August 19, sunset, 6.48pm. Last day before the summit. Alex Sofrygin says that this picture shows well the average steepness of the Yellow Rocks section - see rock wall line at left part of the pic. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
Khan Tengri North Face and the Kazakh route. A series of ice falls on the right flank of the wall stretch from ~4200 up to ~5700. Meanwhile, a large “pie” of ice is hanging on the top of the left flank, at approximately 5400. A climber is exposed to falling debris from the two ice-falls. The danger starts actually near BC and continues up to the bottom of the wall. After the "2 hours of fear" in the approach you get to the wall itself, where falling rocks take their turn. Image by Kazbek Valiev's archive/Graphics (route line) by A. Sofrygin
Snow and rock parts at middle sections of Black Rocks, Yellow Rocks are seen on top of the pic. 4.18 pm, August 16. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
Summit pic by the Cross on top of Khan Tengri. L/R: Gabbasov, Sofrygin, Pivtsov. 10.06 am. August 20, 2012. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
The debrief in chronological pictures. Start of the wall: ice, snow and continuous rock fall from above. August 12, 7.13am. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
Start of Black Rocks, Pivtsov is leading, Sofrygin at belay. Picture shows the loose, soft stone of the Black Rocks. August 13, 10.32 am. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
Scaling difficult section of Black Rocks. 9.31 am, August 15. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
Black Rocks. 2.09pm. August 15. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
Snow and rock parts at middle sections of Black Rocks, Yellow Rocks are seen on the top of the pic, 4.18pm. August 16. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
A sitting bivvy site. Guys are preparing to leave the spot after spending grueling night at the narrow shelf. 8.47am, August 17. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
Vaso Pivtsov ready to climb 12.07pm. August 17. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
Vaso approaching the border of Yellow Rocks. The picture shows the clear line between the yellow and Black Rocks. 5.41pm. August 17.
Entering the Yellow Rocks, 11.56am. August 18.
Yellow Rocks mid section, showing the average steep inclination. The top of the small triangle above marks the summit. 5.35pm. August 18.
Difficult chimney at Yellow Rocks. 11.58am. August 19.
Final section of the route. 4.27pm. August 19.
Summit was achieved 10.06am. August 20, 2012. Image by Alex Sofrygin, Ildar Gabassov
The team with coach Iljinsky just after the summit of The North Face (showing in background). L/R: Ildar Gabassov, Ervand Iljinsky, Vassiliy Pivtsov and Alexander Sofrygin, August 21, 2012.
Posted: Sep 27, 2012 12:44 pm EDT (Andrey Verkhovod/edit TS) It has that rare combination: altitude, difficulty, and cold. A direct line on the wall has never been climbed by a westerner. Even for the locals, a seasoned trio of Kazakh climbers, Khan Tengri North Face presented a serious challenge.
Here goes their debrief, with plenty of pics, should you feel the urge to try your luck there one day.
Khan Tengri North Face Direct. 2012 Kazakh ClimbBy Andrey Verkhovod
Kazakhs Vasiliy Pivtsov, Alexander Sofrygin and Ildar Gabassov started the climb on August 12 at 3.30 am from BC (~4000) and reached the summit of Khan Tengri (7010) on August 20, at around 10am. It was the first successful climb of the mountain’s North Face since 2005.
During the ascent, climbers set seven camps on the wall -- the first at 5000, the last, just before the summit, at 6950.
Bad weather pinned them down in second camp (5350) for one full day and two nights. In total the Kazakhs spent eight days on the wall, which was in the frame of the initial plan (7 to 10 days).
Vasiliy "Vaso" Pivtsov led the team and most pitches which is typical for him. The climbers belong to CSKA (Central Sports Club of the Kazakh Army) coached by Ervand Iljinsky.
The wall was conquered by a three men team (who spent 12 days on the wall) only once before, in 2000. In August 2005 the face was also scaled by a duo: Ilias Tukhvatullin and Pavel Shabalin (both 2007 K2 Russian West Face summiteers) who made the outstanding climb in 10 days. The deed had its price, Pavel got several fingers frostbitten and later had some partial amputations.
As far as it's known, to date there was only one confirmed account of a serious plan to solo the North Face.
Valeriy Khrishchatyi, distinguished and exceptionally strong (even according to Kazakhs’ high high-altitude climbing standards) had been preparing to solo the wall during the summer season of 1993. Unfortunately, Valeriy died on August 3, 1993, in a huge snow and ice avalanche while guiding clients on the normal route of Khan Tengri.
It is difficult to say for sure, but it appears no foreign (i.e., from outside USSR/former-USSR countries) climbers ever summited Khan Tengri via the North Face direct line.
As for the 2012 Kazakh expedition, evidently they used their well accounted experience of previous successful expeditions at this serious Wall.
Accordingly, they did not make any “loud” announcements before their attempt. And they definitely did not say anything intriguing about the planned style, something like the now fashionable light and fast tactic. “We simply planned to climb the North Face directly in alpine style”, commented coach E. Iljinsky on their goals.
Vaso Pivtsov, the leader of the team, formulated the target in semantically more complex message: "The aim was to make a line of ascent as close as possible to a directissima** following the logic of terrain and maximizing the beauty of the route".
Given that several logical direct routes had already been climbed on the wall, the team could consider the previous experience and select what route/line (or combination of lines) to follow***. Or try a new line. Again - given present conditions on the wall.
And conditions were definitely not favorable this season.
Says Alex Sofrygin:
“The wall remained white the entire season, it never turned black, there was too much snow in the whole region. Two strong teams canceled their attempts due to excess snow at the south side of Pobeda, in the Khan Tengri region. Only four climbers summited Pobeda this season."
"Even on the normal route from the north side of Khan Tengri, there were unusually few successful attempts. The weather was cold in general and there was lots of snow.”
The climb as it was. The wall by sections, main difficulties and specifics. First, lower part: Ice and rockfalls (~4200 – ~5000)
Alex Sofrygin: “Afternoon rock falls made the lower part [of the wall] so dangerous we felt like tiny turtles, trying to protect under backpacks and helmets. We were simply very, very lucky. It felt as if someone “very powerful” was keeping fingers crossed for us. Because these falling rocks, they just could not miss us – so frequent and dense were they. Just simple luck is denied by the probability theory in this case”.
Alex’ estimate is expressed in a more mathematical way: the density of rockfalls was so high that a probability to avoid a stone was close to zero.
Such ominous description of the rockfall situation on the wall should not surprise. It is more common than rare that high rockfall danger significantly affects climbers' plans or progress - from changing the attempted route to aborting the entire expedition altogether.
In their particular case, the Kazakhs changed their initial plan to climb the wall close to Studenin’s route due to very high rockfall danger at that route’s lower part. Instead they chose to start the climb via Myslovskiy’s line***.
Although considered safer, it became evident that even this line was deadly dangerous. Another strong team that tried to climb the North Face at the same time, starting via Sudenin’s line, had to abort shortly after start when their leader, V. Popovich**** was injured by falling rock on the lower part of the North Face.
In should be noted that the way from BC to the bottom of the wall is no more safe. Vaso Pivtsov points out: “The first danger [on the route] is two large ice-falls situated at the left and right flanks of the wall and working in cross-fire mode*****. Given that icefall can occur any time, a climber is under constant danger on his way to the bottom of the wall” .
Alex Sofrygin sums up the first part of the route: “After having climbed 11 ropes***** *of ice and 2 ropes of rocks (5c- 6a scale) we got to the central pillar of the North Face”. It was the beginning of the second part of the route.
Black rocks The second, middle part: (~5000 – ~6200)
Alex Sofrygin: “There were no similar rockfalls [as in the lower part] but the main problem here was lack of good places [for us] to make reliable anchors/safety stations. This was due to the specific structure of the rocks at the North Face’s middle part which consists of layered [relatively] soft (loose) rocks that at times simply break in your hands."
"In addition the rocks were often covered by snow and/or surface ice. As a result we had to spend more time than usual to find suitable places for anchoring/safety stations”.
Alex and Vaso both reported that often the pitons could not be driven/hammered properly into cracks/seams because the rocks would split or break into pieces. It should be noted that this is a well known problem for climbers on the black rocks section of the North Face of Khan Tengri.
Alex Sofrygin: “Usually we found alright spots for bivies but would spend two hours or more to settle a position for a tent. We spent one night in a “sitting” bivouac******* at 5800m."
"As a rule we started out quite late, at about 8-9 am, an even then it was still very cold. We worked without gloves at key spots so the progress was very slow. Our pace usually increased toward the evening.”
Chimney The third, upper part: yellow rocks (~6200 -- 7010)
Alex Sofrygin: "The yellow band consist of rocks that enable better and easier organized anchoring/safety station but the rock climbing is more difficult."
"In combination with higher altitude that becomes a particularly deterring factor (even for altitude resistant climbers), a declining strength (cachexy) is being progressively felt."
"Plus -- boots, sleeping bags, mittens - all these things are now permanently wet. Conditions are becoming much less comfortable compared to the beginning of the climb."
"In general, I estimate there were around 600 meters of difficult (5c- 6a scale) rock climbing on the entire route.”
Vaso Pivtsov: “The yellow rocks are definitely the hardest part of the entire route. Not only for the obvious factor of its higher elevation but even more because it represents quite difficult rock climbing. In other words, key climbing is encountered at the final, 800 meter wall. In 2000, we******** turned right (from the direct line) into the couloir and so notably simplified the entire route. I'm glad we did it direct this time – the route became more beautiful.”
*V Dedii (leader), V. Kutenkov, S. Ovcharenko, A. Urusgaliev, A. Shagai , 6 -10 August 1990. Kazakhstan, CSKA, Coach: E. Iljinsky
**directissima – imaginary line that goes directly from the bottom of the wall’s triangle to its top.
***There could not be exact repetitions on such diversified terrain, but according to the Kazakhs’ own estimate, in the lower part, their route was (roughly) close to the line first climbed by E. Myslovskiy’s team while at the upper part, it was in the approximate range of B. Studenin team’s route. Eduard Myslovskiy and Boris Studenin were leaders of two teams that made the first successful ascents of the North Face, almost simultaneously, on August 1st, 1974.
****Vadim Popovich was member of the first Russian pair that summited K2 via the West Face on August 21, 2007.
*****A series of ice falls on the right flank of the wall are stretched from ~4200 up to ~5700. Meanwhile, a large “pie” of ice is hanging on the top of the left flank, laying approximately at 5400. A climber is exposed to falling debris from the two ice-falls. The danger starts actually near BC and continues up to the bottom of the wall. It is “two hour way of fear”. And then – when you get to the wall, falling rocks take their turn. No fun at all.
******The climbers used 60 meter rope in this expedition. It is not unusual in local tradition to measure the line by number of rope pitches.
*******Sitting bivvy on such walls is nothing but very exhausting -- a climber “sleeps” half-lying/half-sitting opposite cold wall. And a sitting bivvy is not unusual practice on this steep wall. Alex Rudakov, a member of Kazakh team led by D. Urubko in 2000********, mentioned that during their ascent they had two sitting bivvies. Alex says that due to intricate and steep terrain, it is sometimes difficult to find good place for a stay even if the team is helped by someone from BC, who can see (via long lenses) the entire wall from his position below.
********D. Urubko (leader),V. Pivtsov, A. Rudakov, D. Molgachev and S. Samoilov. 1- 9 August, 2000. Kazakhstan, CSKA. Coach: E. Iljinsky.