Misty morning in the icefall
The summit of Koskulak remained unclimbed until 2005, which is remarkable as the peak is in the 7000m category. It was one of the last peaks climbed of that height and now there's only a handful of these giants left to summit for the first time. Even more remarkable is the access is very easy and the climb itself isn't technically difficult. It's closest neighbor is Muztagh Ata
, one of the world's most climbed peaks so it's very strange Koskulak was overlooked that long. There were definitely no shortage of climbers in the area and i would consider Koskulak the easier of the two.
The name Koskulak means "big ears" in the local language. No one I asked why it was called such a strange name could answer the question. It's located just south of Muztagh Ata and is separated only by the saddle above the Kalaxong glacier. The peak looks like the other large peaks in this sub-range of Kunlun Shan*
- long ridges in a west-east direction, with heavy glaciation and high, steep faces on the east side. The peaks in this part of the group (from north to south) are Kuksay (7184m), Muztagh Ata (7506m), Koskulak (7028m) and Kokoser (6849m).
Koskulak is the 167'th highest peak on the planet.
If you want to avoid the crowds on Muztagh Ata, but still visit a beautiful area of the world and go for a worthy climbing target, Koskulak may be a great choice.
* - See more about this on the Pamir
Gorbatenkov - Shamalo Route
There were some attempts made by Italians, Russians, an international expedition as well as at least one illegal attempt of the peak, but these teams were all defeated by either a nasty crevasse section, deep snow or bad weather.
In 2005 a whole bunch of very experienced Russians arrived. Not as one expedition, but in separate groups. The same year a large international expedition also tried the SW ridge, but they were defeated by the sheer length of the route and deep snow.
2005 08 10 Alexandr Novik, Dmitry Komarov and Leonid Fishkis
made the summit via the NW ridge. Two days later Koskulak was summited along the same route by members of Volkov's team.
2005 08 17 Valery Shamalo and Alexei Gorbatenkov
reached the summit via the really difficult north face/butresses.
2005 08 19 Andrey Petrov and Vyacheslav Odokhovsky climbed Koskulak via it's long SW ridge.
2005 08 27 a team lead by Volkov made the summit via the difficult N ridge.
So, when Koskulak finally got climbed, it was summited five times and four new routes were climbed in the span of 17 days!
Getting there - to Kashgar
Koskulak is located in China's largest province; Xinjiang,
formerly known as Turkestan. It’s a desert province bordering to Pakistan
The authority which issues permits has its office in Kashgar
, an old trade route and oasis town on the old Silk Road. If you haven’t made a special deal with the issueing authority you have to visit Kashgar to get the climbing permit and get in contact with the liaison officer etc. Regardless of which way you choose, it’s quite a long way to the peak. Below is the standard ways to reach Kashgar.
Fly to Islamabad
. If the latter, there are frequent and good mini bus services to Islamabad. Ask for DaeWoo Bus Station.
From Islamabad which is the gate way to the north of Pakistan, you can either fly (1h) to Gilgit
, the capital of The Northern Areas
in Pakistan, or you can go by bus/minibus (14-30h). There’s now a direct bus all the way from Gilgit to Kashgar/Koskulak. A minimum of 14h for the 700km. The road goes over one of the world’s highest border passes; the Khunjerab Pass at 4600m. The ticket is about 40$.
A beautiful route on one of the most scenic roads on planet earth.
Flights are quite cheap to Pakistan and further transport is as well.
No big problems with red tape.
You get some acclimatization en route.
You get excellent pre-views of Koskulak when passing it on the way to Kashgar.
Very long bus rides, or a possibly long waiting time in Islamabad for the flight. The planes can only fly in good weather and are usually quite booked out.
Looking at Muztagh Ata's southern reaches
Fly to Bishkek
. From here you have two alternatives – Torugurt Pass or Irkestam Pass. Count on two days to reach Kashgar.
Torugurt Pass (elevation 3752m)
From Bishkek to the Chinese border you can either go by public transport or like most climbers do; rent a minibus or shared taxi. Some agencies may tell you; you have to use a pre-arranged vehicle, but this is not true, even if it’s much more convenient. Public transport is easy to get to Naryn, but from there to the border the service are erratic and sometimes hitchhiking is the only option. Many travel agencies in Bishkek can arrange the transport to the border. You have to spend one night in Naryn and continue to the border the next day.
A pre-arranged vehicle has to meet you on the Chinese side of the border, as you have to pass through a military zone. This service your organizer takes care of.
The price for a ride to Kashgar can vary a lot depending on organizer and on how many people you share the ride with. If you’re alone and have the time to hang around in Bishkek wait for a full vehicle, you can get it for a mere $40. If you are alone or a small group, it can be up to $150/pers.
Irkestam Pass (elevation 3520m)
This option is hassle free in terms of red tape. Go by bus to Osh, a large city in the south of the country. There are buses, mini-buses and shared taxis running all the time. Count on paying $15 for a seat in a mini-bus and about the double in a shared taxi. The journey takes 12-16h.
There’s a daily bus from Osh to Kashgar. The road is bumpy and quite a taxing ride on the Kyrgyz side, but the road condition in the Chinese side of the border is excellent and fast. 10-14h. 35-50$ if buying a direct ticket.
Some acclimatization on the way.
Both passes, especially Irkestam, offers great views of the Kyrgyz country side which is scenic and interesting.
It’s a reasonably cheap way to reach Kashgar.
You need a double entry visa for Kyrgyzstan, which can be expensive and hard to get for some nationals.
It can take some time to arrange the transport back and forth over the border.
Clouds of warning over Koskulak
From "inland" China
Fly to Beijing
and continue on national flights to Urumqi and Kashgar. If you have the time, you can go by train in between Urumqi
and Kashgar. It’s a nice ride, first through the Tian Shan
Mountains and later through the outskirts of the Taklamakan Desert
. Tickets can be hard to get though.
If you don’t book the national flights in advance, you can buy tickets on the airports. The climbing season on Kokulak and the peak season for travelling to Kashgar are at the same time so you better book in advance.
Only one visa.
No long bus rides.
If pre-arranged; by far the quickest way to reach the peak.
Expensive to fly at least three times and sometimes you have to pay overweight, both for the international and the national flight.
You wont get any pre-acclimatization and no “sightseeing” on the way to the peak.
Fly to Almaty
. Either fly or take the bus or train to Urumqi. From there you can fly further to Kashgar.
If flying all the way, a fast and convenient way to reach Kashgar.
Some beautiful travelling in the Tian Shan mountains.
The visa for Kazakhstan can be hard and/or expensive to get. Usually you need a letter of recommendation.
If you fly all the way, it’s expensive. If you go overland from Almaty, it’s a long ride.
At present (Sep 2006) there are talks about opening the land border from Tajikistan for third party travellers. I’ll be back with more info when this is reality.
The border is at present closed.
From Tibet/Xizang, China
A monster journey from Lhasa
in central Tibet. Count on at least a week and a bus change half way in Ali/Shiquanhe. Long and very taxing. Long stretches of very high altitude. Some passes over 5000m.
Getting there - Kashgar to Koskulak
There are two ways to get to the foot of the peak.
1. An organizer arranges the whole deal for you.
2. You go there on your own, using public transport.
1. You'll start early in the morning and a minibus will take you to either Karakul or Subashi for acclimatization. At Karakul Lake you can sleep in a hotel or in yurts - the local nomad's semi-permanent tents. In Subashi, which is located another 10km up the road; you have the choice of camping or yurts. If you have chosen to stay in Karakul, a vehicle will bring you further to Subashi. Travel time about 6h. It's not advisable to go all the way to Koskulak BC as it's too high for most unacclimatized people. Leaving Karakul or Subashi shouldn't be done until you feel well in any of those places. Your organizer will drive you further to Ulugrabat Daban, a 4050m pass on the Karakoram Highway and there you leave the asphalt for a small dirt track leading to Koskulak BC. It's another 2h.
2. There are public buses leaving from Kashgar's main bus station. The price is about 7-10$. About 7-8h. Tell the bus driver you would like to jump the bus in Subashi, in Karakol or if well acclimatized at Ulugrabat Daban. From the pass it's a 3-6h depending on your acclimatization, strength, how much you carry etc. Locals shepherds can help you out with transport animals if you feel you need it.
On the ridge at 6300m
A valid visa for China is easy to get from any Chinese embassy. The exception is the one in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where you need a letter of recommendation and it'll take up to 10 days to process the application. Better get it elsewhere.
You need a permit to climb Koskulak. It's 1080$ for a group up to 12 people. You may add more climbers to the permit, but it'll cost additionally.
A conservation fee has to be paid for – 30$/pers.
Liaison officer and his costs are obligatory.
All the above can be arranged by an outfitter, before leaving home or upon arrival in Kashi/Kashgar.
When to climb
Climbers on the traverse
Late June to mid September.
The period with the best snow conditions and weather is usually in the end of July and beginning of August.
Going early can result in tough route finding and deep snow.
Being there late in the season; you may have to deal with fresh deep snow, or icy slopes and the crevasses are at their largest.
There is no record of any winter ascents of Koskulak.
Camels & Porters
If you have a package deal with a commercial organizer, camels will transport your gear to BC. There's no porter service readily available as on Muztagh Ata. Yet.
Lodging & camping
Sheep almost eating my tent!
The only hotel in the area is the one at Karakol Lake. It's badly overpriced and I have personally never heard a good word about neither the personal and food, nor the service and the rooms.
You can stay in yurts in Karakol (also overpriced) and Subashi.
In the little village Qortomak, an hour's walk from BC you may stay in the local houses for a small fee.
Officially you can camp anywhere close to Koskulak. The exceptions are on the west side of the Karakoram Highway, which is too close to the Tajik border (soldiers/border police on horseback will find you) and inside fenced areas. The latter include the area close to Karakol Lake. Any other place will do. If uncertain, ask the locals.
or other areas close by
Good acclimatization peaks all around
A little stream with clear water
Some very basic food to buy from the people in Subashi
A daily bus to/from Kashgar
Sometimes pushy local people trying to sell stuff
Watch your gear well
Fresh water in stream and in two small ponds
Flat and grassy ground
Keep an eye on your gear
Info about the rest of the camps you'll find on the route page.
"Shark cloud" over the icefall
Your LO or BC manager usually have contact with Koskulak BC or Kashgar and weather reports are recieved almost daily. In general, the summer weather patterns are quite stabile in the area. It's common with 4-6 days of good weather and as many with bad. The bad weather during this season usually consists of overcast skies, some snow and high winds on the higher reaches. Fortunately, for Koskulak climbers, Kongur attracts most of the worst weather in the area and it's a common sight to have quite nice weather on Koskulak, while Kongur is completely covered in clouds.
You may have mobile phone coverage on some spots on the peak and then you can access weather reports by yourself.
Looking down at the route from 5500m
As there are so many rumors about Muztagh Ata being the easiest 7000 m peak, I must say Koskulak is in many ways easier. First, it's about 500 meters lower and that makes a big difference. The route (NW ridge) is more direct and you don't have to deal with a lot of navigation in ice falls. There are fewer crevasses. Shorter, easier, lower and more direct!
The normal route has a crux though and it may change from year to year. At about 6200-6300 meters there's a ridge, which you have to traverse. It's about 45 degrees at the steepest. seasoned mountaineers just walk straight to the other side without thinking much about it if the snow conditions are fine. On the northern side of this traverse there's cornices and a huge drop down to the Kalaxong glacier. Don't get too close to the edge of it!
Some may want to fix ropes on this stretch or rope up with your climbing partner(s).
On the far side of the traverse there are two huge crevasses, but it's (at least in 2007) easy to navigate around them. From there on it's a straight walk to the summit.
There's one more alternative on Koskulak which can be considered even if you're not a super-technical climber - the SW ridge. It's much longer though and there's a passage which looked like it could be tricky from my viewpoint on the NW ridge. All other routes are hard and you have to bring a lot of gear to climb them.
That's the good news, but here are some things to consider before heading there bagging an "easy peak":
NO peak over say 6000-6500m is easy. You have to acclimatize well and spend a lot of time just getting used to the lower oxygen levels. When over 7000m it's hard to breath and your energy levels will go low quickly. Be careful with all symptoms of altitude reletad illnesses.
It's cold up there. First because of the altitude itself. Count on a drop of about 7 Celsius for every 1000m ascent. On top of that, frostbite has easier to set in as your blood is getting thicker on altitude. Be careful when you choose gear for Koskulak. On neighboring Muztagh Ata there are many cases of frostbite every year, of which some result in amputations.
The peak's slopes are gentle and you have to spend a long time on high altitude. You are very exposed to the high winds all the way from C2 to the summit.
The snow can be deep on Koskulak. To use snowshoes is probably the best option. Skis also works fine, but to attempt the peak without neither is a very hard task. Some people do make it to the summit with only crampons (or even without), but they sometimes have to deal with meter deep snow.
The logistical part on a mountain of Koskulak's size also makes it hard. Most teams make a lot of carries to the different camps and it's tough work on altitude.
Many climbers have problems to eat in the higher camps and this results in tiredness and the motivation can drop quickly.
The temperatures can be very high and the sunlight strong during the day. It can be hard to rest even during the day if the temperature goes up to +40 Celsius in the tent. Sunburn is common and even sunstrokes do occur.
All the above mentioned points applies to any mountain of Koskulak's elevation, but take all this into consideration before regarding it as a walk-over or easy peak.
Crevasses & avalanches
Early morning on the ridge
Koskulak's normal route have some crevasses but the risk of falling into any of them is small. You mostly walk on a safe snowfield to start with and later on on the first wide ridge the crevasses are located on the sides. After the traverse there are two huge ones, but you can easily navigate around them.
I saw no risk for avalanches when I was on the peak.
Gear & provisions
On the north face route
Kashgar has a lot of good supermarkets. You may not find your favorite brand, but always equivalents. Any kind of base food like noodles, rice, oats, müsli, milk powder, chocolate etc. can be found in Kashi. The price level is very low and you can buy all the expedition food here for a fraction of the price compared to back to back home.
Kashgar is famous for dried fruits and nuts, so there's absolutely no reason to bring this from the other side of the world.
Just a few years ago, it was impossible to find any gear in Kashgar. Now, there are some good gear shops in the city.
There's a good one at:
Sorry, no map. Only GPS coordinates. You're climbers! You'll find it. :-)
Kong Baocun from the XMA can rent you some gear and also have gas canisters for sale. He also sells a limited amount of equipment.
The huge cornice on the NW ridge
Kashgar is a very interesting city which attracts a lot of tourists, foreign and Chinese, every year. Its main attraction is the Sunday market which is the largest weekly market in the world with over 100 000 visitors. The town has a lot of interesting history and played an important rule as a base for the Brits and the Russians during The Great Game in the of the 19'th century. Both countries had consulates in Kashgar from where they schemed and planned for new strategic measures against the other party. Nowadays both consulates are converted to hotels. The Russian to Seman Hotel and the British to Qinibagh Hotel. Both are popular amongst travellers.
You can do a lot of sightseeing in the area. Silk factories, the Id Kah Mosque, the old part of Kashgar, visits to the outskirts of the Taklamakan desert are all popular daytrips. Shipton's Arch, a stunning rock formation is another place well worth a visit.
The city may be the last outpost of civilization in this part of China, but it is well connected with a railway, long distance buses and an airport.
You will many times hear the name Kashi instead of Kashgar. Kashi is the city's name in Chinese, Kashgar in Uighur.
More info on Kashgar.
Maps & books
Kalaxong glacier at sunset
Good climbing maps, scale 1:100 000 is sold by Kong Baocun, the representative for The Chinese Mountaineering association. The "cowboy" agents in Seman Hotel also sell them, but they're copies printed on very cheap paper and after one look they usually start to fall apart.
Trailblazer´s Silk Road guide is a good alternative for planing the trip.
For some base info and guidance for the area; try Lonely Planet's Karakoram Highway and Central Asia.
Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on Silk Road and The Great Game both give an interesting account on the area's history.
A great book about Central Asia is Colin Thubron's - The Bleeding Heart of Asia. It's about the "Stan-States", but great literature about an area close to Koskulak.
External linksMAI - a Russian climbing club's page about exploits in the area. In Russian.
Two good photos, with the routes.
About a failed expedition in 2005
The routes of Koskulak.
Short expedition reports on Risk.ru.
Report from Shamalo's teams ascent of Koskulak.