It was 5am on Monday 5th August and the minibus was horribly ventilated. Ross, Clay, Harry B, Harry K, Al and I were on the road east out of Bishkek, swapping the sweltering heat of Kyrgyzstan's capital for the edges of the picturesque Issy-Kul lake. Our destination was the seldom frequented Djangart valley, 30km of peaks on the country's eastern border with China.
Chief among our targets for the expedition was the first ascent of Pik 5318, the range's highest summit and still unclimbed after many attempts. To our annoyance, some pesky American alpinists had had the same idea, headed out two weeks earlier and summited just before we left the UK. As if we needed further reminder, confusion with the decidedly non-English speaking helicopter crew saw us dropped at a basecamp site nowhere near our preferred destination but instead at an ideal spot for mounting an ascent on the now climbed mountain.
After establishing basecamp, debate soon began about the best approach to begin our acclimatization. For Harry, Al & I our decision to hike up to an overnight bivy on the N1 glacier was rewarded with our first view of Pik 5318 (now known as Pik After-You). It is difficult to describe how it feels to set eyes on a mountain you first saw in a photo nine months previously but we had little chance to stop and admire for the sky was soon filled with thick black cloud as we sat out our first big mountain storm in Djangart.
Warm-up over, our thoughts turned to the unclimbed border peak of Pik 5025 three valleys to the east. Misguided beliefs that the glacier would be a casual day's stroll away were soon dispelled for the approach was an arduous and gruelling 12 hour slog across two rivers, endless glacial moraine and finally the glacier itself. At 7pm the team of Ross, Harry K, Clay & I called time and set up camp at 4300m, gazing up at the stupendous northern face of the mountain. After such a taxing approach we unanimously agreed that we never wished to visit the valley again and what had begun as a simple reconnaissance trip suddenly switched to preparations for an attempt on this unclimbed 5000m summit.
Ross led off from the advance basecamp at 3am and an hour later Harry began kicking steps up the corner towards the Western col. The route steepened, screws were placed to protect the awkward bergschrund crossing and we slowly tired before topping out at 4600m. With thick clouds gathering high above, Harry and I were exhausted by the altitude and exertion so early into the trip. Ross & Clay headed up left onto the easy summit ridge whilst we turned right to claim the first ascent of a subsidiary peak (Pik Little, c.4850m) and descend the NW face as the snow began to fall.
Safely back down, Harry's food-starved stomach (we had bothered to bring only one day's food to the valley) took over his decision making and he left to make the entire return journey to basecamp that afternoon alone. As nightfall approached the winds picked up, whipping across the ice and sending the tent fabric into a frenzied dance. I cowered inside, peering back up at the mountain shrouded in clouds above. It was 6pm and there was still no sign of Ross and Clay.
Back in camp the following evening we celebrated with our first drink from our bottle of victory vodka. Ross and Clay's 29 hour ascent had seen them pitch their way back and forth along the heavily corniced summit ridge before returning to the col too late to descend, ultimately bivying out at 4800m. Attempting to down climb the ascent line at 1am, Ross fell into a crevasse in the dark just metres from where we had sat to rest earlier that day. They wisely shivered it out until first light and followed mine and Harry K's tracks down.
Fired up by the trip's early success, Al and Harry B set off for the N1 glacier the following morning with their eyes on a line up the west face of an unclimbed 5100m peak. Unknown to us, this was to be the last time anyone saw them for over a week.
The remaining party of four walked the opposite way down the Djangart valley towards the Akoguz glacier, the head of which was dominated by an impressive peak barely identifiable on our somewhat illegible Soviet maps. The route up was reminiscent of Chamonix's classic Cosmique Arête but we named the summit Pik Kasparov in recognition of the endless games of chess played both at basecamp and also at the ABCs (using our Russian map for the board and trail mix for the pieces). The following day, Ross & Harry K claimed a second border summit (Pik Ozon, 4971m. Many abalakovs and packet noodles later and the four of us were on the return walk, a now familiar journey of dry glacier, relentless moraine and stunningly unspoilt green valleys below.
Back in basecamp, we passed the time debating cycling's doping controversies and baking ever more elaborate bread on our feeble gas stove. All of a sudden a faint but familiar cry came over the top of the driving rain, Al stood grinning and soaked on the opposite bank of the swollen Djangart river. The duo had returned having ticked off more first ascents than any other climbing pair on the trip.
In the N1 glacier near to camp they had reached the expedition's high point of ~5100m, summiting Pik Betelgeuse (c.5100m). In celebration Al had enjoyed a delightful summit lunch of mulberries, a surprise present from back in the UK, whilst Harry sat suffering from the cold with his hands thrust firmly inside Al's armpits. They christened the route Mulberry Surprise.
The far Eastern end of the Djangart valley ends in the 4000m Djangart pass. The Djangartynbashi Glacier to the south of the pass was explored by the Anglo-American 2010 and British & Spanish 2011 expeditions amongst others. It is here that Harry & Al climbed Pik Feto (4831m) before descending to their advance basecamp at the far end of the glacier. With the weather window closing in the pair slept in through their early alarms the next day and finally crawled out of their bags around 4am. There was just time for one final route.
The climb to the summit of Pik Topor (c.4970m) was a west facing ice climb on impeccable ice although Al was lucky to avoid injury after falling ice struck him in the face as he belayed Harry up the final summit pitch. After a successful descent the arriving storm clouds brought 32 hours of snow and on 23rd August we flew out of basecamp after 18 days in the valley.
We may have been a team of 6, but rarely is a trip completed without the support of others. We are indebted to the weather forecasts and safety backup of Will Attridge back in the UK. We are also extremely grateful for the financial and gear sponsorship from the BMC, MEF, Alpine Club, University of Bristol, Berghaus, Alpkit, Buffwear and Dicks Climbing. To have the chance to visit and climb with friends in such a remote location is a real privilege, new routes and summits are nothing but a bonus.