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
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
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
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
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.