Story


 It’s 6 o’clock in the evening. In the heart of Khan Tengri, within the heart of Tien Shan, within the heart of Central Asia the storm unleashes. The blizzard starts whipping my face and even under my glasses it fills my eyes with snow, it blocks my nose, it gets under my coat through each tiny opening where it can penetrate.

Suddenly, the crest already dangerously jutting out becomes for me something no wider than 30 cm, that is as much as I can distinguish around me. All the rest, just white … great white roaring all around.

 

In order to reach the Camp 2 , 5600 m high, I have to pass over one more quite challenging rocky brink and to climb about 200 m representing the difference of level. Hanging somewhere between the sky and the earth I feel like a grain of sand carried to and fro by the wind. I realize there is only one thing to do. I have to descend.

 

Meanwhile it is growing dark. Now everything has turned from great white into great dark and the headlamp can hardly pierce beyond the top of my crampons. From this very moment on an inner voice kept annoyingly repeating me: “Be careful Alex, your symphony is coming to an end!”

I start roping down and soon I reach the most difficult part, a rocky brink about 20 meters with around 85 degree incline. I fasten myself and in a few minutes I get to its bottom. I see nothing. From here on the steep incline is nowhere bigger than 60 degrees. I am on this narrow crest and I know that on my right side, no more than a meter away there are some quite big cornices I admired and photographed during the day. Beyond them a huge void opens down to the bottom of the northern Inylcheck glacier. If I take it too much to the left I risk sliding on the northern side of Mount Chapaev and I would probably stop only one thousand meters below, somewhere at the bottom of the huge serac I passed by a few days earlier. So I have to find the midway, the balance between not breaking the cornices and not going too much to the left. I am on this knife edge and the blizzard buried the fix ropes under the snow. It sometimes takes me dozens of minutes to uncover the ropes in the snow digging in this darkness. They are frozen and this makes roping down difficult and dangerous. Every few meters downwards are a success but at the same time they are steps into the unknown. Amazingly, I feel great and I strongly believe that I can make it safely to my tent 300 m below, 4800 m high, in Camp 1, on a rocky step …

 

… at 2 o’clock in the morning, after 7 hours spent on the unleashed mountain I came to lie down almost worn out in my tent which was also covered in snow. I woke up around 4 to go out. The storm had stopped. It was unbelievably quiet, no gust of wind. An extraordinary view of silent mountains was unfolding before my eyes and above, almost 2200 meters higher, the top of my mountain bathed in a heavenly light. I was happy.

 
                                                   ***
 

I and Stelian, together with the other Romanian team made up of Teo and Mircea had come here to climb on Khan Tengri-the Lord of the Spirits. Mentioned in the ancient Chinese chronicles as far as two thousand years ago, it is seen as a sacred mountain by the locals on this side of the world, be they Kazakh, Kirghiz or Chinese. A 7010 meter mountain (the most northern seven thousand meter mountain in the world) craggy and sharp irrespective of where you look at it from, in an endless land of craggy and sharp mountains.

Eventually we chose the northern route, rated 5B. It is more difficult from a technical point of view than the southern route we initially planned to follow, but less prone to avalanches.

After long preparations, establishing partnerships and collecting funds, there we were finally, in Khan Tengri. The idea came into being by a sheepfold fire in the Făgăraş, on a new year’s eve, with some words said in jest, which then, however, grew into a dream, the dream into a project and the project into reality. 

 

And there we were …

 

We devoted several days to acclimatization, while we equipped camp 1 (where we brought supplies and gear) and we had planned to climb and equip Camp 2 as well. At that height, especially in the acclimatization period each one walks at his own pace. I left from Camp 1 to Camp 2 at about an hour after Stelian. The storm with that strong blizzard made me find shelter 200 meters below camp 2, the night descent on such weather and on such a crest, which sometimes looked like a knife blade, turning the experience into a memorable one.

 

It was early in the expedition when I have been left alone. The very next day after my solitary adventure on the northern crest of Chapaev I was to find out that Stelian and Mircea were not too well, had decided to retreat and return to Romania. I was quite surprised by their decision but in such cases it is best to know the right moment to give up, so I made no comments. I met them as they were descending, between Camp 1 and Camp 2, a little before the first rocky step. That was when I last saw them during the expedition, we talked for a while and I resumed my climbing to Camp 2 where I met Teo who had just come back after an acclimatization round on Chapaev (6130 m). We spent one more night together, after which he came back to the base camp to get some rest for a few days before the final attempt at the top (later on Teo joined a guided Polish team with which he actually made it to the top) and I remained for two more nights in Camp 2 for a proper acclimatization, after which I myself was to descend to the base camp for rest. From here on I continued the expedition on my own.

 

Before coming to Tien Shan my greatest worry was how my body was going to cope with the altitude (I had never gone higher than 2544 m). After an acclimatization period during which everything went well there I was ready to attempt at the top. My plan was quite simple and it reflected the situation I was in: without a mate, trying to make it to a 7000 meter top. Meanwhile I had prepared supplies and equipment in Camps 1 and 2 and as I had been left on my own I decided, taking weight into consideration, not to carry one more tent for Camp 3 (5900 m) but rather go lightweight (sleeping bag + bivy bag, without tent) intending to bivy in one of the ice caves (the season was almost at an end, I would have certainly found a place in one of the 3 caves dug at 5900 m, which actually happened). Afterwards I would have made the final ascend of the top at a single push.


                                                      ***
 

Day 1: Base Camp – Camp 1. From 4000 meters, from the base camp situated on a side moraine of the northern Inylchek glacier one cross the glacier (it is approximately 1 km wide), after which climbs towards Camp 1 on a slope on which under certain circumstances avalanches can occur. About 200 meters before Camp 1 (4800 m) there is a huge crevasse you can go around on the left, and after that there follows a steep part on which fix ropes are mounted.


Day 2:
Camp 1 – Camp 2. The route continues on the northern crest of Chapaev with rather very exposed parts and two rocky steps with IV degree passages. This is probably the most difficult part of the whole climbing, which at that height offers tremendous satisfactions.


Day 3:
From camp 2, 5600 m height, you climb on the right side on a narrow crest and then straight on the northern side of Chapaev, passing over several quite challenging rocky brinks. Here, in the most difficult section, I met Teo who was roping down to Camp 2 after having made it to the top. I congratulated him, we exchanged a few words and then we didn’t talk too much because that vertical place (about 85 degrees) was not the best setting for a chat. 15 minutes after meeting Teo there started a blizzard, which miraculously stopped at the very moment when I reached the top of Chapaev (6130 m). My first six thousand meter top. The view is overwhelming. Mountains as far as you can see. From here I climbed down to the valley between Chapaev and Khan Tengri, where after roping down for 50 m you get to the Caves in camp 3. Here I met Andrei Nan from Miercurea Ciuc, a great man with a big heart . He was climbing from the south and the chance brought two Romanians together on this huge mountain, one coming from the north, the other one from the south.


Day 4:
Terrible and extremely frosty weather. Blizzard all day long. We work for several hours to make our cave more comfortable. I spread my survival blanket directly on the ice and I lay the karimat  on it; I put the sleeping bag in the camp bag, increasing the thermal comfort by several degrees. Thank Goodness I am not staying in a tent outside. “Plans are plans, situations are situations”, used to say Anatoly a Russian climber with whom I shared the cave for a few days. You’ll never know what is going to happen in Khan Tengri until you come back to the base camp. Terrible mountain. But I hope tomorrow I can attempt for the top. 


Day 5:
I wake up around 5 in the morning; I take a look outside the cave. It’s extremely cold. There are no clouds in the sky, it looks like the weather is going to be fine. Getting ready to leave takes me more than an hour. Finally I get moving. I feel great and after getting back to the valley at about 6000 meters I am filled with extraordinary happiness and moreover I feel tears coming to my eyes (could it be the cold?) and this happens without even reaching the top. The sunrise touches at first the heights of the Pobeda top (7400 m), the highest top of Tien Shan. All mountains are on fire. I start climbing on good weather on the western crest of Khan Tengri unaware of what was going to happen. Little by little I advance on the beautiful rocky crest before me. After about 2 hours, all of a sudden a strange cap-shaped cloud wraps the top. I had seen this phenomenon before, while I was down acclimatizing. The blizzard starts. Soon I could see no further than a few steps before me, but the crest was somewhat visible. I keep going for 3 hours under the same conditions, till I reach near 6400 m (the altimeter indicates 6392 m). I find shelter by a huge slab and I start looking into the matter. What shall I do? I feel good, I consider it possible to reach the top even on this weather. But I cannot see beyond reaching the top. I see myself on the top but I lack the vision of coming back safely to the cave. I am torn by an intense struggle. A hundred voices tell me to go on (“you are so close to your dream now” “you invested so much into getting here” etc.) and a single one (it was Iulia’s voice that I heard so strong in my mind and heart) to go back … After half an hour of vacillation I come to a decision … I am going to go back to the cave planning to wait to make one more attempt in the following days. I start roping down in the terrible blizzard which seems to grow stronger and stronger and after several hours of climbing down (it took me longer to go down then to go up) I arrive near the col. White-out. I cannot make out anything any longer and the last hundred meters to the place where I was supposed to find the fix rope, which would have taken me to the cave, take me about an hour and a half. I stop every 2 or 3 meters to reanalyze my location thinking of the 1500 meter free fall I would have experienced if I had broken the cornice which I know to be close, very close on my right. At great pains I manage to make it to the cave and I throw myself on the sleeping bag, happy to be here. I fall asleep. In few hours Andrei comes back as well. He had reached near 6800 meters and then he decided to go back, too.


Day six:
The weather continues to be unfavorable. If it gets nicer I could try one more time tomorrow.


Days seven, eight, nine and ten:
Deceptive weather. I realize I will grow weak if I spend more time at that height and that I also have to go back to the base camp. I decide to go down. On good weather it takes about a whole day to get from camp 3 to the base camp. It took me three days and a half. It never stopped snowing. In camp 1 there was only one tent left. Mine. I waited for the avalanche to “pass” so that I could get safely down to the base camp. This actually happened a few hours after the snow had stopped. I made sure no other avalanche was going to fall from the top and as the present one had already become stable I started climbing down on the hardened crest of the avalanche. When I reached the bottom of the glacier it was already night and it had started to snow again. In the meantime part of the crevices had become wider, which gave me some trouble to cross over them. When I reached the base camp the people had already begun to pack the tents. In a few days I was leaving home with an old Russian military helicopter which had serious problems taking off because of the weather which kept growing worse.


I had been living in this giants’ world for almost five weeks. Five weeks during which I learned about myself more than anything else. Up there on the old mountain’s crest the blizzard, the muffled roar of the avalanche, the sizzling of the primus melting the snow … transforms you. You become reinvented.