A myriad of stones slip away under foot. Up above, the track, a broken and washed out affair, winds around more sets of switchbacks, fading out of sight behind yet another rise in the still distant mountains. The wind is bitter, and tears mercilessly through the thin T-shirt, my sole layer of protection carelessly thrown on earlier in the day, when the weather was perfect and the number of miles to the valley's pass a mere happy guess. Now the sun is setting, dragging the temperature down with it. The distance has also turned out to be much further and much steeper than anticipated and, at four thousand metres and completely unacclimatized, I struggle deeply for breath. Looking back, down the sweeping moraine encompassed on either side by sheets of once dazzling white snow - now slowly turning grey in the dim evening light - the blurred image of Dan can just be made out lying on a rock several hundred meters away. He's obviously in a similar state; completely and utterly exhausted.
I had flown into Bishkek's Manas Airport just over a week before to meet up with an Anglo-American team who were aiming to climb several new peaks in a previously untouched area of the Tien Shan mountain range called the Djangart. Part of the Kokshaal-Too (literally the 'Forbidden Range', an area of mountains that was a closed military zone until the late 1990s) ridge line that forms Kyrgyzstan's southern border with China, the area had received little previous attention, with less than three visits ever being made to the region by mountaineers. Although slightly lower in elevation than its popular neighbour, the Western Kokshaal-Too, the Djangart still boasts over a dozen mountains over 5,000 metres. At the time, all but one of these peaks remained unclimbed, something that the team hoped to rectify with their own visit to the area.
It was at this point, grey-white slopes spreading gently away to the glacier far beneath them, and expanses of steeper, just off vertical, ice towering high above, that the group began to lead climb. “Dan led the first pitch, but didn’t get very far before the green rope ran out.” Mike recounts. “We thought it seemed a bit odd, but maybe the scale of the face screwed with our perception of distance, a common issue on exposed mountains. Often two half ropes aren’t exactly the same length as well, so with little concern I just ran off to the next belay” But as Matt took his turn for the lead after, Dan realised something was quite wrong indeed: “I was re-stacking the ropes so Matt could have an easier belay but all of a sudden I got to the end of the green rope. There was masses of other rope, but none of the green; it must have been perhaps as much as twenty metres short.”
(Bishkek by night. Photo: Jamie Maddison)
The journey out was harsh. Confined to a Russian ex-military truck, which, by the looks of it had probably seen action in Afghanistan, one quickly became bored with the absolute lack of things to do. Watching the ever-changing scenery was our main hobby, along with trying to avoid receiving a concussion every time the truck catapulted us airborne as it passed over a bump in the road. The days dragged on despairingly slowly. Upon reaching camp on the first night Matthew Traver (a fellow Englishman) and myself, repulsed by the further effort erecting a tent would exact, simply dragged our sleeping bags underneath the truck and spent the night there; stars peeping through the gaps in the engine overhead, accompanied later by the gentle drip, drip of a fine early morning rain whilst we slept.
Winding Road from Michael Royer on Vimeo.
The scenery changed: from the deep blues of Lake Issyk Kul, to the luscious green alpine valleys around Barskoon and later, the dried, dead steppe of the Kara-Say area. The roads soon deteriorated further and Sasha, our driver, was frequently forced to divert in and around countless glacial torrents, pouring off the mountains that encompassed us on all sides. It was with much relief, and with severely bruised bones that we approached the final checkpoint, the military camp Ak-Shyyrak. This last outpost of humanity, situated firmly in the restricted zone between China and Kyrgyzstan's high Tien-Shan boundary, was once a sizeable Soviet mining town. Now, since the closure of the mines, less than twenty families remain, keeping lonesome vigil over the few comings and goings that this area of the border receives. Permits in order, we were allowed to proceed, up the Kaichi valley and to the final end of our laborious vehicular journey. Tomorrow we would head up, over the pass and finally into the Djangart.
Back on my feet, I stumble my way onward. After what seems like a never-ending passage of time, the top of the pass finally comes into view. It really is a depressing place. A barren wasteland, solely populated by a scattering of abandoned concrete tubes, remnants of a past mining exploration long since concluded. The wind picks up, whittling its way over this gap in the mountains. Shivering violently, I dive into a pipe, jamming my rucksack into one end in a vain attempt to block out the frighteningly bitter wind. Sitting, huddled in a ball inside this little concrete coffin; I do nothing but wait for my climbing partner Dan. And, after an age, he finally appears, not, it has to be said, in the best of states, hyperventilating from too rapid a rise after too little acclimatisation. Enough's enough, and we beat a hasty retreat down the other side of the pass into this new valley, the Djangart, spread out before us, beautifully bathed in the golden glow of the now dying sun.
(A quick dip in Lake Issyk Kul. Photo: Maddison Collection)
Up and Over from Michael Royer on Vimeo.
The day lasts more than a hundred years, as the famous Kyrgyz author Chinghiz Aitmatov so eloquently put it. Nearly a week later and I'd come to well and truly know the meaning of that phrase. Sitting alone in a sodden tent in the middle of the rain swept unknown, devoid of everything but a single book, Time seemed to stretch out, to lengthen to ridiculous and previously unfathomable proportions. And yet, whilst I sat and railed against the slow passage of days, they were advancing incredibly swiftly for the climbers Mathew Traver (UK) Dan Clark (US) and Mike Royer (US) who, high up in the valley above me, were preparing to make their first attempt at one of the surrounding unclimbed peaks. A rocky pyramid of a mountain, they later found out (having lost their topographical maps at the time) that this was Pt 4766, a prominent peak sitting at one of the central dividing points for the Djangartynbashi glacier.
The initial start, although technically easy, was nevertheless a laborious and frustrating chore due to deep snow and unhelpful weather conditions. Matt was to take the lead for this and made steady progress over the first two hundred metres, up gradually increasing snow slopes. As the ground behind them began to drop away, so too did the difficulties in front of the team begin to increase: “By now, snow was tumbling off the higher slopes; never enough to take you down but enough to keep you on your toes.” Mike was to tell me later: “sloughing snow is actually a welcome sign, as it means it isn’t accumulating to unload as a larger, potentially lethal, avalanche later.”
(Pik 4766 Photo: Michael Royer)
The rope, which the group later deduced was probably cut by the local horseman seeking thicker cord for lashing our equipment to their horses on the initial journey over the pass, was now roughly a third as short. This meant that in their current style of ascent they would only be able climb two thirds as far on each pitch, effectively extending the overall time on the mountain to dangerous proportions. Instead, Mike suggested the must riskier option of all three simul-climbing over the now difficult ground on the one rope. Devoid of any other options they had no choice but to carry on in this style.
Upward the trio progressed, a single slender thread now tracing between them as they tackled the ever more challenging obstacles that lay in front of them. Then, as the sun was setting, the ridgeline that marked the end of difficulties and the path to the summit finally came into view. “Eager to finish, I placed my last screw and yelled down that I was going to gun it for the ridge.” Mike remembers “But, after Matt expressed his concern, I relented and traversed to the other side of the couloir. I threw in a sketchy nut, pounded in a marginal piton, and shoved my shoulder into a corner of the wall that arched over the couloir” Mike then belayed Matt and Dan up to that frigid stance.
(Djangart by Night. Photo: Jamie Maddison)
That one last difficulty surmounted, nothing remained but the trio's final rush for the summit, watched only by the masses of storm clouds that had begun to gather overhead. Mike was the first to reach the top: “Suddenly I was there; scrambling over the final few metres, I just threw my arms up and let up a shout.” Relieved and quite exhausted he proceeded to belay Matt and Dan up to the summit. The storm crashed in all around but it didn't really matter for they had done it! The mountain, formally Pik 4766 (designated according to its elevation above sea level) became Peak Howard-Bury, named after an early British explorer who had visited the region in 1913. It was the second mountain in the entire area to be climbed - the first being Peak Letaveta (5280m) summited in 2008 by a Russian expedition - and the first peak to be summited by Western mountaineers in the region. At an alpine grade of Difficile +, the seven hundred metre line ranks as hard as many of the classic routes of the European Alps.
Back in the lonely rain-swept valley I was to wait another full day before the beaten three made their return to base camp. They collapsed into the main tent, exhausted, sunburnt and stinking to high heaven. Yet, their smiles blunted any concerns of mine over their physical well being; they joked freely about the adventure just experienced, content that all their efforts, planning and hard graft had finally come to fruition. Over the next two weeks the team was to climb a further two new mountains in this area of unknown beauty and intrigue. Heading home early, I left these pioneers planning their next and final summit, happy in life. Residents at the end of the world.
Horseman's Horror from Michael Royer on Vimeo.
Djangart 2010 Expedition Info
How to Get There: To Kyrgyzstan from the UK -
There are no direct flights from the UK to Kyrgyzstan and a transit stop will be required, usually either in Moscow or Istanbul. Other possibilities include booking cheap flights to Eastern Europe and flying onwards from there, or even flying into the nearby capital of Almaty, Kazakhstan, before taking public transport on to Bishkek. For the more adventurous, why not cycle out? (One expedition member was actually planning this!)
Bishkek to the Djangart -
The quickest option is to fly directly into the Djangart Valley from Karakol Air Base. Although this approach cost silly money and most will choose to travel overland instead (an off-road capable vehicle is essential for this), first journeying southwards along Lake Issyk-Kul and then heading onto the Barskoon Valley, before reaching the bare steppe at the foothills of the Tien Shan. By truck, expect to take up to two days travel to get to the area’s closest military base, Ak-Shyrrak, and then an additional day or so to hike up into the hanging valleys of the Djangart proper.
(Kyrgyz roads presented some unique difficulties! Photo: Jamie Maddison)
When to go:
Whenever the country’s most stable! Kyrgyzstan is currently experiencing a period of political instability that has resulted in rioting, ethnic clashes and an overall increase of lawlessness in major urban areas. Always check with the Foreign Office that it is safe to travel before heading out there. Climbing-wise, June to September is generally considered the best time to venture into the Tien Shan range, although late August/September may also provide good weather windows.
Will Your Anchor Hold? from Michael Royer on Vimeo.
There are a lot of options available for funding and it’s highly recommended that you give these a try. You don’t have to be a hotshot climber: all you need is ambition, a fresh idea, and lots of perseverance! The BMC and Royal Geographical Society’s websites both have useful databases of grants that can be applied for. Our particular expedition received help from: the Mount Everest Foundation, Gore-tex Fabrics, the BMC, Sport Wales, HemCom Medical Technologies Inc. DMM, justRopes.com, the Jeremy Willson Charitable Trust, Beast Products and many more.
The equipment required for a trip such as this - particularly in terms of climbing gear and clothing - is not vastly different from what you’d expect to take on a summer alpine trip closer to home. The main point of difference lays in the fact that if something breaks you won’t be able to pop into Chamonix to pick up a replacement. Consequently, a decent repair and sewing kit are always useful. Remember to also bring spares of essential equipment such as axes, crampons and ropes so that if anything does get lost, dropped, eaten, or cut-up (as lots of things did on our expedition), it won’t spell the end of the adventure!
Postcard for the Chief from Michael Royer on Vimeo.
Things we wish we had considered beforehand
- Snowshoes or skis would have made glacier approaches quicker and more efficient.
- Thick extra cord for lashing down the packs on the horses is very handy. It is also a useful bartering tool with the local nomads as well, especially if the cord is of a high quality.
- You can never have enough money, vodka and cigarettes. These will get you virtually anywhere you need to go and out of any sticky situation you may find yourself in.
- Soviet maps are not to be relied upon. Regard venturing into these ‘mapped’ areas with the same caution and attentiveness that you would apply if you were stepping into the complete and utter unknown.
Deep Fried Horse Fly from Michael Royer on Vimeo.