ISM Virgin Peaks Expedition 2019 – The Pamir Mountains
ISM Trip Report of our trip into the Western Zaalaisky in the Pamir Mountains, Kyrgyzstan
Il Capo Spedizione - Adrian Nelhams (AN)
Guides – Tommaso Dusi (TD), Max Cole (MC), Alexey Potockiy (AP)
Climbers – Stephen Taylor (ST), Jason Sheldrake (JS), Paul Casey (PC), Martin Brindley (MB), James McMeekin (JM), Mark Gardner (MG), Stuart Bridger (SB), David Woods (DW), Harry Wilson (HW), Mark Aitken (MA)
Rivers of Gold
Threading its way from the Altyn Mazar Pass at 3598m, the Altyn Dara River glistens and swells in the heat of the afternoon sun. Is it the shimmering gold colour or perhaps the traces of this rare and precious metal found long ago in these high valleys that gave this river its name (Altyn meaning gold)? It flows down, fed from the huge snowy watersheds of the surrounding 5000m peaks in the Trans-Alay Range. The river acts both as a scenic backdrop when exploring the surrounding valleys, but also as a barrage of raging torrent, halting any thought of passing, as the day heats up.
To the North you can see the huge flat Alay Valley running east-west which cuts through most of the southern Osh Province in Kyrgyzstan. Further north the slightly lower and drier rocky summits of the Alay Mountains in the Turkistan Range fall away towards the Ferghana Valley. It’s a complex area of high glaciated summits, valleys, rivers and border crossings into Tajikistan.
Back in Soviet times this area, as was most of what is now known as Kyrgyzstan, was focused on producing meat. Old roads contouring huge valley systems and metal carriages, now used as homes, which were once mobile shepherd huts are reminders of such days.
But, with the rich alluvial soils here, the heritage and remoteness entrenches the traditional Kyrgyz way of life that is still very present. Yurts are common on the higher mountain pastures. Lower down the old metal carriages have been adopted by locals as they revert back to a time they once knew.
Lower down we pass families working in their fields and cutting grass. High in the mountains we enjoy seeing great herds of yaks, sheep and horses passing through.
Norpidin comes down to greet us in BC in the Kook Kiik valley. He’s a local Kyrgyz shepherd living higher up the valley that we’re exploring. We accept his invitation and head up later that week to say hello. Norpidin and his family are the fourth generation to tend this part of the valley.
Their idyllic traditional felt yurt has been constructed next to a crystal clear mountain lake and running stream and it’s been on this plot of land for over four generations. The backdrop to their home is the best anywhere…5000m glaciated summits to the south and wide open valleys to the north.
Norpidin greets us on his horse with his two sons, aged 14 and 15, following behind racing their donkeys. Norpidin’s wife Aichuruk works hard in the background. I look across the valley and a huge herd of yak is grazing. I kick off my shoes and head inside the yurt. Tea is made and we sit down to drink..
I reflect on these expeditions, the adventure, the cultural aspect of what I’m experiencing, the people, relationships made and the adventurous climbing enjoyed. It’s such a unique experience and sitting here now, unorganised, unplanned and totally authentic. We drink tea, Aichuruk kneads dough and then bakes bread on the open fire outside and we sit in the midday sun dipping the hot fresh bread into fresh cream. I look around at the mountains that have brought us here and the people that have joined us on that journey.
The success of these expeditions is always the people, interwoven with the cultural aspect of exploring Kyrgyzstan and understanding the Kyrgyz way of life, the adventure and exploration of climbing virgin summits.
In many ways, this expedition was harder than previous ones to deliver. We were stopped by the Kyrgyz military from being allowed to access the area in which we wanted to climb and had reccied last year. The military were managing very recent political tensions with their neighbours Tajikistan. So, instead, we explored a huge side valley close by, but the main river was too wide and fast flowing this late in the season and, with too many other influences to also negotiate further up the valley, we felt that it was too dangerous to continue.
But, in some ways it was easier than other expeditions, as it forced us to explore the Kook Kiik Valley further east which gave us an even greater sense of exploration, only viewing the area from the old Russian military maps we had.
More off-road driving, more adventure and a much quieter and more remote valley system. Another BC and another recci…it feels real as we explore the unknown, surrounded by steep 5000m summits with glaciated faces, seracs and rock walls.
Time passes and more herds of yaks pass through camp and our ABC is established. Our first high summit with stunning views both north and south. Another day of climbing and we decide again to explore another valley which we hope would give us a few more options for the group as a whole. This time we head north across to the Turkistan range and the Alay Mountains.
I could see these mountains from our last summit, a little lower and less glaciated, but unexplored? Unclimbed? We went with exploration in mind and the adventurous prospect of finding some fun climbing.
We finished the trip in an area we nicknamed the ‘Bull Ring’. Beautiful pastures of grazing sheep and goats, horses wandering freely and the odd bull fighting his counterpart male yak as they tussle for space in this narrow valley.
For all our hard work we were welcomed by craggy limestone summits and rocky spines where we enjoyed some great rock climbing in the final days.
It’s incredible how much planning goes into these trips, but in reality it’s just a starting point and you just need to go with the flow of how things play out. That’s how a great idea forms into another fantastic trip.
We struck gold in the Pamirs. Many thanks everyone!
Kook Kiik Valley, Western Zaalay, Pamir Mountains
26 August 2019
Pk 4655m (39°23.872N, 72°23.031E, August 26). We ascended easily up its eastern flank from our ABC, across scree, rock and snowfields. Several metres of climbing (5.4) was required to ascend the rock gendarme which formed the distinctive summit (PD). Team - AN, MC, TD, AP, JS, ST, PC, MB, MA, JM, MG, SB, DW, HW.
Pk 4250m (39.406, 72.395, August 26). Approached by scrambling down the initially north and then east ridge of Pik 4655m. Mainly easy rocky scrambling on a broad ridge with several sections of scree (PD).Team - AN, JS, ST
28 August 2019
Pk 3884m (39°40.082N, 72°14.405E, August 28). From BC1 we went up the main valley for 3 km then went west to ascend a minor subsidiary valley. This reached a pass from which the north ridge was climbed (5.4) to reach the main summit. Other easier variations were also taken largely avoiding the rocks. Team - AN, MC, TD, AP, JS, ST, PC, MB, MA, JM, MG, SB, DW, HW.
Pk 3993m (39°23.958N, 72°27.506E, August 28). This was approached from Pik 3884m by descending to the glacier and taking a circular route to avoid crevasses and moulin holes. We visited a beautiful ice grotto seen at 39°23.656N, 72°27.504E. After crossing the glacier it was an easy walk up vegetated slopes to the summit (F).Team - MC, MA, ST, JS
Alay Mountains, Turkistan Range
31 August 2019
Pk 4205m (39.6332N, 72.2641E, August 31). The broad north ridge of Pik 4240m West was followed which gradually descended until a short easy scramble was required to ascend the summit (F). Team - TD, MC, PC, MB, HW, DW.
Pk 4240m East. (39°39.28.89N, 72°16.4.05E, August 31). This was easily reached by walking east along the broad scree ridge of Pik 4240m West (F). Team - TD, MB, PC.
Pk 4240m West. (39°39.26.48N, 72°15.43.29E, August 31). Same initial approach as Pik 4485m to the pass. The route then went east from there following mainly scree on the easy and gradual broad west ridge to the summit (F). Team - TD, MB, PC, MC, DW, HW
Pk 4491m, Surveyor’s Peak. (39°39.5642N, 72°14.1294E, August 31). Pik 4485m was descended by the rocky east.ridge for about 300m until it was possible to get onto the steep scree slopes. These were descended until a basin between both peaks was reached. The steep northerly slopes were then ascended to the summit (F). The peak was also ascended from its southwest flank (AD). This route required much more scrambling and rock climbing including nine pitches at 5.5. Team - AN, JS, ST, MA, AP, JM, SB, MG
Pik 4502m, Panorama Big Peak. (39°39.6269N, 72°13.9892E, August 31). The north east ridge was followed from Pik 4491m. This ridge was steep and exposed but only moderate scrambling was required (PD). Team - AN, JS, ST, MA
Pik 4485m, Hidden Big Peak. (39°40.90839N, 72°14.04073E, August 31). From BC2 we ascended north on a recently bulldozed road to reach a high level pass at 4000m, approximately between Pk 4491m and Pik 4240m West. From there we continued north to reach the start of the long and rocky east ridge. This provided entertaining scrambling and climbing (5.4) with many towers and pinnacles all the way to the summit (PD+).
Team - AN, JS, ST, MA – Hidden Big Peak
1 September 2019
Pk 4141m, Rocky Spine Peak (39°36.9688N, 72°13.2215E, September 1). This summit is at the western end of a 5km immensely rocky, steep and serrated ridge. This is the highest summit on the entire ridge. From BC2 we walked 3km west and gradually ascended easy grass slopes. We reached the start of a distinctive rock ridge at the western end and climbed up this (5.4). There was several pinnacles and towers, some of which we by-passed. After reaching the main summit ridge we continued in a western direction, scrambling over several false summits until reaching the highest point (PD). On the return we followed the main ridge for about 3 km and completed several enjoyable rock climbs (5.4) to summit minor tops. Team - AN, JS, ST, MA
Pk 3999m, (39.6137N, 72.2498E, September 1). This summit is at the eastern end of the 5km long ridge. It is the second highest summit on the 5 km ridge and 3 km east of the highest point (Pik 4141m) with many subsidiary tops, towers, pinnacles and drops between both summits. From BC2 the summit was approached from the south and a route was established through a considerable amount of steep rocky terrain. Four pitches of rock climbing (5.9) were required. Two of these pitches were on very good rock, although the quality of the rock was less attractive on the other two pitches. Several false summits were climbed before the highest summit was reached and confirmed (AD+). Another party attempted the east ridge of this peak which gave 9 pitches of mainly slab climbing (5.8). The party reached 3880m. This mountain has considerable rock climbing potential on solid rock at 5.8 or higher. Team - TD, MB
Basecamp in the Altyn Dara valley on way to Ters Agar Pass, nearest village was Darot Korgon, Trans-Alay Range, Pamirs – 3177m
Basecamp 1, (3178m) at 39°24.978N, 72°26.152E in the Kook Kiik Valley, nearest village was Achik Suu, Trans-Alay Range, Pamirs – 3175m
Advanced BC (4,056m) at 39°24.204N, 72°23.958Ehigh up the Kook Kiik Valley, Trans-Alay Range, Pamirs
Basecamp 2, at (3,143m) at 39°37.755N, 72°15.628E. in Turkistan Range in Alay Range, nearest village was Kyzyl Eshme, Pamirs
BC in the Altyn Dara valley on way to Ters Agar Pass, nearest village was Darot Korgon, Trans-Alay Range, Pamirs – 3177m
BC in Kook Kiik Valley, nearest village was Achik Suu, Trans-Alay Range, Pamirs – 3175m
ABC high up the Kook Kiik Valley, Trans-Alay Range, Pamirs – 4080m
BC in Turkistan Range in Alay Range, nearest village was Kyzyl Eshme, Pamirs – 3169m
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