Kichatnas in April
The fabled Northern state, Alaska. The journey was wild, and despite not completing our proposed objective an amazing time was had.
After successfully getting to Anchorage with all of our luggage Ian, Ryan and I bought a rather large pile of food and caught a ride to the wonderful little town of Talkeetna and after a night of sleep we were in a plane headed for the Kichatna spires.
The Kichatnas are a sub range of the Alaska range that lie about 45 miles to the Southwest of Denali. While the peaks are not as tall as their neighbors they make up for it with their very steep, magnificently huge rock walls. Were headed there with our eyes set on an ascent of one of the centerpieces of the range, Kichatna Spire itself.
As the plane traveled over the Alaskan tundra Snoop Dogg bumped through the headset. The granite monoliths in front of us became more and more distinguishable until we were flying among them, staring with mouths wide open. Surrounding us were miles of granite walls thousands of feet tall and rising into majestic spires.
We were dropped off on the 'Cool Sac' Glacier where we spent a little over 2 weeks trying to climb and hunkering down as storms blew through. After getting our camp set up we spent a day skiing around and checking out the possibilities, we were blown away by the size of the walls around us, especially the objective that we had come for, the Northwest face of Kichatna.
It was decided that we should get on a warm up climb before getting after the big scary face at the end of the valley so we headed down to a peak called Reisenstien Spire. Estimating that the face was around 1800ft tall we went light. The climbing was slow due to our need to aid sections of poor rock. After about 500ft of climbing our crack system blanked out, so we bailed. Once we were back on the ground we looked up to find our high point and realized that the face was more like 3000ft tall. The 'Alaska Factor' was in full effect.
After this we were treated to days and days of storm which blended together as there is no night time in Alaska during the summer. At times it was boarder line pleasantand we could hang outside the tents, at others it was wickedly bad with winds strong enough to break two of our tents.
Eventually though the weather did improve and we were able to get back out. We got back on Riesenstien this time on a spine on the right hand side of the face. On our first attempt we choose what looked like the easiest line to gain the spine but ended up getting a 3 hour aid pitch instead.
The next day it was decided that it was time to properly get after it. We packed up our stuff and headed for Kichatna, though it wasn't quite that quick as we didn't actually get on the route until 3pm due to a cornice above our route. After 3pm we had the most time to climb while the cornice was not in the sun.
Our proposed route was up the couloir on the right side of the North face and then up the steep west face.
This route had been tried by a number of strong parties in the past which had all failed due to technical, loose aid on the west face, no one had ever gotten more than one pitch up. Our game plan was to bring all of our aid gadgetrey up with us, before arriving we were going to haul the coulior so that we could have a portaledge with us but due to the high snow year it looked like hauling would be not a good option. So we packed heavy packs and skied to the coulior.
It was 9 pitches of great ice climbing, ranging from 30ft wide to less than shoulder width. I led while the guys climbed and jugged with packs, kudos to them, it was hard work. The ice was crushing, with no features in the ice at all our calves were not given a break all day.
Eventually we reached the cornice which was not as big as expected and easily hacked through, this was going to be our bivy and it was disappointing to find that the col was knife edged and not the ledge we were hoping to sleep on. Visibility on the other side of the col was very low and it was very windy, as well as the upper headwall being covered in rime. So I rapped back the to guys who were getting hypothermic and it was decided that we should bail. Hours later we got back to camp and slept hard.
After another rest day that turned out to have decent weather we headed up for another attempt on Riesenstien. Once again on the right hand spine, this time we chose a better line to get onto the feature and were moving well all day. We climbed 6 pitches that involved lots of free and aid and a pitch of classic alpine ridge climbing. Then at what appeared to be the crux we were looking at a bivy either before or after that pitch and the weather was once again coming in. So unfortunately we were on our way back down.
The next day while it stormed away we got a weather forecast that showed a day of clearing, and then storm all the way out. It was time to go. So we called Talkeetna Air Taxis and got a ride out 36 hours later.
The trip was unsuccessful in term of getting on top of peaks and climbing new routes, that said I really learned a lot. My stoked on Alaska is super high and I cannot wait to get back next year. I feel as though next year I will be much more ready to get after it and get some stuff done. Might do some more ice climbing next time though... so it will be off to the Ruth or the Kahiltna.
But for now it's off to Pamirs in a couple weeks. Time to re-motivate and get ready for another round. Sooo stoked!
Kyrgyz Pamirs in June/July
About a year and a half ago I was living and studying in Dunedin, New Zealand and I was working at a climbing shop with two fine fellows by the names of Paul and Yewjin. In 1996 Paul had been on an expedition to Southwestern Kyrgyzstan. It was revealed with the help of a few beautiful photos that he was keen to return and send some of the routes he had seen but been unable to climb on the last expedition. And so the seed was sown.
Fast forward to the beginning of July 2008. After months of working, planning, organizing, grant writing, and training I was ready to get on the plane.
Six hours of flying to Atlanta, ten hours to Moscow, twelve hour layover, five hours to Bishkek. But no rest for the weary,it was time to go. After sorting my visa, picking up Paul and Yewj and finalizing the game plan with our outfitters (Tien-Shan Travel) we were off for the 14 drive to Osh. The road was less than smooth and the sights out the window were incredible: beautiful green alpine foothills with high peaks in the back ground, traditional yurts and horses and sheep and goats. No time to sleep. I was too plastered to the window. After 60 hours of straight travel and very little sleep I made it to Osh, and slept very well.
The next day was spent wandering that amazing city. Back in the days of Marco Polo, Osh was one of the major stopping and trading points along the Silk Road that extended from India and Southeastern Asia into Russia and Europe. Osh still maintains one of the largest Bazaars in Central Asia and we spent some serious time there. It was incredibly cool. The town itself was exotic and wonderful. The sights, smells, and sounds were intoxicating. It was my first time in such a place and it made a large impression on me.
Soon it was time to leave Osh and we caught a ride with a guy named Alexi to the town of Batken. Here we stayed with Junos and his beautiful family. Junos runs an outfit named Karavshin Travel. From there on out we were working with them and they had it dialed. We were headed into the Karavshin area of the Pamir Alai mountain range. This area has quite a reputation. It seems that every report I have read on teams climbing here has included horror stories of the approach, involving problems with access, military checkpoints, visas, and permits.
The problems stem from the amazingly complex geopolitics of the area. The Southwestern arm of Kyrgyzstan is sandwiched between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. When the area was split up after the fall of the USSR in 1991 it seems that the boarders were drawn without the roads in mind. In the past, access to the area involved taking a road through multiple checkpoints as it passed back and forth over the boarder. Now the Kyrgyz government is building a road which stays in Kyrgyzstan the whole way. Nevertheless, (when trying to reach the Karavshin) one must pass through the town of Vorukh. This is a small part of Tajikistan which is fully surrounded by Kyrgyzstan. It’s quite complicated to say the least and we were super psyched to have Junos and his outfit to help us through.
After a day of hanging out around Junos’s house and eating the amazing apricots that they grow and dry in the sunshine, we were off to the mountains. In this area the countryside changed from the rolling green hills of farther north to a near desert. The new highway was still being constructed and our driver weaved through the heavy machinery which was digging the road out of the rocky countryside. At points we could see the old highway less than 500 meters to the North in Tajikistan. As we neared the last town before Vorukh the van’s drive train fell out. So we waited for another ride which materialized in the form of a large army truck. It turned out that this would be our ride through Vorukh. After meeting with the local army official who checked out all of our paperwork we were off. Piled into the truck were the three of us, two army guys (one of whom was carrying a rather large rifle), our head horseman, our cook Toktosh, and our translator, a student from Bishkek named Turat. It was packed!
Off we rolled to the road end. Getting through Vorukh was not as exciting as it seemed like it could be. The exception to this was when we hit a motorcycle and tipped it over. This resulted in lots of yelling but no physical confrontation or injuries, thank goodness. After an hour of flying through back streets and up mountain hillsides we reached the end of the road and the horses.
After another hour the horses were loaded up and we were off. The walk was uneventful but beautiful. Most of the afternoon was spent reaching a pass which would allow us to drop down into our intended valley, known as the Jiptik. We reached the pass just as the sun was starting to go down and got our first view of the mountains we had traveled half way around the world to meet. In front of us was one of the most amazing mountain faces I have ever seen. A gigantic North face with a brilliant spur running straight up the center. On the valley bottom we made camp for the night and slept out under the stars.
The next morning we walked another two hours up valley to reach the beautiful little knoll we would call home for the next month. Within a few hours camp was sorted and we were able to take in where we were. Above us rose an outlying buttress of one of the peaks we had come for. Before the trip we had been referring to it as Hartutay but we were corrected upon arrival as the local and current name is Kyzyl-Muz (translated it means Red Ice), Harturtay had been it’s Russian name. The North face we had seen upon arrival also belonged to this peak. To the south the valley extended around a bend and while we could not see them we knew the upper valley held a whole array of amazing peaks. Finally we were in the Jiptik. The valley we had been planning to visit for over a year. We were so stoked!
We had arrived. We were stoked. The weather was great. So we got started.
I had never dealt with the acclimatization process so there was some question as to how I would fare. Studies show that the speed at which the body executes the process of producing more hemoglobin to deal with the lower O2 levels is not dependent on the fitness of an individual. Therefore, some folks adapt faster than others. I was supremely psyched to find that I acclimatized rather quickly.
Regardless it took some time, and for Paul, acclimatization came slowly. Nonetheless, we decided to keep pace as a team. We spent our first two weeks walking up hills around the valley. This included checking out our descent off of Kyzyl-Muz via it’s South slopes. This had been a route which Paul had climbed during his trip 12 years ago. Back then it was a snow climb. Now there was no snow to be found on the aspect.
Camp was where the real goodness occurred during our first two weeks. Eating and conversing with Toktosh our cook and Turat our translator was a blast. Toktosh was an amazing fellow who lived outside of Vorukh in Kyrgyzstan with his wife and six kids. He cooked a variety of most excellent meals which were traditional but more based in grains and pasta than meat for which I was most thankful (traditional Kyrgyz food can have some serious meat content). His naan (bread) was a major highlight of the trip, baked using the traditional method of sticking the dough into the sides of a large cast iron pot and flipping it over, it was absolutely delicious. Even though Toktosh spoke no English and our Kyrgyz was limited (to say the least), we became good friends. Turat was a 19 year old student who lives near Jalal-Abad and attended to university in Bishkek. His major is tourism and his time spent with us was an internship. He spoke great English and he was great to hang out with.
A number of shepards were also hanging out in the valley, these guys were wonderful folks, and they had some beautiful dogs. The sheep that they were tending to are known as ‘Big Bottom Sheep’ for their large oil glands that extend off their backside. They were quite funny looking and offered endless entertainment.
There was also some excellent bouldering around camp. The rock in the valley was a combination of limestone and granite. This really kept me sane through the acclimatization process, as I was antsy to get going. The limestone had an amazing amount of friction which made climbing it a pleasure, even though it did a good job of thoroughly shredding the finger tips.
Eventually, after two weeks, it was time to climb!
We had done some reconnaissance to the base of the rock outliers and it appeared that the rock quality was not as good as we had hoped. This, in combination with the lack of an obvious good line, deterred us from this feature. Therefore, we changed our sights to the amazing spur in the center of the North Face. It appeared that the first half would go as a rock climb, above which we would trade rock shoes for crampons and get after some ice climbing. I was very stoked about this objective.
We packed our bags for 4 nights out. Our rack was slim but adequate with 6 cams, 10 wires, 4 pins, and 4 screws, along with 2 stakes Unfortunately, Paul’s back was giving him problems as we headed up the initial moraine wall. After some discussion, we headed back down with the intention of giving Paul a day and a half to recover before Yewj and I would head out without him.
The next day Paul’s situation had not improved and he decided to opt out of the climb. At around 2pm Yewj and I headed off. We had decided to drop a day of food and a few other bits and pieces so we were feeling good as we walked over the moraine wall. Since I was the more experience alpinist (Yewj is a rad boulderer with limited alpine experience. He maintains that he thought we were just going bouldering) it was decided that I would lead all the pitches.
The first day was rather mellow, we rambled across the rock strewn glacier to the base of the spur and dispensed with the first 300 meters of easy 5th class rock climbing without the rope. It was here that we reached the major bench that ran along the spur. It was our plan to bivy there and be posed to get into the real meat of the rock climbing in the morning. Since it looked as though it would rain we were intent on finding some shelter. Sleeping exposed in the rain is pretty weak sauce, even in a bivy sac. We found a large boulder resting in scree which we were able to excavate under, making just enough room for us to squeeze our upper halves under the boulder. It made a perfect bivy. After some food we crashed out and slept great while the rain pattered away.
We woke at sunrise to clear skies and we got after it. The initial climbing took us halfway up a snowcone and onto a ledge on it’s right side. From here I put on our one pair of rock shoes and led off. The climbing started in earnest with the 5.8 crack. Pitch 2 led up an easy ramp to the base of an intimidating open book which later closed down into a chimney. The climbing looked hard and parts of it were very wet. Protection looked limited at best. Thirty feet of very delicate face climbing with only one piece of psychological protection led to my first good placement, for which I was most thankful. Above this the climbing stayed interesting, technical and runout, but I was in the zone. The remaining rope length of overhanging chimney went down and at the top it mellowed and I got a great belay on a big ledge. After that, four more pitches of 5.10, 5.9+, 5.9 and 5.7 led to easier ground. The rock was good when it was hard, the protection was generally adequate, and we were having a great time. Yewj was following in mountain boots which was quite impressive. After 10 pitches we reached the top of our rock spur and bivied. The weather was great and we were having fun.
On day 3 we got up at sunrise and started ice climbing. At first it was mellow, but steepened up as we reached the second major icefield on the face. It was classic AI3 climbing with little M4 steps for around 7 pitches at which point it mellowed once again and we were able to simul-climb. At 2pm we reached the top of the spur and it seemed as though we would reach the summit ridge that day. But it was not to be. Upon reaching the bottom of the upper face we could see that the whole crevasse riddled area was running with wet avalanches caused by the warm sun. When we looked to the side there was a perfect bivy spot so we parked up and waited for the colder temps of night to climb the upper section.
We got up at 2am and boosted up through the upper face. We were able to simul-climb up until the final bergshrund when we started pitching. Getting over this ‘shrund involved climbing down into the crevasse, along the bottom and back out through a hole using some wild 3-D ice moves. It felt improbable but it worked out and put us within 2 pitches of the summit ridge.
Once on the ridge we could see the mellow walk all the way to the summit but we could also see the big nasty storm clouds coming our way. It was an easy decision to forgo walk to the summit in order to get down quickly. The descent was uneventful. Two abseils took us to a bunch of sketchy down-climbing and eventually down to the scree slopes below where it started to dump snow. From there it was an easy plod over a saddle and down scree slopes and nice meadows to the valley bottom. We were back at camp with 6 hours of starting the descent.
The Central Spur of the North Face of Kyzyl-Muz went at 5.10, AI3, M4 and was 1400 meters. We completed it with 3 bivys. It was a blast with a lot of excellent climbing as well as a moderate descent. It was exactly what we were looking for.
With a big first ascent completed Yewjin and I felt rather justified with a few days of hanging out in base camp. This was well facilitated by bad weather. We slept ate and bouldered about.
While the weather was nasty for climbing it was rarely unpleasant in base camp. On most days it would be sunny in the morning in the lower section of the valley where we were. It was always obvious that the weather was on it’s way since large clouds would be tumbling around in the upper valley. In the early afternoon these would reach us, take our sun away and sprinkle us with raindrops. So while we were unable to climb on the peaks, we were able to walk, do yoga, and boulder around basecamp.
The weather unfortunately did not let up for our remaining two weeks in the valley. It was frustrating to wake up most mornings to sunshine but know by the state of the upper valley that that day was not the day for climbing. Paul (who was feeling better) and I did head up valley on the off chance that the weather did clear. In the morning the weather was okay and we were teased by views of beautiful unclimbed faces covered in fantastic ribbons of ice. But by the afternoon the sky was full of thunder and snow. After a sleep it was obvious that the weather had no intention of letting up so we headed back down.
On the way back we were ushered into the shepherd’s hut where they made us lunch. Lunch consisted of a large amount of meat with was hacked directly off the sheep carcass hanging in the doorway along with the liver which was pull straight out of the ripcage, all chopped up and cooked in oil. Normally I am not much of a meat eater so I was skeptical, but it was delicious. We were honored that they invited us in and we thanked them profusely before stumbling back to camp with very full bellies.
Back it camp it was more climbing on small rocks, sleeping and reading. We got through a lot of books on the trip and I am proud to say that I finished War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It took a while (I started it in Arapiles, Australia 6 months earlier), but it was most enjoyable.
Eventually it was time for the horsemen to come back in and pick us up. We were all thoroughly sick of the bad weather and the lack of climbing and were ready to go. As luck would have it, the weather began to clear the day the horsemen came and we packed up camp. The next morning as we left the skies were clear and it appeared that the good weather had finally come. What timing! Discussion with the shepherds (through Turat) uncovered that the last two weeks of July are generally stormy and it always clears for the first two to three weeks of August. Good to know for next time.
The walk out was hot and dry. We made it to the Karavshin river around sunset and walked along the old, now undrivable, road which runs adjacent to it in the dark. At around eleven we reached the homestead where we were to sleep for the night. While we were ready for our departure from the mountains it was also bittersweet. The mountains of Southwestern Kyrgyzstan hold an amazing energy in which we were bathed for a month. These mountains are truly beautiful, the people within them are incredible and the living there is easy and comfortable. I plan to return to these mountains as soon as possible for there are many peaks there which I would love to climb and I look forward to spending more time amongst the sun, winds and snows of those amazing ranges.
We made our way back to Bishkek quickly. This time flying from Osh versus driving. We ate lots of ‘munties’ (wonderful little meat dumplings) and shish-kebabs. The only real excitement came with visa issues at the airport on my way out, but I made it onto my plane and back to Seattle in piece.
Kyrgyzstan is a truly magical place and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an adventure. If any of you folks are keen, let me know and I will tell you all that I learned.