Wall of Dikes, Central Pyramid, various first ascents. In July a team of two Irish climbers (Donie O’Sullivan and I) and four British (Ian Parnell, Mark Pretty, Dave Pickford, and Sam Whittaker) visited the Ak-Su Valley in the Karavashin region. There have been few trips to this area since the incident involving Tommy Caldwells party in 2000, when the members were kidnapped at gunpoint and fled to safety after a daring escape. Indeed, our thoughts that the situation had improved in the interim were cast in doubt close to our departure. There were reports of the deaths of 200 refugees at a nearby border and political upheavals because of an approaching election. However, as we had already paid our £300 air fares, we rationalized that our lives were unlikely to be worth more than that, so at the beginning of July we flew to Kyrgyzstan.
After a protracted week’s traveling, involving missed flights, broken gear boxes, mad drivers, road blocks, five-hour shortcuts, huge spiders, recalcitrant donkeys, and a Polaroid camera, we arrived at our base camp in the Ak-Su. This was a stunning setting, nestled between two parades of the most impressive granite mountains that I have ever seen (and I have seen over a dozen!). Instead of the dusty locale that I had expected, it was an alpine pasture, complete with a huge herd of cows (whose game of Shit In The Humans’ Campsite amused us no end and eventually led to us building a tiny corral).
Our first objective was a line on the Pamir Pyramid, to the left of the 1999 Parnell-Pretty route, The Reluctant Chief (530m, British E3 5c). Having climbed three pitches to a ledge (which was littered, as the valley was, with armor- piercing shells, ominous reminders of whatever trouble had occurred over the years—and could happen again), we began the upper section, heading toward a groove high on the wall. However, after a bold slab pitch, we began to find, to our disappointment, bolt belays. From there we followed a line, which we presumed to be roughly that of the existing route, until the climbing eased off. We rappelled the line. The existing bolts illustrate the problem of lack of information. We had gathered all the information we could from the Mountain INFO section of High Magazine, but such surprises still seem inevitable.
Because of bad weather, Pickford and Whittaker spent several days climbing on a one-pitch crag behind the campsite, adding a clutch of surprisingly fine, bold slab climbs ranging from E3 to E6/7. They also climbed a four-pitch route on a small peak to the right of the Central Pyramid, based around the most obvious of a series of left-facing grooves (250m, E5 6a). They found a bolt on the crux, indicating prior ascent, though possibly an aid line.
Donie and I then turned our attention to a line ascending the right arête of the huge Wall of Dikes, a formation first climbed by Dave Green and Paul Pritchard in 1997 (The Great Game, 900m, E5 6b) and in 1999 by Anne and John Arran (The Philosopher’s Stone, 900m, E6 6b). An obvious ramp led to the base. We gained the diagonal line with three interesting pitches up to E3, but again found a bolt. Carrying on with our plan, hoping that when we reached the main arête we would be on virgin ground, we grazed up the ramp with little difficulty. Actually, this grazing took three days, due to two days of downpour that forced us to retreat. The heavy rain turned the ramp to a drainage channel, giving some idea of what it would be like to be trapped in the U-bend when a toilet was flushed. The ramp ended at a shoulder below the arête, a point from which we could easily escape back to base camp for fried potatoes. We returned to climb the upper section, about 13 rope lengths up to E3, in a day, returning to bivouac on the shoulder long after nightfall. We found no more bolts or other evidence of previous ascents. The route, Amazing Graze, was on superb rock, with good protection, and went more easily than we had expected from below. Presuming it to be a first ascent, it shows the quality of virgin lines to be found in this area, at attainable standards. We later returned and climbed a new direct start up slabby rock directly to the shoulder, at E3/4.
Meanwhile Parnell and Pretty had been at work on the huge area of unclimbed rock right of the Wall of Dikes, to the right of the huge waterfall that comes down the large bowl. Using fixed ropes they climbed an arduous and difficult route, sustained, with pitches up to E4, based around a massive, sweeping, left-facing corner. The route ended at a ledge system about halfway up the peak proper, allowing the pair to descend into the bowl and return to camp. Parnell, who had come on the trip straight from a successful Everest expedition, had the look of an 8,000m veteran as he staggered into camp after this behemoth. The Beast (550m, 10 pitches, E4 6a).
Finally, Pickford and Whittaker added the hardest route of the trip, with an ascent of a pillar, on the very right edge of the Central Pyramid, rising out of the large depression between the Pyramid and the Russian Tower. This 400m, eight-pitch climb had a fourth-pitch crux of E7 6b, led by Whittaker, and reckoned to be one of the hardest on-sight leads he had ever made. The climb was named From Russia with Love.
Towards the end of the trip, while O’Sullivan and I were returning to base camp, having just done our direct start, we heard the unmistakable sound of an AK-47 rifle spitting its hot leaden death. We peeked round a corner to see Whittaker trying to eliminate a small bottle of water set on a rock. We approached to discover we had been joined by an army group, their camo gear and sniper rifles made more sinister by their shades, Coca-Cola T-shirts, bandanas, and Adidas trainers. The long and the short of it was that they were going to have a lot of money from us, and we were to leave the valley. From then on we were seen by anyone with a gun as an ever-diminishing pot of money. The final bizarre episode occurred on the Aeroflot plane, where armed men demanded, “Were you the Alpinists?” “No”, replied Pretty, “I collect flowers.” We were allowed to fly home with our Final few dollars.
This area still has lots of potential for development, although, as stated, what has or has not been done is not always clear, especially if climbers leave no drilled protection. The weather was fairly showery with, on average, afternoon rain every other day, though the rain was often light and would not necessarily mean coming off a route. Flies and other wildlife, cows excepted, were not a problem, and day and night temperatures were pleasant. The base camp area has excellent bouldering (our team added problems up to V9), and an expedition might bring a pad or two. Apart from boys with guns, the locals were warm, friendly, and generous.
Niall Grimes, United Kingdom