Thursday, August 23, 2007

Mt Belukha

Mt Belukha (Uch Sumer): 8/19-27/2007

A snowy pinnacle pointing into the sky, Mt Belukha is Siberia's and the Altai Mountains' highest peak. More importantly, it is, and has been for millennium, a focus of Buddhist and Burkhanist spirituality.

Traditionally called Uch Sumer, meaning 3 peaks, it goes by many names among different Altaian and Kazakh tribes. Archaeologist and some scholars of Buddhist history and philosophy believe that Belukha may be Sumeru, the Central Asian mountain in Buddhist belief that is the center of Shambala (Shangri-la )... where only the spiritually advanced may enter. Belukha is also the headwaters of the sacred Katun River. There are shrines, burial sites, petroglyphs, and standing stones scattered all around the mountain.

The Altai mountains are home to the semi nomadic Altai people, and to a renowned diversity of flora and fauna. The endangered Snow Leopard and Argali Mountain Sheep populations have retreated into the safety of these mountains. The Altai people, or Altaians, are closely related to Mongolians and are considered the original Turkic people. They continue to practice Shamanism, Buddhism, and Burkhanism (or Ak Jang, the “white faith”). Burkhanists revere totem animals (argali, wolf, leopard) and totem flowers. They use throat singing at gatherings and in in fire ceremonies.
Shambala, as legend has it, is a mystical kingdom hidden somewhere beyond the snowy peaks of the Himalaya. The physical place is said to be in Central Asia, north west of Tibet; a valley in southern Siberia. The name means “place of peace/tranquility/happiness”. It is a “pure land” where all citizens are enlightened. The King of Shambala requested that the Kalachakra tantra be written and taught to other peoples and the Shakyamuni Buddha did this. They say the Kalachakra tantra is still at Shambala; it is a 5 chapter writing that teaches philosophy, practice, and path to attain buddhahood. The name Kalachakra can mean “time-wheel” or “time-cycles”. It is integral to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Shambala is mentioned in texts that predate Tibetan Buddhism in Western Tibet.

As with many ideas in the Kalachakra Tantra, Shambhala is said to have “outer”, “inner”, and “alternate” meaning. The Outer meaning is a physical place, where only people with appropriate Karma can reach. Inner meaning is a pure land that represents itself in your own body and mind. And alternative is a pure land represented in the practice of meditation.

John, Ahat, and Aslan had the 4-Runner ready to load at 7am in front of the hotel in Ust-Kamenogorsk. We drove 10 hours to the farthest eastern and northern corner of Kazakhstan. After camping by a lake outside of Rhamani, we started toward Belukha on horse back. We were supposed to leave at 9 am, and go all the way to the “low camp” cabin. It took a bewildering amount of time to sort out the horses (and payment for the horses), so we did not leave until 2 pm. Four people with all our climbing gear, on four horses. Needless to say, we stopped for the night at a half-way camp... next to the yurt where the horse man lives (hmm...).

The next day we sorely clambered back onto our horses and continued to low camp. The flowers and plants in this area are amazing! Such diversity, and so abundant. Interestingly, wild cannabis (yup, wild flowering marijuana) was growing everywhere. The horses LOVED to eat it. My horse, Sultan, really loved it. During the ride, I am wondering if after 8.5 hours on horse back, I will even be able to walk, let alone climb this difficult mountain.

As we climbed up the final steep section into the high valley under the mountain, a raging waterfall acted like a gate into a wholly different feeling place. Above the falls, it felt more magical, strong energy, there was definitely a sense of power emanating from the place. And just there at the top of the falls was the strangest gnarled amazingly old tree, unlike any other tree... the gate keeper. We clomped along past the tree to the low camp cabin.
After stoking the wood stove, setting up our beds, and putting out our wet stuff to dry (did i mention it has been raining for two days), I walked back to the old tree. During meditation at the base of the tree, i was amazed to experience the feeling of flow through my solar plexus area with each breath. Energy coming from the tree, through my solar plexus, and outward in a giant cone shape, up the valley toward the mountain, but not reaching it. It felt really good. I have never experienced anything like this before. It was only after getting back to the city that i had the chance to look into this solar plexus thing... i was pretty sure this is one of the chakras on the body, but that is the extent of it. As far as i can find, the solar plexus chakra, or Manipura/Nabhi, is the place of transition from simple or base to complex emotion, energy, and assimilation. It is the place of developing a sense of self through entering spiritual adulthood, power, self esteem, and vitality. It is associated with the fire element, the color yellow, and the lotus flower with 10 petals. It's primary functions are will, determination, assertion, personal power, laughter, joy, anger, and sight. By projecting power through my solar plexus, toward the mountain, it was almost like the tree was gently examining my spiritual adulthood to see if i was developed enough to enter Shambala. Since my cone did not reach the top of the valley, or the mountain, my guess is no, i was not found to be developed enough and could not enter the pure land. But it was not a negative rejection, it felt like a gift.

The next day, we had a brief moment of blue sky, and could finally see the top of the elusive mountain. Beautiful white pyramids. We set out up the valley, walking along a ridge covered with delicious blueberries, then over the endless rocky moraines onto the endless talus covered glacier. After forever, we got to the top of the glacier, the base of the proposed climbing route.

I say proposed climbing route because the route the 'guide' wanted to climb was almost suicide... a serac gnarled glacier with ice fall certain. At the top of the 12 pitch long, narrow gully of climbable terrain, sat a huge steep-sided bowl of snow, loaded and ready to release into it's only outlet, the route. All of this on top of the actual climbing. Most of the route was fine and had good ice. The problem was two gaping crevasses that extended horizontally across the whole glacier. The 'guide' intended to cross them by jumping (up hill) over them... yeah right.
I proposed another route, climbing up a less steep couloir on the other side of a small peak. Turns out this is the intended decent route, and easier (and much safer). We decided to climb this route the next morning. We woke up at 3:30 am and packed our stuff up for a night half way up the mountain. When we got part way up the glacier, not yet to the base of our climb, the weather got bad. Freezing rain sprinkles and wind, and looming dark clouds in the distance. We decided to turn around and try again tomorrow.

It rained all day. In the afternoon the avalanches started. Loud, scary rumblings of ice and rock fall could be heard from the original route glacier all afternoon. Thank god we did not climb that route! We sat imagining being roped in part way up that glacier getting pummeled with falling blocks of ice. It made us feel better that we did not hear or see anything from the couloir route we will climb. The next morning it was still raining, but clearing up. The snow on the mountain was all wet and loaded, and avalanches were still frequent. We used the satellite phone to call the local mountain rescue and weather info. As expected, they said that the snow was very unstable, especially the top 1000 m because of the wet precipitation and strong winds the day before. We only had two weather days scheduled into our plan, and we had already used them (one the first day, not making it to low camp, and one yesterday). So, stumped again in Kazakhstan, we turned around. John and Ahat went back to the low camp, while Rod and I decided to camp at a beautiful pond at the bottom of the glacier.
On the way back to low camp the following day, we snacked on wild blueberries and skipped stones in the river. This place is so beautiful; the flowers and herbs, the unique trees, the dramatic mountains, the light. From low camp, we walked to the horse guy's yurt, then took horses back to Rahmani the next day morning. From Rahmani we drove back to Ust-Kamenogorsk the same day, arriving at our hotel late and tired.

The next night, we went to the best traditional Kazakhstan food restaurant. The food was great, especially the lahman (hand pulled noodles) with horse meat. As we were ordering desert, a group of about 10 well dressed older ladies came into the restaurant and got a private room (hanging tapestries around a low table with pillows to sit on). After a while we could smell the distinct aroma of people smoking marijuana... the ladies? Yep... after about 15 minutes there was lots of giggling. Classic, the ladies night out and they light up right in the restaurant!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Mt Khan Tengri

Khan Tengri: 7/30-8/14/2007

I’m wet
And I’m cold
And I’m standing on a glacier
In Kazakhstan
Tien Shan
(insert video)

I stand singing this song, with a little dance, to keep warm inside the dining tent as it storms outside. The base camp at Khan Tengri (North Inchuk Glacier) is a scattering of many tents on wooden decks (they house two people), three pit toilets, and a large kitchen and dining tent. The dining tent is erected directly on the glacier ice (no deck floor) and is filled with 8 long tables, benches, electric lights, and a television with VCR.

Team Iran is sitting at another table playing chess and singing songs. It is raining and snowing outside just as the weather report we received from Michael Faigin in Seattle said it would. We came down because of this storm.

The sacred Tien Shan mountains are a major part of Eastern Spiritual History. Tien Shan means "celestial mountains ", or "heaven's mountains". They exend from the Pamir mountains, Tajikistan, NE through the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, Kyrgiz, Kazakhstan, NW China, to the China-Mongolia border. They are the source of many sacred rivers, and the home of the most esteemed sacred mountain, Khan Tengri. Tengri is the name of the Eternal Blue Sky God. Khan means Lord, a ruler or leader, but with a mystical twist. The mountain Khan Tengri is "Lord Eternal Blue Sky God", or "Lord of the Heavens". Tengriism was the main religion of central asia before Islam. The Northern Chineese, Mongos, Turks, Kyrgiz, Kazak, Alti, and many more peoples revered the Eternal Blue Sky. The core beings in Tengriism are Sky-Father (Tengri/Tenger Etseg) and Mother Earth (Eje/Gazar Eej). Khan Tengri is the second tallest mountain in the Tien Shan, and the furthest north 7000 m peak in the world (6995 m not including the glacier ice on top, or 7010 m total height; ~23,130 ft).

Preyers made to Khan Tengri can only be made for health, or aid in good deeds, and must always be made with palms facing the sky.

We flew into Bishkek, Kyrgiz at 3 am. After a nap in the hotel, we got our lay of the town and contacted Marat, who will be coordinating our logistics in Kyrgiz and Kazakhstan. Marat is a “snow lepord”, a Russian/Soiviet distinction meaning he has climbed at least three 7000 m mountains. We had been corresponding with him via email for about 8 months, and thought he would be our guide. The next day, Marat and Kiril met us at the hotel. Instead, Karil will be our guide for Khan Tengri. He has only climbed it once before, seems young (he is 20), but is reasonably experienced in mountaineering… and well, what can we do? Besides, most of the route has fixed ropes and follows a ridge.
We thought he would be OK. We were wrong.

Kiril, Rod, and I went shopping for food. Karil had a list of what was needed, so I picked out the 20 snickers bars, and 25 chocolate bars, and 5 blocks of cheese, and 5 whole salamis, while they got the other stuff (climbing Khan Tengri was planned to last 18 days). Then, with car loaded up with gear and food, we started the drive to the town of Karakol. We arrived around 10:30 pm and crashed. The next morning we continued the drive to the heli camp. Along the way we passed countless yurt camps with their herds of horses, bee hives, and 4WD trucks. I guess we crossed into Kazakhstan when we crossed the river to the heli camp, but there was no border control or even a sign.

At the heli camp we set our stuff up in the tent provided, had some lunch (yummy!), and met other climbers that were either headed to the base camp, or just coming back from it. One group of Spaniards told us that they had been caught by a snow storm for 5 days at camp 3 (5800 m) and only had two days of food. Luckily, they found some food left in a snow cave… mental note: this is a real mountain, and we need to take it seriously. Almost everyone coming back from base camp had bloody lips and blistered faces, either from frostbite or sunburn.

We were supposed to fly to the base camp the next day, but got pushed off to the next day by the heli operator… bummed. The day after that, Rod woke up with diarrhea and decided it was best to stay at the relatively comfortable heli camp one more day. It turns out, that after talking with our guide Kiril, he is not at all acclimated. He usually climbs 4000 m mountains, and the base camp of Khan Tengri is at 4000 m. He wants to spend two days at base camp acclimatizing before heading up to camp 1 (4600 m). We told him to go to base camp, and we would see him the next afternoon (giving him 2 nights there, and us not loosing any more days). So, it wasn’t until day 5 that we finally got a lift to base camp.
It had snowed there all morning and the camp was a village of white atop one of the biggest glaciers I have ever seen. Beautiful views of the mountain with its pyramid top of pink marble.

The next morning we headed up to Camp 1. Funny, the breakfast is served at 8:30 am and everyone starts getting ready after that… very unlike any other mountains we have climbed this year; climbers getting such a late start. But, that is how it’s done here… maybe because of the cold? From the base camp, we crossed the glacier (.5 hr) to the slope leading up to the ridge. The climb up was tough with all the fresh snow, and I was more tired than expected by the time we reached the big crevasse. After the big crevasse, it was just 3 fixed ropes up to the ridge and the camp. We set our tent up on a somewhat flat pad of rocks and made tea. Camp 1 was a little village of tents, with climbers there either going up or coming down. We had dinner and a lumpy sleep.

After some convincing, we got Kiril to agree to get up at 6 am and start up to camp 2 early. But alas, we didn’t actually leave until 9 am. We climbed shoddy fixed ropes (some static, some dynamic, and some k-mart plastic specials) for 8 hours up to camp 2 (5480 m). Some of the ropes were worn down to a few strands at the top… the climber doesn’t find out until after they climbed it… yikes! The climbing is steep, from 45 to 75 degrees, and mixed snow and rock. We were relieved to find out that the ropes from camp 2 up to the summit are newly replaced and in much better condition. The climb is a Russian grade of 5b (on a scale of 1a to 6b), or TD on the French mountaineering scale.

As we set up our tent in Camp 2, the snow started to fall and had reached blizzard proportion by the time we all piled inside. Unfortunately we followed Kiril’s idea to bring only one tent to camp 2. Having three wet, stinky people in one tent all afternoon, then cooking and eating dinner, and sleeping like sardines was not fun, to say the least.

Glad when the sun came up, I looked outside and saw a clear morning. But then it hit me… ooooohhh… head ache! For the first time in this trip, and surprisingly after being up at higher elevation many times recently, I was altitude sick. I felt pain in the base of my skull and forehead, and I was very lethargic. Rod, good dog, busted out breakfast and melted snow for tea. Kiril on the other hand, was looking and acting even sicker than me. He did not do anything, eat anything, or drink anything despite my urging him to do so. In the afternoon, he said he would go down instead of spending another night at camp 2 as planned. Because the slog up was so long and hard, Rod and I considered the idea of staying at camp 2, having a porter bring up a few things we need, and then continuing up (all of course, dependant on my headache getting better). When we gave Karil a list of what we needed, he got very angry and told us off, and left in a huff. But Ahh, the luxury when it was only two people in the tent for the evening and night!!!

We used our radios to check in with Kiril the next morning (day 2 in camp 2). He said he would send our stuff with a porter who was leaving base camp that morning. Meaning that the porter would go to camp 1 that day, and come to camp 2 the next. Well, that means two days sitting here, but it’s better than going down and coming back up, right? So we spent the day drinking tea and eating yucky mashed potatoes with tinned fish. We are out of chocolate… where is all that chocolate we bought? We had brought up extra food to camp 2 as a carry (to stash it so we didn’t have to carry so much coming up the 2nd time)… but Kiril had organized the food, and it looks like it wasn’t so well thought out. Where is the cheese, where is the salami? It snowed in the evening, so we played cards and listened to our audio book on our iPod with speakers (a godsend on this trip), to pass the time.
Day 3 in camp 2 – On the radio check, we asked about the food. Fortunately, there were some Koreans that had just arrived at base camp and left food at camp 2, so we could go take it. By the late morning, my head ache was still around, so we decided to go to camp 1 for the night, then back to camp 2 tomorrow. We packed up and started down. As we descended it started to snow and get very cold. We were moving very slowly and starting to argue. Rod wanted to go back up to camp 2, and I wanted to go down to camp 1. He was carrying the food, and refused to give me some so that I could go to camp 1 alone, and he could go back up to camp 2, thinking that it wasn’t safe to separate. Against my wishes, I went back up to camp 2. Lucky for me, the short decent and bit of activity seemed to have done the trick… my head ache was gone. We waited all afternoon, thinking about heading up to camp 3 tomorrow, but the porter with our stuff never showed up! At the evening radio check, Karil said that he came back down to base camp today instead of going up to camp 2. AAAkkkkhhh! We need that stuff to summit. Kiril said he would start up tomorrow, making it another 2 days before we get our stuff and can continue to camp 3.

We spent the 4th day in camp 2 drinking tea, playing cards, and practicing different rappel techniques on the frozen ropes. We know that in order to safely climb this mountain, we need to be able to descend it quickly and safely. The weather was beautiful, a perfect day for going to camp 3. The next day (day 5 in camp 2), around midday, Karil appeared at camp 2 with our stuff… some of it anyway. We offered him a cup of tea when he got to the camp, and tried to talk about going to camp 3 the next day. Again the weather was great… It could have been our summit day. Kiril slept in his own tent. We insisted he bring it up to camp 2. He was not very friendly.

We got up early after a very windy night and packed up our stuff to go to camp 3. It was very windy. The peak had a wind-formed cloud on one side of it and gusts were making me stumble as we walked up the first pitch from camp 2. After we crossed a knife edge ridge, we stopped to assess the situation. We had received, a few days ago, a weather report from Seattle that a low pressure system will move in tomorrow. It was highly likely we could get to camp 3 and be sitting there in a storm for 3 or 4 days. Rod and I brought food for 5 days, but when we asked Kiril how much food he had, he said only two days (how can a guide on a mountain like this not bring any extra food incase of emergency or bad weather?!!). We decided to go back to camp 2 and get an updated forecast and reassess. We have to be back at base camp on the 17th at the latest, and today is the 10th. Back at camp 2 again! Kiril got to the camp before us, disappeared into his tent, and didn’t say a word to us for the rest of the day. We hung out and talked to climbers coming down in the afternoon. Yesterday 3 people summitted! But they said it was VERY COLD, and it took 17 hours round trip (camp 3 to summit to camp 3).

We got an updated forecast the next morning, saying there would be 3 to 4 days of storm followed by high winds. Starting today! Here was the choice: either go up to camp 3 today, wait out 3 or 4 days of storm there, hope for a window immediately afterward for a summit attempt, and then high-tail it back to base camp arriving the night of the 17th, or, give up and go down to base camp today before the storm hits. We decided to go down. The likelihood of making the summit seemed remote, and 3 or 4 days cooped up with Karil didn’t sound too good either. We packed up our tent and all our stuff while Kiril sat watching us, then started down. The decent was slow and it started to snow just as we reached camp 1. We urgently continued the decent to the base of the glacier, where we expected to find Kiril waiting for us, to show us the way across the glacier. It was cold and raining when we got there, and he was no where to be found. We started across the glacier following the bits of trail we could find. The sun started to set, and we lost the trail. We were tired, hungry, dehydrated, frustrated, cold, and lost in the middle of a huge glacier, in the dark. Rod had the good idea of trying to radio the camp for some one to come out and find us. We radioed and got Kiril… he said “there is a trail.” Yes, but we obviously can’t find it, or we would not have radioed. After some back and forth, he came out to guide us back to the base camp. We were not in good moods. We ate dinner and went to bed, angry and tired and embarrassed.

It kept raining all night. The next day in the dining tent, I danced and sang…

I’m wet
And I’m cold
And I’m standing on a glacier
In Kazakhstan
Tien Shan

We flew back to the heli camp the next day.
In retrospect:
1) Climbing Khan Tengri on these frayed fixed ropes is very unsafe. What the guides say about the condition of the ropes is not reliable. If you want to be safe, find out the date they were last replaced, and assess from there.
2) Most people were climbing this mountain with an up and down acclimatization approach, doing carries. We saw that this was demoralizing and physically exhausting for most people. We spend 6 days at camp 2, which is also demoralizing and motivation killing. Neither is the way to do it. The best approach to this mountain is to climb some other mountain (maybe 5800 or 6000m), and then climb Khan Tengri alpine style… that is, go to camp 1, then directly to camp 2, one day rest at camp 2, then up to camp 3, summit and back to camp 3, camp 3 to camp 2, and camp 2 down.

This mountain was a real challenge and learning experience foe each of us. It pushed us physically, yes. But more so, it pushed us physiologically and emotionally. The experience mercilessly pointed out my weaknesses and faults and forced me to confront them. And the same for Rod. Consequently, it put a big strain on our relationship. It finally came down to the conscious choice of letting the shit that surfaced drive us apart forever, or just love each other through it. There were many arguments, but we chose love, and I think it has made us even stronger.

Lord Eternal Blue Sky Mountain, Thank you.