The long story of Uzbekistan’s reportedly unclimbed highest mountain is below. The short explanation is I made this peak a priority for 2005 as soon as I heard it had not been climbed. Travelling to Uzbekistan in early June at the start of the season I climbed what every body thought was Uzbekistan’s highest mountain and what several different parties of climbers had tried to climb last year, the pinnacle peak. I climbed that mountain but I found it was not the highest. A nearby and just as difficult mountain was. Returning in August with a very good Tajikistan climber and laying siege to the mountain we managed to climb the difficult ridge to the very top. The reportedly unclimbed mountain had a bloody big cairn on top. Consulting several former Soviet climbers and military people the believe is the cairn was put there by a Soviet survey team maybe as long ago as the 1930’s. We were not the first but I am happy just to be the first in a very, very long time and establish once and for all just where Uzbekistan’s highest mountain is situated.
Whilst corresponding with Grant about Libya’s highest and possibly unclimbed mountain I enquired or rather more stated ‘surely there cannot be any other countries left where there highest mountains remains unclimbed. Not long later I had an email from Grant.
Uzbekistan - Ferghana.ru Information Agency
CENTRAL ASIA NEWS
The same issue of the weekly ran an interesting article on the attempt to scale the highest peak in Uzbekistan. Uzbek alpinists never made it to the so far unconquered peak (4,643 meters) standing where the main Gissar Range meets with its northern spur. The peak does not even have a name. (Ferghana.Ru once wrote that the pinnacle was finally reached. We apologize to the readers for the inadvertent misinformation.)
The pinnacle remained unattainable for several reasons. The first attempt to scale the peak from the territory of Tajikistan was made on September 1. Unfortunately for the alpinists, archive information they had was incorrect. "Watching the wall rising in front of us, we began understanding why the previous expeditions had failed to scale it," the newspaper quoted one of the alpinists as saying. "Approaches to the pinnacle turned out to be too steep. Moreover, there was snow everywhere. Weather changed by the moment we made it to the foot of the mountain. We climbed 200 meters of the sheer wall and had approximately as many to scale yet but foul weather could result in a tragedy. We weighed all pros and cons and decided not to risk it."
Another attempt - and another failure - was made on September 5. Alpinists' Tajik visas expired and they returned to Uzbekistan.
"It is not a complete failure," they say. "It's just that we know now that the climb to the pinnacle demands more thorough preparations. Besides, we now know everything there is to know about the mountain. Before the last expedition, we only had information from the archives and most descriptions did not tally with what we saw with our own eyes. We are confident now that we have found the highest peak of Uzbekistan. Its conquest is but a matter of time now.
Well that certainly was interesting. Mountains in Central Asia had not really crossed my mind yet as many were too high for me to attempt after my heart attack on Everest in 1996. But a 4643 metres peak, well that really was interesting. Just because it was a little technically difficult and in a potentially volatile area did not make it the slightest bit less appealing. In fact it became a top priority for 2005. I set about trying to find more information on the mountain and area and just why it had not been climbed before.
Situated in the Fan mountains right on the border with Tajikistan climbers had ignored this lower part of the range for favour of the dozen and more 5000m peaks which are easily accessible and much more attractive. Chimtarga at 5489m is the highest in the range and a target for many. Michta is only 4790m but with the name that translates to dream it is easy to see why. It’s a narrow half dome of a ridge which provides some classic routes in this part of the world. Even the Fan Mountains have been ignored until recently as Tajikistan is also home to the Pamirs, the highest peaks in the whole of Central Asia. Over 50 mountains are over 6000m and several over 7000m culminating in Peak Somini, formerly called Communizm at 7495m.
The few westerner climbers I did contact who had been in the area warned of parts of Uzbekistan where ‘Foreigners went in, but few came out’ and to be mindful of ending up wearing concrete boots at the bottom of some lake. British Foreign Office advice was not too promising either especially after the Army massacring hundreds of people at in late May. Uzbekistan does have its problems. As with Tajikistan it borders Azerbaijan,
created in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union it’s a poor country. The Government is fighting and repressing several minority groups within the country. Central Asia is an intriguing place though the more you read up about it though. With a colourful history some of the biggest names have came and conquered. Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great left there mark in the region and later the Great Game was played out amongst spies from Great Britain and Russia to seek influence in the area.
The approach from the Uzbek side was impossible I was told as the area, especially the passes had been land mined. A landmine killed a bear when I was there. Mountains have no names here only the passes have names and numbers for use by the military in days gone by but now more used by people smuggling drugs. I was told the Tadjik side had been put out of bounds in Soviet times because it was an Army biological testing ground. Well, now all this sounded really, really interesting and appeared to have the makings of a great adventure.
I corresponded with climbers who had tried for the summit last year and whom the article I had seen was about. Uzbekistan is a poor place and if I paid for the expedition then sure I could come along. I set out early in June and planned a full month to attempt the mountain. Due to work commitment the following month it was the only time I had to try plus I wanted to try and be first of course.
Just getting to the mountains is difficult. High Mountain passes, landslides, rock falls and deep gorges with fast flowing rivers you do not want to disappear in are some of the hazards. Trucks and cars lay at the bottom of some of the valleys having rolled off the edge and ended up several hundreds of feet below smashed to smithereens. Several times we had to hold our breaths as part of out wheels gripped nothing but fresh air and looked at a vertical drop and I cursed inwardly and outwardly at the driver who got too close to the edge. Even the driver cursed inwardly and outwardly and I am sure held his breath. One pass was nearly 3500m and had to be cleared of snow to let the many cars and even more lorries past. Snow capped mountains could be seen in the distance and they looked none too easy. The snow on the mountains was beginning to melt and rivers stormed angrily down the steep mountainsides. Some rivers too close to the roads for comfort making me hold my breath and curse the driver both inwardly and outwardly several times. The driver cursed inwardly and outwardly on several occasions also and I am sure held his breath on occasion. The air got cold, the mountains are foreboding at this time of year in early June.
From the end of the road at the small village of Sarytoq it’s one day to base camp with mules carrying all our equipment. The snow was down to the level of our base camp at 3200m although we found some clear space next to the main river in the valley. There had been a lot of snow this year the locals had told us which wasn’t good for us. We did a number of carries up to camp one at 4200m right at the base of the mountain itself. Just finding the right approach to the mountain had been difficult enough I was told. The last few hundred metres were hard work at 4000m in the deep snow and deteriating weather. Maybe trying to do the peak in the first week of June was pushing it somewhat.
My Uzbek Guide who had been on the mountain last year pointed out the 4643m peak. A big inclined face to the west with a couple of obvious gullies that would lead us to the top ridge. My GPS was pointing in the direction of another peak though and that looked just as high. In fact Grants GPS points showed good couple of kilometres away. The weather was closing in fast though and there was no time or view even to look around. We headed up quickly to find a flat place to camp on the snow before the wind and snow made it difficult or at least miserable to pitch the tents. It was colder then I had planned for and colder camping right on the snow. I put my rucksack underneath my old thinning karrimat and slept with all my cloths on. It was still cold but no complaints. I even seem to enjoy the suffering. A first ascent of a mountain seemed almost to dictate it. Although the other possibility is that it’s just me being stupid and not taking the right gear.
The next day it was a bit cloudy but we were off early enough. We forced our way up the guide looking for the route he had found last year. One gully we went up became too treacherous and difficult in the waist deep snow after a short time and we backtracked carefully. Crampons and ice axes came out and we tried another route to no avail. Time was pressing on when we came back to a big gully angling up at a near a 40 degree angle to the ridge. Time was pressing for today and the weather did not look brilliant. I had a big headack anyway so could do with an extra day at the 4200m camp and to get some aspirin down my head. The weather turned bleak, I was cold in my sleeping bag and still had a headack and I was enjoying it. Well, I never said I wasn’t stupid.
Next day we roped up about half way up the gully as it steepened slightly. The snow in this case was a blessing as it made the going relatively quick as we kicked steps in the soft snow. The weather was being kind to us and there were blue skies above. I briefly, just very briefly thought this peak maybe possible after all. We reached the ridge without undue trouble. To the left the jagged ridge was about the same height, to the left it climbed higher. So did we. We zig zagged up the ridge always on places you would not want to fall off. We gained a high point that turned out to be a secondary summit. It had almost been too easy up until now, as long as you did not fall off.
Now was another summit and maybe even most likely another secondary summit. My guide looked at it and said ‘problem’, I looked at it and thought this is what we are here for. The pinnacle, the last 100m and vertical face lay before us. Although I was last on the rope I took off towards the peak, my guide hastily having to sort out the ropes in order to stay ahead of me. The face of the pinnacle did indeed look imposing. Going up the face direct looked impossible, to the right was a sheer drop and to the left was a bit less sheer. The snow helped us hear in fact made it possible. The rock, when we had been on rock was loose and crappy. Had we had to skirt around the first of the pinnacle peaks as it turned out just on rock it may have been tricky. On the snow though we quickly if carefully managed to drop some height and get around the rock face. Another pinnacle awaited us except this time the face we saw was a lot easier. 15 minutes later
No great celebrations. I was all read by this time dubious that this was indeed the mountain. North West of where we were and not too far away was another mountain that looked higher. By GPS I got a height of 4593 m. Tantalizingly close, maybe the spot height of 4643 was wrong, but I already knew it wasn’t. The Russian maps are normally very good. My guide was not convinced the other peak was higher although he did not seem too happy about possibly summiting Uzbekistan’s highest mountain for the very first time either. I took plenty of photographs of what I was pretty sure was the highest mountain now. It looked none too easy either. There was no obvious route and even the best of the none obvious routes looked long, tricky and dangerous. We began a careful climb back down for me I suspected the second highest peak in Uzbekistan.
Back at camp I poured over the maps. The 1:200 000 Soviet map good enough to confirm my doubts. We had got the wrong mountain. My guide looked over the map but was not convinced. My map reading is ‘unfortunately’ quite good I told him. I am not wrong about this. Unfortunately again for us the map we had did not have lat and longs on it so I could not place the GPS points I had taken. Everywhere looks higher from the top of a mountain another climber pitched in. I replied curtly, yes I know but look at the map. He declined. The main guide studied it but remained unconvinced. ‘Everybody thinks the mountain we climbed is the highest he said. Well it isn’t I said plainly. We try again tomorrow I stated as if it were the natural occurrence of events. This time it wasn’t to be I prepared myself for the long journey again over the high passes.
Once back in Tashkent at the Trekking Companies office I could now look at a more detailed 1:00 000 Soviet military map. I looked at the features where we had climbed, this map much more detailed then the other. For me looking at the map was like looking at a photograph of the mountains, even more so now that I had been there. I plotted the lat and longs and put a tiny pencil dot on the spur we had climbed about 2 kilometres from the 4643 metre point. The guide came in like a man coming into court. He looked at the military map ‘who can be sure’ he said defensively. I enlarged the dot into a large cross. This is where we climbed. The guide stayed quite, the Company director said ‘maybe your right’. The guide now came out with the information that he had been on top of the ridge of the mountain we had seen with the client last year and it was the client from Norway who had looked at the pinnacle peak and said that was the highest so they had dually made an attempt on that peak getting turned back a couple of hundred metres short. As ever I contacted Grant for his opinion that I trust so much.
Email from Grant - June – Uzbek
The mountain you've climbed is not the 4643m highpoint marked on my most recent map, a shaded-relief of Central Asia by Nelles - this lies at 39 02 N 67 58 E, a fair distance NW of your peak. I find Nelles generally do an excellent job of providing up-to-date spot heights, so I've a fair amount of confidence in this location. Although the Nelles map itself doesn't have a lat-lon grid, its shaded relief is an exact match for the shading on the old
OpNav chart of the region, which allowed me to read off good quality coords. (The ONC shows a glaciated mountain in the right spot, but doesn't give a height.) Unfortunately I don't have the Russian topo for the area, but it sounds like you have one, so you can check out my coords on it.The 4643m peak is occasionally referred to as Khazret-Sultan, and it seems to lie in an Uzbek National Park of the same name.
Or should this really count as the first.
I was grumpy as hell on the way back to the Uzbek mountain. Every bump and pothole and section of bad road I grew grumpier and more pissed off that I was driving this route for a second time. We met Isok the Mule man in Sarytoq who greeted us with a golden smile of surprise then invited us in for tea and cheese. 2 days later we were camped at 4100 m at the base of the 4643m peak, even though we were quite high we still had a lot of climbing left to do.
The peak itself is a junction of 3 sharp ridges. One we could not see, another so sharp and steep it would be impossible to find any line so that left the third ridge. Going direct up the main face was out too. There was no obvious route and stone fall was a major problem. The ridge we would climb ran in west from Tajikistan where as the other ridges made up the Uzbek, Tadjic border. Once we gained the ridge we had over a kilometre to go to negotiate to the summit and within that kilometre was where the problems lay. Two steep dips in the ridge looked the main problem. It would mean an abseil down and climb back up. First things first though we had to gain the ridge itself. Following an obvious snow filled gully it took 2 hours to get to the top at 4400m and another 2 hours to gain the ridge. Another hour of tricky snow conditions brought us to an obvious high point at 4500m. We could see the whole route from here.
No way looked easier and the ridge we were on looked impossible. The summit looked a lot further away then one kilometre and a lot higher then the 4643 metres that it should be. The 2 dips in the ridge we could see more off and see just how much of a problem they would be. A short abseil would be needed, then a tricky traverse before you got to a 100m plus vertical face. Going left or right of it seemed even harder. There was a further dip in the ridge, which looked none too easy also. My guide said problem whilst I took loads of photographs and had a good look with my binoculars. Fuck, it did look a problem. I would have to come back that was becoming apparent. I thought briefly about putting in a high camp but the weather wasn’t looking brilliant. I tried to stave off the grumpiness at the thought of the drive up over every bump and pothole and the walk up here again for the second, third, forth time what ever it was. It was unlikely I would come with these two climbers again so I studied the route some more to see exactly what I would need. The more problems there were the more determined I seemed to get to do this unnamed 4643m mountain.
Back for a third try
My next opportunity to return was at the end of August and hopefully at a better time of year. I would also be climbing with one of the best climbers in Tajikistan. Anotoliy or Tolic for short as he was called, he was 41 years old and certainly looked tough enough to fit the part. He had been a sniper in the Soviet Army and also worked on their mountain rescue team out in Siberia. He had climbed every thing from big walls to all the 7000m peaks in Tajikistan, plus a good number of the 6000m peaks some of them unclimbed only to this year. He spoke little English but had a casual but confident manner. He had climbed a number of times in the Fan Mountains including Michta, the Dream. I was more confident this time around, the snow would be less and we were not on a time limit. I would stay as long as was necessary. That did not mean I would try things at all costs though. Just this week two Russian climbers had died in the Fan Mountains and the Pamirs I heard bad weather had claimed two British lives.
We set about doing carries up to camp one at 4100m. With only two of us the work was more as I had plenty of food as I planned to put up another camp on the ridge and over 100 metres of 11mm rope to us as fixed rope on the face. I got to see some of Telic’s strength here. He carried a pronominal amount in his 120 litre rucksack, I was suitable impressed. This time there was no snow at all in the whole of the valley basin and although there was no path on the moraine it was far easier then before. I showed Tolic the route. ‘No problems’ he said although he did actually say no problems to most things when we were talking about the difficulties of the route or the weather conditions. Tolic seemed to like things when they were at there hardest and that I didn’t mind at all.
Although there was a lot less snow on the mountain there was snow in the gully which actually made it a lot easier and quicker. The route along the ridge looked just as menacing as before though as I pointed out the two dips to Tolic. The weather was not good as the wind was blowing and biting cold. It would be impossible on the ridge proper if it stayed like this. Tolic said no problem about the route but admitted the wind was a problem. The wind was bad the next day so we decided to do another carry and take a look at the first cliff face and maybe try and fix the rope as well as looking for a place to pitch out small Saunders Space packer tent. We covered the ground quickly climbing as a two reaching the point I had been at in June in just 2 hours. We found an excellent campsite just 5 minutes back on a narrow ledge which would fit our tent on perfectly. I abseiled down into the dip and made safe and waited for Tolic to join me. He then led a coupe of pitches of a traverse that brought us out at the bottom of the climb up the 100 metre face. The route finding became tricky here and the weather was not helping. Going left would mean a tricky snow traverse that I did not like the look off especially as we could not see where it would bring is out. We could not see around the face to the left so that left the direct approach. The rock face looked difficult but there was a crack that may hold the key. We stashed some more gear and headed down in the cold wind. Tomorrow we would move the camp up.
Next day we stashed the few bits of stuff we didn’t need at camp 1 and began another haul of gear up to camp 2. I forget how many times I had been up and down the gully now but surprisingly I wasn’t at all grumpy. The weather was better and above all the wind had dropped. We quickly pitched camp and set off with the aim to fix the whole of the first cliff face and so hopefully be ready for tomorrow and something I still didn’t let myself think about, standing on top of Uzbekistan’s highest mountain. We quickly made the short climb from camp, then the abseil and traverse to the base of the steep face. We knew every hand hole and loose rock now so moved with no trouble. Tolic geared up. I would belay him with the 50m climbing rope but he would also take up with him one end of the 11mm fixed rope. I got busy sorting out the ropes whilst Tolic arranged his pieces of protection on his harness and got some slings ready. We had no problems not having a common language, climbing this steep face was now the common language. No doubt about it, this next 100m was the crux of the whole climb.
Tolic set off and almost immediately at about 20 feet or so hit a tricky point. The wind had died down a lot so we certainly were not in danger of being blown off the ridge but even so it was biting cold. I’d had time to put on my warm jacket under my gortex one and a think pair of gloves. Tolic had taken his jacket off as well as his thin gloves. I could see his hands were cut and grazed already from trying to negotiate this first problem. Back in UK this climb would not be outrageously difficult, here at 4500m up quite an exposed ridge and the cold wind blowing with no possibility of rescue the difficulties become somewhat more. After 10 minutes and 3 bits of protection put in Tolic was on his way again. There were a couple more small hold ups but he was soon at the top of the first pitch and hopefully the major problem of the whole route was cracked. After 10 to 15 minutes of sorting ropes and belays out it was my turn. I of course had the luxury of being securely belayed from the top and from a fixed rope. Tolic soon cracked the next pitch and final one to the top of this section and disappeared from sight to have a look at what problems lay a head for tomorrow. After he came back down, as time was getting on I didn’t go for a look. How is it I of course asked. Tolic immediately said no problem, but that is what he said about every thing. ‘Fifty, fifty; he then said. Explaining there was some big blocks to be negotiated and some snow. Give me 50/50 and I will fancy my chances any time.
Next day we were on our way by 0630. Within the hour we were at the top of the cliff face and 5 minutes later both looking down the second dip in the ridgeline. Luckily the dip was covered with a snow bridge, which looked easy going. The big blocks of rock Tolic had mentioned looked know real problem to find a route through. The summit did not look far away. We abseiled down to the snow bridge and I belayed Tolic across. This was the last real problem of the whole route I felt. The snow was solid and stable and no real problem. The mountain is certainly no classic climb, its slowly disintrigating. We climbed looses rock now all the way to the top in between the massive fallen boulders. The bad weather seemed to be holding off and thankfully the wind stayed silent. Around 9 o’clock we reached the top of the ridge and what looked like might be the top of the mountain, a loose block of jumbled rock. But in the distance 2 or 300 metres away lay another ridge leading along the border with Uzbekistan, which was slightly higher, and at the top of that sharp ridge lay a cairn, a very big cairn I could see even from here. Peak 4643 had been climbed before. This was no disappointment, I was glad to be here now. The first people in a very long time and the first to find out that the peak had indeed been climbed before.
There was no message but the cairn had certainly been built to last. Quite possibly put there by Soviet Surveyors of the area many, many decades back Tolic suggested. Had the mountain been worth 3 attempts, far more money then I had expected and over 6 weeks in trying for? All those bumps and potholes and all that load carrying. The clouds were not too bad at present and the views were still good. The views over Uzbekistan were empty and desolate. There was no civilization in sight just jagged steep mountains and ridges that had no names. Had it been worth it, that question of course did not even need to be asked. We did heavy load carries back down and soon the mountain was hidden once more and my time in the Fan Mountains had finished. Few people will even see this mountain let alone climb it. I trudged back down the same route I had done so many times and drove back over the high passes and same old bumps and potholes and difficult sections cursing the driver both inwardly and outwardly and holding my breath on occasion. The driver too cursed inwardly and outwardly at times and held his breath I am sure.
So my time ended in Central Asia a place where all adventures have to visit some time. At the airport I filled out more useless bits of paperwork which I could not understand as it was in Russian. When I did eventually write the information in the right place the immigration officials couldn’t read it because it was in English. They asked questions about what I had wrote then automatically stamped it and gave me the piece of paper back. I seem to collect useless bits of paper when travelling through central Asia that nobody including myself ever knew what they meant. My bags went through the X-ray machine which this time did work as the official showed me and asked what was in the bottom of my rucksack. ‘A sleeping bag zip’ I told him although he didn’t understand me. He gestured for me to unpack the bag or for me to give him money not to unpack the bag. I said no and did nothing which he understood although he spoke no English. We waited, and then I started unpacking my bag to show him what a sleeping bag zip looked like even though I am sure he already knew. Before I had even started he waved me away so he never saw my sleeping bag zip and told me to put the bag on the trolley as he had already eyed the next person in line who I promptly told ‘he will ask you for money but don’t give him any’. Thanks the guy said and was promptly asked what something was in the bottom of his bag. Well that was Central Asia with all the bad points as well as the good but it’s certainly a place worth visiting.