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August 19, 2003 -> Climbing Kan Tengri

I almost backed out. But when Aleksandr brought out his extra pair of climbing boots, and they fit perfectly, I couldn't say no. An hour later, we were trudging across the glacier, Aleksandr's rucksack stuffed with crampons, ropes, and other climbing equipment. Our goal was Camp 1, the first stop for climbers attempting to summit Kan Tengri. It would only take 2-3 hours, the serious climbers told me, and was relatively easy. But at the foot of the mountain, as I stepped into my crampons and looked up a sheer wall of snow and ice, I was extremely nervous, and not a little afraid.

Kan Tengri - The Sky King - stands at just over 7,000 meters (21,000 ft), a towering pyramid of rock and snow, slightly twisted like a ibex's horn. The two arms of the Inylchek glacier cradle the peak, which is jointly claimed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China. It is the tallest mountain in the Tian Shan - The Heavenly Mountains - a rugged range that runs between Kazakhstan and Kygryzstan before slowly dying in western China's Xinjiang province. Though Kan Tengri is considerably shorter than more famous peaks such as Mount Everest (8,848) and K2 (8,611 meters), it is taller than the tallest mountain in South America (Aconcagua: 6,959 meters), North America (Denali: 6,194 meters), Africa (Kilimanjaro: 5,895) and Europe (Elbrus: 5,633). It is not an easy climb, either. To date, only three climbers have reached the summit this year - and more than 100 have tried.

Getting to the base of Kan Tengri had been an adventure in itself. From Almaty, we drove several hours to the east before heading south into the Kazakh-Kygryz border region. Here the roads worsened, and we had to pass through several border checkpoints, where bored soldiers flipped through our passports, but never appeared to look at our visas. After five hours, we arrived at Karkara base camp (~2,000 meters), a pleasant arrangement of tents situated in a beautiful valley. The next day, we climbed a nearby mountain to acclimatize to the heights of the glacier base camp (~4,000 meters), and the following day, we flew in a gigantic Russian MI-8 helicopter up to the base of Kan Tengri itself.

Our camp was a collection of tents balanced on slowly melting platforms of ice. The bathrooms were outhouses built over crevasses, and all meals were served in a canvas mess hall near the glacier. It was freezing at night, and Nori and I did not have enough cold-weather clothing. One evening, I woke to hear the sounds of something moving outside our tent. I was quite frightened: there are snow leopards in the Tien Shan, and I was sure there were wolves and bears too. I woke Nori up, and clapped my hands and shouted to scare the beasts away. But they kept coming back. Finally, I stood up and stepped outside the tent and shined my headlight on - nothing. Later the next evening, I told Eesay, the camp interpreter, about my scare, and he laughed and pointed at the ground nearby. There was a round little rodent with cute spade-shaped ears - certainly nothing to be afraid of!

On second day at the glacier base camp, our guide, Aleksandr, had led Nori and me on a five-hour walk up to the head of the glacier. We started early; most of the top of the glacier remained frozen, and we crunched across teeth of frost. As the sun and temperature rose, tiny trickles turned into rivulets and soon we were jumping over small streams of meltwater. Often these streams combined and burrowed twisting tunnels through the glacier, perfectly smooth bobsled runs that plunged into bottomless crevasses. All around us were beautiful mountains, many nursing tributary glaciers that flowed down to Inylchek and piled up in jagged icefalls. Directly in front of us was the Marble Wall, a tall, flat face ribboned with white, grey and black strata. On the way back, Aleksandr saw me watching the people climbing Kan Tengri. "We go Camp 1?" he asked.

And that's how I found myself high up the flanks of Kan Tengri. My Mom used to ask me, "Do you always have to over-do it?" Yes, Mom, I do. Aleksander sensed that I wanted to test my endurance, so our breaks were infrequent and of short duration. I was panting heavily, but I was full of adrenalin. Only 100 meters from Camp 1, the slope becomes nearly vertical, and must be climbed with the aid of a fixed rope. My thighs were already quaking from our rapid ascent, and I laughed with fear as Aleksandr began attaching new equipment to my climbing harness. The most important tool was the "zhumars" - or ascender - a hand-held device that clamped onto the fixed rope and could only move forwards (up), providing much needed slip protection, and allowing the climber to use upper body strength. It took me several tries before I got the hang of it, and I slipped once in the process, sliding a meter down the slope before the rope that ran from the zhumars to my harness arrested the fall. At least I knew the equipment worked.

Taking a deep breath, I started back up, placing my feet carefully and stopping several times to rest my screaming thighs. The fifteen minutes passed very slowly, but suddenly, the pitch moderated and I was at Camp 1! Exhausted but ecstatic, I plopped down on a rock to catch my breath and marvel at the view. The glacier was a highway of ice far below me, a corridor cut between majestic peaks that only seemed small due to the presence of Kan Tengri. I could barely see our tents on the other side of the glacier. Above me, the pitch from Camp 1 to Camp 2 seemed impossibly steep, an eight-hour struggle along a knife-edge ridge. I was proud to make it to Camp 1, but looking at the route to Camp 2 made me realize that high alpine climbing is not for me.

Just thirty minutes after we arrived back at base camp, I got a salutary lesson on the risks of mountaineering. We were slurping up bowls of borshcht (surprisingly tasty beet soup) in the mess tent when we heard a terrific crack followed by a deep rumbling. We rushed outside and watched in amazement as a massive avalanche roared down the face of Kan Tengri. Nearly a third of a huge serac had given way, and the cloud of snow and ice that it churned up went as high as Camp 1. We had never actually been in the path of the avalanche, but we certainly would have been buffeted by the accompanying winds and gales of snow.