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Asia, CIS, Karavshin Valley, Ascents in the Karavshin Valley

Ascents in the Karavshin Valley. Eight members of The North Face Climbing Team spent three and a half weeks between July 10 and August 6 in Kirghizstan climbing in a spectacular region of the Pamir Alai range commonly referred to as the Ak-Su. Knowledgeable Russian climbers informed us that the name “Ak-Su,” meaning “white water,” simply refers to various rivers and specific summits and that the area is correctly called the Karavshin region. The members of the team included Conrad Anker, Greg Child, Lynn Hill, Jay Smith, Kitty Calhoun-Grissom, Dan Osman, Chris Noble and me.

Russian climbers first visited the Karavshin in 1987, holding competitive climbing events on a number of the huge granite towers. Chasing rumors of excellent granite formations in a hospitable climate, Europeans began climbing there in the early 1990s, putting up a number of long difficult free climbs. I spoke with only one other American climber (Tom Hargis) who had firsthand knowledge of the area; Tom had made several trips to the region in the company of a group of Russian climbers from St. Petersburg. This very active group has been primarily responsible for many of the more recent and harder climbs and consequently they provide the most current information on what has and has not been climbed. Unfortunately, this information has not been written down and must be gathered from the notes and recollections of numerous individuals. As a result, a complete record of climbs in the area is difficult to compile. Armed with only sketchy information ferreted from various French journals combined with a few references appearing in American and British magazines, we arrived to discover that nearly all of the major peaks and faces had routes established on them already. Finding new routes, however, was far from impossible and most of the major walls had aid lines begging for free ascents.

Lynn and Greg climbed a new route on a tower called the Central Pyramid. They spent two and a half days on this grade VI 510+ climb, both of them freeing every pitch of the Clod Hopper Direct. We climbed two new routes on a magnificent formation called the Russian Tower. Conrad and I climbed a new variant on a 3000-foot wall that shared a start and finish with a Russian route. We called our variation The Russian Shield since it involved spectacular nailing up a steep headwall very similar to the Shield on El Cap. We graded it VI 5.10 A4. The crux involved difficult hooking on wonderfully-featured granite. Jay and Kitty climbed a new 18-pitch route they called Fat City. It went all free at VI 5.12 and required five days to climb. Most of the difficult climbing was in thin cracks and little bolting was required.

We had hoped to do some alpine ice routes on the bigger peaks which rise to 17,000 feet. I had seen photos of a few interesting mixed objectives but upon investigating these, Conrad and I found conditions that were dangerously mild, and elected to stow away our ice gear and concentrate on the obvious and safer rock climbing objectives. It seems that June or September would provide colder and more favorable conditions for mixed climbs.

Conrad and I climbed a new route on a peak called the Bird. We climbed it in a single day from our basecamp but got caught by darkness on the summit and bivied out in the open without gear. Our Grade V 5.11d A0 route involved a pendulum and tension traverse near the top to avoid a terrifying guillotine-like flake that could not be safely pitched off without jeopardizing rope or the belayer. Kitty and Jay repeated the original route on the same peak (the Bird) in two days from a camp below the face, freeing the entire route at 5.11. Sketchy reports indicate that the St. Petersburg group had previously climbed the route free.

Lynn and Greg made a continuous 28-hour ascent of the existing route, Perestroika Crack, on the Russian Tower, eliminating the remaining aid at 5.12.

Lynn and I did the first free ascent of the immense, 4000-foot west face of Peak 4810, also called the Bastion. This went free at 5.12b and took us three very long days — one of the finest free routes I've done in the mountains. We combined portions of two existing aid lines which involved consistently hard and runout face climbing on delightfully-featured granite. We elected not to haul but rather jümared with our bivy gear in a single pack, finding snow to melt on ledges each of the two nights we spent on the face.

Jay, Kitty and Dan Osman climbed a new route on the south face of Peak 4810, to the right of the normal descent ridge. This route was climbed all free at 5.11 in a day and a half.

Alex Lowe