The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

A Mountaineer Hobbyist and Lenin

I am a mountaineer hobbyist. Once a year I sign for an open expedition to a mountain I deem sufficiently high. Proper mountaineers organize their own expeditions, climbing difficult routes, finding new ones, ascending alpine style, and risking their life. On an open expedition, a random collection of people who have never met before attack a mountain organized by a commercial company that laid out everything in advance, presenting almost zero risk. This year my target was Lenin Peak, one of the easiest seven-thousanders. Thus I ended up in an enormous group of Europeans, Russians, and two Asians, if I count myself as an honorary Asian.

A view of Lenin Peak

Lenin Peak — so close yet so far

Hobbyists climb the same mountains, in the same sequence. Most of us had our first high-altitude experience on Kilimanjaro. Some people recall it as a pleasant, long walk, whereas others recoil with horror by the memories of how the mountain abused their bodies — I belong to the latter category. In any case, since we were on an expedition again, we all got over the first hurdle and continued climbing.

Aconcagua is also a fixture in everybody’s bag of peaks. It is a lot longer walk than Kilimanjaro, but in mountaineering terms, technical difficulty is non-existent. Aconcagua is 6960 meters of bloody scree, at least the way I remember it.

Most of the good folk also did Elbrus, which I swapped for Kazbek. The Russians closed down the mountain just before I applied for the visa, so I veered off to Georgia instead. The European delegation of the team also bagged a couple of peaks in the Alps, but since I started mountaineering after leaving Europe, I was excluded from this exclusive club.

Few hands were decorated by a wedding ring. Most climbers had no dependants. We had nothing to lose other than a few fingers or toes. We shared a determined face: we were the pioneers of the wilderness at the frontier of human performance. Twenty people had summitted the previous day alone, but we ignored that. Vanity is a key driving force in attempting a mountain of this altitude, so we preferred not thinking of our effort as `easy’.

A view of my very expensive crampons

Base layer, trekking pants, overpants, socks, inner boots, outer boots, gaiters, and crampons — 17 minutes to put them all on, and an undisclosed amount of cash to have them.

Our gear showed serious financial investment. My crampons alone cost a hundred and forty euros. Most of my equipment was rented, and rental prices were not low either. Others in the team were sporting boots with integrated supergaiters — I prefer not knowing how much those sell for. Every last bit of equipment is pricey, including my woollen beanie. A good hobbyist must fork out a fortune to pursue his or her whim of climbing this and that.

I took pride in not taking altitude medication. When climbing Aconcagua, I was on Diamox, and side effects made me feel as if my joints were grinding grit — that was an experience the closest I got to understand what gout means. I managed this entire expedition by consuming only two aspirins in total: I was the pinnacle of machoism. What’s more macho than that? Two British mountain skiers hauled an iPad with them, and they watched Frozen in their tent.

Snowman on the mountain

An attempt at re-enacting Frozen

Our tents were fixed in advance in every camp. I recall pitching a tent on Aconcagua at 5900m in a massive hailstorm, and I never want to go through that experience again. That is the closest I ever got to acquiring a frostbite. What is pain to a man? I dread even the slightest prospect of a frostnip. I’d rather pay big buck to have a tent ready when I arrive — so much about the frontier of human performance.

One night I woke up to a bladder being painfully full. We were in camp 2 at around 5,300 meters. The toilet situation in other camps was okay: in lower camps, we had luxurious pit toilets, and in higher camps, the glacier embraced our discharges. Camp 2, however, was a difficult place: we had to walk along a narrow ledge to behind a big boulder, from where you either aimed at the darkness with a yellow streak of warmth, or relieved yourself otherwise with your butt cheeks dangling over the void. To safely make it to the right spot and back, an ice axe was necessary and crampons were recommended. However, taking on my socks, my inner boots, my outer boots, my crampons and what not was a seventeen-minute procedure. So I put on my inner boots alone, which had exactly zero grip, I stepped out of the tent, and started looking for my axe. It was buried deep in snow somewhere, and I did not feel like groping in the snow with only my fleece gloves on. Hence I embarked on the journey to the loo severely under-equipped.

I made it to the boulder and succeeded in taking a leak. On the return trip, my inner boots slipped on an icy stretch on the ledge, and I started sliding down the slope, with no means of a self-arrest. Thirty meters ahead to the right was a rocky patch. I steered myself in that direction, and arrived butt first. From there, I gingerly crawled back to the tents. A hobbyist thus learned not to drink water on the mountain, no matter what others recommend, and never to leave his ice axe beyond arm’s reach.

Pit toilets next to advanced base camp

The pit toilets of heaven

Water was a major source of conflicts with my tentmate anyway. From camp 2 onwards, we had to melt snow to obtain water. The gas canister and the stove were light. Put a litre of snow on top, and you have a highly unstable assembly. We tried to balance the contraption in the small porch area of the tent, but this usually lead to spilling the warm water after forty-five minutes of cooking. In ten out of ten cases, I was the culprit. We solved the problem by cooking outside in the wind instead — getting a litre of water took over an hour — and by drinking even less.

Climbing itself was less trying. The most critical part of the trail was the way down from camp 2 to advanced base camp. On the descent from the acclimatization climb, we had a massive snowfall and two meters of fresh snow, which exhibited its stickiest self as we were proceeding. My crampons had anti-snow balling plates, but it was as if they did not exist. Half of the glacier was stuck on my feet at all times, although I tried to remove as much snow as I could with my ice axe at every step. During the final descent on the same stretch, the weather was scorching hot, so we had to rush down before the crevasses at the lower section became wider. The speed was excruciating, and people on the same rope were pulling me, so I landed face first on the glacier several times.

Other than the occasional excitement and bouts of actual climbing, there is not much to do on a mountain. Most of the time is spent in camps, trying to acclimatize or recover from physical exertion. Mountaineering is a sport for people who enjoy doing nothing. I finished reading a hefty physical book and also an ebook on my phone; I expected my reading material to last for over two weeks. By day seven, everything was finished. To keep myself entertained, I also had some quantum information theory papers with me, but after a while, those were also gone. Then I was left alone with my thoughts, which had always been a scary prospect.

The way up from ABC to camp 2

Some steep sections kept us entertained

The summit push was not too bad. I fell behind almost all teams in the beginning — I was supremely dehydrated by the summit day — which left me climbing alone, at my own pace. The weather was clear with no wind. The only difficult part, a steep, narrow, icy ridge had fixed ropes, otherwise it was comparable to the walk-up to Aconcagua, without the scree. I was the only moron carrying an ice axe, everybody else was wobbling about with those annoying hiking sticks. Getting to the summit and then back to camp 3 took me fourteen hours. Sixteen days after we started, we were back to base camp.

Mountaineering is an expensive hobby, and as a hobbyist, you do not earn bragging rights. Commercial expeditions take the edge out of mountaineering. Yes, we hobbyists still have to train for months, carrying twenty-kilo backpacks for stairs training, running regularly, and developing a strong core. Yet, compared to proper mountaineers, we are pathetic. The only thing more pathetic would be not climbing mountains at all.

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