Djangart Valley, Kyrgyzstan.
The unclimbed Point 5318m in Kyrgyzstan’s Djangart Valley represented our primary objective as we set out for the region in early July. Alas, it remains unclimbed. Our attempt was foiled by a thirty six hour snow storm that began within minutes of our establishing camp on the mountain. Though we pushed up a rock rib to 4,750m once the weather had cleared, the cracking of an avalanche slab around us as we tentatively ventured to link up with another safe passage spelled the end of our climb. The route had not been difficult up to this point and didn’t look particularly taxing above, though the same can certainly not be said for the approach up the N1 glacier. Point 5318 is a worthy and achievable objective just waiting to be climbed. Our trip to the Djangart was not without success though, and despite being riddled with difficulties (as you might expect from an expedition to climb virgin peaks) we return having made two first ascents.
Inspired by a 2010 Anglo-American expedition to the area led by Matt Traver and Mike Royer (their superb expedition report can be found at www.kyrgyzstan2010.com) we headed to this remarkably unexplored region, consisting of over a dozen unclimbed peaks over 5,000m and countless others above 4,700m. What we had not appreciated prior to our arrival was just how beautiful the valley would be, nor how great distances would be and the difficulties of access in an undeveloped area. This particular problem was greatly increased by our inability to arrange horses in order to set up base camp in the valley itself. Instead, we were forced to set up on the wrong side of, and 900m below, a 4,200m col, thus adding five hours to each walk in. Consequently, some objectives became two days arduous walk away and instantly reduced the amount of climbing we could realistically hope to do. Our fitness, on the other hand, improved beyond all expectations! And so very early on in the trip, we realised that what we had embarked upon was very different from any mountaineering either of us had done before. The unknown presented as much of a challenge as anything we would face on the mountains themselves.
When we did gain access to the valley we were stunned by its natural beauty. Not only were the mountains and rock walls hugely impressive, but so too was the variety and quantity of wild flowers. We were also fortunate enough to see golden eagles, marmots, a wolf, foxes, yaks and eventually a flock of the notoriously elusive and endangered Marco Polo sheep. You certainly don’t need to be a serious alpinist to enjoy this magical valley. Having enjoyed the experience of an unplanned stay with nomads during our overland journey to the Djangart, having been taken in for tea with numerous friendly Kyrgyz families along the way, and now walking amongst such outstanding natural beauty, we were already of the opinion that this trip was well worth embarking upon, even before setting foot on the mountains themselves.
It was climbing that had brought us here though, and finally we were ready to begin. Our first objective was the modestly high Pt.4783. Though we knew nothing about this peak, we perceived that it would offer views of our intended route on Pt.5318. A further attraction was that the peak formed part of a ridge line which had seen no previous ascents of any of its mountains. We weren’t disappointed either. Though the approach to the ridge via the north west rib was somewhat tiresome, with rock quality never quite matching Chamonix granite, the north ridge itself was set in beautiful ambience and provided interesting, but never difficult, climbing. The ridge began as a broad and gentle crest but the further south we travelled, the narrower and steeper it became. Soft snow forced us to make a bivvy several hundred meters short of the summit, but neither of us minded spending the night in such a spectacular location. The final hour or two of climbing the next morning presented mixed ground, a heavily corniced ridge and a beautiful summit. In this condition, the route was of around AD in grade.
A peak that had caught our attention on our very first day in the region was one not even marked on the map. Eventually we located it as a tiny ring of contours reaching up to 4,940m in height. Being strikingly in appearance, as well as being within a couple of hours walk from camp, this peak became our next project. The line to the summit was so obvious and inviting that it required no discussion, a prominent couloir followed by a direct line up the upper face. The tedious scramble over rubble is an inevitability of the area, but once we’d overcome this we ascended the increasingly steep snow and ice couloir in the most spectacular mountain setting. Thoughts were soon entirely back onto the climbing itself though as the exit from the couloir presented a seventy meter traverse on seventy degree snow and ice, the first difficulty of a truly fantastic route. An hour later and we were making our way up a one hundred meter rock step on sound rock of grade III/IV, which gave access to the summit block itself. From this vantage the final block looked as if it would be easily negotiated. How wrong we were. After an hour of trying to force a way through, soft snow on an eighty degree slope turned us around. Sensing another summit though, we made a freezing bivvy without tent or sleeping bags at 4,650m with the intention of completing the route in the morning. Perhaps predictably though, it was not to be. Life became extremely miserable at midnight when it started to snow. This weather lasted into the following morning and forced us to descend. Feeling that the route was almost completed though, we returned to the peak with just four days of our trip remaining to attempt to complete what we had started. It wasn’t easy though, with the final face presenting unexpected difficulties of mixed climbing at Scottish grade 5 for two hundred meters. What we had thought might take an hour to complete took nearly three before we reached our summit, Pik Laetitia. We christened the route ‘The Phoenix’ due to it being completed after our initial failure and we grade it at TD due to the difficulties of the final face.
So what of Point 5318? Our third climb took us back into the Djangart Valley to the highest peak of the region. This time we would need two days to get to the mountain, the trek over the N1 glacier’s moraines alone taking seven torturous hours. Being equipped for an alpine style climb, our supplies would last for six days only. It was then with great disappointment, not to mention discomfort, that our first thirty six hours on the mountain were spent in a cramped bivvy tent while the snow poured down outside. With the weather clearing slightly on the fourth day of our trip, we looked to edge slightly higher up the mountain by means of a rock rib in order to make a bid for the summit once the snow had consolidated. This we did with relative ease up to 4750m, before being confronted by a sixty meter snow field to get to another safe rib. We tentatively moved onto this snow, hoping for safe passage, but our luck was out. A sudden shift of the ground beneath us and a crack the size of a tennis court around us halted us in our tracks. There was no need for any discussion, this was the end of our climb.
So we return from Kyrgyzstan wondering whether our expedition was a success. Point 5318m remains unclimbed but we have established two great new routes of which we can be proud. We learnt that a trip of this nature is entirely different from any kind of climbing trip that we have experienced before. Indeed, had we not even achieved a single summit, we both agree that the trip would have been worth embarking upon for the experience alone. It is here, in a land of no guide books, no telephriques and no assurances that both experience and the experience count more than anything else. We wondered, during our journey back to civilisation, whether applying an alpine style of climbing, as we did, was the most suitable for the expedition. With base camp being two arduous days walk away from the highest mountains and long slogs up moraines being a necessity, time on the mountain was limited by carrying only alpine style quantities of supplies. Our attempt on Point 5318m, for example, simply couldn’t stretch to incorporate a 36 hour snow storm plus a day or two of snow consolidation. However, an alpine style did allow us to make three other climbs in the time available, which a siege on one objective would not have. We’re not the first mountaineers to have faced this dilemma of course, and the choice for future expeditions may be different. Either way, our advice to anyone else planning a similar expedition would be to expect the unexpected, be flexible, keep on smiling and you might just come home with something to show for it.
If you wish to learn more about the expedition, there is a facebook page entitled Djangart Ascents Kyrgyzstan with details of routes, logistics, upcoming lectures and many more photographs from the trip.
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