Camp One stirs to life at 3 am as the first shift of climbers awakes. Breakfast is served twice to accommodate trekkers and climbers, first at 3-4 am for those who need an early pre-dawn start, and again from 8-9 am. Mercifully, we are in the second group this morning.
Despite the number of tents and people here at Ak-Sai Camp, folks seem fairly quiet and respectful of others need to sleep. So we catch a few more hours of shut-eye before getting up at 6. By that time, the tent is already glowing with the morning sun, and it’s actually quite warm inside.
Our tent resembles an army barrack, half dome in shape, which is actually a wind shell surrounding another tent large enough to stand in. The key is that it is a winter tent with no screening to let the air in, all of which makes for a very comfortable night of sleep.
Our departure for the summit of Peak Yuhina this morning is not until 9 am, so we relax and read about in our sleeping bags before getting dressed and organized for the day’s adventure. The second shift starts to stir around 7 am, and, by 8, we are in the mess tent absorbing carbs and calories to fuel up for the climb.
We are seated next to Erzhan, another of the many Nepalis who are working here during their off season. Erzhan has summited Everest six times. He shows us his photograph of the final climb to the summit of the world’s tallest mountain from earlier this spring, with a human traffic jam in front of him.
We’ve seen different versions of his photo all over the Internet, but it makes the overcrowding problem that much more real when it comes directly from the mouth of someone who was just there two months ago. He asks when we are coming back to Nepal and tells us that Kathmandu is largely rebuilt and open for business. We are certainly interested in returning to Nepal for more trekking, so we exchange information before he bids us good luck with our hike today.
After a last slug of coffee, it’s time to strap on the packs and head off. Musa is in the lead with the four of us trailing and Timu taking up the rear. We walk past the last row of yellow tents and off onto a flat rocky plain with the main tongue of the glacier flowing like a river off to our left. It could not be a better day for a summit attempt. It’s cool but not too cold, and the sun makes it sufficiently warm that we are not worried about heat loss.
Before too long we hit the first incline and begin a series of tight switchbacks up to the top of the first hill. There are many others in front of us and this helps to pace us a bit, as Musa, Amy and Rob have already moved too far ahead of us.
About halfway up this section, we get caught behind a group of three Russian mountaineers with heavy boots and full packs ahead of us. They are moving at a very slow and measured pace. This deliberate approach is familiar to us from treks to Machu Picchu and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
The goal is not to get out of breath and to be able to continue for at least 45 minutes or longer without a break. It’s difficult to break ourselves of the mindset that we should go faster just because we can. We are grateful to have a “pace car” helping us to slow down and enjoy the moment. Alison says that she likes the slow pace. Doing this steep climb without getting out of breath makes her believe that she can make it to the top.
So we are tackling the mountain today “shashpay style.” I keep chanting Palan, palan, poly, poly, shashpay, shashpay, slowly, slowly in my head, blending together four different languages into a mantra of sorts that helps me get up the hill. Oddly there are a lot of butterflies flitting about in the thin mountain air as we begin the climb today. Watching them keeps my mind distracted when I would rather be moving faster.
Once we achieve the first hill, we must cross three snowfields. Luckily, none of them is too terribly long. The choice is to follow a well-defined, ever-deepening but narrow trench or to trek on top of the snow but risk post-holing along the way. Luckily, the snow is still fairly firm this early in the morning, and we make it across all of them without too much incident.
Down below we see several small frozen lakes that appear like little turquoise gems embedded in the glacier. Looking back we can see camp off in the distance. It turns out that there are several different camps run by different private companies to serve the climbing and trekking community here on Peak Lenin.
After a quick break for water and an energy bar, the wind starts to pick up. We add a windbreaker and pull our buffs up to protect the back of our neck and our ears from the sun. So many of the climbers we see have very dark, sun-damaged skin from too much exposure. Hopefully, we are doing enough to protect ourselves at this extreme high altitude.
As we set off, we gaze up at the task in front of us. We have already come up a thousand feet, but we have about 1300 more to go. And it appears that we are walking straight up a vertical ridge judging from the many people we see ahead of us.
The trail is indeed steep, but fortunately there are tight switchbacks virtually the entire way up. We make slow and steady progress stopping every several hundred feet when there is a slightly flat pad to rest on. When you are climbing a mountain like this, there is no race, just an internal drive and the will to make it to the top. Often the task seems harder from a distance. Once you get started, it’s just keeping one foot in front of the other. We know that if we simply keep it up, we will eventually get there.
Before long, we can see the snow ridge that marks the summit. There is one final snow field to cross, and this one is more vertical than the ones below. Luckily, there are well-defined footsteps to follow. As we hit it, the view across to the other side comes into view, and the adrenalin really starts to kick in.
Rob and Amy are there at the top to congratulate us. We have arrived at the summit—5100 meters/16,770 feet! We can see Peak Lenin clearly across the valley and a beautiful ridge line of snow to our right. We take a series of pictures to celebrate the moment, including a rare picture of all five of us.
It’s chilly up top, so we add a layer and put on a warmer hat and gloves. We eat an energy bar and drink some water, taking in the glorious view. It appears that we’ve made it just in time. Grey clouds start to roll in, so, after about 30 minutes, we begin the reverse trek back down the mountainside.
We have a steep downhill climb. The legs are in good shape, but it’s still slow going. Thankfully, Timu our ever-faithful guide helps Alison manage some of the trickier, steep parts. A little hail or graupel falls but not enough to be bothersome.
By now, several larger groups are making their way up the trail. It’s fun to see people from so many nationalities together in one place. Peak Lenin is a truly international destination, with most people coming from Russia and Europe. We haven’t met any other Americans here yet, which makes our choice to come here feel even more special.
As we make our descent, we have to be very careful not to kick loose rocks down on the hikers below, and we keep an eye out for anything falling from up above. Other people coming down choose a more direct route as they sort of ski down the softer areas. We choose the zig zags knowing that our shoes would probably fill with stones. Eventually we make our way down the ridge and back to the flat area before hitting the flat snow fields.
The mountain seems to be holding back the clouds, and the sun comes out once again, lighting everything up. We are staying the night at Camp One again, so we take our time making our way back to camp, stopping frequently to photograph this amazing glaciated valley surrounded by snow-covered mountains.
This time, the snow is not quite as firm when we cross the snowfields. We try to avoid the soft spots where we can see that people have broken through the snow before us. Alison and Time manage to get across, but I fall through and posthole up to my thighs. Luckily, it happens only once because it is quite challenging to get myself out of the deep snow!
The last downhill section turns out to be the most slippery section of trail of the entire day. This is definitely Type 2 fun, the kind of fun you enjoy after the fact when all the hard work is behind you. It feels great when we finally step onto the flat, rocky plain that will take us back to camp.
We are in a great mood as we stroll back into camp. Alison says that climbing to the summit of Peak Yuhina is like the Half Dome experience of our time in Kyrgyzstan, and it does have a similar feel. We ended our time on the JMT by climbing the cables on Half Dome on our last day. Tackling a challenging 5100-meter peak is certainly a fitting end to all of the amazing trekking we have done here in Kyrgyzstan.
Timu puts it best. He says there is a Kyrgyz saying that translates loosely to The eyes are the worst, the feet are the best, meaning that what you see always seems harder, but when you trust in your feet, all things are possible. The steep trail up to Peak Yuhina certainly looks intimidating, but it’s not all that bad once you get started.
Upon arriving in camp, we head straight for the mess tent and revive ourselves with lunch—soup, salad, hot coffee and tea. Then we grab a mug of hot tea and head to the outdoor lounge to join Rob and Amy and bask in the glory of our collective accomplishment.
We wash up and relax for a while before celebrating at the Camp Bar with a well-deserved beer. Cheers to another successful summit!