Story by Allert Bosch
During the night I wake up several times. I hear the roaring sound of avalanches and rocks coming down from the north face of Peak Pobeda (7.439m). Did we pitch our tent too close? Was this a bad idea? What the heck are we doing here?
Yesterday Gijs and I pitched our tent at the foot of the north face of Pobeda. Khan Tengri was only supposed to be a warming up for our real goal: to be the first Dutch persons on summit of Pobeda! Back at home we tried to read a lot about this mountain and the stories from other teams that climbed it before us, but information was scarce. We knew that there would be almost no other teams on the mountain, few fixed ropes, extremely bad weather, hard- and technical climbing. On top of that you have to make two camps at approximately 7.000m altitude and climb a long ridge for several kilometers above 7.000m. Upon arrival we were even more impressed when we heard all the stories in basecamp. One thing was for sure, climbing this mountain would be a completely different story than climbing Khan Tengri. People say it is comparable to climbing an 8.000m peak, but then with less people.
So there we were, at the foot of this majestic mountain. Unfortunately we were only with the two of us. Martin had developed problems with his foot after having climbed Khan Tengri, which brought us in a difficult situation. We had actually asked Martin to join us for this expedition to be with a team of three which we consider to be much safer. Now we were faced with the choice on whether to continue with only the two of us on this difficult mountain. This wasn't an easy decision at all. Logic dictated that we should stop. However, we had trained and prepared for this for more than half a year, the weather was good, conditions on the mountain good, physically we were feeling great and were perfectly acclimatized after having climbed Khan Tengri. What to do, what to do...
We took a couple days of rest in the basecamp, hoping Martin would recover. But he didn't, a real bummer! We met a Slovenian climber who wanted to join us to C1 and perhaps beyond. Two is a couple, three is a team, yes! So we decided that we at least wanted to give it a try to see how far we would get. And so we did.
We packed food for six days for a first acclimatization round. The goal was to sleep for a night at 6.900m, since on Khan Tengri we didn't sleep higher than 5.800m.
The 'hike' to C1 was much tougher than expected and took us around six hours, covering very crevassed terrain which required a lot of route finding. I noticed that Gijs wasn't talking much during the hike, he clearly had some mental fights with himself. This made me also doubt whether continuing was a good idea. At the point where the glacier flattens out, we encountered soft knee-deep snow which really slowed us down. From a by sun exposed wall on our right, we continuously heard and saw rocks coming down. Quite exhausted we reached the base of the massive icefall. Here we pitched our tent, hoping it was not too close to the north face.
A serac broke high up the wall. It started to gain speed, taking other seracs with it in its fall. The white cloud became bigger and bigger, a giant white wall coming towards us, but then it died down and disappeared into nothing. While one after the other avalanche roared down the face, we studied the icefall, hoping to find clues on where we would best climb through it. There was one Polish team already higher up the mountain and we had heard from one of their team members that they fixed a rope in one part of the icefall. We didn't have a clue where in the icefall this was exactly. The Polish guy also told us that they had experienced very bad conditions on the mountain: endless spin drifts, steep blank ice and they had spent a complete day digging a snow cave to hide from a storm. Some adventure ahead!
During the evening Michael, our Slovenian friend, told us that he would not join us and would return to BC, because he was not feeling comfortable with the icefall. Shit, we were back to two persons.
Night fell and we heard several big avalanches coming down the north face. Well, I can tell you, that doesn't help boosting your confidence.
The next morning we were a bit slower than we should have been. We packed our tent and started to climb towards the point in the icefall we expected the rope from the Polish team to be. Steadily we gained height in complete silence, we weren't talking much. I was struggling with many thoughts in my mind about whether to continue or not and I knew this was the same for Gijs. The snow was soft, too soft. This worried me. The sun was rising and seracs above us were warming up. We started late, too late, shit. We couldn’t find any tracks and there were no fixed ropes to be seen. After another half hour of climbing we finally found the Polish rope, good. We stopped, looked each other in the eyes and discussed what to do. It became quite clear that we were both feeling the same: too many things did not feel right. We decided to turn around and the same day went back all the way to basecamp.
It was a good decision to turn around. We followed our gut. It’s really easy to use phrases like: the mountain doesn't walk away, we can always go back. However, it was not an easy decision at all. In my headI was still making new plans to go back even after returning to basecamp and waiting for the chopper to take me home. It felt for me a bit like we had failed, that we hadn't really given it a proper try. We didn't turn around because we were faced with difficult climbing, extreme weather, material breakdown or injury.
No, we turned around because we didn't feel 'comfortable'. Climbing this kind of mountains is a big mental game. Were we mentally ready for Pobeda? Maybe not. It was a mixture of things. Maybe it would have been different if we were with a team of three, as planned, that's where it all started to go 'wrong'. Then we waited too long in basecamp, missed a good weather window. Many avalanches and rockfall messed with our heads. A new 'third' team member joined, but also bailed at day one. A too late start on our first climbing day made us face bad snow conditions. Not knowing the route. Messages from the home front not to continue with two. It all added up and messed with our heads.
What I learned from this is that besides your heart, your head needs to be fully in the game. If there are too many doubts for whatever reason, you shouldn't climb such a mountain. Just doesn't work and will probably bring you into trouble. Listen to your gut, follow your intuition!
For sure we will come back for Pobeda, we know at least a bit what to expect!