Big-Wall first ascents, donkeys and poor food choices in Kyrgyzstan. UKC User Neil Chelton gives an amusing account of his summer adventures.
Over the summer, I embarked on an unforgettable voyage into the strikingly wild and secluded Kara Su Valley, Kyrgyzstan. My climbing partner Callum and I had two lifelong dreams, both of them required us to venture into unexplored territory. The first, and perhaps most important, was to suntan our frightfully pasty skin sufficiently enough to impress the Cumbrian ladies at home. The second, was to complete a big-wall first ascent on the 1700 metre west face of Kotina; one of the biggest vertical rock walls in the world. Only one of these goals was completed.
"How do you say hello in Kyrgyz?" Beads of sweat retreated down Callum's sunburnt forehead under command from the blazing sun.
I hung my head and sighed. "I've no idea." I dropped my haulbag on the dusty ground and slumped over it. We hadn't slept for two days. "Is Kyrgyz even a language? I thought they spoke Russian here."
It was our first day in Kyrgyzstan and we had stumbled upon a bustling outdoor bazaar in the large city of Osh. For hours we had wandered through crowded streets, meandering between donkeys and piles of rice in a dazed state of jet-lagged, culture-shocked confusion.
Callum slouched on top of our enormous sack of onions.
"We can't just eat this for six weeks." He gave flitting glances at the rest of our food supply; 20 kilos of pasta, a bag of flour and some garlic cloves. "I don't even like pasta."
"It'll be fine, mate." Half-asleep, I sat up and wiped sweat from my face with dirt covered hands. "It'll be cheaper if we don't buy any more stuff."
Callum rubbed his eyes and yawned. "Yeah okay, let's get out of here."
Kyrgyzstan has roads with three lanes. It seems the outer two are used for parking mopeds and donkeys, and for storing gigantic piles of fruit and sand. The much narrower middle lane is used for driving, for traffic going in both directions, though this lane is typically riddled with pot-holes big enough to swallow a bus.
Not even an advanced case of sleep deprivation could close our eyes during the unnerving 8 hour drive from Osh to the road's end. From there, we loaded our equipment onto 6 donkeys and trotted with the sturdy creatures under clear blue skies for two days into the biggest mountains I'd ever seen. We had reached the end of human civilization, and the beginning of an adventure into the unknown.
As we become older, and more afraid, the unknown becomes a seldom explored realm. But it is in the unknown that we learn the most about ourselves; about our hopes, our dreams and our fears.
Light snow crystals drifted in the crisp mountain air and collected in neat fluffy piles on our portaledge cover. I stared with awe into the large U-shaped valley below. The Kara Su valley was bounded on three sides by tremendous granite walls and towers. Huge waterfalls cascaded between them in great leaps. A deep, slow-moving glacier dressed the valley floor and snow glazed the higher reaches in an icy splendour. We'd been climbing Kotina's immense west face for three days. We were, as far as we knew, the valley's only inhabitants.
"It doesn't look like we're even halfway yet." I stared up at the seemingly endless vertical headwall which loomed overhead. Snowflakes fell into my open mouth. In the distance above, I could see the ominous granite wall disappear into thick dark clouds and then reappear even higher up. "How big is this thing?" A twinge of apprehension distorted my voice into an unusually high pitch.
"1700 meters." Callum mumbled through a mouthful of pasta and boiled onion.
A shiver, partly from the cold and partly from fear, rippled through my spine. "That's 170 times bigger than the routes at Stanage."
"Yeah, I suppose it is." Callum passed me a pan of half-eaten bland pasta-mush and stretched out across our tiny home on the mountain, seemingly unfazed by the enormity and power of the vast wall.
The intensity of the snow fall increased and darkness descended upon us. We became encapsulated in a blanket of eerie silence as our portaledge turned into an igloo. It suddenly occurred to me just how vulnerable we were. To be rescued from that point on the mountain, even in good weather, would be unjustifiably dangerous for a helicopter rescue team. In any case, we didn't have rescue insurance, or any insurance at all. And no-one knew where we were. We also didn't have a map, watch, phone, radio or any means of being able to contact anyone. We didn't even have any spare underwear.
"Don't worry mate. We've got bigger problems." Callum gave a forlorn frown at the pale skin on his arms. "The Cumbrian ladies aren't gonna be impressed."
After three days huddled in our portaledge igloo, we ran out of food and were forced to descend 900 metres to the ground.
Exhausted, hungry and in desperate need of a shower and dry clothes, we returned to our base camp to be greeted by a very excited, though extremely bedraggled, dirty-white puppy in an even worse physical condition than ourselves. We guessed the poor fellow had strayed from the nomadic shepherds who were camped further down the next valley. Our food supply was untouched but our only bar of soap had been eaten.
We rustled up a feast of sloppy pasta flavoured with a thin ration of garlic and slightly mouldy onions for the three of us. The dishevelled, starving dog gave a curious sniff but absolutely refused to eat the meal.
The storm cleared the following morning and in its glistening wake a flame dawn burned across the frosty land, creating an aura of prehistoric desolation. We re-climbed the same 900 metres to our portaledge camp, relieved to see it hadn't been washed away. From there, we were lucky enough to find incredible crack systems up the remaining 800 metre vertical headwall. This allowed us to climb the entire route on-sight and free. After pausing on the way up to boil pasta and onions, we staggered onto the summit in the midst of a howling thunderstorm. Our beard hair stood straight and our equipment buzzed with electrical charge.
Due to the cold temperatures, we named the route 'My Little Winkie'.
The Cumbrian ladies were not impressed with our suntan, or my little winkie.
We haven't eaten pasta and boiled onions since.
Most international flights land at the capital city, Bishkek. From Bishkek, you can fly to the city of Osh or the town of Batken. It's an 8 hour drive from Osh to the trail head, or 2 hours from Batken. From there, donkeys will guide you 30 miles into the mountains. Food and supplies can be bought in Bishkek and Osh. The country is difficult to negotiate without a tour operator. Tour operator options include Ak Sai Travel, Tien Shan and ITMC.
Border permits and travel within Kyrgyzstan (organized through a tour operator) costs around £600 per person. London to Bishkek return flights are around £400 per person. Food and supplies are approximately half of UK prices. Onions are cheap.