Gone Skiing to Kyrgyzstan
Passing through the moraine to the upper part of the valley, Ak-Sai glacier in the background
Michał on one of the descents
Kuba during one of the descents
Approach to the Pik Korona summit
Exploration of the upper part of the valley
Szymon during one of the descents
Michał is exploring the area on horseback
The whole team at the "Hotel Korona"
FOR MOUNTAINEERING AFICIONADOS
Tian Shan is a massive mountain range located in the southeastern part of Kyrgyzstan. Its highest peak - Jengish Chokusu (or formerly known as Pik Pobedy - Victory Peak) - is 7439 m high. The mountains form a range stretching for over 2500 km and crossing countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and China. Its just one hell of a huge piece of high altitude landscape.
Mountain ranges have one thing in common - for some they are intimidating, for some are inspiring. One thing is sure - everyone who is in some way obsessed with any sort of mountaineering, will be shocked in Kyrgyzstan. There are so many lines that you can hike or climb with your skis or board, that even if you bring all the weekend warriors from the Alps there, they will just disappear in endless valleys and chutes.
That wasn’t my first visit in Kyrgyzstan - few years ago I spent there about two weeks. I went sightseeing a bit, I partied a bit as well… It is hard to imagine, but during this visit I even had some time to relax. Nevertheless, I hardly gained any significant amount of altitude difference - that trip lacked mountain adventures for sure. When I was just about to leave this stunning country, I made a promise that I will be back with my skis and skiing buddies. Time passed, but finally the idea of a trip to Kyrgyzstan was brought to life again. Equipped with negative covid tests, we could finally set off to explore the mighty mountains of Tian Shan!
CLOSE FRIENDS ONLY
Polish ski mountaineers are no strangers to Kyrgyzstan, but their efforts focus on Lenin’s Peak mostly, or as Andrzej Bargiel did, on conquering the Snow Leopard Award by summiting all the highest peaks of former Soviet Union. We decided to take more alternative approach and visit areas that are not widely known for being skiing destinations. The squad was strong - Michał Ślusarczyk, Jakub Hornowski and Marcin Kin (the man behind the lens) and me. We are a group of childhood friends, who had many opportunities to get into troubles together. After a good season in our home mountains Tatras, we decided to make one more trip and finish the season with a bang!
The journey to Kyrgyzstan was scheduled for May and the plan was to divide it into two phases. At first we planned to focus on more serious skiable terrain and after two weeks, when half of the crew had to fly home, Michal and I were about to introduce more relaxed policy. After a quick research we knew where we needed to go - Ala-Archa National Park located in the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountain range. Its highest peak is Semenov-Tian-Shansky Peak (4895 m).
The national park derives its name from junipers, which according to the locals have magic powers of scaring away any bad spirits. The park is located about 40 km from Bishkek, the country capital, so you can easily get there by taxi. Over 200 km2 of wilderness features 50 summits and over 20 glaciers, so it seemed we can find plenty options to choose from. We decided to venture into the eastern spur of the valley lying at the feet of park’s highest peak, the Ak-Sai glacier and alpine shelter of Racek.
POST SOVIET SPOT
The trailhead is located at 2170 m at the national parks entrance gate. Then the path leads to the shelter at the altitude of 3380 m. The building is pretty simple - a stone structure with two large common bedrooms, a social room and a bar serving some basic beverages and food. You could feel that this place is full of stories - and indeed stories did happen there, as for decades these were proving grounds for Soviet mountaineers. The building is surrounded with camping spots, there is also a water spring and some tin boxes dwelled by the most dedicated local climbers. AK-SAI, Kyrgyz mountain agency, also has set up their office there, so whenever you feel tired with carrying your backpack, you can hire local porters to help you.
As the bulk of the glacier is just several hundred meters way, we decided that the shelter becomes our base camp - even though there are basic shelters located even higher, Uchitelskaya Khizhina and Korona Hotel. They offer more spartan accommodation - they are not heated, but have table where you can sit down for a meal or play some cards. Tian Shan mountains have their permanent snow line higher up than the Alps - this meant more struggle with walking over steep terrain with loose rocks trying to get to the glacier.
Within the national park, you can only find few options for mellow glacier excursions that will still require the use of rope, crampons and ice axe. But if you are a seasoned mountaineer aiming for technical alpinism and mixed climbing - you are in good place. In terms of skiing this area was, let’s say, demanding. A skilled ski mountaineer will find demanding lines, but if you are lacking some skills and look for easier/intermediate terrain, than your options are scarce. And then there is the weather - snowfalls are not very common, and even if they occur, the winds take away all the goods immediately transporting it in unknown direction. These mountains seemed a good option for those who love to camp on vertical wall for days, trying to figure out how to climb the damn thing while being constantly hit by winds that will freeze you eyeballs. There are 130 climbing routes described in this area and 80% of these are not for those faint of heart. The question was what the hell were we doing there as a skiers?
So we climbed up the Korona Peak and skied it, we also searched the whole area for technical lines - some of which we succeeded to ski, some made us run away screaming. Nevertheless, the days we spent in Korona Hotel and Racek station were really enjoyable - even though the terrain can satisfy more of classic „ski extreme” connoisseurs. We did not have enough time to explore more of Ala-Archa National Park, but after deep dive into the maps and some interesting talks with the locals, it became clear that there is more skiable terrain - you just need time and willingness to explore them.
JUST LIKE AN EASY RIDER
After two weeks half of our team had to go back home, but that was not the end of our adventures in Kyrgyzstan. Being abandoned by our friends, we hired a Toyota Land Cruiser, filled it with petrol and headed into the unknown. Thing is, that the second part of our trip lacked such good planning as the first. Our tactics were simple - drive the car as high as possible using all of its overlanding capabilities, then switch to man powered means of exploration and search for snow. It was still spring and slushy snow was still to be found and skied. That is how our crusade along the southern banks of the Issyk-kul lake started. We tried to explore the Suusamyr Valley, but before we even got there, we scored some turns around the tunnel on M41 road - after spotting a nice couloir that led nearly to the 3586 m high summit, we just could not resist. It turned out that our car-accessed skiing policy was working! The mighty Toyota became our home as well, as it featured more than enough room to sleep two of us.
The other side of Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountains was seriously lacking snow, so it was clear that the area we opted for, Suusamyr Valley, is not going to be any close to skier’s Shangri La. After getting the Toyota stuck and digging it out for hours, we were finally ready to see more of Kyrgyzstan and explore one more area, that looked really interesting - at least on the maps.
A YURT WITH A SAUNA
The terrain surrounding the notorious Kumtor gold mine looked really promising. This mine, located at the altitude of 4000m and being 590 m deep, surely hides some secrets. Between 15 and 23 tones of pure gold are mined here every year, so as you probably expect, some of these secrets are quite dirty ones - not mentioning the environmental impact the mine has.
Luckily, we did not come all the way to Kyrgyzstan to save the world, so we could just use the miners’ road to reach skiable terrain - and oh boy, skiable it was! The road leads to a plateau located at an elevation of around 4000 m. From the south the plateau is bordered with a mountain range featuring small glaciers and valleys. It turned out that local skiers have their camp set up at the feet of one of the valleys. The camp consists of yurts, supplies are brought with skidoos or ATVs, and these are also are utilized as a motorized means of transport to get to the skiing goods deep in the valleys. As the camp operators know the terrain as the back of their hand, they also do some guided skitouring excursions. The host was super friendly and was recommended to us by a guide from Kazakhstan, so we knew that we couldn’t be any more lucky. Especially, when it turned out that yurts are equipped with saunas!
Every day we ventured out of the camp we got absolutely intimidated with the scale of the terrain and astonished with endless possibilities. Our host talked us into checking out also second base camp he runs, in the area of the city of Karakol (formerly known as Przhevalsk) lying at the south-eastern corner of the Issyk-kul lake. It turned out that Jyrgalan Valley is stacked with ski lines - and if you are not into touring that much, you can use a snowcat that will drive you to the goods or hop on a skidoo. There is a yurt camp as well, which we unfortunately did not use as the snow conditions were far from satisfying. But that did not stop us from checking out the area - we could still ride horses which are more than a good way to see what these mountains have to offer.
Spending nearly one month in Kirgistan taught me one thing - if you are an ambitious skier who searches for adventure, the potential in this country is absolutely infinite. Mix it with local culture and great kindness of the locals, and you will receive a full bodied journey, that not only will not ruin you financially, but also will make you want to come back as soon as possible! So, as our local friend Alexey says - „Uwidimsja na lyżach!” (See you on skis!).
Equipment used on the trip:
Majesty Supernova Carbon
Majesty R12 bindings
Majesty mountain sunglasses
Freeride Academy: Szymon Styrczula-Maśniak, Michał Ślusarczyk i Jakub Hornowski
Article was published in GÓRY magazine (5/2021) and Bergstolz magazine (no.102).