Monday, August 19, 2013

Acclimatization on Karl Marx Peak

Over the many years that people have been venturing into the high mountains, doctors and scientists have learned that to do this safely, the human body needs to have a period of acclimatization.  During acclimatization the human body undergoes physical changes in response to living at an altitude where there is a lot less oxygen.  These changes include increases in the percentage of red blood cells in your blood (red blood cells deliver oxygen throughout your body).  By moving to higher altitudes incrementally and taking the time needed for these changes to occur enables climbers to live and work at high altitude with a much lower risk of getting sick from it.  The higher a climber plans to go, the more time it takes acclimatize.  In my experience, it takes about three weeks to acclimatize to elevations over 26,000 feet; for a 20,000 foot peak it takes about 7-10 days; and for a 14,000 foot peak like Mt Rainier a fit climber can do that without any acclimatization.

Karl Marx Peak is about 22,000 feet - high enough that we needed to spend some time acclimatizing.  Our plan was to try and climb the steep 6000 foot high north face.  But before venturing onto such a difficult route, we decided to acclimatize by climbing the easier Southwest Rib.  Besides acclimatizing, the Southwest Rib would also give us the opportunity to get familiar with what would be our descent route if we made it to the top of the North Face.

On July 21st at around 7AM we left base camp at 13,000 feet and walked up the rubble on the left side of the glacier below Karl Marx Peak.  After awhile we crossed onto the middle of the glacier where it was easy to walk on the bare ice.  

Approaching Karl Marx Peak.  The north face is visible behind us

To get to the Southwest Rib, we needed to climb up to a pass to the right of a glacier tongue around the right side of the peak.  By noon we reached the base of  a loose rocky scree slope below the pass.  The climb up this slope was reminiscent of some of the worst scree slopes I've climbed in the Canadian Rockies.  

To reach the SW Rib we had to climb to a pass to the right of the glacier tongue to the right of the climber
We found an old rock platform at the pass where we pitched our tent at 16,000 feet in the early afternoon.  We passed the rest of the day reading.  We were moving up pretty quickly for not being acclimatized yet, so we had mild headaches and didn't sleep well.

Camp at 16,000 feet at the pass

The next morning on July 22 we climbed up a steep narrow glacier west of the summit.

We climbed the narrow glacier in the center of the photo
At the top of the steep narrow glacier was a glacial platform that we crossed to access the Southwest Rib.

Looking down from the top of the narrow glacier
Once we got onto the Rib and off the glacier, we didn't have to be concerned with falling into hidden crevasses so we took the rope off.  We climbed up the rib to nearly 20,000 feet where we dug a nice platform out of the snow next to a short rock wall.  We had taken only two days to climb from base camp at 13,000 feet to 20,000 feet and we were all feeling pretty poorly with the altitude.  We knew that we were going up too fast, but given that the climbing was pretty easy we were having a hard time holding ourselves back.  Before we went to sleep we talked about spending an extra day at 20,000 feet to acclimatize and then go to the top the following day.

Camp at 20,000 feet on the SW Rib.  Views of the Hindu Kush in Pakistan in the background
On July 23 we had another sleepless night and when we woke up early, we decided at first to spend a rest day here.  But around 10AM we got impatient and decided to go for the summit.  I wasn't sure sure this was such a good idea since that would mean going up from 13,000 feet at base camp to 22,000 feet in only three days, and this was after having come up to BC in one day and spending only a couple of nights there.  We left around 11AM and the climbing was technically easy, but we suffered from ascending so quickly without being acclimatized.  Doug went first as he seemed stronger than Rusty and me.  Fortunately the snow conditions were good and it was nice cramponing and only a little step kicking up to the ankle.

Climbing on the SW Rib

I was pretty out of breath with such a rapid ascent without acclimatization.  But my training before the trip paid off, and in spite of that discomfort I felt pretty good as we approached the summit rocks.  On the final 100 meters I felt some congestion in my chest but I was able to cough it up.  With some deep breathing to stay well oxygenated I was able to make it to the top OK, but on the last bit I moved slowly behind the others.  

The final summit rocks 
We reached the summit around 3PM and found a old plaque with a bust of Karl Marx from the Soviet days.  There was a great panorama from the summit of the Pamirs to the north and the Hindu Kush in Pakistan to the south.  Separating us from Pakistan was the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan below us to the south.  A crisp cold wind was blowing from the south and I was getting cold because I didn't have a lot of clothing so I soon headed down.  We were all suffering from the altitude and Rusty vomited on the way down.  It only took a couple of hours to reach our camp and we spent a second night there with little sleep again.

On the Summit of Karl Marx Peak (22,000 ft) with the plaque of the peak's namesake next to Doug
Doug got us up and going around 7AM and cooked for us.  This  wasn't easy because with our gasoline stove we had to cook outside the tent in the cold.  It was a good idea to get going as early as possible to avoid arriving at some of the snow slopes below that would get soft in the afternoon heat causing the snow to stick to our crampons.  The descent was uneventful cramponing down slopes that were barely low angle enough for me to face out.  It was nice to have new sharp crampons that bit hard into the icy slopes.  We got through the two steep sections of down climbing through the crappy rock below the pass where we camped the first night, and made our way onto the bare ice of the glacier in the valley.  We arrived at BC around 2 PM quite tired.   Bakhtiyore and Zadifa were there when we arrived and made us some good soup and a tomato and onion salad.  For dinner we had french fries and a fried cabbage and onion dish.  Now that we were back at 13,000 feet we slept well.


  1. Great blog and some amazing photos, thank you for sharing! My partner and I are considering a trip to Karl Marx peak this September which is how I came across you! I'm gathering that you sorted out all the logistics yourselves? It seems incredibly expensive to go through a company in tajikistan, we have been quoted €3700. How difficult and expensive did you find the whole trip? Any advice would be very gratefully received. Once again than you for sharing. Esme

  2. Hello dear friend to climb this peak is the information we need your e-mail can i get my email is listed below

  3. Please guide to climb this peak in details. My email id-
    I am eagerly waiting.

  4. Please guide to climb this peak in details. My email id-
    I am eagerly waiting.

  5. Hello dear climber. Thank your so much for sharing such a great adventure in Carl marks mountain. I have a hiking and mountain climbing group that is known as kanoonkooh . We want to have this great adventure ,too but we need some more information about the best oof the year for approaching the carl marks peak, the route map of the pass and the GPS file of the location. Please contact us with to help us