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Thursday, October 25, 2018

Mountain Climbing in Kyrgyzstan

Early this summer, my adrenaline junkie brother was looking for something big to do to mark his fiftieth birthday.  Searching on the internet for "extreme adventure" and similar terms, he came up with this company based in London.  They've been doing extreme trips for years, like mountain climbing in Iraq last year, or crossing the desert in Libya even while it hovers on the brink of political chaos.  The trip that caught John's eye was to attempt first ascents of peaks in southern Kyrgyzstan, in the Tian Shan group of mountain ranges.  Like almost everyone, I had to look up where Kyrgyzstan is.  These would be peaks even the guides had never been to, with no known records of any previous ascents.

In preparation for the trip, we both spent lots of time this summer hiking stairs while wearing heavy packs.

After months of asking what we had gotten ourselves into, it finally arrived.  It took 24 hours of travel to get from Houston to Bishkek.  We finally met the cast of characters we'd be spending the next two weeks with at the Southside Guesthouse, a cozy place with a shared breakfast room and picnic table out on the patio in the enclosed yard.

The guesthouse was full of the most adventurous travelers we've ever met.  We met two different couples in their early sixties traveling with their own vehicles all the way from England to Shanghai.  One couple was driving a Land Cruiser, and the other couple each had their own giant off-road-capable motorcycles.

Our team consisted of a driver, a cook, a porter named Daniel, a Northern Irish guide named Dave (a former British paratrooper who guides TV crews in dangerous places these days), a local guide named Misha, who is a leading Kyrgyz mountain climber, me, my brother John, and three other climbers.  The three other climbers were Rhys from Australia, Sico from the Netherlands, and Alan from the UK.  All 25 or 26 years old!

Here we are about to head up to base camp in our GAZ-66, a Soviet military truck.  Manufactured in the late 80's, it was still going strong.  This is the only photo I didn't take. It was taken with Dave's phone.  

After spending the night at Misha's parents' cozy B&B in the lakeside town of Tamga, we were headed up into the mountains.  We passed over a high plains area between two mountain ranges on the way.  This was before we left the road behind.  This was early in the morning, so there was a nice mist rising off the highland lakes between the snow-dusted peaks.

Another from the same area.

Here we stopped to look around just before the road drops back down toward the rivers we would soon drive across.  

This was in a restricted area close to the Chinese border, requiring a permit to enter, but the driver just blew past the checkpoint off-road. There was a bit of nervous laughter about that. Here we were in a military-looking vehicle.

We drove across a giant riverbed, actually the confluence of two major rivers.  It was probably more than a mile across, of gravel, grass, and rivulets of varying depth everywhere.  We were often hanging onto anything we could grab onto as the truck negotiated steep rivulets.  Sometimes it felt the pots and pans in the back of the truck clanged loudly as the flew in the air as the truck seemed like it was about to roll over.  But the truck was built for this stuff, and we had an experienced driver.  The view from the other side.

A short while later, we arrived at the end of the valley where they had planned to establish base camp.  There was a shepherd on horseback, his three sheep dogs, and about a hundred sheep.

This was miles from any town or road, and long past any mobile phone or internet connectivity.  The shepherd lived out here in a tiny house with his family and a couple of other workers.  Hard to imagine what life is like for them.  

Misha told us these horses are a Kyrgyz breed adapted to the steep mountains and cold temperatures. We saw them riding these horses up impossibly steep rocky inclines with ease.

After our guides had a brief chat with the shepherd, the GAZ-66 headed back into the river bed and up the valley.  The funny thing is, we were all still out taking pictures.  The driver left us, and kept going for about a half mile without us.  The cab of the truck is not connected to the back half, so we were joking that he had no idea were weren't in the truck.

The river was getting deeper as we went up the valley, so we stopped to reconnoiter a good camp site on foot. I took this looking back down the valley. You can see Dave walking along the stream in the reddish jacket, and the GAZ-66 parked a ways behind him.

That afternoon, we set up the base camp at the farthest point up-valley that the truck could drive safely.

Here's a view of the base camp from one of the mountains just behind it.  What, you don't see the base camp?  See the zoomed-in version just below this.

And a closer view of the very same photo.  The yellow tent was the dining tent. You can see the GAZ-66 parked on the edge of the river bed.

Down in that riverbed, John found this Ibex horn.  Hunters come from around the world to hunt the Ibex here.  Misha (our local guide) said they're pretty common in the area we were in, but we never saw any live ones.  Only a couple of horns like this.

Next up, click here to see photos of us doing scary stuff our first day at advanced base camp.

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