Kyrgyzstan Expedition 2014

When I was invited on the Navlikin Expedition I first asked myself, “Where the hell is Kyrgyzstan?”, I had heard of Kazakstan, so assumed it was near there; Somewhere past the middle east near China. After a quick Google I found out I was not far wrong. Even though I read about Emilys trip there last year it never occurred to me to look where it was.  I started wondering if I was ready to go half way around the world just to climb. It seemed a bit much. I love climbing but the furthest I normally go is a ten minute walk to the Aiguille du Midi or on occasion a short drive up the valley to Le Tour. More questions popped into my head. Am I willing to risk the possibility of great suffering for the reward of climbing? Not having been involved in any true ‘epics’ in the massif the last two summers (not counting one short heli ride!) I have not had my ‘suffering in a bivi tent in a blizzard at 4000m’ experience. There is also no safety net; I would have to climb well within my ability so that I could ensure my safe return. This was fine by me; I just had to look what was possible before leaving. With lots of pictures available and Google earth this is not that hard to do. Scoping out possible summits and routes before we departed seemed like the best way to maximize our climbing time out there, without having to do lots of reccies.

We had intended to ‘col hop’ when we got to the glacier. Our intended glacier looked too crevassed and open to efficiently get near our planned peak. The adjacent Kotur Glacier was the exact opposite. Flat and gentle with only a few visible crevasses. We would base at its foot, and slowly make our way up 10km of scree and ice and pop over to the top of the Navlikin. Well, that was the plan. When we initially got dropped off we could not believe how close we were to the glacier. The ‘tank’ had done its job and our driver Sergey was regarded as a legend.

We had suspected that we would have a couple of days load carrying all of our gear and supplies (for the 20 day stay) across 10 to 20km of uneven ground before we reached camp 1. Having completely taken this out of the equation we were all in high spirits. Knowing that we were not doing this we stayed at this camp (4100m, est) so that we could acclimatise. These few days also consisted of carrying loads up to camp 2, Roughly 4280m on a small moraine strip on the west bank of the Kotur Glacier. During this time several team members, myself included, battled with a serious case of ‘the shits’. Not the best thing to have at nearly 4000m with no toilet for a couple hundred miles.

Our first climb was Obzhorny 5156m. This peak had been climbed numerous times but the aim of our climb was to acclimatise. We chose a simple route up a 40’ snow slope and along a 2 KM ridge to the summit, crossing over another peak about 4800m. Going along with Sam, James and Dave we took just over 7 hours, and despite high winds on the approach to the summit, we had perfect weather.

For me my trip was successful after this mornings climbing. I wanted to climb a peak over 5000m and return unscathed, these were my objectives. We had a mix of weather over the next few days; it would snow a foot with high winds and then be bluebird for a couple of days . With most of the approaches being up 40’ snow slopes the combination of new snow and wind meant that there could be a high avalanche risk, we would normally wait a day or two for the mountains to shed and snow stabilise. But after waiting it would normally snow again. Receiving weather updates via sat phone we had a rough idea what was going to happen but it didn’t always match up. Our second outing came after a week or so at camp 2. Me, Dave, Sam and James headed up to the glacier to ‘Dead bird Col’ (named shortly after finding a sparrow sized bird frozen with its wings extended, I guess it got too cold mid flight).

Dave and Sam had their eyes on a mixed route on the north face of Letevit, and James and I were going to climb Pik Pyramida on the Kyrgy/China border. At just over 5100m it would be our second over 5000m and a great addition to our climbing list. After a 6 hour slog up the glacier in sometimes knee deep powder, we reached the Col, exhausted, we set up camp on the Navlikin side and we were getting closer to our planned objective of Pik 5611. After a stormy night and a couple of hours sleep we woke to clouds and snow. James and I only brought one nights worth of food as we planned to return to base the following day. Dave and Sam were getting settled for a few days to attempt the buttress in good weather. With no clearing on the horizon James and I headed back to base about 10am, another 4 hours of trail breaking down the glacier in a whiteout. Finding many big crevasses on the way and becoming very tired. An unsuccessful outing involving a lot of suffering. Dave and Sam returned the next day, also exhausted. We saw them after we returned from an attempt on what we aptly named Pik Tonic, named due to its locality to Pik Jjin. We didn’t make the summit of the possibly unclimbed peak but we did climb a subsidiary peak on its approach, which we named Pik Lemon, it stands roughly about 4957m. This would be our last time with crampons on.

 

I have learnt many lessons from this trip and have had the chance to experience a new style of climbing in a distant country. I cannot thank Emily enough for organising  this expedition and all other team member for making it an unforgettable experience. Cora, Dave Searle, Emma, James, Libby, Sam and Simon. Many thanks also go out to Latitude60s for the excellent Merino gear they provided me with and also to Rab and Mountain Hardwear for the tents they provided us for the expedition, allowing us to get a good nights sleep away from the elements and sub-zero temperatures.

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Arête des Papillons, Aiguille du Peigne

This classic granite ridge seamed with clean cut cracks offers great climbing in exceptional surroundings. Situated at the base of the Aiguille du Peigne it covers over 250m of vertical height with the grades topping out at 5c+. I very rarely climb rock as I am bored with the valley crags and have little experience with alpine trad. Teaming up with Emily in preparation for our Krygyzstan trip we started early at the Midi so that we would have plenty of time before the afternoon showers and cloud rolled in. With its close proximity to the mid station we were at the base of the route within the hour and started up the easier lower climbing before hitting the first small wall where we roped up. The route follows a series of 4 towers with their being a difficulty on every one but the first. Within 15m minutes of climbing the route the clouds came in and we could feel a few drops of rain. We waited it out on a small ledge for 30 mins hoping that it would stop so we could continue, as we were close to the point of no return. The sun came back out and we carried on up the ridge climbing mostly 4c. Over the 1st tower and onto some harder pitches. There was a very exposed step across onto the first 5b slab and it was a shock for me. Glad Emily led the entire route as I had difficulties climbing the 5b and 5c+ let alone placing gear as I went. Over the 2nd tower we could sit in the sun for a little and enjoy the views, before tackling the crux wall. Emily started up the cracked slabs before coming to the hard move. Placing a cam high up in a crack before moving around a corner it created a lot of rope drag that left her, and me, not feeling confident. She would ask for slack and no matter how much I would pay out she would still be pulling on the rope. Fair play to her she made it up and over and was glad to find some bolts. Now it was my turn. As she started pulling in the excess rope I started coiling it up as with the drag it was taking a long time. For the first half of the pitch I did have a lot of slack but the climbing was relatively easy so no bother. I did wait when it came to the overhanging slabs so she could keep the rope tight. Even though I pulled on an in-situ sling it was still one of the hardest pitches of climbing I had done. Exposed and awkward with a slack rope! On to the 4th tower. Just as Emily was half way up the 5c slab it started to rain. I was next. With this tricky slab that required a lot of smearing I had a nightmare. It was very greasy and wet and my hands were freezing with no chalk left in my bag. Probably some of the worst climbing I have done. We were glad to get this last slab out of the way as it led to a small traverse and we were at the raps. One 30m rap brought you to the exit couloir that was fairly dry, maybe 20m of snow to downclimb. Back to the midi for about 3:30 and we were happy. Slabs, cracks and smiles.

 

Mont Blanc Traverse 4810m

After doing nothing last week apart from drinking and partying I had to do something to redeem myself, I thought that Mont Blanc could be a tough challenge for a monday morning!

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The route is around 20km long with 1400/1600m ascent and 4000m descent.

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The last time I was up high was two weeks ago when I did the Entreves traverse and this was only 3500m, so with no acclimatising I headed up the Midi first bin with Emily who only discovered that I was going to do it the night before at about 9pm, she is off on expedition soon and needs the high altitude training, and with over 7 hours above 4000m this was perfect.

I wanted to do it solo originally so that I could go as light as possible, Emily had the same idea, and as we did it together we had no ropes or crevasse gear just a harness, sling and ice screw. The only thing we did bring that most others wouldn’t is trainers. After suffering last year on the descent from the Gouter refuge I knew that I would love to put on some new socks and comfy trail running shoes for the scramble and the miles and miles of trails back to Les Houches.

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Leaving the midi station at 7 we were quick down the arete and straight onto the Tacul, the crevasse in the middle of the face is now a bit of a overhang climb for a couple of moves, once over this obstacle we were at the shoulder before 9am, 2 hours in and looking good.

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Once over the shoulder it is on to Mont Maudit, this is a little more technical than the Tacul as there is a section of about 30/50m 45′ snow slope to climb. We started the steep climb as many teams were on their way back down so it was a bit of a mess with ropes and people everywhere. The climbing itself was not too bad, you had to rely on your front points at times as it was icy.

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We were over the shoulder of Mont Maudit just after 11 and we were both feeling good. I didn’t fancy down climbing the slope we had just come up so pushing on and completing the traverse was the only option!

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After the Mudit we could see the summit and this is when the wind really started to pick up and it was howling. The temperature on the Tacul and Maudit was pleasant, and then on the summit slopes we were freezing, hands and face were burning with the cold winds.

We slowly plodded up the summit slopes and got to the summit at 1pm, 6 hours after setting off from the midi. We were both pleased with this time as we had not been up high for a couple of weeks and the wind did slow us down slightly.

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A quick stop on the summit, I took a Finnish Flag up for my Girlfriend Katariina as she didn’t manage to make it up Mont Blanc this summer, then we started the descent. Not a lot of good photos from the top as it was so windy I didn’t want to take my gloves off for very long!

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We descended the ordinary Gouter route towards the Vallot hut, where we stopped for some food and water and shelter form the wind.

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After this short stop we made a quick descent to the old Gouter refuge where we changed into our trainers and shorts, this was so nice to do as it made the rest of the climb back to Les Houches comfortable and more enjoyable than if we had done it in big boots.

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The start of the Gouter scramble.

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Looking back up towards the Gouter face, Still a long way down from here!

Great views of the Chamonix valley on the way down.

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The walk down to Les Houches took 7:45 from the summit and its 3800m descent, we were ringing all our friends for a lift back from Les Houches, we didn’t have much luck at first, Thanks Ally Hurst, but then Emilys friend Bella came to our rescue and picked us up from near the town centre and took us both home, the real hero of the day!!

I am writing this with a very sore and stiff ankle and the tightest quads I have ever had, a good sign that Yesterdays traverse was a beasting! Glad to have been back on top of Mont Blanc and this time in daylight, It was Emilys first time up there so smiles all round. I think I am over it now, maybe once more up there in the spring, but with Skis!!

Contamine-Grisolle, Tacul Ski descent

Contamine-Grisolle. II AD. 350m

Initially I wanted to go up and climb this route on the Monday with the intention of skiing powder on the North Face of the Tacul. However when checking the webcams on Monday morning at 6:30am you could see nothing but cloud so we decided to bail on that idea looking at Tuesdays forecast we thought it would be a much better option.

Rising early on Tuesday there was some cloud visable from the valley floor but upon viewing the webcams and seeing no cloud up high I was straight on the phone to Emily and arranged to meet at the Aiguille du Midi at 7:30.

We were at the top by 8:30 after a slight delay and down the arête with our skis on by 8:45.

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Skiing from half way down the arête we already had some nice powder turns with just over 6” of fresh snow. Skis on our feet made the approach to the base of the triangle very quick and we had our skis on our back and crampons on by 9am.

The start of the Contamine-Grisolle is on the far left of the Triangle behind the lowest rock spur.

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To start there is a 150m 50’ slope to climb before you hit the first rock step and mixed gully.

Emily climbing the lower snow slopes before the first rock step.

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The first mixed gully was easy to protect and we moved together up it fairly quickly, we were slower than other groups but they didn’t have 188cm planks of wood on their rucksack, which made negotiating some of the narrow trickier sections of mixed quite a delicate operation.

A couple of hours in and the wind had picked up and it was really cold, struggling to keep my hands warm I was in and out of hot-aches and cursing a lot!

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There was a lot of mixed ground in the middle of the climb then a few snow slopes that had changed into bullet hard ice in places, which made moving very precarious and slow going. We tried to place protection as much as we could but there were some places where it was not possible so extra care had to be taken.

The exit mixed gully was knackered, a combination of little or no ice and what was there would break easily or was slushy, this coupled with little protection made the last pitch take a while and we were both pretty tired by this point.

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Finally on to the ridgeline and a small mixed climb to the summit slopes.

The wind on these exposed top slopes was blistering and we tried to make a quick pace to get some relief but the altitude and our tiredness made the last 200m very hard. As we had both summated the Tacul in previous weeks we decided to just head down without topping out as by this point it was not looking like we were going to make last bin.

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Above the clouds on the summit slopes to Mont-Blanc du Tacul, with Mont Maudit on the left and the Dome de Gouter ahead.

We walked down the the lower ridge of the Tacul before putting our skis on as the snow was heavily wind affected and didn’t make for good skiing.Watching skiers come down the north face of the Tacul on our ascent we could see some great snow and some nice big powder turns, this is what kept us going throughout the climb. The ski down was amazing, and not just for the end of June! Nice powder and so much fresh to be had as only about 3-5 skiers had been down.

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We made a quick descent of the Tacul and tried to carry as much speed as we could off the bottom so we had less walking to do back up the arête. It was hard going because of the long hard day we had but we just made it to last bin, a couple minutes late but we were on it!

Thanks to Emily for another fantastic day Climbing and Skiing, and another Epic!