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.


  1. Your fascinating adventures are food for my soul Ann! Be well and safe. With love, Beth&Sam

  2. Hi Ben and Ann, I have been following your trek on line. It is an amazing treat to be able to follow you through the words and pics. I have so many questions like what do you eat? how do you cook? what is the fear factor like about all the possible and actual precarious situations? How much do your packs weigh when you are climbing- trecking?
    Ben- We shall talk when you get back. Be safe and warm...........terry by the bay