Friday, 30 September 2011

The last unclimbed 6000 m peak in the Muzkol

Records of mountaineering exploration in the Muzkol range are limited. The highest peak called Soviet Officers' Peak and a handful of others were climbed by the Russians pre-civil war. Since then there seemed to be little activity until a series of British expeditions from 1996 to 2001, organised by the company EWP. In 2001 a participant was tragically killed whilst climbing Zartosh Peak after which the EWP did not return. It was not until last year that a MEF funded expedition returned and climbed that peak. I did not know any of this when I selected the Muzkol as a mountaineering destination for our expedition. I had started my research by looking on google earth for suitable locations which would tie in with our overall trip. It was only after this, when researching the region to find unclimbed peaks, that I discovered the strong British mountaineering link to the area.

Base camp

Mark takes a shower in the wilderness!

Whilst acclimatising we spent some time reccing the river which we would be required to cross to access the tributary valley which would take us to the base of the mountain we wanted to climb. Visiting the river during different times of the day we soon established that it would only be fordable at first light, even an hour later and it would be too high due to snow melt. This meant a pre-dawn start the next day. With enough food for 6 days James and I braved the freezing water. Mark had come with us to see us off and could hear our yells of agony from the other side of the river, he would be looking after the base camp whilst we were away.

An early start

Marco polo sheep skull and horns

After the river the next obstacle of unknown difficulty was the huge lateral moraine the glacier had created. These huge piles of rocks can be very unstable, however it turned out that there was a passable route between the moraine and valley wall and we made steady progress. All the time the mountain loomed above us imposingly. By mid-afternoon it was possible to cross the moraine onto the ice and continue up the glacier to a high camp near the base of the mountain.

Heading up the moraines with our target summit on the horizon

The glacier towards the first high camp

A recce the following morning showed that the route to the summit from the glacier was exposed to dangerous serac fall and therefore was not viable. We immediately return to the camp to pack up and move it to a site on a tributary glacier which we had spotted on the walk in. Settling into this new high camp it was obvious that the ridge from the col was too technically difficult for are abilities but it would be possible to cross the col and investigate routes from the other side.

High camp #1 with the tributary glacier in the background

Another recce revealed that on the other side of the col a ridge led to the summit. To gain this ridge, however, a glacier needed to be crossed and a steep snow slope overcome. Returning to the high camp we hatched a plan to attempt this the following day. We set the alarm for an alpine start and had an early night.

During the night the wind pummelled the tent and when the alarm went off there was no improvement and we decided to wait to see if it died down a little. By dawn it had improved and we set off up to the col at 5500 m. We negotiated crevasses to gain a steep section which once overcome would lead to the summit ridge. On the more technical ground we started to pitch the climbing. Initially the snow conditions were good and we thought the route would be viable but on the second pitch they deteriorated to a hard crust and it was at this point we decided to turn back. On the descent James slipped and slide quite a way but the snow stake held and rope came tight onto me. He was a little wide eyed by the time he'd righted himself and made it to my stance. This left no doubt in my mind that I had made the right decision to turn back and I had no regrets.

Heading up to the 5500 m col

Me looking up to the summit from the col

We packed up the high camp and made it down the moraines as far as we could before it got dark. Knowing that the river was only fordable before 6 am, the following morning we got up at 2 am to try to reach it in time so we could make it back to Mark at Base Camp. We made the crossing point in the nick of time and sloshed through the river in our boots, not caring if they got soaked. It was a freezing morning and by the time we'd got to Base Camp our trouser legs, which had got wet in the river, were solid ice.

Needing time to recover from our attempt as well as 3 days to extract ourselves from base camp to the road head, left us with only had one spare day to attempt another peak. Together we scrambled up a rocky peak near to our base camp, which we believed was unclimbed, but the quality of the rock proved an impassable barrier close to the summit so we descended disappointed. Looking over the range from this view point revealed the beauty of the valley and many much easier unclimbed peaks presented themselves but we were out of time. With extreme frustration we packed up Base Camp and started the slog back to the road. Leaving the last 6000 m unclimbed peak in the Muzkol unclimbed.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Muzkol Expedition - donkey issues part 2

Within about 2 minutes of setting off the donkey carrying the food, packed in two rice sacks, managed to shed it's load and make a bid for freedom. Recaptured, the load was again balanced precariously on the poor animal and we tried again. Unfortunately for our 'mountaineers on epic adventure' image this was all being filmed by a Basque couple cycling the Pamir Highway.

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We followed the route we had recced the previous day which used the river valley to access the high pass. The river was lower than the previous day due to it being earlier and therefore snowmelt not having peaked yet. Despite this the donkey-men jumped on the already overloaded animals so they wouldn't get their feet wet. We found some grazing for the donkeys at lunchtime so they could have some lunch as well. The donkey-men ate and then fell asleep by a stream. We sent Mark to wake them up so we could get going again. They had umm-ed and ahh-ed about the next part of the route so we carried the heaviest bags, lightening the donkey's load.

About an hour into our post lunch hike it was obvious that the donkey-men's heart wasn't in it. They lagged behind and dragged their heels and then finally decided to unload the donkeys and head home. This was despite us having an understanding that the trip would take two days. They got annoyed when we only paid them for one day. They were insisting that the donkeys were altitude sick. Now, I'm not entirely sure what an altitude sick donkey looks like, but I would guess they might be at least out of breath. Wayne and Rooney, as we had called them, did not seem to show any symptoms, and instead continued to try and hump each other. Although we had covered much of the distance, we had only made a gentle 400 m of ascent, not a great increase in height to inflict altitude sickness. When asked if the men would help us get the kit over the pass, as they had pursued us to employ them both on the understanding that they would help us carry the bags if needed, but when when asked they quickly made excuses and before we knew it had turned around and headed back down the valley.

We were left with a pile of bags, late in the day, well below a 5100 m pass. Quickly rearranging the kit we packed a bag each and headed on up to the pass. Progress was slow but I made it to the top at 5 pm. Dumping my pack I then returned back down to help poor Mark who, in the last week, had gone from his desk in London via 3 full days travelling to trekking over a 5100 m pass with a full pack in the middle of nowhere. In contrast, after spending 3 weeks on Peak Lenin, I was well acclimatised and as fit as a fiddle. And the amusing thing was that the donkey-men had been commenting on how 'the girl' would be tired (translated by Mark). I gave James some encouragement as I steamed passed on my second trip.

Once we'd all made it to the top we took a breather and admired the view. We could see the mountain we wanted to climb which looked, well, hard. I headed down from the pass, following the river until it turned into a gorge. Concerned that this would prevent us from reaching the bottom of the valley, I dumped my pack and recced a different route. I was relieved to find that the valley was accessible by descending the left-hand slopes. The light was now fading and, on returning to my pack, I made the decision to camp there. I retraced my steps up the valley to find Mark and James, and this time helped James carry his pack as he had sore feet from wet boots. By the time the boys joined me I had the tent up and dinner on the go.

Unfortunately there was no let up the following day, as we needed to go back over the pass to pick up the rest of the kit and return to our intermediary camp. This was another exhausting day. It wasn't until the third day that we managed to get all the kit (in two shuttles) into a suitable base camp. We were then finally established and had a well earned rest day.

Taking a rest in the dry river bed, by the afternoon this is a fast flowing river.

Sans donkeys heading up to the pass

Views from the pass

Mark and James on the pass

In base camp - Mark is finally allowed a break.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Muzkol Expedition - donkey issues part 1

Prior to leaving on this extended holiday we had broken the trip down into shorter stages and invited friends to join us. Only one brave soul took up the offer - Mark Redhead. Mark had been camping before, at a couple of music festivals, so was the perfect candidate for an exploratory mountaineering expedition to the remote Muzkol Range in the Eastern Pamirs about 100km from Murghab.

Mark met us in Murghab and came bearing precious gifts - a Saturday Guardian, the Economist, a resupply of paperbacks and a very good single malt. In his 2 days in Tajikistan he had also managed to pick up a rather violent stomach bug.

The team united, we got a jeep out to the where we would leave the Pamir Highway and head into the mountains on foot. Conveniently, at this exact point, a yurt stay had been established, enabling us to have a couple of comfortable nights whilst acclimatising and organising logistics. The yurt was at 4200 m so we needed to spend a day resting at this height before doing a recce of the approach route. Speaking to the owner of the yurt we managed to ascertain that it would be possible to hire 3 donkeys for 2 days to get all our supplies into base camp. Everything was going incredibly smoothly and that evening we settled down to a good meal and comfortable bed. Sleep was only interrupted once by Mark violently vomiting in the corner of the yurt when he failed to locate the door (not that yurts have corners as they are round but you know what I mean).

Predictably there was some confusion regarding the donkeys the following morning and things weren't quite what we had thought we'd arranged the previous day. We renegotiated and were assured that the donkeys would arrive for our inspection by midday, so we delayed our recce and waited. At 2pm 4 donkeys had arrived, one sitting in the back of a Uza (Russian jeep), which was quite comical. Despite 4 donkeys being brought to the yurt it turned out that 2 of them were just for show, leaving only 2 that were able to carry loads the following day. We had no other option but to accept this and hurried out on our recce.

Following the river bed on foot we successfully located the pass which would give us access into the adjacent valley from where we would be able to set up a base camp. With evening drawing in we hurried back to the yurt for a final packing session and check of supplies for an early start the following day. After we had settled down for the night we were visited by a rather drunk policeman who checked our documents and angled for a bribe but he soon got bored, or forgot what he'd asked us, and drove off into the darkness.

The start wasn't quite as early as we would have liked the following day but the donkeys were loaded, obligatory photos taken and we were ready to leave.

Recceing the approach route. Xmena (climbed by an EWP expedition in 1996) in the background.

Loading the donkeys

 Ready to go

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

–°ycling near Murgab

Inspired by all the cyclists we had met pedalling the Pamir Highway on some epic overland trip, we decided to hire bikes for the day and head out ourselves. Instead of the Pamir Highway we took a side road which followed the Aksu river. This river heads east towards China before doubling back on itself to enter the far eastern border of Afghanistan.

Taking a break by the Aksu River

Although this road provides the only link between Tajikistan and China we saw just 3 vehicles during the day, one of which had broken down. We stopped at some tiny villages to have a look around before carrying on along the desolate road. Although it was cloudy the sun was strong at this altitude (3500 m), and James paid the price for not applying enough suncream, getting very badly burnt.

James at the village of Konye Kurgan

Me by the tombs at Konye Kurgan

We'd not planned the trip that well and hadn't taken any lunch with us so we were relieved to see a Stolvaya on our return. After some confusion we were invited into the house. We ordered some food not really knowing what would appear and were given the standard Kygryz meal of yogurt, bread and jam. The children crowded around the door to watch us. When it came to paying there was much whispering and the children were sent in to tell us the price. We initially thought we had misheard as it was an extortionate amount but the children insisted that it was correct. We asked to speak to their parents and although the mother did eventually appear, the father remained in the other room from which he cowardly gave instructions to his wife and children. We bargained them down but it was an unfortunate incident.

Luckily when we got back to Murgab our faith was restored as when we returned the bikes the family invited us in for tea but presented us with a full meal of plov, bread and sweets. Of course, we weren't hungry at all having just had a very late lunch, but James did his best not to offend.

 Heading back to Murgab