Battling altitude sickness, exhaustion and myself to reach a mountain top 5129 meters above sea level.
It feels like someone is standing on my chest and that my scull is suddenly too small, putting some heavy pressure on my brain. My ears are hurting because the air inside them is denser than on the outside and I can barely breathe. Every time I try to fill my lungs the thin air at 5100m height doesn’t suffice. The air is simply too thin to fill up my lungs. The only other feeling I can compare this to, is the feeling you have as a scuba diver when you’re running out of air.
But I can’t give up now! I’m just 30 meters from the peak; I just passed 20 meters of glacier and having seen the disappointment in my climbing buddy’s eyes when he had to halt before the glacier. I simply got to push on!
The day before had we left Osh (in Kyrgyzstan) and entered the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan, passing 2500 meters above sea level, where the risk of altitude sickness sets in, on the way. From there our shared taxi made a rapid ascend over the 4282m Kyzyl-Art Pass coursing altitude sickness among two Americans in the car, before Mark and I got off at a guesthouse in the village of Karakul at a height of 3914m.
Insomnia is another altitude sickness symptom and after a bad night with little sleep we arrange for a four wheel drive to the village of Jalang. That village are a few hundred meters above Karakul and Mark and I was already struggling on the drive there.
Driving towards Mount Jalang
The highest peak around the valley of Jalang reaches 5129m, but doesn’t officially have a name so we simply dubbed it Mount Jalang. We did the climb unassisted, leaving our driver waiting in the valley. Which, given our rapid ascent from Osh below 2500m, might have been a mistake as we didn’t have time to acclimatise (get used till the height and it’s thin air).
The climb itself is easy. No equipment is required and with some sturdy hiking shoes it’s possible to do it without myth trouble. Most difficult for us was to find our way around all the ice-covered and glacier-like parts of the mountain. Most of it was avoided though, by spending a couple of minutes assessing and planning our route up from below the mountain.
Climbing the first 800 (vertical) meters was absolutely exhausting. It took around three hours, but without the usual intake of oxygen the strength which had to be used for every step was multiplied. The difficulty of climbing in those conditions and using us out inner reserves also accelerated the symptoms of altitude sickness. And though I didn’t feel it before, all the symptoms set in during the clime.
Shortly before the peak we are met by an unforeseen stretch of icy, ½ meter thick, glacier blocking our path to the summit. There’s no way around it, and it continues up the mountain side for the next 20 meters. We have to go through it. But it is simply too cold, too steep and too hard for Mark, who already fought bravely to get this far. He’s gonna stay put while I take on the ice.
Mark struggling in the snow
The spring sun has weakened the ice and for the first 10 meters am I simply stepping right through it. Nice and safe, even if I slip I’m gonna land in soft snowy ice. The last 10 meters are another story. Solid and at a 25 degree angle, a wrongly placed step could potentially send me tumbling down the slope. Easily for the next 50 meters. “If I’m unlucky,” I tell myself.
I get passed the ice, to more solid rocks, but the effort has taken away all, but my last reserves of physical power. Share determination is all that’s left. I came to conquer a +5000 mountain, and damn me if I’m gonna turn around 30 meters from the summit!
On the mountain's top
The summit is a flat rock, about a square meter in size. The winds up here are almost knocking me over, threatening to send me right down the slopes I just spend so must effort to climb. I manage to keep myself upright for just long enough to send a triumphant shout down towards Mark, before I, exhausted, collapses on the rock.
The altitude sickness have, luckily, not made me dizzy, so I’m fortunately enough to be able to enjoy one of the most impressive sights of my life. Deep in the Pamir Mountains, on the highest peak in the near vicinity, I can glace at minimum two rows of snow-covered peaks along the horizon all around me.
The view, the achievement, everything seems to suddenly energize me. After a short rest, the obligatory pictures and ‘Ask was here – 18.05.13’ carving in the rock (forgot a Danish flag, sorry), I fly down across the slope, slides over the glacier and reach Mark within minutes. He has moved a bit on to the main ridge of the mountain, where he has been treated an equally impressive view of the Pamirs on most of his horizon.
View from the summit
Given that our ascent was very steep, we decide to look for an easier path down. Still struggling in the thin air every step down feels like a blessing: symptoms fading; breathing becomes easier; and more refreshing oxygen reach our lungs.
But our troubles weren’t over yet. Every time we think we’d found a way down the mountain we are stopped by a thick, impenetrable layer of ice, forcing us to backtrack up the mountain. Having already passed the top, we don’t want to go all the way back over the mountain. So we start to go around the top – much with the same result. Just as I was beginning to think we were never going to get down we’d pass a glacier reaching no further than 15 meters down the mountain. Ploughing our way through, while hoping it’s not just another dead end, we’d finally found our way down.
Having spent longer that planned the driver had begun to look for us. Great was his relief when he saw us and great was ours when we finally was able to collapse in the back seats if his car!
Finally towards a bed
It wasn’t as much fun as I’d thought climbing a mountain, but finally reaching the top was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done, making it all worth it. I climbed a mountain!