March 19, 2013

Trip Report - Kyrgyzstan and China Fall 2012

Finally - A post sharing about our trip to the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and China. The reason I haven't shared before now was that I, we, have such overwhelming ambivalence about having to retreat from Kizil Asker. Thank you all so much for your patience.

Ryan Johnson and I met for he first time face to face in Juneau, March 2012, where we climbed some cool ice lines (link) and got weathered away from a potential attempt on a new line on one of the Mendenhall Towers. From the first moment I met Ryan, it felt like I had found a long lost brother; For a guy with no brothers, this felt like a big deal.

By September 2012, Ryan I were on our way to Kyrgyzstan. We met in LA psyched for travel to new places and to do some alpine climbing. The trip got off to a rough start with a missed flight and a variety of interesting 'SNAFUs' resulting in us arriving in Bishkek a day late and a couple bags short after an overnight in Instanbul. When Ryan's feces gushed out of the plumbing in the wall during breakfast at our B+B, we started to worry that our trip was cursed. Ryan's post (link) on this section of our trip is way funnier and more informative than mine. All photos credit Johnson & Johnson (Ryan Johnson or Samuel Johnson - brothers from another mother) minus the last photo of unknown origin.

The Osh Bazaar in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

Once we were in Bishkek we got down to shopping for food and working on logistics with our local contacts ITMC (link). The next morning our missing bag arrived and we were quickly on our way. In the last town with internet, I did my typical thing and turned an important comprehensive examination paper in via internet to be placed in my PhD program's comprehensive clinical examination portfolio by my fellow student Valerie Hewell. Thanks Valerie, I woulda been screwed without your collaboration (passed the comp after I returned following a quick revision)! Once that fateful email was sent, it was on to the business of the trip - trying to go climbing.  

Helping Sasha, ITMC's driver, do a little maintenance on the UAZ (link) before heading south to tackle the infamous bogs of the Kokshall Too.  

Approaching the Kokshall Too from the North.

Alas, the bogs attacked and we worked for almost 24 hours to get the UAZ through to the toe of the Kormorova Glacier. 

Altitide sickness? How about a nice recon hike to get the oxygen pumping...

In process art piece providing an overview of the Western Kokshall Too. Its almost done, keep your eyes peeled! If you're at all interested, check out - thanks for looking!

We got off route on our approach to our acclimatization objective on the Ochre Walls in the dark. The mighty manspoon, sirs and ladies, was our only saving grace as we had our first of several open bivies on the trip. 

The following day, things went a little better and we sent our line which consisted of 600m of awesome climbing with some moderately runout thin ice cruxes. We called our line Mr. Casual (IV AI5) as it felt casual compared to our main objective on the South face of Kizil Asker. Above, I am leading a fine pitch on Mr. Casual.

The Ochre Walls with route lines indicated.

Myself following not so casual 'extra thin' vertical ice on another pitch of Mr. Casual.

On top of the Ochre Walls.

After sending our warm up line on the Ochre Walls, it was time to turn our attention to the main attraction of our trip, an oft attempted 1400m mixed line on the South face of Kizil Asker on the Chinese side of the border. Unfortunately, 3m of new snow and what added up to about 2 weeks of bad weather changed our plans and we spent days of wasted effort struggling through knee to crotch deep snow with heavy packs. Here we are making our way toward the high pass between Kyrgyzstan and China. 

The line, front and center, consisting of snow, steep ice, and mixed climbing in a big wall setting. The only routes thus far on this face have been Russian and Belorussian big wall routes completed via relatively equipment, resource, and personnel heavy approaches. A couple handfuls of parties have gone to the Kokshall Too to attempt this particular 'line of interest.'

Myself launching into the start of the steeper climbing at around 5000m.

In the evening we were proud of ourselves for completing 900m of engaging climbing to the base of the upper mixed systems. We fed, watered, congratulated ourselves and harbored glorious thoughts of steep frontpointing, torqueing, and finding ourselves on the summit in the next 24-48 hours...if only the weather would hold. This shot is of me at our bivi during a short lull in a hideous storm that continually buried us for almost 24 hours until we were able to escape, rappelling through sometimes life threatening avalanches. 

For a couple months after we returned, I found myself inexplicably worried about asphyxiation as a result of the hundreds of burials we experienced at this bivi.

Due to the strength of our partnership, and all the effort we had expended making our way through deep snow to the Chinese side of the mountain, deciding to bail was the most difficult decision either Ryan or myself have ever made in the mountains. Even so, we knew it was suicide to remain on the wall with the amount of snow accumulation that had occurred in the past 24 hours. 

Constant spindrift interspersed with heavier, dangerous avalanches including a couple of serious thrashings left us thankful for reaching the glacier alive. Nonetheless, we found ourselves yearning for the mountain and have a shared wish to return to the Kokshall Too. 

Our high point on Kizil Asker (5842m). 

Thanks SO much to the Copp-Dash Inspire Award for supporting this trip. We are currently working on editing film for the creative storytelling effort and hope to have the film completed sometime this year. We will let you know, Aimee Copp, when it is ready!

Thanks, infinitely, to (in no particular order):  
  1. Ryan Johnson, for keeping me psyched during those times on our trip when I started to forget why I still alpine climb.
  2. Our friends and family for supporting us on this trip, the trips we have been on, and will go on in the future.
  3. Roger Strong and Arcteryx for outfitting me in entirely new kit prior to heading to Asia (our open bivies on the Kormorova, at advanced base in China, and on Kizil would have killed me if I had still been wearing my destroyed alpine gear from the past 5 seasons). 
  4. Jay Dufresne and Black Diamond Equipment for their consistent support of my climbing ventures at a grassroots level. 
  5. Sterling Ropes for setting us up with the best half ropes on the planet so that we could focus on climbing and surviving verses a rope that couldn't stand up to the workload.
  6. GU Energy for their support of my climbing and their work on cutting edge nutrition the past couple years. 
  7. Clay Cole for buying the expedition a GoPro camera so that we could capture first person footage we need to tell our story. 
Hang tight, friends, for the completed art pieces and eventually, the film from our expedition. Thank you for looking at this site - as with everything else in my life, a work in progress.


  1. Love the approach pix and looking forward to the video footage. BTW... Mr. Casual looks anything but casual.

  2. Thanks Billy. We'll let you know when the video is getting close. Hope to get out skiing with you again soon!

  3. What a great experience. I look forward to hearing more about it.

  4. Sammy! Great read, amazing adventure. Thanks for taking the time to document and share. I really look forward to seeing the story telling movie. -Amanda

  5. Nice to be visiting your blog again, it has been months for me. Well this article that i've been waited for so long. I need this article to complete my assignment in the college, and it has same topic with your article. Thanks, great share.


Please leave comments or thoughts!