Marxism in the Mountains: Kyrgyzstan's Tulpar Kol and Lenin Peak
Updated: Apr 25, 2020
"The summit was almost continuously obstructed by clouds, and one had to gaze at it for quite long before coming to the idea of the shape of the mountain....No single speck of black we saw, the entire mountain was covered in snow…” -Russian explorer Aleksey P. Fedchenko, the first person to "discover" Lenin Peak
This is Lenin Peak. One of the tallest mountains in the former Soviet Union, Lenin Peak rises up 7,134 meters; for reference, the “death zone” on Everest, where human beings lose consciousness after a few minutes due to lack of oxygen, starts at around 8,000 meters elevation. Lenin Peak sits astride the border between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan in the Pamir mountain range, a chain of remote mountains known as the “Roof of the World”. Eternally blanketed in deep snow and shielded by glaciers, the peak is one of the five mountains in the USSR that Soviet mountaineers had to summit to receive the prestigious Snow Leopard Award (named after the elusive white leopards that hide out in the Pamir mountains).
This is a deadly mountain, which has extracted a steep toll in human life in the last century. The weather on Lenin Peak is unpredictable, to put it mildly, and punishing storm clouds frequently swirl and curl around its summit. A groundbreaking all-women Russian team in the 1970s succumbed, one by one, to freezing cold and exhaustion as they refused to leave their sick companion behind; there were no survivors.
At basically the same time, five Estonian climbers were wiped out in an avalanche and yet another avalanche killed members of an American climbing team who had received a special invitation from the Soviet government to climb. Two decades later, in the bloodiest accident in mountaineering history, 43 climbers died in an avalanche that crushed their base camp; even now, only a single body has even been recovered. Memorials to other climbers who perished in their attempts on the peak dot the trail even at the foothill of the peak.
Despite this ominous history, Peak Lenin isn’t really a challenging climb, as far as mountains over 7,000 meters go. Its squat, pyramidal shape means that there isn’t much technical climbing involved and most climbers take two or three weeks to get to the top. As a result, after strict Soviet control crumbled, climbers from around the world flocked to this little corner of Kyrgyzstan. Many mountains in the Pamirs were given communist-themed names by the authorities (ie. Communism Peak, Engels Peak, etc.) and then in turn renamed after independence.
Lenin Peak is no exception but nobody, even the locals, seem to use the new names so I won’t even bother mentioning them. There used to be a large metal Lenin head at the top of the summit but it’s been stolen since the Cold War ended, which is a shame that is somewhat lessened by how enjoyable it is to imagine someone dragging a giant Bolshevik head through blizzards, over glacial crevasses and down a mountain for two weeks.
Part of what makes Lenin Peak so special is the staggeringly beautiful hills, lakes and meadows that fan out from the base of this behemoth. The colours of this area are unreal. Rich veins of burgundy streak through the mountainsides, meadows carpet the sloping hills with deep green, and shallow ponds shimmer blue and turquoise. Each little lake is its own micro-world and the angles and views of the mountains and glaciers change each time you bound up and down a hill. “Kol” is Kyrygz for “lake” and “Tulpar” is the name of a winged horse (similar to the Greek Pegasus) that is a traditional character in the mythology of the nomads who roamed the grassland steppe.
A few yurt encampments congregate at Tulpar Kol, the largest lake on the path to Lenin Peak. Kyrgyz people are nomadic by tradition and the lush grasslands that huddle beneath Lenin Peak attract herders. Families herd yaks and cattle and their white yurts appear in clusters like giant mushrooms sprouting out of the grass.
In a few spots, it’s possible to pay around $20 per day to sleep in a yurt and be fed bread, jam, hot tea and suspicious meat soup or rice by the matron of the family. The yurt camps are located at about 3,500 meters elevation and altitude sickness starts to kick in at 2,500 meters, which means it is a good idea to acclimatize to Kyrgyzstan’s thin air before rambling around the foothills of Lenin Peak. Cold air sweeps down the mountain the moment the sun disappears but the felt yurts seal in heat from the stoves and it’s easy to cocoon yourself in heavy blankets.