Former Facewest employee Tim Elson has been on an amazing trip which included some first ascents of mountains in Kyrgyzstan. Here is a trip report from Tim.
The Djangart Region is a part of the Kokshaal-Too or ‘Forbidden Mountains’ which is part of the greater Tien Shan Range that forms the border between Kyrgyzstan and China. This border area has been off limits until recently, leaving hundreds of unexplored and unclimbed mountains. The Anglo-New Zealand Celestial Mountains expedition of 2013 went to the Djangart range of the central Tein Shan and made the first ascent of 5 mountains. The trip would like to thank Facewest for their support.
Map of Kyrgyzstan
The whole team: from L to R - Neil, Tim, Reg, Max, Hugh and Tom.
The team met up in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, at the start of August and spent a jet lagged day buying one months food. We travelled by road to Maida Adyr, and caught a helicopter into base camp; however it turned out we had been dropped off about 15km from our proposed base camp. Fortunately this turned out to actually be nearer several of our main objectives and a nicer spot than our intended location. Nice one pilot!
The heli departing
The team spent the next week exploring several of the surrounding glaciers while acclimatising and scoping out prime objectives. This meant splitting headaches and bad night sleep, but also ogling amazing looking unclimbed mountains and attempting to work out how we might be able to get up any of them. The only thing we didn’t brin gin with us was water. So at basecamp we filtered all of our water with the MSR Mini Works EX Filter . The Mini Works EX is a simple hand pump which filters water through a ceramic core; it removes grit and other particles as well as killing bacteria and protozoa. The Mini Works can pump about 10L in around 15 minutes; however you have to clean the filter regularly otherwise pumping speed could reduce to 5L in half an hour. Several times during our month stay we had to strip down the filter and thoroughly clean it – this included boiling the ceramic core (as per the maintenance instruction). This was relatively easy to do and made the filter as good as new and I think reflects how much water we were pumping. The Miniworks filter fitted straight onto the MSR Dromedary water bags, which we had several of on the trip. They are hardwearing and pack down to nothing when empty which is a plus when you need a large water container at a high camp.
The Frema face
After a couple of days bad weather at basecamp we felt acclimatised enough to try our first peaks. We split into two climbing teams; Max, Reg and I made the first ascent of Peak MacMillan (5051m) via an aesthetic line up the NW Face to high up on its west ridge. Going light from a high camp at around 4000m we started soloing up the 700m of 45-70° névé to the ridge. We were managing to move reasonably quickly, but with the altitude it felt punishing. The ridge never seemed to get any closer and we took fewer and fewer steps between pauses to slump over our axes. Once on the ridge the angle eased off a bit and taking care to avoid the cornices we made our way to the top, stoked to have our first route in the bag and to have made the first ascent of a 5000m peak.
Descending from the top of Peak MacMillan
We all used a similar clothing system in the mountains on this trip; it is basically the same as if I where in the Alps for spring or autumn climbing. It consists of a thermal layer, a mid layer, a waterproof layer and then a belay jacket. I wore a Smartwool long sleeved top, and either a lightweight synthetic jacket similar to a Rab Strata jacket or Arcteryx Atom LT Hoody on cold days or my trusty Mountain Equipment Ultratherm Alpine jacket on warmer ones. I used a Marmot Precip jacket as by waterproof jacket as I prefer a lightweight waterproof and windproof layer and then to beef it up with a belay jacket rather than have a heavyweight full Gore-tex jacket. I always use a synthetic belay jacket like the Montane Ice Guide as they as pretty idiot proof – you can get them soaked and they still provide some warmth. I tend to layer it over whatever I’m wearing, so I use one that has a waterproof treatment on the outside and it has to have a hood.
On my legs I wear a warm pair of thermal trousers, like the Arcteryx Phase AR bottoms, over that I will wear a pair of standard softshells pants such as Rab VR Guide Pants and over that I layer a pair of Arcteryx Theta SV Bibsl. I wear a Powerstretch balaclava on my head, and I have three sets of gloves – a warm pair of Montane Thermostretch Gloves and a light pair of close fitting gloves with coated palms for technical climbing, then I have a pair of Marmot waterproof mitts without a lining to cover them.
Peak Fotheringham from the high camp
The other climbing team made up of Tom, Hugh and Neil made the first ascent of the picturesque Peak Fotheringham (4871m) the following day. They traversed the mountain up the East Ridge and down the West Ridge.
Hugh, Tom and Neil on the Summit
Max, Reg and I then climbed Open Misère on Peak Vinton-Boot (5168m), an ice gully reminiscent of point 5 on the Ben, but much longer. Getting over the bergschrund was awkward, but after that the first couple of pitches were not too hard. The next pitches got a bit steeper and protection got harder to find. The ice had formed over a layer of snow and didn’t really take screws and the rock was quite friable and covered by verglas. Reg led some steepish ice and then Max went through a bit of mixed to get round a thin unprotectable section. Above the mixed ground we were relieved to see the angle ease off. Overall the climbing was brilliant and by the time we reached the ridge we had done about 500m vertical in nine pitches and some simul-climbing. On the summit we discovered our proposed descent route appeared too avalanche prone, so had to go to plan B which involved descending through a maze of seracs and crevasses which turned out not to be as bad as they looked.
Guess the line? Open Misère
Open Misère was an 18 hour round trip. It was amazing to get back to the tent and have an easy to cook yet hearty meal of proper food. We used Mountain House Big Packs meals for all our meals above basecamp; these have about 1000kcal per packet and are really tasty and easy to cook – just add boiling water and leave them for about 5 minutes. Mountain house meals mean you can pack in the calories whilst being appetizing and very tasty. We brought a full range of the different flavours for variety during the trip but the favourite flavours were Salmon & Dill and Chicken Korma. On the trip at lower elevations we mainly used an MSR Whisperlite burning petrol. Even when used at altitude this was pretty fuel efficient and only seemed to require a few extra pumps more than normal to keep it going.
Reg Leading on the Crux of Open Misère
Taking down the tent after the ascent I realised why I had been cold the previous night and the other two had not…a perfect imprint of my body was visible in the snow where I had slept yet it was completed level where the other two had been. What was the difference? – I had a standard roll mat whereas the others had NeoAir XLite’s. The difference in warmth and comfort between a NeoAir and standard roll mat is massive; add to that the fact that a NeoAir XLite weighs only 350g and packs down to nothing and you have an ideal expedition sleeping mat.
Reg and Max enjoying the comfort of their NeoAir’s
I did not bring a NeoAir as I was worried about it popping in a remote location and then having a very cold night. However NeoAir’s are very hardy – we spent several nights out in rocky location and the NeoAir’s were unaffected whereas my roll mat got several holes (but doesn’t pop). In future I would definitely buy a NeoAir for a trip like this as I could have then carried a lighter sleeping bag – thus making my whole setup lighter – and would have a warmer nights sleep.
Next Reg, Max and I attempted the first ascent of the Djanhorn via the south ridge; we set off at 2am and were climbing up towards the col, in the dark, where the climbing proper starts when we heard a very loud BANG…for a second all three of us on the rope froze then we realised a large rockfall was heading our way. I was last on the rope and ran as far to the side as I could until the rope came tight, why are the others not running out of the way? Max screamed he had been hit….eventually the rockfall stopped, the rope between Max and Reg had got caught around a boulder while they tried to run out of the way then Max got hit by several large rocks – which as it turned out cut the rope most of the way through and destroyed several items of climbing gear. We fed Max some painkillers and then descended to somewhere safe to asses Max’s injuries. Luckily they were not major, but quite painful. We then descended to base camp with our tails between our legs.
River Crossings on the way to the Sauktor
Feeling chastised by our rockfall experience and having a week of unstable weather forecast we went for an explore; walking the 20km or so to the Sauktor glacier we got thoroughly soaked both from continuous rain and multiple river crossings. Reg, Max and I then attempted peak 5112, but did not make much headway due to knee deep snow and zero visibility.
Putting the bothy bag to use waiting for the weather to clear on Peak 5112.
Back at basecamp we finally got a good weather report, however we only has 2 days until the helicopter was due to pick us up – with a sat phone call we were pretty sure we had pushed the pick up back a day yet received no confirmation. Max, Reg and I decided a rematch with Djanhorn was in order and set off back to our previous high camp where we had stashed some gear.
The Djanhorn on the left with the rest of the ridge leading to Peak After-You on the right
We started a 1am and this time and almost ran up the slope we had got hit by rockfall on. Our proposed route climbed up to a col, up the south ridge of the Djanhorn (5274m) – the highest unclimbed peak in the range – and then continue along the ridge over 4 more peaks, the last of which is the highest in the range – Peak After-You (5318m), climbed 2 weeks prior to our trip. We figured it would take up to about 8 hours to climb the steep granite ridge up to the summit of 5274. Above the col we found the climbing steep and loose. Max led the crux in rock shoes, with a mixture of free and aid he climbed an overhanging corner at HVS and A2 filled with flakes seemed posed ready to detach – which several did. After seven very time-consuming awkward pitches and several sections of tricky simul-climbing we reached soft snow slopes leading to the summit.
Looking down the crux pitch
We summited at 5:30pm after 12½ hours on the ridge and started the traverse. By the time darkness fell we were over the next major peak but had to back track a section to get avoid some rock steps. Stopping to melt water and eat, we contemplated bivying to avoid having to route find in the dark, however not being prepared for a night out we quickly became very cold so we pushed on. On the Djanhorn we carried a Jetboil as it weights less than an extra bottle of water. We stopped to brew up twice on the route; the Jetboil is great for cooking somewhere small and exposed as someone can literally hold the stove while the water boils. With the reasonably low temperatures and highish altitude we did notice a reduction in its efficiency, but not enough to swap to the Whisperlite for use on routes. We reached the col before the peak After-You at 1:30am, this was our first opportunity for a safe descent and took this escape option back down to our high camp. At out tent we checked the sat phone only to find we still had no confirmation that the helicopter pick up date had been moved so it was potentially arriving at 8am! With this in mind we reluctantly collapsed the tent and walked the 4 hours back to basecamp ending a 31hr day. The helicopter didn’t arrive till the following day!
Tom, Hugh and Neil has been enjoying there own adventure during this time attempting peak 4911m. The narrowly missed out on the summit being unable to climb a steep rockwall just below the summit and on the descent had 2 crevasse incidents.
Sorting Gear at Basecamp
We used a pair of Beal Icelines ropes on all of the routes as they are lightweight and repel water and icing up well. The climbing rack was pretty standard for the Djanhorn a double set of Wild Country Rocks on Wire, a set of Black Diamond Camalots from 0.3 to 3, a range of pegs and 4 Black Diamond Express Ice Screws (on Open Misère we carried 10!).
The helicopter picked us up from Basecamp the day we had re-arranged it for; and bought us back to Maida Adyr. However on landing we were not allowed to take any of our gear out of the helicopter and told to wait. We were quite confused by this…then some Czech trekkers arrived and we started chatting to them – the road out was shut…why was it shut?
“It’s in the Plague exclusion zone!”
It turned out that our helicopter was actually evacuating everyone out of the valley as there had been an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague. Eventually the helicopter was filled with 21 passengers and a massive pile of gear and it struggled its way over a 4500m pass – very near it’s high limit we discovered afterwards – and dropped us off near the Kazak boarder. From there we made our way back to Bishkek.