Ak-Shirak, seven first ascents, first south-to-north crossing. By daylight the river flood plain of moraine debris stretched away to where distant peaks shone whitely. The skis and sledges lay forlorn at the roadside, where we had been unceremoniously dumped in pitch darkness the night before. The drivers had caused a five-hour delay in reaching our destination by getting the truck stuck in thawing river ice. Those same drivers had assured us that no vehicle track led up the Kara Suy valley. We were looking at one now. There was no option but to break camp and follow this track.
Our seven-member team, comprising Derek Buckle, Alistair Cairns, John Goodwin, Lizzy Hawker, Anna Seale, Mike Sharp, and I as leader, traveled by 4WD from Bishkek via the Barskoon Gorge and Suek Pass (4,000m) to Kara Suy village, where a border-zone permit was required. We then moved on to the Kara Suy valley, up which we expected to continue by vehicle on a dirt track, seen during our 2003 reconnaissance.
After four days of sledging on gravel and river ice, with a few double carries, we camped at the snout of the Kara Suy Glacier. The Mer de Glace in the Mont Blanc Massif of France carries a wealth of associations, but this sea of ice had more and bigger waves than any of us had seen from Ecuador to Antarctica. Navigating to a high camp, from which we could access several peaks, we found ourselves above the waves at 4,200m.
We sited our camp (N 41° 48.560', E 78° 13.815', 4,193m GPS) on the flank of an icefall, beneath a ridge coming down from Kyrgysia (4,954m), the highest peak in the northern half of the Ak-Shirak. After making a first ascent of Pik Chasovoi (“Sentinel,” 4,765m) in a near white- out, then scouting the route to Kyrgysia Pass in a bitter wind that froze fingers and cameras, we climbed the south spur of Kyrgysia. From the summit we enjoyed panoramic views of the Ak-Shirak Range and the extensive peaks of the Tien Shan beyond. The ski descent to camp was superb.
Over the next few days we climbed the exposed Pik Karga (“Raven,” 4,831m) and the superb viewpoint of Pik Anna (4,658m), skinning to within 100m of the summits before donning crampons. Then, on a less auspicious day, we moved camp to the glacial watershed and made three further first ascents.
A glacier bay to the northwest gave access to two of them. Skirting the steep north face of Pt. 4,865.9m, with its tottering seracs, we gained the north col and found a good line up its steep north ridge. On the way up we were surprised by tracks that could only have been those of a hare, so the summit had to be Pik Koyon (“Hare” in Kyrgyz). Returning to the col, I led off up the south ridge of the second peak, rising through a series of ice bowls to a fine, narrow summit ridge. Hunched brooding above the gold mine far below, we Eagle Ski Club members named our summit Eagle’s Peak (4,822m).
We climbed our final summit, east of camp, in flurries of snow, first ascending an easy snow dome, then, when it looked as though a nearby rocky pinnacle could be higher, along a mixed ridge to that summit. Scrambling along granite blocks reminiscent of Chamonix, we reached a turret with “twin cannons” pointing to the sky. We took turns bridging up between these rocks to a precarious summit, which I christened Snow Cannon (4,720m at both summits).
We had been on the traverse for 15 days, and it was time to ski out. An unknown glacier system on the far side of a pass provided an easy descent for the laden pulks. We glided through stunning scenery to the foot of the Petrov Glacier, where we finally camped on the fine gravel shores of Lake Petrov. But there was a sting in the tail. The lake ice would not bear our weight, so we were forced to carry heavy rucksacks and drag our pulks along the increasingly chaotic moraine banks on the southern shore of the lake to reach the road.
We had completed the first south-north traverse of the Ak-Shirak Range, a distance of ca 50km on foot and ski, during a trip lasting from April 29 to May 21. En route we made seven first ascents of summits from 4,600m to 4,954m, all at a standard of around PD. We thank the Mount Everest Foundation, British Mountaineering Council (UK Sport), and the Eagles Ski Club for their support.
Dave Wynne-Jones, Alpine Club