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May Day Mountain Mob

“Let it at me small. BUT! It is longer than others.” So proclaimed the decal on the car window in front of us for much of the 45-minute drive to the entrance of Ala Archa National Park, the cozy weekend getaway gorge just outside of Bishkek.

As I was researching what climbing and hiking there is to do in the region (and there’s a lot), I really wanted to climb Peak Lenin, probably the easiest 7,000-meter mountain to climb in the world. But I’m dreadfully unprepared for such a trip. In every way. I don’t have enough high-altitude experience or equipment and I’m not in good enough shape for it. But the annual tradition of about 300 people flooding their way up Kyrgyzstan’s 4200-meter Peak Komsomolets on May 1, well, that seemed reasonable enough in comparison. Despite the fact that I’m not running more than once a week, my diet is based around dumplings, and I haven’t been above 10,000 feet in a year and a half.

It begins steeply from the base at 2,000 meters, and just gets steeper and seemingly more dangerous the higher you go. At least by starting on the early side of 5:30, we were ahead of most people, so it wasn’t a tedious Disney queue.

It was a great workout. For a while. But it just kept going it seemed. The only flat sections were along narrow, slippery shale shelves on steep slope funnels.

I tried to imagine whether or not you’d die if you slipped. Probably not. But you might have a Princess Bride ‘as you wish’ kind of tumble. And sure, if you banged your head or fell of that ledge over there, yeah, it would probably make you dead.

As the dirt path turned to mud and then big rocks then loose stones covered in a couple inches of snow, I passed a young man who decided it was time to turn around. “I’ve got a wife and two daughters. Why risk it?” Although he had badass mountain goggles on, he also had on a pair of fine, black leather dress shoes. So yeah, probably a good call.

False peak after peak, my water quickly depleting, I started to question whether or not I was appropriately prepared for this. The vast, intricately carved world around the ridge was beautiful, the air was crisp, and the sun was blinding (I ended up with my first-ever sunburn on the bottom of my chin), but, for me, the whole thing was also a bit of a bitch.

Still, it felt good to push myself, so long as I didn’t collapse on the way down. And every step forward meant one more step back later. You can’t just push yourself to the top and call it a day.

Most of the last half mile-ish is directly up a 45-degree slope through two feet of snow at almost 14,000 feet (in the photo at top you can see the stream of ants coming up this incline on the right edge, right in the middle). Would it have killed the trailblazer to zigzag a little? Damn those mountain-loving Kyrgyz and altitude-immune, lactic-acid-free Russians. I could only take two steep steps at a time before catching my breath as I felt my pulse throbbing up the back of my skull.

Someone takes a break at the peak. Or he’s in a coma.

I tried not to look up often because it was too depressing. Too steep, too high, too slippery, and my trekking shoes were soaked to the bones of my toes.

My lack of acclimatization to even this altitude was obvious. I was having those playful hallucinations where shadows look like creatures and you can’t remember what things are called.

A couple times I told myself it would probably be wisest to turn around. But I ignored myself, which didn’t seem to annoy myself. He’s used to it. And maybe it was that assumption that it if it were dangerous to continue, there wouldn’t be so many other people still pushing on who looked even worse for wear than me (following several who were practically skipping up the slope).

At 12:30pm, almost exactly seven hours after departing, I reached the summit, that little bulb of snowpack that’s been honed to a perfect curve by the surrounding winds. Two men were taking the names of everyone who made it to the top. I chatted cheerfully briefly with a few people at the top, but also realized that I’d just finished off the last of my three liters of water, with half of the hike to go.

But going down wasn’t so bad after all. Although I could consistently feel the hike stiffly in my calves and quads, it turns out the altitude was probably the weightiest difficulty. I came down that last steep slope like a labrador released into a blizzard, hopping and sliding down through fresh powder a few meters behind a couple Russians.

About an hour into the descent I came across a Russian man grumpy about his headache but insistent on finishing. He asked for some headache pills. I almost gave him Ambien accidentally. It’s kind of a funny thought. I could’ve given it to him and then told him after he swallowed it. “Gotcha!”

I twice lost the trail but just bushwhacked down toward the moraine. After a four-hour hammering of my knees, I arrived back to my tent, 11 hours after beginning the hike. An hour after that I was in downtown Bishkek—safe, spent, and an impossible lifetime away from the white massif that barricades the edge of the city.

See complete photo set on Flickr.

Tatiana takes a break before galloping onward.

A young couple celebrates at the top of Peak Komsomolets.
Halfway down the long, cloudy walk back.

One Comment

  1. Pete M.

    This is beautiful, Keith! What great work. VERY well done.

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