Pobeda // Summit - Heartache & Promises: Two sides to every story.
How does it feel when you give absolutely everything of yourself to one thing, and yet, it is simply just not enough? Here are my words, in two parts, which hopefully describe my feelings after a herculean eight day push on the colossal Peak Pobeda.
A few days ago, I once again walked away empty handed* from Pobeda. This time, we were just a mere two hundred metres and a couple more hours of climbing from the 7439m summit.
With our heads bowed, we embarked on our descent. The next morning, leaving our high camp at 6920m for what would prove to be a very long, complex, emotional and arduous climb back towards base camp. The overwhelming feeling of failure sat heavy in the pit of my stomach. After an hour or so, I stopped solid in my tracks, turned around and glanced back a little forlornly at the majestic summit. I could clearly see the exact spot we had reached just the day before. Agonisingly close, yet so incredibly far. An overwhelming sense of melancholy and failure reverberated about my body.
Gutted? Most certainly. Disappointed? Extremely so. Does it hurt and feel completely and utterly shit? Unquestionably yes. I could feel the tears of frustration welling up from within me. Every fibre of my being seemed to ache with frustrations. Retracing our steps back along the three kilometre ridge, my emotions felt like they were running amok. I really felt like I was a mess. There was an overwhelming sense of anger, sadness and frustration yet this was coupled with a sense of pride as I revelled in this distinctly remarkable situation I found myself in. We were high above the clouds, and from this vantage point, the views were utterly spellbinding.
Pobeda has been in my life now since 2012. She is the final summit for me in the elusive ‘Snow Leopard Award’ and by far the hardest mountain of her four 7000m companions. Pobeda is undoubtedly one of the most difficult mountains I’ve ever tried to climb.
Initially, we had planned on a five day rotation. However, we arrived back into base camp on day eight. We were broken. I wanted so much to summit this mountain. Every day, we gave it absolutely everything we had. And more. Yet, everyday, Pobeda beat us down. We kept pushing as hard as we both physically and mentally could. Ten hour days followed eleven hour days which followed twelve hour days. We were also entirely self sufficient, carrying everything we needed. Both Rob Smith, my climbing partner and I had grossly underestimated just how hard this mountain would be. Pobeda is unrelentingly and unforgivingly steep with a plethora of technical sections. And then, there is the weather. The weather is constantly changing which makes it volatile and even more challenging than most other mountains. It is also notoriously cold. With temperatures at seven thousand metres around minus twenty degrees Celsius, it is almost impossible not to feel beaten, bruised and at a very low ebb.
Each day we dug as deep as was humanly possible to reach the summit. We utilised every skill and lesson we had learnt from a lifetime spent at high altitude. As if living in a single skin tent wasn’t challenging enough, Pobeda continuously tried to make everything as difficult as possible for us. We valiantly and fastidiously carried on with simple but life preserving tasks such as melting snow. Even this felt significantly harder than normal. We did everything meticulously, never once switching off despite our fatigue.
Every once in a while, an experience challenges you to your core. It pushes your limits and some, occasionally, set new boundaries of what may or may not be possible. We continuously strived to make good decisions, utilising our combined experience of over twenty five, eight thousand metre (plus) expeditions and a multitude of others. Yet, this year, regrettably, it was just not meant to be. As much as this stings and hurts me to my very core, the valuable lessons we learnt and take away from this will invariably make us better informed and understanding mountain leaders and high altitude guides.
The final two hundred metres, I am yet to see of this mountain. I am told that the vast majority of technicalities were all but over. It is my hope that one day, I will take those much longed for final few steps over this revered mountain.
Once again, I witness and experience the microscopically fine line between success and failure. There seems to be a juxtaposition between the two. How can it be that the most magical moments can come so close to be being the most disappointing ?
Pobeda, you broke my heart. I gave you my everything, and more. For this reason, I am unsure when I will return to take those much yearned for final few steps onto your summit.
PROMISES. (The Other Side).
A Day Later.
Today, my feelings have changed. I feel nothing short of admiration and utmost respect for Pobeda. The reality is that the mountain has actually treated us perfectly and offered us everything that we, as climbers, were searching for. Pobeda has challenged us in ways we could only have dreamt of. As alpinists and climbers, we have spent many years training and honing our skills to be on a mountain such as this. It is not Pobeda’s fault that we failed to reach the summit. The problem is entirely ours.
Although Pobeda is not the most aesthetically pleasing mountain to look at, the climbing is sublime, transcendent even. The three kilometre horizontal ridge at seven thousand metres between camp five and six is simply sensational, yet it remains the only appetiser for the alluring summit ridge yet to come. Mighty soaring knife-edge snow crests, interspersed with granite towers sculpted by centuries of torrid winds. It’s lack of defects make it picture-perfect climbing at this altitude. All in alpine style. It is wondrous. Immersive. Liberating. All consuming. If this three kilometre ridge and five hundred metre high summit ridge were placed in the Alps, it would undoubtedly become a classic. As you can tell, this really did totally blow me away!
At seven thousand two hundred metres, inching my way along hyper exposed steep snow crests on tiptoes, Pobeda commanded every iota of my concentration. I totally relished every single moment. My heart was full. I felt alive. My mind absorbed in the task. This is what I live for. Moments like this. Fall and I’m gone. I was totally immersed in feeling every millimetre of movement through my crampons and ice axes. I was engrossed, engaged and yet fully present. I could not have given anymore.
At times Pobeda really pushed us with the weather and snow conditions. Other times, it would flicker with glimpses of utter perfection, letting us know it was always watching but not pushing us too far. A seeming helping hand. I will be eternally grateful for these past eight days that I’ve spent on this magnificent, omnipresent mountain.
Mountains are very special places to me. They have become my entire life both personally and professionally. I wasn’t sure after my first visit in 2014, if I would ever return. However, after this expedition and the time I have just spent climbing on Pobeda, I can say with certainty that I will return to close this chapter as soon as I possibly can. Quite simply, Pobeda and I have too much history and I am a little enamoured by her. I actually cannot wait to return.
‘Mountains are not stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion’ Anatoli Boukreev
Photo: Rob descending from ~7200m on our summit push.