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”.