quickly to avoid the climber ahead of me being pulled back so I stood and carried on walking. Not long after that the pins and needles started in my arms. Concerned, I wiggled my fingers and tried to move my arms to bring back the circulation; this wasn’t something I had ever experienced before while walking, or indeed walking at altitude. About 10 minutes later I started to feel the pain in my chest; a sharp, stabbing pain as if someone had driven a stake right through my back into my left shoulder blade and out of my chest every time I took a breath. Having had a shoulder injury a few years previously I told myself I was okay, and that hunching up against the cold and sleeping on a boulder was causing my pain. But the pins and needles remained. I fell to my knees once again.
I turned around and said to the guide I didn’t think I could continue. He asked me if I was sure, “we are close to the saddle“. I said I would push on. Another ten minutes went by and I dropped again. This time I knew. I turned to the guide again and said I was done.
I remembered advice I’d heard from guides in the past about summit fever, I remembered giving the same advice to my own clients while leading Kilimanjaro treks, I remembered my guides on Mt Rainier explaining that getting to the summit was just half way and you needed fuel in the tank to get down. I knew that turning around now was absolutely the correct decision and even if my mind was willing (which it wasn’t), my body was not. The head guide bounded up to me and short roped me down to camp. On my way down past my team members I spoke to Bruce and wished him good luck for the summit. He said he knew I had made the right choice but later told me felt like it wasn’t right that we weren’t going for the summit together.
The guide who took me down seemed delighted to not have to continue up on the summit push. This was his last climb of the season and I suspect he had had enough. On reflection, it was an odd choice for the head guide, the one that spoke the most fluent English, to accompany me down to camp rather than one of the assistant guides but at that stage I didn’t care as long as I could get down. We reached camp after a short time and started breaking down tents and packing up equipment to help out the rest of the team upon their completion of the summit push.
The member who hadn’t gone up for the summit carried down my main pack with some of the camp supplies as I was too weak to carry more than the basic summit pack he had brought up. Even that pack felt like lead on my back. We descended down to high camp and waited for the rest of the team to join us. 4 more of the team arrived back, not having summited, around 90 minutes later. The 5 remaining team members didn’t get back down for many hours more having successfully summited. It was after 4pm. I am delighted that Bruce made it successfully to the summit; he earnt it and I am so proud.
Upon their arrival back at camp I did my best to support the team, carrying their bags to the hut, sharing out leftover snacks and sweets, filling water bottles. I felt I owed it to them. The rest of the evening is a bit of a blur but I seem to remember another horrendous meal of buckwheat but also a sense of relief that the trip was drawing to a close. Almost over now.