Thursday, February 11, 2010

Winter Storm

Snow has come to Central Asia, but not without causing it's fair share of problems. Temperatures in Bishkek are barely above freezing after a large winter storm moved through last week. The slides we observed in Altyn-Arashan are nothing compared with other avalanche activity in the region. Parts of Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and India received between upwards of two meters (that is +6ft) in the past storm. Over 160 people were killed by avalanches on Salang Pass in Afghanistan on Monday February 8th (read BBC article).

Ichke Jergez

Crammed between huge backpacks in the backseat of stifly hot marshutka, I recently joined up with Ryan Koupal and Abre Brutsche of Colorado who are here as part of a project called The Kyrgyzstan Plan. Back for the second winter in a row, Ryan is leading the exploration of initiating a yurt based backcountry skiing operation that incorporates local families. They are also creating a film telling the story of winter tourism in Kyrgyzstan and highlighting their journey. The three of us left Bishkek and headed to east via marshutak to do some exploratory ski touring above the village of Ichke Jergez, located at the far eastern end of Kyrgyzstan.
We stayed in Karakol enroute, which is the base of the most developed ski area in Kyrgyzstan and also home to one of the larger mal baazars (animal fairs) in Kyrgyzstan, which happened to be the day after we arrived. Quite a site, as thousands of people and animals (and lots of vodka) flow through the bazaar every Sunday. It was certainly the first time I have ever seen a cow stuffed into a car.

From Karakol, we traveled further east to the tiny village of Ichke Jergez to stay with a local family before heading up into the Terskey Ala too and setting up a winter base camp from which we toured from for four days. Amazing terrain that has never been explored via skis in the winter is located just above village. Unfortunately, the snow conditions did not match the incredible potential of the terrain we found.

We were pleased there was snow at all, as this season has been particularly dry. But despite the shallow depths, breaking trail was incredible difficult as there was an unsupportive crust halfway through the snowpack. Conditions did not improve at higher elevations; huge facets were mixed in with multiple melt freeze crusts. We experienced widespread cracking and whoomping. Sticking to ridgelines, we were able to find some good powder turns on northern aspects. Each successive day we managed to get higher and explore more. After four days and with an impending storm, we headed back to stay in Ichke Jergez to eat mutton and warm up as it started to snow.

With snow falling, we headed up to the Altyn Arashan canyon outside Karakol for some rest and relaxation at the local hot spring. Our jeep ride there was ended just after it started by avalanches blocking the road. After a few shots of vodka and whiskey, the locals accompanying us headed up the road on foot. Let but with little choice we followed them traveling beneath multiple avalanche paths, most of which had just run full path in the past day. Local Kyrgyz men were already on scene chopping trees out of the debris for firewood. After skinning 16km through heavy snow, we arrived at Altyn Arashan (winter population: 2) just before dark. The next day brought more stormy weather and wicked winds at higher elevations. We managed a short tour up valley before soaking in the hot springs and imbibing in several breakneck scrabble games. After our "R&R" we skiied all 16 km back out, en route crossing an enormous slide that crossed the creek and covered our tracks in with over 3 meters of debris. The storm continued for the next two days as we returned to Bishkek to truly rest and relax.