On Saturday 5th August 2017, after 2 years of planning, a team of seven mountaineers set off from Heathrow on an expedition to the remote Borkoldoy mountain range in south-east Kyrgyzstan. Our adventure was led by Neil Cox and the team included Tom Harding, Hannah Meinertzhagen, Scott Martin, Matthew Lewis, Stuart Gillan and David Lyons-Ewing. Our main objective was to achieve summits of two unclimbed 5,000m+ peaks. Alongside this we were also interested in identifying cave entrances, assessing rivers for kayaking potential, documenting wildlife and photographing glaciers. Here I share the story of the challenges and successes of our eventful journey to this spectacular mountain range.
Travelling to base camp
We arrived in Bishkek – the Capital city of Kyrgyzstan early on Sunday 6th. After spending two days negotiating Kyrgy markets stocking up on expedition supplies it was time to leave the chaotic city and begin our journey to the mountains. Once we’d successfully crammed our kit into a small minibus we headed off to Lake Issyk Kul where we spent the night in a local guest house before exchanging the little minibus for an old Russian military truck. On Wednesday 9th we set off south through mountain passes up to 3,500m to Kara Say – a lonely military outpost. Issues with one of the access permits almost meant that David was left in Kara Say, fortunately this was not the case. The next leg of our journey took us south along steep mountain tracks and through rivers, alpine meadows and boulder fields. Throughout the journey an incredible backdrop of snow-capped mountains stretched endlessly into the distance.
After 8 hours of bumpy terrain, choking vehicle fumes and stale bread buns we reached our drop off point. We had driven up a river bed as far as possible, from here we would have to walk as the river bank on the other side was too steep for the truck to mount. The promised hunters and pack horses were nowhere to be seen so we began ferrying 500kg of kit up the valley on foot. Three hours later I spotted the horses galloping towards us in the distance. When the horses arrived Scott and I helped the hunters load them up, and then we were gestured to get on and ride the horses. It turns out Scott is quite afraid of horses, but he gets on anyway. We weave our way up the valley then tentatively traverse the steep and fragile edges of Kainar Lake. It’s about 10pm and very dark by the time we reach base camp (which confusingly had been moved since Scott and I had initially dropped our personal kit off). It was chaotic, people and kit were scattered throughout the valley, Matt was suffering with altitude sickness and we were all quite hungry and tired. We gathered up kit that the packhorses had unknowingly strewn throughout the valley – including Stuart’s sleeping bag, put up tents and went to sleep.
Setting up base camp
The next morning we woke to tranquil sunshine and an incredible view. We’d pitched our tents within a beautiful alpine meadow scattered with boulders of all sizes next to a glacial lake with small sandy beaches at the edges. The valley was bordered by steep rocky peaks and a jagged snowy ridge line was visible to the west. It was such a pleasant contrast to the darkness and confusion of the previous night.
There were lots of jobs to be done. Our breakfast of porridge simmered while the engineers figured out a water filtering system. I took on the job of digging a toilet, which I got a little carried away with and could probably have been used to practice crevasse rescue. Neil set up a drying hammock and 3 stage washing-up system involving rinse, biodegradable soap and iodine. A few of us took a walk down the valley to collect missing kit while others sorted food and sourced a “fridge” (a cool rocky crevice) for the meat and chocolate. Various bits of climbing kit, medical supplies and cooking utensils were soon sorted into their own labelled boxes in the kitchen tent. By the end of the day base camp was looking pretty good!
Warming up on 4,000m peaks
On Saturday 12th Matt, Scott and I decide to go exploring. We plan to head down the valley then up a glacier leading to a rocky summit. At around midday a snow blizzard closed in and thunder rumbled in the distance, so all three of us squeezed into our two person shelter. An hour later the wind had dropped and Scott couldn’t feel his legs due to the cramped shelter so we continued up the glacier. After climbing lots of scree (which frustratingly was often just a thin layer over hard ice leading to many sudden and unexpected falls) we were finally on the snow slope leading to a rocky saddle. The altitude was noticeable and we were moving quite slowly, but the summit was in sight and we were determined to get there. After gaining the saddle we soon realised we had to cross a very steep section of incredibly loose scree (not more scree!). Nonetheless, we plodded on, one step up frequently resulted in sliding two steps down, but finally gasping due to altitude we made it to the top. It was an amazing view, with mountains stretching to the horizon in every direction. We recorded the summit as 4,418m, which we were pleased to find was slightly higher than our maps suggested. We headed back to base camp to be greeted with a hot meal of pasta with chorizo and ketchup (it seems what we thought was pasta sauce is actually ketchup – we have a lot of ketchup to get through!).
Over the next 8 days various teams went out to conduct recces of the 5,000m+ peaks and summit 4,000m+ peaks, often setting up and staying at advance camps. During this time, seven summits were achieved up to 4,963m and three (unsuccessful) attempts to summit 5,000m+ peaks were made. From recces, a feasible route up to a peak at 5,044m further up the valley had been identified.
The challenges of attempting a previously unclimbed 5,000m+ peak
On Sunday 20th Neil, Tom and I are at an advance camp about 9km up the valley from base camp. It’s another stunning location, this time next to a glacial river which we can drink from without chlorine tablets – a definite bonus! It’s 9am and we’re setting off to ascend a glaciated valley to the south where we plan to pitch a high camp ready to attempt the 5,044m peak the following morning. A storm is due in a few days so we are eager to get up and down before it arrives. Food supplies are running a little low at advance camp, but we’ve worked out we have just enough for the next 3 days. The shortage of food concerns me as I feel a bit dizzy and I’ve already been waking up hungry after dreaming about pizza. However, I’m reassured the climbing won’t be hard and we can go back to base camp and its unlimited ketchup supply in 3 days’ time, so I continue to plod on up the never ending scree. After the scree we travel on ice which soon becomes snow, then we pass tentatively beneath an impressively seraced face before crossing numerous crevasses and gaining the steep slope which led to our camp site for the night. We quickly got to work digging out a snow ledge and putting up the tent while a snow blizzard whirled menacingly around us – hopefully the storm hadn’t come early. Inside the safety of our tent we ate our allocated meals and went to seep while layers of snow steadily accumulated, threatening to engulf the tent. We were at about 4,700m which is the highest I’ve ever been. The altitude seemed to be affecting me as I woke up multiple times during the night gasping for air.
Now it’s 4:30am – time to get up. It’s pitch black, and quite cold. The jet boil fires into action and we eat our porridge sachets while the light from our head torches reveals millions of sparkling ice crystals that have formed on the inside of our tent. Fortunately the tent wasn’t buried by snow and it sounds like the wind has dropped. We pack up, retrieving frozen crampons, ice axes and other bits of kit used to fix the guy lines in place. Soon we’re kitted up, roped together and ready to go. We cross crevasses before gaining a deceivingly steep snow slope leading to a saddle. The snow is quite deep and progress is slow at this altitude, or maybe it’s the lack of food and a disturbed night’s sleep – probably a combination. Neil is up front, but seems to be struggling, so he swaps with Tom. After a few more meters I feel a sharp tug on the rope behind me, Neil has stopped and wants to take a break. We all know this avalanche prone slope is not the place to stop, but Neil insists (with slightly slurred speech) he can’t go any further. He’s on his knees handing bits of climbing gear to Tom saying that he’ll go back to the ledge and that Tom and I should continue. We watch Neil until he reaches safety then continue to the edge of a very large bergschrund. The cold has steadily been creeping upwards through my limbs and I’m not feeling too great. When I catch up to Tom the world starts to spin – I think I may vomit. Tom, who seems quite perky, suggests a route via a snow bridge to cross the bergschrund. I don’t think we should do it. If Tom falls into the bergschrund I doubt I’d be able to hold his fall and it would take at least 2 days for the others to reach us, by which time we’d probably have succumbed to hypothermia. This is not like the Alps, there’s no on-call helicopter to whisk us back to safety. Begrudgingly, we descend.
Soon we’re all back on the snow ledge, and Neil who has been wrapped up in his sleeping bag feels a lot better. I’m shivering a bit, so get into my sleeping bag. Tom and Neil plan to go up again so start preparing kit. Meanwhile I seem to be struggling to breathe normally and shivering quite a lot. I suddenly realise how tired I feel. Tom’s and Neil’s voices become quite distant, I’m focussing on my breathing and how I’m sure I’ll feel better after some sleep. The urge to sleep is overwhelming, but Tom and Neil keep rudely interrupting. I’ve told them to go without me. By now the sun is shining and Tom’s down to his t-shirt but I’m still shivering and breathing quite heavily despite lying down in a sleeping bag wearing a down jacket for at least 30 minutes. All I want is to go to sleep, I feel like I could happily sleep for at least 6 hours, which is probably the time it would take them to summit. Neil tries to get into my sleeping bag, I’m so confused - what’s he doing? Why won’t they just go away and leave me to sleep! They decide not to leave me. I take a Diamox tablet (for altitude sickness) then we all descend back to base camp by the lake.
This was an important lesson learnt for all three of us. The altitude wasn’t that high and the cold wasn’t that great, but Neil had been climbing for the last 10 days straight and I had been out for nearly all of them too. We were exhausted and without enough food to sustain us our bodies simply could not cope with the conditions. Tom, who had come up from a couple of days rest and plentiful food at base camp, was the only one of us really fit for the ascent – Neil and I were lucky to have him because as a pair our situation could have been far more serious.
Final attempt at the 5,000m+ peak
We’ve had a rest day at base camp and now our plan is to head straight for high camp, this time also joined by Scott and David. After a breakfast of rice pudding with jam followed by a bowl of muesli we set off up the valley – this time feeling a lot more energised! Once again we find ourselves ascending the steep slope to high camp while dark ominous clouds form and a snow blizzard whips up arounds us, maybe this is the typical weather up here. Either way it doesn’t bother us. After extending the snow ledge to accommodate Scott and David we retreat to our tents for the night. I feel a lot more positive this time, I have so much more energy and the walk up to high camp seemed a lot easier than a few days ago.
It’s Thursday 24th and we’re about to set off on our last attempt to climb the 5,044m peak. This time we’ve left the tents in place in case we need to retreat. We split into two climbing teams. Tom, Neil and I set off first with Scott and David behind. Soon we’re crossing the snow bridge over the bergschrund, then delicately traverse above it to reach a saddle. From here we have a steep snow plod up a heavily corniced ridge to the summit. It looks quite straight forward, but from previous experiences I’m reluctant to believe this. The sun is shining and spirits are high as we start up the slope. However, it soon becomes quite steep so Tom is placing ice screws to protect us if we fall. After a couple of steep pitches the angle eases and now we’re tentatively travelling over loose sections of rock, with a near vertical snow slope to the left and an impressive cornice to the right. The ridge goes on for longer than anticipated, but we’re making good progress and the weather seems to be on our side. Looking down into the valley we can see our tents – two tiny red and green shapes dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. It’s been 3 hours since we left the safety of our high camp and finally the summit is in sight. It’s an enormous cornice – the largest I’ve ever seen! Tom approaches carefully then plants his ice axe into the snow to anchor himself, the ice axe plunges straight through the snow. He quickly retrieves it and moves a bit further away from the edge of the cornice. We all join him to celebrate our incredible achievement. Success at last! After a group photo and some well earnt snacks we head down the same way we came.
It’s Tuesday 29th August and our time in this valley has come to an end. Before long we’re packed up and making our way towards the end of the lake where foot prints left by a pack of wolves remind us we’re just visitors in this wild place. We’ve had an incredible time, not without challenges, and feel privileged to have had the opportunity to spend 4 weeks in this remote valley. Overall, the expedition was a great success. We achieved 14 summits including the 5,044m peak, identified several cave entrances, photographed 11 glaciers for Project Pressures’ climate change research and recorded a variety of wildlife which will contribute to the Wildlife of Kyrgyzstan database.
I would like to thank our sponsors: Wilderness Awards, British Mountaineering Council and the Mount Everest Foundation who assisted with funding our expedition and Leanne Dyke for acting as our home contact and providing daily weather forecasts throughout the expedition.
More Photographs in the Gallery