KHAN TENGRI MOUNTAIN CLIMBING IN THE KYRGYZ TIEN SHAN

TIEN SHAN MOUNTAINS

The Tien Shan is a formidable mountain range in Central Asia and one of the great mountain ranges of the world. Extending for 3000 kilometers in a northeast-southwest direction along the border between China and Central Asia from the Altai area — where where Mongolia, Russia and China all come together — to the Pamir Range in the Tajikstan and southwest China. The highest point is 24,406-foot-high Pobeda Peak in Kyrgyzstan.

The Tien Shan are lovely mountains with some of Central Asia and China's most beautiful scenery: towering cliffs, massive glaciers, snow-capped peaks, mountain streams, sweet-smelling spruce forests, boulder-strewn gullies and deep gorges. The name "Tien Shan" means "celestial mountains" in Chinese.

The Tien Shan stretch for 1,600-kilometer from southwest Kyrgyzstan to northwest China and form the border between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and western China. The Tien Shan are not as high as the Himalayas but they are almost as high. The peaks are between 4,000 and 7,000 meters high and are covered by snow and ice. Some mountains resemble peaks in the Alps. The Tien Shan contains the most northerly mountain above 7,000 meters, which means that there are huge glaciers and these glaciers extend to a lower elevation than on mountains further south.

Between the mountains are canyons and valleys filed with dense evergreen forests, meadows covered by are wild flowers and colorful birds, and lush summer pastures known in Kyrgyz as jailao, where nomadic horsemen tend flocks of sheep, live in yurts, hunt with eagles, and drink fermented mare's milk.

The Tien Shan are part of the great mountain group that includes the Himalayas, Karakoram, Hindu Kush and Kulun mountains. All of these young mountains have been produced by the collision of the Indian subcontinent into the Asian land massm which began about 50 million years ago. The Tien Shan are rising at a rate of about 10 millimeters a year. By some reckonings the Tien Shan is a spur of the Pamirs. Both the Tien Shan and Pamirs are connected with the Karokorum, Himalayas and Hindu Kush mountains.

The Tien Shan were first described by the 7th century Chinese explorer Xuan Zang who spent seven days crossing a snowbound pass, where half of the 14 people in his party froze to death. The first European to extensively explore the central Tien Shan was the Russian explorer Pyotr Semyonov who traveled extensively in the region in 1856.

Ibex, Marco Polo sheep and snow leopard roam in the mountains. Other wild life found in the Tien Shan and the Lake Issyk-Kul area include wild boar, marmots, ibis, manul, Himalayan, snowcock, wild geese, pheasants, partridges and wild turkeys. Some guest houses serve ibex meat.

Mountain Climbing in the Tien Shan

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: There is tremendous potential for new routes in the Tien San. A large collection of 5,000-meter and 6,000-meter peaks rarely see ascents, and those only by the most obvious line. Neglected peaks include the Peak of Military Topographers, Chapaeva, and Gorkova, to name just a few. These peaks can be reached from the same base camps used for climbs on Khan Tengri and Pobedy. Peaks in the nearby Kaindy region require a longer approach and involve special travel arrangements. [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

According to Summit Post: No permits are currently required in climbing in Kyrgyzstan (the government abolished them a couple of years ago). Anyone who wants to visit the border areas of the Central Tien Shan however requiers a Propusk (this Russian term translates to Military Border Permit). The Propusk is available through Khirgiz travel agencies and will cost about 30 Euros. The border permit requires your passport number and there is usually a soldier-type person checking this piece of paper at the camps so don't leave without it and keep it in a safe place. [Source: Big Lee, summitpost.org, April 2001 ><]

The climbing season on the high peaks is very short, lasting only about six weeks from mid-July to the end of August. For climbs below 6,000 meters, September provides stable weather and easier river crossings. Outside this period conditions on the mountain are often severe. Due to Khan Tengri being the most northerly 7000m peak it receives little shelter from northerly winds and hurricanes are not uncommon. The Inylchek weather station has several times in history recorded the lowest temperatures on earth during the Northern winter meaning a winter ascent is only for masochists. Some consider an ascent of Khan Tengri or Pobeda on par with an 8000m peak in terms of conditions indicating severity. A winter ascent has been proved not to be impossible though and a Kazakh expedition managed to summit during the winter of 2002/2003. ><

Inylchek Glacier Area

Inylchek Glacier is an immense 60-kilometer-long glacier that flows out of both sides of Khan Tengri and embraces a ridge of sawtooth mountains and tributary glaciers. Garth Willis of the alpinefund.org wrote: The Enylchek (or Inycheck) Glacier is one of the world’s largest glaciers; its south fork extends 62 kilometers. The north fork, lying in Kazakhstan, leads to the base camps for the northern approach to Khan Tengri.Near the head of the south fork, two peaks, Khan Tengri (“Lord of the Spirits”—about 7,000 meters) and Pik Pobedy (“Victory”—7,439 meters) receive almost all of the climbing traffic. [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

Marzbacher Lake (on the northern arm of Inylcheck Glacier) is a spectacular iceberg filled lake that forms at 3,300 meters during the summer. Water in the lower end of the lake leaves the lakes once or twice a year, usually in early August, and explodes into the Inylchek River by escaping through subglacial tunnels or breaking through the top of the glacier. The lake sits between two glaciers. When it empties it leaves behind huge boulders of ice. The upper portions, protected by an ice wall, always remains full.

Trek to Inylcheck Glacier (45 miles east of Karakol) begins in the village of Jyrgalang and requires about five days to reach Inylcheck Glacier. Trekkers cross a 2800-meter-high pass, a 3648-meter-high pass, a 3723-meter-high pass before reaching 4001-meter-high Tuz pass, where there are stunning views of Inylcheck Glacier and Khan Tengri. From Tuz pass you descend to Chong-Tash at the end of glacier. To advance further you need mountaineering skill and guides. Destinations include Marzbacher lLke, the various base camps, the Zvozdochka glacier at the foot of Pik Pobedy. With crampons trekkers can climb 4832-meter-high Mt. Diky and 4901-meter-high Pesni Abaji. The trek is shortened if you start from Kensu Yak Farm. There is also a four hour, 100 mile all-weather road from Karakol to the snout of Inycheck Glacier that passes through the mining town of Inychenk.

According to Willis: “Getting to Enylchek from Bishkek requires a two-day drive via the city of Kara Kol to Maida-Adyr. From there it is a 30-minute helicopter flight above the South Enylchek Glacier to the base camps at 4,100 meters. There are several sites, and various companies establish their base camps all within a few hours’ walk from one other.An alternative to the helicopter is a four-day walk up the glacier. Some groups put their supplies on the helicopter and choose to walk as a way to save money and acclimatize. Prices vary, but a one-way helicopter trip with gear cost about $150 in 2004. Base camps are located on the glacier moraine between the summits of Khan Tengri and Pobedy. Several companies share services here, including e-mail, a sauna, meals, and porter service. Most companies provide food at the camps, while climbers are responsible for high altitude provisions. This is one of the world’s best bargains for a 7,000-meter peak. Full-service expeditions, Bishkek to Bishkek, cost just over $1200 in 2004.

Khan Tengri

Khan Tengri (border of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan) is 7,010 meters (22,998 feet) high and has an impressive sheer, rock face. The fifth highest mountain in the former Soviet Union, it attracts climbers from all over the world. Khan-Tengri means “Prince of Spirits.” Locals call it “Blood mountain” because of the color of the rock face in the setting sun.. It is a challenge for experienced mountaineers.

It has been a matter of honor for experienced climbers in the former Soviet Union to summit Khan Tengri. It was first officially climbed by a Ukrainian in 1931 and has long been popular with climbers from the countries of the former communist bloc. Climbers periodically die in falls and avalanches. The mountain was first described by the Austrian explorer Gottfried Merzbacher in 1902. A Kazakh team estimated the height at 7,010 meters (23,133 feet) high. These figures are not widely accepted. Some sources say the mountain is 6,995 meters (23,083 feet) high. See Below

Khan Tengri is the most northerly mountain above 7,000 meters, which means that its glaciers are huge and extend to a lower elevation than on mountains further south. Most climbers are brought in by helicopter and stay at the base camp on the edge of Inylcheck Glacier, which is used by climbers tackling Khan Tengri and Pik Pobedy. The 2200-meter-high base camp contains yurts and a sauna for climbers.

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: “For sheer, elegant beauty the summit of Khan Tengri may have no peer in the world. Alpenglow on the southwest wall radiates red in the evening, and the pointed summit seems to burn a hole in the sky. First climbed by a Soviet team in 1931, there are now 18 established routes.

Summit Post Description of Khan Tengri

According to Summit Post:“Khan Tengri is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful peaks in the world. Shaped like a kids drawing of a mountain its summit and sharp ridges form an almost perfect pyramid covered in snow and ice. Anatoli Boukreev considered Khan Tengri perhaps the world's most beautiful peak because of its geometric ridges and its symmetry. During sunset the main summit often glows deep red due to the mountain consisting largely of marble rock. The Kazakh name Kan Tau means "Blood Mountain" in relation to this phenomina. [Source: Big Lee, summitpost.org, April 2001 ><]

“Khan Tengri's name means "Lord of the Spirits" or "Lord of the Skies" in the Uighur and "Ruler of the Skies" in Turkic as the mountain was worshipped as a god in in the indigenous shamanistic culture. As with many peaks in this part of the world it also has a number of alternative lesser used names: Khan Tangiri Shyngy, Kan-Too Chokusu, Pik Khan-Tengry, Hantengri Feng. ><

“The mountain is located on the Kyrgyz-Kazah border and seven kilometers west of the China border in the remote heart of the Central Tien Shan. Khan Tengri forms the highest point on the Tengri Tag sub-range that lies between the Northern and Southern Inylchek (or Engilchek) Glaciers. The latter is the third largest glacier outside the polor regions after the Siachen Glacier in the Indian-Pakistani border region and the Fedchenko Glacier in the Tajik Pamir. ><

“Khan Tengri is the second highest mountain in the Tien Shan Range after Pobeda (7439m), located a short distance south on the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. It is the fifth highest in the former Soviet Union. As a peak (possibly) over 7000m it is one of the five Snow Leopard Peaks of the former Soviet Union. Whether the peak is actually over 7000m is a controversial subject. It's geographical elevation is 6995m but the glacial cap rises to 7010m. You decide! ><

“Khan Tengri is generally considered to be the third hardest Snow Leopard mountain after Pobeda and Pik Kommunizma. Being the most northerly 7000m peak in the world it can be subject to treacherous whether making it a potentially dangerous place to be under-equipped and ill-experienced. The northern latitude also makes the climbing season very short (mid-July to end of August). Khan Tengri is a popular mountain to climb but still receives relatively few climbers compared to Pik Lenin. Most who attempt the mountain belong to the former Soviet block (as the Summit Log testifies) and visiters from outside this area are still few in number. ><

Exploration of Khan Tengri

According to Summit Post: The first European to penetrate the range was Piotr Seminov, already a member of the Russian Geographic Society aged only twenty-two. In 1856 he made his first expedition to the Lake Issyk Kul region. The following summer Seminov, at the head of an army of 1500, crossed the Santas Pass and proceeded east towards the Chinese frontier arriving in the highest area in the enire range. Here he counted at least thirty high mountains, the highest which he believed to be Khan Tengri. Others later visited the region, among them famed explorers like Swedish Sven Heding, Italian Cesare Borghese, accompanied by Swiss mountain guide Mattias Zurbriggen, and a whole set of Russian explorers. [Source: Big Lee, summitpost.org, April 2001 ><]

“Gottfried Merzbacher of Germany, who was a keen scientist one of the most skilled mountaineers of his time, visited the area in 1902 with the objective of trying to climb the peak. He was joined by climbers Hans Pfann and Hans Keidel and mountain guide Fransesco Kostener. Together they tried to approach the peak via the South Inylchek glacier, but were severly setback by the yearly dam break of the Glacial Lake at the head of the North Inylchek Glacier (subsequently known as Merzbacher Lake) that flooded the region. Merzbacher continued on his own and reached the foot of Khan Tengri. His conclusion however was that the peak was 'unclimable' and left it with the message to the world, "The Tien Shan is just no place for mountain climbing". ><

“Aided by improved climbing techniques and materials in the Soviet Union they developed quite some other thoughts about this. In the late twenties they started mounting expeditions with the goal of climbing the peak, but were first confronted with sever logistical problems of getting enough provisions up to the head of 65 kilometer long Inylchek glacier as it is almost impossible for pack animals to go there. Hacking steps in the ice for their horses, a party under Ukranian mountaineer Progrebitskiy surmounted all the problems in 1931 and succeeded in climbing the peak by what now has become the classical route. ><

“It was in the early years of the Soviet Union that again Khan Tengri got serious attention from mountaineers and in 1931 a party of the Ukranian alpinist M. Progrebetskiy finally scaled the summit via what is today the classical southern route. Two years later a Swiss climber and his Russian guide repeated the feat. For some time these first two ascents were doubted by mainly German researchers but nowadays it is generally accepted that they were genuine. It took 33 years before another route was opened, in 1964 by Russian climbers Romanov and Kuzmin on the North wall. Not surprising as routes other than the classical one are of very serious nature. ><

Khan Tengri Climbing Routes

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote:“ First climbed by a Soviet team in 1931, there are now 18 established routes. The route called Classic (5b) is climbed by almost all commercial expeditions from the south and is a popular objective for high-altitude climbers with modest experience. The lower section climbs the heavily crevassed Semenovsky Glacier to a 6,000-meter saddle. This section is exposed to substantial avalanche hazard. The summit is a one-day push from the saddle and negotiates a myriad of notoriously tattered fixed lines. The late Alex Lowe climbed this route in 1993, base camp to summit and back in a record time of 10 hours and 8 minutes. The speed race is now held from the north side, in Kazakhstan, where in 2003 another American, Chad Kellogg, climbed from the ca 4,000-meter base camp to the finishing line around 200 meters below the summit in a little over five hours. This route starts at the same altitude as the south side and joins Classic at the saddle. The most technically difficult routes lie on the 2,000-meter north face and are accessed by helicopter from Kazakhstan.[Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

According to Summit Post: “In the Soviet Union mountaineering was considered serious business and it was very popular. Many of the documented routes in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan 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 and a large number of very difficult routes on Khan Tengri. For a mountain of this size and remoteness there are a large number of opened routes compared with mountains of other ranges. [Source: Big Lee, summitpost.org, April 2001 ><]

“Possibly the most outrageous route of ascent was in 1990 by a Soviet team from Kazakhstan. They reached Khan Tengri’s summit in 14 days via a long traverse that began from Pik Vazho Pshavela (6918m) and included Pik Pobeda (7439m), Pik Sovetskoy Armenii (6900m), Pik Pobeda East (7030m), Pik Topografov (6873m), Pik Druzhby (6800m), Shatyor (6700m). This is undoubtedly one of the most impressive high altitude traverses of all time. ><

“The standard west ridge can be approached from the north (Kazakhstan) or south (Kyrgyzstan). The southern approach is technically easier but objectively more dangerous with fatalities in 1991, 1993 and 2004. The North Face is 3000m high and direct routes are very hard and unclimbed by anyone from outside the former Soviet block. The classic route from the north does not tackle the north face directly and makes for a col to the west from where the west ridge can be gained. ><

Getting to Khan Tengri

According to Summit Post: “Two logical starting points present itself for expedition into the Central Tien Shan and Khan Tengri. The first one is Almaty, Kazakhstan, which can be reached by many international flights and has good hotel accomodation and so on. For climbs on the Northern routes of Khan Tengri it is preferable to start from Almaty. Bishkek the capitol of Kyrghyzstan however has the better climbing infra structure and many capable agencies have their offices here. Bishkek can also be reached by a few international flights, mainly coming from Frankfurt, Moscow or Urumqi. There is also a short connecting flight from Almaty to Bishkek, but flying into Almaty, with most airplane companies you are entitled a free seat on the shuttle bus to Bishkek. In both towns helicopter transport into the Tien Shan is available. [Source: Big Lee, summitpost.org, April 2001 ><]

“The southern and northern base camps can be reached by helicopter from Karkara (2200m) in the foothills of the Tien Shan a day's drive from Almaty or Bishkek. It's located just across the Kazakh border but if you are approaching from Bishkek for the Southern BC then you don't need a Kazakh visa if you are with a company (such as Aksai for example). Karkara is very well equipped with Restaurant, Hotel, Sauna, Tents for hire and so on. Helicopter flights usually run from around the second week in July to the end of August. Trekking to the southern base camp is possible in about three days however it would be advisable to have supplies for the climb flown to base camp.” ><

Camps at Khan Tengri

According to Summit Post: “Three commercial base camps are situated at the confluence of Sviozdochka with South Inylchek Glaciers serving climbers to Khan Tengri, Pobeda and any other peaks in the area. Besides large tents being available food is also prepared and of course vodka and beer is readily available! Possibly the best thing about these camps are the saunas. To say that it is slightly surreal to be stark naked at 4000m in the middle of one of the largest glaciers outside the polar regions with minus temperatures outside (sometimes snowing) while you are sweating you b*****s off in a sauna is an under statement! [Source: Big Lee, summitpost.org, April 2001 ><]

“It is perfectly fine to independently camp in the vicinity of the mountain if you can resist the lures of the commercial camps. A short glacier crossing from base camp there is a convenient camp spot at the foot of the normal route at 4100 meter. The Frequently used spots for camps on the climbing of the normal route are found at 5200, 5900, 6400 and 6700 meter altitude. ><

“The best bet is to buy a package that generally includes the following: 1) Airport transfer and accommodation in either Bishkek or Almaty; 2) Transfer to and from Kakara; 3) Tent accommodation (with mattress) and food at Kakara; 4) Helicopter flights to and from base camp; 5) Tent accommodation (with mattress), three meals and drink in a mess tent, and sauna at base camp; 6) Border permit. The alternative is to just take the helicopter and bring all your own tent and food.” ><

Pik Pobedy

Pik Pobedy (border of Kyrgyzstan and China) is 7,436 meters (24,406 feet) high and regarded as a serious challenge for experienced mountaineers. Situated across Inylchek Glacier from Khan Tengri and also known as Jengish Chokusu, it is the second highest peak in the former Soviet Union and is one of the most northerly mountains above 7,000 meters, which means that its glaciers are huge and extend to a lower elevation than on mountains further south.

The nasty weather is what makes it so difficult to climb. The climbing season is short and often disrupted by frequent, powerful storms. There are avalanches almost everyday. The most dangerous slopes are between 16,000 and 19,000 feet. This is where avalanches often strike.

Pik Pobedy means Victory Peak. It was so named in 1946 to commemorate the victory of the Soviet Union in World War II. The summit wasn’t reached until 1956. As of 1986, 180 climbers had reached the summit and 45 climbers had died trying. Eleven died in a blizzard in 1955. Even when the weather is good climbers die. This was the case in 1984 when six climbers died.

Climbers are generally brought in by helicopter to the camp on the Inylchek Glacier beneath Pik Pobedy. Once on the main slopes climbers move through waist deep snow and have to periodically dig test pits in the snow to gauge the dangers of avalanches. Near the summit climbers occasionally see the frozen bodies of climber who didn’t make it down.

Garth Willis of alpinefund.org wrote: Pik Pobedy, on the west side of Enylchek Glacier, is a monstrous peak that often goes several seasons without a successful climb. The mountain has the distinction of being the undisputed northernmost 7,000-meter peak in the world. It is a forbidding mountain, and countless Soviet climbers have lost their lives on its long, exposed ridges. The classic route on Pobedy is not as aesthetically pleasing as the route on Khan Tengri. It begins well to the east of the summit, then traverses at 7,000 meters along the eastern ridge; a final camp is set at 7,100 meters before one reaches the actual summit. [Source: Garth Willis, alpinefund.org, July 2004 <>]

“Many parties are turned back by high winds. An alternative is the original Abalakov route, which takes a direct line from the glacier at 4,100 meters.Vitaly Abalakov, the “Father of Soviet Mountaineering,” made the first ascent of this peak in 1943 by this route. Due to ice fall and avalanches, few parties now attempt this route. In 2003 a Russian team put up a new route on the north face of the east ridge.” <>

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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