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Death on the slopes of Kyrgystan’s Peak Lenin

We truly do not know what will happen to us in the next moment. The savage unpredictability of life is a shocking and sobering reminder of our fragile mortality.

Peak Lenin, Kyrysthan, seen from Base Camp

1330 Hrs on Sunday, 20 July 2014. I’d just made the weary descent to Camp # 2 on Peak Lenin in Kyrgystan. This was my second and final attempt and I was heading back to Base Camp (“BC”) after turning back somewhere between Camp # 2 and Camp # 3. My two fellow climbers had continued.

The walkie talkie carried by Daniil, my guide, suddenly crackled. After a short exchange in Russian he turned to me and spoke in his halting English.

“There is accident, a Snowboarder”

I turned cold. There was only one guy that I ever saw on the expedition with a board. It had to be him. But it shouldn’t be him.

“Do you know who? Where?”

“No. They don’t know. They said accident happened. Don’t know where. We have to wait before we go down to Camp # 1.”

Camp 2, 5400m, Peak Lenin

I stood there under the hot afternoon sun near my tent with Daniil, both clueless, as the walkie talkie chatter went on and climbers gathered in groups. I could feel the tension in the 5,400 metre high tent camp perched on a snowy ledge. Then a British skier walked down to us and said he’d seen someone on skies or a snowboard slide down the north face, hit ice and fall a few hours ago. He pointed to a spot on a Serac about 500 metres away from us that was obscured by clouds. Then the clouds cleared and we could see three black dots, sharply contrasted against the snow. I strained my eyes but couldn’t see any more. Daniil used his binoculars and confirmed a man lying with one hand outstretched, his uncovered head a shock of grey hair, his black rucksack slightly higher up the slope.

Snowboard. Grey hair. And the time and place. It had to be him. It was too much of a coincidence.

By then Ferry, one of the Hungarians I’d met at the Base Camp (“BC”), had trudged down to Camp # 2 and he slowly walked to where I was standing. I told him the news. I said I suspected. He simply said “Oh No”, closed his eyes and bowed his head, almost in prayer, forehead resting on the top of his trekking poles.

Climbing up to Camp 3, Peak LeninI stared at the dark shape for a long time. I couldn’t believe that someone I knew, someone big, strong and funny could be lying so motionless. It just didn’t seem possible.

After two hours Daniil signaled it was time to descend to Camp # 1- the weather usually worsened after 2pm- and we roped up and left. I kept stopping to turn and look at the ledge for the black spot till I could no longer see it.

And I kept thinking why he did something so utterly crazy. I mean that section of the north face was frighteningly steep, had patches of ice and was notoriously avalanche prone ; it was very close to the site of the 1990 tragedy when 40 climbers were wiped out by an avalanche, the world’s worst mountaineering disaster. There were other, safer routes to ski down the north face where I could clearly see curving ski marks left by others in the fresh snow. Why? Was he too tired to care? Did he misjudge the terrain? What went through his mind in the last few seconds? Did his equipment malfunction? Why did he push on alone without a Guide? WHY??

I’d first met Ferenc Nagy at the BC . He arrived as part of a quartet of Hungarians. A 60 year old Architect with a wife and three grown up children, Ferenc spoke very little English but he turned out to be a friendly, helpful chap. I was part of a group of three and his group was slightly ahead of ours on the slopes. The climb of the 7,134 metre Peak Lenin requires you to go from BC to Camp # 1 to Camp # 2 to Camp # 3 and all the way back to BC before going back the same way, this time for the summit push. It was an exhausting high altitude expedition that ceased to be any fun after Camp # 1. And whenever our two groups were at the same camp I’d run into Ferenc.

210814My highest point  5900 metres (3)I recall long chats with him, long not because we’d a lot to say but because he’d need thrice as much time to explain something in broken English as a native English speaker would. I recall him running into his tent to get a bottle of precious mineral water for me at Camp # 2 after my first, failed, attempt at Camp # 3, a sweet relief after the strongly chlorine tasting melted snow I’d been drinking. And during the two day rest break at BC we played Volleyball – or our version of it-and together crushed the opposition 310 to 20 (I was the atrocious scorekeeper), a game peppered with laughs and high fives. Memories…..

The last I had heard of him he and Ferry, the only survivors of the Hungarian quartet (the other two were hospitalized in Osh with a lung infection) had left for Camp # 3. I was sure either or both would make it; both had serious Alpine experience and both were strong men and that’s what it took to reach this summit. I had no illusions about my chances. Even if the weather was perfect, walking the 24km to the summit and back in one day at extremely high altitude looked next to impossible. What was widely billed as “ The world’s easiest 7,000 metre peak” was proving to be my toughest challenge to date. The Frying Plan was the worst, a 500 metre long, searing hot, almost flat expanse of snow leading up to Camp # 2 that you had to navigate at the end of a grueling seven hour climb.

Daniil came down with me and then immediately went back up with three other guides and a Medic to bring the body down to the Frying Pan. They worked throughout the night in the freezing cold, completed this difficult task at dawn and came back to Camp # 1, utterly exhausted. As we all left for BC later that morning, Ferry gave them a piece of cloth -it was the Hungarian flag-and he asked them to cover Ferenc’s face with it. It was a somber moment.

Ferenc, centre. RIP.

Ferenc, centre. RIP.

Back at BC in the warmth and dry comfort of my tent I had time to think this over. I imagined him lying there in the Frying Pan , lifeless, alone in the dark, exposed to the harsh elements, surrounded by thousands of tons of snow and ice, just 50 metres from the climbers’ path, waiting for somebody to take him down to BC and home. I wondered how the hell could anyone have the strength to climb over the bodies of their comrades, as did Ed Viesturs after the Everest tragedy in 1996 when he walked past the frozen bodies of Scott Fischer and Robert Hall, climbers he knew very well, as he made his way to the summit. Viesturs was obviously made of much sterner stuff than me and that was probably one of the attributes you needed to be a high altitude Alpinist. A dangerous sport had acquired a new dimension for me.

I could no longer control the tears. But I like to think he died doing what he loved. I like to think he’d have preferred to go out this way. And at that moment all I could think of was something by the Sufi Poet Bulleh Shah, a quote that was also perhaps the best consolation:

“From God we came and to him we will return”

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