Kyrgyzstan: Land of Snow Leopard by Jacques Sturm

It is difficult to consider traveling in these times of Covid19. And yet, the Kyrgyzstan mountains are calling!

A flight from Geneva to Bishkek via Istanbul, and ten hours later we arrive in Bishkek. It is the middle of the afternoon, under the sun. Dmtri Pavlenko, our host for the stay, welcomes us. A 55 year old, Russian-native climber and owner of a small mountain hut in Ala Archa Park, who knows the region perfectly. He’s also a two time recipient of the Piolet d’Or Award in 1997 (Makalu) and in 2004 (Jannu).

Bishkek is the capital of Kyrgyzstan. It is also the political and economic center of this country, 6.5 million inhabitants, living under Sino-Russian influence, predominantly Muslim in rural areas. It is easy to see that the Soviet era left a lasting mark on mentalities in this eastern part of the former USSR.

After some shopping, we climb in an old VW Combi to drive through the gorges of Ala Archa. A one-hour drive before we pack our bags for a two and a half hours hike to the night bivouac. The place is worthy of its reputation: austere, cold, and ... local. We rush to turn on the gas bottle to start the heating, burner placed under a pile of stones, acting as an efficient stove.

We spend the first night after leaving Geneva 3362 m up in a space capsule fallen from the sky on the moraine of the Ak Sai glacier.

Next day we woke at 4.30 a.m., departure at 6 a.m. for our first objective, the Siliviastrov route on the northern bastion of Korona, 500m, Russian 5B rating (TD+ / ED-).

This route looks like Rébuffat Terray route at the Aiguille des Pèlerins, 2h30 approach, 3h30 of ascent and 2 hours of descent, with an exit at 4500 m.

The third day, we leave for the Ilushenko route on the Baichichka (4500m), 5A, 600m of snow and ice, a perfect line between two granite walls.

Dmitri wakes us up by turning on the heat, it helps to come out of the sleeping bag! Then breakfast is porridge Russian style, we put on our clothes and leave at 6 am for 2 hours of a steep approach. We progress quickly, rope stretched over the cone, then 4 pitches of WI5, another 100m of 75 degrees snow slope to finish with 150 meters on 50 degrees snow to exit. It was a nice route, the most direct of the face with a dry granite summit reached by climbing a last rock pitch.

Day four, we prepare our bags for a location transition, go up to the Korona hut at 4300m where we spend a few hours resting before going to climb the Barber route; 1000m, 5b Russian on the Svobodnaya Korea Pic.

We went to fix a rope to save time at the rimaye for efficiency! The weather window is short and the storm is expected tomorrow at noon.

Friday, it is 1am.

After a sleepless night in the Korona Hut, we welcome three Russian climbers returning from a new route opened on a satellite summit of Free Korea. They spent ten days recognizing, attempting, fixing, and climbing this route on Simagin peak, 800 meters, 5 pitches of mixed and artificial climbing, going up to A3, which they will rate 6A, 800m (ED / ED +).

For our objective of the day, the strategy is to simul climb the base. The top will take us longer, and it is good to keep some margin with the arrival of bad weather and gusts of wind to 90km/h on the top. It is after 7 hours of climbing that we reached the top, to run straight away over the ridge, crossing it to find the abseil line.

Up there, it starts to be war, gusty wind, snow and little visibility.

We are progressing short roped as quickly as possible. The breach is in front of us, 800 meters of ice couloir equipped with Abalakov every 50 meters. Another two hours under spindrifts.

Back on the glacier, in the midst of a storm, hood and mask tucked into our down jackets, we take an azimuth to the bivouac where our new acquaintances from the night before awaited us. It's 3:00 pm, we drink tea and eat slices of a local sausage, pack our bags and slowly descend to our shelter in the storm.

Saturday is spent as a day of recovery, reading and the first shower of the week!

A few hours later, a white alarm clock seized us, 15 cm of snow landed on the massif last night.

It continuously snows, and the wind harshly blows. After breakfast we go to the satellite relay to take the weather forecasts of the days to come. We see a slot tomorrow to try to open a mixed line on a buttress of the Korona, 500m of vertical drop with a base of 200m in snow and 60 degree ice, 150m of mixed and 150m of grade 4 spotted three days ago.

Attracted by the intention, I go up to see this line, this potential meeting with the mountain which motivates us. It takes 1h40 of climbing in stormy conditions to find the line, which seems to be well drawn and climbable. 30 minutes later, I am again at Ratseka camp to make a point, the motivation is growing.

Svetlana made us a delicious borsch for lunch.

The afternoon goes by reading and sleeping.

Five o'clock in the morning, it snowed all night long and at this altitude, it is not possible to make any exit, especially as it is dry and it hurtles down slopes and chutes everywhere. The decision is taken to pack up and change areas. We took time to climb an icefall lower down next to the path. The snow on the stones makes the path particularly slippery, like an ice rink, due to the severity of the cold. Stirring up to the knees, we finally arrive at the foot of a small 60m grade 5 ice cube that will have to be cleaned, snow plugs have landed on the icy surface. It took us some time and finally got the 60 meters of ice.

Back to Bishkek

Back to Bishkek, overnight at the Asian Mountain hotel, and a few shots of vodka accompanied by large pickles. Basic as a treatment, but effective for the mood!

The next day, a seven-hour drive in the VW Combi to get to the south of the country, in the Barskoon valley near Isik-Köl Lake. We will sleep near a Russian Army sanatorium that was used to prepare and debrief Russian Cosmonauts, whose famous Yuri Gagarin still thrones all over the aisles, in status, bust or street sign.

Why are we going to this remote corner? To discover lines of ice climbing with a drop of a thousand meters, a cold and dry ice, demanding in a "world class" environment.

The plan is Tears of the Snow Leopard (1000m-WI5 +) descent on foot, and Aksal's Beard (800m-WI4 +) abseiling, two lines of ice resurface from the mountain and flowing by gravity to the road a thousand meters below. An incredible spot for its beauty and the icing on the cake, it is possible to walk down from the summit and avoid abseils!

Our trip comes to an end, the road back to Bishkek is long and the temperature has reached -22C tonight. One last day of Covid tests, sightseeing and enjoying a perfect local evening, ending at the airport for a few hours of sleep on the plane.

Jacques Sturm is part of the BLUE ICE EU Sales team, he's an avid mountain climber, skiier and alpinist. His passion and expertise for mountaineering and ice-climbing brought him across the globe.