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.

Pik a-Boo First Ascent

On the 23rd August 2019 Steve Graham, Jared Kitchen and myself successfully climbed a first ascent of Pik a-Boo in the Western Zaalisky area of the Pamir Mountain range.

Whilst I explored all of the valleys on this expedition and aided the achieved of a two other summits by the team, Pik a-Boo was my only summit on the trip. For my personal account of this climb scroll to the bottom.

If you’re heading to the area and interested in repeating this route here is a route description.

Pik a-Boo (given name) 5077m.

First ascent 23 August 2019 Steve Graham, Jared Kitchen, Emily Thompson

Lat N 39 18’ 47.938 Long E 72 18’ 42.938

GPS: 5,077m (Soviet map 5,122m). (We discovered approx 50m differential on all of our summits).

Route topo

Approach

From our Advanced Base Camp climb 100m vertical and 1km across moraine scree to reach the glacier and the start of the route.

The moraine before reaching the glacier. (Photo by Jared Kitchen)

North Glacier route. Grade AD- 900m

Summit day climb: 9.5hrs.

Round trip (BC to BC): 3 days (2 nights).

The route across the glacier is climbing on ice and snow at an angle of 40-55 degrees. Initially follow the rocky band upwards to gain height above the crevasse and ascend across the glacier to the col at 4870m.

From the col head right and traverse several large undulating mixed and short steeper ice sections (up to 60 degrees) to the final summit approach. Final approach is a snow arete to the small rock pinnacle summit. The true summit is the last of three pinnacles.

Jared look at the route across the ridge and the snow arete beyond to the summit. The second col before the snow arete is hidden to the right of the photo. The summit of Pik a Boo is the high point on the right.

Note: unlike other valleys were the glacier is buried under moraine and it is possible to find a water source, there is no access to water in the valley even at ABC. This meant that we took additional water for our climb from base camp.

Climbing a Virgin Peak

The night before we left camp to reccie the Northern Valley, it has snowed and we awoke to the whole Altyn Daria valley looking picturesque and alpine.

Jared and I set off on the first of three reccie days with the intention of walking to the Kok Kiki but stopped short on the walk down the track to explore what I’ve called the Northern Valley. I was fatigued from portering kit up to the Bel Uluu advanced camp for the other group and was keen to cover less ground. The 8 km walk downhill to reach the entrance to the Kok Kiki was less attractive than a short uphill section to explore a valley closer to our base camp.

After much discussion we headed uphill. Of course it was a punt. We didn’t know what to expect as we couldn’t see into the hanging corries of the North and South Valleys from the Altyn Daria.

It turned out to be worth our while, not only for our continued acclimatisation, but also for what we found. On our reccie we ascended to over 4000m and left the grass and headed on to the moraine.

We walked up to a huge boulder on the moraine at around 4000m where we had a great vantage point to see the back of the hanging valley. From there Jared and I were confident there was at least one, if not two, climbing lines to the two summits from there.

The moraine on the walk into the valley was stable, albeit steep. We were also happy that the moraine was stable enough to be able to establish an advanced base camp from which to attempt a route.

The unknown was the final lines to the summit. Neither Peak 5122m or Peak 5171m are visible from the main Altyn Daria valley, so it wouldn’t be until we committed to climbing got the route we could determine if either summit were able to be reached from the Northern Valley.

It had snowed the night before our exploration day and so we had initially thought that the route to the left, on the scree was preferable. This would have taken us on the glacier to ascend point 5171m, later climbed from the Kok Kiki valley.

Scree route on to 5177m after a night of snow.

The North Glacier route on our exploration walk after a night of snow. The rock band would be bare when we returned.

Equipped with knowledge from our reccie we returned 3 days later with Steve joining us to attempt a route.

We left our Base Camp (3120m) around lunchtime. Carrying a lot more kit it took three and a half hour to climb up to the moraine and identify a site for our Advanced Base Camp, at around 4200m. We are grateful to Alexi and Sasha our base camp crew for supporting us by carrying additional water up to the end of the pasture. This was necessary with no available water sources in the valley.

This did mean Jared and Steve had to do a return trip from ABC to this location to collect the additional load. This left me about an hour or so to clear and flatten the scree sufficiently for our tent. As I moved rocks around and stamped down the shale I could see the snow storm in the valley, thankfully it never reached us and we were left with good conditions.

Spot the tent! (Photo by Steve Graham on our morning ascent)
Our pitch (photo by Steve Graham)

Once Jared and Steve returned and the tent was pitched we nestled in our sleeping bags for an evening of eating and chatting about the climbing lines.

With the surface snow melted and the scree on the left now bare, we decided that the left route was probably the least preferable to try, given the potential for rockfall. So we agreed to climb the glacier to the right, which would become our North Glacier route onto Pik a-Boo.

We awoke the following morning at 4.30am for breakfast and to kit up. We weren’t particular speedy as we didn’t start our ascent till 6.30am. A bit of kit faff and lots of breakfast eaten and tea drunk.

Jared and Steve ahead as we headed off to the glacier.

Climbing initially with head torches we soon had daylight as we reached the foot of the glacier, albeit we were in the shade right until the col at 4870m.

The initial climb up the glacier was slow due to the altitude but it wasn’t technical or strenuous. We ascended the glacier by its left edge, sticking close to the rocky ridge, before making a bold and committing traverse rightwards above the bergschrund to the col. The route had a 500m+ run out below us, but the good neve turned to good solid ice and the angle was not difficult so we climbed without protection, moving together.

Steve roping up as we head into the glacier. We headed up to the rock in the centre before traversing across.

Once at the col we had a break to refuel and assess the route ahead. The route to the left of the col would have led to a summit within Tajikistan, which we did not have a permit to enter and peak 5122m beyond it was a long way to traverse a ridge. So heading right was really the only choice if we wanted to claim a first ascent.

Me and Steve at the col looking at the route to the right leading to the Tajikistan summit. (Photo from Jared Kitchen)
Jared as we head across the ridge towards the final summit arête. To the right is the glacier dropping down to our camp. To the left of the rocky ridge is a drop over 900m down into Tajikistan

The traverse across the pinnacles looked like it should have been straight forward, but in fact the route undulates considerably. This meant we were never sure what was ahead and whether we would be able to progress.

The rock across this section is broken and friable and so it was preferable to stick to the ice.

Half way along the ridge we met a spicy section which required down climbing into the glacier, cross a crevasse and climbing back out again.

We climbed unprotected on this section and the condition of the ice was very good. On our return we placed ice screws to protect the descent on this section as the snow quality deteriorated in the sun.

Once we climbed out of the glacier we could see that the first of the rock summits was indeed the highest, but to reach it we would have to climb the snow arete.

We paused at the end of the ridge to eat and drink before Jared lead the final push to the summit up the snow. After the snow arête the final summit involved a scramble over friable rocky pinnacles to reach the true top. We arrived around 12pm.

The three of us at the summit!

We spent about 45 minutes at the summit taking photos and videos and taking gps altitude evidence. It was noted that the summit was actually 50m less than marked on the Russian map. Was it the poor quality of the rock which had crumbled over the years? Or a mistake in surveying initially?

As always the descent off the summit proved quicker, although the snow was deteriorating in quality so we were cautious about being safe. We protected the down-climb section on the ridge due to deteriorating quality of the snow. After a break at the col we headed off the ridge cautiously, down the glacier, to camp.

We arrived at the tent tired and elated. We stopped there for the night to refuel on food and sleep before descending to base camp the following morning.

Summit view into Tajikistan
Summit view into the Altyn Daria valley
Jared and I enjoying the view into Tajikistan as we descended. (Photo from Steve Graham)
Jared on the walk out to Base Camp

How do I feel about climbing a first ascent?

I’m still not sure, and that’s the truth. The expedition was a long 18 month of planning, and three weeks in country.

Having done all the exploratory work with Jared to aid the climbs on three of the route, I was certainly tired but happy to feel like I’d definitely seen everything and learnt a lot.

But I didn’t get the other two summits I reccied and walked into. Ak Chukar, the first, was an emotional acclimatisation period that changed the course of the trip for me and my outlook on how I would do this sort of trip again.

The second, Ak Kalpak, I have no hard feelings about. I walked up the moraine to see the glacier and was happy that for me it felt unachievable. Knowing that Jared and Steve found the route beyond the initial glacier challenging, and later graded it Difficile, I knew I’d made the right choice for me and for them.

Kyrgyzstan is an amazing country. Easy to travel within and the people are very friendly. Whilst unexplored the valley wasn’t entirely remote, with farmers and the border patrol so it felt as safe as alpine climbing in such a place could be.

Ak Kalpak summit is hidden from view on the right. If you zoom in you can see Jared and Steve by the bank of rock across the glacier to the left. Taken from half way up the moraine as I descended back to camp at 7am. Jared and Steve summited at around 2pm.