Thursday 20 November 2014

Navlikin (or Kotur!) Expedition.... Kyrgy Mark II!

I seem to have had a good old dose of writers block concerning the 2014 expedition… That and being kept pretty busy have delayed this blog post somewhat. Bizarrely, since we returned, I’ve found myself talking about and writing pieces on the 2013 expedition so maybe it just takes me a year to process the experience!
This second expedition was a lot tougher for me as a climber (not as a leader though!) as I was sick for quite a lot of it! Unlike the rest of the group I got off pretty lightly when it came to Dave’s Diarrhea… Unlike Emma et al, I experienced really bad stomach cramps and not much else. The cramps made the idea of a long van trip to Naryn terrifying enough to stop me eating for that first day of driving… maybe this fearful fasting did the trick! My smugness, that I could trust farts when everyone else couldn’t, came back to bite me when I got sick whilst everyone else was able to go climbing.
Since my chemotherapy treatment, I have found that my stomach is pretty tough but my immune system seems to struggle a bit, especially when I’m tired. During the 2013 expedition, I again avoided bad diarrhea but got a chest infection. On the 2014 trip I guess I got dehydrated and picked up a urinary tract infection. When we were load carrying up onto the glacier, I just tried to ignore it. My psyche for climbing/being on the expedition totally evaporated shortly after this.  A couple of days of stabbing pains through the right hand side of my abdomen and back nearly had Libby phoning me a helicopter… Being pretty confident that the pain was so specific, that it was my kidneys hurting, we phoned Simon’s doctor parents instead. A course of antibiotics was advised and I felt better and re-psyched within 12 hours! I am very grateful that good medical advice was a quick phone-call away; otherwise my trip would have been over. I would have also taken different antibiotics if left to my own devices, so chatting to Dr Tracey was definitely a massive help!
Dividing up fun food! Condensed milk in tubed-form is incredible!
Rubiks cube - the real expedition goal
Besides this blip in the middle, the trip was as amazing as the Dzhirnagaktu expedition, if very different. With 9 climbers on the trip, and a massive party tent along for the ride, this year was definitely more sociable! I took a chance with choosing the team in that Dave and I were the only two who had met all the other climbers prior to our arrival in Bishkek. Fortunately, I guessed the group dynamic fairly well and there were miraculously few disagreements. This was a bonus as the weather was distinctly mediocre this year with quite a few enforced rest days spent mucking about playing card games.

Getting water became more difficult as the trip progressed. But Emma was pretty good at finding it after snow!

Logistically, the trip was almost problem-free, the total opposite to the Dzhirnagaktu trip! ITMC even gave us a free upgrade to their biggest truck (Ural)! The fairly standard confusion over Naryn accommodation happened once again but in the end we ended up in the right places. We did have one anxious, unexpected morning waiting in Naryn before we could leave for the mountains. The entire town was out of diesel – totally dry! What little petrol there was soon ran out too. It was distinctly reminiscent of a typical Sunday evening in the Chamonix high season… Still the weird weather that Kyrgyzstan had this summer benefitted us massively, we made it to our drop off point in 6.5 hours instead of the expected two days! The notorious mud flats and deteriorating Soviet road were bone dry (except where we went wrong and got stuck last year…) and the legendary Sergei managed to drop us much closer to the Kotur glacier than I had dared to hope. He even managed to meet us in the same spot bang on time for the journey home. Unlike last year, he didn’t have to feed me vodka for frost-nip prevention!
Sergei, the man, the myth, the legend!

We drove through a lot of snow showers along the Soviet road, thankfully it cleared as we approached the glacier!
First glimpse through a rattley window...
...and suddenly we are alone!
Going from Naryn to 4070m (instead of 3400m) was pretty brutal. As we had gained a day though, we decided to take a full rest day after Sergei left thus hopefully decreasing chances of HAPE. I, for one, was definitely feeling the altitude and was extremely relieved when everyone made it through the dreaded ‘second night’ unscathed! As is fairly normal for me, I suddenly became acclimatized, whilst load carrying. It always feels like shaking off a weird hangover!

A few photos from our acclimatisation trip to the Racek hut in the Ala-Archa Park

The initial plan was to go up the length of the Kotur glacier before crossing a col at the southern end to get into the top of the Navlikin basin. From here we would be perfectly placed to attempt the multiple 5000+m peaks to the south. Without over-exerting ourselves before we were acclimatized, we managed to move our base camp 4-5km up the Kotur glacier, but it did take us four days to do this. We found an almost perfect spot for this glacier camp; running water in two directions, no crevasses, the rocky moraine covering the glacial ice meant that we didn’t have to sleep directly on the ice and provided plenty of tent anchors. As it had also taken quite a bit of effort to get that far, we decided to use this camping spot as the main base for the trip.
Emma looks far too happy for load carrying...
 Load carrying got creative... and why anchor a tent with an ice screw when you can have a SNOW castle.

Packing up on the last morning of the trip.
From here we did lose momentum somewhat. Knowing that we didn’t ‘have’ to move the entire camp up to the Navlikin, that we would be going alpine light, we decided to wait for settled weather. We hoped to avoid a suffer-fest sitting out storms in single skin tents by waiting for a good weather window whilst getting acclimatized on the peaks around the Kotur’s snout. However the weather window never really arrived! Whilst 2 teams did make it up to establish a camp on the Navlikin col, they were pinned in their tents by a storm for a day and a half. The longer we waited, the harder it was to walk up the Kotur glacier. At the start of the trip, the glacier had been dry – we were walking on the ice. By the end of the trip, so much snow had fallen that it was knee-thigh deep wading around base camp and at least waist deep up near peak Judith-Brian. At this point I did wish we had stuck with the original idea and had our ski gear with us – that’s hindsight for you! The glacier was so flat we would have had to skin down it but at least probing crevasses/sinking in the snow wouldn’t have been so time consuming! 

The weather pattern had another annoying feature… the storms would generally last a day and a half, laying down a lot of snow that would then be blown somewhere (we weren’t entirely sure where in the basin as the wind direction changed so often!) the day immediately after would be crystal clear, the following day mediocre before the next storm hit in the afternoon. With an obviously high avalanche risk, good weather days didn’t always mean good climbing days!

When it was bluebird... it really was bluebird!!

Jjin on left, Tonnik centre
Still, the team managed to get a fair number of routes done (about 12 completed routes is my current count…). As we expected to climb on the Navlikin glacier, we didn’t have an awful lot of information on the Kotur peaks. We noticed a lot of map discrepancies for the basin, including an entire mountain that isn’t marked on any map! As it’s right next to Pik Jjin we predictably named it Pik Tonnik… James and Libby managed to get within spitting distance of the 5100(ish) metre summit on the final day of the trip. I think that all of the peaks and many of the routes (including Tonnik!) have been climbed before but the fact that we didn’t know this at the time retained that feeling of exploratory adventure!

Sadly, a large part of the trip for me has become a disorganized, delirous, confusion. In my notebook, I managed to completely write out the events of one single day three times and not notice. Getting the series of events in the right order for the report has only happened thanks to the date of photos on my digital camera! Still, there are two good days of mountaineering with the girls that stand out for me. FINALLY getting to a summit (Lyev) with Cora and Libby felt amazing. We were rewarded with stunning views of the massif, storms hitting the Borkoldoy range and what may have been snow leopard prints along the summit ridge! Though the ascent was little more than a walk, the tottering pile of choss forming the summit tower was exciting – it almost felt like it was swaying in the wind!
Stanage?? Sedimentary rock crag complete with fossils!
The second standout mountaineering day was going up Metel with Libby. Both of us were pretty un-psyched walking up to the route, 2-3km of wading through snow on a flat glacier tends to have that affect on me! Still, once we got off the terrible steep moraine slope (poor route finding choice there…) and on to the snow ice life got much more fun! The crux of the route turned out to be a 60-65 degree slope featuring some of the most aerated snow-ice that I’ve climbed on! It was pretty terrifying to be honest and I was glad that we were soloing, if one of us slipped at least we wouldn’t drag the other climber off too! The worst part about it was occasionally going through to bullet hard water ice underneath… and also knowing that we wouldn’t be able to down climb it… But I actually really enjoyed it, I felt completely in the alpine zone for the first time on the trip. Libby also felt much better when we got into the sun on the ridge and she could rub some feeling into her toes. Climbing on a north- west facing slope at 4600m is pretty cold!
At night we could hear the ice cracking as boulders, like this one, fell off their ice pedastols.
Heading towards the steeper section...

We found the lads track from a week before, shows how windy it was up high!

However probably one of my favourite ever alpine days out was the final day of the trip. With a run of good weather predicted for the Friday and Saturday before our Sunday departure, half the party decided to have one last go at climbing. I decided to have a solo outing and with an extremely alpine start (about 9am…) I headed across the glacier and onto the western rocky ridge. I was just going to follow this ridge south as far as I could, but instead impulsively dropped down the other side of it to a hidden glacier. From here I climbed a small, easy peak (Macciato) that looks down onto the Navlikin glacier, sadly the closest I got to me objective! 
Kyzyl Asker was seldom clear! The storms and clouds often got stuck on it.
Peaking into the Navlikin
Obligatory selfie on the first peak...
Feeling like I had a bit more juice in me I climbed another rocky peak (Lvitsa) on the way home. Taking the most direct and hardest line up the chossy south ridge was super fun if slightly scary. I was also in for a shock when I pulled over the last bit of rock and found myself looking straight down the north west face. I’d been expecting a summit plateau not a knife-edge ridge! A quick scree run down for tea and white Russians was a satisfying end to the trip.
Some actual climbing (if you avoid the scree!)
Part of the corniced summit ridge.
Van surgery
To take advantage of the weather, we had pushed our time on the glacier for as long as we possibly could, meaning that we only had a day to move down to the pick up spot. Joel, Emma, Dave and Sam had thankfully carried a load down the day before, so we only had to do one heavy load each on that last day. Feeling creative, Dave made a sledge to get the unpackackable final items down. He and Emma did a wonderful job of adding this extra 40kg to their packs to get it across the final morraine slopes. Arriving back at our first camping spot, talk turned to when Sergei might arrive - how fast could he get there from Naryn? Then we hear the engine, perfect timing! As the weather was closing in (another storm was predicted) we decided to leave there and then. Suddenly it's over and we are heading home! We barely have time to process our departure, it all happened so fast. We camp just off the soviet road that night, with the amount of snow that fell vindicating the choice to leave the previous afternoon.
Final night on the glacier deserved a party! The vodka was definitely better when made into 3 litres of White Russian...
Here comes the weather... Dzhirnagaktu is hiding on the right of the photo.
Back to civilisation!
After last years trip, I couldn’t really relax totally until we were nearly back in Bishkek. Then I knew that we had managed a whole trip without major incident or a helicopter rescue! Having lost two climbers to illness last year, I was very aware of how easily things could go wrong. There are always silly minor things that could end someones trip early, like Joel puncturing his shin to the bone on a rest day, but that, fortunately, cleaned up nicely and was the worst incident to report! We all made it back safe and sound this time, but unfortunately this isn’t always the case. Coming back to the very sad news that our good friend Liz Daley had died in an avalanche on her expedition, gave our trip quite a bittersweet end. RIP Liz, you’ll be missed!
WE MADE IT! Sergei found us! L-R - Libby, Simon, James, Cora, Joel, Dave, Sam, Me, Emma
Thanks mostly goes to the 8 of you who came along on the trip, (Here are the other bloggers: Dave, Emma and Joel) I couldn't have wished for better banter! Especially when lying around feeling sorry for myself. More formal thanks to the BMC, Mcofs, MEF, Rab and Mountain Hardwear as well as Adrian Nelhams, Peter Bajec, ITMC and Shane at RGS whose information allowed the trip to happen!

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