Why do we have to go up there?
This question occurred to me every now and then as I was trudging through a snowstorm on my way to the next camp and my face was being plastered by snowflakes. Why?
What is the meaning of scaling the most northerly seven-thousander in the world?
The answer is quite simple: There is no meaning. Mountain climbing is senseless and is unbelievably beautiful for this very reason.
It is July 2019. My climbing partner and I are sitting in an old Russian army helicopter that is flying us to the base camp of the Khan Tengri in Kazakhstan. We land on the Engilchek Glacier that is located at an elevation of 4,000 metres and move into our tents. We continue to glance again and again at the ascent route and the summit, both of which rise majestically and steeply into the sky. We begin to get acclimatised on the next day and slowly climb from camp to camp for the next week and a half until we have reached the Chapaev Peak, a six-thousander located in front of the Khan Tengri. After going through the torture of acclimatisation, we give our bodies two days off to recuperate before we take on the summit itself. The weather forecast for the summit day is good, and we can’t wait to get started.
The big day has finally arrived. I’m huffing and puffing like a steam locomotive, even though I am really well acclimatised and in good shape. The individual stages between the high-altitude camps are steep and long. Acclimatisation cannot do much for you here. After climbing for three days, we reach the Chapaev Peak for the second time. It is snowing, and we can see virtually nothing. We treat ourselves to a short drink break before we head off to the descent point on the bergschrund and begin to work our way downward. Camp 3 is located at 5,900 metres. That means we have to reverse the cumulative elevation gain that we had to fight so hard to obtain. Bone-weary, we reach the last bivouac site and pitch our tents. We try to recharge our batteries and hit the sack early, even though our bodies can hardly recharge their batteries at this altitude.
The night is short, and the alarm clock goes off punctually at midnight. We fire up our little stove and try to have a little breakfast. By 1:30 a.m., we are on the way. It’s cold. I’d say it’s about – 20°C or lower. If I stop for a second, I’ll start to freeze. Our motto is: keep moving. The ascent to the summit itself is anything but easy. A cumulative elevation gain of 1,100 metres takes us to the summit at 7,010 metres, mostly across terrain subject to cave-ins. Dawn breaks about three hours later, but the temperature remains well below freezing. We are using the north and west sides and don’t catch any of the sun’s rays. But we can finally shut off our head lamps and climb by daylight. After climbing for about five hours, we finally reach the imposing Couloirs, and the terrain flattens out somewhat. But we have to create our own trails because it snowed the day before and we are the first people up here today. We spend the next two hours cutting our exhausting trail and still have not caught sight of the summit. We walk a few more steps, and I finally get a glimpse of the small wooden cross that is now so near. I think to myself: “Just a few more metres.” But, at this elevation, every metre feels more like a full kilometre.
A half-hour later, we finally reach our goal, the summit of the Khan Tengri at 7,100 metres. The view takes our breath away. There is hardly a cloud in the sky, and we can see in every direction. The full majesty of the Tien Shan mountain range spreads out before us, a view that is punctuated by huge glaciers and summits. Because the Khan Tengri is an international mountain, we are standing in three countries at once: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and China. It’s an indescribable feeling. We take the time to snap a few photos and savour the moment before we begin the trek back to Camp 3. Fourteen hours after setting off, I’m lying in the sun next to our tent and do not want to move another muscle. I accept a few congratulations, rip open my bag of summit jelly babies and savour this unforgettable moment!