Summitday Khan Tengri – Lord of the skies!

story by Gijs Schuurhuis

This is our third night in C3 (5.800m), we’ve been waiting for a good weather window. Yesterday about 20cm of fresh snow covered our camp. At the same there’s no wind predicted. So, we know tomorrow is going to be tough, but we’ve decided to go for the summit. It’s in the middle of the night when we leave camp. These first hours are always hard. As we climb higher, surrounded by darkness and cold our bodies and minds struggle. At about 6.200m we enter the ridge and the real climbing begins. I place the frontpoints of my right crampon on a little ledge, shift my weight and reach up. I slip, recover myself, look down to see my crampon broke! Now what?!

It’s nine days ago since, after an epic helicopter flight, we arrived in basecamp. We got fooled by the weather forecast and had a little bit of a false start. After repacking our bags, we reached C1 the next day and climbed to 4.800m on the third. We knew there was a storm predicted and thought we’d sit it out in C1. But upon arrival back in C1 everybody was leaving for basecamp. We didn’t want to be the only brave guys, so we left most of our stuff and made the three hour hike over the glacier back to basecamp. The next day we were baking in the sun and bummed out.

That was six days ago. Since then we only went up. This year there’s not going to be endless and relentless acclimatization trips. We climb in (almost) perfect alpine style, only up, never down. The big day from C1 (4.200m) to C2 (5.300m) worried us a little bit, as it meant gaining over a thousand meters in altitude. However, the pre-acclimatization really payed off and before we knew it we were set in C3. Saturations are reasonably high and we’ve all been feeling quite well.

It’s been snowing all day and we are tent bound. I wonder if Martin has even left his sleeping bag today and I just did my seventh nap in row. We are patiently waiting for the weather to improve. There’s a lot of fresh snow covering the mountain as well as our camp. The mountain looks to be in winter conditions. At the same time we made a call to Guido and he gave us a pretty accurate weather forecast. After discussing our options, strategy and fallback scenarios, we decide: No wind, tomorrow it’s go time!

These first hours are always hard. As we climb higher, surrounded by darkness and cold our bodies and minds struggle.

These first hours are always hard. As we climb higher, surrounded by darkness and cold our bodies and minds struggle. We all feel sleepy, is it the altitude? Did we start to fast? We don’t know. Martin and myself have issues with our crampons, they keep falling off. At about 6.200m we enter the ridge and the real climbing begins. I place the frontpoints of my right crampon on a little ledge, shift my weight and reach up. I slip, recover myself, look down to see my crampon broke! Now what?! Allert looks down and our eyes meet. I look up and see we still have a long way to go. Should I go back? Will I slow the boys down? Is it safe to continue? So many questions, but in a split second I make my decision. I call out to the boys that I’ll give a shot, if it doesn’t work I can always abseil down.

We’re at 6.400m and just like last year on Lenin the sunrise was magical. We’ve been moving in a steady pace, sticking together as a team. We are at a small flat area high up on the rocky ridge. Some make a C4 in this place and I reckon it can take about three tents if you squeeze it. As we continue, the climbing gets more technical. There are fixed ropes and we use them, but the quality is sometimes questionable. Allert is just in front of me, he looks confident in his climbing, climbing the rock on his own, using the jumar as a backup. I worry as try to do the same, but my right foot keeps slipping and sliding. In the end I manage without using the fixed ropes too much.

There’s this saying: ‘sun’s out, guns out’. At 6.500m we enter the big couloir, this is the crux of the route. No wind and the sun is blazing. My downjacket is still in the backpack, and I’m still climbing in my softshell! We traverse away from the ridge onto the face and enter some really steep rock sections. Climbing through rock and ice we enter the couloir. It’s quite steep, but the ropes look solid and the snow is really firm.

After exiting the couloir we get to the summit ridge. We all thought that it would be smooth sailing from here, but some guys coming down tell us that it’s still well over three hours to the summit!. We’ve been climbing for eight hours straight and by now we’re all pretty exhausted, yet we continue. The wind is really picking up and I’m getting cold – time to put on my downjacket. At about 6.900m Martin’s sleepy hours are over, I thought higher up I was the quick one, but I struggle to keep his tail. I look back, smile, and see that Allert’s sufferfest is also well on its way.

Twelve hours after we left camp we all get to the final snow slope. I can see Martin has reached the summit cross and is soaking in the view. I stop, breathe, look back and see that Allert is close behind. The air is so thin, we’re all exhausted but the view is just magical. We take the radio and let basecamp know we’re on the summit of Khan Tengri. After a few summit pics we start the descent.

Descending with only one crampon is just a really bad idea. I’m so exhausted, the abseils are endless and to make matters worse in every step I take I keep sliding away. On the easy parts I see Martin and Allert wrapping the rope around their arm and downclimbing as fast as they can. I’m scared and stay connected to the rope at all times, this is just really slowing me down. We left our stove at 6.400m and Martin leaves a full bottle of water before continuing down. I get to the platform totally exhausted, Allert checks up on me to see if I’m just tired or if it’s something worse. After being reassured that I can make it down he continues to C3.   

I get to the snowy ridge at 6.100m, from here it’s pretty straight forward. Only one last fixed rope to camp, I can see the tents. I lose my ATC while trying to attach it to the rope, it falls down the endless snowface. I don’t care anymore, I wrap the rope around my arm and make one last ‘abseil’. Five hours after summiting we all get back safe to C3. It was a long 17 hours day, but the reward was absolutely magnificent!