Thursday, 26 September 2013

Gummy Girls hit Kyrgyland!

The team together at last! But sadly not for long. L-R: Myself, Libby, Hannah, Imelda, Carol.
Oddly, I’ve been struggling somewhat to find the right things to say about our Kyrgyzstany jaunt. This is a bit strange as it feels like I’ve done nothing but talk about it for the past 5 days! For a first expedition and first time as an expedition leader, it was a pretty big learning curve. But in spite of my current exhausted state, I feel a lot tougher for experiencing it. The time we spent in the Tien Shan was amazing and unforgettable; definitely my best alpine trip to date, all the difficulties made me savour the mountains more than usual I guess.
Negotiating the weird shrund near the summit of Night Butterfly. Seeing through it and down the entire north face was disconcerting!
At last! A glacier! The end of uphill load carrying is in sight... Although it only actually too us 4 days of carrying to get here from the Soviet road 20+km away.
When we eventually had ourselves set up on the glacier, Imelda, Libby and I completed four new routes and I soloed a fifth.  Our first route, to be honest, was more of a snowy walk than a climb. On the other four we were glad to have a pair of axes each. Sadly, as an Austrian team beat us to the basin by a month, there aren’t a great number of unclimbed summits left to be had! The first, easy ridge that we climbed may have featured virgin summits but they are non-entities in our opinion! For four of the five routes we can claim first female summits, however we don’t entirely agree with this distinction. How often do you hear about ‘First Male Ascents’?!

We had planned on doing challenging, technical Alpine routes, but had to reassess our aims somewhat! Losing two members of the expedition and the discovery that the Sat phone didn’t really work meant that we erred on the side of caution. We chose lines that were quite aesthetic, generally involving scrambly ridges and/or snow couloirs. I was pleased that my recent experiences on Chamonix snow routes came in useful!

Nearing the top of Pony, a small peak being only 4700m!
The highlight of the trip was definitely the East Ridge on Night Butterfly, and also our first 5000m peak. The ridgeline is definitely THE line of the valley and dominates the vista. We presumed that it had already been climbed but we were that inspired by the line, that we had two attempts on it. The first ended before we even got beyond the bergschrund, as Libby was suddenly very unwell.
Our route up Night Butterfly, surely it had already been climbed?
Time to run away before the cloud clears.
The second and successful effort was a bit of a battle. A cloud of mist hung over the approach slopes at 3:30am, meaning the snow hadn’t refrozen. I was also struggling to figure out whether we were even in the correct couloir! Fortunately the snow became much more manageable once we pulled above the frustrating mist. Sadly a front came in with the dawn and the weather became positively Scottish. Luckily we are quite used to Scottish style weather! The snow showers were only short bursts anyway, so we decided to continue to the summit. Rather than completing the intended traverse of the mountain we reversed our route in case the weather deteriorated further. Instead, the weather cleared and the sun came out, great! That is except for the fact that we were descending an east facing narrow snow arête! Spurred on by the terribleness of Imelda’s anti-balling plates we legged it down, managing to reach camp just six hours after we left it.
Summit selfie!!
Other than the significant health related problems our expedition had, we were a bit unlucky with our transport. Although we loved our little grey soviet van, often marveling at its ability to negotiate the ‘roads’, we unfortunately couldn’t be dropped off or picked up anywhere near the point we had planned. This gave us an extra 11km of unexpected load carrying each way, and a lot of frustrated rage!

To add some excitement to our journey, our driver Sasha, spoke no English and our Russian is patchy at best. None of us, including Sasha, had ever been to the area before and consequently he missed the turn off towards Kyzyl Asker. After a three-hour detour to the wrong military outpost, we were back on track.  At least we hoped we were. Trying to explain to Sasha that we were going to Plan A glacier (Dzhirnagaktu) rather that plan B glacier through mime, was traumatic for all involved.  We did thankfully end up in the right area, (after the van got stuck in the notorious mud overnight) but without enough petrol to drive the whole way in. 
The van sank in the mud to it's wheel arches, a hunting party (complete with matching van) were able to help us lever and push it out the next morning. Roads in the Western Kokshal Too are interesting....
Our first night in the Trango 3 was not quite in the planned location. (wildly leaning van in background!)
To be honest, I didn’t quite appreciate just how remote our location was before we got to Dzhirnagaktu, or how few other people and vehicles would be in the area at the end of the expedition season! The hardest thing for me to do during the expedition was making the decision to send Hannah home a few days into the trip. With her mystery illness of persistent vomiting complete with inability to keep down water, I had major concerns about taking her up to basecamp. This decision was vindicated by later events and the nature of our location.
Beginning of the end for Hannah.
I had this strange feeling that organizing a helicopter rescue would be a bit trickier than getting one in Chamonix/Scotland… This turned out to be very true unfortunately; getting Carol off the hill when she developed HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) was a bit of a nightmare. The mountain rescue wanted her insurance to contact them to confirm payment, her insurance told us we needed to arrange it and then they would pay later. This stalemate combined with our broken, credit less Sat phone meant that we had a stressful day straining our ears for the helicopter, pretty skeptical about whether it would actually show up! Fortunately in the late afternoon the day after we initially phoned it appeared to collect Carol, leaving only three of us able to climb on the expedition.
Just a walk really, but what a view! Heading up to our first 4500m peak.
It Wouldn't Happen on A Lads Trip: No. 6, Afternoon Tea with Saucers.
I think it will be a while before I can fully process the trip mentally. There were moments when it felt like the expedition was descending into a catalogue of unfortunate errors. Load carrying off the glacier in a big storm, separated from Libby and Imelda felt like the final straw but sadly wasn’t! The news the following day that we couldn’t be picked up from boulder camp was semi-soul destroying for all of us. However we had become a great deal fitter during our time on the glacier as the three of us (plus Carol who we were reunited with) only took 6 hours to ferry out the kit that had taken a day and a half on the way up.
Load carrying, second river crossing.
After bringing food for five we narrowed it down to this; enough for 12 days but mainly powdered. Though it wasn't as bad as we were expecting!
I am amazed at what Libby, Imelda and I achieved on this trip considering all the setbacks and lost time. We were exceptionally lucky with good weather and snow conditions, meaning that we attempted routes every day that we spent on the glacier. It is disappointing that we didn’t get a proper attempt on the iconic Monolith; we decided that it looked like a manageable objective the three of us after all but we ran out of time to fully acclimatize for it.

The final icing on the cake was coming home to discover that our route up the East ridge of Night Butterfly (Flutterby) was in fact unclimbed after all! Neither the Irish or Austrian parties attempted it; the Polish 2010 expedition tried it but turned around on the false summit due to poor cornice conditions. Psyched!!

Me on our first summit? At least it seemed to be the highest point on a very gentle ridge.
It Wouldn't Happen on A Lads Trip: No. 8, Cheese platter (also No. 2, Constant Collecting of Pretty Rocks)
The glacier wasn't really crevassed on the whole, but these glacial streams have carved mini gorges that needed to be negotiated. Not so much fun with a 25kg pack on!

The ridge between Rock Horse and Butterfly's Leg. You can thank the Polish exped for the names!
You don't get more Highball than this!

A holiday without some bouldering would be a total failure. Imelda agrees....
Typical morning view at Boulder Camp!

Every expedition should get invited along to a local celebration feast when they get back to civilisation! This definitely contributed to my weight gain.....

"Look strong Girls!" Most of the kit that we carried up with us. Load carrying with duffle bags like the red one was not the wisest idea we had and fortunately they got left down at Boulder Camp.

Reunited with van and Carol, we get a final look into our basin. Kyzyl Asker next maybe?!?
A massive thanks to our sponsors: the BMC, MCofS, Meers-Grey Award, Blue Ice, Mountain Hardwear and Nora's Noms, without your support the expedition probably wouldn't have got off the ground!


  1. Amazing! Looks like you had a proper adventure. And Sasha is lying, he drove us in last year to Dzhirnagaktu. Got us within 8km or so of the glacier although we did have the big 6 wheel Ural, and it still managed to get stuck for 3 days in a bog.

  2. Haha yeh I saw your tyre marks, they were pretty deep!! No wonder it took 3 days to dig out... I think it's a different Sasha, Lilia implied that he was new with ITMC but 'very experienced!' He was 'sick' for the return leg so fortunately we had Sergei who had driven the Austrians in and out last year. Thanks for all your help again! Definitely made planning the whole thing much much easier :)