Hiking Up to High Camp

The Trail to High Camp

I wake to strange sounds at 4:00 am in the morning. I hear a soft swaying and a gentle rustling in the dark. There is stifled movement coming from the volleyball court in front of the canteen. The sounds are too muffled for a pre-dawn volleyball match.

I decide to investigate. I get out of my sleeping bag, open the door to the hut, and quietly exit the building. I turn on my headlamp, and my eyes adjust to the soft beam of the light. I walk around the corner of the building and encounter a small herd of grazing cows. Caught completely by surprise, I shake my head in disbelief. I consider going back to the hut to get my camera, but I figure it is too dark to take a picture. The cows ignore my indecision and continue to graze undisturbed. They enjoy the moist, dew-laced grass in an unfamiliar pasture.


Hours later, my teammates and I slowly rise for a simple breakfast in the canteen. We will leave for high camp at 10:00 am. Porters will take our heavy double-boots, bulky sleeping bags, and climbing equipment. We will carry our own backpacks with our clothing, snacks, water, and personal items.

When we start our hike in the morning sun, the outside air temperature is already 26 degrees Celsius. We leave our base camp and pass a camp ground outside a gate that should normally keep trespassers and stray cows out. A short woman with the thick build of an Olympic gymnast stands in the middle of the field in a sports bra and thong. She fixes her hair in a half-sized mirror atop a wooden dressing table, which is next to the group’s tents and vehicles. We giggle at the unexpected sight. Some laugh about the partially clothed woman; others are amused by her choice in portable outdoor furniture.

Our hike initially retraces our steps from the previous day. We follow the trail above the mountain tributary at a slow and deliberate pace. When we reach a fork in the road, we bear to the right. The trail to the left leads to the aerodrome that we saw the day before.


After two hours of steady hiking, we stop for a quick, 15 minute break. We are three kilometers from base camp at the halfway point in our journey.

Olan Takes a Break

Olan Takes a Break

As we rest, dark clouds slowly approach from the north. The temperature drops significantly and clouds obscure the sun. Although we can still see objects in the distant valley, the mountain peaks to our north slowly disappear from view.

Clouds Approach from the North (Part I)

Clouds Approach from the North (Part I)

Clouds Approach from the North (Part II)

Clouds Approach from the North (Part II)

We continue our hike and move at a faster pace. We race against the storm to see who can reach high camp first.

Like the weather, the terrain quickly changes above 3000 meters. The smooth dusty trail turns into a rocky scramble.

The Terrain Starts to Change

The Terrain Starts to Change

We steadily ascend the sweeping base of the mountain. We step over wet stones and climb inside a bank of clouds. Like previous trips to the Scottish Highlands, the weather is not cooperating. Our visibility is diminished, and our climb continues inside the clouds. As thunder threatens in the distance, crevasses in the Ullukol Glacier appear on our right. The salt and pepper color of the glacier reminds us to stick to the rocky trail. In the dim light of early afternoon, we stay well clear of the danger preferring to slip on rocks than fall in ice cracks.

Ullukol Glacier

Ullukol Glacier

We reach high camp (Верхнем Лагере) or the Northern Shelter (Северный приют) tired and hungry after our four-hour hike. High camp seems uninhabited at first until the young bride of our Russian guide, Alexander, exits the mess hall. She squeals in delight at the unexpected sight of her husband who has returned home with a fresh bouquet of wildflowers.

The Mess Hall

The Mess Hall

Hearing the commotion, the camp’s doctor comes to greet us. He welcomes us to camp and shows us a metal hut where we will sleep. Seeking refuge from the approaching storm, we gather in the hut, which I call the Big House (большой дом). Seven team members and I move cots around the large room inside the hut. We try to find an optimal placement for ourselves and our gear. Three other team members join Constantine, the Russian guide, in a smaller hut next door. The Green Datscha (зеленый датча) is my name for a windowless shelter made from an imported Swiss kit. Olan decides to brave the elements alone in a Russian made tent.

The Big House and Olan's Tent

The Big House and Olan’s Tent

The Green Datscha

The Green Datscha

Before we can completely unpack and settle, Alexander’s wife summons us for a late lunch. She and her colleague serve us a hearty, warm soup with a buckwheat salad and coleslaw on the side.

Alain, Adam, and Sri at Lunch

Alain, Adam, and Sri at Lunch

The storm finally catches up to us as we enjoy our introduction to camp. Pea-sized hail pelts the plastic and galvanized aluminum roof of the mess hall. We are safe and warm inside the building where we wait until the storm clears.

We eventually exit the mess hall and discover a white wonderland. A large volume of hail covers the pores of the rocky surface.

A Hail Storm

A Hail Storm

We quickly return to the Big House where we nap and relax the rest of the cloudy, stormy day.

 

Waypoints Time Distance Altitude
North Slope Base Camp
Ullukol Glacier
High Camp
4:15 hours (travel time) 6.2 km + 1133 m to 3733 m

 

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