Known as Gorky to his friends, Maksima Gor’Kogo is a 6,050m (~20,000-foot) peak that has only seen three successful summit attempts and which was conveniently located within spitting distance of our base camp.
We were going to climb it.
Our bags packed, we set off along the path to the steep scree slope a bit further along. There is little doubt that we were carrying too much stuff. I’m not sure that we could have cut down much more, but I think we should have taken a different approach to the climb. Sleeping bag, tent, bivvy bag (I’ll come back to that), stove, meals, snacks, down jackets, waterproofs, first-aid kits, crampons, ice axes, ropes, climbing hardware. The list goes on. We had already had a lengthy debate about whether or not to carry bivvy bags. I argued that to go up an unknown six-thousand-metre mountain without one was crazy, but they argued that it wasn’t necessary, given that we were taking the tent. In the end, I took Thom’s (since it was lighter than mine), and they didn’t take any.
The going was good. It was steep, and it was hard work, but we were whiling away the hours chatting aimlessly about children’s TV shows. Base camp was at 4,000m, and the summit was at 6,000m, so that meant two vertical kilometres of climbing. We had planned to push on until dark, pitch, sleep, get up, and summit.
The scree slowly turned to snow, and the route became a bit more hard work. The shallow snow turned to deep snow, and the route became even harder. Walking uphill is hard at the best of times, but doing it with a bristling 70-litre backpack through knee-deep snow at four is just a pain in the ass. And now the altitude was getting to me.
Ben and Thom had been popping pills for the last week or so to help them adjust to the thin air. I didn’t want to take them unless I felt I needed them. Apparently, I needed them now, but ‘now’ was a little too late.
Every footstep was a gargantuan effort. It felt like I’d just finished a marathon, and my body had been drained of all energy. I know climbing mountains is tough going, but this wasn’t normal. The other two kept pulling away from me, and I didn’t have the willpower to pick up the pace. Plus, it was starting to get dark, and there was no sign of any flat ground on which to pitch the tent–-we were climbing a steep snow slope, and there was no let-up.
The others stopped up ahead and waited for me as I stumbled up the slope like a drunkard giving his friend a piggyback. Thom lowered his ice axe to help pull me up, but I didn’t have the strength to hold it. There was no chance of getting a ledge flat enough for the tent, so the decision was made to dig ‘bucket seats’. Basically, we scraped out as much snow as we could before hitting rock (about a foot or two in this case) and sat down.
Arranged as carefully as we could on this tiny ledge, a 3,000-foot drop in all directions, we set about assembling ourselves for a rough night. Thom was trying to get the stove going, but there were more fumes coming from him than the cooker.
"This f****** stove is sh**!"
No one had a sense of humour right now, and there was certainly nothing funny about our only heat source not working. He tried the ridiculously fiddly procedure of unclogging the fuel pipe, but it wasn’t happening.
"For f***’s sake!"
He gave up on the stove and started to inflate his mattress. Ben and I exchanged a look of fear. We thought Thom was going to explode. He was watching as his bed for the night slid quickly but silently back down miles of snow we had spent the day climbing. Down the mountain and all the way back to base camp.
He erupted in laughter, and we joined him. Things had gone from bad to worse and weren’t getting any better. It was laugh or cry, and we chose the former.
We got into our sleeping bags, desperately trying not to knock anything else down the death slide (Ben lost a stuff-sack) and, more importantly, not to fall of ourselves. The shiny nylon lining of the sleeping bags made us potentially brilliant toboggans.
It was dark now, and in the safety of our sleeping bags, with the addition of a seat belt (two ice axes dug into the snow and a rope around the front of us, lest we should roll over in the middle of the night), we settled down to sleep. Immediately, snow started to blow down from above me and fill the back of my sleeping bag. I zipped up my bivvy bag with a mixture of emotions: excitement, because whilst we were in a pretty precarious position, and this was what mountaineering was all about; fear, because we sat on a 30º snow slope where one bad dream would see me plummeting 3000 feet onto the rocks below; and guilt, because I was the only with a bivvy bag. And Thom had paid for it.
On the bus across Kyrgyzstan some weeks earlier, Ben’s expedition guidebook chapter on photography had given the advice, ‘the best photos are taken when you least want to take them.’ That morning, the absolutely last thing on my mind was to whip out my camera and get a snap-shop of the moment. I was tired, cold, and scared, on 5x2-foot platform of snow, at 5,000 metres in the middle of nowhere. I wanted to be back at base camp with a hot meal, not stuck in a snow-filled bivvy bag a vertical kilometre from any other human life. But I heeded the book’s advice, and I’m glad I did. That picture says everything about the moment: the emotionless faces of my companions, the way they’re huddled together and into their sleeping bags; the steep angle of the slope, showing our precarious position; and the moody sky in the background. The mountain range stretching behind us puts the picture in perspective, and the huge glacier sweeping along the valley floor beneath us shows just how high up we are.
The night on the death slide was one to remember.