Months of planning, choosing gear and training before finally heading out to our destination: Ak-Shirak, in the kyrgyz Tien Shan.
The beginning of this adventure kicked off definitively with our selection as one of the teams Expé and co-sponsors would be financing for the 2015 year. This really gave us a starting point, as well as of course financial help. Taking into account that our main expenses would revolve around having the correct gear for the extreme mountain conditions, the kit given to us by the different partners was very welcome.
After visiting the country (2013 Nico, 2014 myself) there was a clear possibility of skiing and climbing in untracked, unexplored valleys. Trying to ski new valleys and peaks in Kyrgyzstan is still a reality, but the choice of ranges is enormous. Soon into the planning we had to make a decision based on several factors, but the most important was accessibility. If the mountains are too close to civilisation the chances that they have already been climbed are much higher. On the other hand, if they are too far, even with careful planning actually getting there becomes almost impossible. This is especially true for ski-touring, because it means that high altitude roads can be snowed-up, increasing the approach to the mountains substantially. Accessibility of the mountain range also means moving around the different valleys upon arrival. With the idea of spending several weeks in the same region, if it is not possible to ski from one valley to another the choice of peaks and itineraries will be much more limited.
The Ak-Shirak mountain range is in the southeast of Kyrgyzstan, between lake Issyk-kul and the Chinese border. It consists of three parallel ranges, which follow a north-east to south-west direction. The greatest altitude of the massif is 5,126 m; its length is about 50 km. The rock strata are made of metamorphic shales, limestones, and granites. Described by Vladimir Komisarov in “Mountaineering Regions of Kyrgyzstan” as having a similar climate to the central Tien Shan, but slightly milder, it supposedly offers great conditions for ski touring with lots of possibilities for first ascents and new routes. It presents substantial glaciation, with over 450 square kilometres of glaciers, extending down the large, wide valleys. The fact that it is hidden from the main roads by the Teskey Ala Too range, which runs almost all the way along Issyk Kul, means that it attracts few visitors and transportation options are limited. But it does benefit from one advantage: the road through the Barskoon pass over the Terskey Ala Too is almost always kept open. This is because it services the Kumtor gold mine, which is an open pit mine operating on the western flank of Ak-Shirak. These terrain advantages (moderate slopes, long snow covered glaciers, possible winter access) coupled to very few climbing reports made it the perfect choice. The very glaciers that make the approach slow and long for summer alpinists would be the perfect path for us on skiis and pulks.
Having chosen our main destination, and hoping to find some unexplored regions of the range, we looked into previous accounts and expeditions. These were relatively sparse, and we found little in the international climbing journals. But amongst the dusty bookcases of the Ski and Alpinism Library in Chamonix we came across some very interesting information: a group of British skiers had had the same idea as us some ten years ago! Using pulks and sledges, much like we planned to do, they had visited the range on 3 separate occasions between 2006 and 2008. Although this mean we would not be the first to ski the range, it did confirm the validity of our plans and gave us a lot more information with which to help plan the trip. Dave Wynne Jonnes, the leader of the British team, kindly answered our queries by email and phone, filling in some of the details. This first insight, together with the published reports, helped us establish a much better idea of the terrain. The information about both the weather and glaciers was positive, and the lay out of the terrain was encouraging. By this point we were very much set on visiting Ak-Shiirak, and preparations rolled forward, including training, visiting our sponsors to select and collect gear and testing the kit. This took up the bulk of the winter weekends.
Amongst the worries of planning a ski touring trip there is the omnipresent question of snow. Will there be enough? Will there be too much, and will it be avalanche prone? Taking into account that we needed to pull our sledges several tens of kilometres if the valleys where dry, this could lead to severe problems. At the very best it would mean double carries, at the worst it would slow us down so much that we would spend little time skiing. On top of this uncertainty, a new problem arose. It was possible that we would not be allowed to go past the gold mine and acces the Petrov Glacier and thus the door into Ak-Shiirak. Having heard that security had been tightened over recent years, we tried to call the company to get more information. We were told to write a letter explaining our objectives and when we would be going. Having sent everything off all we could do was try and think of an alternative route. The only other feasible way into Ak-Shiirak is via the Kara-Say glacier, going right around the range and over the Suek Pass. The problem is that due to the height of the pass (4000 m) it might be snowed up, blocking us on the wrong side. Having heard that it was sometimes unassailable until May, we had few hopes for our trip earlier in the year. Any other approaches are too steep, too long or don’t have enough snow for pulling a sledge…
After several weeks, we got our reply. “No”. We would not be allowed to pass the mine. Our first reaction was to try and get permission via a travel agent, but this time it only took several days to be refused. Seriously looking for a plan B, even changing to another mountain range, we searched for different possibilities. But halfway through February Alex, a friend in Bishkek sent me a picture, showing a 4×4 in the snow with the caption “Coming back from Ak-Shiirak. Photo taken on Sook Pass 4028” by Timur Akbashev. We were soon able to contact Timur, who works with a touring company, and we organised for him to take us the long way around. So long as it didn’t snow too much, we should be able to make it!
You should check out the bourses-expé webpage to see what the other teams were up too last year, including trips to New Guinea, Madagascar and South America! Or you can follow this years exploits in Canada, China or Switzerland…
I’d also like to thank all our different sponsors: Vertical, Petzl, Beal, Julbo, Zulupack, Icebreaker, Adidas, Montagnes Magazine, the FFCAM, Katadyn, Lumtrack and la Ville de Grenoble