THE NEXT PITCH by Peter Lev~~~A Mountain Memoir~~~Part VII

Today, Sunday April 27th, the Rōbert Report will share Part VII of The Next Pitch by Peter Lev & each subsequent Sunday morning, serialized just like the old pulp fiction novels of the 40’s or maybe getting the NYT on your weekend doorstep, until the story is told. Or you can read it all at once by simply going to the hyperlink at the bottom of each week’s posting. I look forward to sharing Lev’s mountain adventures with you and believe you’ll enjoy the ride, this very cool trip with a real mountain person.



by Peter Lev


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Pik Lenin and the Soviet International Mountaineering Basecamp

In July 1974 an official U.S./American Alpine Club expedition was sent to the Pamir Himalaya to take part in an International Mountaineering event hosted by the Soviet Union. For the U.S., this was a part of official ‘warming’ relations with the Russians.

Our original goal was to climb the unclimbed East Face of Pik Lenin. With a British team a day ahead, I was with the U.S. team which made it over Krylenko Pass at 19,000 feet only to discover six climbers already well up the giant East Face ice wall. The Russians had used a helicopter to position their team ahead of us and the Brits.

The next day we were back at our Crevasse Camp located about 1000 feet down on the steep north side of Krylenko Pass. During the morning, a 7.2 earthquake occurred (later reported as such), the glacier and snow slopes around us shook. We were not sure what was happening. Seconds after the shaking a huge avalanche swept over us (we were aware of the weak snow structure in the slopes above camp, but had not expected an earthquake ‘trigger’). We had just enough time to jump into the shallow crevasse protected by the overhang above. Jeff Lowe was next to me in the crevasse; close together Jeff and I experienced the world going dark and the backflow of the avalanche filling the crevasse rapidly up to our chests. And then it stopped.

All of our tents and most of our gear were swept away. It was a tedious and scary epic descending in the snow and fog, as now a storm was upon us. The descent was over bare icy slopes swept clean by the avalanche and we were without complete sets of crampons and ice axes. Some of the team, including John Evans, had descended earlier to get a replacement stove and those of us back at Crevasse Camp thought they must have been crushed in the avalanche. This thought weighed on me during the descent. However, they were just barely ahead of it, and escaped.

Meanwhile, on nearby Pik 19, another American team of four was buried in their tent by an avalanche that night as the storm continued. Gary Ullin died in his sleeping bag, crushed by the weight of the snow. After the storm cleared, a helicopter re-supply was arranged and I got to fly in this really big Russian helicopter and be the ‘load master’, due to my experience at Alta, Utah, with dropping of explosives from helicopters for avalanche control. The helicopter ride up to about 17,000 feet was a real adventure in a very powerful noisy machine, and the drop was ‘on the Pik 19 crew’s ‘doorstep.’

And the Russian team we had seen, high on the East Face of Pik Lenin? They were never heard from again; all had died, and nobody could reach them.

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Pik Lenin summit marker; 23,406 feet.

With our spirits somewhat dampened, we regrouped after the storm and headed for the ‘regular’ Rozdelny Pass route. In basecamp, I had become acquainted with a Swiss woman from the International Woman’s team, Eva Isenschmid. She and her companions, including the American Arlene Blum were also on their way to the summit of Lenin, as well as several other groups from Japan and Europe.

Marty Hoey and I made the summit, then the day after, Jed Williamson nearly made it. But with the weather changing rapidly, he turned back and on the way down convinced Arlene to come down with him, but was unable to persuade the Swiss women. They only had minimal bivouac gear and the weather did indeed change. A major winter-like jet stream storm had set in, however in those days I did not yet know the difference between a jet stream storm and the monsoon(*).

That evening, as this cold storm raged, we realized the Swiss women were trapped high on the mountain and likely in trouble. Jed had done his bit getting Arlene down; I was rested and the only others who were in condition to help the next morning were the two very competent French climbers Francois Valla and Michel Vincent. We headed up in very cold, stormy conditions and found one of the Swiss women, Heidi, coming down. It was decided Michel would help her back to High Camp. Francois and I eventually found the other two Swiss in very bad shape after a night exposed on a ledge high on the Ridge. One, Anya, was more or less mobile while Eva was lying semi-conscious on the icy, rocky ground, moving about slowly and without her gloves.

Francois and I put Eva in a sleeping bag that we had brought and began lowering her straight down the north face, because the ridge terrain was such that lowering was not possible. Eventually Sepp Schwankener from West Germany joined us, while Francois took Anya back to High Camp. Periodically Sepp and I would halt the lowering process to give Eva mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I did this several times. Then her lips became cold. Meanwhile we were becoming exposed to increasing avalanche conditions, and Sepp and I were becoming exhausted. Finally, it was no good and we tied Eva in the sleeping bag to an ice axe and headed back to the ridge. In Eva’s name her parents sent me a letter and a book, Das grosse Bergbuch (The Big Mountain Book), which had many of Eva’s mountain photos.

The storm continued to rage. The numerous others in High Camp were sliding into increasing states of distress. Jed would go around to the various tents and say; “Okay, it is time to come out and clear your tents of snow, now!” Eventually, there was a sort of mutiny and the entire camp packed up and headed out into the storm. Jed, Marty and I were comfortable in our very good American tent, and with plenty of food, I wanted to wait out the storm. Shortly, Francois and Sepp came back to encourage us to join the rest of the group, because as it turned out, I was the only one with a map and compass, and there was no getting down without those tools (still amazing to me today that nobody else had these items that always seemed essential to me). Also, Sepp, who was older than me and seemed to have a lot of experience, convinced me that this was the MONSOON and it didn’t have to end until fall. I didn’t know. So Jed, Marty and I reluctantly packed up and headed out into the storm. The group was waiting for us on the top of a little rise, a short way from camp, before the big descent down the rounded snow ridge. Francois (who, like me, had avalanche work experience) and I went first, reading the map and compass and sensing the ‘feel’ of the knee-deep snow. A little left, a little right, that was how it went. Jed brought up the rear keeping the disorganized group organized. Eventually, the storm weakened and the slope eased, and we were grateful to be met by John Evans and party of Russian climbers to guide us into basecamp. The next morning dawned cold and clear. So much for the monsoon, which this was not.

During this storm there also occurred the slow freezing death of eight Russian women near the summit of Pik Lenin on the Lipkin Ridge. They were in flimsy tents with wood tent poles (soon broken) and no zippers, and their stoves did not work. Their slow deaths were announced, one by one, over the radio to the basecamp, with all listening helplessly. They were too high on the mountain, and no one could reach them. Yet, 1000 feet below on the Lipkin, Jock Glidden with his crew (part of our American contingent) were waiting out the storm in good, strong tents unaware of the tragedy unfolding above. A true tragedy, captured in Bob Craig’s book, Storm and Sorrow in the High Pamirs.

In 1982, Marty Hoey died on Mt. Everest. I was with friends on a small expedition to Nun in the Indian Himal at the time when the news of her death reached us, even there. Marty was an exceptional woman.

So began, for me, the wearing off of the charm and adventure of Himalayan climbing.

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Memorial for the recently dead climbers in the Pamirs.

(*) Eventually I learned the difference between the monsoon and jet stream storms in the Himalaya. The monsoon is characterized by very low to zero wind speeds, and as one might imagine, relatively warm temperatures. Also, the monsoon clouds tend to set in below the highest summits, which are often above the clouds. The weather below the clouds is very wet, and it tends to stay that way for the duration of the summer monsoon season.

The Himalayan jet stream storm is primarily a winter event, however, it can occur in the transition seasons of fall and spring as well. It can also rarely occur during the monsoon season in the far northwest Himalaya, in which the Pamirs are located (the Russians had claimed this particular storm was very unusual). The jet stream storm is characterized by high winds and cold. This type of Himalayan storm can appear suddenly out of previously clear weather. It can be deadly.


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It is late summer 1976 at High Camp at 22,500 feet on Nanda Devi in India. I had to give the summit a shot on my own, so a few days after the expedition ‘chosen ones’ John Roskelley and Lou Reichardt made the summit, I’m above high camp climbing solo. A primary obstacle involved climbing a short rock face. I practiced the moves, in crampons, going a little higher each time, until I was certain I could climb back down. Then onward. The summit ridge is a knife- edge, and the photo on the previous page shows my leg straddling it as sitting on a horse, and it’s starting to snow, and there’s electricity in the air, and I’m thinking, “Maybe I should not be going any farther.” So I retreated, facing into the slope down steep, good crampon snow and reversing the tricky rock face. Then on still steep but easier terrain below the rock face, I turned and faced out. It was a rightward diagonal descent, with serious cliffs below and left. I tripped, perhaps on one of the rocks barely poking out of the snow. My ice axe is stuck in the snow above me; I tumble. Instinctively, I fling myself over into the ‘cat arrest,’ all four claws (fingers and crampons) digging into the slope, and I stop.very close to the great precipice. Youth, quick reactions, and luck. I keep this lonely photo on my mantel to remind me that I am still alive, that I did not die. Ten years later, my daughter Alexandra, was born.

The trials were not yet over; the epic continues. Andy Harvard and Devi Unsoeld had arrived in High Camp the evening before, and while I was making my summit attempt Devi’s father Willi arrived. As is familiar to some, via the several books competing to tell ‘their side of the story,’ Devi died at this remote other–worldly place. My preferred book is; Fatal Mountaineer by Robert Roper.

She died the next morning while we were preparing to descend, as it was clear she was seriously ill. Also, the first ‘winter’ jet stream storm of the season had arrived with cold, snow, and high winds (the prior summer monsoon snows were relatively warm and with little to no wind). Devi was sitting next to me in the cramped tent. We all are struggling to get our boots on and prepare for the day. Suddenly Devi announced: “I am going to die.” She then threw up a large volume of what looked like coffee grounds, and pitched forward, dead. Now, extreme pandemonium occurred in the tent. Eventually, Willi decided to perform a ‘burial at sea,’ meaning she was released in her sleeping bag over the great northeast face, at the doorstep of our tent and the top anchor point of the last fixed rope.

By now the storm was a full-on blizzard. The distress for Willi and Andy was palpable, so it seemed best if I went first down the 9-mm fixed rope, the first in a series. This line was anchored near the tent door and descended a very steep, rocky, and icy face, diagonally left (looking down), and fixed on the bottom end to a rock ledge, or so I expected. I assumed the rappel would not require crampons, which was a big mistake. In swirling snow, very cold and high winds, I came near to the end of the fixed line to discover, to my horror, that the end was dangling free and without any sort of knot. Sliding off the loose end was a real possibility.

As had been my habit (thanks to George Hurley and Jim Kanzler) I was attached to a sliding safety Prusik knot on the rope. Since the line was icy it took some effort to get the Prusik to grip, but it finally did. I then pulled up the end of the rope, now about 15 feet away, and tied in. The rock ledge was about 15 – 20 feet to my right and I began to try to pendulum over to it. Without crampons to grip the nearly vertical icy wall I just wasn’t making it. I was becoming panicked and exhausted (and thinking Devi’s body had only recently passed this way). During a particularly desperate moment, at the far end of my swing, as I was leaning out against my harness toward the ledge as far as I could, a turd squeezed out of me. I was too exhausted to be anything other than momentarily grossed-out. It seemed forever, but after several more swings, eventually I was able to reach the ledge, heave up onto the small space of flat rock and secured the bottom end of the fixed line.

Andy and I had a major struggle getting ourselves, and Willi, down the rest of the steep fixed ropes below High Camp. As one can imagine, Willi was in great distress. Upon arriving at Ridge Camp, below the High Camp buttress, we found two empty and collapsed tents, and nobody there. It was a situation that occurred several years earlier for me on Dhaulagiri. As we later found out, Roskelley and Reichardt had completely left the mountain (Reichardt in his article on the climb for the AAJ gave me credit for the fixed rope work and load carry for their summit climb, something I very much appreciated). We had been abandoned, myself for the second time. We managed to put one of the tents in order and we all crawled into our two remaining sleeping bags zipped together. I could finally lie on my back, out of the storm and away from the earlier struggles, and relax. Suddenly I felt a sharp pain at the back of my right calf. “Oh no,” I thought, “it’s phlebitis” (This is a deadly blood clot in a leg vein that has killed several climbers over the years). Cautiously I felt down inside my pants and discovered a small, round, frozen turd lodged against my calf. What a relief, but everyone was too tired and glum to laugh.

Two thousand feet of fixed rope then took us on down to Advance Basecamp where some of the group, thankfully, had waited for us. The few who had waited were in no condition to climb above Advance Basecamp to help us. It was especially good to see John Evans, who had been sick with hepatitis and had been out of action for some time.

Upon my return from Nanda Devi, one of my Teton friends told me that she thought I was seriously depressed. I suppose today, one could say I had a type of PTSD. In any case, the depression dug in, but it has now mostly faded.

~~Read Lev’s entire memoir by clicking HERE ~~

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