Pioneering First Ascents in the Western Zaalaisky, Kyrgyzstan

The KMC expedition achieved four new unclimbed peaks in the Pamir Mountains of Kyrgyzstan during a three week period of exploration and climbing. The expedition was 18 months in the making. We were a team of : Steve Graham, Stuart Hurworth, Jared Kitchen, Andrew Stratford, Andrew Vine and myself.

The Team along with our Russian support crew. Left to right: Andy S, Roslan (driver) Alex (cook), Andy V, Steve, Stuart, me, Jared and Sasha (cook)

The planning involved a significant amount of research to identify a location with enough scope for first ascents. Whilst there are still a significant amount of unclimbed peaks in Kyrgyzstan, some areas have had a lot of exploration in the last 5-10 years, so honing our focus down to the Western Zaalaisky took some time and advice which I sought from the Kyrgyz Alpine Club.

It also involved organising the logistics of getting there (enabled by our awesome driver Roslan), hiring base camp cook team to support us (the amazing Sacha and Alex), organising satellite communications and emergency procedures, procuring high altitude first aid supplies, ensuring we were all up to scratch with crevasse rescue, and of, course being fit enough to haul 25+ kg of kit each into the mountains to set up advanced base camps.

It was a time consuming feat of logistics. We are grateful for financial support we received for the trip from The Alpine Club, The BMC, The Mount Everest Foundation, Austrian Alpine Club, Karabiner Mountaineering Club and support with kit and supplies from Montane and Expedition Foods.

The Western Zaalaisky, Pamir Mountains

The Western Zaalaisky is in the Pamir Mountain range, 280km south of the Eastern city of Osh.

On arriving in Osh our first task was shopping for three weeks worth of base camp food at the local supermarket with Sacha and Alex, a process which involved filling a staggering eight supermarket trolleys with supplies.

In our six- wheel Russian truck it took us two days to get from Osh to the entrance to our intended valley, just beyond the town of Daroot Korgan. On the way we crossed high mountain passes and passed through the Silk Road Town of Sary Tash, where we stopped for the night in a little motel, popular with Silk Road motorbike trips.

Our Beast stopping on the mountain pass to let the engine cool

The Altyn Daria valley

From Daroot Korgan we headed immediately south, on dirt roads into the mountains towards the Tajikistan border. Despite the appearance of isolation the Altyn Daria valley isn’t as much of a wilderness as you’d expect.

Providing the main route from Daroot Korgan into Tajikistan, the valley does have a dirt road all the way through, albeit one which can only be crossed by a four-wheel drive vehicle. To enter the valley requires a border permit, checked by officials as you leave the tarmac road at Daroot Korgan. Even if you don’t intend to cross into Tajikistan, and this is checked at the bridge before you enter the valley.

The Beast on the dirt road through the Altyn Daria valley

The road through the valley follows the course of the Bel Uluu river which runs from the mountains at the Tajikistan border to the road at Daroot Korgan. Dotted through the valley are farmers nomadically herding cattle and sheep. During our stay we found they were keen to help us whenever they could, providing donkeys to help us cross the river and transport kit up one of the valleys, as well keeping base camp stocked with regular cream, bread and cheese.

View from our base camp to the Min Terke Buttress

The Altyn Daria valley also has a temporary army base at the foot of the Bel Uluu valley where Tajiki troops are based to check passports and permits of individuals in the area. You cannot head south of the base without a Tajikistan visa. As you can imagine they were particularly interested in us as foreigners, given few have visited the area; we had almost daily visits to our base camp.

Off the main expanse of the Altyn Daria valley lie other valleys where the remote climbing objectives lie. These alone could provide enough mountaineering for a full expedition.

Our base camp after a night of snow.
The Altyn Daria Valley with the main valleys we explored and some we intended to. The red stars highlight the first ascents climbed on this expedition.

Exploration in the Altyn Daria

The Min Terke

Crossing the Bel Uluu river the Min Terke valley runs east for around 14km. 4 km into the valley the Min Terke river forks where the Kash Casu valley and Min Terke valleys join.

We didn’t explore beyond this river junction of these valleys due to issues crossing the rivers, which are very fast flowing and very deep in comparison to the Bel Uluu river running down the main Altyn Daria valley. We tried to hire donkeys from local farmers but on being told we were heading into the Min Terke they were unwilling to loan donkeys to aid crossing this particular river. The river is so problematic that even the logistical force of the International School of Mountaineering (who arrived a week after us) quickly bailed on the valley.

If you have the ability to set up complex ladder crossings or Tyrollean traverses, then there are a wealth of unclimbed peaks in the Min Terke/ Kash Casu area which could occupy a whole expedition. We concluded that to do so it would be better to have a base camp established in Min Terke valley.

Jared on our morning exploration of the Min Terke valley
The junction of the Min Terke and Kash Casu rivers. This is as far as we explored into the valley as we couldn’t cross the rivers here and couldn’t convince farmers to lend donkeys to do so either.

The Bel Uluu valley

The Bel Uluu valley provides a great area for acclimatisation. At only 6km long it is achievable to gain altitude quickly without committing to a long walk in. The valley rises upwards to the Bel Uluu glacier, where, ascending the scree you reach three objectives – one of which, Ak Chukur at 4900m, our team got as a first ascent.

The Bel Uluu is marked by a temporary army check point, as it is close to the Tajikistan border, and they will definitely want to see your border permits to be in the area. From the camp a series of animal paths, some cairned by farmers, lead up to pastures.

The temporary army camp at the base of the Bel Uluu valley
Looking up the Bel Uluu valley
The high pasture at the head of the Bel Uluu valley
The screes onto the glacier
Glacier head wall.

From the pastures the land becomes broken and grassy moraine, though there is still suitable space for a high camp, before ascending the moraine to the glacier.

Jared, looking back down the valley, on our acclimatisation walk up to the glacier.

We each hauled 25+kg packs up the Bel Ulu valley to set up higher camps, this was a mammoth effort. Given the animal tracks it might be possible to hire a donkey to take kit up the valley. Had we done more research and reconnaissance before heading up the valley we might have realised this.

Either way, be aware that crossing the Bel Uluu river in the bottom of the valley isn’t easy without a donkey or a truck. We were lucky that the army were sufficiently bored that when we reached the river a second time to cross, they had built stepping stones.

The small corries off the Altyn Daria valley

High above the main Altyn Daria valley are high valleys which hide mountain summits.

Pik a Boo was climbed via the Northern Valley but Al Kalpak was better accessed via the Kok Kiki valley much further north.

The southerly and closest to our base camp Jared and I reccied and found only chossy moraine of big boulders and sand, making the whole area feel like a death trap. The glacier to the peaks wasn’t climbable either and any summits here need to be accessed from Tajikistan.

Looking at the back wall of the valley
The glacier on the valley wall – this is after the night of snow but still shows the heavy crevasses

We entered the northern valley via grassy pasture and a much more amenable moraine. Jared and I identified on our exploration that there was a potential route up the scree to peak 5171 (later named Ak Kalpak) and a line up the glacier avoiding the crevasse to the col, which could potentially take us to peak 5122 (named Pik a-Boo).

Potential access route to 5171 up the screes after the night of snow- we later decided this was objectively more dangerous due to potential rock fall, and opted for the glacier. Peak 5171 was later climbed from the Kok Kiki valley
The glacier covered by the night’s snow but even then we thought it had potentially to provide aa safe route to the col and onward to peak 5122, now known as Pik a Boo, climbed by myself, Steve and Jared.

The glacier at the head of the valley was at around 45 degrees which two days later made it possible for us to ascend and skirt around the ridge to reach 5122, one of the expedition’s first ascents and now known as Pik a-Boo or Skrytaya Gora in Russian. See this link for more details on our climb and route description should you be interested in repeating our climb.

Pik -a-Boo/ Skrytaya Gora topo

The Kok Kiki

About 6 km down the valley from our Base Camp the Kok Kiki starts with a cluster of farms at the entrance to the valley.

The walk into the Kok Kiki area is a gentler progression uphill following the river, through farm pastures with easy footpaths. 5km up the river the path splits to create two higher valleys. It’s possible to hire donkeys from the farm and take them up the valley to aid carrying kit.

Jared and the farmer loading packs
Steve walking into the Kok Kiki valley
The Kok Kiki valley just after our river crossing. To the right of the image is peak 5084 which Stuart, Andy and Andy attempted via the north facing glacier. This peak remains unclimbed.

We had teams in each of these valleys. Stuart and Andy V climbed the rocky ridge to reach the top of 5122 which they named Broken Peak. Jared and Steve climbed 5171 – now known as Ak Kalpak, named after the Kyrgyzstani traditional hat.

Peak 5171, now known as Ak Kalpak, successfully climbed by Steve and Jared.

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