Ak-Shirak on Ski Expedition 2007
Scent of lilac drifts about the overgrown parks and leafy streets of Bishkek, while above the marble facades and golden cupolas of Ala Too square shimmer jagged snow peaks of the Kyrgyz range like an unexpected cloud mirage. A day’s travel later, apple blossom is opening in irrigated orchards punctuated by an occasional pink froth of peach or nectarine on the arid shores of Lake Issy-kul. Again, above, the sky mountains are piled all the way to the Chinese border. It is spring in the valleys, winter in the Tien Shan.
We drive up the Barskoon gorge through herds of sheep and goats, cattle and horses, driven by nomads in who ride like they were born in the saddle, heading for higher pastures. But this is early April and as we approach Kumtor goldmine I realise that not only is the road clear but most of the slopes below 3800m, hugely different from what I’d found in 2003.
Fortunately Lake Petrov is frozen solid, so 40 minutes and 2 km after setting foot on the ice we are setting up camp 1 on a sandy beach beneath the snout of the Petrov glacier. At 3730m. we have jumped 2000m in a 5 hour drive; headaches are obligatory.
Next day we struggle up the convoluted glacier to leave a cache. Returning, Stuart is avalanched on a short but steep snowslope and our concerns about snow conditions are strengthened. Overnight snowfall lingers into a dull dawn and headaches are worse so we have a rest day. During the afternoon, Gordon, Gethin and I find an alternative route from the northern junction of lake and glacier ice. After breaking camp next morning, it’s impressive skinning across the lake ice in the lee of the glacier’s crumbling ice cliffs, skirting pressure ridges where the glacier bears down upon the frozen lake. By afternoon on the glacier, however, the snow is cracking like a pistol shot as it settles in huge plates beneath us and at one time or another we all break through the softening surface into disconcertingly unconsolidated snow.
Camp 2, just under 4300m is more stable, and we’re encouraged enough to attempt our first peak next day, though Gordon’s headache keeps him in camp. We skirt debris from a collapsing cornice and climb steeply and obliquely to the saddle above it, then ski down onto the glacier beyond. With skins back on, it’s a steady pull up to the col on the west ridge of our peak. We manage a little further on ski before ice forces us into crampons and we kick steps up the broad ridge to the summit at 4836m. Great views, and I linger taking photos and logging the GPS data so miss Stuart putting a leg into a hidden slot splitting his knee open and Adele precariously steri-stripping the wound closed. There’s not a lot of blood. Back at the skis, Stuart takes off at speed, hoping to make camp before his knee stiffens irretrievably – and he does – but we all get a skiing high on the fine run all the way to the foot of the pass. The slope talks to each of us as we climb, one by one, its creaking surface before skiing back down into camp where Gordon has the kettle on.
Our next peak is to the east and surprises us with fresh snow leopard tracks as we climb up under its south-west face. There’s ice glinting under the snow so we abandon plans to skin up the face and leave skis at an ice boss on the west ridge. Trying to sneak past it we find wind-polished armour-plating and rope up for a short pitch. Then deep snow forces us up the rocks of the ridge, but it’s good to swing up from handhold to handhold, kicking steps or balancing delicately in ski-boots on frozen flakes of rock to break out on the upper snowfield and traverse to the summit ridge. Again the icy conditions lead us to mix pitches, protected using ice screws, with sections of soloing, and we eventually make the corniced summit at 4887m. Afternoon sunshine softens the ice sufficiently to speed our descent and a long schuss down the glacier brings us back to camp where Stuart had been resting his injured leg all day. It is 6pm.
Over the next couple of days we head east again to climb two more peaks from the pass at the head of the glacier. One is an icy whaleback rising to a narrow fin of snow and rock at the summit from which we can see Khan Tengri and Pobedy looming majestically in the distance. The other is a corniced ridge that drops off steeply into the fierce little cirque to the north. From there it is clear that our proposed route linking several glacier systems will take us far too low for safety in the prevailing conditions. We decide to break camp and head for the north-facing glacier bays to the south of us.
Unfortunately as we lose height the snow conditions become increasingly difficult. We make heavy going of the descent and are lucky to find a good campsite on a medial moraine. Next day, whilst making an early crossing of the glacier to the south in an attempt on the peak opposite, we find the snow repeatedly collapsing under us with a resounding whump. A serac collapse from the flank of the mountain and plenty of evidence of avalanche from adjacent slopes mean we back off, climbing nervously but gradually up to scout the major pass to the east. It’s passable but would involve further descent and the associated deterioration in snow conditions. It’s a thoughtful ski back to camp for all of us.
That night we talk it through and decide we’ve pushed our luck far enough. Gethin wants to have a go at the largely rocky peak to the east of us but Stuart doesn’t fancy it and the rest of us are non-commital, saying we’ll wait for him in camp. So it’s strange that four of us head out next morning for the short skin up the side of the moraine before launching on to the rocky slopes above. Adele and I take too long trying to scramble over the rocks in ski boots, but Gethin and Gordon strike upon a shallow snow gully that takes them through the rocks to the summit snowfield. There, Gordon doesn’t trust his alloy crampons enough to carry on over the ice so it’s only Gethin who reaches our final summit.
And that’s it. There’s nothing much more we can do. I call in our transport on the Satphone for two days hence and we spend those days getting back down the glacier and across the lake. The mountains of course go on looking spectacularly beautiful, and it’s clear that there is a lot more ski-mountaineering and climbing to do in the Ak-Shirak but not this time. We have been privileged to know something of what the early pioneers must have experienced in the Alps when virtually nothing had been climbed and they could look out for a likely peak and climb it with some assurance that theirs would be its first ascent. It’s been good.
Thanks are due to the team; Stuart Gallagher, Gordon Nuttall, Gethin Howells, Adele Long, for their determination and good fellowship. Also thanks to the Mount Everest Foundation and AC Climbing fund for financial support.
List of peaks climbed in Ak-Shirak Range April 2007:
- 4836m N 41º 55.481´ E 78º 17.555´ First ascentionists; DWJ, AL, SG, GH. Suggested name: Pik 150th Anniversary of the British Alpine Club!
- 4887m N 41º 56.167´ E 78º 19.06´ First ascentionists; DWJ, AL, GN, GH. Suggested name: Pik Ak Ilbirs (as we found Snow Leopard tracks on the climb)
- 4720m N 51º 55.7´ E 78º 20.1´ First ascentionists; DWJ, AL, SG, GH. Suggested name: Pik Plavnik (because it was a sharp fin of ice & rock)
- 4815m N 41º 56.38´ E 78º 19.57´ First ascentionists; DWJ, AL, SG, GN, GH. Suggested name: Pik Solidarnost (because we all climbed it)
- 4727m N 41º 54.4´ E 78º 20.8´ First ascentionist; GH. Suggested name: Pik Mari (after Gethin’s Mum).