Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fulbright Spotlight

Read a summary of my year on the Fulbright website in Alumni Stories.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011


An article I published in the December issue of The Avalanche Review that presents personal stories from a winter in Central Asia and an overview of regional avalanche perceptions. Accompanying my article is a great piece written by Jaime on our all female ski mountaineering trip in the Jetim-Bel. Click here to read it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A recently published article by David Trilling of
 Kyrgyzstan: Melting Glaciers Threaten Central Asia’s Ecological and Energy Future 
....No one doubts the crisis, which will likely touch even the remote highlands, where nomads and herders have lived alongside the glaciers for generations.

 “Satellite imagery presents a unanimous view of glacial wastage across the Tien Shan” Mountains, says Ann Piersall, a research geographer who recently spent a year in Kyrgyzstan’s headwater At-Bashy Region studying the effects of glacial melt on herding and farming communities. Piersall found that “in the At-Bashy region, half of interviewed subjects had observed a visible decrease in the extent of glaciated area in their lifetime” and blame glacial retreat for an increase in extreme weather....

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Preliminary Findings

At the end of September after 11 months abroad, I have returned to the United States to embark on on a coast to coast tour to visit family and friends. I was fortunate to present my preliminary findings at the University of Central Asia prior to departing Kyrgyzstan. In the coming months I will be preparing formal papers for submission for publication. Until then, this is just a short summary of my work to date...

While overwhelming evidence of glacial wastage is present, uncertainty still exists over projected human impacts.  Within the At Bashy Range, glacial are has receded 12% from 1970-2000 and an additional 4% from 2000-2007 (Narama, 2010). Historic temperature records indicate that temperatures have risen over the past 80 years, while precipitation records do not show any significant trends.

Despite the heightened awareness of climate change in Central Asia, there is an absence of qualitative research addressing local people’s observations and perceptions of changes and impacts.  Over the past year, my research focused on integrating existing quantitative research with field based qualitative social research that was missing from the discussion.

Results of my case study are from interviews, focus groups and informal conversations conducted in Kyrgyz with the help of a local field assistant. Extended periods of observation in remote mountain pastures and rural villages were essential to my research. In formal interviews, study participants were asked open-ended questions about the importance of the glaciers and mountains.  Additionally they were asked about long-term visible changes in glaciers, land and water and the impacts those changes were having on their lives and communities.

I was able to complete 76 formal interviews that ranged from half and hour to four hours in length. Conversations revealed that although local people in the At Bashy unanimous recognize the importance of mountains and glaciers as a source of cultural identity and a physical resource, there is a wide range of opinions and observations detailing environmental change.

It does not appear that residents in At Bashy are facing any increased stress from current reductions in glacial area, although seasonal water scarcity remains a future concern for many. To date dramatic historical, social and political instabilities have strongly shaped local perspectives on change. People still identify the environment as the most important resource. Potentially future climatic changes, such as warmer temperatures and increases in precipitation, could result in positive impacts for herding livelihoods. Small reductions in runoff will not dramatically affect residents of the At Bashy Range due to their advantageous location at the head of the watershed. However, these same small reductions would have great downstream implications for agriculture, irrigation and energy generation.

Repeat Photography

Repeat photography can complement recent investigations based on remote sensing and computer modeling. It can provide a strong tool that visually represents changes. In my first months in Kyrgyzstan I can across photographs of glaciers taken in the At-Bashy Range in the 1960s that were incorporated into the USSR Catalog of Glaciers. Only a few photographs were suitable to document changes in glacial cover because in many of the photographs it was difficult to distinguish between seasonal snow coverage and glacial area. This summer I returned to two locations in the At Bashy Range on several occasions. In both cases even after repeat visits I was unable to return to the exact location of the original photograph. It appears that one of the photographs was possibly taken from aircraft. In addition to the difficulty of relocation efforts, the summer weather was less than ideal. The At- Bashy Range receives the majority of its precipitation in the summer, including snow at high elevations. This past winter was a record snow year and the mountains remained blanketed in seasonal snow for most of the summer.

In my attempts the resulting photographs do not offer much scientific value. They do highlight that retreat is not extreme and offer an interesting glance into the past.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

At Bashy Mountaineering Part II

The relationships I have cultivated with local people in Kyrgyzstan have provided numerous direct benefits crucial to my individual well being as well as my research goals. At unexpected times the relationships have had unexpected benefits. As Ben and I planned our final mountaineering trip into the At-Bashy Range we selected the Oshairak drainage in the center of the range for its aesthetic qualities on the map: the impressive size of the upper basin, the heavy concentration of large glaciers, and the presence of several of the range’s tallest peaks.
Ben and I with our Kyrgyz family, Asyl and Nurbek and four of their five girls: Aijarken, Aliza, Malika, Aijan

After tracing the Oshairak river back out to the At- Bashy valley, I was surprised when I realized that the grandparents of the Kyrgyz family I reside with in At-Bashy village live just a few kilometers from the entrance to our chosen drainage. With a few phones calls we had a place to stay, horses to carry our bags partway, and relatives that knew the way into the drainage. Instantly relieved of the major logistical and language complications, I was thrilled for the sudden unexpected convenience of relatives. In Kyrgyzstan climbing is the easy part, or at least relatively speaking. Just getting to the mountains is often the most difficult component of independent mountaineering here and despite my conversational Kyrgyz it remains the case even after almost a year. Although it is easy to find a taxi it is often difficult for local people in At Bashy to understand exactly why we are going into the mountains. Numerous times, taxi drivers or hired horsemen think that just anywhere in the mountains will be good enough. Conveying that we really truly want to go to this specific spot can often be confusing.

We hired a small old Russian Lada in At Bashy. After a dusty hour taxi ride south we were dropped off in a recently cut hayfield on the side of the dirt road leading south from the village of At Bashy to the much smaller village of Kazlybek. Grass season is in full swing in the At Bashy region, with all of valley’s lowland hay being cut for winter fodder for animals.

The parents of my “adopted” Kyrgyz family greeted us in true Kyrgyz fashion: chai, bread and lots of food. In customary Kyrgyz style, the parent’s youngest son Atilet (my “uncle”) lives there with his wife and newborn child. This tradition of the youngest son remaining with his parents is one of the many instances that illustrate the importance of family in Kyrgyz culture. It is unheard of for aging family members not to be taken care of and rural household units often consist of extended family. In addition to the immediate household, we were not the only guests staying that night. It was a cozy sleeping arrangement as nine of us slept spread across the floors in their tiny two room house.
The Oshairak Drainage. We attempted the peak on the left the following day

With Adielet and three horses we departed the following day, able to travel on horse a majority of the way up the drainage. The horses returned with Adielet and we walked several additional kilometers to the base of the largest glacier in the drainage to camp for the night. As dusk was settling Ben spotted a horseman with three horses descending a steep scree slope from a rocky 4000 meter pass that paralleled the glacier. After crossing the foot of the glacier he rode into our camp and it appeared that he was just as surprised to see us as we were to see him.
The yak herder
 As he smoked a cigarette he informed us he was a yak herder looking for lost animals and asked if we had seen any recently. Just a few hours prior we had seen two wander by our camp. He looked neither relieved nor impressed and just kept smoking. In my time here I had heard of herders ascending above the mountain valley pasture but had never witnessed it. Given my research interests in local perspectives of glacial retreat I was thrilled to speak (in very basic Kyrgyz conversation) after watching him cross the tongue of a glacier. We watched him depart admiring his horses’ ability to walk across the moraines and huge boulder fields.


At the head of the valley, we ascended the largest glacier in the Oshairak drainage. Several hours were spent negotiating a heavily crevassed section that required placing protection to cross delicate ice bridges. Upon reaching the upper section of the glacier we chose a camping location on a lateral moraine. The upper basin was encircled with a multitude of summits, and we identified and admired numerous alpine ice and snow routes.

The following day we attempted a prominent peak on the north side of the drainage. Directly from camp we climbed a snow gully that lead to a steep, icy and exposed ridge on the upper edge of a glacier which required careful climbing to reach a small shoulder. From here we walked a long snow ridge, before traversing a chossy section of fourth class rock. 30 meters from the summit we decided not continue as the final pyramid steepened considerably without opportunities for protection. With a storm rolling into the cirque, we descended an alternative snow coliour that fanned out onto the upper glacier. Looking back at the summit it appeared that approaching from the south would allow easier climbing to the summit. Regardless we were pleased with the quality of our climbing and the spectacular views.
Final Snow Ridge
Hmmm... the final chossy rock pyramid

Overnight the storm blanketed the area with a dusting of snow, but the skies did not clear. We decided we were not interested in returning to our first peak just to climb the final few meters, so we moved our attention elsewhere. We packed up camp and crossed the glacier to the south with hopes of climbing a very beautiful rock peak and exploring a rocky needle we had spotted. As we ascended the ridge we started looking for shelter as the storm gathered strength. High on the ridge, around 4300 meters, we found a small nook and set camp for the evening.

Winds shifted direction after dinner and picked up speed. We spent a sleepless night listening to the violent and continual rattling of the tent. The following morning as we attempted to melt snow we found neither of our lighters worked and there was only one match left. Unwilling to risk our last chance for coffee in the strong winds, we packed up camp and climbed a small scree peak just above camp before descending into the Chet Keltebek drainage. After a long scree descent of almost 1000 meters we found a sheltered area to boil water and rehydrate. After our considerable descent and with no reliable source of flame, we decided to head out two days earlier than anticipated slightly let down.

We walked out via the Chet Keltebek drainage stopping to admire an immense herd of yaks that probably belonged to the herder we had met on our first night. Above the green pastures the drainage bifurcated into several basins with glaciers pouring over their upper reaches. Many impressive mountains with great potential for alpine routes loomed in the distance.

The Chet Keltebek drainage converges with the Oshairak drainage several kilometers from the At Bashy Valley. In the foothills, just a few kilometers from reaching the dirt road, we camped for the night. Having not planned a taxi pick up, the following day we walked for several hours through several small village to reach the main road. After several warm beers and some lunch at a small cafĂ© we hitchhiked back to the village of At Bashy. The Kyrgyz family we live with ensured that before we returned to Bishkek Ben was well fed with meals such as laghman (noodles and mutton) and beshbemak (a whole sheep boiled with a few noodles). My Kyrgyz mother told me once, “A well fed man is a happy man”.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ak Tash

My imagination was spurred in June during a trip to Tash Rabat, located in the southern portion of the At Bashy Range, for the climbing potential of the area. Tash Rabat is an ancient stone structure dated to the 15th century that was used during the height of the Silk Road. Today, local and international tourists travel to the area to visit the stone structure with its beautiful dome that still remain tucked safely in the mountains.

Ben and I traveled to the area following our mountaineering trip in the northern portion of the range looking for rock climbing, rest and relaxation. The impressive overthrusts of the limestone cliffs are incredible aesthetic and from a distance it appeared that climbing and exploration would be abundant. Dozen of eagles continually soared above us riding summer thermals only disappearing when returning to their nests in the cliffs.The area we were in is know as Ak-Tash which means white rock. However in three days of exploring we were unable to find routes with protection opportunities with traditional climbing gear. We also struggled to find any top roping locations. The climbing potential is incredible and many walls looked like they could hold dozen of sport routes. However I would hesitate to promote bolting in the area given the remote location of the area and the abundant eagle nesting.

As our original intentions changes we started spending more time with my local friends from a previous visit who run on of the yurt camps in the valley for tourists coming to Tash Rabat. Sabyrbek and his family allowed us to live in one of their yurts and I took to helping them cook, clean and do chores. The few tourists that filtered through during the week seemed to think it strange that an American was "working" in such a remote place. I have found that helping is the quickest way to peoples hearts and the best way to understand the life and intricacies of a culture.

Our week ended on not the best notes as Ben succumbed once again to intestinal issues. We retreated to At Bashy and then to Bishkek. A week of rest and calorie recompensation for Ben has us feeling strong and eager to return. Today we head back to At Bashy for our last three weeks exploring, climbing and sharing life with local people.


This post is intended to provide a more detailed background of the social and physical features of the At-Bashy area...

The At Bashy Mountain Range is located within the Naryn Oblast, one of the seven oblasts that constitute Kyrgyzstan. Although the Naryn oblast covers ¼ of the country’s land area, it only hold 5% of the country’s population (271,280 people) making it the most sparsely populated oblast in Kyrgyzstan. The majority of the oblast’s  residents live in rural villages. The economic and cultural ties to the landscape are reflected by a strong cultural pride. The Naryn oblast is often considered the most “Kyrgyz” in terms of ethnicity and is considered by many to be the Kyrgyz cultural heartland.  READ MORE....

Located just north of the Chinese border within the country of Kyrgyzstan, the At-Bashy Mountain Range stretches for 160 km (100miles) with peaks in elevation up to 4800 meters (about 15,500 ft).There are over 190 glaciers in the At-Bashy region. In the At-Bashy Range, maximum precipitation and glacier accumulation occurs in the spring and summer when the weakened Siberian high allows for moisture to arrive from the west and north coinciding with maximum glacier melt rates. READ MORE.....

Tradition of Nomadic Pastoralism: The Kyrgyz Herder

The practice of semi-nomadic pastoralism is strongly rooted in Kyrgyz cultural identity as the practice extends regionally back thousands of years. Despite drastic political transformations over the past two centuries, livestock has remained the most important component of rural livelihoods in Kyrgyzstan. Today, pastoralism continues to be the main livelihood for many rural Kyrgyz as topographic and climatic constraints limit crop cultivation. READ MORE....

Saturday, August 7, 2010

First Ascents

The earliest descriptions of mountains and glaciers in the Tien Shan were from travelers of the Silk Road, such as the seventh century Chinese monk Xuan Zang who wrote of snow transformed into ice rocks that never melt. The first detailed recordings did not occur until the 19th century, lead first by European explorer Piotr Semenov in 1858. Other early explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries climbed a few summits, but remote ranges were not fully explored until the Soviet began training mountaineers in the 1950’s. Soviet alpinism in Kyrgyzstan was focused on the highest summits and training occurred near Issyk Kul lake and Bishkek, leaving a majority of peaks in the Tien Shan unclimbed. Despite an absence of records, select peaks throughout the At-Bashy and other ranges were climbed for surveying purposes to generate Soviet maps. Many of these peaks still bear survey posts which contradict recent claims by Western climbers that these ranges are unexplored and their peaks unclimbed. Additionally in the At Bashy range local Kyrgyz have been utilizing mountain pastures for grazing and have travelled across high altitute passes for hundreds of centuries. Although many peaks still remain unclimbed, assertions that the At-Bashy was unexplored until recently should be considered disingenuous.

Given its political history, Kyrgyzstan has only recently become an international mountaineering and climbing destination. The past fifteen years has brought an increasing number of climbing expeditions to Kyrgyzstan, many in search of remote and unclimbed areas. Despite the plethora of unclimbed peaks, it can often be difficult to determine what has been climbed, as historic and local information is often difficult to find. However, the commercial appeal of virgin summits is strong for independent and guided expeditions and continues to drive mountaineering in the Tien Shan. The Kyrgyz Mountaineering Federation, a semblance of an organization, is attempting to work with the American Alpine Club to document expeditions throughout Kyrgyzstan. However it still can be a questionable exercise to claim a first ascent, especially on lower elevation peaks, such as those in the At-Bashy.

Pat Littlejohn and the International School of Mountaineering claim the first expedition into the At-Bashy range in 2003. Several other expeditions have occurred since then, including a repeat visit from Littlejohn. These expeditions have been recorded in the American Alpine Journal and shared via other online and printed publications. Littlejohn will be returning with two expeditions this summer to climb in the At-Bashy. Despite first ascent fever and the relative ease of claiming first ascents in the At-Bashy, we are hesitant to jump on the bandwagon given the presence of surveyor posts in the range and the lack of written Soviet exploration records. We look forward to returning to Bishkek in September and further inquiring about Soviet cartographic expeditions to expand what we know and have observed in the At-Bashy Range.
Ben and a Soviet era survey post on the summit of an unnamed peak in the At-Bashy Range

In our mountaineering trips in the At Bashy, potentially some of our ascents are firsts and likely others are not. A surveyor post or a summit carin is a clear indication of a prior ascent, but the lack thereof does not eliminate the possibility of a previous ascent. Despite the appeal of a first ascent to any climber, the semantics of defining our ascents as first or seconds is not a main motivating factor. The remoteness of the range, the unknown nature of our routes, the beauty of the landscape, our interactions with locals, the humor in dealing with local logistics- these are the things that motivate and inspire us.