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Climbing and Kalashnikovs: American Kid in Kyrgyzstan

Submitted by chrisharkness on 2004-11-29

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Finally, I was back in civilization. I had just spent the last three weeks camped out in the middle of nowhere: the Karavshin Valley, Pamir Alai Range, Kyrgyzstan. After enduring three weeks of persistent rain, and ducking into a Wal-mart tent with two climbing partners I had met on the internet, the relative comforts of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan were a welcome reprieve. So, the expedition didn’t exactly turn out like I had hoped, but I still managed to escape with some stories to tell

. I wasn’t completely sure at first, but after the first day of climbing, it was obvious; my right hand was broken. All I had been doing was hanging out with some peace corps volunteers on the beach in Cholpon Ata when a stray ball (from some kids playing catch) hit me in the back of the hand. Determined not to let it ruin my trip, I ended up getting really good at using my left hand for climbing, and hammering in bolts and pitons. What a way to kick off my first climbing expedition! Now everything harder than about 5.8 I would have to aid climb. Oh well, we were decked out for aid climbing anyway.

Broken bones aside, I think it would be pretty tough to not have a good time in a place like this! The Karavshin Valley was truly Asia’s version of Yosemite, except for one slight difference: there was nobody there. It was almost surreal to enter a valley with such abruptly enormous mountains, yet to experience such solitude. For the first two weeks, it was just us, the shepherds, and miles of granite.

The Karavshin is made up of two different valleys: the ‘Ak Su’ on the left, and the ‘Kara Su’ on the right. My two climbing partners, Ken and Stewart, and I decided to shoot for the Mount ‘Asan’ base camp. We had heard that this wall had some of the best routes in the Valley, so we took a right at the fork in the mountain range. As we hiked up the Kara Su corridor, the horizon took a turn for the steep. Immediately on the left, was the continuous wall "1000 years of Russian Christianity"; then just ahead was Mount Asan, Mount Usen, and behind them all, the residing king of the valley: an impossible-looking ‘Peak 4810’ towered over everything, daring any climber to test his mettle on its glossy crackless face. At the back of the valley on the Tajikistan border, and no less impressive, was Mt. Pirimadalny-an equivalent challenge for mountaineers, boasting an arsenal of steep, unstable, avalanche-prone snow, and huge hanging glaciers that seemed to impossibly cling to its enormous walls. Mt. Asan and ‘4810’ were definitely the highlights for me though. At 3000' and 4000' feet (respectively), these features were the most awe-inspiring, impossible-looking things I had ever seen. They both appeared to be featureless! Just beautiful, vertical, Zamboni-smooth granite towering above me for thousands of feet! I couldn't believe it when I heard that the Russians and Ukrainians had actually weaseled their way up Mt. Asan via six different routes. Next, looking to the right side of the valley I saw the ‘Yellow Wall’ (familiar to me from a recent book), and further up, some other huge nameless wall that supposedly had never been climbed.

The next day, we decided to warm up by doing the "Diagonal Route" on the Yellow wall. Not really sure what “Russian 5b” was supposed to mean, we over-prepared for this chossy Yellow Wall “classic” by bringing aid gear and fixing lines to the ground. As we headed up the approach ramps, I was struck with the solitude of this place; indeed it was weird to have the entire valley...the entire mountain range to ourselves. I remembered seeing something hanging from the wall before we had started the climb, but after climbing 5 pitches, it became obvious what it was: Tommy and Beth Caldwell’s fixed ropes and A5 porta-ledge, still hanging eerily in place after having been forced off the wall by terrorists in the summer of 2000. The porta-ledge hung on by a thread and was riddled with bullet holes (apparently the military had been using it for target practice). We pulled it away and chucked it off the cliff to gather up later and continued our climb. We made about 8 pitches that day and fixed 1100 feet of rope to the ground. It was then that I made my disappointing discovery; that my hand was indeed almost completely non-functional. I would have to leave my friends to finish off the climb without me the following day. On my days off, I decided to do some exploring, or as I like to call it, recon. I first hiked to the base of Mt. Pirimidalny to camp out on the glacier below. That glacier was alive! Melting ice gave way to continual rocks falling down scree slopes and into glacial streams and underground ice caves. After miles of "talus hopping", I arrived at the base of the Pamir giant. That night, I was awoken by a loud rumbling noise, the intensity of which I can't even describe-like a sub-woofer had been turned up to full blast. I looked up at the mountain and in the starlight could see entire chunks of mountain (the hanging glacier) calving off and smashing into the ground glacier 1000' below! From my vantage point I was relatively safe, but still scared at what I was witnessing.

A couple days later I went back to the fork in the river to head up the Ak Su valley for more recon. The Ak Su was no less impressive than the Kara Su. I'd had my eyes on Mount ‘Petitsa’ in the back of the valley since we had arrived, and made a beeline for it. Petitsa had this awesome direct line right up the center prow, and if it hadn't been climbed before; man, that would be an ascent! As I hiked up the valley, I was once again made tiny in a corridor through the granite giants. Pik Oktuber, Russian Tower, and more nameless towers dominated the left side of the river, while the other side of ‘4810’ and continual 1000' walls occupied the right. The talus hiking took forever, but I finally reached the base (well, almost) right at the Tajik border. I curled up in my bivy sack fantasizing about organizing an expedition to climb this beautiful 2500' prow (though I found out later that the Russians had been there too).

Hiking out in a snowstorm the next day, I heard someone whistling for me from across the river. I went down to check it out but slowed when I saw an Arab-looking man wearing full camouflage, and something in his hand that looked like a rifle...okay, no just a fancy walking stick. I looked uphill and relaxed my guard when I saw the shepherd family waving me up to have dinner with them. I smiled and followed him up the hill to his mountain hut. Surprisingly, the food was delicious (or maybe I was just sick of Powerbars). I embarked on a conversation with them that relied on my barbaric Russian and Kyrgyz and lots of charades: Had I seen any terrorists up the Ak su? No. Had I heard about the Americans here in 2000? Yes. Was I friends with them? No. Why was I here? “Scalalaism jakshy korom”. I like to climb. He later showed me a hidden sniper rifle that looked home made and said he was dressed like that in case terrorists (IMU--Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) ever came again. Pictures were taken, and I was off.

For the next two weeks it rained. It absolutely rained with a passion. After a week of cabin fever, we were sick of rereading the same books and trying to reinvent the game “rummy”. We were dying to climb something, but with only rare breaks in the drizzle, we would have to settle for something smaller. We decided to try out a line we had spotted up the left side of the Yellow Wall. It was this beautiful little 1200' line that followed an obvious discontinuous crack/dihedral system. So we worked on it for 6 days. And screw it, I was going to try leading too; though doing everything left-handed would certainly prove to be a challenge. We were further encouraged when the Ukrainian National Climbing Team (the residing authorities of the area) arrived a few days later and informed us that we were doing a new route.

This climb had many firsts for me (as did this whole trip): first broken bone ever in my life, first time doing a first ascent (maybe), first time placing a bolt on lead (scary!), first time establishing my own pendulum, and first time installing permanent anchors/rappel stations. This is probably the safest climb in the entire valley now thanks to us (2 bolt anchors!!). Now people have a clear, safe way to get off the Yellow Wall without having to do heinous down-climbing like my partners did. Man, we were so convinced that we were doing a first ascent (due to all the ‘gardening’ throughout the entire climb), until we found a couple ancient pitons on the last pitch before the shoulder. It was a disappointment but we decided that we might have done a new direct start or variation off of a pre-existing line.

After this we had a couple days left so we headed across the valley to a 1000' dihedral climb I had spotted on our first day. Even as an invalid, I was stoked about this climb, and hiked all our gear to the base of it while my friends were putting the finishing touches on the other climb, trying to free climb sections to finalize a rating on it (5.10b A2 we think). Anyway, as I got closer to the dihedral route, I discovered what appeared to be a very nasty approach. The first pitch went over this horrible overhanging mankfest. Rocks stuck up into the roof of the cave like giant teeth, ready to fall out-and I'd have to climb right through them to gain the wall. Pitch 2 appeared to be featureless, except for one crack system that was host to a small waterfall. After that, the perfect dihedral soared above for hundreds of feet--but how to get to it...?

So, I headed up the loose teeth, pulling some out, and then relying on some others, pounding in pitons where I could. Somehow, it allowed me passage, and upon gaining the headwall, I plugged in a couple pieces and ran it out until a crack developed to the right of the "waterfall crack". I put in an anchor and Ken came up. I attempted to continue, but there was nothing, and was forced to pendulum 30 feet left to yet another insipient crack. The crack got smaller and grassier as I went up. Nuts and cams became useless about 15 feet before a good belay ramp-but I had forgotten my hammer! I needed pitons bad; and was too far up to lower back down, and had no tag line to get my hammer.

Finally, I scooped moss out of a shallow groove and discovered a trick move using a biner and two lobes of a #3.5 Camalot; and I gained the ramp. But to no avail; the only way after this was the waterfall-100' of it and I'd be at the dihedral. I tried left and right of it, but there was nothing. In desperation, I tried climbing the waterfall itself. The instant my hand touched the hold, my arm was soaked in freezing cold water. Aid climbing would have been worse, guaranteeing a steady flow of ice water down my aider and into my pants. The only other option was impossible looking face climbing and hooking on the right, but probably not. We gave up and rapped back down on a piton anchor. Good thing, because the next day, we found out was our day to leave! We had been off by one day and our mules awaited us.

As we left the valley in gorgeous weather (of course), I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in the lack of climbing accomplishments. Rain and a broken hand had certainly done their damage in stifling any climbing feats I had hoped to brag about later. But thinking back, it wasn’t the climbing memories that I cherished anyway, but the experiences that were unique about traveling to a place like this. It was the shepherd families I had met, sitting cross-legged in their mountain huts, eating sour milk balls and drinking chai. Such a fairy-tale scene sometimes; watching them in their pointy felt hats, wandering the monstrous valleys alone with their flocks, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they inhabited one of the most pristinely beautiful corners of the planet. It was the comic relief of hanging out and drinking vodka with the rag-tag Kyrgyz military, patrolling the valley for terrorists; getting to fire off machine guns and AK-47’s with them, watching them do ‘target-practice’ on some of the big walls. It was about spending our rain days with the Ukrainians and a later-arriving Spanish team, swapping climbing stories, drinking tea and bragging about each other’s favorite hometown crags.

Hiking out, I laughed as I watched a mule struggling to balance my haul bag. This entire trip, my first expedition, had been nothing but strange new experiences. But this, I decided, was the whole point. As I began to change gears and prepare for the next destination: the Trango Towers in Pakistan, I tried not to depend on it to redeem this expedition and justify my traveling to Asia. Would I be successful there? Would I finally get to climb something big? Maybe, maybe not-I realized that it really didn’t matter. As far as I was concerned, I had already found success. Was that my only goal-to climb something big? Well, then maybe I should have just stayed in Yosemite.


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