‘Welcome back to Kyrgyzstan mad dog, where’s Old Buffalo?’ Pat comes through the door behind me and gets ushered through into Vladimir’s office and I hear the chink of small shot glasses being taken out of the cupboard and laid out on the table. The Vodka’s opened and Vladimir toasts the trip, ‘not for drinking, just for health!’ and we knock it back. Not the usual start to the day, as it’s still only 9am, but this is Kyrgyzstan and ‘no’ is not a word used very often.
ISM has been travelling to Kyrgyzstan and climbing in the Tien Shan Mountains for over 15yrs. Pat first travelled out on a tourism initiative after the collapse of the Soviet Union to view the tourism potential Kyrgyzstan had to offer. What Pat saw was the amazing potential for climbing & mountaineering throughout the area and huge number of unclimbed virgin peaks. From then on, ISM has been running trips to different regions throughout the country successfully climbing a multitude of virgin summits, exploring remote valleys and climbing new rock routes.
After the fall of the Soviet Union it gave opportunities to entrepreneurs such as Vladimir to build and invest in companies such as ITMC. ITMC grew out of Vladimir’s love for the mountains and is now the foremost company in the region offering support to climbing teams.
We flew to Kazakhstan and landed in Almaty, an oil rich neighbour of the far poorer Kyrgyzstan. We then travelled by bus across the border and onto Bishkek the capital of Kyrgyzstan. The only real natural recourses that Kyrgyzstan has is water which they exchange for Gas to Tajikistan, for oil to Kazakhstan and money to China. As soon as the Soviets pulled out so did a lot of the skilled labour and money, leaving unfinished projects and locals with nothing. But these people are so friendly and welcoming, they’ll always find time for youand its this simple life that’s so addictive and humbling at the same time.
Add all this to climbing virgin summits and exploring remote valley’s and you have the reasons why both Pat and I have been back there time and time again.
This year we headed to Karakol, a village at the eastern end of Lake Issyk-Kul (the biggest lake in Kyrgyzstan) and then on into the Kuilu Range. We travel in huge 6 wheel drive ex Russian army vehicles which without we’d have never of got into some of the places we’d been to over the years. We forded wide fast flowing rivers, up valleys and over boulder strewn terrain until we found a lovely flat area on the north side of the kuilu River which became BC. The scenery here is just amazing, big snowy mountains and glaciers to the north and steep limestone cliffs and peaks just across the river to the south. More snowy big peaks crowned the east at the end of the valley with big glaciers flowing down from them. There were signs of hunters and shepherds in the valley bottom which gave the place some depth and soul.
We split up into 2 groups and headed up into parallel valleys to explore the climbing possibilities and decide on a place for ABC. It was great to get out and breathe the fresh air and stretch our legs. We found a lovely spot for ABC at 4020m on a flat part of the glacier about 4 hrs from BC. This gave us some much needed acclimatisation a good distance away from BC to easily get food and gas supplies from the porters. Pat found a similar place at around 4050m in their valley, with amazing views up the flanks of a huge 5000m glaciated peak. The next day we walked in and established ABC, enough tents, all our kit and enough supplies for the next few days with the porters returning 3 days later with more food and gas. It was slow work with heavy packs as we’re still acclimatising but the following day we headed up onto the main glacier and up onto the shoulder of an unclimbed 5020m peak.
It’s all totally unknown until you get out there and it’s this real adventure and excitement that you can only get exploring new areas and climbing virgin peaks. Our high point was 4500m which was enough to help acclimatise but also show us that the way on looked achievable, we all went back down to ABC very excited. That night I heard the first snowflakes fall which continued heavily all the following day and that night we saw stars.
I looked out of my tent early the next morning and a shiver of excitement told me we needed to start melting water and brewing up. We set off up the glacier breaking trail, back up to our high point. The wind was fierce and we had some mixed climbing on the ridge with some steeper ice slopes to climb. Windslab (falling snow compacted into slab by the wind) had made the slopes treacherous and slow going until we topped out on what we called Pk Max. From this high point we continued across the glacier and then front pointed up steeper slopes to a higher point on the ridge, this lead to a knife edge snow arête led us to the summit. It was still blowing hard but the views were fantastic, 360 degrees of peaks climbed but mostly of peaks still waiting to be climbed – amazing. We called the peak Ak Sakal (white beard or Elder) – 5020m.
After a day relaxing at ABC we then headed over to the other side of the Glacier and climbed mixed ground through some steep snowy rock and up a snow gully to a steep ice step. We pulled over this and continued up the ridge to the summit at 4434m. We called the peak Bakshi (he who knows). More snow, so we packed up and headed back down to BC for a much needed wash and catch up with what everyone else had been up to.
The following day we headed up the valley to its end. We passed grazing horses and sheep until we came to a simple wooden house with smoke coming from the chimney and neatly stacked rows of dried cow dung stacked up outside (fuel). We didn’t need to knock as they’d seen us coming 2 hours ago. We sat down on ornate felt rugs around a table and the lady of the house served tea and great huge chunks of fresh bread to have with the fresh cream, iran(yogurt from cows milk), homemade jam and butter. Glorious, we couldn’t speak Kyrgyz and they couldn’t speak English but it didn’t matter, we understood each other enough to enjoy the afternoon together.
The following day we broke camp, loaded the vehicles and headed for Karakol leaving the now very snowy mountains behind us. From Karakol we headed back around the lake and onto a place Pat and I had recced a few years earlier and climbed in for the first time last year. Son-Kul Canyon is an amazing limestone canyon carved out by the river that leaves Son-Kul Lake. Huge 600m faces, long ridges and short steep walls make up the fabric of the canyon and a lifetime of lines and routes waiting to be climbed. After climbing a few routes last year we were keen to get back and develop the area further. We camped in an absolutely idyllic spot on flat grass by the side of the river at the entrance to the canyon. We first climbed the unclimbed North Ridge up to the main summit at 3450m (not sure if the summit has had an ascent) which was a great line with some steep climbing at HVS on the main steep shoulder seen from the campsite.
The following day we climbed a fantastic line up to a smaller subsidiary peak. The limestone was amazing and a good steep interesting line all the way to the top, 14 pitches with 150m of roped scrambling to the top – Manaschi Rib HVS- a classic.
The last day we found a great line topping out on a small pinnacle. A steep groove then steeper open book corner of immaculate limestone. We headed to Korchkor-Ka for lunch and a look around some locally made felt (sheep’s wool) items with people buying rugs, slippers & hats, then on to Bishkek for a farewell dinner to say our goodbyes to Vladimir & Kyrgyzstan for another year.