This year we visited two virtually untouched areas, the Torugart-Too range, right beside the Torugart Pass into China, and the Western At Bashi, a very accessible range little more than a day's drive from Kyrgyzstan's capital city, Bishkek.
Torugart exceeded all expectations. On a map of the Tien Shan the range appears tiny, but it is nearly the size of the Swiss Valais, being 35km from end to end (and that’s just the glaciated bits not the 'foothills' either side which contain many respectable peaks). The highest mountain in the range, and the glacier beneath it, have the Kyrgyz name of 'Mustyr' which means snow pasture, a nice insight into the way local herdsmen perceive the mountains.
Access was easy compared to most previous trips. Base camp was just one hours drive from the main road and ABC 3 hrs walk above this. From here there were 3 glaciers we could reach easily, and plenty of superb objectives to keep us busy. Helen, Max and I made a first recce to Mustyr, at 5108m the highest peak in the range. We climbed a long snow/ice couloir for 400m before the altitude started to make us gasp a bit and forced a retreat. Next day was poor weather but while some of us made an exhausting exploratory trek to the glacier to the east, Vladimir and Leif explored the next glacier to the west (Teke-Lutor) and climbed a good peak - Pk Shumkar 4925m - the first success of the trip.
Spurred by Vladimir's enthusiasm for this glacier, Max, Barney and Helen and I made an early start next day to climb a neighbouring peak, but after two hours climbing to a col we looked up the ridge above and saw that we had greatly underestimated the difficulties. On the other side of the col was a rocky peak which looked hard but shorter, so we decided to attempt this instead. After 3 difficult pitches we succeeded on Pk Helen (AD+).
Next day two teams set off in different directions - Vladimir, Leif and Pete to attempt a peak at the head of Teke-Lutor and Barney and I for a more serious attempt on Mustyr (Helen and Max fancying a rest day). Unfortunately Pete, who had been feeling under the weather from the start, took a turn for the worse and retreated to Base Camp to recover from feverish symptoms. Vlad and Leif were also turned back after some exciting ice climbing, but thanks to lucky route-finding and snow conditions which were just safe enough, Barney and I emerged exhausted on the summit of Mustyr at around midday. This was a fantastic peak and among the six best I have climbed in the Tien Shan over 14 expeditions.
Next day Vlad, Leif and Helen climbed the big snow peak at the head of Teke-Lutor and were rewarded with an amazing sight - snow leopard tracks criss-crossing the col! Some of these even continued to the summit of the peak! We have seen snow leopard tracks on just one other expedition. That settled the name for the first human ascent of the peak - Pk Bars, 4800m (Kyrgyz for snow leopard).
The priority now was to get down to BC and do something with Pete, who had recovered somewhat but had now suffered a retinal haemorrhage in one eye, causing a disconcerting 'blind spot'. Despite this he had explored the glacier above BC and found a possible route up the big peak at the top of it. So in the morning Natasha, our cook, was persuaded to make a very early breakfast and by 6am Pete, Max, Barney and I were heading for Pk Kumay, 4830m. It was a great effort by Pete. The summit was covered in footprints which baffled us until we saw what had made them - a massive vulture!
There were wonderful-looking limestone crags above base camp and we debated staying to climb for a day, but the lure of the next area proved too strong and we were soon on the road again. On the way we visited the Tash Rabat Caravanserai, one of the most important historic sites in Kyrgyzstan being a fortified 'castle' high in the mountains. I was surprised to discover that it is located beside the most spectacular cliffs (up to 400m) I have yet seen at lower altitudes in Kyrgyzstan - one day this will be an important rock climbing destination.
A friend of mine, Andrew Wielochowski, had taken a novice group to climb in the Western At Bashi just before our visit, otherwise there are no records of any mountaineering there. The peaks are lower, never reaching 5000m, but the range is very extensive, being 100km from end to end. Our approach lay up a valley called Orto Kaindy, where Andrew had spotted an amazing 'Matterhorn-like' peak which was too difficult for his team to attempt. We hired horses to get our gear up to a beautiful advanced base camp on a pasture below the glacier, overlooked by the awesome bulk of Topoz (the 'Matterhorn'). A herd of semi-wild horses grazed around our camp, to complete this perfect cameo of mountaineering in Kyrgyzstan!
Our first attempt on Topoz was an exciting traverse over pinnacles on the south ridge, but we arrived at the summit dome too late in the day to attempt it. The following day a mysterious wind sprang up, building to gale force at times and threatening the tents, but all the time the sky remained clear and, after 36 hours, the wind simply died away. This meant we could make another attempt, this time via the west flank of the peak which proved faster and got us to the summit dome by 11.30am. An hour of rock climbing and we were on top, gazing out at the endless unclimbed summits receding into the distance to east and west, promising great future adventures.
On our last day at ABC Vlad and Leif climbed a nice little peak next to Topoz (Inek, 4560m) while the rest of us read books in the sun, then it was back to Naryn for sauna, feasting and folk music, followed by the run back to Bishkek and the end of another fantastic trip.