In the midst of the cold swirling wind and light falling snow we retreated down the river bed. Hauling big bags loaded with all our gear we were hoping that the Tajiks would keep the rendezvous. Luckily as we reached the boulders they appeared coming down the slope. Gratefully we loaded the bags on to the donkeys. They had a note from our driver, Ibeek’s brother. It said meet on the border tomorrow! We therefore had a long day ahead.
The Tajiks had crossed the river higher up and we did our now familiar routine of removing boots and socks, donning sandals and then piggybacking our local help across the river! The walk down went swiftly in the cooler temperatures and by late afternoon we found ourselves back at our first camp. We brewed up and swapped food with the Tajiks, they loved our tea but didn’t think much or our assorted remaining tins, thankfully they had bread.
After just one hour more of walking we reached the truck and after a long day walking could sit down. Loading the donkeys was an education but this time they had rented from a nomadic family just 2 hours drive away and another hour after this found us at the guesthouse in Karakol.
Waking the next morning was great knowing we were nearly back to civilisation. We had some time to wander down to the lake shore and gaze up at the mountains surrounding us, after the snow the day before they glistened in the morning light. We sat around waiting for an hour or so until Ibeek informed us he couldn’t find Bakar and Assan! We walked around for awhile looking for them. Eventually finding them wandering about.
We got in the truck one last time for the ride to the border. It seemed further than I remembered from the last time but eventually we rocked up and waited for Muhammed. After about 20 minutes his 4×4 appear through the checkpoint. He had taken the opportunity to bring a load of melons into Tajikistan and we helped our guys swap the melons for a luggage, something like 10 bags for 200 melons! Taking a final picture we boarded the jeep for 4×4 and the delights of Osh.
How to load a donkey on a truck
Lots of melons
Becs and I left the boys in basecamp and heavily laden with food for four days we headed back up the valley. The river early in the morning was much lower but also much colder. We crossed in our sandals and changed into our big boots. We meandered up a ramp between big boulders, watching the river froth far below us in a gorge and listening to the marmots whistling their alerts to each other as we approached. A few hours from base camp we reached the point the valley split. The left hand fork was a large grassy moraine slope above the gorge but our chosen way was to the right around a 90 degree bend and leading gently through endless moraine to the glacier. Right on the corner was a nice alpine meadow complete with springs so we took this a convenient lunch spot. After our time in the valley we felt rested and acclimated so it was really pleasant to sit in the shade and drink soup. The following few hours weren’t as pleasant as we slogged our way in the heat over moraine to the start of the glacier.
Walking on the ice was far easier than the loose rocks and we quickly found a flattening to set up the tent for the night. Sadly from this vantage point it was becoming rapidly obvious that our intended objective and the peaks in the valley in general were lacking in snow and suffering from glacier retreat and leading to barring seracs! We chatted through our options but decided that without more information we couldn’t make a summit attempt from where were so would have a later start and wander up the glacier to look for options. The next day I woke up feeling very dispirited and resolved to the fact that our objective would look worse from close up. Sadly this was the case but we had a nice walk up and took some nice pictures of crazy ice formations. With us only having a few days left and no time to seriously attempt something if we found something, we decided to enjoy the walk back to basecamp and spend a night at the springs on the corner. Becky had been desperate to see some more of the wildlife, especially the elusive Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards! We therefore got up early and were rewarded to see a flock of 20 Marco Polo sheep! Sadly the snow leopards stayed elusive although we saw plenty of signs that they were all around us; scat and prints!
Getting back to base camp we found the boys had quickly got bored of bouldering and had an attempt at the peak the other side of the river which had been taunting us since we arrived. This was ended low down after a rather scary retreat through a cliff band they had used as an approach. On the descent they spotted a better line and we turned up at basecamp as they were debating another go. John tried to persuade us to go but I was feeling a bit demoralised and was already looking ahead towards our planned stay in Kyrgyzstan. Leaving at 4am they crossed the river and when we got up and about we spotted them starting up the snow around 9am. Great I thought, go on boys get us a summit! We had taken two small walkie talkies to give us some comms and it was really thrilling to hear John’s voice crackling through at midday that they were on the summit! Super effort from John and Rhys.
In the meantime Becky and I had shuttled a load down to our cache ready for the walk out the next day. This was a pretty straightforward stroll and meant we were back in basecamp and dinner was ready for the boys on their return! The descent proved fairly easy except the river crossing at the end which involved walking up stream to the gorge and a pendulum abseil to cross!
Upper Muzkol Valley
Crazy ice sculptures. Our intended objective is behind my left shoulder
Becs walking out
Snow Leopard Scat. Just a few hundred metres from our tents
Peak Buffy, 5553m. First ascent, 15th August 2014. John Vincent and Rhys Huws. If you look carefully the climbing team can be spotted low right on the snow face
So after our summit day we were all pretty shattered. The boys decided to go down the glacier but Becs fancied walking back down the river. We headed back down in two pairs; almost like a race but no one was racing. The river valley was far easier going than the moraine, it was however quite icy in the places the sun hadn’t penetrated so that took some dodging. Getting back to the valley below the glacier it was surprising to see that the valley is actually quite green! Now if the food in the tents hasn’t been ravaged by the snow leopards we will be happy!
Reaching our basecamp after 5 hours of walking it was a relief to see the tent unscathed! The next few days we didn’t wandered more than a few hundred metres from our camp. Everyone applied some culinary creativity and we had all sorts of nice food; pizzas, sausage, eggs and chips, stew and Becky had birthday Semolina! We all even washed…
The following day we decided it was time to go for another look see at some of the higher side valleys. We all wandered slowly up for a few hours seeing some more signs of snow leopards (beheaded marmots, scat and prints!) and lots of Marco Polo sheep horns. The boys quickly got bored and decided to go bouldering but Becky and I wandered for a few more hours scoping out possibilities with binoculars. We saw lots of wildlife too; a stoat bounding across our path just a few metres away and finally sighting some birds of prey which had been absent until this point. Most of the peaks in the valley we walked up had previously been climbed but we spotted one which look good but from the other side and we quickly decided to spend the next three or four days checking that out.
On the way back we met the boys bouldering so joined in with getting some first ascents!
Cooking up a storm
Eggs, Chips and Sausage – Tajik style
Birthday… err semolina!
Marco Polo Sheep skull, and Becs
Muzkol Arete V2
The big day…
This was it. The day we had come for. For some reason I had no nervousness, no apprehension. I was pretty certain it would just go.
We rose at 3AM and leaving camp by 4AM, we soon reached the top of the col by 5AM. We then traversed, descending slightly over some scree and then some crazy ice sculptures across the glacier to the to the base of the West ridge. We had pair up at the Col, ropes coiled around our bodies and strung between us ready in the unfortunate event of falling into a crevasse. From the camp to the col had been in total darkness then slowly lightening so by the time we were approaching the face our lights were no longer needed. Rhys and John were just ahead of Becs and I and so they crossed the bergshrund first. At the second shrund they stopped to belay and we did the same. Initially we all started up the same diagonal line but after a few pitches John headed straight up heading towards a vague gully system. Becs and I slowly climbed diagonally rightwards to reach the ridge at a col. The last few pitches to this weren’t the easiest or most pleasant with snow on slabs and loose rock and little gear to use as runners or belays. The view from the col towards umpteen other mountains was super but the view of our intended line up the ridge was less so. The ridge was a mixed of poor rock exposed by the sun on the south side and of snow patches weaving through it. We started moving up through this fairly horrible ground. At this point I was less certain! The ridge was a mix of simple rock scrambling, snow patches and short low angled ice pitches. This felt to AD+ in grade. After an hour of moving we stopped for a rest and Becs promptly dropped her camera. Watching it bounce down the ridge and then fall off the side I shouted ‘below’ to warn the boys. I was swearing but Becs seemed so calm!
Carrying on we reached a point where the ridge went up to form a rock tower. We started pitching again. Reaching the base of this tower I traversed to the left hoping we could bypass on snow. It soon became apparent this steep snow was sugary, had no gear and wasn’t going to lead back onto the ridge. Retreating back to the base of the tower, a thin strip of snow weaved through the centre of the face in vague gully form. OK I thought this would go. I had now climbed 40m above my last gear and reaching harder moves with poor snow and rock felt safe upwards progress was prevented. So I decided enough was enough and down climbed back to Becs. She was happy with that decision and at 5900m our attempt was over.
Rhys and John meanwhile had climbed a more direct upwards line to reach the ridge slightly below our highpoint.This line was felt to be sustained at D+/TD- with poor snow at the top. Once the boys had reached us we decided to retreat as a team. John said their route had been fairly desperate and Rhys was feeling the effects of the altitude. The ridge proved fairly straightforward to downclimb and we found several good patches of ice to fix abalakovs.
Once reaching the col we continue to retreat together rapping via abalakovs down the line below the col. At the bottom we split back into our roped pairs. Becs wanted to look for her camera (involving a slight climb up to a shelf) and so Rhys and John started the plod out of the bowl we had abseiled into and back up to the col above our camp. Amazingly Beckys camera was found and despite a 500m plummet down the face was still in working order!
We then followed the boys and caught up at the col. Everyone was very quiet as a result of the long day but I felt quite happy with the result. Rule one after all was to come back in one piece!
On the face
Starting to rap
Rapping from the col
So in the last chapter, we had made it to base camp…
Base camp was a really impressive place to be; a the bottom of the main valley, but slightly up the hillside from the river, at 4200 metres up, it was still very warm during the day and cool at night. So far the days had been warm. We had a whole day chilling probably no more than 100 metres from our tents. Peoples creative capacities really came out through our food options; we had pancakes, pizzas, bread, apple pie, chips amongst others.
After a day of rest we had a wander up the valley towards our intended objective with the idea of furthering the acclimatisation process and scouting the route ahead. We had a random encounter with a team of 5 Latvians doing a 20 day traverse of the range which was quite impressive considering the size of their rucksacks. We then packed up for five days away from our base camp.
The next day we retraced our steps as the route had been good up to our highpoint of 4500m on the edge of the glacier proper. What followed was 7 hours of moraine bashing in relentless heat and sun. There were several pools of melt water along the way but near the end we were out of water and not finding any pools we eventually stopped around half four on a flattening at 4900m and near a glacial stream where we could get water.
On day 2 we headed further up the main glacier before turning off up the moraines to the side glacier below the col we would have to cross to reach our ridge on summit day. This 5500m col was the objective for the day. Slogging up until where it steepened we strapped on crampons and slowed to a crawl as the heat and altitude sucked the energy out of us. Reaching the top we stashed our racks and ropes for summit day. It was nice to get a view of what lay ahead in a few days time. Heading back down to the tents meant a good night’s sleep for everyone.
Day 3 was planned as a partial rest day with moving the camp up to the base of the col. This was actually a nice way to do it as we had just a couple of hours of work back up to 5200m and then we could relax and rehydrate. Tomorrow was summit day.
Rhys feeling the ‘burn’ at 5500m
Home from home
In the first chapter we got as far as Murghab, a small town in Tajikistan… next up we had to actually get into the Muzkol Valley. The guys we had organised to provide donkeys and a truck to get us there turned up bright and early and we loaded the bags. The start of this next section would be a days drive; firstly on the tarmaced Pamir highway and then turning off into the Bartang valley a less travelled place, certainly by truck and westerners. The last time Becky attempted this peak, they went in over a 5000m pass from Murghab but from research driving around seemed like a more sensible option. Once again my stomach was in open revolt and 7 people, 12 bags and 2 donkeys crammed into a Yaz was far from comfortable. Thankfully route finding via GPS was relatively easily and but by 2pm we had gone as far as the truck could. We all piled out by snatching a few first ascents of some boulders and having some lunch. The donkeys were very wobbly after 7 hours being shaken in the back of the truck. We managed an easy couple of hours which brought us to a meadow with an abandoned ‘house’ and decided to camp there. Next day was a different beast. We crossed the river first thing and then slowly made our way up the far side. The ground wasn’t easy. Up, down, round deep canyons coming off the surrounding mountains and along the side of the main river. After 5 hours of walking, a lot of donkey reloading and some close calls with donkeys sliding off cliffs (!) we weren’t close to our intended base camp, the locals were looking mutinous so we suggested stopping there and we’d have to shuttle the rest. Fortunately they said they would walk one more hour. We reached a big jumble of boulders and decided to leave the bags there. With trepidation we paid the Tajiks and agreed to see them back there in two weeks. This was not without concern; this really was the middle of no where! After they had left we reorganised the loads, deciding to get the essentials to a base camp. I wasn’t feeling super, just tired and drained after the food poisoning of the previous few days so Rhys and John went ahead. After an hour or so of walking the boys dumped their bags and went back for another load. Becky and I started to explore for a possible base camp. At this point a misunderstanding of the plan meant we ended up being scattered across the valley but by sunset nearly all our equipment was in our chosen location; a flattening on the hillside above the river next to a section of stepped pools, and springs.
Driving via GPS
Marco polo sheep horn
Our journey to Tajikistan started in Manchester Airport. Becky, Rhys and I flew together to Istanbul meeting John there for our onward flight to Kyrgyzstan. Our entry into Osh was a surreal experience. Osh, which is Kyrgyzstan’s second city is a new route for Turkish Airlines and is still finding its feet as an international airport. Arriving at the unsociable hour of 4 am, we had to unload our own bags off a truck into the terminal! Becky had pre booked some home stay accommodation and a driver to meet us. Unfortunately with 12 large bags it was a bit of a squash in the car but we got there for a few hours sleep. As our objective was in the most north westerly corner of Tajikistan, Osh was the ideal entry point. With the productive Fergana valley nearby Osh is awash in the summer with fresh produce, something sadly Murghab is not. So we spent a pleasant few days buying food supplies, sampling Kyrgyz cuisine and organising transport. Our transport across the border was a sturdy Land Cruiser to Murghab. Unfortunately some dodgy kebabs that Rhys and I had consumed meant that this 10 hours was hardly comfortable and despite the amazing scenery the low point of the trip for me was throwing up on the Pamir Highway!! Murghab is a pretty dusty town; in fact more accurately its is the most remote inhabited place I have ever been to. There is just nothing there. It is on a high river plain on the intersection between its neighbours, Kyrgyzstan and China. A constant flow of trucks goes through the town but nothing stops. It does however have the excellent Erali Guesthouse and this was a great place to recover and organise a truck and donkeys for the next leg of our journey. Erali also had the best wash facilities of any small teahouse style hostel I have ever stayed at.
Looking down on Murghab
JV driving the Pamir Highway
Fresh in Osh – note the Morrisons bags!
Soviet Era Osh