November 12, 2015

Kyrgyzstan and China 2015

My mother would probably say that going on a blind date to a foreign country like Kyrgyzstan is a bad idea. But, the signs all pointed toward the potential for a productive partnership with a shared desire for adventure and transformational experiences. Benjamin Erdmann and I corresponded for months prior to the expedition – We finally met in person on the plane from Seattle to Dubai, trading backslapping hugs to the surprise of our fellow passengers.

When we got to Bishkek we set to work buying staples such as rice and beans, noodles, sausage, cheese, nuts, and dried fruit for our planned 6 weeks in the mountains while we waited for three bags of missing equipment. Coordinating with ITMC and a local man we knew only by the name Adilet, we navigated confusion of Bishkek to obtain all necessary supplies via the bazaars and local supermarkets. On the morning of August 7th we thankfully received our missing bags and loaded everything in an enormous, horrifically loud orange and green ancient ex-military tank of a truck and began the 500km on and off road drive to the toe of the Komorova glacier to establish basecamp at 3800m.

The mightly GAZ 66 with local yurt. Photo Benjamin Erdmann

Plush meadows at the base of the Komorova Glacier. Photo: Benjamin Erdmann

During my 2012 trip to this area with Ryan Johnson, we attempted one of Kizil Asker's massive couloir lines. I still experience panic when I recall waking up asphyxiating under spindrifting concrete snow repeatedly while at our tiny ledge bivy next to Ryan. Rappelling through the night. Huddled as close as possible to the surface of the ice as avalanche after avalanche threatened to rip us from the face of the mountain. Ryan threw himself on top of me at a belay to shield me from large hunks of falling ice while we rappelled through the night. We felt lucky to escape with our lives.

Upper South Face, Kizil Asker in 2012.

From BC at Komorova, 9 days of load hauling established us at our advanced basecamp at 4400m below the cathedral like South face of Kizil Asker. 

This pass into China is the way to the South Face of Kizil Asker. Center to right photo ridge is the famous 'Ochre Walls.'

Being able to see our objective renewed our enthusiasm for the line we went to the other side of the world for. Our line is prone to deposition and shedding in the form of avalanches both small and large during storms. So, Ben and I tempered our enthusiasm by reading increasingly shitty weather forecasts and talking about our intent to make it home alive. Listening to massive avalanches pour off Kizil and surrounding peaks during storms gave us a lot of motivation to try to find decent window in which to attempt our climb.

With this in mind, we constantly monitored the weather reports we received from friends back home. A couple positive reports came through but every time we packed our bags and started skiing toward the base the weather window slammed shut and we were enveloped in proper storms. We got really good at packing and unpacking.

On one of these snowy occasions, minds going stir crazy, we decided to attempt another line we had seen from a distance on Panfilovski Division’s East peak (ca 5300m). This stunning 2000 foot golden granite spire seemed to have been overlooked in favor of other nearby objectives. 

Our line on Panfilovski East. Photo: Benjamin Erdmann

Navigating tentatively through the snowstorm toward the base at 4:30 in the morning, we laughed at ourselves for having the hubris to even leave the tent. Booting up the cone, things began to clear up and we finally allowed ourselves to get excited about the climbing. Ben found an anchor above the bergschrund and racked up for the first pitch of mixed climbing ice plastered rock with decent protection. The next few pitches of moderate styrofoam ice went by quickly as we raced warming temperatures and falling ice low on the route, establishing ourselves at the base of the thin mixed system defining its upper half.

Ice runnel leading into upper headwall. Photo: Benjamin Erdmann

Cloud cover returned as the upper half of the route revealed pitch after pitch of really fun mixed climbing. An insecure and awkward moderate section led to a thinly plastered corner. Ben led solidly up this, crampons stemming on small rock features with his picks in eggshell ice overlying subtle rock features. Swinging into an ice choked offwidth, I moved from chicken wings into awkward palming and decent tool placements and finally a full layback.

One of the upper headwall crux pitches. Photo: Benjamin Erdmann

Bodies and mind in tune, we pulled on to the top of Panfilovski Division East. We surveyed Kizil’s titanic steepness, commenting on the mercurial and violent nature of the weather in the Western Kokshaal Too. Our line on Panfilovski East was 2000 feet long, climbed in 12 pitches, AI4R M7 without the use of bolts. We named it Flight of the Zephyr in honor of our Tasmanian friend Kim Zephyr Ladiges, who was unable to come with us on the expedition. From the top of Panfilovski East we began our rappels through mixed weather with Ben ensuring placing bomber anchors the entire way down. We arrived back in basecamp at 6:30 pm, 14 hours after walking out in the morning.

Atmospheric conditions on the top of Panfilovski East, Ben rigging our first rappel. 

Though we had made a mutual pledge not to attempt Kizil until we had a precipitation free weather forecast of at least 3 days in duration, we noticed that we were both losing weight in light of the cold, continued storms, and lower than desired calorie counts resulting from self imposed rationing in this remote place. We began to feel pressure from one another and from our shrinking bodies to make an attempt before we lacked the mass to stay warm. Our plan was to try to work with diurnal weather cycles; climb whenever we were presented with a clear spell, hide out whenever we got precipitation. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to hide. This type of route is there for a reason. Massive amounts of precipitation funnel through to create the same pitches we wished to climb. Such is the nature of the world-class ice dragon.

Getting in to the steeps in warming conditions on day 1 during our 7 hour blitz to my 2012 high point on Kizil Asker. 

Benjamin Erdmann getting ready to fight for his life on a 'good morning' WI4X pitch.

Encountering beautiful pitches through both dangerous precipitation and delamination, we gave the line our best shot in light of the horrible conditions we encountered. We made it to my 2012 highpoint in 7 hours. Fighting for our lives 250m above our 2012 highpoint was an experience of awakening. 

Sometimes all you can do is hide out. Ben at a mid day storm bivi. 

After attempting other tricky pitches in miniscule clear patches and getting punished by spindrift, we returned to our respective hideouts. After spending around 50 hours on the face with the latter 36 mostly pinned down by frightening conditions, we decided to bail. Unlike 2012 we didn't get crushed by horrific avalanches on the way down!

A nice morning at the asphyxiation bivi at 5300m on Kizil Asker, 2012. Photo: Ryan Johnson

After tossing extras and arranging transport, we slogged back over to basecamp on the Kyrgyz side of the border.  Then we proceeded to get very hungry when a driver became sick and two vehicles broke down delaying our pickup.

Finally, our transport arrived with four UK climbers inside. It turned out that they had heard about our plight and brought us an enormous cake in addition to a bag of food provided by ITMC. We orgasmically jammed our faces with junk food and laughed as the UK climbers played us songs on their ukulele and regaled us with their excitement at being dropped off to try and climb a major objective off the Kotur glacier. Soon enough we had dropped them off and begun our journey back to civilization, were we ate an honest excess of calories for several days before beginning our respective journeys home.

Ben and I would like to thank a variety of people and entities for supporting our trip.
  • Friends and Family - Thanks so much for supporting our crazy endeavors over and over again! And thanks for the weather reports, we would have been lost without them. 
  • Adidas - Thanks so much for chipping in to make our trip more affordable and supporting Ben in his ongoing endeavors!
  • Bill Belcourt and Black Diamond - Thanks for the replacement hardware, gloves, helmet, harness, and more. 
  • Heather's Choice - Thanks for a variety pack of dehydrated meals!
  • Ben - Adidas, Cassin & C.A.M.P., Sterling Ropes.
  • Blue Water Ropes chipped in a couple ropes which helped out greatly.
  • Ryan Johnson thanks for the loan of the tent mate!

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