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Eric Gilbertson

[TR] Khan Tengri, Kazakhstan - West Ridge 08/01/2021

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Trip: Khan Tengri, Kazakhstan - West Ridge

Trip Date: 08/01/2021

Trip Report:

Khan Tengri (22,993ft) via West Ridge (Russian grade 5a)

20210804_082159.jpgKhan Tengri viewed from South Inylchek basecamp

Highest mountain in Kazakhstan
Aug 1, 2021
Eric Gilbertson and Andreas Ritzau

July 25 drive Bishkek to karkara
July 26 helicopter to south inylchek, climb to 5300m, unplanned open bivy
July 27 summit attempt to 6500m, bail in storm, return to BC
July 28 rest
July 29 rest
July 30 rest
July 31 leave BC in evening, break trail to 5300m, camp at c2
Aug 1 summit, return to c2
Aug 2 descend to BC in morning

KT-Route.jpgThe route

July 25
We were in Kyrgyzstan climbing 7000m peaks and had just finished Lenin Peak on July 20. We had spent three weeks on Lenin so were very well acclimated for other high peaks.
After a van ride to Osh and a flight to Bishkek we took two rest days in the low elevation, which allowed our bodies to recover and get even better acclimated.
It was hot, over 100f each day, but we knew we would soon be back in cold subzero temperatures. I tried to eat as much as possible at every meal to fatten back up before heading back into the mountains.

On the morning of July 25 we started our journey towards our next peaks. We took a van to the ak sai office and paid

20210726_090536.jpgHelicoptering to basecamp

the remainder of our balance for full packages at south inylchek. This would include helicopter rides in and out, tents every night, meals, permits, and use of fixed ropes.

Unfortunately payment was not easy. Cash is the preferred method, though this requires carrying several thousand usd per person which seems risky. Ak sai isn’t set up to take credit cards. Bank transfers work but it happened to be 2am eastern time and our banks were not allowing transfers at that hour.

20210726_103209-scaled.jpgBasecamp view – Khan Tengri on left, Pobeda on right

Eventually we figured out the payment, then loaded up the van along with a Ukrainian team and started the drive to karkara.

20210726_160510.jpgTricky route out of camp

We stopped at a grocery store for an hour to allow the Ukrainians to buy food (we’d already stocked up the previous day) then continued driving east. The drive took about 7 hours, passing through dry desert, past the scenic isykul lake, then back into the mountains near the Kazakhstan border.

We showed our passports and border permits to a guard station then made it to karkara by sunset.

Karkara is a small outpost with a few buildings and lots of tents. It serves as the helicopter staging area for south and north inylchek basecamps.

We weighed all our luggage and ourselves for the helicopter, then ate a big dinner and went to sleep in the tents.

20210726_175245.jpgStarting up the south Inylchek Glacier

July 26

It was very windy that night and difficult to sleep with the tents banging around. Luckily I had earplugs but those without them didn’t get much sleep.

We at breakfast at the main building then loaded up the helicopter around 7am. We were sharing the ride with a dozen other climbers, going to either north or south inylchek. The helicopter was the biggest I’d ever seen. I think it was an old Soviet military helicopter. It had huge doors in the back and could hold lots of gear.

We took off in heavy wind and headed east. The trees soon got replaced by grass and rocks and in 40 minutes we reached the glaciers.

We first stopped at north inylchek to drop off some climbers, then we went down the inylchek glacier to pick up some climbers that had been trying to hike in but given up and called the helicopter. They had an interesting plastic sled with bicycle wheels to tow gear but I guess it was still difficult .

Finally around 10am we landed at south inylchek and unloaded.

20210726_195330.jpgHiking into the sunset

The camp is set on the moraine midway between Khan tengri and pobeda. It consists of about 20 sturdy yellow tents, a kitchen tent, two dinner tents, and a sauna.

With full packages we got assigned yellow tents, while climbers with econom packages pitched their own tents a ways away. We had decided given the amount of time we planned to spend there for both khan tengri and pobeda the full packages made most economic sense.

20210726_200843.jpgStarting up towards Chapayev

Chris Tomer had been giving us weather forecasts every day over the inreach and it turned out a weather window was supposed to last through Tuesday, followed by a week of bad weather.

If we could summit Tuesday we could just barely beat the weather. That would require going straight for the summit without sleeping. It sounded reasonable to me since we were already acclimated and had just rested several days at low elevation in bishkek.

We didn’t want to top out before sunrise, though, so decided on a mid afternoon start. We took a nap for a few hours, ate 2pm lunch from ak sai, then were packed up and moving by 330pm.

The route was a bit complicated navigating ice cliffs in the moraine near camp but after an hour we reached the edge of the glacier. Andrew was feeling sick and decided to turn around there. He had already climbed khan tengri a few years earlier anyways.

20210727_052410.jpgLooking across the valley to Pobeda

Matt, Andreas and I continued on in crampons over the icy glacier. We generally followed flags along the route and eventually reached camp 1 at 4200m around 7pm.

There were a bunch of climbers there and we took a break to put on more layers. We then roped up and continued up in the waning light.

The route wrapped around and ascended the glacier up to the col between Khan tengri and chapayev peak. This section of route is best passed at night to avoid snow and rockfall from chapayev. Our timing was good, hitting the section just after sunset when the snow was icy.

Matt led the way following a good boot track. We wove around many crevasses and were treated to great views of sunset on pobeda and topographers peak across the valley.

We continued climbing in the dark and caught up to two Iranians ascending unroped. That seemed very dangerous given all the crevasses.

20210727_045309.jpgUnplanned open bivy at C2

By midnight we reached camp 2 and were making excellent time to summit at sunrise. I was still feeling strong but the rest of the team said they needed sleep. I think all my all-nighter weekend trips in the cascades have somehow built up my tolerance for sleep deprivation for pushes like this.

Unfortunately this delay put us in jeopardy of missing the weather window if storms came early. I really wanted to continue but decided to stick together and maybe we could all continue up after sunrise if everyone could get a few hours of sleep.

Sleep would be difficult, though, since we hadn’t planned on sleeping and thus hadn’t brought sleeping bags or tents.

I didn’t really need to sleep so gave out my extra warm clothes and pack for others to sleep on and set about melting snow to give everyone two boiling water bottles each to keep warm.

20210727_062333.jpgClimbing past camp 3

For the remainder of the night I mostly did jumping jacks and dug a snow platform with my ice ax to stay warm while the others slept (or tried to sleep).

By 5am the sun started rising and I asked that we start up. Unfortunately I was the only one wanting to go for the summit by then. I think sleep had been elusive. Two Dutch climbers happened to descend from camp 3 then and offered their empty tent if we wanted shelter, since they were continuing down.

Matt and Andreas took them up on their offer while I decided to continue up solo and go for the summit.

I made quick time up the packed trail to camp 3, which consisted of a half dozen tents under an overhang just below the chapayev- Khan tengri saddle.

20210727_063147.jpgThe summit pyramid

From there I climbed a fixed rope up steep snow to the saddle. I turned right and followed a climbers path up to the west ridge of Khan tengri.

I was in radio contact with matt and he said he hiked up halfway to camp 3 but then started getting affected by the altitude and decided to turn around. He and Andreas would wait at camp 2 until I returned.

Around 6000m the ridge got steep enough that I ditched my poles and took out my ice ax. Soon I reached fixed ropes on steeper rock sections so I packed up my ice ax and got out my jumar.

I was nervous to fully trust ropes I hadn’t inspected so I generally climbed the rock without weighting the rope. I would just push the jumar up as a backup.

20210727_092401.jpgNasty conditions on the upper mountain

In general most of the ropes were in decent shape, though some were cut to the core and sketchy.

I passed a few tents on a ledge at 6400m that was probably camp 4, then saw climbers rappelling down.

I asked if they summitted but they just said no, that it was too windy.
When I’d started up the ridge the summit had been clear and wind calm. But now it looked like the jet stream had hit it. A river of clouds was pummeling the summit and the wind had picked up considerably.

The climber I’d talked to dove in his tent and I could see 3 more coming down.

But the forecast was for decreasing winds over the day, so I optimistically continued up. I climbed up to about 6500m but the storm only worsened. I estimated the wind was gusting to 40 or 50mph and the top 300m of the peak was in complete whiteout.

20210727_084712.jpgMy highpoint at 6500m before retreating

It appeared the storm predicted to start Wednesday had arrived a day early. I could probably navigate by following the fixed lines, but it seemed too dangerous with the heavy wind and whiteout.

I radioed matt and said I was bailing. I guess that would at least give us a chance to all summit together in the next weather window. (I later learned nobody summitted that day and indeed the weather worsened).

I descended using a combination of rappels and down climbing holding the fixed lines. By 1030am I was back at camp 2. A bunch of climbers were heading up then, I think planning to summit on Wednesday. Mountain forecast.com had predicted clear weather Wednesday morning but I told them it appeared the bad weather was arriving early. I later learned nobody summitted Wednesday since, indeed, the storm had come in early.

20210727_114625.jpgRetreating back to BC

We packed up and headed down by 11am. In hindsight this was a bad time to descend since chapayev was in the sun and all the snow bridges were soft. But we made it through quickly and were back to basecamp by 330pm, 24 hours after we’d left.

Unfortunately the heat had made my feet sweaty and hiking in my Olympus mons across the moraine had given me bad blisters. Those would take several days to heal, but for better or worse the next few days were supposed to be bad weather anyways.

July 27

Matt and Andrew were both not being treated well by the altitude and they decided it was best to helicopter back out since more summits were not in the cards.

By mid morning the helicopter came and they packed up and headed out. Andreas and I would be the only team members left.

We spent the day eating meals from ak sai and reading.

20210727_144838.jpgHiking back to BC

July 28-30

We spent the next three days resting also. I tried to eat as much as possible and made good progress on my Tom Clancy book on my kindle. There were no summits by any climbers any of those days and we met a lot of climbers at base camp from Russia, Iran, Switzerland, Romania, and Britain.

July 30 it snowed and rained all day, and I think everyone was in base camp. That was the most crowded I’d ever seen the dinner tent. The skies cleared that evening and chris said it was the start of a 2 day weather window.

July 31

We wanted to give the new snow a full 24 hours for any avalanches to run their course, so we waited til after lunch. It had been sunny all morning which we hoped would cause any fresh snow on chapayev to slide.

20210727_200747.jpgWaiting for good weather in BC

By 230pm we were packed and heading back up for another attempt on khan tengri. This time there would be no attempt at all-nighters. We planned to bring overnight gear for two nights at camp 2.

We made fast progress to camp 1, by now quite familiar with the route. Many other climbers were camped there and I think they were planning to summit Monday. But Sunday had the best weather forecast and we planned to summit then.

We took a break to put on layers, then continued up the glacier. With all the fresh snow the old tracks were covered and we were on our own breaking trail.

Occasionally we found an old flag and evidence of the old track but in general we were on our own for navigation. As we got higher we noticed fresh slides from chapayev and we were happy to have waited til nightfall.

20210731_191720.jpgHiking back up under Chapayev

It looked windy on chapayev with lots of snow blowing off the summit and we hoped chris was correct that the wind would die at midnight.

We took turns breaking trail and navigation got difficult as it got darker. By 1030pm we finally reached camp 2. There were 5 tents set up but only one occupied, by a solo russian climber.

I found an open platform and set up the tent while Andreas melted snow. We ate freeze dried dinners and were asleep by midnight.

Aug 1

We were up at 330am and moving by 430am. It was a tough 2 hours of trail breaking to camp 3 and surprisingly there was only one tent there, unoccupied. I think everyone had descended to avoid the Friday storm.

20210801_050204.jpgHeading up from C2 at sunrise

We ditched glacier gear there then jugged up the rope to the saddle. By then it was light out with minimal wind.

There weren’t any fresh tracks from the north, but there were two tents at the saddle with fresh tracks leading up. Way above us I could make out three climbers, and they were the only others on the mountain.

We eventually got high enough that I decided to ditch my whippet and switch to an ice ax. I looked back then and noticed Andreas was missing a crampon!

He couldn’t summit like that so he turned around to look for it. Luckily he found it above camp 3 and put it on more tightly. That error unfortunately cost us about an hour.

I then led the way up the fixed ropes, which were as sketchy as before. The route was fresh in my mind and I soon got to my old 6500m highpoint. In general I would try to stay far enough ahead so we were never both on the same rope, and it worked pretty well.

20210801_121101.jpgClimbing up the fixed lines

Above 6500m the steepness decreased a bit and eventually the route traversed right. After traversing we reached the steepest part of the route.

There was a full 60m ropelength up 5.6 rock climbing, then another 60m rope up a steep snow slope.

At the top of the slope I caught up to a Russian climber moving slowly. I asked to pass at the anchor but he wanted to stay ahead.

I waited a long time for him to jug up steep rock to the next anchor, then I quickly caught up. He nicely let me pass then, and I climbed a short snow slope, then traversed around and up a rock band.

I then reached the final long snow slope towards the summit. There were fixed ropes here that didn’t really seem necessary since the angle was low. But I guess a slip would still not be recommended.

20210801_121351.jpgAndreas coming up the fixed lines

I used the ropes to pull myself up anyways. For a few sections the ropes were buried and I had to use my ice ax.

Shortly before the summit I met one Russian climber on his way down and passed another on his way up.

By 4pm I made the last steps to the famous cross on the summit. Just after me sasha, the russian climber, reached the top and we shook hands. We exchanged pictures and admired the view.

The snow went a little bit higher above the cross, but that was a cornice overhanging the north face while the cross is located on the highest point not on the cornice. In general I say it is acceptable to reach the highest natural point excluding cornices, since they are extremely dangerous and not permanent parts of the mountain.

20210801_160058.jpgOn the summit

I radioed down to Dima that we’d made the summit, and he cautioned us to be careful on the descent. I then went back down to get out of the wind. When Andreas made it up I followed him to the summit and we took some more pictures.

The weather was perfect, just as chris had predicted. It was around 0F with minimal wind and almost no clouds. I think it’s hard to get better than that. We had great views down to south inylchek and north inylchek, with the glaciers flowing past each camp like rivers and eventually converging far below.

I could see our ascent route and dozens of more climbers ascending. There were now many more tents at camp 2 and camp 3. I guessed they were going for the summit Monday.

By 445pm we started our descent. On the lower angle sections we just held the fixed lines in our hands and walked down. A few places without ropes we downclimbed with ice axes.

20210801_195259.jpgRapping down

In the steeper parts I rappelled with my figure 8. Unfortunately Andreas only brought an ATC, but the fixed ropes were thick and icy enough that they were difficult to feed through the ATC.

This led to some delays and our downward progress was slow. Also, often the ropes had knots in them, and passing these was time consuming.

On the steeper sections the ropes were very taught, and it was difficult to pull up enough slack to rappel on.

All of this compounded to slow us down. I kept radioing to Dima every two hours and I think he was concerned about our slow speed.

Finally by 10pm we reached the bottom of the fixed lines and hiked back to the saddle. Andreas couldn’t fit the final rope leading to camp 3 into his ATC so eventually just descended holding the rope hand over hand.

We put glacier gear back on at camp 3 and hiked back to our tent by 1am.

20210801_200242_001.jpgLooking back towards basecamp

I spent the next hour melting snow for drinking water. We both were very dehydrated, only drinking 2 liters all day. By 2am I was ready to finally get in the tent, but I couldn’t get my right boot off!

My Olympus mons have a fancy BOA binding system but after 30 minutes I just couldn’t get it to release. I really wished it had good old fashioned laces.

I finally gave up and took out my knife and cut the binding loose. Hopefully la sportiva will be sympathetic and fix them someday. I figured I’d use a voile strap to tighten them in the future since the binding was busted.

By 245am I was finally in my sleeping bag. But I couldn’t fall asleep all night. I kept coughing up phlegm. I think it was because I was too dehydrated all day.

20210801_201238.jpgDescending at sunset

Aug 2

Finally by 630am it was light out and I gave up trying to sleep. I woke Andreas up and we were soon packed up and moving down.

20210802_112258.jpgHiking back to basecamp

Many climbers were ascending, and none of them were roped up! I can’t understand how they think it’s safe to cross so many crevasses and snow bridges unroped. Some crevasses on the route require long precarious jumps to get across!

We made fast progress down, taking a brief break at camp 1 to talk to some friends.

By 1pm we made it back to base camp, in time for afternoon lunch with ak sai. We told Dima we were back, and during lunch he gave us each a certificate for summiting. It turns out we were the 6th and 7th people to summit this year from the south. That’s kind of surprising given how many people were on the mountain.

We soon got busy resting up for our next mountain, Pik Pobeda.

Gear Notes:
Standard glacier gear, jumar, Figure 8 ( to rap thick icy fixed lines)

Approach Notes:
Helicopter to South Inylchek basecamp
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Awesome! Khan Tengri has to be one of the world's most aesthetically pleasing mountains.

What's the rock quality like? Is there a lot of loose crap or is it relatively solid?

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16 hours ago, Dylan Colon said:

Awesome! Khan Tengri has to be one of the world's most aesthetically pleasing mountains.

What's the rock quality like? Is there a lot of loose crap or is it relatively solid?

The rock on the west ridge of Khan Tengri was some kind of crappy shale down low. Probably wouldn't hold a cam too well. But the upper 1000ft or so were better quality and solid. Surprisingly I hear the south ridge is higher quality, almost like marble. That's a pretty serious route that hasn't seen too many ascents. I took the west ridge.


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