MOUNTAIN CLIMBING IN KYRGYZSTAN

MOUNTAIN CLIMBING IN KYRGYZSTAN

Kyrgyzstan has excellent mountaineering and rock climbing. Avoid places near the Tajikistan and Uzbekistan borders where Islamic militants have been active. Traveling anywhere within 50 kilometers of the Chinese border requires a special military permit. This area includes Inylchek Glacier and Khan Tengri peak

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: “With half the country lying above 2,500 meters, 94 percent of Kyrgyzstan is mountainous. The country has two major ranges, the Tien Shan and the Pamir Alai, with a number of smaller groups that segment the country like a pie-chart. Although these ranges create tremendous geographic, political, and cultural challenges for the local population, they provide a haven for alpinists. Because of its several distinct ranges, Kyrgyzstan offers every type of climbing imaginable. From the high-altitude endeavors of the Tien Shan, to the Chamonix-like alpine crags of Ak Sai, to the Yosemite- style monoliths of the Karavshin, Kyrgyzstan truly has it all. In addition, Kyrgyzstan is a trekkers’ paradise. The country also boasts a romantic yurt culture and people who greet travelers with genuine warmth and curiosity. [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

“The entry point for climbers is the capital, Bishkek. From here the areas described below can be reached by vehicle in two or three days. It’s possible to link several areas into one visit, starting, for example, with a high-altitude climb in August and finishing with a big wall in September. <>

“Although the country will not be crowded with climbers soon, the popular areas will see more traffic, especially during the high season, July through September. A major concern for Kyrgyzstan, as with any mountainous country, is that unmanaged mass-type tourism will bring negative change to indigenous cultures and damage its fragile alpine areas. Sustainable land use will take coordination, planning, and funding, traits hard to come by in a land where a person who makes $100 per month is fortunate. But the magic that is Kyrgyzstan could be slowly destroyed unless we all participate in responsible development. Actions by climbers remain an important part of the equation. Most important is to hold local companies to high environmental standards. It’s their country, yes, but our collective planet.” <>

Garth Willis traveled to Kyrgyzstan in 1995 with no job waiting or real plan except to explore what on a map looked like an amazing region of mountains. He has been living and climbing in Central Asia ever since. He has climbed in all the regions described here except Pik Achiktash. Garth has summited Khan Tengri and in 2002 put up a new route on Pik Pirimidalny in the Karavshin which helped re-open the region to climbers. In 1999 he started the Alpine Fund, a non-profit organization working in Bishkek that takes orphanage youths to the mountains. <>

Climbing History in Kyrgyzstan

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: In the 1930s the first Soviet climbers and geographers came to Kyrgyzstan to catalog peaks and define the country’s borders. The highest peaks were climbed to claim summits and determine elevations. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the Kyrgyz Mountains became a destination for Soviet alpinists. By the 1970s the Ak Sai region of Ala Archa National Park saw 2,000 climbers each summer. These Soviet-sponsored teams received 20-day, all-expense-paid trips to train and receive instruction at Ak Sai. Each year, climbers rose up the ranks by proving their merit on increasingly difficult routes and by demonstrating skills in teamwork and rescue. [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

“The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought an end to the system that had trained some of the world’s best climbers. Many climbers emigrated, others had to work, and by 1995 fewer than 10 climbers were still active in the entire country.Misha Mikhailov, Sasha Manulik, Oleg Turaev, Dima Grekov, Kolya Gutkin, Alona Dudashvili, Alexander Gubayev, Andrei Puchinin,Vitalic Karimov, and a few others have kept the spirit alive. By the late 1990s foreign climbers were starting to discover Kyrgyzstan in greater numbers. For the local climbers, that meant their passion could also provide a living: guiding. Several university clubs are now working to create the next generation of climbers. The local climbing community is strengthening. Entire ranges were selfishly theirs. But now people are learning once again that Kyrgyzstan is on the map as an attractive alternative to Pakistan and Nepal for high-mountain adventure in Asia.<>

“Many of the documented routes in Kyrgyzstan are remnants from the era of Soviet-sponsored training camps. Only when climbers reached the highest level of training were they allowed to set new routes. This legacy has left a series of standard routes, a large number of super-hard routes, and lots of new route potential for seemingly obvious lines. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been no systematic recording of new routes. Prior to 1991 all climbs, especially new ascents, were registered with the Soviet Federation for Alpinism in Moscow. Now unregistered first ascents of unclimbed peaks such as Jerry Garcia and Ecstasy in the Kokshaal-Too region have no official standing. The Snow Leopard Mountain climbing award is given in Kyrgyzstan. <>

Climbing Disasters and Problems in Kyrgyzstan

The world's worst mountaineering accident claimed 43 climbers in July 1990, when a an small earthquake triggered by an avalanche buried the climber's camp on Lenin peak on the border of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. In May 1969, six Soviet parachutist survived and four were killed parachuting on top of 23,405-foot Lenin Peak

In June 2015, three men died while climbing a rock face in Ala Archa National Park. AFP reported: “The three men, aged between 18 and 24, died on while climbing a rock face....They were part of a group of ten mountaineers from Spain's northeastern region of Catalonia, who were in Kyrgyzstan on a month-long trip. [Source: Agence France-Presse, June 22, 2015]

In August 2004, six mountain climbers—five Czechs and a Russian—died and two others were injured in an avalanche while climbing on 22,998-foot-high Khan Tengri. At least 22 others were trapped and efforts to rescue them was hampered by another avalanche. Reuters reported: “A mass of thawing snow and glacier ice hit 20 Czech and Russian mountaineers as they approached Khan Tengri...Several groups of climbers, numbering 50 altogether, were trying to climb the snow-capped peak when the avalanche struck. [Source: Reuters, August 5, 2004]

AFP reported: “At least 40 climbers, many of them Czechs, remain trapped beneath snow on a Kyrgyz mountainside as new avalanches held up rescue efforts."At the moment rescue efforts have halted, it's a very difficult situation as the avalanches are continuing," the official at Kyrgyzstan’s emergencies ministry told AFP. In total, some 50 climbers were caught up in the avalanches about 5,000 metres up Khan-Tengri, They included a large party of Czechs, as well as groups from Russia, Ukraine and Estonia, the official said. [Source: AFP, August 6, 2004 ***]

“During rescue efforts some of the injured were helicoptered to a regional hospital. Rescue workers hoped to regain access when snow storms were expected to end, the official said. A helicopter carrying 26 Russian rescuers has arrived in the former Soviet republic to join in the rescue effort, ITAR-TASS reported, citing Russia's emergencies ministry. Several have died on its slopes over the years, including a Pole in July.”

Problems with Islamic Groups in Southern Kyrgyzstan

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: In the summers of 1999 and 2000, localized skirmishes erupted along the southern borders. The well-publicized kidnapping and subsequent escape of four American climbers in Karavshin projected the image that all of Kyrgyzstan was a dangerous place. These events, followed by the attacks of September 11 and then SARS in 2003, almost ended tourism. During these years the few expeditions in the region never saw a soul. <> [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

“In 1999 when Islamic fundamentalists crossed the border over an unguarded mountain pass and kidnapped a large group of Japanese geologists. This event was followed in 2000 by more kidnappings of Americans, Germans, and Ukrainians. The government dispatched troops to rescue the remaining hostages and turn back the incursion, but during the ensuing battles and rescue of the hostages, 32 Kyrgyz soldiers were killed. All hostages were released or escaped unharmed. The government removed the local shepherds who inhabited the high pastures and prohibited outsiders from entering. To prevent further incursions the governments of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have placed land mines in the high mountain passes in border areas. Due to border disputes, there is debate where the borders are drawn, creating confusion as to where these mines were laid.” <>

“ The U.S. government recommends not traveling to this area due to the political instability and the existence of land mines. For these reasons potential climbers should go only to the area with reputable local companies and be accompanied at all times by local guides. The specific climbing area described here has no reports of mines, but climbers should be aware of potential dangers in the region. Independent travel to this region is strongly discouraged, but a well-organized expedition can safely visit the granite walls of the Karavshin. In 2003 Czech climbers visited the region and had no problems.” <>

Kyrgyzstan’s Mount Santa: Better Than the North Pole?

Associated Press reported from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan: “Just in time for Christmas, authorities say they plan to name a snowy peak "Mount Santa Claus." Three climbers set off to scale the designated peak and bury a capsule containing the flag of Kyrgyzstan at the summit on Christmas Eve. [Source: Associated Press, December 20, 2007]

“Why is a predominantly Muslim and former Soviet land honoring the jolly old elf? "We want to develop tourism, and Santa Claus is an ideal brand to help us do this," said Nurhon Tadzhibayeva, an official with Kyrgyz tourist authorities. Plans are afoot to hold an international Santa Claus congress in Kyrgyzstan in the summer, Tadzhibayeva said. The country also intends to hold annual games in which Santas from all over the world will test their chimney-climbing, sled-racing and tree-decorating skills. Other Kyrgyzstan peaks bear the names of Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Foreign Policy magazine reported, “ASwedish consulting firm had calculated that Santa Claus should begin his worldwide toy-delivery journey in the mountains of northern Kyrgyzstan—at latitude (N) 40.40̊, longitude (E) 74.24̊, to be exact—to maximize efficiency of distribution and minimize strain on his reindeer. Authorities in Kyrgyzstan have become quite excited by the prospect that Father Christmas might be relocating from the North Pole (now claimed by the Russians anyway) to their Central Asia country. They’re apparently so excited that they’ve decided to name one of their many unnamed peaks “Mount Santa Claus.” [Source: P.J. Aroon, Foreign Policy, December 21, 2007]

Kokshaal-Too Range

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: The Kokshaal-Too (“Forbidden Range”) is located on Kyrgyzstan’s Chinese border. It was a closed military region until the late 1990s, when the first Western expeditions visited the region. The Soviets had climbed the highest peaks, Dankova (5,982 meters) and Kizil Asker (5,842 meters), but the region as a whole had not been well explored by climbers. This will remain a region of unclimbed pearls for some years to come. In 1997 several Americans, Britons, and a German climbed new peaks, including Lyev, Unmarked Soldier, Jerry Garcia, Pik 52 Years, and others. More Americans and Canadians returned in 1998 to climb Babouchka (Butterfly) and Ecstasy, among others. At the same time a British guide brought groups of clients to claim the unclimbed points in the Dankova group to the east. [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

“Arriving by vehicle entails a two-day drive from Bishkek. Although the region is a military zone, the border guards are now accustomed to climbers and no difficulties should occur if the paperwork is in order. A final 10 kilometers of off-road travel over wet grass and rocky riverbeds takes you to the tip of Komorova Glacier, where a base camp can be established. There are no services available here; the local population was long ago removed by the Soviets as a way to sanitize the border. As the popularity of the region increases, local tourist companies will no doubt set up makeshift tent camps that provide basic services such as radio communication and meals—but for now be prepared to bring all of your own supplies. <>

“Kizil (or Kyzyl) Asker (5,842 meters) and its surrounding peaks offer the best new-route potential. One waiting challenge is the main couloir on the southeast face of Kizil Asker, where the wall rises 1,300 meters above the glacier. To reach this obstacle, approach via the Komorova Glacier, climb over the 4,700-meter “window col” just east of Unmarked Soldier, and then proceed down into Chinese Sinkiang. This wall was attempted alpine style by a Scottish team led by Edmond Tresidder in 2002. After ascending 500 meters on steep ice, their attempt was aborted due to thawing conditions. On the Kyrgyzstan side, the northwest face was climbed in 1985 by a Kazak team led by Kasbek Valiev. The north ridge of Kizel Asker, accessible from the Kyrgyzstan side, has a dramatic high point of 5,400 meters that has been attempted but remains unclimbed. Much of the new route activity of the last few years has been on the more accessible granite cliffs called Ochre Wall, where in 2002 a Canadian team put up the 600-meter mixed route Beef Cake (IV M5 WI4), while a Spanish team put up the rock route Ak Saitan (“White Devil”— 600m, 6a+ A3+) on the wall’s main pillar. This wall has several obvious lines waiting to be climbed. <>

“Unfortunately, there seems to be no good season to go to Kokshall Too.Most expeditions come back with tales of tentbound days waiting for good weather.Mandatory expedition gear includes board games and playing cards. The best weather-window seems to be from the end of August to the middle of September. Ideally, arrive in mid-August and stay as long as possible. The access road closes in October.” <>

Pamirs

Pamirs is a 800-kilometer-long range made up of very high rounded mountains between 5,000 and 7,000 meters high that stretch across eastern Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan into western China. Known as “The Roof of the World,” "The Foot of the Gods," and "Midpoint between Heaven and Earth," they occupy one of the least explored and most sparsely populated regions of the world. The Pamirs offer some of the most spectacular Alpine scenery in the world but is difficult to get to.

Pamir means "pasture." In some ways the Pamirs are better described as a high plateau with mountains than a mountain range. There are many flat, broad, treeless valleys that are as high as the low mountains and filled with grass. Winding through the valleys are meandering, sometimes swampy rivers, and occasionally an Alpine lake. Between the peaks are large glaciers, including 72-kilometer-long Fedchenko glacier, the longest glacier in the former Soviet Union.

The Pamirs embrace three of the four highest mountains in the former Soviet Union: 7495-meter-high Pik Kommunizma, the highest mountain in the former Soviet Union and Central Asia; 7134-meter-high Pik Lenina, the third highest mountain in the former Soviet Union; and 7105-meter-high Pik Korzhenevskaya, the forth highest. Other landmarks mountains include Revolution Peak and Academy of Sciences Range.

The mountains around Pik Kommunizma are called the Pamir Knot. Geologists regard it as a hub, from which the Himalayas, Karokorum, Hindu Kush, Tien Shan and Kulun mountains branch out. All of these young mountains have been produced by the collision of the Indian subcontinent into the Asian land mass during the past 50 million years.

There are several high pass through the Pamirs, one of which was use dby Marco Polo in 1271. Wildlife in the Pamirs incline Marco Polo sheep and snow leopards. Some yeti stories originated from here. Herders keep sheep, goats and yaks. The winters are long and harsh and the summers are cool. The Mountain-Badakhshan District in the heart of the Pamirs recives only 12.7 centimeters of precipitation a year. The amounts of precipitation decreases as one climbs in elevation not increases as is the case with most mountain ranges in the world.

Pamir Allay is a 500-kilometer-long mountain range that runs across the southern Kyrgyzstan border and extends all the way from Samarkand in Uzbekistan to Xinjiang in western China. The 60-kilometer-long Allay Valley is regard as the center of hiking in the Pamirs in Kyrgyzstan. It is the access point for: Pik Kommunizma, Lenin Peak and Pik Korzhenevskaya. 1) Pik Kommunizma (in Tajikistan south of the Kyrgyzstan border) is the highest mountain in the Pamirs and the former Soviet Union. At 7,495 meters (24,590 feet) high, it is regarded as relatively easy for experienced mountaineers to climb. Lenin Peak (border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) is 7,134 meters (23,405 feet) high and is regarded as relatively easy for experienced mountaineers to climb. 3) Pik Korzhenevskaya (in Tajikistan south of the Kyrgyzstan border) is 7,105 meters (23,310 feet) high and is also considered relatively easy for experienced mountaineers to climb.

Lenin Peak (border of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) is 7,134 meters (23,405 feet) high. It is the forth highest mountain in the former Soviet Union and is relatively easy for experienced mountaineers to climb. The snow-covered ridges and slopes are not technically demanding. There are serious dangers from weather and avalanches though. The world's worst mountaineering accident claimed 43 climbers in July 1990, when a small earthquake triggered an avalanche that the buried the climber's camp on Lenin peak. In 1974, eight of the Soviet Union’s best women climbers died while ascending the peak.

The main road to the regions is the A372, which runs between Osh, start Tash, near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border, and the Gorno-Badakhshan region on Tajikistan Unrest has closed down much of the area. Even in the best of times it is a restricted area and requires special permits to visit that are best arranged through travel agencies.

Mountain Climbing in the Kyrgyzstan Pamirs

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: “Along the shared borders of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and China lies the Pamir-Alai Range. While this area does not offer much in the way of technical routes, it provides a great area for hiking and mountaineering in remote ranges that see little traffic. The highest peak in the region is Pik Achiktash, a popular destination point for climbers desiring to hike into altitude without technical challenges. [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

Base camp below Achiktash (3,500m) is a day’s drive from the southern city of Osh. It is possible to drive directly to a grassy meadow at the base of the peak. Several companies set up base camps each season and provide services such as meals and tent lodging.

Pik Achiktash’s calling card is the non-technical walk into high altitude. From base camp it is a straightforward climb to the summit, with four high camps usual. The most difficult components of this climb are the altitude and strong winds. In this same region are the Zaalayskiy and Khurumdy ranges, both of which offer solitude and virgin peaks. The season begins in early July and goes through the end of August.

Karavshin

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: Near the tangled borders of southern Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan lies a field of soaring granite towers in the Karavshin Valley. The Soviet climber Vitaly Abalakov visited the area in 1936 with geologists, looking for tin and other metals. To this day the remains of the mining camps can be seen along the approaches. After Abalakov’s attempt on Pik Pirimidalny (or Piramida—5,509 meters), the highest peak in the region, the area remained untouched until the 1980s, when the Soviets used the region as a venue for their alpine championships. In the 1990s the area gained international fame as the place for new routes on accessible 1,000-meter granite walls. Thirty kilometers west is the Lyailak Valley,with yet another collection of granite faces, including Ak Suu, whose 1,600-meter north face has 16 routes. [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

“The upper Karavshin Valley is divided into two side valleys, the Ak Suu (“White Water”) to the east and the Kara-Su (“Black Water”) to the west. The ridge between the two valleys contains many of the region’s rock towers. In the Ak Suu Valley rise the granite walls of Pik Slesova (“Russian Tower”—4,240m). Here is located Perestroika Crack, a 25-pitch line first climbed by a French party in 1991. In 1993 other French climbers freed the route (7b) in a day, one of the climbs that earned the group a Piolet d’Or prize. At the end of the valley is Pik Ptica (“Bird”—4,710m), with a dramatic 700-meter central pillar. To the right is the massive 1,200- meter northwest face of Pik 4,810. This face was unclimbed until 1988 when four aid routes were created in one competition. In 1995 American climbers freed an aid line for the first free ascent of the wall. <>

“In the Kara-Suu valley are peaks Asan-Usen (4230m), 1000 years of Russian Christianity (4,507m) and the northwest face of Pik 4810 (4,810m). The valley is closed by the 1,000- meter ice-laced north face of Pik Pirimidalny (5,509m), and to the west the fated Yellow Wall. The Yellow Wall (5.9 A0) has one of the few easy routes in the region: a diagonal slash that gives a truly awful climb with a wet start, off-width cracks, and a long exit. But the views of the region are worth the suffering. To the left of this route is where the four Americans were shot at and kidnapped in 2000 while putting up a new direct line. <>

Getting to the Karavshin can be as great a challenge as the actual climbs. Expeditions usually start from Osh, but once out of Osh do not expect to purchase further supplies. From Osh it is a minimum 10-hour drive to Vorukh, the last village before the start of the trail along the Karavshin River. At the trailhead is a small military fort, and past this it’s a long one-day hike—17 kilometers— to the rock walls of the Karavshin. Several travel companies have plans to establish tent camps in the grassy valleys at the base of the walls, with radio connection and food available. Climbing in the Karavshin can start in mid-June when the seasonal rain finishes and continue through the end of October, when cold weather sets in.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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