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.


  1. Hi, my name is Ed Lemon, I am a British climber living in Tajikistan. Having read your blog I am keen to have a shot at the 6,000er this summer. How difficult do you think the climb from the col is? Where did you access the peak from? Do you have any maps/report that you could share? My email is

    Safe travels,

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  3. Hi!
    Is there any way I can contact you, please?
    I would like to talk with you if possible :)
    Thanks a lot.
    Please send me an email and I can email you back.
    Thanks again!