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A Taste of Khan Tengri

Khan Tengri is one of a bunch of mountains that often get called “one of the most beautiful mountains in the world.” I think those statements are pretty silly, since beauty is so extremely subjective, but I do personally think that Khan Tengri is a particularly beautiful mountain. I’ve felt that way since first seeing photos of it, which must’ve been well more than a decade ago. It is a steep pyramid, much higher than any of the surrounding terrain, and the texture of its marble walls gives it a unique look. There are certain mountains that are majestic enough that I feel a desire to someday climb them, regardless of by which route. By far the mountain that gave me that feeling the most was Cerro Torre, but I also feel that way about mountains like Robson, Waddington, Chaltén, Devil’s Thumb, Tualliraju, Thalay Sagar, Gasherbrum 4, etc… and certainly Khan Tengri.

I’ve thought about “someday” going to Khan Tengri for a long time, but other places and mountains always took precedence, almost certainly partly because Khan Tengri is off the radar of non-Soviet climbers, and most of my regular climbing partners. I think it is interesting how separated the climbing cultures are of Western-European/North-American climbers, and climbers from the ex-USSR. Obviously for decades there was a big political barrier between these groups of alpinists, and I think the language barrier has continued to limit the exchange of ideas, information, and belays, even though the Cold War is long over. Climbers in Western Europe and North America are often pretty clueless of the big accomplishments made by alpinists from ex-USSR countries – certainly in large part because not only is the spoken language different, but a completely different alphabet limits the degree that Western climbers see climbing news published in Cyrillic. These two groups of alpinists often use different tactics, techniques and equipment, which I think largely reflect the culture in which the climber’s learned their skills, and the mountain ranges in which the climbers learned their skills. Climbers in ex-USSR countries often learn their craft in the structure of big climbing organizations, while climbers in Western Europe and especially North America tend to learn more individually. The rock and weather in the Caucasus are different than in the Alps, and techniques and equipment have developed accordingly.

In the summer of 2017 I went to Gasherbum 2 in the Karakoram. It was my first time at a popular basecamp in the Greater Himalaya, all my previous trips having been in quiet valleys with no other climbers around. Being at a popular basecamp has some advantages, one of which is simply to meet and hang out with other climbers. On that trip I met three Ukrainian climbers who were interested in steep mountains (most climbers at the Gasherbrum 2 basecamp were not interested in steep mountains), Nikita Balabanov, Mikhail Fomin, and Viacheslav Polezhaiko. Just as North American alpinists have typically spent significant time in Alaska and the Canadian Rockies because they are affordable destinations compared to Asia, most climbers from ex-USSR countries have spent significant time climbing in Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. Nikita, Misha (short for Mikhail), and Slava (short for Viacheslav) had all been to Khan Tengri, so I pestered them with questions about this mountain that had long intrigued me. In my conversations with Nikita I realized that we had many similar climbing visions, and we kept in touch after the expedition to Gasherbrum. We met up in Chamonix in March for a few days of climbing together, and hatched a plan to go to Khan Tengri.

Certainly the main attraction on Khan Tengri for high-level alpinists is the north face: 2,700m of consistently steep terrain, perennially cold and icy, and arriving to a 7,000m summit. I personally think it is easily one of the most awesome alpine faces in the world. Being one of the crown jewel alpine faces in the ex-USSR, the north face of Khan Tengri has seen a ton of attention from Soviet alpinists, and there are a number of routes on the face. It has been climbed I believe several times without fixed ropes, all but one time by relatively large teams, and I believe the fastest ascent so far has been more than four days. Intriguingly, I’ve heard that the face has never been climbed by someone not from the ex-USSR. The north face was Nikita’s goal on his previous trip to Khan Tengri, and the north face was our goal this summer, but as is often the case when you set your sights high, it didn’t turn out as hoped.

On July 10 I arrived in Almaty, the biggest city in Kazakhstan, my first time anywhere in the ex-USSR. I think Kazakhstan is one of the countries most unknown to Western Europeans and North Americans relative to how big it is – It is literally the ninth-largest country on Earth. I think also that Western Europeans and North Americans tend to have a drastically unrealistic conception of Kazakhstan as a “third-world” country. They would be surprised by Almaty’s shining buildings, fancy cars, and neighborhoods full of million-dollar homes (literally the cost of real estate in the fancier neighborhoods). I have been to many places in the US that seem much more “third-world” to me than Almaty does. More relevant to my interests, however, Almaty sits on the foothills of part of the Tien Shan mountains, and a bunch of 4,000m peaks with big glaciers sit just outside the suburbs of the city. I spent a couple days hiking around in these mountains before Nikita flew into Almaty, and then we drove a couple hours southwest to Bishkek, the largest city in Kyrgyzstan. Kyrgyzstan was similarly much more developed than I think most people would guess, and the journey from Bishkek to our basecamp below Khan Tengri was pleasantly smooth. Compared to the bureaucracy in Nepal, India, and Pakistan, climbing mountains in Kyrgyzstan is wonderfully simple, with no peak fees and no visas.

After a couple days waiting for better weather, Nikita and I flew on July 19 in an enormous helicopter to basecamp on the North Inylchek Glacier. Although we had intentions for the north face, our expedition never involved anything more than acclimatizing on Khan Tengri’s normal route (well, one of the two normal routes – The other normal route, easier but much more dangerous, comes up from the south side of the mountain). Our basecamp was the biggest, most social basecamp I’ve ever been to, which had some perks, but one downside was that every few days a new group of climbers would unload from the helicopter, bringing with them a new selection of viruses from somewhere else in the world. Around Aug 1 I, and a bunch of other people in basecamp, came down with a cold. Although I never felt direly ill, I knew there was no way I could perform well at high altitude while sick, so I rested in basecamp to get healthy. I felt like I was gradually improving, but one’s immune system is so compromised while living at 4,000m that the sickness seemed to linger and linger. About a week later, I suddenly felt drastically more sick (I think my cold morphed into a secondary bacterial infection), and threw in the towel. It seemed to me that I simply would not regain full health while living at 4,000m, and I had no interest in being there if not healthy – I wouldn’t be able to climb well if sick, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to enjoy the climbing if sick. I felt bad for Nikita since it was my illness that precluded any real climbing, but at least Nikita got to take a solo lap up the normal route before leaving.

Despite being a totally unsuccessful expedition, I felt that it was a good trip. I enjoyed getting to know a part of the world that I had never been to before, I enjoyed learning a bit about the culture and language of ex-USSR countries, and I was impressed by the climbing possibilities in Kyrgyzstan – awesome mountains without all the hassle and red tape of the Greater Himalaya. I think it’s very likely I’ll be back at some point.

Chilling with a friendly kitten at Tuyuk-Su, an alpine valley just above the metropolis of Almaty.
Tuyuk-Su valley above Almaty.
Enjoying local cuisine in Bishkek with Nikita.
Hiking in the foothills of the Tien Shan, with a group of climbers/movie-stars (seriously!) from Almaty.
The foothills of the Tien Shan.
Loading into a Kazakh helicopter to get to North Inylchek basecamp.
Nikita on the lower slopes of Khan Tengri’s northern normal route.
The north face of Khan Tengri, up close and personal.
Nikita on the lower slopes of Khan Tengri’s northern normal route.
Nikita on the lower slopes of Khan Tengri’s northern normal route.
Acclimatizing at “Camp 2” on Khan Tengri’s northern normal route.
Nikita on the slopes of “Chapayev Shoulder,” part of Khan Tengri’s northern normal route.
Nikita munching on a Hardbar in the foreground, the upper pyramid of Khan Tengri in the background.
Nikita on the slopes of “Chapayev Shoulder,” part of Khan Tengri’s northern normal route.
Nikita on the slopes of “Chapayev Shoulder,” part of Khan Tengri’s northern normal route.
Nikita on the slopes of “Chapayev Shoulder,” part of Khan Tengri’s northern normal route.
Savage terrain in the heart of the Tien Shan! On the right is the true peak of Chapayev, and in the background is Pik Pobeda (Jengish Chokusu), a contender with Denali for the coldest mountain on Earth.
The upper west ridge of Khan Tengri, with the upper north face to the left.
The north face of Khan Tengri from the flats of the North Inylchek Glacier.
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