Lenin Peak, which sits on the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, is widely cited as the world's easiest 7000m summit. While in a strict technical sense that might be correct, this remains a serious mountain that, during its short summer season (early July through the end of August), attracts many people from Europe, Asia and further afield, most of whom despite the mountain's "easy" reputation, fail to stand on its summit. Though detailed statistics are missing, the frequently cited figure suggesting something in the range of a 15-25% success rate is probably about correct (my own research found it to be nearer 25%). So, for a reputedly easy peak, why is the success rate so low? This short article examines this issue and provides some suggestions on how to improve one's chances of success.
Alongside local expert Dr Vladimir Komissarov (IFMGA guide, and current President of both the Kyrgyz Alpine Club and the Kyrgyz Mountain Guides Association), I have been undertaking research on the impacts of mountaineering tourism upon Lenin Peak and the longer term sustainability of this activity (see here for an overview of the 2018 research findings). However, this has involved spending considerable time on the mountain (both in 2017 and 2018) and coming into contact with many different groups attempting to climb it. This short piece is a brief distillation of this time spent on the mountain and the encounters with various parties on the mountain. The intention here is to hopefully provide some useful insight for those considering a future visit. An excellent further source of information on Lenin Peak is Vladimir's article in issue 23 of Asian Alpine E-News which provides specific coverage of acclimatisation strategies with some excellent photographs and information of the route (See also issue 37). In addition to the roles mentioned already, Vladimir is also the owner of the Kyrgyz tour operator ITMC and consequently well known to many American, European and Asian climbers who have used his company's services for expeditions throughout Kyrgyzstan.
Last year (2018) marked the ninetieth anniversary of the first ascent of Lenin Peak by the two Germans Eugen Allwein and Karl Wien, alongside Austrian climber Erwin Schneider. In the preceding years Lenin Peak saw more than its share of tragedy, most notably in 1974 and 1990. The latter involved a huge avalanche triggered by an earthquake, which engulfed Camp 1 (5,300m) and killed all 43 climbers camped there that night. This resulted in this camp to being repositioned to its current location that (as discussed below) is safer but not without its challenges! It is also worth noting that around 10-15 serious accidents occur on the mountain every short summer season, with about a third involving fatalities. This year, six people lost their lives over a three week period, including a highly experienced Kyrgyz guide and a Russian client who were avalanched while descending from Camp 2 in bad weather. As discussed below, bad weather, particularly high winds, is a major influence on success rates. All this underlines the seriousness of this mountain despite its easy reputation. The reports written by the leaders of Jagged Globe's four expeditions to the mountain (2015-2018) are worth reading to get excellent firsthand accounts of the realities of climbing Lenin Peak (see here.)
At this juncture it is probably useful to clarify the nomenclature regarding the various camps on the voie normale (the Razdelnaya Route, see drawing above) as this is a source of constant confusion! Base Camp is at Achik Tash (3,600m) and this is where you first arrive and here there are six official operators providing facilities (see information on tour operators at the end). A relatively pleasant walk of 3-5 hours will see you reach Advanced Base Camp (4,300m) and once again there are six official camps here. Camp 1 is located at 5,300m which is some 5-9 hours of ascent on the glacier and, despite the number of people you encounter solo, this is a heavily crevassed glacier. It involves a traverse across an area nicknamed "the frying pan" (you want to avoid this place in the middle of the day!). There are typically some particularly big crevasses low down and at least one ladder was in place last season (see picture below). Camp 2 (6,100m) is a further 4-7 hours and it is located just forty eight metres below Razdelnaya Peak. For most people, Camp 2 is where summit bids are made from (a 10-14 hour round trip), but the option of a Camp 3 (6,400m) exists and this is typically used with less strong groups as it gives a shorter summit day. Most confusion is created by people frequently referring to ABC as Camp 1 and Camp 1 as Camp 2 etc., resulting in the necessity of always citing altitude when communicating with people.
Climbing Lenin Peak (as with all other high mountains…) requires successfully addressing the following criteria:
Fitness – obvious I know, but it is clear there are many people on the mountain without the necessary physical conditioning.
Technical ability – yes, it is a non-technical peak, but you need the basic skills involved in safe glacier travel and moving competently in crampons. Also, some experience of camping at a high altitude helps too.
Experience – this is necessary to make the correct decisions while on the mountain as bad decision-making can significantly impact upon your success (and your safety!).
Acclimatisation – this is a big mountain and allowing enough time for a proper acclimatisation strategy is a major consideration (see below).
Weather – last, but not least, this is the one thing you cannot control! Very high winds on the summit ridge, even when skies are clear, are all too common on this mountain.
From my own time on the mountain it is clear that a significant number of people do not adequately address the first two criteria. At best, they will get to Camp 1 before beating a hasty retreat to ABC (Camp 2 is considerably smaller than Camp 1 which tends to support this scenario). So, straight off, based upon my own observations, there appear to be a considerable number of people coming to climb the mountain who have effectively failed before they have even arrived! The experience criterion can be compensated to a large degree by hiring a competent guide (caveat emptor: not all those offering guiding services on the mountain are as competent and/or qualified as they could be) and many do just that. However, if the first two criteria are not addressed then people are probably wasting their money. As discussed below, proper acclimatisation for Lenin Peak is considered to require a total period of at least three weeks devoted to being the on the mountain. I encountered numerous parties who came with a total of two weeks (doable if you are already acclimatised) and, typically, they just ran out of time. Another factor that can require extra time (and luck) is the weather. Again, even when people have adequately addressed all the other success criteria, it was a common story that people had spent two or three days at Camp 2 (this is very exposed and can be very cold) awaiting good weather before having to descend through lack of time and/or running out of food etc.
Acclimatisation strategies and being on the mountain
There are three variations to acclimatisation suggested by Komissarov (see Fig 3 in his guide) which all require around 16/17 days. In addition, most parties will also require additional rest days and have some slack available for bad weather. Very quickly, even three weeks begins to look very tight! Indeed, if you hit a few days of bad weather around your summit window you can find you just simply run out of time as many summit hopefuls appear to do. All three of the suggested "two stage" acclimatisation strategies involve a gradual ascent to Camp 2 then descending to either ABC or BC before re-ascending to Camp 2 for the summit bid. Komissarov's own research suggests that adopting one of these two stage acclimatisation strategies produces a 30% success rate versus a mere 6% success for a one stage acclimatisation strategy that many climbers appear to use.
It is useful to try and gain acclimatisation using one of the many local peaks accessible from either BC and ABC, this also helps minimise the pressure and impacts on Camps 1 and 2. Popular examples include: from BC, Camp Peak (4,461m) and from ABC, Yukhin Peak (5,075m). Both are short round trips from these respective camps and are popular first days when at these locations. Some people camp for a night on Yukhin Peak as part of their acclimatisation, but this is creating a problem in terms of human waste on the summit.
While the issue of human waste is something of a concern on Yukhin Peak it is becoming a major problem at Camp 1. It would be fair to say that Camp 1 (900m gain from ABC) is not the most pleasant place in the world. While the location is stunning, a combination of excessive rubbish (too many people leave their rubbish in plastic bags rather than carry it down) and an abundance of human excrement, collectively serve to undermine its natural charms. The latter contribution concentrates around an exposed rocky terrace (be careful at night!) for the upper part of Camp 1 and in various holes on the glaciated lower part of the camp. With regards rubbish, many people are staying in tents provided by tour operators and this, combined with what one French climber described as the lack of the right motivations/ethics among too many people, seems to induce a complete disregard of having any responsibility for the environment. The fact that a rubbish dump is clearly visible on the glacier beside the camp and that people arrive to find rubbish everywhere certainly doesn't help.
It is also worth highlighting that Camp 1 is not without its objective dangers (in addition to standing on human waste!) The lower part of the camp is on the wet glacier and crevasses are a potential danger. In 2017 a German guide was injured when he fell in a crevasse while moving around this part of Camp 1 and a large hole appeared in the middle of the pitched tents (directly underneath a recently removed tent…). The top half of the camp is on a dry part of the glacier and here any crevasses are visible but if there has been a recent snowfall these too might be hidden. Last, but not least, in the upper part of the camp there is, albeit a small one, a risk of some stone fall from the shoulder above. On a more positive note, running water exists at the camp, so no need to melt snow for water. Personally, I would recommend boiling the water, but this also depends on the specific conditions you actually encounter at the camp. Last, but not least, Camp 1 can be unbearably hot during the day! In short, you want to minimise your time at Camp 1.
Following the acclimatisation itineraries suggested by Komissarov, typically you are required to spend a total of four nights here. For most people that will be more than enough! Camp 2 is a mere 4-7 hours away (952m gain), which apart from the initial climb to the ridge shoulder and the final 300m pull up to the camp, is relatively pleasant, although heavy packs and the altitude might obscure this for many. Camp 2 is considerably colder and more exposed than Camp 1 and consequently it is from here onwards that your high altitude gear becomes essential. Assuming it doesn't snow heavily and there are no high winds, it is just the summit climb that awaits (986m gain, but 1,200m of climbing). This is a long day (10-14 hours typically) that begins with a small descent of 100m then re-ascent to 6,400m, the site of Camp 3. Technically, the ascent is straightforward, although a short, narrow 100m section "the Knife" (c.6700m) requires care – in 2017, this was the location of a fatal slip, and it is worth clipping the fixed rope. Thereafter it is over various bumps and lumps to reach the summit. The famous (small) bust of Lenin is actually about 100m south-east of the true summit. Now it just remains to descend the mountain…
Tour Operators and further information
There are six companies providing services on the mountain. Typically this is either on a "full programme" or a "budget programme" basis. With the latter you would be using your own tents and cooking your own meals for the entire trip, anything in addition would be at an extra cost and as required. Both packages would normally include transport to and from Osh (reached by cheap, frequent flights from Bishkek), border zone permits and registration with rescue services. See individual operators for more detail as to what packages include and their prices. The first two companies below handle around at least 60% of the climbers visiting the mountain. The last four, smaller operators, account for around 10% of the market each. The hyperlinks will provide more information on exactly what each operator offers, prices do vary!
Ak-Sai Travel is by far the biggest tour operator on the mountain. There are both advantages and disadvantages to this…
Central Asia Travel (Pamir Expeditions) is an Uzbek based company and is the second largest tour operator. Its ABC is closest to the start of the route to Camp 1. However, this is also the area where there is a long term significant issue with the improper disposable of rubbish.
Tien Shan Travel currently used by Jagged Globe.
Fortune Tour located beside Central Asia Travel at ABC.