Only Wolves and Horses – unclimbed peaks in Kyrgyzstan

by Jon Burgess and Rob Reynolds

On the way to Oroy valley

As it was our first expedition and our first time visiting Central Asia, the excitement was palpable as we touched down at Manas International Airport. The plan was to head to the Kuiluu range, part of the Tien Shan. We had identified a valley that had not been explored by mountaineers before; the Oroy glacier is surrounded by a cirque of unclimbed mountains, brimming with untapped potential.

We spent two days in the capital, Bishkek, adjusting to the new culture and sorting out the remaining logistics. We visited Lilia from ITMC, the company we had hired to help with accommodation and overland transport, to make final arrangements. Our last task before leaving Bishkek was to pick up supplies for 16 days in the mountains. We had freeze dried meals from our sponsor Expedition Foods for our summit attempts and the rest of the food we bought at the colourful Osh Bazaar.

Shopping in Bishkek bazaar

Our next destination was Karakol, a popular base for trekking and mountaineering in the South East of Kyrgyzstan. It was a 6 hour drive from Bishkek, on gradually deteriorating roads along the north shore of lake Issyk Kul. After a night spent at a local hotel we were picked up by Nicolai in an old Soviet 4×4 for the 100km drive deep into the Tien Shan. We drove through a stunning alpine valley, dotted with yurts, before climbing the 3500m pass over the Terskey Ala-Too mountains.

We arrived at a shepherds hut a short way up the Kuiluu valley, the end of the road for the 4×4. We’re greeted with a look of surprise from Sibeeri (mum) and her 3 children. Nicolai explained that we needed help taking our climbing equipment the remaining 16 km to the mouth of the Oroy valley, our proposed basecamp. A child was dispatched on horseback to fetch the shepherd whose horses we hoped to use for transport. Within 10 minutes a posse of family members arrived, no doubt curious about who it was waiting on their doorstep. We found ourselves invited in for refreshments. Soon it was time for Nicolai, and our last link with the arranged plan to leave.  This was it:  we had our phrase book, hand signals and the smiles on our faces to try and communicate. We broke out the bottle of Valhalla we had been saving and shared it with the family, which breaks the ice. Games, dinner, laughter and conversation ensued, with the help from Berbede, the eldest son (10) who was learning English at school. With dark approaching we were made welcome to stay in the hut, sharing the floor of the single room with the family. We slept with the memories from the day, such an incredible experience, utterly humbled by this family’s generosity.

‘Our’ family in the Kuiluu valley

At dawn we loaded the horses with our kit and after a hearty breakfast of mutton stew, headed up the valley to base camp. There are wolves in the nearby forest and golden eagles nesting in the surrounding peaks, layers of sedimentary rock creating multi-coloured bands on the mountainsides. The neighbouring valley to our own has a distinctive hillock at the valley mouth eagerly described and highlighted as a belly button by Syrtbay, the shepherd. Syrtbay had brought Berbede with him and he shared a bottle of mare’s milk with us: thick and creamy, the milk is memorably strange! We bade farewell to the shepherds at the mouth of the Oroy valley (3000m) as the horses could take us no further.

Base camp in Oroy valley

The next day we moved camp 350m up and a mile further into the valley; base camp needed to be higher. We found an ideal spot close to the river with a fantastic view of the mountains. We intended to explore the upper valley and glacier to identify potential routes to the summits of the now visible mountains, but the weather turned and we found ourselves trapped at base camp between the mountains and the wolves! A few days passed and we finally moved higher up the mountain; along the way we discovered we had not been alone at base camp. We found fresh wolf prints amongst our own on the river bed not far from camp. Surprised, but still confident we could cope, we finally found a location suitable for an advanced base camp. From here we identified a peak that seemed to be our best chance of achieving a summit.

On the way to the summit ridge

Summit day finally arrived. We woke at 5am to perfectly clear skies, the coldest morning of the expedition. We followed the stream to the col we had reconnoitred the day before, the first rays of sunshine reflecting off the mountain above us. After 2.5hrs we reached the foot of the remaining obstacle between us and the summit: A 45˚ slope of ice and thinly layered snow, 400m high. We decided that there was no way to protect our movement up the slope: a rope would only ensure that should one of us slip, we would both fall. Armed with just ice axes and crampons we headed off, enjoying the freedom of climbing unencumbered by rope and heavy packs. We zigged and zagged our way up the mountain appreciating the feeling and sound of steel biting into ice, although the occasional sound of hollow ice or creaking snow gave brief moments of alarm. Finally, the summit loomed 50m distant. All the feelings of excitement, stubborn determination, pushing beyond the daily norm to achieve something for ourselves, and a little nervous fear, had got us this far. We had done it, cresting the summit to stand atop the mountain – awesome. We had reached the summit, at 4631m, but the 400m ice slope beneath our feet reminded us that we were only halfway. It was time to descend. Back at the col we celebrated, mission complete!

‘Mission complete!’

With our final day at ABC, we explored higher up the glacier, identifying potential for further first ascents. Then the slow and reluctant process of returning to civilisation began, providing plenty of time to reflect on our adventure. One thing we’re sure of though… we will go back to Kyrgyzstan!







[Updated 26 March 2019]

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