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, 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.

Burnmoor Lodge and Scafell Crag – hidden gems

We arrived just in time for food at a pub in the valley. Andy asked for the key to the lodge and was met with a reply,

What’s the password?

Andy stared blankly but somehow got the key anyway.

Burnmoor Lodge is managed by the Burnmoor Lodge Club, set up by the owner of the lodge in order to manage and restored the building. The Club comprises of a very select group of people of which Andy is one.

Armed with a bunch of keys and heavy packs we set off up the hillside into the fading light and the clag.

Jared joked that this was another team expedition across a muddy hill, and that up here the sheep grew bigger in the damp clag. By the time we reached Burnmoor Lodge the clag was so thick the sheep could be the size of elephants.

The fourth key tried opened the door and by torchlight we were greeted by a room full of DIY and smelling of paraffin. A row of shiny Tiley lamps sat on the shelf above the fire.

The previous occupant had left a note apologising for not tidying as he had been on a 10 day working party and was tired. His sleeping bag and power pack were still in one of the rooms.

We unpacked sleeping bags and fell asleep.

Despite its remote location between Wasdale and Eskdale high on the hill, the Lodge has three upstairs rooms with bunk beds enough for 18 people – with new mattresses and pillows, and repairs to the roof and plastering ongoing. With only the Club to restore it, it will take a while, but I could see the place could be alright when renovations have finished.

In the daylight the hut actually looks organised – dining area with books and games, kitchen with all the usual stuff and a shelf choked full of jars of pickles and herbs. And a living room full of DIY stuff.

view of Burnmoor lodge
view of Burnmoor lodge
kitchen at Burnmoor lodge
living room at Burnmoor lodge
bedroom at Burnmoor lodge

Climbing on Scafell Crag

After breakfast and sorting kit we marched across the bog next to Burnmoor Tarn, watching a Duke of Edinburgh group misunderstand the point of pacing themselves up the hill. It was great to look back down the hill and see our rather large lodge.

view across Burnmoor Tarn to the Lodge

We stashed our bags at the top of Lord’s Rake and kitted up before descending the shaly, loose gully to the bottom of the routes.

Lords Rake
Lords Rake descent

Jared had chosen Botterill’s Slab a VS 4c 3-pitch route, while Andy and Stuart headed off for Moss Ghyll Grooves.

Getting to the bottom of Botterill’s Slab involved a slimy shuffle up green slippy steps to reach the start. We had to wait a while for teams to move up before we could climb, so we had the pleasure of admiring the drippiness of the route. It also faced north, so while crowds headed up Scafell Pike in the glorious sunshine, it was pretty cold in the shade.

The first pitch I didn’t enjoy much as it was very 3D and off balance and I took ages to wriggle up trying to avoid my hands being wet and cold. At least the cold kept the midges at bay. There’s something very British about putting your hand in a puddle as you climb.

The slab pitch was partly ok but the crux in the middle was a horrifying combination of tiny handholds and tiny footholds and Jared had a long moment before he could place gear. I did whinge my way up that bit. There’s a reason I only lead really easy routes!

Botterill's slab
Botterill's slab

The 3rd pitch was more straight forward and much easier, although it did involve a squeeze into and a thrutch up a green slimy chimney – which was definitely aided by the fact I was climbing with a bag with our boots in it.

Despite being green it has good holds and leads to a lovely little ridge scramble with an Alpine feel before the end.

final pitch of Botterill's slab
Scafell summit

We had a quick plod to the summit of Scafell before descending to our bags, and a quick refuel stop before heading down.

After a simple dinner and a beer in the sunshine (yes we carried beers up to the Lodge!) we heated water for a complex washing up session.

As the light faded we tried to light a Tiley lamp for light and heat but instead set it alight. Tiley lamps are not straight forward to light it seems!

The Lodge is in a beautiful location, perfect for wild swimming, and a great view of Scafell, especially at sunset. It felt like a privilege to stay at Burnmoor Lodge, and I’d love to return and see the progress the Club make in its restoration. I’d also love to see it used enough to keep it running, without the wildness of the place changing.

sunset at Burnmoor lodge

It will be especially exciting when the compost toilet proposed is installed – so the final days ritual of digging a pit is no longer required!

toilet block at Burnmoor lodge

Walking in Asturias – The Camino Real del Puerto de la Mesa

Having hiked in Asturias a few times before I was prepared for open trails and amazing views. The Camino Real del Puerto de la Mesa, high up in the mountains provides all this, along with an amazing insight into local history.

The GR-101 is a path that runs from south to north through Asturias, leaving Torrestío and ending at Las Cruces, after passing through Belmonte. The route follows the old Roman road of La Mesa, more commonly known as El Camín Real. This route linked the Castilian plateau with the town of Gijón.

The Roman road is around 45km long. This trail also has a variant, the GR-101.1 Camino Real de Cueiru to Villanueva, which is what we walked (in reverse).

For an Open Street Map view of the whole of the GR101.1 click here – we opted to walk as far as the old historical town of Bandujo / Banduxu.

Walking the GR 101.1

We started our walk along the trail from Castanedo del Monte, a small village in the hills above the old industrial town of Trubia and heading for the medieval town of Bandujo.

Should you wish to start the trail lower down the valley is possible to walk up the hill from Villanueva, along the old packhorse trail, following the signs for Cuevallagar. (We used this route to head down to Villanueva a few days later and I can confirm its easy to navigate and a lovely walk through the woods – although preferable downhill!)

From Castanedo del Monte the trail, signposted as the GR 101.1, heads out of the village on a small lane which hugs the side of the hill and looks out over the woodland and valley below.

The lane eventually turns into a dirt track and heads into the woodland towards the old local mines. The town of Trubia in the valley used to be a bustling industrial town with workers coming up the hill to work in the mines. Now the mines are abandoned and provide an interesting feature along the walk.

From the mines the path winds up the hillside to eventually reach the top and the village of Linares, where you can follow the road to reach a small car park where people come to sit and admire the view.

Here the Camino Real del Puerto de la Mesa, is at its peak. The track now heads across the top of the hill, giving amazing views to the mountains beyond as it winds along.

On a scorching hot day at the end of August it was beautiful, but also a shade free place to be at midday. We continued along the track as it wound around the hillside, past farm fields and small limestone escarpments above. Despite being a walking trail this is also farming country, with lots of cattle roaming, and the occasional farm truck whizzing past kicking up the dust.

Around lunchtime we reached Cuevallagar, a plateau with a perfect lunch spot near a tree.

After a feast of Asturias cheese and bread with cider we followed the GR101.1 towards Maraviu, turning off the track to head across the grassy plateau. Eventually the track re-emerges for a while and you start to wind downhill to a bend where you reach a junction and turn right to end up in another grassy field. Here you head across and uphill to reach a gate and the road.

We were met at the gate by an old farmer tending his cattle and a small yapping chihuahua. He offered his chilled CocaCola from a hidden freezer box, which Leah of course accepted in her fluent Spanish. He confirmed that we were on the road which headed down to Bandujo.

While the route was no longer the official trail and now a tarmac road it was still quiet and peaceful and on arriving near Bandujo I could see why Leah had insisted that this was our goal.

The church of St. Mary in the centre of Bandujo is of medieval origin and underwent restoration in the 18th century. The palace of Bandujo and its tower is one of the best preserved late medieval defensive towers in Asturias. This building also served as a prison and town hall.

Here we were lucky enough to be met by Dan, Leah’s husband for a lift back to Villanueva.

Tough decisions on the Jungfrau

Crossing the 1 foot wide ridge of snow I was very aware of the snow melting under my feet and becoming unstable. I held my breath and walked confidently, eyes ahead.

We’d already lost half an hour on the ascent waiting for a team ahead of us to climb the snow to the ridge line, their guide leading the way and belaying them up. When we crossed the ridge we had to wait again for the guide to cross the couloir, digging a foot deep through the snow to place ice screws, securing the traverse to the metal stake and beyond to the rocks.

Waiting on a route is never ideal, especially when the snow under our feet was fresh and only had one night of freezing. And the sun was already high in the sky, melting it.

Tempting fate

Our decision to have a go at the Jungfrau was borne out of our original goal to climb it and the Monch on our trip to Switzerland, and out of frustration at having our plans change due to wet weather for a few days. For 4 days it rained heavily on and off, a few of those times we had been caught out trail running or crag climbing, determined to make the most of the breaks between showers.

The weather had promised to be glorious on Saturday, the day before we went home, so after a long discussion about the likelihood of the snow higher up having had chance to consolidate, we gambled on a trip up high to try the Jungfrau. We also winced at the cost of the Jungfraujoch train, at £180 or so each this wasn’t a cheap gamble.

So Friday afternoon we headed up on the train, through the low cloud and drizzle. There’s no doubting that the Jungfraujoch is an amazing feat of engineering, but in the mist we were unable to really appreciate this, with no view to be had at the Eismeer station half way up the inside of the Eiger.

Despite the awful weather the summit station was busy with tourists, also unable to appreciate the landscape their were in from the panorama windows of the cafe.

We kitted up at the doorway and headed out along the snowy track to the Monchjoch hut, it what can best be described as typical Scottish conditions. Damp and foggy.

Waking up to clear skies

Waking at 3am to discover that it had been clear skies overnight and the ground had frozen was a great relief but we were aware that this wasn’t likely to last and the unconsolidated snow while frozen now would soon melt in the morning sun.

We were the second team out of the hut as we headed back along the track to the Jungfraujoch where we roped up and headed across the glacier as quick as we could to the bottom of the Rottersattel ridge.

The views down the glacier even at 4.30am were beautiful.

Before stepping on to the rock ridge we had to cross a crevasse bridge, I wondered how stable it would be as we descended later.

The rock ridge began with what we now realised was typical Swiss broken rock before we reached the bigger stable rocks. Climbing the ridge we moved quickly together, traversing round the east side and heading left before climbing up to the top.

Once up the rock we had a lovely snow plod across the broad ridge to the bottom of the ascent. The sun was already shining and we’d caught up the guided group ahead of us.

We had a snack and a drink waiting for the group to ascend and traverse the snow ridge, mindful that we were losing valuable time and the snow was melting. We were grateful to the guide for breaking trail, but his choice to belay his group one by one up the snow was taking time.  I was particularly nervous when we traversed the narrow arete and onto the snow bank which looked down on the steep western side. The metal stakes were appreciated on the traverse.

From here we had a rocky ridge to ascend to the summit, but with the sun beating down and the snow turning to slush beneath our feet, within 100m of the summit at 9am we decided to turn around. The route we had come up had required considerable front pointing to ascend.

With quick discussion and much disappointment, we decided to turn around in order to descend safely – to reach the summit might have taken an hour to get up and back to where we were and it was a chance we didn’t want to take.

Retreating from a route is always disappointing. The team ahead summited and thanks to their guide who knew an alternative way to descend they did so quickly. However, without this knowledge we saw the giant serrac as an impenetrable obstacle to descend, and so we had to retreat the way we came, down the mushy snow, carefully.

As we reached the bottom of the rocky Rottersattel ridge we realised that the crevasse bridge was now too soft to walk on and to walk above it on the slope too risky to try – the snow too soft to hold an arrest if one of us slipped. So we had to head down the other side of the ridge and descend much further on shale to reach the glacier.

The trek back to the Jungfraujoch station was incredible slow and tiring in the midday sunshine.

Scrambling on the Wetterhorn

Towering over Grindelwald town the Wetterhorn is captivating, its ridges and high glacier catch the eye. Its also less likely to be shroud in cloud than the Eiger so looks seriously impressive.

The route up the Wetterhorn from Grindelwald takes in the Wilsgratli ridge up to the Wettersattel and then snow or rock to the summit. It’s not immediately obvious from the town as it is a narrow ridge in the centre of the Crinnen glacier.

Knowing the ridge was AD- there was a long discussion about its complexity, and whether I was going to be able to haul myself up it without too much whinging.

In hindsight, we should have also had a discussion about coming back down.

The walk in to the Gleckstein Hut

The route starts at a large car park near the Wetterhorn hotel and follows a track through the woodland which then heads steeply northeast to pick up a path which contours around the side of the mountain.

The walk in to the Gleckstein hut was also only 3 and half hours which was quite attractive after the slog we had to get to the Mutthorn hut a few days earlier.

It was lovely, a pleasant meander around the mountain heading slowly uphill and around towards the Oberer Grindelwald glacier to reach the hut.

The Gleckstein hut is popular with guides for teaching alpine skills and for hikers walking into see the glaciers, and you can see why. When we arrived we sat looking out across the valley watching the sunset.

We left the hut at 4am, the first out, but this left us route finding to find the Willsgrati ridge to reach the Wettersattel. While there is an obvious path which runs up to the Chrinnen glacier, there are also a number of paths which branch off from it.

Once on the glacier we roped up and headed uphill to find the snow gully which provides access to the route, described in the guide book as ‘climb up unpleasantly for 200m’ before crossing a couloir before getting to the Willsgratli ridge.

Once off the glacier it became clear that the rock on the Wetterhorn is not at all stable, even when frozen. We crossed the couloir to head onto the ridge where we stuck to the ridge top to ascent.

Once on the ridge it was mostly scrambling to reach the Wettersattel col. Roped up we weren’t quick, but then I knew I would find this tricky, given the exposure and loose rock. Despite some whinging from me, we kept to guidebook time to reach the col and onto the snow.

The snow was the quickest way to reach the summit so we headed up to a glorious view.

We were also lucky to get a selfie with the Eiger!!

Descending is always the hardest

The sun was already hot and melting the snow as we descended from the Wetterhorn. We decided to use the stakes on the rock, which in hindsight was slow albeit safer than the snow.

We were the last of the three groups that has ascended that morning to get back on to the ridge and descend. As the ridge is well known for rock fall this meant that we weren’t going to have anything fall on us, but we had to be safe to prevent dropping rock on others.

Despite the AD- grade not being the hardest alpine route I’ve done, the descent back to the hut was definitely the scariest I’ve completed. Teetering on the rock and trying to place gear to protect ourselves I can admit I was scared for the full 6 hours or so it took us to get back down from the summit to the hut.

This was made much worse when a couple who were being guided were airlifted from the ridge in front of us. The helicopter came close to the ridge and picked up someone before heading down to the Gleckstein hut. Later we passed a blood splattered rock.

Back at the hut I asked how they were and was pleased to find out the female had slipped and suffered only a leg injury, but this hadn’t stopped us from imagining the worst as we had descended – being aware that they had been climbing without helmets.

The lower part of the ridge is tricky to find the exit route, once you’ve passed the three stakes look for a way off to the right. If you’re lucky you might find the stakes across the couloir to get back to the more solid rock and eventually the glacier.

We were slow, possibly dehydrated and hungry when we finally got off the glacier and down to the hut where we had lunch and fluid before descending back to the Wetterhorn hotel. It was a long 18 hour day!

Tschingelhorn – a Bernese Oberland initiation

Acclimatizing well is at the core of a successful mountaineering trip to the Alps. So starting low and working our way up the altitudes was a sensible approach to our plans in Switzerland. It’s easy to do when you’re somewhere like Chamonix where you can reach high altitudes with relative ease on the cable cars, but the Bernese Oberland proved to be a different beast entirely.

We chose the Tschingelhorn due to it being a low alpine summit at 3562m and having a straightforward summit route, graded PD (French for a little difficult) so we knew it was achievable. Having to walk in also meant that we would be able to acclimatize as we went.

What we hadn’t banked on was a mammoth walk to reach the Mutthorn hut at the base of the Mutthorn ridge, almost in the middle of the glacier, and 2000m of ascent from the start at Stechelberg. It didn’t look that far on the map, but when you add in the ascent to get there, and the hot sunshine, it was a hard slog.

The walk in to the Mutthorn hut

Starting at the end of the Lauterbrunnen valley in the tiny village of Stechelberg, we parked up and followed the signs to Obersteinberg, a 6km walk gaining around 800m height.

Whilst an endless slog uphill on narrow woodland tracks, the path provides a fantastic opportunity to see the changes in the landscape and walk through a pristine UNESCO Word Heritage landscape. Much of the Jungfrau region achieves this designation but as we found out later in our trip, this also brings bus loads of tourists so the solitude we found on our walk into the Mutthorn hut can’t be easily found elsewhere.

It took about 3 hours walking through the woodland forest trails and up to the pastures to reach Obersteinberg, where a hut provided a refreshment stop and a chance to check the map before heading across the glacier beyond.

From here we followed signs to Oberhoresee, a little glacial lake and a popular destination for hikers exploring the valley. We stopped briefly in the baking sun and contemplated cooling off there on our descent.

From there the path becomes less distinct as it turns from a walkers path marked by red and white striped marks, to an alpinist track marked by blue and white marks. It winds through the moraine, scree and eventually out on to the glacier itself.

From looking at our map it became clear that while it was still very early in the season and lots of fresh snow was still around, the glacier itself had receded considerably from what was marked on the map.

This also meant that a direct approach wasn’t possible due to the crevasses and seracs now present. So we had to loop around to be able to ascend up the glacier towards the hut. The snow conditions weren’t great either as the glacier was covered in a foot of snow which had melted to create a surface like the moon.

The Mutthorn hut

The Mutthorn hut perches on the end of the Mutthorn, a shaly rock ridge which rises out of the glacier. To reach the hut required circling around the crevasse to access the door.

Despite its isolated location, or perhaps because of it, the Mutthorn guardians provide a very warm welcome – a hot drink and chocolate to all of their guests. Run by the Swiss Alpine Club, members get a good discount, as do reciprocal clubs.

The evening meal was basic – soup followed by cheese, potatoes and salad and then fruit salad – but considering our location I was surprised to get anything fresh.

Ascending the Tschingelhorn

We left the hut at 4am to ensure we had enough time before the sun rose and started to melt the snow. Crossing the moon like glacier was much easier when it was frozen from a night under clear skies.

The ascent is fairly straight forward, we had to circle around the Tshingelhorn ridge to the South side and ascent the gully to the col and follow the ridge to the summit. At about 45 degrees the 300m gully was long and steep but in a solid condition and well trodden so was easy-going (although at 3000m altitude it was hard work!)

The view from the summit was fantastic, looking over to the Breithorn and further beyond to the Aletschhorn.

Had we properly considered how challenging it would be to get to the Mutthorn hut we would have budgeted for staying more nights and doing other peaks in the area, but as we hadn’t we descended back to the hut and after a quick lunch continued back down to the valley – a very long 17 hour day mountaineering.

Free online mapping can be found at https://s.geo.admin.ch/7bd468f691

The Ring of Steall

Its taken me a while to write up my Easter trip, so much so that trad climbing season is well underway. Anyway…. here you go.

There’s some routes in Scotland that are epic and have a reputation for endurance, requiring nerves of steel or providing amazing views. The Ring of Steall doesn’t disappoint on any of these.

The Ring of Steall is a classic Scottish route, covering 4 munro summits and narrow rocky aretes, made even more special in full winter conditions. The route is around 10 miles long with over 1800m of ascent, making this a tough walk in any conditions.

We tackled this route over Easter when winter was still dominating the mountain summits in Scotland, but snow and ice can lie on Scottish mountains well into the Spring so make sure you check the conditions before you set out and be suitably prepared.

Sgurr a Mhaim

Heading from Glen Nevis lower falls carpark, the walk up the first munro, Sgurr a Mhaim is a long tedious trudge of endless ascent. We didn’t reach the snow line until around 800m but once there the cloud lifted and we were treated to an amazing view of the Devils Ridge.

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I was a bit apprehensive as we crossed the Devil’s Ridge. Its incredibly narrow in places with a few spots of tricky scrambling which can test your head for heights, especially scrambling in crampons. This is grade I terrain in winter so don’t under estimate it; even in summer it would be a tricky scramble.

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Despite a few narrow places the Devil’s ridge wasn’t the intimidating crossing I had anticipated and we reached the other side in no time.

Am Bodach and Stob Coire a Chairn

From the end of the Devil’s Ridge we circled round towards Am Bodach, crossing over the summit of Sgurr am Lhubair. I knew what to expect on Am Bodach, having climbed the summit from the other side in December. However, much later in the season the deep powder snow had been through a winter of freeze and thaw cycles and the descent down to the north col was 200m of concrete-hard neve ice. For the first time on the route I was genuinely a bit scared. I’d slipped on old neve about 8 years ago, the fall resulted in twisting my knee, so I took front pointing the descent slowly and counting under my breathe to calm myself.

Thankfully once we’d descended the snow softened and we even dug out a bucket seat in the deep snow as we crossed to Stob Coire a Chairn, to have lunch in the sunshine. This munro summit is easy to cross without consideration after Am Bodach, but does provide a good view back along the route.

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From the third munro we descended more hard neve, though not terrifying, to our final munro.

An Gearanach

The scramble up on to An Gearanach summit isn’t difficult, but towards the end of the day it did require effort to pick through the snow and rocks to the top.

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Once across the summit the descent also required careful route finding to pick our way down through the rocks and crags. It took several false starts before we found a route down to the col from where we could head East to descend to the river. Don’t head West to the Steall waterfall, whilst this looks like an easier descent initially, you cannot descend directly from Steall Falls.

In winter conditions we had to front point down the steep snow banking to reach the river. From there we continued to descend the path to Glen Nevis and the boggy crossing to reach Steall hut and the steel rope bridge.

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We were lucky to be able to flag a lift back down to our car otherwise it would have been a long dull trudge along the road to finish. Here’s the route for a gpx file click the map to find it via OSMaps :

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Trying to stay motivated at the end of winter

I’ve just walked off the hill from another disappointing weekend of 70mph winds and a lack of activity it’s made me think – I’ve had difficult winter. I started with the intent to bag lots of winter days towards my winter ML log book and it started well, with a trip with to Glencoe with a friend also working towards her winter ML. (She passed this week). Almost right away it went downhill.

I felt demoralised as I wasn’t as confident as her and lacked belief in myself. I compared myself to her, seeing that I couldn’t keep up with her and she was much quicker at making navigational decisions.

Since then I’ve had 4 other trips to Scotland which have only established this feeling of not being good enough.

I’ve been left to do my own thing by my climbing friends in the Cairngorms and not having the opportunity and confidence to join them, and then two big days in Braemar which I was definitely on it with the navigation but lacked confidence in leading.

And then I went to the Ben, and didn’t manage to finish the CMD Arête circular, only making it to Carn Mor Dearg summit due to really strong winds.

I feel like I’ve had lots of failures and not just that one. There was failing to try Dorsal Arête out of fear and failing to try the Devil’s Ridge on a windy day.

So at the end of winter with one trip north left I’m thinking of not bothering and giving up and letting the spring seep in.

I can navigate really well. I know this. But I worry about being in whiteouts. I have all the skills but on steep terrain I still freak out, especially climbing rocky ridges in the ice.

I’ve suffered from spending the winter with climbers who are technically more skilled than me and have generally left me behind for doing their own adventures. You think this would work in my favour as I’d get to solo some peaks, but I’ve always had someone in tow who either wasn’t as skilled and lacked enthusiasm for effort or occasionally a climber who wished they were climbing and were demoralised they were walking instead.

In honesty, I’ve had some good days too. Snowshoeing in Glen Feshie was the highlight of the winter, gorgeous weather and conditions and I felt success being on my own in the clag in the summit.

I did enjoy the navigational challenges around Braemar too, gaining confidence in my abilities to navigate in poor visibility.

But on the whole winter doesn’t feel like a success to me. There’s been more disappointment.

How do you learn to winter climb?

I joined a mountaineering club to get out more in winter and while that’s happened, after three winters with them I’ve not yet climbed any winter routes.

Winter is so short and the conditions in Scotland so unreliable that climbers in winter lack the patient to teach others in the same way that you find at the summer crag.

How do you learnt to climb in winter without paying for an instructor?

I had a great club trip to Rjukan in 2017 which was aimed at giving people the chance to learn as well as progress. That’s the only time I’ve ever had that opportunity to try and learn.

I’m not against paying for instruction but with winter climbing how does that really build skills to get outside again without a support system?

Or is it my learning style?

Maybe I struggle to learn from the people around me because I lack the confidence to just have a go.

I met a guy this winter at the CIC hut who was in his first winter season climbing and had already lead a IV pitch. His attitude was to just get on something and try, to learn quick and have a go.

Maybe my cautious attitude is what holds me back. Maybe my fears and my reluctance to push myself and find myself scared somewhere exposed, is what stops me just getting on and seconding behind an experience leader.

I had hoped to climb a few routes this winter with friends and the only opportunity I had on Dorsal Arête I bottled it. Since then there’s not been any opportunities, so I’ve failed in that objective for the season.

I’d also hoped to have more log book days completed, but I’ve done 12 this winter.

It feels like poor progress.

What now?

I’m heading into spring being grateful for the chance to whinge on the rocks with the more friendly and helpful trad climbing community.

I’m trying to be less critically reflective of myself and be more open to opportunities.

I’ll try this summer to not let fear prevent me getting on routes so that perhaps next winter I’ll get to try something.

I might still squeeze in one last trip this winter to Scotland but as for the future of my winter ML?

I think I need to be honest that I don’t know if it’s really for me. I don’t know if I’m really a leader in the winter environment, maybe I bit off more than I can chew with that particular challenge.

Cogne: Cascades de Lilliaz

We had checked out the popular and only easy to access climbing spot of the Cascade de Lilliaz at the start of the week. It looked like a good plan for when we would be too tired to do more long walk ins and when the weather was predicted to be less reliable.

The cascades is the only climb which isn’t a committing route as you can bail off at any point along the river route. This also means it is very popular with climbers and spectators.

We had only intended to do one day of climbing there but after Moliene wasn’t in condition we headed back there on both Friday and Saturday.

There had been heavy snowfall and any thin ice had been covered enough for us to momentarily forget about it. So on Friday we headed up and climbed pitch 3 on the right side.

The ice was actually quite good although it did have gaping holes in some places where you could see straight through to the waterfall below.

We went continued up the river gorge to climb pitch 4.

Pitch 4 felt much easier and while there was a mid way belay point we did it in one pitch.

We had such great fun we headed back down to do the left side of pitch 3.

The following day we couldn’t bear to pay for ski hire so we headed back to climb the first two pitches. Having arrived a bit late we discovered the truth about the Cascade de Lilliaz, it is a very popular ice crag. Especially for groups and for instructors to take clients. As such it took us a while to be able to climb up the middle of the waterfall.

I found this line incredibly tricky as the centre of the waterfall was cauliflower ice formations and very snowy and soft on the top. I didn’t feel stable at all so there was some severe whinging from me.

From here we walked around the gorge to pitch 2 which was much more fun.