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Although smaller than New England, Kyrgyzstan is packed with enough mountains to feed climbing dreams for a lifetime. Last summer, NOLS Instructor Molly Loomis and WMI Instructor Melis Coady visited the area on a climbing exchange taking in rock, ice, and alpine routes in Ala Archa National Park and the remote Kokshall Tau.

Ak-Say Valley, Ala Archa

Haggard from the steep 4,000-foot ascent, we arrive at Ratsek, an ancient stone hut that has housed top Russian climbers under its leaky tin roof for decades. We quickly realize we’ve stumbled into paradise; towering granite walls, beautiful snow domes, and long, shear ice routes hover high above. Should an earthquake strike or even the wind blow too strong, it feels like everything might topple.

A Soviet flag hangs listless in the calm air, a Playboy centerfold taped below, posted by resting climbers. Base camp is littered with bright tents of foreign design, piles of canned goods, steel kettles and big pots, large propane tanks all lugged up by climbers. Someone playing guitar inside a large yurt-like structure croons Russian love songs. Women wash vegetables in the stream for dinner, all wearing a small pad of foam strapped to their behind with a waist belt. (Already Melis and I have been scolded that sitting on bare rocks will rob us of our fertility.)

We are back in the familiar terrain of the mountains, yet everything is different enough to remind us we are in fact far from home.

By five the next morning, we are on our way. A half moon hangs over our objective, Peak Tikitor (14,644 feet). First light, bright and golden, outlines with striking clarity every flute, crevice, cornice and rock on the mountain’s face. We strap on crampons and race up the wide couloir to the beautiful white summit dome, hoping to reach the top before the morning gets too warm. Conditions are ideal and our crampons sink in with just a single kick. But as we traverse up the steep ridgeline that falls away to the north, the snow, sugary over a layer of rotten ice, turns abysmal for protection, too shallow for pickets but ice screws rip right out.  Discussion turns to retreat; the familiar conundrum of safety over summit. We choose to go higher, coordinating our movements with slow precision, optimistic that our few pieces can hold should we fall and encourage each other through the headwall. We are front pointing instead of traversing and using the picks of our axes instead of the shafts, Finally we arrive on top. “Vo-et-e-da!” I use my favorite new Russian phrase. (“WOW!”)

Another party is already there filling up on patè crackers and cigarettes. They are astonished we would come all this way to climb. We trade them for packets of Goo, ClifBars, and set a date for borsch and tea.

Kokshall Tau, Tien Shan

After two days of four-wheel driving, through countless potholes and multiple washed out bridges, past dozens of yurts and three military check points, we arrive in the Kokshall. Over the high steppe we jostle and bounce (should either of us develop altitude illness it will take an entire day driving over rough roads to reach an elevation below 10,000 feet). The final kilometers of road parallel a barbed wire (once electrified) fence running the entire length of the ex-USSR Chinese boarder.

The mountains here are of perfect scale; big enough to be awe-inspiring but small enough to feel obtainable. Steep, straight couloirs, big rock buttresses, long lines of ice — it’s a “choose your own adventure” route to the summit. I am completely distracted, amped up on the wealth of possibilities.

After nursing our churning tourist bellies back to health, we are ready to climb, setting our sights on a triangular peak we believed to be unclimbed, just below Kizel Asker (19, 278 feet). We move up to a high camp on the Komorova glacier and scout possible lines.

Dawn breaks in the midst of our forty-minute plod across the glacier to the base of the peak. We make our way up the slope, again racing against the rise in temperature brought on by the morning sun. But this time, we’re moving much slower. We have started climbing at an elevation equivalent to the top of Tikitor.

We’d planned on circling around to the peak’s western slope, but from the saddle where we rest we spot a long thin line — a sequence of ice steps leading all the way to the summit. We are lured in by our discovery, which had been hidden, tucked away behind tight, high walls, from our view below. We pull out our ice tools and move upward in our new direction.

Ice conditions vary from awesome to awful. By the luck of the draw, I end up leading through thin pitches of ice. I swing and kick my points as lightly as I can, cringing when I use too much force and the ice shatters, leaving a spot of rock staring back at me. I stem out on to the sides for support, but it isn’t much better. We are climbing on the wrong side of an intrusion of incredible granite into chossy, rock that’s poised and waiting for gravity to erode it away. It feels like I’m balancing my points on the fragile fractured surface of a jig-saw puzzle. The poor ice becomes a distraction to the side-effects of vertical climbing at almost 16,000 feet.

And just when we’re on the verge of toning down our optimism for better conditions, the ice thickens and we can actually turn ice screws in down to their hilt. Our spirits are lifted.

We scramble over a steep final pitch covered with just enough snow and ice to force us to maintain focus, up onto the summit. Hugs are given, photos taken, and heavy jackets pulled out of our packs. Weather is closing in, and the stellar view we had of Kizel just an hour or two earlier is obscured by blowing snow and thick fog. Over crumbled Kyrgyz cookies and water we debate what we want to call the peak and decide on Kogurt, which means “talon” in Russian for the incredible quantity of raptors we saw on the drive.

We walk the delicately balanced summit blocks, searching for a way down the peak’s north ridge. Our plan is to descend the long sloping ridge up and over two smaller peaks and back down to the glacier. But the clouds obscure any further efforts at scouting.

It helps verbalizing to each other that we both are a little stressed. It brings us back to the task at hand. We plunge step down the steep ridgeline, sinking down in the newly accumulated snow. Our timing is lucky; descending much later and avalanche conditions would be of greater concern, forcing us to down-climb and rappel the ice route we just ascended. The wind blows, loading the slope we tread, and the snow falls harder and fast.

We watch each other closely, holding our breath through a section we know from scouting to have large crevasses and a deep, wide bergschrund, or new snow hiding hazards from view. The fog lifts periodically (as it almost always does; a fact I always remember sitting on the couch but seem to ignore when I am actually stuck in the thick of it) allowing us quick glimpses, which are enough for orienting. Finally, after simul-climbing down a long section of moderate exposed glacier ice, we reach rock. Only minutes later a small avalanche releases to our right. We take some comfort in the fact that the slope that slid is steeper and, although right next to us, at a different angle than what we’d just descended. We weave our way back down to the base, a slow scramble punctuated by shouts of “ROCK!”

We travel back across the glacier, through the soup, up the steep moraine to our little tent. We goad each other with ideas for ways to celebrate our climb Russian-style. We are cold, tired and content.

In addition to climbing, we attended rugby-esque horse games (employing a goat carcass instead of a ball), feasted on fresh mutton and cabbage, soaked in Russian ‘banyas’, drank vodka like we were back in college, met an eagle hunter and his bird, swam in the world’s largest alpine lake, and conducted a workshop on Leave No Trace principles for local guides.

Thanks to The Anatoli Boukreev Memorial Fund, NOLS Instructor Development Fund, Outdoor Research, Osprey Packs, and Sterling Ropes for additional support.

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