Outside Online Archives

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

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

Mike Libecki
Doug belaying, Jerry leading on one of the easier mixed rock and ice pitches

The Grand Pooh-Bah

The alarm goes of several times, or so I am told, and Doug wakes me up. I start singing happy birthday to Doug. He is 27 today.

I fire up the stove. Several liters of ice are liquidated and a huge pot of chicken soup is served. It is about 22 degrees Fahrenheit—pretty warm as far as we are concerned. The sky is crystal blue-black, all the surrounding peaks and towers glow from the full moon.

We leave camp about 5:30 A.M. We have two bivy sacs, Clif bars for a day or two, a few liters of water each, ices axes, one rope (8.8 mm x 60 m), a few nuts, hexes, ice screws, swami belts for harnesses, ten slings, 16 carabiners, and all of our clothes. We are headed for a route that looks to be mostly a big snow and ice couloir—what we hope will be a pretty quick ascent to the summit. Still, we have almost 3000 feet to gain to the roughly 19, 000 foot summit, and there are four of us; hardly conditions for a quick climb.

We navigate a safe route over the glacier and around the huge hanging ice buildings (seracs) and make our way to the ridge that we hope to climb. What we thought might have a few rock and ice pitches has now turned into something new—a route that will have nothing but unpredictable and steep, ice, rock, AND snow pitches. The route looks much more difficult, much steeper, and a lot longer than our maps and our visions entailed.

We go for it. Our gear is probably inadequate, our food is probably not enough, and if we have to bivy, we will suffer.

We simul-climb (all climbing at once, roped up) the first couple pitches. Throughout the day we encounter spicy off-widths (cracks over eight inches wide), interesting mixed rock and ice climbing, sections of frozen water fall climbing, and lots of alpine ice climbing.

Evening approaches and the summit seems far away. We will have to bivy. Darkness falls as we all hang from a couple nuts and ice axes in an ice gully. Heavy wind and snow bite at us. Don't panic I say, no worries—panic causes trouble. Just off to the left we spot a small ledge of snow hanging in space. Perfect to dig out a little space for four human sardines. Two of us use the bivy sacs, after first trying to get two in each one, and the other two pull there Wild Things packs as far over there body as possible. We are sleeping under the open sky, at over 18,000 feet. Our water is frozen. We eat a couple Clif Bars each, and go on with our shivering in and out of dreams throughout the night.


Already awake at about 6:00 A.M., we force ourselves out of our meager body shelters and into the freezing wind. We are all shaking so bad we can hardly put our boots and crampons on. The sun creeps around the corner and we get excited about the coming warmth. But the wind blows harder and the sun's warmth comes unnoticed.

Jerry is up on lead crying about numb hands and feet while attacking a difficult ice and rock medley up to a snow gully. We all share the numbness, and all pretend to ignore it. We have little water that is melted, and several Clif bars. Miserable. Dehydrated. Surprisingly, we do have energy. Snow challenges most of our day as we slug up more ice gullies, snow couloirs, and difficult rock pitches.

We all wear crampons the entire route, even while climbing the rock off-widths. The snow and wind attack harder, as we approach what we think is the summit ridge. Snow pellets strikes us as if they were fired by a thousand shot guns. Clouds race by, teasing our view of the heavenly peaks around us. One minute we are stuck in time and in au of the miracle of life, the next minute we are complaining about the harsh wind, and unbearable snow.

Late afternoon. I lead a loose rock pitch-and-pull of some garbage-can-size-rocks. I am on the summit ridge, and look over the clouds—in only fifty feet I have broken through the storm and stare at the summit a few hundred feet away. I belay up the team, and as soon as the last is at the belay, the clouds, wind, and snow decide they want to come too. White out.

Heavy graupel and wind come back for a re-match. The summit is within our reach and we decide to give one chance to hit it. Doug starts through the blinding snow on the knife-blade ridge. It's so steep he has to climb with one foot on each side of the ridge—one foot in China, and one foot in Kyrgystan.

Then it happens. We all start to hear an intense vibrating hum in our ears,"ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ".

Jerry yells out in terror. He has been shocked in his hand and his scalp. The hair hanging outside of Jed's hat stands straight up. We all retreat back down the ridge to a safe spot to regroup. Doug doubts Jerry's claim of being shocked, and two seconds later, Doug is shocked too and now panicking along with Jerry. We bail.

We were in an electrical cloud storm with the summit only a couple hundred feet away. We made the decision that we have one attempt for the summit (that is all our supplies, time, and energy would allow, or maybe we would never come down). Of course, as we start to decide how we are going to get down this mountain, the storm clears within ten minutes and we all stare at the summit, just a hop, skip, and a jump away.

Someone asks if we should go. No. We had our chance; we cannot compromise our safety. It already looks like we will have another unexpected bivy on our descent. We start what looks like the best way down.

After an hour negotiating how we will descend, we realize we cannot go down this way. The recent snow has made our descent route very avalanche prone. Confusion, worry, and desperation set in. We need to get off this mountain.

Snow starts again. We decide we have to try and go down the way we came up. How can we rappel or down-climb this route with our little gear, fatigue, and intensely dangerous weather, let alone find the same route down? We go, one person down-climbing to an anchor point setting gear, two others rappelling the 8.8 line, and the last man down-climbing carefully while removing the gear—kind of like down leading. We do this all night until we are back at the familiar bivy spot where we suffered the night before. It is 5:00 A.M. I make a rappel leaving a couple hexes and find the team already in shiver mode. I lay next to them and watch the almost full moon pass in and out of the clouds.

by Mike Libecki

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