Backcountry snow in Kyrgyzstan
Mike Handford sends back an update of the Renegades Out of Bounds backcountry expedition to Kyrgyzstan.
"We first started discussing the possibility of a backcountry trip into Kyrgyzstan as the winter season in New Zealand drew to a close. 24 hours and some hasty googling later, we had agreed the trip was on. Fast forward 6 months and we were arriving in Kyrgyzstan's capital Bishkek still with little to no idea of what to really expect, but an awful lot of enthusiasm to make up for it.
The first week was spent in Karakol which had been marketed to us as Kyrgyzstan's outdoor adventure capital. Unfortunately after a little exploration, the snow down low was rotten and the ridge lines up high wind scoured, which was a bit disheartening. It was however a great place to spend some time to get to grips with what we had to expect for the coming two months, we were all very surprised at how much technology has engulfed the culture in the past couple of years. Everyone has a mobile phone that seems to ring 20 times an hour, although we still have no idea what they possibly have to talk about and WIFI was easily enough accessible. If you pick up a guide book be wary of when it was written, as Kyrgyzstan is a very changing culture right now and it would be very easy to find yourself caught out. Luckily we heard through the grapevine that Arslanbob a small traditional town in the south west, a mere 18 hour drive away was having the most snow on record and that was the signal to pack up and head that way.
As we wound of way through the many mountain passes on the Bishkek to Osh road the climate and snow level were ever changing and when we eventually arrived in Arslanbob it was a winter wonderland. It was certainly one of the most scenic drives we have ever done, topping out at 3586 meters through the Too Ashuu pass is spectacular, if you can find time to enjoy it in between one of the near death experiences with the race car taxi drivers and the negligible road laws. Hayat, the head of Arslanbob's community based tourism greeted us on arrival and set us up with host family's for our stay. The community based tourism setup all over Kyrgyzstan is great and a really effective way to both immerse yourself in the local culture and help out the local families with some passing winter trade. Arslanbob is situated in a valley, encased by 4000m plus peaks and the largest walnut forest on earth which gives great possibilities for both high alpine mountaineering and stormy days tree skiing fresh powder.
Our first trip was out to a zone called Jaz Jarum. We left first thing in the morning and toured 4 hours into base camp. On arrival the options were overwhelming and we decided to have a look at the snowpack and ride one line before dinner. After a quick skin up we were standing atop our line with a combination of excitement and a little apprehension. Alex dropped first and after a huge Woomph the whole face started to slide, after a good 200m vertical of tumbling over rocks, with both skis off and both poles gone, we were relived to see him giving the ok from the bottom. He had somehow managed to claw his way out of the main path of the slide and over the ridge into something a little smaller. We returned to camp with the atmosphere a little sombre to decompress and reassess our options. We woke up to another amazing bluebird morning and after talking things over the previous night decided to ski some really mellow terrain and get a more concise understanding of the snow pack before we went back to any steep faces.
On our return we were greeted by the arrival of a few more of the crew. Blake, Chris and Jock had all just arrived from Bishkek and brought in a great boost of energy after the previous few days happenings. We immediately started planning to head out for 5 days, staying at the base of a peak to the west of town called Nooruz that we were keen to summit. After talking to Hayat we were informed we could stay at a shepherds hut close by that's kitted out with a wood burning stove, insulation and as we later found out mice that steal your eggs. This was great news and it turned out to be an amazing place to eat, rest and dry out our gear.
We managed a summit on our second day in camp topping out at 2876m, woke up at 4am one morning to catch sunrise from a nearby ridge and rode some amazing lines. Definitely a zone we would recommend and to top it off the snowpack was becoming more stable, which gave us confidence in what we were riding. Hayat and his CBT guides came and joined us for the last evening up there, cooking us amazing food and sharing stories. The following morning we arranged to take all the guides out for some avalanche education. We spent the day talking them through digging a pit, identifying snow layers, testing the snowpack along with terrain and approach selection. This was something we had talked about doing while organising the trip and it was great to pass on knowledge that will keep the guides and their clients safer. A great way to end the trip into Nooruz.
On our return we heard that the 21st of April was New Year's Eve on the Persian calendar, this coincided with Chris heading back to Australia so we decided to head back towards Bishkek.
In the 3 weeks we had been away the city had completely changed. All the snow had melted and the atmosphere of the city was much more vibrant. We spent the day around the Ala Too Square square which although the centre of many political clashes had been transformed into a huge street party filled with music, entertainment and allot of balloons. The crowning glory of our day was definitely stating a street party with a group of kids from a local dance group. It will certainly live long in the memory. The rest of the day was spent getting to know the ins and outs of Bishkeks bar life and with Chris not returning until 7am the next day with our guest house host Patrick we certainly tried our hardest. As I sit writing this we are currently preparing to leave for the last two weeks of our trip. First on to Bokonbaewa where Hayat has arranged for us to meet up with the CBT there and then on to Narin before finishing up in the high alpine of the Ala Bel Pass.