November 29, 2014
I’m now back from our memorable trip to Kazakhstan hosted by Eurasian Bank. When I fly halfway around the world for a speaking engagement, especially to a place with some of the most dramatic mountains in the world, I can’t help but get out and climb.
Jet-lagged and enveloped in a blanket of 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 bumpy 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 icy 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 in my two insulated jackets, 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 fourth 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. (Meaning I used ascenders to climb up fixed ropes. The ascenders slide up the rope but teeth on the device bite the rope and don’t slide down). On ascenders, and the fixed rope, I was finally as fast as Rob who was free climbing with his typical 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 jet lag," 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 has inspired me to get back into the climbing world - after a six-year hiatus to learn to kayak. It's good to be home. Hurray for climbing adventures ahead!
Mountain Hardwear, Scarpa, and LEKI Athlete,