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.

At Bashy Mountaineering Part I : THE NORTH

A map is a visual gateway, a landscape written on paper that comes alive in the mind of a keen reader. Our first mountaineering trip into the At-Bashy Range was inspired by nothing more than pouring over maps. Historic Soviet maps served as the first reference, with satellite imagery, digital elevation models and Google Maps providing us more accurate and detailed information. We were inspired by a unique looking cirque with three +4400 meter peaks on the south end. While still in Bishkek we sketched out a rough route to explore the area over seven days, gathering navigation coordinates and elevations to aid our trip.

After Ben’s recovery from a multitude of ailments, we left Bishkek via shared taxi, a seven hour drive to At-Bashy. As a majority of people in Kyrgyzstan do not own vehicles, a multitude of transportation options exist including buses, minibuses and taxis. Shared taxis, most often small sedans, are private vehicles whose seats are filled by paying occupants. Given the rough roads and long distances, taxis are the quickest and most popular form of transportation. We filled the entire trunk of our tiny shared taxi with mountaineering and camping gear. Of all our undertakings, our greatest exposure to danger occurs on the roads here, as our driver sped in typical fashion the entire way aggressively passing on blind corners, rattling over potholes and blasting loud pop music the entire way.

After arriving in At-Bashy and spending half a day with the Kyrygz family we live with there, we headed north to the tiny village of Ak Muz, which translates from Kyrgyz to English as White Ice. I had made advanced arrangements through a friend, Kymbat-eje, who lives there to hire a horse to carry our gear part of the way into the mountains. In Ak Muz, while drinking endless cups of tea we discussed the feasibility of using horses to access the Taldy-Suu drainage. Kymbat’s 18 year of son, Chingiz, was going to accompany us. He affirmed us that it should only take four or five horse to travel up the drainage with horses towards the pass over into the Ak-Say valley.

DAY 1: Humor and Horses
After spending a windy night camped in Kymbat’s yard, we departed early in morning with Chingiz. Our initial transportation logistics did not manifest as we had imagined as Kymbat-eje had different ideas about which there was no discussion to be had. Instead of us being on foot, with our bags on one horse and Chingiz on the other, Ben and I ended up on one horse together while our bags and Chingiz loaded down on the other.

We left Ak Muz in the wrong direction despite our plan to head straight across the river as discussed the previous day and confirmed by consulting the map. Chingiz took us on an hour detour to travel upstream to cross the At- Bashy River before retracing our progress on the opposite bank. We finally arrived at the tiny village of Taldy-Suu at the base of the drainage we wished to travel up. We provoked a great deal of curiosity and it seemed every man in the village had input for our route, with unanimous directives to a different drainage that apparently offered easier passage. Only with persistence were we able to clarify that we did not just want to go anywhere in the mountains, but that we had a specific destination up the Taldy Suu drainage. Four hours after leaving Ak Muz and only having traveled four air kilometers we remained humored, but our patience was beginning to give way to frustration. After a complete tour of the village and numerous route changes, we set up the right drainage into the mountains. Ben and I rode a few hundred meters up, then dismounted and moved our backpacks onto our horse. In the pouring rain, we walked several more kilometers to a point were the horses could no longer easily travel before sending Chingiz and the horses back to Ak Muz. We camped at our drop off location, spending the afternoon doing some reconnaissance towards the pass.

DAY 2: Geographical Gaffe
Awaking to zero visibility, completely enshrouded in mist, we headed towards the Taldy-Suu pass. Although our reconnaissance the previous day helped us find our way initially, the snow, steep moraines, and limited visibility made navigation complicated. Reaching a small saddle, a strange basin lay before us. It looked nothing like the pass we had expected. Without stopping to reassess, we continued in the thick clouds, finally reaching a semblance of a pass as the mist began to clear. Befuddled, we pulled out the compass and the GPS. It was immediately clear we were not at our intended destination, so where were we? A few moments later, we made the embarrassing realization that we were looking down the valley we had just camped in…we had walked in an ascending semicircle through the moraines.

With a bearing for the correct col, we corrected our route, ascending to the 4000 meter Taldy-Suu pass in the early afternoon. Just below us lay the Beyyt Kashka-Suu drainage and our destination cirque. The entire basin was snow filled. Glaciers clung to the higher peaks, with the green pastures of the Ak-Say valley visible in the distance. We descended 50 meters and set up our tent on a small exposed mossy ridge. With the dedication of trail laborers, we built a small windbreak for our tent from rocks. Given we had only brought the tent fly and ground cloth, our construction proved useful as nightfall brought strong winds and snow.

Peering out of the tent prompted no rush for an alpine start given the ten centimeters of new snow blanketing the basin. Clearing weather came in the late morning, which we took advantage of to climb a small peak just west of camp. We ascended snow to the base of an arĂȘte leading to the summit, before enjoying moderate (Class III/IV+) climbing to the summit (4390m). Given the thin coating of ice across the rocks on the ridge, we descended from the summit down a large scree field to a glacier before walking back to camp. The afternoon brought more snow, wind and below freezing temperatures.

The storm cleared overnight, giving us the weather window we had been hoping for. Early in the morning, we set out with intentions to climb the three highest summits in the area, all linked along the south side of the cirque by high ridges. We ascended via a glacier to a col between the west and middle peak. Despite the clear skies, a strong wind persisted and temperatures remained cold. At the col, tanding in blowing spindrift, we watched two wolves cross moraines and disappear into the valley below us. Kyrgyz people had often questioned us if were afraid of wolves when we traveled into the mountains, but we were unsure if a wolf population even existed in the At-Bashy. A general dislike and fear of wolves persists here, similar to the sentiment that existed in the western U.S. in the 20th century. Given that we harbor no hatred or fear, it was a special treat for us to watch the wolves travel through the rugged landscape below.

From the col we first climbed the western peak via a rocky ridge that lead to steep snow which required the use of crampons and ice axes. The snow dome summit (4561m) provided incredible views of the heavily glaciated central portion of the range.

We retraced our footsteps to the col to ascend the mellow ridge to the middle summit (4535m) which had been previously climbed as indicated by the presence of a geographical survey post at the top. We continued east, descending a steep, exposed and double corniced ridge. Both sides of the ridge were +50 degrees, with one side bulletproof and the other wind loaded. The new snow and strong solar radiation made us hesitant. Unable to easily protect our descent, we carefully down climbed the ridge to a steep slope and eventually to the col below. The ascent of the last peak in the enchainment was the most involved.

Although the climbing was only moderate (Class III/IV), it demanded attention given the exposure on both sides of the ridge. The climbing eased, but the upper third required ascent of a steep a snow ridge to the final upper slopes and summit pyramid (4546m).

With still blue bird skies, we enjoyed panoramic views of the entire Ak-Say valley which we had walked the length of two weeks prior. We descended via the same route to the col, before down climbing into a new glacier basin. Avoiding exposed glacial ice, we had a single 30 meter rappel through a cliff band that brought us to the base of the peak. Our final few kilometers of the day took around a small glacial lake, across old moraines and a final plod though soft snowfields to camp.

We took a rest day doing absolutely nothing but sleeping, talking B.S., laying in the sun and eating the copious amount of food we packed in.

Feeling we had explored the basin to our satisfaction, we packed up camp and ascended out of the basin to the west with full packs. We dropped our backpacks at a col, climbing the final peak in the cirque (approximately 4400m- forgot to take the GPS). We then descended into the Djol-Bozoshty drainage, which holds the Bozoshty Pass and a horse trail that herders use to cross the At Bashy Range. This was the drainage that Chingiz and the men of Taldy-Suu initially wanted to take us into, as it is one of only two easily crossable passes in the entire At-Bashy Range. A long scree descent brought us to lush green pastures filled with horses. We encountered several men on horseback traveling between the Ak-Say and the At Bashy valley. We shared our lunch with a lone herder. He generously shared his kymys (traditional Kyrgyz drink made of fermented mare’s milk) which was just as delicious as we remembered after several weeks without. We camped near the base of the drainage near a small forest enjoying the warmer weather and lower altitude. Kyrgyzstan is a vastly treeless landscape (50% of the country’s forest has been cut down in the last 30 years) and seeing a forested skyline made me think of Montana and my impending departure this fall from Kyrgyzstan.

We hiked out the remainder of the drainage to the village of Myy, from which without any hassle or unnecessary haggling we found a man with a car who took us back to At-Bashy to enjoy warm temperature, feasting on watermelon with our Kyrgyz family, and a washing in the public bathhouse.