Jet-lagged and enveloped in a dense cold, my climbing partner, Rob Raker and I departed the frosty city of Almaty, Kazakhstan and headed up high in the Tien Chan Mountains for some rock climbing… Kazakh-style. As we ascended the narrow and wash-boarded road, winter was soon upon us and we had to stop to put chains on our truck tires. After a lot of spinning and grinding, we finally reached a spot where we started trudging uphill against a strong cold wind.
Our goal was a 250 meter tower called, the Bastion, and a classic rock route called Oktyabryonok, which we understand means, “child of the revolution,” named after those lucky enough to be born in October, the month of the Russian Revolution.
Arriving at the base, it was a new experience for me sitting in a deep pile of snow bundled in a ghost whisper (I never leave home without it) and a compressor jacket, gloves and fleece hat squeezing on rock climbing shoes. I’d blown it by forgetting a pair of wool socks but luckily, our host, Dmitry, had an extra pair. Even despite the socks, my feet were already numb and would stay that way throughout most of the day. Needless to say, as a blind person, I’m a better rock climber when I can feel my hands and feet, so the cold dramatically notched up the difficulty level as we started up the first pitch.
Our Kazak guide, Dennis, led up on two ropes, allowing Rob to climb about ten feet above me calling out crucial holds like, “a foot above your right hand is a good edge,” and “reach farther right for a side pull . . . try lay-backing it.”
The slick icy hand-holds were trickier and more strenuous to grab with gloves, and the small ledges, all covered with snow, threatened to send my feet skittering off into space. Despite that, we made decent time, stopping at each belay station to energetically swing our leaden feet and hands to bring back the blood flow. One of the pitches involved a big traverse right, and I knew a fall would send me swinging a long way. Fortunately Rob gave me great directions when I really needed it, and a few times, I may have grabbed a hanging quick draw, but I made sure there’s no photographic evidence of that.
We reached the forth pitch about 2:00 PM and we were still in the sharp cold of the shade. However, the sun was creeping towards us, and for a tantalizing few minutes, remained an arm’s length out of reach. Then it washed over us, basking us in soft warmth and transforming moods; for the first time, our gloves came off and we climbed bare-handed. I even heard Dennis far above whoop with happiness. But the sun was fleeting and gone as fast as it had arrived. To speed things up and beat nightfall, I jumared a pitch . . . which I hadn’t done for a while. On ascenders, I was finally as fast as Rob who was free climbing with his usual joy and enthusiasm.
As is often the case, the last pitch was a crux. It was too hard for me to climb with gloves, so despite frozen fingers, I climbed bare-handed, falling on one section a couple times before my numb hand finally stumbled upon the secret hold that completed the puzzle in the rock. I moved upward and reached the top around 4:30. The rappel took us into twilight as Rob and I visibly shivered at each anchor, and we touched the snowy ground, according to Rob, just before dark.
“That was one way to beat jetlag,” I mentioned as we inched our way down the slippery trail.
Despite the frigid conditions and tingling in my toes that has only recently dissipated, this experience reignited my passion for climbing after a six-year hiatus to learn to kayak. I started my adventure career as a climber and will always love the problem solving involved in feeling my way up a face. But, nothing beats the sound of immensity and space, the feeling of sun on your face and the accomplishment of reaching the summit. Here’s to more climbing adventures!
Author: Mountain Hardwear Athlete, Erik Weihenmayer