Back in the USSR – Part 1 – Pik Lenin in the Pamir

In the late 70s – 80s there exchanges of climbers with the USSR. A group of US climbers went to the Pamir and a Soviet group visited the North Cascade in Washington.  In 1984 I was chair of the Nordic Ski Committee of The Mountaineers climbing club based in Seattle. At a meeting of all chairs, we received an invitation from the Soviet Sports Committee to send a member on a 3 week tour of the Pamir, Central Asia & the Caucasus.  I thought I would have to compete with others, but turned I was the only one who was interested. Total cost was $500 as most of the expenses were covered by the Soviets.

Read about our recent trip to Central Asia with more image galleries

This is the first of four blog posts on that trip:
Central Asia
Moscow – Leningrad

We had Sverta as our host escort through t the trip with local guides at each destination.  She was an English literature professor at a Moscow university.  Most of the areas we visited are now independent countries, but at the time they were Soviet republics. I used the contemporary names (eg Leningrad for St. Petersburg) to avoid anachronisms.

From my journal

Saturday, 21 Jul 1984, 7 pm

Left Seattle. Thunderstorm over Chicago, so landed in Milwaukee and transferred to Chicago where we overnighted, having missed connection by 20 minutes (after several hours delay). My connecting flight from Chicago delayed til 6:45 so missed Air France from JFK leaving at 7. When I eventually arrived at JFK my luggage didn’t. Figured it would never catch-up with us by itself. It arrived at JFK on the next flight, but by the time I recovered it, I’d had missed another Air France flight.

I managed to hear of a Finnair flight at 9:30. I was placed on stand-by for the connecting Helsinki – Moscow connection. I’d only find out once I was in Helsinki. Decided with the need for visa in advance to travel to Moscow would be few last minute bookings. It worked.

I’d sent 2 telexes (how quaint!) so far to trip leader, Peter. I’d need to make it to Moscow before the group leaves for the Pamirs. Otherwise, it’d be very difficult to catch up.

22 Jul 3 PM  On Aeroflot having made it on the Helsinki –  Moscow flight. 

Food very good — snack of ham, salami, smoked salmon.  Extremely hot mustard & great beer.  Get to Moscow about 4:30 pm.  At customs, it was slightly intimidating waiting for soldier to check passport picture.  Baggage check easier, though unusual:

      “Any books? ”   Yes, history
      “What kind of history?”  Italian
      “Italian History?”

Incredulous anyone would read such a book! But she never checked closer. Changing money at same time, gave her 5 new 20’s.  Checked, rechecked, went off to get 2nd opinion. Eventually handed me 8 new 10-ruble notes.  (Suppressed urge to examine in detail)

Information desk finally made contact with Hotel Sport – Talia from InTourist  showed up an hour later and we took a taxi to Hotel Sport.  Turns out rest of group is there, and the plane doesn’t leave til 1 a.m. though it meant a drive to another outlying domestic airport. At Talia’s insistence, I had time (barely) to grab some supper. (There would be a continuing emphasis on keeping us well-fed.) At the airport, I could barely keep awake, but luckily had a group to look after me.

Eventually we board an Aeroflot 747 (built by Boeing). We carry our luggage and enter thru the cargo area to drop off our bags. Then up stairs to cabin. Seats are barely more than padded folding chairs with prominent bolts attaching them to the deck .

MO 23 Jul 7:30 am 5 hr flight,

breakfast on plane about 3 am (sardine & turkey).  Arrive Osh in time for breakfast.  We enjoyed the melon, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers & round, fresh baked loaves. But then came soup, homemade noodles, garlic & dill.  Finally plate of French fries and strips of beef! Suitably stuffed, got on the bus & started for Pamirs.  Beautiful but long (10hr) ride.  Soviet Sports Committee has been incredible.  Today had police escort the whole way — forcing other cars off, running red lights, even passing an army convoy of red bereted infantry on their way to Afghanistan. 

Click on last icon on map to view

Passed out of lowlands to arid country, then Kirghiz yurts and herds.  Lovely hills of green.  Over 4200m pass, then down again.  At head of next pass, the enormous Pamir range reveals itself.  What really sets it apart is the flat table of green with mountains rising abruptly to 7000m.

Achiktash Camp, on the border of what is now Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, is larger than expected — roomy tents in rows & several communal buildings. Also a happy-hour yurt for pre/post dinner tea/beer. Peak Lenin (now Ibn Sina [Avicenna]Peak,)  7134m (23,406’) dominates skyline. The camp is 4000m – about the same height as summit of Mt. Rainier

Row of tents & flags, Pik Lenin in background, International Mountaineering Camp, Achik Tash , Pamir mountain range, Himalayas, Central Asia, former USSR, now border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, near Afghanistan

Great supper — dumpling soup, juicy hamburger, new potatoes, salad, tomatoes, cucumbers, sprigs of basil.  Had many more fresh veggies than expected.  People everywhere have been friendly — lots of waves & smiles, even from soldiers.  Had meeting with camp director and staff — again, very positive, outgoing.  We all received pins which are a tradition in Europe among climbing clubs They’re going to try to fly us to the Pik Communizm base camp the day after tomorrow. 

TU 24 JUL 7:30 am Very cold last night but slept well. 

Nice colors on Lenin &  ‘Pik 19th Party Conference’ right now with wisps of cirrus as a backdrop.  Hope the weather holds long enough to take the helicopter.  

Our party is congenial & accommodating — 5 travel agents, another mountaineering club officer & a freelance travel writer. Well-traveled group, but less experienced as adventure travelers. Although most seem to have been to Nepal, none had trekked & most had never slept above 10,000′ before!

Breakfast today of macaroni w/ egg & cheese, side of kielbasa & fresh tomatoes.  Beef cutlet & mashed potatoes & meatball soup for lunch , again with tomatoes & fresh basil sprigs.

We eat in the large dining hall. There are maybe 30-40 other people here. Most nationalities clump together.  There are 2 other American groups here. They haven’t had quite the red carpet the Sports Committee unrolls for us.  Also, not as accepting about the food — thought dinner was merely ok. But then, they’re goals are different from ours.

Took walk towards Camp I on Pik Lenin, about 5-8 km (2 hr).  Good views across to the Peak of the 19th Party Conference 19,299’ (5800m).

On way back we split — Peter, Roland & I relaxed & sat awhile, then came upon a  goat herds.  Met a Tirghiz (?) from Osh, visiting friends. here. Talked for a bit, then he followed us, asking more questions.  He gave us a ride across the morainal stream on his horse and followed us into camp.

Marco Polo sheep grazing on flat steppes. Owned by nomads, descentdants of the Mongols of Genghis Khan. Pamir mountain range, Himalayas, Central Asia, former USSR, now border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, near Afghanistan

Peter translated for us challenges by the camp director “where was his herd?”, “why was he here?”, etc.  bit of a bad scene. Again, the hospitality we’ve been shown isn’t applied to the locals

Last night had a special showing of Solaris.  Our 2 interpreters did an incredible job of simultaneous translation.  The movie was strange enough, and the soundtrack plus interpretations made it odder.  .   

Chatted awhile with 2 Americans going up Pik Lenin. Planning 7 days, alpine . ( that is, no yoyoing, no relaying of loads, no establishing of camps higher and higher on the mountain. ).  Soviets provide food for those who want it — choose from “salmon, salmon with tomato, ‘fish’, ‘some kinda fish’, caviar” etc.   Sat with some Luxembourgers.  After talking about climbers, one of the guys started on politics — basically saying that US & USSR could change leaders with no difference with Americans oblivious to leader’s d faults.  Peter & I objected that Americans often disapproved of leaders. The guy laughed immediately “Oh no, I was talking in general, not the specific ones we’re stuck with”. 

  4pm: getting cloudy — started as high cirrus this a.m. Much colder — was about 60-70, now probably in 40-50’s.  Forecast is good weather for a week.  We’ll see.

25 Jul WED Took helicopter right after bkfst (9 am)

for Fortambek, base camp for Pik Communizm [now Ismoil Somoni Peak ] 24,590’(7400m). The Mil Mi-8T (?) helicopter was similar to the US Bell UH -1 (Huey). Later models were being used in the Afghanistan campaign and were able to perform at high altitude and dusty conditions. 

Climbers and Soviet helicopter at Pik Communism base camp former USSR, now border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, near Afghanistan

We didn’t know these details at the time. Entered thru a side hatch. Airborne, we gulped as we scraped over  12,000+ ft pass by several hundred feet. Spectacular. Splendid views of the Pamirs – esp’ly Pik Lenin & Pik Communizm.

Soviet helicopter ferrying climbers in the himalaya Pamir mountains, created by AI

High mountains of the Russian Pamir in 1984 from a helicopter near Pik Communism base camp former USSR, now border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, near Afghanistan

On flight saw many yurts & herds — incredibly isolated, dry valleys.Fortambek base camp at 4200m can host about 80 in a huge cirque. Piks Communizm & Moskva, 9583ft  (2 921m) complete domination of the 3 sides of the huge cirque.

For the climb, fixed ropes lead to Camp 1 (5000m) and 2 (5500m).Then plateau to camp 3 where helicopters drop caches.  Then 2 more camps alpine style to summit.

PIK COMMUNIZM, TAJIKSTAN – AUG 15, 1984 – Climbers and Soviet helicopter at Pik Communism base camp former USSR, now border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, near Afghanistan

Some comments from Americans in camp: Expeditions here are closely watched.  Safety and acclimatization are constantly stressed – “They won’t let us walk around in evenings without parkas.”  Every climbing group must do some acclimatization climbs and have physical exams by camp doctors.  Elaborate instructions are given for conduct of climbs — which camp to be in, how high to go.  Plus radios are carried & 3 checks a day are expected. Not a place for independent climbers.  ($1200 /30 days)  . 

Back aboard the helicopter, we drop down to about 3000 m, skimming along the glacier below, building lift, to enable to us claw back over the 12,000′ pass to return to Achiktash

Soviet helicopter (obvously not ours!) taking off from Pik Communism base camp
Soviet helicopter taking off from Pik Communism base camp former USSR

Of course! The camp held lunch for us – delicious stuffed peppers   and a coriander-dill fish soup.

26 JUL TH 9:30am Rained a bit last night.

Talked to some other climbers — to get away from the set rules they must argue.  If they persist, then they can file their own plan.  The point most Americans dislike is the Soviet idea of climb high, sleep high, after a few days drop down multiple camps to rest. The European/American style is to carry to next camp then drop down to previous camp.

Marco Polo sheep grazing on flat steppes. Owned by nomads, descendants of the Mongols of Genghis Khan. Pamir mountain range, Himalayas, Central Asia, former USSR, now border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, near Afghanistan

Afternoon, sitting on a hillock staring for miles in all directions.  Running north to south the valley is a series of small hills with herds of grazing cattle & sheep.  Kirghiz kids come running from the yurts.  Chattering to each other, then one asks me something, but can’t speak each other’s language.

Back in camp, another fine lunch — potatoes & ground beef casserole, yellow lentil soup with coriander, fresh local rounds of bread, tomatoes with fresh basil & watermelon, cherry compote.

11pm: got our passports back.  I can now go to Samarkand even though it wasn’t on my visa earlier — they just typed it in.

We had a going away party tonight — about a dozen Russians & the other Americans.  Champagne, wine & mounds of fruit, including that delicious cassava-like melon.  Soviet hospitality that stands out is a constant desire to feed guests (or at least some guests).  We’ve been fêted everywhere.  After the speeches and toasts we broke into little groups.  Galina & one of the trainers came over.  They were interested in Sequoias and what states we came from.  Also, whether we had sheriffs(?).  Eventually moved to films.  Tootsie is a current favorite. Embarrassing how much they know of American culture, how little we know of theirs.

27 JUL Fri Border check,

about 20 km from China (on way back to airport).  Checkpoint is in the middle of nowhere.  Left camp in the dark at 5:30. Bumpy ride across predawn hills & washes.  Beautiful sunrise over Altai & Pamir plateau.  Then golden touches to Lenin & other peaks of the Trans Altai. — sitting outside Osh airport.  Had another great picnic — kielbasi, cheese, breads, juice & chocolate.  Sat by stream watching tankers & other trucks go by — no mufflers & trailing clouds of black diesel smoke. 

Fly to Tashkent — lunch (the airport meal was just to tide us over!), fruit, meat-dumpling soup, giant meatballs, THEN excellent shashlik.

7:30 Hotel Tashkent — once more we’re whisked thru airport — no waiting rooms, no baggage claim or boarding passes! But terribly hot. These hotels recall European hotels of the 30-40s we’ve seen in movies. High ceilinged lobbies, with uncertain elevators. Broad halls on each floor with a concierge/watcher.  Inside the spacious rooms, the electric services & plumbing are clumsy – exposed wires, unpatched holes to run wires or pipes, shaky fixtures.

Back in 2023 – a grander hotel is a focus of “A Gentleman from Moscow” highly recommended and a great book club choice

11:30 pm  Not just heat now. The whole city seems to turn on sprinklers, so now it’s also humid!  Nondescript supper in hotel restaurant — good but not up to what we’ve enjoyed. : smoked fish, beef cutlet, spicy cabbage. We’re at the mercy of hotels now.

Went for walk afterwards, trying to find a bar that actually had drinks for sale no luck, but ended at the Hotel Uzbekistan (foreign currency only). (We came to refer them as Nyet Bars, as they rarely had anything other than warm Pepsi, and sometimes not even that).  Peter struck up conversation with 2 guys who turned out to be party/Komsomol members.  Then another guy came over & wanted to exchange money.  (While one member had brought & sold blue jeans for a significant profit, most of us were paranoid about making any black-market deals.  I’d made black market money deals in India & Southeast Asia, but it just seemed too risky here, where our dollars had been carefully noted on entry and would be checked again when we left (see part 4 [coming real soon now])


Part 2 continues with our explorations in the Silk Road oases….

By Cascoly

I've been exploring and leading trips for over 40 years. climbing & trekkng in the Alps, Andes, North American mountain ranges and the Himalaya. I'm retired from mountaineering now but world travels in Europe, Africa & Asia continue to expand my portfolio. Besides private travel, I now focus on escorting trips to India & Turkey. Other interests include wide reading in history and vegetable gardening / cooking. You can download digital images here, or find images at We have many thousands of images we haven't displayed yet; so, if you have a special need or request please contact us