Sleeping on a boulder and going for the summit

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.

IMG_2459By 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.
LenzThe 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.

“Will today be the day I die?”

The porters’ hut

The following day we moved up to High Camp (3800m) with the rest of our gear. Another scorcher of a day, with blue skies and bright sunshine all the way to the top. The conditions underfoot were amazing with snow that makes that awesome crunchy sound and your boots really seem to stick in place.
Despite that, every step I took felt in my calves as if someone had wound a guitar string so tight it was about to break. I used the rest step technique the entire way up. Upon arrival at High Camp we discovered that we couldn’t sleep in the hut we had left our gear as another group hadn’t descended yet due to poor conditions higher on the peak. We were moved into the porters hut instead which was fine, and had dinner of buckwheat and stew before going to sleep.

Next up was another acclimatisation day, up to Lenz Rocks (4800m). A 1000m ascent was always going to be a tough day but wow, I had no idea how tough. Waking up I could feel how stiff my calves were from the previous day, so massaging Tiger Balm into my skin I wished for my muscles to hold out for me.
Plastic boots, crampons and harnesses on today; we were going onto the glacier. Now if you recall, only 3 of 11 of our team had any previous mountaineering experience. This means that today we set off from 3800m to 4800m on glaciated terrain with 8 people who had either never used crampons, never worn a harness or didn’t know an ice axe from a toffee hammer. There was a delay setting off as one of the party had his harness on backwards.
As soon as I stepped outside the hut I knew it wasn’t going to be my day. I had only walked about 50m and I felt unusually out of breath, dizzy and my legs were so heavy. I figured I was just warming up; I’m not a morning person. We roped up in teams (a first time in a roped team for 8 people), and set off up the mountain.

Me at the rest stop, on the way up to Lenz Rocks
Me at the rest stop, on the way up to Lenz Rocks

I was in the final team, second last on the rope. One of the things I learnt during my glacier skills course was about keeping the tension on the rope just so¬†to be in the best position for recovery should one of the team fall into a crevasse. (Check out this article if you want to learn more about roped travel). It turned out that none of the team I was roped up with knew about this, and it wasn’t explained by the guides before we set off (I suppose they assumed everyone knew it).
As I noticed the rear team mate creeping up a few feet behind me I tried quickly to explain the concept of avoiding too much slack on the rope. As I ran through the basics, I noticed the person in front grab hold of his rope to take in the slack he’d built up behind the guide! As I was found myself stuck between two slack ropes and we negotiated our way around an enormous crevasse I wondered to myself, “will today be the day I die?”.

Do you remember in the first part of this story I mentioned that being in the mountains is sort of like my therapy, my place to experience peace and calm, to enjoy the beauty of our planet and to escape from the daily worries and responsibilities. Today put paid to that.

The terrain didn't even look steep when you were on it!
That plateau you think you see, is uphill.

The route itself was challenging. I knew it would be steep, you could see that from camp but I had never experienced terrain where there was literally no let up, not even a slight undulation, just constant, increasingly steep, calf-burning uphill. As we turned the corner I noticed a bump in the terrain which led onto what looked like a small plateau before continuing¬† uphill. I felt my body relax as I imagined the moment my now agonising calves could enjoy a few minutes relief. I was wrong. The bump was an illusion and the terrain I was looking at was the steepest part yet. Not only was each step like an icy dagger splitting each fibre of my gastrocnemius one by one, but with my upset stomach cramping and churning, I didn’t know which I was more worried about – tearing a muscle or shitting myself.

I continued to drag my body up the hill. I had to stop the team a few times to ease off the pressure building in my legs. I didn’t think I’d make it up to Lenz Rocks and told the guide as much. We were close though, so I pushed on through and stopped at the base of the rocks with a few other struggling team members while the rest continued the 200m slightly above us to where camp would be, to complete their acclimatisation. All I could think of was about getting down, using the bathroom, and how on earth I’d get back up there for the summit push.

Thunder snow cloud coming in across the glacier
Thunder snow cloud coming in across the glacier

As we descended, we found ourselves in a storm of what’s known as ‘thunder snow’. Little tiny polystyrene ball looking snow which comes from a thunder cloud. As soon as this started to fall, our guide picked up pace, yelled at us to hurry up and we legged it down. One of the team slipped momentarily, and what would be the only time I laughed on the trip, the Russian guide shouted “THERE’S NO TIME TO FALL!”. People were commenting that their hiking poles were vibrating and buzzing in their hands, and it was only later I’d find out that the type of lightning that’s associated with thundersnow storms is positive polarity, which means it can be significantly more dangerous. With us being on a featureless snowfield with crampons, ice axes and metal hiking poles, we were in a considerable amount of danger. We made it down in one piece and moved into our new digs, the climbers hut, before having another bowl of buckwheat and stew for dinner.

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