On August 3 Scott Adamson, Tom Adamson, and I stepped off the plane in Bishkek, courtesy of an AAC Lyman Spitzer Grant. We immediately realized the extent of the communication barrier and were glad to see our contact, Misha Sohorukov (firstname.lastname@example.org), waiting at the terminal. He loaded our mountain of gear onto his tiny car and away we went, flying through the early morning darkness, excited and exhausted from so much travel.
Misha is an outfitter who came highly recommended. Our agreement was simple: one flat fee and we were his complete responsibility for a month-and-a-half. He took charge of our meals, lodging, and travel expenses. He also had enormous expertise as a ski mountaineering guide and porter, and was familiar with the areas in which we were interested. Although he speaks limited English, communication was not a problem. We found his services exceptional throughout our stay.
We hashed out details the following day over dinner with his wife (who speaks very good English). We would spend a week or so in the Ala Archa, getting used to our new surroundings and acclimatizing on the 4,500+m peaks around the Ak-Sai Glacier. We’d then head back to town long enough to gather supplies, and then head off again to spend a month in one of the most remote and unexplored mountain ranges in the world. A day later, in an amazing downpour, we hiked up the grueling 1,500m vertical interval to the Ratsek Hut at the mouth of the Ak Sai. We then sat in the hut through eight days of rain. The weather cleared long enough to see us through one of the classic 5.9 rock pillars on the south face of Pik Bachichiki and a failed attempt on a new route up the north face of Korona. After eight days we had had enough and steeled ourselves for a muddy descent.
Two days later we headed to Naryn, past ancient relics of the Soviet era and into the Western Kokshaal-Too on the border with China. The final day’s drive was one of the most gripping on the trip, as we threaded our way through washed-out roads and bridges for 100km in Misha’s tiny car.
Driving along the western approaches to the Kokshaal-Too is extreme, and we slowly rose onto a 3,600m bench that provides a surreal view. Finally, the Kyzyl Asker group came into view, the main summit a huge mountain dominating the southern horizon.
The next few weeks of fall saw our initial five days of sunny weather deteriorate into an early winter. In addition, a nasty stomach bug led to me suffering pulmonary edema, and an attempt on Kyzyl’s southeast face by the other two almost ended their lives. Only nine days into our stay on the Komorova Glacier, plagued by sickness and unable to hydrate, I was beset by some alarmingly high respirations while completely at rest. These forced me back to Bishkek and a Kyrgyz hospital. Forging on, Scott and Tom pushed the remaining five kilometers to an advanced base close to Kyzyl Asker, where they waited out weather system after weather system, before finally committing themselves to the face. The weather quickly deteriorated into a tempest, and constant spindrift finally forced a retreat at mid-height. The ensuing storm dumped a full three meters of snow over the following five days, crushing all hopes of another attempt and providing challenges during the 20km hike out. The extreme weather caused Tom to suffer frostbite.
Back in Bishkek on September 9 after a bit of rejuvenation on the soothing shores of Lake Issyk-Kul, we wished we had done things differently. Hopefully our short memories will be an asset in getting us motivated for some more abuse next season.
– James Stover