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Kyrgyzstan Ski mountaineering

When the going gets tough, you might be in Kyrgyzstan.

by Zach Paley 07/24/2017
Our travel reporter Zach Paley, a.k.a. Mr. Worldwide Skibum, spent the spring in Kyrgyzstan taking in the mountain air, drinking vodka, freezing in his tent, carrying his skis over scree for hours on end and experiencing so much more. Here he reports on a special kind of ski adventure: ski mountaineering near Bishkek, in Karakol and on Lenin Peak.

It's best to start with where this trip began: running the trails of Cache Creek in the Tetons with Lee. Conversation always ebbs and flows depending on how bad my asthma attacks are, though as usual, Lee did most of the talking. He brought up spring adventures, and a possible trip 'somewhere that doesn't see many skiers late in the season'. It sounded interesting enough and we left it at that. About a week later I got an invite to a group titled 'Kyrgyzstan (or somewhere else if anyone has a better idea)'. This was my rough introduction to the group. Some of the members I knew well, some I didn't. One of my favorite things about ski friends is you will trust their friends without question too. So even though I had never met them, I knew they were good people. In addition to myself, our team consisted of the Norwegian brothers Petter and Thomas Meling, the Finnish Hannu Kukkonen, Scotsman Hugo Scrimgeor, and the 'American' Lee Lyon.

This brought me to where you might be now. Where is Kyrgyzstan? Am I sure I'm spelling it correctly? We were stacked taking a medical course at the time. It was about two weeks of mispronouncing it as 'Kyrzygstan' and roughly assuming it was somewhere south of Russia and east of Egypt, before I finally got my facts straight. The trip sounded interesting, like a leap of faith. With no certain trip reports or beta, we made arrangements in the usual traveling junkshow style: leaving things mostly to the universe with the understanding they would probably work out. We booked a hotel in Bishkek for a few nights, a rental car that would get the six of us from point A to B, and nothing else for the next six months. We were all busy with respective winter and spring plans, skiing and spending as much time in the mountains as possible. Communications were minimal until only a few days before we were due to arrive in Bishkek.

Bishkek is a relatively small hub when it comes to international flights. It was a huge convenience to all end up on the same flight from Istanbul given the triple red eye it took to get me there from Seattle. We picked up the rental car and made it to our hotel without difficulty. We had budgeted two days to purchase food and gas, and expected things to be very difficult. Dumb luck was on our side. Our hotel was across the street from a massive supermarket and the store that sold gas for our stoves was fully stocked. There was little left to do aside from sampling the local delicacies of pickled salmon and the hard liquor vodka on the terrace of our hotel.

We stumbled through the first 48 hours in Bishkek and arrived in the nearby Ala Archa National Park, eager to get up into things and do some skiing. There is one valley in Ala Archa that leads to the popular Korona and Free Korea Peaks. Though popular for climbing, the mountains had appeared snowy from the city. We (foolishly) had hopes of skiing some of the challenging and steep lines. These also seemed an ideal place to start due to their proximity and established hut system. We spent our first night in the mountains at Racek hut, about a four hour hike from the parking lot. In hindsight, we all agree this was one of the best nights of sleep any of us had in Kyrgyzstan.

The next day had fair weather and we moved up to the Korona Hotel, at just under 4000 meters. The idea was to stay there as long as possible to acclimatize. A local group told us the hut was "absolutely uninhabitable" and filled with trash. We figured it couldn't be that bad and didn't have a choice anyways as we had left tents in Bishkek. We woke early and followed the climbers' trail up to the hut. Arriving early, we found that the hut was indeed full of trash, but it was habitable. Either that or the fact that the walls were covered in porn helped convince us staying there wouldn't be too bad. Korona Hotel was a Soviet dream come true...or something like it. It seemed there were several sleeping bags, but not enough gear for more than three people. Given the amount of trash left about the hut, we figured the gear couldn't belong to anybody on the mountain. It was clear somebody would have slept there and left so much filth to come back to (or so we thought). We naively figured we might get the hut to ourselves. We stashed gear and went for a quick venture up towards Korona to see how the elevation treated us.

The turns were crunchy and elevation difficult, but it what we came here for. We settled into an afternoon around the hut melting water and preparing for the evening. At about 1700, we noticed a group of ten coming up the mountain towards the hut. Turns out they were the same group that told us the hut was filled with trash and was "absolutely uninhabitable". Oh well. We could be friendly and make it work. Then around 1900, another group of six arrived from the mountain. They were the ones that had left the hut full of trash. Though pleasant to chat with and headed down, they refused to go further that night. We had 22 people crammed into an area no bigger than an average hotel room. Spirits remained remarkably high considering it was a standing room only. Sleeping outside without a shelter sounded rough, but being crammed into that space with ten people waking up at 3AM for a summit bid sounded pretty bad too. We opted for the surprise bivy at 4000 meters. We took what we needed from the hut and doubled up on melatonin doses before laying down on our space blankets intended only for emergency. It would be a cold night, but at least it wasn't snowing.

At about 3AM, I woke to feel snow hitting my face. Not just the occasional flurry from the wind, but consistent, driving snow. Things had gone from not ideal to downright miserable very quickly. I curled up in my sleeping bag, hoping it was a bad dream. Everyone else had similar experiences, and we all pretended to sleep until daybreak. The minute we got first light, we quickly packed our gear, and made a break for civilization. The logistical ease we had in Bishkek was very misleading of how things were going to go in the mountains.

Back in Bishkek we regrouped and agreed it was time to head for Karakol. Our main objective there was the imposing and unskiied face of the 5130m Djigit Peak. This time we were going to be more prepared. In addition to all the usual necessities, we found Lenin himself at a bar. We negotiated for a while with him until eventually he ensured our success with a written agreement sanctioning our trip to Karakol. Unfortunately, Lenin likes to drink vodka, so we all brought a healthy hangover with us for the ten hour car ride to Karakol. We arrived in the town of Karakol in late afternoon and made straight for the poorly maintained dirt road leading up Karakol Valley. As our luck would have it a fairly intense thunderstorm sat on us for the next several hours, and brought steady rain that lasted until morning. Having tents and gear completely stashed, we opted to sleep in the car rather than get gear soaked. It was a long night.

The next morning offered promise as Hannu, our Finnish four wheeling expert, navigated the jeep through rocks and mud that nearly cost us our security deposit. Things were going 'smoothly' until we reached a very definitive end to the road. A horse trail that navigated around it seemed to continue up, though the approach was still hopelessly long. We turned around and returned to the entrance to the park and found a local 'gaucho' who rented horses. We agreed on getting horses the next day, and were hopeful when he said we would be at Djigit camp in only four hours.

As our luck would have it, riding horses to skiing, though pretty awesome, was only cool for the novelty of the experience. We did make it to the main Djigit camp in only four hours. Trouble was it was about an hour and a half walking past where we could drive. At least it temporarily raised spirits. We shouldered our heavy packs and walked for the next several hours until thunderheads loomed, forcing us to stop and camp due to thunder and rain. Spirits were mixed at this point. We were finally seeing patches of snow, which was good. Though postholing through isothermal mank with a 60lb pack on is quite difficult in sneakers.

The next day showed little improvement as warm temperatures from the on and off rain kept the snow isothermal. Despite having skis on, we sank through the snow up to our knees with every step. Looking back, I would rather take a cheese grater to my knee than do it again. Several hours later, after navigating through creek crossings and bogs in the moraine maze, Karakol Peak finally came into view. It seemed our persistence, though nearly to the point of stupidity, was paying off. As we neared the open delta section where things finally got 'straightforward', rain and thunder once again pinned us down. With nowhere to go, we were forced to wait out the storm in our tents, praying the lightning wouldn't choose to have its way with us.

It wasn't until our third approach day that we finally made good headway up the glacier and were able to make camp. It was too late in the day to successfully attempt anything serious, but Djiget was finally in striking distance. We took a rest, then went for a recon ski that showed some fun looking terrain. We rested well knowing tomorrow, for the first time since getting to Kyrgyzstan, we were going to have a proper ski day.

Rising early, our aim was to take a stab at Djigit, and get a feel for the snow. Personally, I already knew I was out. Regardless of the skiing, there was far too much ice for me to be comfortable climbing the peak. So I admittedly took in the sunrise and aesthetics of the group moving about, and hung out in the back at what was referred to as 'the Hannu pace'. We made steady progress up a snow covered ridge until it became broken and the group reached a decision point: to continue up or descent and ski. Lee joined me on the desire to ski as there was a pretty fun looking windlip to work the whole way down. Thomas and Hugo gradually came about and admitted things looked too broken to be worthwhile as well. Petter and Hannu remained persistent and continued upwards. Wishing them luck, we turned to our first true ski run of the trip. Maybe it was how hard we had all worked for it, but it was a freaking great run.

With Djigit out, the others turned their attention to Karakol Peak. It wasn't as impressive a run, though it was the most imposing peak in the valley. Lee and I saw little to it other than the glacier run that linked into the long summit ridge, which did look quite tempting. We suggested it as a midday objective to get a feel for snow and see what else there was up that way. The next several hours were spent stomping our way up some lovely wind crust that was plastered over 5mm sized graupel. Ice that would have made downclimbing mandatory prevented us from reaching the top. Feeling just fine with that and excited for some more good skiing, Hugo, Lee, and I transitioned quickly. The turns were wind buffed but consistently good, especially considering the lack of skiing the past several days. Back at camp we began to eye more skiing oriented objectives for the next day, but not before a quick and simple run for Canada right out the back door...

If there's one way to make sleeping on snow more pleasant, it's to do it in relative warmth. Despite being at 3800m on a glacier, sleeping conditions were surprisingly warm at night. This made the 4AM starts quite manageable, though it also meant things softened quickly. The boys wanted to go for Karakol Peak, but were shut down by wind. Lee and I were looking at an east facing line and the hope was that the wind would help us by keeping things cool. That and we didn't want to ski down the glacier in headlamps. So 4AM it was. Crunchy turns down the glacier led to tedious moraine bashing that took longer than expected. We weren't in the basin of our line until it was well into the sun. Given it was a theme of the trip, what else could we have done but remain persistent?

We changed leads frequently and moved quickly until about 150m from the top where snow quickly transitioned to isothermal. I was in the lead at the time and I opted to traverse to a better transition spot. My traverse brought me across to an old wet slide path where the snow was solid and supportable. We agreed to go for it and I did my best to sprint the remaining section. At 4800m, with my shitty lungs, sprinting is more like moving at slightly below average pace, and consists mostly of breathing so heavily you can't hear or think. This turned out to be a good thing as I didn't notice my calves cramping up until the very top. Topping out wasn't much of a reprieve, as a fast transition was necessary. Soft corn turns and a large funnel dug from the wet slide that made sluff management easy were the reward of our efforts.

Our eyes went next to the ridge/spine coming from the looker's left of the peak. We opted to climb part of the face in hopes of less wind. We charged and tunneled our way up the face to find conditions surprisingly calm along the ridge. I guess when the going gets tough, you sometimes decide to make it tougher. It was a fun run down with beautiful views of the valley. We adventure skied back down through the glacier and moraines. Overall things worked well though there were moments of panic every time one of us broke through the isothermal snowpack as if felt we were about to 'get the hole'. A sweaty walk up the mellow glacier brought us back to camp where we shared stories of our ski day with the boys.

Fearing a terrible slog out and with few ski options remaining, we opted to break camp unnecessarily early the next day. Because suffering doesn't count if you don't do it right. Snow had melted almost all the way up to the glacier so there was no easy ski down the wide river delta we had skinned up several days earlier. All said and done the walk back to the car ended up being about 16 miles, most of which was done in ski boots due to deep mud and old snow. Too tired to set up tents, we took our chances with rain and slept in a field near the entrance of the park that night. The next morning we examined other ski options but decided things would be too far for the effort. We opted to camp and fish in the nearby Jeti-Oguz Valley. Despite not skiing, it was great to see more of these mountains as they are incredibly aesthetic.

Thomas had a flight to make so we had to return to Bishkek. With Petter's flight in several days, we decided to try a light and fast stab at Korona again. Sometimes a nearly stupid level of stubbornness pays off. This time we found ourselves only sharing Racek with one other boisterous group who were on their way down. They kept us up till early hours in the morning, then we returned the favor by waking them up as we left at sunrise. We weren't about to leave ourselves open to the chance of getting fully skunked simply due to another Korona Hotel shitshow. We dropped our small amount of overnight gear at the hut and continued all the way up Korona. Relatively fresh from Karakol, elevation didn't take its toll on us until the last couple pitches. We napped at the top for an hour to let things soften, and turned to the skiing.

The first pitch was wind buffed snow on top of ice that skied surprisingly well. Everything below was cruisey corn. Thinking of our friends in far places, we dedicated this one to Canada. We skied all the lower sections as a group. After dealing with the 'nothing easy' pace the past few weeks, it was unspeakably pleasant to finally get something done in a quick and easy manner. Then again, I think about it and admit we skied a 4800m peak in two days with at least 50% of the walking being on dirt. And I'm calling it 'quick and easy'. It's possible at this point in the trip our standards had been skewed.

As if things couldn't get better, we ended up with the Korona Hotel to ourselves that night. We couldn't have been happier to have a night alone with Sasha Gray all over the walls. We awoke the next morning with an idea of skiing a nearby wall that looked enticing. Unfortunately it warmed up faster than anticipated, and it wasn't meant to be. We had good turns but only on the lower half of the face. As for that 50% walk in through moraines and dirt? It was unsurprisingly heinous.

At least until this point in the trip, I thought were exchanging so much effort for skiing because of our approach to the mountains. We had been trying to ski the remote and crazy lines that were traditionally for climbers. Now, the Euro boys had returned to Verbier and it was just the Gringo powder skiers: myself and Lee, left. Our plan was to head south to the Pamir Mountains and camp near Pik Lenin. The peak has a massive ramp descending 2800m from the summit to advanced base camp. It's a ski line that is so clear, it doesn't even register. Even in person, this ramp is hard to fully take in. The goal was naturally this ramp, though the idea was to warm up to the elevation skiing things nearby, and build up to the peak.

In hopes of making things as easy and straightforward as possible, we made all of our arrangements from Bishkek through one lady that was based in Osh. She wasn't cheap, but the idea was that if she took care of everything, life would be easy. Despite having nothing but pleasant experiences with everyone in Kyrgyzstan up until this point, we were less than impressed with our experience: the way she dealt with emails and money transfers, the behavior of the drivers she used, and vibes of the guesthouse she had us stay in. I mention this more to give a word of caution to those trying to plan things. You might be better off to book as much of your trip on your own as possible and deal with the headache of going after your own logistics. We felt we dealt with as many if not more headaches by hiring this person to help us with logistics.

I won't waste more time sharing specifics of how these experiences dragged our trip down. In what we now know to be classic Kyrgyzstan fashion, the harder we try, the more difficult things get. After being dropped 2km shy of Lenin Base Camp, we walked the road the rest of the way in and continued up to Onion Hill. We attempted to ski the next day but deteriorating weather eventually turned us around. Day two had more success, though the fresh snow from the previous day warmed up too quickly for us to ski more than the most mellow runs available.

As luck would have it my asthma was back with a vengeance on day three. Chain smoking drivers that refused to open their windows had caught up with my lungs, so I was confined to the tent. To nobody's surprise Lee couldn't sit still so he opted to bring some food up and do trail recon. The report wasn't optimistic. When Lee says it's difficult moraine trail walking, I know I'm in for a hellish day.

The next day we awoke early and packed. I steeled myself for a bad time, and this one did not disappoint. The trail worked through an awkward valley that pinched and opened, so the terrain varied from completely covered in snow to bare and dry. The route then bashed over a steep, several hundred meter hump; made extra fun with a heavy backpack. The reward was losing that elevation gained immediately by descending a steep, south facing scree covered game trail. The "trail" undulated and traversed through patches of snow and steep, scree covered slopes until it reached a lone bench where Lee had stashed food the previous day. Lee reached this bench first and I could tell all was not well.

Despite being much more frequent at Onion Hill and not touching our food there, marmots had chewed into a large amount of the food he left at this point. We lost a good chunk of our snack and some breakfasts, as well as four days of dinners which was a bummer. The dagger was losing the lightweight tent they were stashed in. In order to make Lenin happen, we would now have to do the whole thing in a one day push. Fuck. The marmots seemed to prefer the backpackers meals, so now we were down to just instant potatoes. At this point there was no choice but to salvage what we could and continue to Advance Base Camp and see what could be done. We opted to get skis on our feet sooner than later by descending the moraine trail shitshow to the glacier. Several hours of slogging with the heaviest backpacks of our trip brought us to a deserted ABC. We helped ourselves to one of the platforms usually used for summer climbers, and set up a reasonably cozy camp at 4400m.

I wish I could say we spent the next ten days stretching food as far as it would go, skiing a bunch while acclimatizing, and finding an ideal line up the peak so we could have a smooth summit day. We were successfully able to stretch our rations. We did ski some fun runs that were most likely first descents. Though with regards to Pik Lenin, we didn't even get close. When nine of your ten days have snow, wind, thunder, or all three at some point in the day, it's very difficult to do much.

Despite severely inconsistent and unreliable weather, we did manage two attempts. Both of these ended early due to inconsistencies and instabilities in the snow covering the glacier. Simply put, we didn't have the experience and determination needed to navigate ice that complex. Once again thoroughly outdone by the mountains of Kyrgyzstan, we packed up as we ran low on food and skied down the glacier back to the trail. Getting out was about as fun as getting in: lots of walking through steep scree, lots of swearing, some moments of existential crisis. Between that and post holing through the patches of hollow snow, things went about as well as they could have.

One thing that did go our way was satellite communications. We were able to send an email out and request an earlier pickup due to the food situation. Our logistics lady left us guessing up until the last minute about our pickup by not responding. Seeing the car coming around the corner was an indescribable relief. Once back in the car and civilization was alas secured, we relaxed and reflected.

There are many ways this was a productive learning experience. One needs to see the time, effort, and dedication necessary to making a mountain adventure of this scale successful. This also was a useful experience relative to what has worked for my skiing in the past: keep it simple, get there, hike and ski hard, ask questions later. I'm not saying I still won't do that, though it has its time and place. I think with bigger missions like this, more time and energy is necessary on the ground. More energy needs to go into logistics, and it's helpful to have a trustworthy contact who can make things happen. Simply showing up to put hard work and enthusiasm to the test doesn't seem to work as well on this scale. Then again it could also be an issue of luck, which seems to be one of the most important parts of the necessary factors when getting it right in a place like this. Maybe Kyrgyzstan simply didn't want to give it up.

It's also possible Kyrgyzstan just wasn't the place. It seems to get very little snow there and have a rapid transition from winter to spring because of the cold temperatures. Maybe the best place to harvest lots of corn and get great skiing until late in the spring is right in my back yard. Maybe bouncing around in a van in North America is the ideal system when skiing in May and June. And that's exactly what we spent so much of our down time in the tent talking about. Given our obsession with quality skiing and adventure being the secondary, maybe it's time to give this van life thing a shot. On the other hand, there are a handful more interesting mountain adventures that involve a lot of type 2 fun to be done. Whichever the choice is, it doesn't have to be made until after the Andes. Which are next on the calendar. I plan to head down there on the 22 of August. With any luck, the rotten weather we got in Kyrgyzstan will pay back down there, and we'll get the chance for some more adventures.

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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