Pik Kommunisma (U.S.S.R.)

In High Places

By: Burton A. Falk


Awakening on the morning of July 29, we found our three tents, located at 19,680' Camp II, half buried in new-fallen snow. Outside, the wind howled, ominous clouds swirled and even more snow fell. At 9 a.m., however, when we checked the daily radioed weather report, we were assured that the skies would soon clear, and so, ignoring the storm, we began to break camp. Our climbing party, having been hampered by so many previous delays, desperately needed to move forward if we were to ever have a shot at summiting on 24,590' Pik Kommunisma, the highest peak in the U.S.S.R.

Personally, had mixed emotions about continuing. My old pal and climbing partner, Jim Scott, had fallen ill days earlier and, as far as I knew, was on his way back to the States. Two others from our group were at the Fortambeck Glacier Camp, 6,000' below, suffering from some sort of respiratory malady. Another member of our original team of thirteen was there as well. He had taken one look at the mountain and the route we were to follow and had thrown in the towel on the spot.

The director of the Fortambeck Glacier Camp had also been responsible for many of my misgivings in regards to bagging the trophy peak. During his welcoming talk in the Camp mess tent twelve days earlier, he had discussed the many hazards of our upcoming climb-the treacherous crossing of the Fortambeck Glacier, the steep, avalanche prone slopes between the Glacier and 17,200' Camp I, and again between Camp I and Camp II--our present location--and the rapid and dangerous changes of weather common to the area. He also dwelled at length on the problem of the 7.2 mile Pamir Ice Plateau, the ice-covered ledge hewn into the north side of the Pamirs, which we were planning to traverse from end to end that very day.

Several lives had been lost on the Plateau's icy expanse, the director said, as its rolling swells acted as a barrier to rapid descent for climbers afflicted with high altitude sickness. No rescue by helicopter was possible from the ledge, because the atmosphere at 20,000' was too thin for lift off. As I sat taking notes, he went on to note that beyond Camp III, at the far end of the plateau, it took enormous will power to continue the push toward the summit. He himself had reached Camp III on three separate occasions, but it was only on his fourth attempt, with great determination, that he was finally successful in summiting. Mental conditioning, he asserted, was as important as physical conditioning. In spite of my apprehensions, I continued on with the team, now numbering nine, as we left camp at 10:30 that morning, heading east toward the slopes of Pik Kommunisma. Arising on the southern side of the ice field was the backbone of the Pamirs, including Pik Leningrad, from which avalanches occasionally rumbled, sending clouds of sparkling ice crystals billowing into the clearing sky. On the northern side there was a sheer drop off, falling away to the Fortambeck Glacier 6,000' below.

Because of the foot and a half of new-fallen snow, the scarcity of oxygen at 20,000', the burden of our equipment-laden packs and our need to be ever vigil-ant for unseen crevasses lying below the windblown surface, our progress was slow and taxing. Ken Asvitt, one of my two tentmates, had begun coughing and Eric Simonson, the leader of our expedition, was concerned about him.

We stopped for snacks and drinks around 1 p.m., and thirty minutes later we were again stretched out across the ice like a line of ants. With twenty feet of rope in front of me and and twenty feet behind, was soon suspended in a silver-blue sphere of self -doubt. Was I fooling myself about being in proper condition to reach the summit? The previous year I had somehow climbed 22,800' Aconcagua, a feat that had sorely tested my stamina. How would I ever propel myself two thousand feet higher? My rapid rate of respiration, compounded with my pressure breathing, made me sound like the Little Engine That Could trying to get over the damn pass. Also, I was fifty--ten years older than anyone else on my team; probably on the entire mountain. With each foot of elevation increase, it became more obvious to me why senior mountaineers preferred lower peaks. Above us, horse tail clouds spread wistfully over the vast skies of Tadzhik S.S.R.

Finally reaching the few scattered tents that comprised 20,200' Camp III at 7 p.m., we discovered that a preceding party-a Colorado-based team named Mountain Madness--had two ailing climbers: one suffering from a advanced case of pulmonary edema, another with a broken ankle. The edema afflicted climber--a ski instructor from Crested Butte--had been evacuated by a team of Soviet mountaineers, via the Borodkin Route, earlier that afternoon. I was dismayed to learn that the victim, a fellow named Steve, was only in his early thirties. The idea that such a healthy young man could be stricken by such a fickle malady was appalling. It seemed to me that fate had somehow missed the mark; that it was me, the oldest, who should have been targeted.

We had no time to dwell on the misfortunes of others, however. Instead, we worked in that slow motion peculiar to life at high altitudes setting up our tents and melting snow for dinner and drinks. The latter took so long, in fact, that my tentmates and I eventually decided to forego dinner altogether (and eat Snickers and gorp instead) so that we could continue to melt even more snow to quench our enormous thirsts.

Lying in my bag that night, totally spent, I was unable to sleep. Ken Asvitt, because of his continued cough, couldn't sleep either.

Although the next day dawned clear, the 9 a.m. weather report predicted that yet another storm would move in the following day. That meant that our chances for completing the climb (and getting back for our scheduled departure date) were slim. Additionally, since Ken's cough was even worse that morning, it was decided that he must descend to a lower elevation at once. Because of my previous concerns, plus these new factors, I opted out. I volunteered to accompany Ken down to the 13,000' Moskvin Camp, by way of the difficult but direct Borodkin route.

The Borodkin provides the only direct escape from the eastern end of the ice plateau. An 800' climb, to the top of a 21,000' ridge, however, is required before one can begin the steep descent to the Moskvina Camp, located on the edge of the Moskvina Glacier, 8,000' below. The ice plateau, as the camp director had warned, had indeed become a barrier to any rapid descent Ken and I started our assent of the ridge about noon. A trail through the crusted snow had been broken by yet another Soviet team who had evacuated the climber with the broken ankle earlier that morning. As we neared the top of the ridge, we were overtaken by four more Coloradans, three young fellows and a woman who had summited the previous day. They passed us quickly, and although they looked haggard, they seemed to be in good humor. On the far side of the ridge, we found the descent to be slow going due to the steep terrain, the deep snow and Ken's continued cough. About 5 p.m., while downclimbing a rocky nose, I somehow dislodged a huge rock which caromed off my left thigh, shredding my pants and skin, but which, fortunately, didn't break anything. Although I was left with the mother of all charley horses, I was--thankfully--able to hobble on.

As the last light faded in the west, we reached a small ancillary glacier near the Moskvina Camp, where we were met by still another Coloradan, a fellow who had descended with Steve, the edema-stricken climber, the previous day. He told us that Steve had died on the descent, and that his body had been buried--for preservation--in the glacier, close by the section of trail over which we'd just passed.

Later that night, in the camp mess tent, where the accommodating Soviets provided us with a late meal, we met the rest of the Colorado group. They were discussing who among them would inform the climber's family of his death. It was a somber discussion, permeated with true regret.

The following day, while I limped around like Chester on the old "Gunsmoke" series, Ken lay in the infirmary suffering from high altitude pulmonary edema, the same affliction that had killed Steve.

Five days later, our entire party--including Jim Scott, who hadn't been able to depart after all--was reunited at Ashik-Tash, the main camp and headquarters for the Soviet Mountaineering Program in the Pamirs. We had assembled there to await our bus for the airport at Osh, from where we would fly to Moscow and then home. Fortunately, because the predicted storm had not materialized, five of our party had reached the summit of Pik Kommunisma. Unfortunately, Eric Simonson had suffered some cerebral stress- probably due to dehydration--during the attempt, and he could remember nothing of the day. Others members of our party had saved the life of a stricken Rumanian climber by literally dragging him down off the summit.

That afternoon, at the Ashik-Tash commissary, Eric traded our left over food credits for a mixed case of Georgian champagne, Moldavian brandy and Hungarian white wine, plus two kilos of excellent Volga caviar. We carried the bottles, the caviar, several leaves of bread and two or three watermelons, to a sunny, grassy plot situated between the rows of family-sized tents, where the flags of the twenty-five nations participating in that summer's climbing program flapped and clanged on a row of white flag poles.

After spreading our feast out below the American flag, which the Soviets had lowered to half mast in respect for the dead Coloradan, Eric banged on the flagpole with a rock and shouted invitations to the others in camp to join our party, Sleepy heads poked out of the line of tents, and within minutes a multinational crowd of thirty or so climbers--French, Germans, Rumanians, Japanese, Kiwis, Spanish and Bulgarians--were gathered around us, many bringing their own bottles.

An hour or two later, the party having grown in size and noise level, Eric decided that it wasn't proper to have the American flag at half mast. "it will look as though the Americans didn't make the summit," he said. So, while he raised the flag to the top of the mast, we Americans joined together in a slightly drunken rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner. Many climbers didn't make it to dinner that night.

On the last afternoon of our stay at Ashik-Tash, I hiked a quarter-of-a-mile down the grassy valley to a large boulder festooned with plaques memorializing lost climbers from years past. At loose ends, I climbed the 1,500' ridge west of the camp, then walked along the narrow crest until I found a comfortable rock. Sitting there in the late afternoon sun, I surveyed the scene. The Pamirs to the south were mostly in shadows at that hour; only the tops of the peaks remained golden. Down and down their steep slopes tumbled the glaciers, purplish-blue against the oncoming evening. The mess hall and the rows of tents in the camp below me seemed small enough to be toys. Toys, thought, for younger climbers who risked-and sometimes lost-their lives pursuing their youthful fancies.

To the north, away from the Pamirs, the grassy foothills faded into the haze of Central Asia. In a few short weeks the hills would be brown, the climbers and their tents and their dreams would be gone, and a cold autumn wind would scour the land.

Update: Mountain Travel 'Sobek reports that the Pamir Mountaineering Program no longer operates in the newly independent nations of Tajikistan and Kyrgyrstan. MT*S also reports that their own 1996 expeditions to Mt. Elbrus, the high point of both Europe and Russia, have been canceled due to the political unrest in the Caucasus area.

The Mountaineers have recently published a new guide, entitled "Trekking in Russia and Central Asia, by Frith Maier.


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