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Camping Pik Lenin with Mountain Madness

Pik Lenin: Expedition Report

Dri­ving away from Osh toward Pik Lenin, it was clear that we were far from home. A con­stant line of trucks cart­ing coal for pow­er and heat passed us going the oppo­site direc­tion, bound for the city. Occa­sion­al­ly a truck would have a slaugh­tered ani­mal, bleed­ing and tied to the roof, in addi­tion to its oth­er cargo.

All pho­tos Tino Villanueva

Hours of dri­ving, the last of which were a jar­ring off-road expe­ri­ence, brought us to Achik-Tash Base Camp. Set in an idyl­lic high moun­tain mead­ow at 11,000 ft, Achik-Tash, is a beau­ti­ful place to start the expe­di­tion. And after a day of accli­ma­tiz­ing, soak­ing in the views and enjoy­ing the authen­tic yurt din­ing room we left for high­er ground.

Hors­es car­ried the major­i­ty of our equip­ment up to Advanced Base Camp, where we would spend most of our time on the moun­tain. The trek to ABC trav­eled par­al­lel to the mas­sive Lenin Glac­i­er, some­times on a path lit­er­al­ly cut into the moun­tain side in a lat­er­al moraine through loose scree.

Some areas were quite steep and sub­ject to rock­fall and even though we were atten­tive and moved fast through these areas, I was hit by a rock. This was not a place you want­ed to fall, and as the hors­es and rid­ers passed with our equip­ment we were all glad to be walk­ing instead of riding.

Advanced Base Camp was tucked into a glacial moraine and the ser­vice and hos­pi­tal­i­ty at 14,000 ft was excel­lent. Tasty local cui­sine (bet­ter than the food in Osh!) and basic crea­ture com­forts made ABC a great spot to recharge before head­ing up on the upper mountain.

There was even a show­er avail­able in the camp and, until I wit­nessed some­one run out of the show­er tent half-naked after near­ly burn­ing it down, I even con­sid­ered using one.

Soon though, again, it was time to move upward. 

We planned for two rota­tions on the moun­tain. The first would have us stay­ing at Camp 2 (17,000 ft), yet accli­ma­tiz­ing and climb­ing to Camp 3, the high camp at 20,000 ft. 

The climb­ing on Pik Lenin is not dif­fi­cult, but it is also not sim­ply a slog. The first true climb­ing day from ABC to Camp 2 is tough. 

Steep and sus­tained glac­i­er climb­ing, with an aver­age slope angle of 30 degrees (and steep­er steps) makes up the major­i­ty of the ter­rain covered.

It is the sus­tained nature of the climb­ing that makes it stren­u­ous, and though porters can be hired to ease the pain, that day took us 9 hours to climb 3,000 ft. We climbed to Camp 3 the fol­low­ing day and returned to ABC the day after.

Through­out the trip we had been expe­ri­enc­ing con­vec­tive after­noon snow storms. For the most part these squalls were light and incon­se­quen­tial, though some­times cre­at­ing white­out conditions.

How­ev­er, upon return to ABC for two planned rest days, a big­ger storm descend­ed on the moun­tain and for near­ly 24 hours the moun­tain dis­ap­peared behind a sea of grey, the sounds of the tide crash­ing unseen behind the wall of clouds. 

When the skies cleared we had 4 inch­es of snow on the ground in camp and a loose snow avalanche had run across the climb­ing route. Noth­ing ter­ri­bly seri­ous, but it was becom­ing clear that trav­el on the upper moun­tain may be tricky.

Return­ing to the upper moun­tain, it was evi­dent things were not going to be easy. Bru­tal trail break­ing from Camp 2 to Camp 3 robbed our team of energy.

Even our porter, who had climbed to the sum­mit from ABC in 6 hours, strug­gled and bare­ly arrived before us into camp. The con­sec­u­tive days of snow, and then wind, cre­at­ed a punchy snow sur­face requir­ing every­one to break trail.

Sum­mit day arrived and we gave it our best effort. How­ev­er, sim­i­lar con­di­tions, and a con­stant bit­ing wind, con­spired to make con­di­tions too cold and too dif­fi­cult to reach the summit.

Every group that attempt­ed the sum­mit from Camp 3 returned emp­ty hand­ed, though one group that had camped high­er returned with frostbite.

After a huge effort, we climbed to 6700 meters and accept­ed that the moun­tain was not going to let us have our way this time.

How­ev­er, I don’t see the expe­di­tion as return­ing emp­ty hand­ed. Our team got to explore a deep cor­ner of the world most will nev­er see.

We spent time with friends on a beau­ti­ful, mas­sive moun­tain, test­ing our own limits.

And most impor­tant­ly we all returned safe­ly home so we can do it again, some­where else in this big world.

~ MM Guide Tino Villanueva

Pre­vi­ous Pik Lenin blog