Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Barefoot Dancing at 5000m - British Muzkol Expedition 2015

Seeing the colour of both James and Al as we left the hotel at 6am, I was pretty glad that I hadn't gone out drinking (James) or eaten a takeaway burger (Al). In fact, I was feeling pretty smug and bouncy in spite of the extreme lack of sleep I'd had over the previous week. Typically for me, I had attempted to cram in a million and one things before leaving for the mountains: planning the following trips, trying to tie up some work, packing, training, socialising, nearly getting killed on the Tacul, actually killing my laptop, food shopping, permit organising, losing my marbles etc etc. Still, I was pretty bloody psyched about spending nearly 3 months away on back to back trips! Surprisingly, George and Clay were feeling equally bouncy and excited when they finally got through customs at Osh airport (Kyrgyzstan) and met us. Personally, I am significantly grumpier after 24 hours of solid travelling on Russian planes!
Guess who is feeling smug.... (photo: Clay)
Mountaineering is a serious business... (photo: George)

Next stop Tajikistan! Sort of... But first our driver Alek had to pass the keys, vehicle, our bags and us on to his brother Momo (I think his name was...). Momo then had to stop to meet their father to say bye to him, as well as run various errands en route to the Tajiki border south of Sari-Tash. We were rapidly learning that travelling about the Uzbek end of Kyrgyzstan doesn't happen in quite the same way as at home! Regular stops also had to be made for Al (and possibly James, I don't quite remember) to empty a bit more bile from his digestive system.
Al enduring the first bout of expedition food poisoning for 2015! (photo: George)

Tajiki camo beats Kyrgyz...
Getting over the border involves the standard 'Stan bureaucratic faff, even though we gave a hitch-hiking Kyrgyz border guard a lift to work, it took us a while to be let through. Momo had to take our passports and documents to 3 different buildings on the Kyrgyz side and 4 on the Tajiki base, hilariously insisting on driving the 20m between each of these offices. Interestingly there is about 20km and a 4200m pass between the two check points, creating a fairly serious chunk of No-Mans Land.
Barefoot wanderings on the border col at 4200m. For some reason I only brought my mountain boots with me as footwear for this first trip!
Stopping for tea in the small Tajikistan village of Karakul, the only one we pass through in fact, we realise that we aren't really in Tajikistan. The people who live here don't look like the Tajiki border guards; they speak Kyrgyz or Russian in a Kyrgyz accent, have Kyrgyz passports and even operate on Kyrgyz time (an hour ahead of Dushanbe and rest of Tajikistan). I can see why getting into this autonomous region can be quite difficult! The Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) really doesn't want to be part of Tajikistan. The Kyrgyz people are just as lovely on this side of the border though, and our driver informs us that we can actually drive a great deal further up the Muzkol valley than we had hoped. In fact, he thought that we could get to the yurt village/home-stay inhabited in the summer by yak-herders and probably stay there for the night, parfait!

The disputed Tajikistan border area, with China not Kyrgyzstan!
Lake Karakul is stunning! Home of the worlds highest windsurfing competition.
When this happens... something's not quite going to plan.
(photo: George)

Sadly, there is a glacial river between the M41 Pamir Highway and the yak herders homestay. Trying to drive through a river at 7pm is a bad idea, the glaciers have been melting all day and the river will be running high! This one in particular was much deeper than it appeared and we, unsurprisingly, found ourselves stuck in the middle when the jeeps engine flooded. Luckily for us, the yak herders came to our aid and towed us out! Though all of us climber had to jump out into the torrent and battle through the waist deep, fast flowing current to reach the other side. This was the first time of many that I got my warm, thick, difficult-to-dry-out boots totally saturated. Sort of wish I had brought my trainers as I danced about shivering on the far bank!
Is the engine still running?? Nope, that's just the noise of the water...

After towing the jeep out and helping unload our kit, the yak herders welcomed us with open arms. Those of us capable of eating were treated to a feast and unlimited chai. I surprised myself with the amount of Russian I could hash together for a conversation, not that I really needed it. Akilbek (the father of the family) had pretty good English as well as a gift for charades/sign language comprehension! Before long I was being bullied by the 6 year old cheeky son. When they named him 'Emily's Little Brother' it started to look like I was officially part of the family! Being female, there was absolutely no question of me sleeping in a tent. They were quite insistent that I share the communal sleeping space with the family, not believing the lads who told them I was tougher than I looked. Still it was a good experience! Once my newly discovered Little Brother stopped jumping on me...

"Children: Problem" Too right Akilbek! Hassan was the worst/best....  (photo: George)
Next morning, Al announced that he couldn't really see properly, not good! Food poisoning combined with a very quick height gain to over 4000m is not ideal and his body was struggling with Acute Mountain Sickness. Being so tired myself, my body was struggling with the thin air too. We both decided to stay an extra night at the homestay and hit the diamox hard. Meanwhile, the other 3 lads were ferried up the valley towards our base camp in Akilbeks jeep. Our original jeep was totally kaput so looked like Momo was staying too!

The family had recently butchered a sheep so I was treated to a family feast with all the grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts. It was an incredible experience, as long as I tried really hard not to think about which part of the sheep some of the "delicacies" came from.  Al escaped the experience by being unable to keep down any sort of food. Somehow the smell of greasy sheep meat stayed with me, seeping out of my pores for several days. 

Suddenly Al was offered a lift back north towards the Kyrgyz border.  The problem with altitude sickness in the GBAO is that you have to travel 5 hours and quite far into Kyrgyzstan before getting under 3000m again. Feeling that he wouldn't fully recover at this high an altitude and concerned about the logistical difficulties of a potential Dushanbe helicopter rescue, he sadly decided to leave the expedition and head home.
Polatka. My Russian vocabulary developed a lot on this particular day!
After a pretty amazing day playing with the kids and talking politics in a Russian-English hybrid, I felt a lot better and decided to head up to Base Camp the following day. Akilbek insisted that I wasn't to carry a bag at all and offered me a free of charge donkey to carry my stuff. The teenager herders were clearly more forward thinking with their gender equality (or more realistically they got bored of my slow altitude walk and ungraceful donkey riding) and dropped me and my bags off as soon as we were out of sight of the home-stay!

The hanging glacier had collapsed 5 days before we arrived and killed several yaks. It went a really really long way! Scary stuff.
After a couple of hours walking I caught a glimpse of orange. Fortunately I had found the base camp location and a deflated looking Clay. The altitude had hit him on the final jeep ride and he wasn't feeling good. I suddenly was feeling amazing so fired up a couloir until at a similar height to Mont Blanc. Crazy ascent profile for less than 60 hours!
Diamox is incredible (minus potential kidney issues...) I actually enjoyed the tingling finger sensation as it meant I was making new red blood cells!
Our base camp meadow had a yak infestation.

As we were on a strict time schedule and keen for a full ridge traverse of the 5 unclimbed 5000+m summits, James and I decided to move up to Advanced Base Camp at about 5000m on the glacier on the next day. We had a pretty leisurely day of baking and repacking (James baked... I repacked...) before slogging up the morraine to the glacier. It's funny the way that perceptions change with experience, our bags felt really heavy and the morraine pretty difficult but both were nothing compared to the bags and morraine on my final expedition this year!
"You look like you're about to start a Duke of Edinburgh Award" (photo H
Being pushed to make camp by nightfall, James went on ahead and put the First Light single skin tent up. When I reached him, his first words were: "I know what you're thinking... but ignoring the obvious issue with this camping spot, it's more or less perfect!" The 'obvious issue' was that he had put the tent on a large boulder perched on a thin(ish) ice pillar. These ice pillars do regularly give way, depositing the rocks onto the glacier. I've seen and heard it happen. To say I was unimpressed was an understatement. But James is a chivalrous soul and kindly gave me the downhill side of the tent...

As soon as it got really cold, at about 11pm, all of the other ice pillars started giving way and depositing their boulders onto the glacier. After enduring half of one of the worst nights of my life, basically feeling like I was in a nightmare that I couldn't wake up from (BECAUSE IT WAS REAL), I announced to James that I couldn't climb the next day (whilst fighting the urge to cling on to his legs because I really was that scared).

OK so it was a real flat spot to sleep... (photo George)

George and Clay came up to the glacier the next day and laughed at our campsite choice. So we all moved a bit further up the basin to a spot that had significantly less objective danger! In the middle of the next night we all headed over to the icy slopes on peak No. 4 (the mountains were creatively named 75 years ago). The mountain has now been renamed Mount Emily as a joke - as in "we're all going for an assault on Emily" HAHA. Sadly, I didn't get very far on my namesake as I was really struggling with the altitude. I lost my breath and just couldn't catch it, it really felt a bit like I was going to pass out. A rope-length saw me back over the bergshcrund and I down-climbed from there.
George's panorama showing the numbers and routes that we climbed.
Looking back at George and Clay on the ice slopes that I turned back on.
Feeling sorry for myself and angry that my body had let me down I decided to salvage the day by soloing something. I headed back down the glacier towards peak No. 5 and Zero/6 (this last one is not part of the 5 that would make a good ridge traverse and we kept getting the numbers mixed up!). I had half hoped that I could find an easy way up the north-east face of Peak 5, so I climbed up to the col between the two mountains. Sadly the glacier to the col was surprisingly crevassed and looked even worse underneath the face. Traversing back to Zero/6 seemed like a much safer option, though I did start to doubt this when I had to traverse steep scree slopes above a double band of cliffs.

Good black hole... great for soloing!

Chilling out on the summit, I could see south to the 8000ers in the Karakorum, it sent shivers up my spine. I also realised that I could see James nearing the top of number 4! This strangely made me feel like I was not alone.
Spot the climber...
George's photo gives you a slightly better idea of scale...
Highest summit yet!! Feeling like a proper Himalayan climber... almost.
Looking across Afghanistan to the Karakorum. Pretty cool!!
Leaving a cache of food and gear in the tent we all went down to the warmer meadows to rest for a few days. James and I were still half thinking that the ridge might go, even though it looked like a tottering pile of steep choss in places. Maybe we could do some of it if not the whole 5 summits? Number 2 looked like the most manageable with limited death potential so was our first choice!
Climbing into the sunrise...

I need music to get me up at 2am, James was jealous and requested that I play it through my phone without headphones. Probably the first time I've done a new route with a soundtrack! We climbed a snow/ice couloir to reach the col between 2 and 3. Once again, I felt the altitude and lost my breath, much higher up the face this time though. I was ok if my axe placement was good first time, but if I had to replace it, I really struggled to find the energy. Luckily James had brought a lot of tiblocs with him so was able to drag me up safely as we moved together.
Feeling the altitude. Again.

The rock ridge to reach the summit of No. 2 was really terrible. There was no point in being roped up; there was no gear or belays and the rope would probably just end up knocking rocks down on to us. I was still pretty out of breath so when we came to a section of ridge that was much steeper but still death choss, I was pretty glad to call it a day! Abseiling back down the icy face, I was pretty dismayed that I could easily stand up without my axes or hanging off the belay. On the way up the ice had felt nearly vertical!!

We needed a surprisingly large number of abseils to descend the ice couloir.
No. 3. Unclimbed still.
With a few days left, all four of us decided that the ridge traverse wasn't going to happen (to be honest, with all the time in the world it might not be climbable). We all decided to try the line up the serac where James had abseiled after his ascent of Mount Emily was the most interesting climbing option. However, George and Clay failed to wake up to do it and when James and I woke the morning after, the temperature was very high, the tent hadn't even frozen during the coldest part of the night. The fact that we could hear serac and rock-fall at 3am sealed the decision. Back to sleep.

Should we stay or go?!?
Packing up camp the following day, we discovered that the hole that George had been moaning about under his side of the tent was in fact increasing in size after all. Apparently some enterprising mice had worked out that they could get into our food store discretely by coming up under our tent. Akilbeck arrived with two donkeys to help us get back to the Pamir Highway. Once again I was forbidden from carrying a bag at all. Even a little one. I could definitely get used to this style of expeditioning...
George and his nemesis...
Probably why James and I kept getting sunburnt...
...and the sunburn.
I'm really good at napping.

Alright.... I might have taken our sports day a 'little' too seriously....
Killed the satphone.... I was very sad!

Travelling in style! Poor donkey had to carry James and Akilbeck.

My new pet was very well behaved! Nearly smuggled him home...
Pamir Highway
Lake Karakul.
This guy was trying to extort money out of us... But we escaped and ran back to the Kyrgyz border!

Obligatory night out, in our favourite club (Izyum) in Osh. James has become a regular there ;)
Particular thanks to George for organising an ace trip, and for James for putting up with me for an entire month solid! Also to our amazing sponsors for once again allowing a bunch of skint climbing bums to have a good adventure: The British Mountaineering Council, Mount Everest Foundation, Alpine Club, Austrian Alpine Club and Alpkit