First off I want to thank my partner Emily (roo) Ward for all her hard work on getting this trip off the ground. I saw what it did to her during the months and weeks leading up to the trip. Now it’s over and it went (relatively) smoothly its been a great time to reflect on what could have been done differently. Bringing together 9 people, most of whom hadn’t been to mountains outside of the Alps before, is not an easy task and without Emily’s motivation and experience I doubt this trip would have taken off. So thank you!
I can’t say that Kyrgyzstan was on the top of my list of places to go climbing, but having been there now it’s definitely somewhere I want to go back to soon. I doubt there are many places where you can take a two day drive from the centre of a big city and be miles away from anyone on a high mountain plateau. The mountains are stunning and the scenery beautiful. Kyrgyzstan itself is a mad country (in a good way of course) which we realised pretty much as soon as we landed in Bishkek. After spending a few days in the bustling markets buying all the food and supplies we would need for the month we were ready to head into the mountains. The best way to describe the capital is ‘ex-soviet’. If you weren’t careful you could easily break your leg falling into a pothole or drainage ditch and it seemed that every taxi driver was trying to set a speed record. Having said this I never felt threatened whilst I was there.
(click on the photos to see them in a larger gallery format)
We all (bar Sam Simpson) headed up to the Ala-Archer gorge to stay in the well placed Ak Sai mountain hut at ~3200m to give everyone on the trip a good starting base of acclimatisation. We did some scrambling, eating and light treks to fill the day when things for me took a turn for the worse. My guts turned pretty bad and the 200m stroll to the long drop felt like an expedition in itself. It wasn’t a pleasant experience and unfortunately it started whipping through the group like wildfire (sorry guys!). Thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and broad spectrum antibiotics, one 500mg tablet of Ciprofloxacin was all that was needed to unleash all hell in your guts on the rampaging bacteria and put a fairly abrupt end to the endless toilet searching. Starting to feel better I could feel the others pain. Herein I learnt a good (double barreled) lesson of expedition climbing…. BRING PLENTY OF ANTIBIOTICS AND HAND SANITIZER!
We departed for the Tien Shan shortly after our night in Ala-Archer. We were picked up by our transport, which could well be described as a tank, from outside our hostel and began the two day bounce about to the base of the glacier. Traveling through the country we saw the population thinning and eventually turn into just a few sheep herders on the plateau. We were all mega impressed and stoked at how close our driver Sergey got us to the bottom of the glacier as it saved us many miles of predicted load carrying. After waving goodbye to him and being left there all alone, it pretty soon sunk in just how remote we were. We waited at this altitude (~4050m) for a few days to really embed the acclimatisation before we started carrying loads onto the glacier. There was an awesome collection of boulders to explore just a few hundred meters from camp which passed the time. When we headed up we found a suitable spot in the middle of the glacier at about 4300m and started building camp. We were very fortunate to have a Mountain Hardwear Stonghold tent lent to us for the trip which proved absolutely invaluable for the sanity and comfort of everyone. I had my reservations as it weighed a good 30kg and would mean more load carrying but I pretty soon ate my words once I got inside.
After getting established on the glacier we turned our sights to getting more acclimatised and picking out some objectives. We first aimed for the much frequented Obzhorny, a 5100m peak on the right bank of the glacier which would provide a good view into the Navlikin Glacier which was home to our intended final objectives. Getting up that morning I let the other lads get a head start on me and headed out across the mellow (almost dry) glacier to the base of one of the snow slopes that headed up to the ridge. About half way across the 2km trek I realised that I hadn’t packed any sunglasses which would be essential when day broke. I dumped my bag and cursed myself as I made the trip back to collect them. I arrived at the bottom of the slope with frustration boiling in me. I managed to turn it into positive energy and attacked the climb only to catch up with the other three lads on the ridge (Joel, James and Sam). We bimbled along the ridge in strong winds and made it to the final col before the last snow slope to the top. It seemed like a good time to put a rope on as some crevasses were visible and me and James took it in turns to break trail up the boot deep snow to the summit. It was pretty tough and slow going but it didn’t take too long to reach the summit. The descent was fairly straightforward down a different slope and back down to camp.
What followed was to be a blur of snowstorms, a recce up to the col at the end of the glacier and a quick scramble up a rocky peak. Time seemed to slip away with days being lost to bad weather and then the subsequent deep unstable snow. In the last week me and the three lads (Joel, Sam and James) packed up and headed up to the col to try and climb on the Navlikin glacier. We had decided that our main objective for the trip (a peak marked 5611m) wasn’t going to happen as the glacier around it looked badly crevassed and we were running low on time and supplies, namely gas. ….LESSON 2 OF THE TRIP BRING MORE GAS. Me and Sam had scoped an attractive looking mixed buttress on the ridge to the right of Pik Letivet which looked like it would provide a few hundred meters of quality climbing to a snowy ridge. When we got to the col the cold temperatures and snow were taking its toll on our feet. I had (foolishly) decided to bring my lighter summer boots instead of my double boots. I knew no one else would be bringing double boots so went with the general consensus. I wished on numerous occasions i’d listened to my gut on that one but what can you do. LESSON 3: BRING WARMER BOOTS.
After sitting out a storm for 2 nights and a day in the Rab Bivi tents we had been lent for the trip (James and Joel had headed down to base camp after the first night as they didn’t have enough food for longer) we sacked off the idea of the mixed buttress as it had snowed a fair bit and it was brutally cold in the shade. We set our sights on a ridge which led up to Pik Pyramida and set off into the unknown. It was very satisfying to be somewhere that no one had been before (this section is unclimbed as far as I can tell from research). Unfortunately Sam was feeling the strain and was struggling to breath well and was becoming delirious. We made the decision to bail after the first pinnacle. This ended our climbing for the remainder of the trip due to running out of time and psyche… we really couldn’t face the 7 hour wade back up the glacier. We had had a good few games of the trail game between us though… Not played before? It’s simple. Pick a spot 30m away and walk to it. When you reach that spot pick another one…. you lose when you collapse and then it’s your partners turn.
I enjoyed the winding down of the trip, even the monster 40kg load carry on the last day. It always feels great to be heading back to civilisation after a long time of living in a tent. Like I said I’d go back to Kyrgyzstan in a heartbeat. The mountains are big but not too big, there are some awesome big lines out there and it’s a pretty cheap place to go compared with Nepal. I have some ideas of routes to do and I now know a little bit about how it works out there which makes it easier to organise my own trip. It’s all a learning experience as they say and success or failure is only a personal feeling. Personally I feel any trip that I come back from safe and in once piece having learnt something from is a success. Routes and summits are optional/additional extras.
Time to think and plan the next trip(s)!
Thanks to Emily, Libby, James, Sam, Joel, Emma, Cora and Simon for a great trip. I look forward to seeing everyone photos and version of events soon!