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.

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

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.

Ice Climbing in Cogne – Multipitches galore!

Having had an amazing time in Rjukan ice climbing last year I was very excited about our trip to Cogne this year, but very aware that it wasn’t going to be easy peasy climbing.

Rjukan is the ice equivalent of climbing at Stanage, something for every ability, lots of single pitch ice making it nice and short and 5 minutes from the car. Yes there’s multipitch routes and hard stuff to scare the pants off you, but there’s options for not doing these routes and still having a great time.

Cogne is the opposite in everyway.

In the heart of the Alps, Cogne has two main areas for climbing, the Valeille valley and the Valnontey valley – with climbs being on both sides of the valley from the sides of the mountains. The routes form in mountain gullies or from the edge of crags with terrifying chandeliers to huge walls of solid ice.  All of the routes are committing multi-pitch ice which require abseiling to get off.  This isn’t a place to come for your first ice climbing or multipitch climbing trip.

Route finding

There isn’t a great selection of guidebooks in English for this area either. The new Alpine Ice guide by Mario Sertori is the only one and while it does cover routes in Cogne its isn’t a complete guide and only provide highlights of the popular routes. There’s plenty of French and Italian guidebooks, if you can translate them!

The best sources of information in English are:

  •  free comprehensive route maps online – Iceclimbing Cogne has route maps of Lillaz and Valnontey valleys
  • Bar Licone – the climbers bar in town but also THE place for climbers to share route information online. Many of the routes have handy topos created by climbers, so worth a look to check distance between belays and where the difficult sections are on routes.

Despite the challenges of finding information on the routes, ice climbing in Cogne is a dream for those with experience. There’s nothing better than the delightful warmth in the midday sunshine, which is something that you definitely don’t get climbing in Norway!

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Il Sentiero dei Troll, Valnontey

We had opted for our first route to be a WI3 in the Valnontey valley called Il Sentiero dei Troll.

Il Sentiero dei Troll provided a good initiation to ice in Cogne and set the tone for the week. If you want to get out and climb ice you need to be out of bed early (out of the door before 8am) and be prepared to climb all day.

We did the route in 4 pitches of 60 metres with two of these being at bolted belays. The joy of Europe is that many of the routes are at least partially bolted, when you can find them under all the ice! That said make sure you know how to do Abalakov threads as you will still need to do these for some belays.

It was freezing when we left the car park at Valnontey for the walk in and on getting out of the car we quickly put on extra layers. Close to the end of the valley it wasn’t too far to walk in but did give us change to check out some of the other routes. With the warm temperature the week before we noticed some of the routes at the end of the valley weren’t quite formed.

While Cogne is committing ice climbing, it is still pretty accessible with most of the routes being fairly well sign posted at the bottom of the valley (though a guide book is needed to know which is which) and the walk in was on a clear track adjacent to cross country skiing runs.

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Ascending the steep snow slope to the bottom of the ice was the first task, reminding me that the best place to put on crampons and a helmet is long before you actually need them.
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The route was a mix of steep ice pitches and graded snow slopes and by pitch 2 we were climbing in the sunshine and had taken off quite a few layers of clothing.

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The climbing was fantastic and when we reached the top of pitch 4 we decided we’d enjoyed the best of the route and so abseiled back down.

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At which point I stopped to take this photo of Jared next to the ice on pitch 3, did I really climb that?!

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Disappointed by Fenilliaz

I have to start by saying Fenilliaz isn’t a rubbish route. Had I been in Scotland I’d have been super happy spending the day in a snow covered gully. Having flow to Cogne though to get my axes into some ice I was a bit disappointed by the lack of ice on this route.

Fenilliaz in the Valeille Valley starts by ascending another long snow slope (a recurring theme in Cogne). We started the actual climb from a good belay spot under a huge boulder.

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From here the route takes a long steep snow slope to a short ice pitch, before another snow slope.

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Unfortunately that was where the fun ended and the route seemed to pitter out. Disappointed, and with not enough time left for another route we opted for a short day and a chance to check out the popular Cascade de Lillaz.

Snowshoeing in the Cairngorms

After a day wading through deep soft powder snow in the Lairig Ghru and feeling like swimming was the only option to make any progress, I was incredibly excited to be offered a pair of snowshoes to borrow for the day.
I’d never snowshoed before, so the chance to have a go was very appealing, particularly if it meant that I could still get some winter mountain days completed without over exerting wading through snow on my own.
If you’ve never snowshoed I’d definitely recommend it.
You step into snowshoes in much the same way you do a pair of crampons, so you do need your boots to be B2 or B3 for them to have the rear gap for the clips. Beyond that they need no real experience to walk in them, just a gait like John Wayne. You do need to have a pair of walking poles to provide the momentum to move though!
Having snowshoes on as I left the car park at Glen Feshie meant that I made really quick progress up the forest track and out on the mountain. Not quite as quick as the smug cross-country skiers but much quicker than the wading i had done the day before.
I could have been in the Alps or Scandinavia the weather was fantastic, not at all like Scottish winter!
As I ascended Sron Na Gioath the benefits of the snowshoes became very clear. I was following the line of the skiers who had left the car park ahead of me, and while I was sinking slightly more into the snow that they were, I was not sinking anywhere near as much as the walkers footprints indicated the couple of walkers ahead of me were.
In fact I had a cheery smugness as I passed them near the top of the mountain, I wasn’t exactly bright and breezy but I was not as sweaty and wrecked like they were.
This also gave me a massive confidence boost. Having been up a few munros this winter with considerably fitter people than myself I had started to feel like winter mountaineering was out of my league, when actually I’ve just spent most of the winter so far wading in the snow.
From the summit ridge I headed to the munro top in the mist and continued across to follow the mountain tops back round to the woodland.

The trouble with New Year goals

I’m going to start by saying that I’m not rubbishing those of you who have set New Year goals. I’ve got some for 2018 too. But the trouble with goals is the pressure you put on yourself to achieve them.

Take my 2017 goals.

• Do winter ML training and also do 15 winter days for log book – ✔️

• Lead climb VD outdoors

• Try ice climbing ✔️

• Half marathon ✔️

• Climb 6b indoors by the end of the year and be able to lead 5s.

• Reach 60 parkruns

• Lead an Alpine route

• Try skiing ✔️

• Learn to ride a motorbike

Now the ticks hide the real story behind last year. I’d already committed to doing the winter ML training and where’s the stress in going on a training course? Getting 15 days for my log book became quite stressful as this winter started though. I found myself putting unnecessary pressure in myself to do routes and weirdly became quite nervous about navigating in white outs. No logical reason why, I love navigation challenges, and I had a blast in Storm Eleanor on a rescue team night nav training this week. The pressure to be out in Scottish winter became less fun though.

Lead climb VD and reach 6b and lead 5 sport climbs. Where do I start with that one? Climbing terrifies me. It’s the one thing I do that I really have to be in the right frame of mind for and I’ve learnt I have to be with the right type of people too. So last year wasn’t that successful for climbing. I had lots of incidents of crying seconding routes and only managed to lead 3 diffs. I did get up to leading 5s indoors but again it matters a lot who I’m with and I found myself having wobbles on 4s sometimes.

Ice climbing seemed an easy one to tick off, weird since rock climbing scares me. But it was a holiday with friends who knew it was my first time out so there was no pressure to perform at any level. As it was, I loved it.

I managed 2 half marathons and a 25km race, with mixed success. The trail races nearly killed me but the Great North Run felt like a blast. I’ve failed to get a proper training pattern though so I never reached 60 parkruns, although I did get to 50.

While I did have a fantastic Alpine trip and did some great AD routes I did not lead anything, again down to confidence and being with people more experienced than me.

Skiing was an easy tick at the end of the year and I lost interest in riding a motorbike.

So you see my dilemma?

The things I really care about succeeding at are the ones I fail to achieve. The goals I set to achieve them become my barriers, no matter how small they are.

So here’s the plan for 2018.

To be kind to myself.

• I want to lead 3 severe routes and 7 VDs.

But it’s ok if I cry. It’s ok to say no to a route. It’s ok to pick easy stuff too. It’s ok if I get to the end of the year and have only got part way to this too. I’m going to try to second more harder stuff too though.  I have a friend who would thing that’s a poor attitude to learning climbing and I should be sucking it up and getting stuck in. That approach didn’t make for happy climbing last year so I’m not doing that again.

• I want to run a marathon.

I might find this easier to do if I can find the time to train as I’m not the competitive person who needs to beat a certain time. Finishing is always my goal.

• I wanted to do my winter ML assessment in early 2019, but my recent winter experience had made me rethink this goal. I’m putting too much pressure on myself to perform, so instead I want to just get 20 winter days in and have fun. Then I’ll see what happens.

And that’s where I’m leaving it this year. I want to be kind to myself. Life isn’t about smashing out goals and punishing yourself for failures. I want to have fun in my adventures.

So if you have set goals for 2018, make sure you enjoy them. Don’t punish yourself for any set backs, just get outside and have fun.

Scrambling the Aonach Eagach Ridge

I’ve driven down the Glencoe valley numerous times and looked up at the jagged line of the Aonach Eagach ridge, impressed with the shape and both desperate and terrified at the prospect of scrambling the ridge.  I’ve wanted to tackle the ridge since I first visited North West Scotland aged 18, so when I was recently rained off a trip to scramble the Cullins I decided this was a perfect substitute.

I should caveat that as entertaining as the Aonach Eagach ridge is, if you’ve not yet completed routes such as Sharp Edge or Crib Goch then consider getting some serious grade 1 scrambles under your belt before you have a go at this. Its a serious undertaking, as nowhere along the route can you escape and some of the sections of scrambling are exposed and committing.

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First things first…

The first thing to note doing this ridge is that is essential to have a plan for transport between the start and finish as the last thing you want to do is end up walking back up the busy road for your car at the end of the day.

We had planned on hitchhiking – but a summer weekend is the moment to try this with traffic being too busy to stop. After 15 minutes of trying we were not getting anywhere; then two other hikers arrived with the same idea  – 4 of us had no chance of getting a lift. Thankfully they were off to do the ridge too so we decided to car share.

The car park at the start of the route is tiny and usually filled with tourists wanting to quickly photograph the mountains as they drive through the valley so I was lucky to squeeze my car into a spot.

Serious Scrambling

We set off from the car park at a slow pace; the path up to Am Bodach might be easy to follow but it’s quite steep. Initially the path is across a broad ridge and is easy to follow, but its not long before the scrambling starts and route finding is required.
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Scrambling on the Aonach Eagach ridge is really downclimbing, which requires good foot placements and a slow pace. The first of these sections comes after just leaving Am Bodach summit.

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I was surprised to find the scrambling isn’t relentless, there are sections of the route where you resume walking. It is apparent from the views though that you really can’t escape the ridge once on it and the scrambling varies from terraced ridges, knife edge aretes, greasy gullys and towering chimneys.
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Towards the end of the ridge are the Crazy Pinnacles, which we took by heading right and down climbing a fairly greasy gully. This is definitely not a route to do in the rain!

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Once off the Crazy Pinnacles and over Stob Coire Leith the serious scrambling ends. From here make sure you continue on to the large shelter and trig point at Sgorr nam Fiannaidh.

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From here in good visibility its possible to see the path heading south west down to the Claichaig gully – do not take this as it is widely considered a dangerous descent route. Instead continue across heading north west towards the Pap of Glencoe. As you cross the broader peaty plateau you will pick up the descent path to take down to Glencoe and the valley.

We met a group of older men half way along the ridge who were definitely having trouble with the scrambling and taken 5 hours to get to the Pinnacles.  Later when we were in the pub with a whiskey they were only just off the hill (12 hours after starting) – a reminder not to under-estimate the ridge.