American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Mustabbes and Kensu Valleys, Various Ascents

Kyrgyzstan, Tien Shan, At Bashi Range

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Author: Pat Littlejohn
  • Climb Year: 2010
  • Publication Year: 2011

Two International School of Mountaineering (ISM) expeditions, both led by me, visited the Tien Shan in 2010 with the aim of exploring the At Bashi Range, a 100km-long spine of alpine peaks up to 4,788m in height. I had twice previously visited this range (AAJ 2003 and AAJ 2008), which is very accessible from the north, being just two hours’ drive from Naryn. At least three previous expeditions had approached from this side, where many valleys remain to be explored. This time both ISM teams approached from the south, necessitating an extra day’s driving to get around the range, but opening up a wealth of new possibilities.

In August the first group, comprising Ed Brown, David McMeeking, Mat Piaseki, Steve Taylor, and I approached up the Mustabbes River, establishing base camp where the river divides, each branch flowing from two different glaciers. Advanced base camp was set up at 3,950m on the eastern glacier, and after acclimatizing on Pik Stefan (4,480m, PD), the team climbed the striking tower of Pik Bashnya (4,690m) on the east side of the glacier. We reached the summit via the north ridge at AD. Our next objective was a domed peak of light-colored rock at the head of the glacier. Its east ridge gave another varied and enjoyable AD, with a compact rock tower providing the crux.

Lower down on the west side of the glacier are several forbidding rock spires, and further north various summits approachable by steep snow faces. The most attractive of these was traversed from north to south and featured exposed climbing over the rock tower of Pik Darshana (4,570m, AD). Near the top of the main peak, five huge eagles circled the climbers, providing a memorable moment and a name for this summit: Beersh Berkut (4,600m).

After this the weather broke, precluding an attempt on the rock spires. However, the trip had shown the potential of the range for very enjoyable mountaineering, which is technically interesting but generally less serious than the neighboring Kokshaal peaks to the south.

In September a larger team consisting of Patrick Cadell, Adam Dickins, Mark Dillon, Tim Evans, Laura Fletcher, Tom Fox, and Paul Wellicome, with guides Adrian Nelhams, Vladimir Komissarov, and I, began the trip in the limestone valley of Tash Rabat on the northern flank of the range. Famous for its thousand-year-old Caravanserai/fortress, the valley also had good climbing potential. We climbed five routes up to 500m in length and British HVS over two days. We then drove around the range and up the Kensu River valley to a group of glaciers below the second highest peak of the At Bashi: Kensu (4,757m). This had been climbed via its glaciated west flank by Soviet cartographers mapping this part of range. Their metal tripod still sits on top after 50 years.

Climbing from a base camp at 3,780m, and from an advanced base at 4,120m, three climbing teams managed 11 new peaks/routes over seven days. Grades ranged from F to D+, and highlights included the long, pinnacled rock ridge overlooking base camp (Sumashedshaya south ridge, 4,510m, D+), the east Ridge of Pik Ara (4,595m, AD), the north ridge of twin-summited Ekilik (4,496m, AD-), and the long and demanding south ridge of Kensu itself (AD). Unseasonable heavy snows then hit the range, forcing a retreat to Naryn, where we waited out two further days of snowfall before heading to Son Kul Canyon. Aside from the “big-wall” climbing of the Aksu and Karavshin valleys, Son Kul is currently Kyrgyzstan’s premier rock climbing destination, having “alpine rock routes” up to 900m, as well as many shorter but adventurous crag climbs. Here we added several new routes up to eight pitches long and British E2, giving a total of around 20 routes in the canyon to date. As usual, Son Kul granted superb weather and was a perfect conclusion to a very enjoyable trip.

Pat Littlejohn, UK, Alpine Club

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