Journeys in the hills and mountains
I spent the majority of my summer holiday this year on the Cambridge Tien Shan Expedition (CATSE) in Kyrgyzstan. This expedition, with eight current or former students from Cambridge University, set off with the aim of climbing unclimbed peaks in the Tien Shan mountains. There will be, in due course, a full expedition report appearing on the CATSE website, and I have neither the time nor inclination to reproduce that report in full here: you’ll just have to read it on the CATSE site! I have, therefore, just picked out a few highlights from the trip.
The expedition set off from London Heathrow on 28th July 2012, the first day of the Olympic Games. We were all rather tired after having watched the opening ceremony the night before. Despite a delayed flight, we made our connection in Moscow and arrived, the following morning, in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan. We spent a day here buying food and replacing the all-important battery that had been confiscated by the airport security at Heathrow. Rumours about the local police proved true, and each member of the expedition was carted off, at different points, to the nearby police station to have their bags searched for cocaine and heroin. With this survived, and all kilograms of food bought, we spent the night in a Soviet-style flat before departing the next morning. Our logistics for reaching the road head were organised by the excellent ITMC who used a massive six-wheel truck to get us to 2400m, crossing deep streams and climbing scree slopes in the process.
From the road head we had to carry 400kg of food and kit up 600m and 6km to our base camp at 3000m. We did this over an afternoon and the following day, establishing an intermediate camp half way. Base camp itself was situated at the highest point we could reach where water was readily available, flowing out from beneath the moraine. Marmots could be found across the area, along with birds of prey circling overhead. There were two climbing teams, one consisting of me, Joe, Matthew and Tom, and the other of Dave, Jo, Bethan and Doug. On each day one team would be climbing, and the other resting at base camp. In order that the two teams might communicate, we had brought with us three VHF radios; we also had a satellite phone with which we sent regular updates back to the UK. All of these were charged using a solar panel and lead-acid battery that Tom and Matthew had fortunately been able to obtain at the market in Bishkek.
Our first mountain day (with several people recovering from illness) set off from Base Camp, over the moraines and glacier, to attempt what seemed a fairly accessible peak at 4225m. We got up the glacier with few problems, setting out across it at dawn. One steep section had to be climbed to reach a higher glacier. From here we ascended the mountain’s north ridge. This began as a rocky outcrop, and we had to cross some fairly steep ice to reach the snow ridge. Once on this the going was exposed but easy and, led by Tom, we pushed up the ridge in good time, reaching the summit and glorious views of the surrounding area. We descended back to base camp pleased that we had successfully climbed the first mountain of the trip.
Having had success on this first day, we now set our sights on the mountain that dominated the view from base camp, Point 4233m, which we had nicknamed ‘the Molar’ due to the shape of the glacier on its north face. We knew that the key to this mountain, and those around it, was a hanging valley with a steep head wall. We were pleased, therefore, to find that the scree slope at the head of the valley held a faint path, used by local farmers to move from one valley to another. Having gained the col we had excellent views out across another glacier system. We had planned to climb the mountain by its south-west ridge, but we decided instead to climb it by its north-west flank. This was a steep snow slope, averaging 45°, though Matthew led it carefully and we moved together the whole way up. The final ridge was easy and, perched on the summit, we could see straight down over 1000m to base camp below us. Two peaks in two attempts: things were going well!
For our third day we decided to attempt a peak over 4300m that the other team had not succeeded on due to poor weather and snow conditions. We accessed the peak by the same glacier system as the previous one, and reached a minor top on the summit ridge. Unfortunately we found the snow in no better condition than the previous team; it was knee-deep and crumbling away down a very steep face. Having decided to turn back, we had a short wait while Tom rescued his ice axe which, having been dropped down the face, fortunately came to a halt after a few metres on a small snow bulge! Our consolation prize was a top on the ridge called the ‘Pre-Molar’, a nice peak with a pleasant rocky scramble to reach the summit.
Over the previous two routes we had walked by what seemed to be a straightforward ridge heading in the other direction, and we decided to attempt this as our fourth mountain. The ridge did indeed turn out to be straightforward, arriving, after a short scramble, at a top over 4100m. From here the ridge became more challenging, and we roped up for the last stretch. This was, essentially, a Grade 3 scramble with a short section of Moderate climbing over an exposed pinnacle. With our fourth summit, of 4155m, achieved we posed for photos before returning for the last time down the hanging valley.
Having made some good ascents, and with two days left, we decided to attempt something more challenging before spending our final day ice climbing on the glacier. We had, on the first day, spied a peak at 4355m which looked challenging, and we gave it a go. After setting off at 2am we were greeted with a glorious sunrise from the col at 4100m. We made good progress up the ridge which became rapidly steeper. After a while we began pitching the route, using, at various times, ice axe anchors, ice screws and rock gear. It turned out to be a good mixed route with sections on rock, snow and ice. We reached a position at 4330m; we had hoped for an easy final snow slope to the summit, but unfortunately it turned out to be a steep icy gully which we had neither the skill nor the time to climb and descend safely. We therefore retreated, nevertheless pleased to have come so far on a challenging route.
As we were all quite tired of pre-dawn starts, we spent our final day climbing on the glacier. There was a nice section above the moraine where we could put up a number of routes. These were all single-pitch, and the climbing was excellent with good ice-axe and crampon placements, and easily-placed ice screw protection. After beginning on a few easier routes (probably equivalent to Scottish Winter Grade II/III) we tried a more challenging pitch. This, which we called ‘Extraction’, a dental theme running through the entire trip, was over 30m long and a good Grade III+ with near vertical ice on the crux.
Although we climbed as separate teams, it is worth noting here the successes of the other team. In general they attempted more challenging peaks than us, and they were well rewarded with the highest summit of the trip at 4383m, achieved after a challenging climb up a glacier headwall. In addition, they did the best ridge climbs of the expedition. On one climb they went up a steep glacier, climbed a 4000m, continued along a ridge to Point 4225m that we had climbed on day 1, before descending its north ridge. On another, they climbed the south-west ridge of Point 4233m.
Overall it was an excellent expedition. We were all glad to get back to Bishkek for some (Italian!) food. On the way down we waited at a local farmer’s house, where he returned our gift of spare food with a wonderful cooked lunch and lots of vodka. I returned home to the UK the following day while the rest of the team remained for a week to experience the culture and countryside that Kyrgyzstan has to offer. For a more detailed report, keep your eyes on the CATSE website!