Surprise Birthday Party

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Reaching the Untouched Wall:
The Kok Shal Tau Climbing Expedition
Summer 2000


Surprise Birthday Party
Mike Libecki
Celebration Time: Jerry and Doug's birthday party after the climb up the Grand Pooh-Bah

Mike Libecki
The expedition team with the Surprise Birthday Party route behind on right

I start off the morning again singing happy birthday to Jerry; he also turns 27 on this expedition. Jerry rousts everyone up in a panic—he feels a storm is going to take us out unless we get back down to basecamp. We are frozen. It takes a couple hours to get our boots on, pack up, and find courage to try this frightening descent route. We have no energy. Believe it or not, in the last couple days of suffering, unexpected bivying, powerful climbing, and mental battling, we have each drank only a couple liters of water, and eaten only a couple Clif Bars.

None of us have ever been so dehydrated; our muscles cramp with every move. I volunteer to go first and set anchors. We have to rappel—hopefully we can find rock horns and other features to rappel from. We have so little gear. We make the first few rappels without worry, suffering only from cold. The clouds come in hard. We are all so tired. Hallucinations are common.

As I set up one of the anchors, I feel as if I'm drowning. What seems to be about 10,000 bags of bleached white sugar falls over my head like a waterfall; I gasp for breath. The snow is building above, and we are getting flushed with these waterfall avalanches every several minutes.

We find ourselves in a huge snow and ice gully that looks as if it will lead to the glacier. We decide to down-climb it, all together and roped up. We descend the snow and ice couloir about 1000 feet. The sun peaks at us. Every time we stop to rest, even for a moment, we fall asleep, just for a second, then realize where we are. We finally arrive at the glacier, open crevasses, and hanging seracs just off to the east.

We start walking back to our camp, about an hour away, literally falling into every next step. Half way back, as our hallucinations increase, we are caught in a white out, and have to sit for a half an hour before moving on. Huge crevasses and icefalls lie in every direction and travelling without knowing exactly where we are going could prove fatal. I don't know if any of us have ever been so thirsty, hungry, or just down right exhausted before.

Actually, strange as it might seem, I don't know if any of us have been so happy either. We survived, with smiles, an incredible adventure.

We make camp, dig off all the snow from our tent, and eat and drink until we fall asleep.


We slept in until about 10:00 A.M. today. Ate and drank, and ate and drank. Realizing we needed more rest, we lounged until the late afternoon. Around 4:00 P.M., we packed up and started back to the main base camp. In the evening we retreat several thousand feet down and a few miles back to our camp in the middle of a maze of glaciers.

One more small crux (of course) before the safety zone. Just as darkness laid its blanket over us, we found ourselves in the middle of a glacier field loaded with crevasses—if caught in the dark we would have to make camp. Just before it would be necessary for headlamps, a path suitable for glissading down on our butts revealed itself, and we slid to the talus. We walked through the talus and over the glacier as our headlamps set ice crystals sparkling, as if a troop of disco balls was passing by.

An hour and a half later, we fell back to our main supply store and camp. Soup and Luna bars galore, then dream land. The new route we climbed, almost a first ascent by a couple hundred feet (actually, I am really glad it worked out this way, so memorable, spicy, original, and exciting, I would not change anything about these last two weeks), took more than 17 pitches and over 2,200 feet of vertical climbing. This doesn't include the approaches on the starting days from our high camp or from our main camp back in the low glaciers. This alpine style climb was completed with four people, only one 8.8 mm rope of incredible quality (Sterling Ropes), too little gear, only two vertical axes (six axes total), too little food and water, too little clothes and bivy gear, and a whole hell of a lot of team spirit and optimism. The name of our new route: Surprise Birthday Party.


Saturday: rest day, organization day, lounge day—you name it.

I sit and type this dispatch worrying about battery power on the computer, though it seems like it will work just fine. We ate and drank all day in the sun, and now prepare for another climb—a vertical big wall style climb with splitter cracks and exposed, breath taking pitches. Unfortunately, with some of our gear being stolen, equipment limitations will dictate how big, how difficult, and which kind of climb we will attempt next. We only have a little time left here in this valley of granite and, so we are going get vertical and then get back home. I will give an update soon on our next climb as it permits.

Thoughts and retrospective on this week: We had intended to do an easy walk up this peak—from where we have our main store and base camp, and according to our maps, it looked as so. Due to dangerous hanging seracs and glaciers that stopped our original line of travel, we chose the route you've read about.

I am amazed and impressed, compared to many other expeditions I have been on, at the team work, group dynamics, emotions, and real human kindness and caring we've offered and received from each other. Jed and Doug just met Jerry. I have not seen Jerry in years, and I have not climbed with Jed before.

Another adventure and unknown climb of intensity starts again within a day—enthusiasm, in its most true form, lives and breaths within our group.

-Mike Libecki

A few words from the team:

Within the world of climbers the word "adventure" gets tossed around quite freely, everyone having there own definition of the word. For me the meaning is very specific—venturing into the unknown. There is no adventure in the journey with an end that is predictable or even probable. On August 12, we headed up the glacier towards Peak 5697, which we have named Grand Pooh-Bah as it sits upon a throne of granite at the head of this virgin valley. Our objective was to acclimatize, via the easiest route we could find, in order to be better prepared for an intense rock route lower in the valley. As you've read, the climb didn't proceed quite as we expected

So I sit here in base camp, with a sun burnt tongue, cracked lips, numb fingers, and sore muscles, wondering what adventure awaits tomorrow.

-Doug Workman

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