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 Kangchenjunga 2002 Czech Expedition

The Czech Summit Bid on Kangchenjunga 2002

Wednesday, May 8, 2002. It has been four weeks since Zdenek, Radek, and Martin came to the glacier down below the South-West Face of Kangchenjunga and established their base camp. During the four weeks on the mountain, there has been no single day without snowing… Occasionally, the snowfall was so heavy that even the base camp got as much as three feet of snow. On such days climbing the avalanche-famous mountains felt like utopia. Avalanches were pouring down the slopes at all times.

The expedition could rely on specific weather forecasts for the SW face of the massif delivered to them from Prague, but the weather forecasts caused no reason for optimism. Yet, late in April, a merciless outlook came from Prague: in the next few weeks, there would be no spell of a summit weather longer than one or two days…

The expedition has been struggling with the extreme precipitation of this year’s pre-monsoon season; it took 20 days to get up to 7200 and to establish C III. Then, miraculously, on May 8, for the very first time in a month, there is no snowing. The skies over the base camp are clear, the sun is shining brightly and the winds are unusually calm. Korean, Czech, and Kazakh expeditions decide: this must be the right time! Now or never! Even though any possibility of reaching the summit seems very remote and rather theoretical, they decide to give it a try.

At night the optimism fades. A thunder storm rages all over the mountain, the sky is all ablaze with the flashes of lightening. The decision, however, holds: it’s the time to go up, not down, (almost) whatever comes.

Before 7AM, on May 9, all the three expeditions on this side leave the base camp. Koreans will be using supplemental oxygen and climbing porters, Czechs and Kazakhs rely solely on their own strength and lungs. It is very cold, yet for the first time the wind blows from the top the mountain -- that is, from the summit -- rather than from the sea. The slopes above the base camp are covered with the fresh footprints of a snow leopard. A messenger of good news?

As every day, the heat on the famous platform of the South-West face is debilitating. In the afternoon, as every day, fog and snowing come out of the blue, and within a few minutes they turn the heat of over 100F to subzero temperatures (F). Radek, Martin, and Zdenek spend the night at CII at 6800 meters, the night is unusually calm. On the following day, May 10, the regular afternoon storm finds the team already above 7200 meters. Radek, Martin, and Zdenek reach their CIII at 7500 meters and dig the tents out of the deep snow. Their two tents have suffered badly of the storms and snowfalls, the small Bibler seems now good enough to host just one half of a grown man. Earlier today, Martin found his sleeping bag at C II wet and frozen and of no use. From now on, for the following four nights, he will be struggling through the nights without a sleeping bag.

The morning of May 11 brings bad news. The weather is far too bad to let anybody climb up. The Czech team spends another day of involuntary acclimatizing in their tents at 7500m. In the afternoon, the weather gets a little better. Radek, Martin and Zdenek pitch another tent and pack the small Bibler for the summit bid.

The following morning, May 12, is beautiful. Zdenek and Radek leave their sleeping bags behind, too, and all the three climbers push forward. Heavy clouds down in the valley cause a concern, but the wind blows from the east, which means that the weather should be fine!!

No, it isn’t. Suddenly, the direction of the wind changes and the wind brings a strong storm accompanied by heavy snowing. Radek, Martin, and Zdenek are forced to establish their C IV lower than they have hoped, at 7800m. So does the Kazakh team. The Koreans have managed to get higher, yet their tent gets destroyed by an avalanche and they descend back to 7800m and pitch another tent next to the Czechs and the Kazakhs.

Radek, Martin, and Zdenek spend the short night of May 12 crowded in a tent for one, sitting, all without sleeping bags. Until 8PM it keeps snowing. This is to be the night before the summit day?! At 11PM they start brewing drinks, within two hours all three pots are full. A caplet of Ibuprofen, new batteries for the headlight, something sweet to the water. At 1AM, on May 13, they put their crampons and headlights on and start ascending. Four Kazakhs, a Sherpa, three Koreans with oxygen, three Czechs. The summit bid is on. It is very cold, the winds are strong and it is snowing, but the skies are relatively clear. At 7900m, Radek’s toes, that have already been numb for a while, seem gone; there is no chance as to take the boots off, to sit down and to massage them, where he is. Radek turns back and descends to C IV. At 8000m, Zdenek faces the same fate. The frostbite is just too severe. Some of his fingers and toes are gone, too. It will still be seven hours before the sun starts shining on the South-West wall. There is no way but to return to C IV. Martin, the silent bulldog Martin, climbs on. So do Koreans and Kazakhs.

The dawn comes at 5AM, but it will not be until 9AM when the sun starts shining on the South-West face and make the temperature more bearable. Korean climbers, one after another, leave their empty oxygen bottles behind. One of them leaves behind the down jacket, too. A critical mistake, as it proves later! Hundred and fifty meters below the summit, he will be forced to turn back. He will have no more oxygen and no down jacket and he will feel feels extremely cold. In the middle of the morning the climbers are just under the summit wall. Martin guesses that it will take four hours to climb. In reality, it takes much more. Martin leaves his backpack under the wall. It weights no more than 10-11 pounds, but at this altitude it feels like a ton. He still has three cups of a brew in his pot and the thirst is terrible, yet he will need to save the drink for the descent. Martin takes a spare battery, the camera, and a talisman. The last part of the ascent is a steep, broken pillar.

Back at C IV, Zdenek and Radek try to bring their frostbitten extremities back to life. Very few words are said. The opportunities of a lifetime are best sensed, once they are gone, and this seems to be the moment. By the afternoon, Radek manages to improve his frostbitten toes and he decides to take another chance. At 4PM, the radio cracks into life. The long-awaited news are here: the first men of this season are on the top of Kangchenjunga -- the Koreans have reached the summit! A moment of horror for Radek and Zdenek: no word about Martin! Then the radio cracks into life again: Martin is with them! After 15 hours of climbing of the summit wall, on May 13, 2002, at 3:25PM Martin Minarik, 34, an accomplished Czech climber living in Seattle, becomes the first Czech on the top of Kangchenjunga. Martin reaches the summit of Kangchenjunga without artificial oxygen, without high-altitude porters, in a team of three, supplying their chain of camps and fixing their ropes all by themselves, having even no one to manage their base camp. Thumbs up! The very last 8000er that had never seen a Czech climber on its top, has been reached.

That is to say – the level three or four steps below the summit has been reached. The expedition respects the promise given by Charles Evans, leader of the British 1955 expedition, to the Governor of Sikkim that no human foot will interfere with the sacred territory of the gods. Even so, all the time during the descent, the guys keep asking themselves: haven’t we gone too high, too far? Will the gods let us return safely? After all, it is May 13, 2002, exactly ten years since Wanda Rutkiewicz disappeared on this very mountain, Martin realizes immediately.

Martin Minarik, born 1967, the first Czech on Kangchenjunga (2002), without supplemental oxygen or high-altitude porters. Manaslu (1999) without oxygen, the first solo passage of Mt. Logan (1998).

Martin leaves ‘the scarf of a safe return’, which he got at Suketar, on the summit, takes a few photographs, tries to look over the summit down the north face, where he expects to see climbers from Daniel Mazur’s expedition, but he sees no one. During the 15 minutes on the top of Kangchenjunga he does not manage to stop tears.

Down at CIV, Radek and Zdenek get a new shot of optimism. Radek decides to join the second team of the Kazakh expedition and to give the summit another try on May 14. Zdenek's extremities, sadly so, have not recovered from the frostbite. Why here, why now? Six times, on six different mountains Zdenek was over 8000m before, sometimes in a more debilitating cold, yet his extremities have never proved vulnerable to any serious frostbite. This time they have.

At 3PM it starts snowing again. Radek cleans the snow from the tent and the area around; they will need as much space as possible (in the tent for one), when Martin comes back. The snowfall gets heavier every minute and becomes really heavy. Isn’t a quick descent the only option?

Martin’s descent from the summit is tough. Four steps and a fall into the snow, four steps… Martin wishes to be down at C IV as quickly as possible. Soon he will need a headlight. Getting on one’s butt and sliding down the hill, while using the ice axe for breaking, becomes the only realistic option. It is dangerous, yet fast. Whenever the slope gets less steep and the slide slows down, Martin immediately falls asleep. Deep under his feet, he sees the lights of tents at C IV. Bivouac seems attractive, but it is snowing and it is far too obvious that this area will soon become the main avenue of avalanches. Martin checks the altitude every once in a while, he is still above 8000m! Hallucinations become all more frequent. Martin finds fix ropes, but he cannot recognize, whether they are the ones, which the climbers fixed this morning. Finally he reaches the three tents of C IV and gets some brew. It is late in the evening. In the account of Zdenek and Radek, Martin looks amazingly fit and composed.

To Martin’s surprise, he still finds both Radek and Zdenek at C IV. Once briefed about Radek’s plans to push for the summit during the night, Martin quickly decides to descend to C III. Lower altitude and a sleeping bag will do him well; and Radek will need some sleep before he leaves, which he would hardly get in the crowded tiny tent at C IV.

At midnight of May 13, Zdenek and Radek brew some more drinks. Zdenek makes a holy cross on Radek’s forehead. He will need a lot of good luck! At 1AM, three members of Kazakh’s second team and Radek are ready for the final ascent. The weather is quite fine.

Zdenek waits till the dawn, then packs C IV and descends to C III. The trail leads over tens, perhaps hundreds of crevasses hidden under the new snow. Three times he falls into a crevasse, but finally he safely reaches C III at about 9AM. Martin is still sleeping. Zdenek wakes him up and brews some drinks. The two leave the tent and the basic necessities for Radek, pack the rest, and then they descend. In the hellish heat on the plateau, the descent is nothing but killing. The backpacks get heavier after every camp and the energy to carry on breaking the trail through three or four feet of melting snow is diminishing to zero. Every step is a victory of a strong will over the exhausted body, the dehydratation from the long stay high on the mountain and from the killing heat takes its toll. Boots and crampons are covered with pounds of snow. Zdenek notes that it feels as if you try to descend along an icy path with your feet covered in a thick layer of cole slaw. Fix ropes are deep under the fresh snow and at many places, it turns impossible to find them, or too hard to release them from the ice. There is also this feeling in the air that avalanches must start pouring every moment. Over the past four weeks, the crevasses along and under the trail have become much wider and bigger; to get over them has become a master test in acrobatics. With 30+ pounds on ones back. After the summit. One last time!

The rest of the Korean team heads up from the base camp to meet their successful team members below C I. The welcome is hearty and warm, and Martin and Zdenek get the same applause as the Korean fellows. Down the slope, under the glacier, the cooks are waiting. The meeting and the welcome are very, very warm, with a few tears, too. Two of the three team members are safely back. But Radek is still up there. Wish you were here!

Radek Jaros, born 1964. The second Czech on Everest without supplemental oxygen (1998), the second Czech on Kangchenjunga (2002), also without oxygen and high-altitude porters.

Radek’s account of his summit bid: The three Kazakhs left for the summit half an hour earlier than we had agreed. A little later, I caught up with the last one and in another hour with the remaining two. Immediately, they ask me to replace them in breaking the trail. It has been snowing since last afternoon and the trail is no longer evident. We negotiate the rules: 50 steps of breaking the trail for everyone. Those 50 steps may easily mean ten stops, five steps – a pause – five steps… My headlight isn’t working any longer, so I get rid of it, it is too heavy. After four hours of a inhumanly hard work I am thinking of whether I already deserve a drink. Or is it too early, should I spare it for later?

At 12PM I am two meters below the true summit. I take a few pictures of the Kazakh climbers, they take pictures of me. I should do some filming and take more pictures, but when I need to change the film and I take my glows off, the fingers quickly turn white. If I don’t want to end up with seriously frostbitten hands, I have to forgive the pictures. The water in one of my two bottles froze, I have to throw the bottle away. Water from the other pot I share with the Kazakhs. Then they leave. I am alone on the third highest peak of the world! We have summitted on the only two days of reasonably fair weather, perhaps the only two in this season! Deep down, in the valley, is Talung Peak. The one that so proudly stands high above the base camp! North-west of me is Everest. In just a few days, it will be four years since I stood on its summit. Lhotse, Makalu, many unknown peaks all around. Everything below 7000m is hidden in clouds.

I take off my camera and start filming. The battery gets dead in a few seconds. Gosh, wasn’t it new? I sadly turn around. As for my filming, this expedition has not been terribly successful. I start feeling lonely and worried. How about if the weather turns bad again? How about the regular afternoon storm, is it going to come? I better get down quickly.

If the ascent was a struggle, the descent is a torture! Only not to make any mistake! Immediately once I can do so, I get down on my butt and slide down the hill. Even in this manner the descent is still terribly exhausting. After four hours of the descent I see the location of our former C IV. Around 5PM I recognize a particular serac – it should be the place of our advanced CIII at 7500m! And yes, it is. I fall down to the tent, finding the mattress, the sleeping bag, lots of food, the stove. Everything is here, if necessary I could survive here for a whole week! I spend an hour massaging my numb toes. Five times during the night I wake up and need to drink – which means to get five times out of the tent for snow, to start the stove, to brew the drink… Soon after the dawn I hear voices. The Kazakhs are set to descend. Once again, I stay alone on the third highest mountain of the world. I wait till 9AM for the first sun beams. It takes me two more hours to pack the camp. The trail below advanced C III has been swept over by the winds, so the mode of breaking the trail continues. Ten steps, a pause, ten steps… I reach 7200m in two hours. Too cold and exhausted to struggle with a zipper, I open the tent with an ice axe. I find the stove and dishes and food. Excellent. I am preparing some brew and resting. Not for long. If I want to make it to the base camp, it is the time to go. On the way down, stop by our deposit and take out films. My customized backpack, manufactured by my friend especially for this expedition, stays there. It will have to wait for the next expedition. I rush to C II to make a bigger pause and to get some more drinks and rest. Here it is, 6700m, this should be the place of our C II! I don’t want to believe my eyes. The tent is gone. The stove, the food, all is gone, just the platform shows that indeed, this used to be C II. I have to go on.

At 6400 I have to get over the maze of crevasses. The dehydration starts taking its toll. And then the endless plateau. At noon, the obligatory clouds come. They bring some shade, but a lot of diffusion, the visibility is hardly more then 10 meters. Fortunately, the afternoon storm does not come, not today. At 6200m I find our C I and again I open the tent with an ice axe. Mattresses are there, food, gas. Just one thing is missing: the stove! I am suffocating from cough, and so I try to at least eat some snow. I don’t feel like pushing forward, but I have to. Pounds of the wet snow on each crampon, I am breaking the trail in the melting snow several feet deep. Finally, the last pitch of fixed ropes! I reach out for them and … am I hallucinating? They are moving! I front of me I see two men approaching me. Dorje, our assistant cook, and a porter from the Korean expedition are bringing me a pot o tea! Till now, I still feel tears in my eyes. None of them has even crampons! We hug each other as best friends on the Earth! Only now I realize that during all the time here, none of my operated knees has caused me any pains! And just as it comes to my mind, one careless step, my leg breaks through the wet snow – and the problem is born. Martin is waiting down under the glacier. He yells on me out of excitement and waves with a bottle of slivovice, a strong Moravian liqueur. I am stumbling and limping to the base camp. Zdenek awaits us there. All three, we are down here again, together, alive.

Zdenek Hruby, born 1956, expedition leader Everest 1998, K2 2001, Kangchenjunga 2002. Summits over 8000: Cho – Oyu (1994), Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II double (1997). Lhotse (1999). 8600m solo on North Face of Everest (1998), Cesen Pillar (8000m) on K2 (2001). All ascents without supplemental oxygen.

The Epiloque: Two members of the three-member expedition successfully summitted Kangchenjunga on May 13, 2002 (Martin Minarik), and on May 14, 2002 (Radek Jaros), without artificial oxygen, without high-altitude porters, without a base camp support. All three climbers suffered numerous frostbite -- Martin and Radek during their summit bids, Zdenek above C IV. The frostbite made their walkout from the base camp to the airstrip of Suketar very painful and difficult; yet their toes and fingers will eventually recover and none will have to be lost.

This year’s conditions on the SW face of Kangchenjunga were unusually challenging, due to the extreme precipitation, which was 150-200 percent above the long-term average for the massif at this time. The fact that, in spite of the extreme conditions, 12 climbers successfully climbed the SW face (7 of them from the Kazakh expedition), was, in the account of Martin, Radek, and Zdenek, due to the admirable strength of the kazakh climbers and due to the excellent cooperation among the summit teams during the two summit days. Martin, Radek, and Zdenek give their highest marks and credits to the climbers of the Kazakh team: to Denis Urubko, Yervand Ilinskiy, Maxut Zhumayev, Damir Molgatchev, Vassiliy Pivstov, Sergey Lavrov, Sergey Brodskiy, and Alexey Raspopov, whose strength, climbing skills and the work on the mountain deserve to be acknowledged. The fact that in this years’ difficult conditions all 7 summitted is remarkable and it speaks for itself.

Ups and downs on the mountain had many faces. In the terms of altitude, the Czech team ascended and descended, on their trek to the base camp, on the mountain, and during the walkout back to the airstrip of Suketar, altogether over 41 thousand altitude meters (25+ altitude miles)…

On May 23, Martin, Radek and Zdenek arrived to Kathmandu, on May 28 they were back in Prague. None of them wants to return to Kangchenjunga ever again.

Based on Martin’s, Radek’s and Zdenek’s accounts, Jana Matesova


Very Special Thanks from the Czech 2002 PRE Kangchenjunga Expedition

Kangchenjunga 2002 is here !

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