Tackling Khan Tengri Solo: a 7010m mental and physical climb


You keep in motion by ever new goals, to develop a plan, budget, gather information and then make it happen. It drives me to all corners of the world and stretches my boundaries; it gets more challenging or higher.
To achieve your dreams takes weeks, months or sometimes years. It requires training, mental and physical, and an unending focus on what you want to achieve.
Choose your goal that is intriguing and gets you out of your comfort zone. This way you can learn and evolve.
The challenge of achieving your goal can sometimes bring disappointment; don’t let that put you off! Disappointment ensures that you can put your goals and experiences into perspective.
My disappointment, with the expedition to Makalu that was halted by a hit of Mother Nature, was exceptionally big. So much so that I needed to process it in my way, away from everyone, in a place where I feel at home: the mountains.
My first solo expedition experience was on the El teide in Tenerife, when I didn’t know much about “real” mountaineering, so I searched for a challenge that had not too many risks. It was a traverse over the top where I saw the sun rise in the sulphur fumes and a descent where I got lost because there was no way marked and I had no topographic map.
Almost 20 years later, I felt strong and experienced enough to go on a solo expedition to a mountain that had more to offer. This time I left my comfort zone by going alone, without people to climb together and make decisions, and enjoy the fine moments. I knew in advance that would be a very educational expedition but also one where I would encounter myself.
Khan Tengri 7010m
The Khan Tengri is located on the border of Kazagstan/Kyrgyzstan and China. It is the most northern mountain above the 7000 meters and is one of the five seven thousand peaks to climb to achieve the Russian Snow Leopard award.
He is known for his whimsical and cold weather conditions and along the South side for its deadly avalanches. After consulting with friends who climbed both North – as South side, I decided to go for the more difficult north side. That decision was worth gold because just before starting my expedition, there were 4 fatalities on the South side by avalanches.
I chose the Solamatov Route (Classical Northern) which is declared as Russian Grade 5b and was first climbed in 1974.
In practical terms, the organisation for climbing is easy because you will be transferred by helicopter to base camp which is about 4000 metres. Between the three high camps and the top are fixed ropes that make it more secure to go solo climbing particularly in bad weather conditions but nevertheless, I would see that there is a big difference between theory and reality.

My condition was enough worked, it was time to take action. KanTengriExpedition, the logistic partner of the well-known Russian climber Kazbek Valiyev, was responsible for everything that I did not have to worry about; the transport, permits, food, helicopter and the base camp. I have my passport and my rucksacks.
Friends helped me, Guido Riemenschneider lent me an altitude tent, Rudi Bollaert of the outdoor store BERGHUT provided me with a second expedition tent and my coach Stef Maginelle gave me a satellite phone.
Now it was up to me to carry everything to the top and install the height camps. As a precaution I took, pretty much, snow anchors for attaching the tents and bamboo sticks to mark the route on top of Chapajev. You can read a lot about the mountain and the routes but once you’re there, you have to do everything on your own so nothing should fail.
The material list was long;
• 6 gas bottles
• 6 dry freeze food
• 2 extra storm lines and tent picketting
• sauce pan and stove
• light sleeping bag
• Berghaus Ulvetanna Down Suit,
Berghaus climbing trousers,
• Berghaus waterproof jacket and the Ramche down insulated jacket
• 2 x large gloves and 1 pair of thin gloves, a balaclava and a helmet
• climbing equipment
• Bamboo sticks
• Thermal underwear for body and legs
• Food and drinks (candy, coffee, tea bags, sugar, milk powder, noodle soup, chocolate, cheese)
• Radio from BC and satellite
• Phone-cameras
• MP3 player
• Sun Tan lotion
• emergency blanket, drugs and inject adrenaline-shuffle
• 2 pairs of sunglasses
• Piolet,
• Crampons
• Nalgene bottles and thermal covers
• mattress + polystyrene foam mat-hats
• 2 expedition tents and expedition booths
The base camp was really “Russian” ( old military stuff ) and there was a hustle and bustle of 60 fellow climbers of all nationalities. Some already returned home because the season was already halfway on 3 August and until then, only 2 guests had reached the summit from the north side.
I encountered three other Belgians with the same plans, Niels, Ludo and Geert. Along with a sympathetic group of Italians and one old Polish guy, we keep warm in the dining tent. Each one had its own planning for acclimatization and I walk nervously around but everything falls like a log of my shoulders when the second day I depart for high camp 1 to set my tent.
The first step has been taken and many more will follow to the top which is still very far away. I feel the height when I climb slowly and the weather is good but really hot. On the way I see a girl with a broken foot being carried down by guides.
That same fate would set on the other Belgians as Geert got twisted in the ropes in a small avalanche.
The Khan Tengri is really a beautiful mountain and as I climb higher and the route becomes more rocky, my respect for this giant grows. After a rest day at base camp I continue to climb to camp 2 with a fully packed backpack.
Camp 2 is situated on a shoulder 5500 meters high with wonderful views of the top and the glacier 1500 meters lower. Also here are several tents, and climbers ask around; who climbed? How was it? Who is going to camp 3? It is cozy in my small tent and the burner is running at full speed to melt the ice.
After 7 hours of climbing and scrambling along ropes that are sometimes all but reliable and fixed around rocks that you can free by hand!
The Italians go back the same day to base camp and the Belgians stay another day for acclimatizing when I decide to break down my tent and continue climbing to camp 3.
fotoniels ik en ludo van2 naar3
I knew it was going to be a tough day but so long, that was a disappointment. With a heavy backpack in the company of Russians and Polish climbers we had to climb over Chapajev 6200 metres after which you must descend to Camp 3 at 5900 meters.
After 10 hours I drop down in the saddle between Chapajev and Khan Tengri, the location for camp 3 with a view of another giant: the Pobeda 7439 meters. In the col, where the South route joins up with the northern route, I can see below me the southern camp.
The view of the surrounding mountains in the Sun is a whole satisfaction but there is not much time to enjoy it because as the light disappears, the icy night sets in with heavy winds. The tent is firmly entrenched with the pickets you have to burrow or you do it the Russian way: dug in plastic bags filled with snow and it works perfectly.
It’s a sleepless night thanks to the wind which continuously bashing in on the tent. The next day I try to rest and to eat but my stomach don’t like it all so much anymore and my energy is gone.
9 August should be a summit push but soon I notice that in a storm where winds pick up to 100 km/hr it is not feasible. After several hours climbing I stop and return to my tent in camp 3.
The Polish and Russians continue but they come back later in the day, frozen and fatigued. Only one reached the summit but he describes it as terrible. The day’s bad weather persists with much wind or snow. Another group of climbers go for the summit but lose their way on the descent. A guide is going to get some help and finds the 3 people in the middle of the night … on another ridge. There were lucky to be rescued. Later that night another climber loses his way between northern and southern camp … why do people go out and climb in this bad weather? I don’t understand it.
Two days later, everyone breaks off from their tents and leave camp 3. The only guide with radio contact with base camp says that the high winds will persist and that I better go down instead of staying here alone. Is this the end of my expedition? Tears roll down my eyes when I get back on summit Chapajev. I stand and look back on the summit of the Khan Tengri, bathed in the Sun with a cloud plume at the back. Will I ever see it again?
The disappointment overwhelms me when lay back in my tent at camp 2. There are not many more tents and climbers continue descending. I can’t eat or sleep.
The next day I make the balance on what food and gas I still have. The descending climbers leave everything behind so I have enough reserve to continue and I realize what’s possible. If I stop and descend now, I don’t have time for a second attempt and everything is lost. The feeling that I must give up is so overwhelming – after everything I experienced in Nepal, after all my efforts up to this point and after all those sleepless nights in Camp 3, that I must stay!
That decision turns out to be a turning point when later that day, the Italians and the Belgians return to camp2 for their attempt on the Summit. There is good news; after several days of a lot of wind up to 130 km/hr there will be 2 days of good weather.
Before I know it, camp 2 is filled again with happy climbers and I enjoy the stories they tell and gradually I understand that solo climbing is but a lonely affair. I prefer the laughter in a tent and the share of wonderful moments together while climbing with friend. All this makes it so much more special!
After four days of rest and eat, I fly up the Chapajev again and this time it is not hard but pure enjoyment.
naar C2
Even setting up tents and boiling water for other climbers until night falls, it does not harm me, my mind is set: I will go tomorrow for the summit and nothing will stop me.
The summit day is like a dream, almost no wind and no cloud in the sky. Even though the summit day is tough, long and heavy, I continue to enjoy the rock passages with the beautiful view on the surrounding mountains.
On the long slope after the last snow couloir, I move like a turtle but I can still make one more step and then another one!
couloir onder top
Some climbers stop climbing and head back to camp 3 but others continue battling against fatigueand finally after 10 hours of climbing it’s my turn to set foot on 7010m altitude. I sit down against the wooden cross on the summit and begin to cry and then to laugh. It was the hardest climb I ever did but I can’t think of a more beautiful one!
me on top
Khan Tengri, you put me up to the test, left me waiting and pushed me far beyond my limits, but I overcame every obstacle that came in my way. Strangers became my friends and I learned more the value of friendship and every little gesture of selflessness.
It was the words of my coach on the satellite phone, the ever-optimistic Italians with their delicious cheese and ham, the laughter with my compatriots, the frills of an old polish climber and the Kazakh guide that danced around the campfire at base camp.
Italianen belgen pool
I return with many fine memories and I’m even more convinced of every goal setting that lets you raise your limits. No matter how simple or how crazy your goal or dream is, it must do what it does best: make people grow and motivate them to another great highlight in their lives!

Climbing Beyond Your Limits

Mountaineer Sofie Lenaert on raising your game and conquering your goals even when the feeling that you must give up is so overwhelming.

Posted by Berghaus on Monday, February 8, 2016