Definitely, definitely, the last ever post!

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In which I mention briefly my (JP) plans for this year.  North face of Muz-Tok (pictured here in 2009 American Alpine Journal, gentle bedtime reading on these cold winter nights).  I’ll be with Ed Lemon (who I climbed with in Tajikistan in 2012) and Martin Jones.  Muz-Tok is in south-west Kyrgyzstan, not far from the triple point between Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.  Access may be complex, involving incursions into Tajikistan and/or Uzbekistan but that will all be part of the adventure.  Thanks for reading everyone!

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…return to civilization!

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I am writing one more post about the remainder of our time in Tajikistan, there are a few things that are worth writing about.  After our climb described in the previous post was over, there was sadly no time left over to climb anything else – especially given that the walk out to base camp from our climb took 2 days due to the need to cross the Bozbaital river very early on to avoid mishap.  A pity, but the reality is that attempting to climb a 6,000m peak without acclimatizing to roughly 5,500m first would have been foolish.  Better safe than sorry.

After arriving back at basecamp to find everything intact we had a few days to pack up and carry everything back to where we had arranged to be picked up, and have a closer look at the Kokuybel mudflats.  Our lift back to Murgab turned up early (they arrived at 10am-ish, when we hadn’t been expecting them until 1pm).  Several minor breakdowns later, we arrived back in Murgab mid-afternoon.  We spent the remainder of the afternoon drinking tea and the evening eating plov.  Plov is the national dish of Tajikistan (and Uzbekistan), it is very good and is also very cheap to make.  It is steamed rice with some meat, carrots and onions, all fairly spicy and usually with a few condiments.  http://tinyurl.com/ondza6m is a representative selection of images of this delicious dish!  After our time in the wilderness we were certainly in the mood for eating.

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Minor breakdown on Pamir plateau.  A very long way from anywhere.

Next morning we were ready to visit the area in town where vehicles driving to Khorog depart and negotiate the first stage of our journey home.  We shared with a French couple but still did not get that good a price.  Getting a good price for journey from Murgab – Khorog seems much harder than for the journey from Khorog – Dushanbe.  For the latter journey we got a good price on both outward and return trips.  We sat down to yet another day of stunning scenery, interspersed with long waits at military checkpoints, as we crossed the Pamir plateau back to Khorog.  Our driver demonstrated his proficiency at multi-tasking by getting out a passport-sized photo of the Aga Khan IV and wedging the photo in place by the sun visor so that he could do his prayers while he was driving.

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Some good hills overlooking the Gunt river en-route back to Khorog.

Our driver, like most people in Gorno-Badakhshan province (except maybe the Kyrgyz in Murgab and the north) was part of the Nizari Shia Ismaili denomination of Islam.  The Nizari Shia Ismailis are a fascinating group.  There are about 15 million Nizari Shia Ismailis worldwide, with particularly large numbers in parts of central Asia and Africa.  The Nizari Shia Ismailis worship the Aga Khan IV, a descendant of the prophet Mohammed.  The Aga Khan IV is a business magnate living in France, who founded and operates the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN), a large NGO providing healthcare, education, and other development work in those parts of the world where the Nizari Shia Ismailis live. 

Gorno-Badakhshan appears heavily dependent on the activities of the AKDN, for instance in running the health service there, and in opening the University in Khorog.  It is hard not to be impressed by how they have a functioning society in Gorno-Badakhshan despite so many obstacles – a government that cares little for them, proximity to Afghanistan, the legacy of the civil war and other conflicts, a harsh environment (especially in winter) and poor transport links.  That they have achieved this appears (to the non-expert outside observer, at least) to be a testament to their shared religious beliefs and the work of the AKDN.

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Heavy traffic near Shurabad.

We arrived in Khorog in good time and returned to Dushanbe the following day.  Staying with friends in Dushanbe (thanks!), we were able to weigh ourselves.  I had lost about 7 kg on the expedition, Jonny wasn’t sure how much he weighed before we started out.  We ate quite a lot of shashlik to try and rectify the weight loss, and went for a ride on an extremely old ferris wheel to gain an aerial view of the world’s largest teahouse (http://www.eurasianet.org/node/67218) under construction.

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The world’s largest teahouse under construction in Dushanbe.

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Jonny eating shashlik in Dushanbe.

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Jonny drinking SimSim in Dushanbe.

All photos copyright © John Proctor and Jonathan Davey

The first ascent of Point SimSim

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Nearly a month since the last post!  Unfortunately I’ve been busy with some important deadlines at work.  Hopefully I will get all the posting done by Christmas.  Anyway, as you may have guessed we managed to get across the river with an incident-free pendulum traverse the following morning and set off up the Aydemsi glacier, which we had come to explore.  The glacier extends all the way down to the Bozbaital river but for virtually all of its length (from its snout up to the point where it splits into 2 smaller glaciers) it is completely covered in rubble so can be walked up without a rope.  Locations to pitch a tent on the rocks for an uncomfortable nights sleep are plentiful.  As we walked up the glacier unclimbed mountains at the top came into view…

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Walk up Aydemsi glacier

As we walked and scrambled further up we started to form the plans of what to climb, and where to camp.  We resolved to attempt a traverse of the 2 principal peaks at the head of the valley, shown in photo below.  Starting up the north-east facing snow-slope to the left of the triangular rock face in centre of the photo, then continuing on the snowy ridge to the summit (about 5,600m), then across to the rounded summit towards the right of the photo, then down.  The tent was pitched, gear was sorted and we set our alarms for just before daybreak the following morning.

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Objectives

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Sorting gear ready for the climb

The next morning dawned fine and we set off up the climb.  Beautiful frontpointing up crisp neve…

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A few photos of our ascent

Beautiful frontpointing, but interminable.  All in all we did about 1,000m of ascent that day, starting out at 4,600m and finishing at 5,600m.  A long day, as you will see.  It was (I think) 11am-ish by the time we emerged onto the snowy upper ridge in the centre of the second photo.  Snow conditions here were not as good as on the ramp leading up to the ridge so progress was slower.  The views were getting good though, with a spectacular panorama to the north showing the rest of the Muzkol range and mountains in the Pamir Alai towards the Kyrgyz border.

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Looking north towards Kyrgyzstan

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Jonathan nearing summit.

We topped out onto the summit, the LH summit in the second photo above.  Further spectacular views towards the Peak of the Soviet Officer and peaks surrounding the top of the Bozbaital valley.

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View looking east from summit; Peak of the Soviet Officer and peaks surrounding the top of Bozbaital valley on R.

But the view looking in the other direction (west) was not so encouraging.  Our mountain had a twin peak to the south-west which was slightly higher than the summit on which we were stood!  And, more pressingly, we could see our proposed traverse to the rounded summit further to the west to be riddled with large crevasses and seracs; not looking like a pleasant outing.  This left us with the need to find an alternative way down – the way we had come up was pointing roughly to the east so had now been in the sun for a long time.  Most likely the snow would be soft and avalanche-prone by now.  The clock was ticking; it was early afternoon now.  Certainly no time to tick off the slightly higher summit to the south-west, we had to find an alternate way down.  We traversed along the ridge to have a look at the west-facing slope in the next photo – leading down to the western branch of the Aydemsi glacier.  Being west-facing the snow would not have been in the sun for so long, and we set off down towards the glacier.

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JP beginning the descent

Unfortunately however, this is where the photo collection ends as we had to prioritize moving fast over stopping to take photos!  At first the descent was very fast, especially on sections such as that in the last photo where we could nearly screerun down the sections of scree next to the rocky rib on the right.  But as we descended, the terrain grew less accommodating.  At first the snowy sections has been moderately angled so we could walk down them, but as we descended they became steeper.  We didn’t relish the prospect of nearly 1,000m of downhill frontpointing.  At times we had relatively open snowslopes to descend, sticking near the rocky ribs at one side to minimize avalanche risk.  And at times we scrambled down relatively narrow couloirs, placing gear as we went.  We ploughed on downwards as afternoon turned into evening.  During mid-evening possibly the most alarming moment of the entire trip occurred: Rockfall.  I have to be honest, taking us completely by surprise!  During mid-afternoon (usually worst time for rockfall) there had been nothing, so it was a shock to have rocks tumbling towards us now, when the temperature had turned much cooler and stuff should have been starting to freeze back into place.  A block the size of a microwave oven passed just a few feet away from my head.  Quite unnerving.  Anyway, moving swiftly on.

Darkness fell as we scrambled down, and down, and down, growing somewhat tired.  I was in favour of bivvying and continuing the next morning, but Jonny persuaded me that we should carry on.  Then, eventually, a feeling of enormous elation.  The couloir in which we were descending started to open out, the angle started to ease, and we were safely onto the glacier….  Once we were safely on the flat glacier we packed away most of the gear and set off down the glacier towards the tent.  But it was as if the mountain was having one last laugh with us as, to reach the junction with the eastern branch of the glacier where our tent was pitched we found ourselves having to find our way through a maze of penitentes.  Not steep enough for us to have to worry about them falling over onto us, but steep enough to form an unfathomable maze through which we had to thread our way.  The last photo is a photo I took of the penitentes the following day.

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Penitentes (on left) through which we struggled to find our way in the dark.

So, that was our great adventure!  The minor peak we did climb is going to be called “Peak SimSim”, after one of the principal locally brewed beers available on draught in Dushanbe.  SimSim is the more expensive one, at 65p ($1) per pint.  The cheaper one, Dushanbinski, costs just 50p (80 cents) per pint.  The ascent route will be called “north rib”, the descent route is not deserving of a name.  It is going to be recorded in American Alpine Journal etc.

Last post about this trip (hopefully some time next week!) will feature our return to Dushanbe (more taxi driver stories, and what holds Gorno-Badakhshan province together).  Then I may mention something about next year’s plans…

 

- All photos are copyright © Jonathan Davey and John Proctor

Acclimatization and surprise finds

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Now that we were set up at base camp (albeit not as far up the valley as we had hoped) the next task was to acclimatize.  Acclimatizing basically involves walking uphill until you get a headache then walking back down again.  We were fortunate here to be camped at the bottom of the south side of Muzkolski on which, according to the map, we should be able to walk nearly to the 5,200m summit without needing crampons, axes or climbing gear.  We set off for this in fine weather seeing an increasingly exciting panorama of views as we walked higher.  To the south and west we could see over the bottom of the Bozbaital valley and onwards towards the gorge leading to Bartang.  On the horizon we could see the high snow-capped mountains surrounding the Bartang valley, and to the south-east we could see beyond Peak Frunze to the mountains surrounding Lake Sarez.

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View towards Bartang valley and Rushan.

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Pure slog.

As we walked higher the Academy of Sciences range became visible to the north-west and views of the Peak of the Soviet Officer to the east.  But acclimatization is hard work and there is no substitute for it; it is about getting your body used to the thinner air at altitude.  We walked higher and higher, getting slower and slower until, just shy of 5,000m Jonny admitted defeat – he could go no higher.  We descended to base camp (there is some good scree running in Tajikistan) and made food.

After acclimatization we had a break (enforced by the only poor weather we encountered on the trip) to consider what to do next.  We did not feel ready for one of the 6,000m peaks at the top of the valley as they were still a very long walk away and, even more to the point, we had only acclimatized to 5,000m so jumping straight onto a 6,000m peak would have put us at risk of altitude sickness.

We thus cast around on the map for an objective (preferably unclimbed) at more reasonable altitude.  We had brought our complete records of what has and hasn’t been climbed in this range so that we could choose alternative objectives in this situation.  On the map, one location stood out as being suitable for us now.  A glacial cirque to the south-east of Peak Frunze, accessed from the valley in which we were camped, in which there was no record of climbing having taken place and peaks up to ca. 5,600m.  It was not too far away, a walk-in in one day should be possible, which would leave time afterwards for an attempt on one of the 6,000m peaks at the top of the Bozbaital valley.

The normal modus operandi for climbing this kind of mountain is to spend a day walking up onto the glacier then camp there ready to start climbing extremely early the following morning.  We set off for our walk-in and discovered some very interesting sights en-route up the valley.  We found a small abandoned settlement, with walls of primitive buildings intact but otherwise no sign of humans having been there.  There were even a couple of tiny buildings with intact roofs that you could (just about) crawl into.

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Ruined settlement, Bozbaital valley.

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Spot the climber.

However, our onward progress ground to a halt when we needed to cross the river to access the valley and glacier to the south.  On our first walk-in up Bozbaital valley we had succeeded in crossing river lower down the valley, but here the river was confined to a narrower space and clearly crossing was going to be tricky.  The river didn’t seem /too/ deep but was very fast-flowing and being swept away was a definite risk.  Doubtless there would be stones bowling along in the current seeing as it was a river of glacial meltwater.

We opted to attempt to cross using a pendulum traverse.  A pendulum traverse in climbing is where you traverse across a cliff whilst being prevented from falling by a rope hanging down from above, so you are acting like a pendulum.  As well as for actual climbing, the technique is useful for crossing rivers.  You anchor the rope to a rock / tree at the side of the river, let out a length 2x – 3x the width of the river and wade across keeping tension on the rope in case you are washed away.  It was my turn to cross first and I steadily inched my way across, leaning forward onto my trekking poles into the flow.  At first all went well but then, 2/3rds of the way across, in the fastest flowing part, disaster struck.  Possibly a rock hit my leg – I am not sure.  But I suddenly found myself knocked off my feet, horizontal in the water.  I rapidly swung back towards the bank from which I had set out, only the rope around the waist (belayed by Jonny) saving me from being swept away.

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The offending river…

The swing on the rope put me back in shallower waters and I was able to (assisted by Jonny) get back on my feet and climb out of the river.  Quite a setback.  We considered our position and decided to try again early the following morning.  In this environment the water level in rivers varies drastically throughout the day as rivers swell in the afternoon as the day’s snowmelt comes down and then subside during the night.  Of course, the decision to cross early in the morning put another 2 days on the time needed for this climb as we would have to do the same thing on the way back.

With that in mind I walked back to base camp (which didn’t take that long without a heavy pack) to pick up another 2 days worth of food, while Jonny dried the wet gear and pitched the tent….

Next post will feature the actual climb!

PS We are on ukclimbing.com :) http://www.ukclimbing.com/articles/page.php?id=5811

(slight spoiler!)

25kg packs in 45°c heat; innovations at basecamp

However, before the tribulations and innovations described in the title, there is another ½-day of driving on the Pamir highway to tell you about.  After the standard tourist breakfast in Tajikistan of fried eggs, non bread, jam and unlimited tea the promised Uaz jeep turned up and we set off north along the Pamir highway.  From Murgab the Pamir highway climbs to the Ak-Baital pass at just over 4,000m, continues past lake Kara-Kul, crosses the border into Kyrgyzstan at Sary-Tash then descends to its terminus in Osh, in the fertile Fergana valley.

On our journey we passed over the Ak-Baital pass before turning off the Pamir highway just south of lake Kara-Kul to go cross-country and access the Muzkol mountains.  We turned off the Pamir highway as planned, unfortunately not getting as good a view of lake Kara-Kul as I thought we might.  I had hoped to photograph lake Kara-kul as the lake is formed by a meteorite impact crater and has no drainage outlet.  It is the kind of place where you could find minerals such as diamond and tektite that are created due to the high pressures and temperatures generated during a meteorite impact.  Similar to what I do at work, but on a much larger scale!

At first we passed occasional newly-erected signs for tourists (presumably part of the initiative that has resulted in the new permits), though we did not come across any actual tourists (or evidence of tourists) after we left the Pamir highway.  We drove the past the sacred shrine which you need to pay more to look at (dutifully looking the other way of course!) and the signs for the non-existent tourists fizzled out.  Feeling increasingly excited, we drove for a number of kilometres down a modest gorge containing a small settlement, the last that we would see for 2 weeks.  The GPS indicated that we were getting increasingly close to the area covered by our detailed Russian map of the Muzkol range and the mountains themselves finally come into view on the horizon:

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Jonny and drivers consulting map.

We emerged from the gorge to find the expected large plain separating us from the mountains (or at least the part of the range that we wanted to visit).  A detour to the west was only ended by us pointing out to the driver where we were on the map according to the GPS and use of international language to explain that we were going the wrong way but eventually we wound up at the Kokuy’bel mudflats.  This was the key section which our original driver had said his land cruiser would not be able to navigate, and indeed it remained to be seen if the Uaz we were presently in would fare any better.  But surprisingly, in the event there was only one brief difficult section – a river crossing.  There was even something resembling a track for most of the way.

And so we arrived at our drop-off point, the junction where the Kokuy’bel mudflats become the Bartang river, passing through Khudara and Bassid, then eventually joining the Panj river at Rushan, through which we had driven several days before on the way from Dushanbe to Khorog.  The nearest settlement we knew of, Khudara, was 40km away from here.  The mountains we had come to climb lay some distance up a side-valley, the Bozbaital valley, and we grimly contemplated the amount of carrying we were going to have to do to get our food and gear up there.

I managed to communicate in writing and word of mouth to our drivers that we expected them back on 10th August and they drove off leaving us there.  In the middle of nowhere.

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Drop-off point.  Pik Frunze in background.

It was about midday and the time for talking was now over; we had to carry our food and gear as far up the valley as possible to a point we could make our basecamp.  So the afternoon and the following day was spent carrying our food and gear up the Bozbaital valley to our basecamp.  Despite great efforts to go lightweight and reduce walk-in time we still had enough stuff with us to necessitate 2 carries up the valley.  On the first carry we had several interesting river crossings, on the second carry we found a much easier route staying well above the river on the north side.  Afternoon temperatures were horrendous and as a result we made limited progress.  The thermometer on Jonny’s watch read 55°c in the sun, I don’t quite believe that reading but we believe temperature was over 40°c.  There were also (small number of) mosquitos – not what you would expect at 3,700m!

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This is what modern light-weight super-alpinism is mainly about.

We were finally starting to see the mountains of interest – Pik Frunze and the Peak of the Soviet Officer but as we set off up the valley we were also greeted by a more unexpected sight – a group of men trying to extract an Uaz van from a deep pool of water it had plunged headlong into.  It had clearly been there for some time as they had driven a small digger in all the way from the Pamir highway to aid their efforts.  The mind boggles at how long this must have taken – it had taken us the best part of a day to get there from Murgab and our vehicle (an Uaz-469) was pretty fast both on and off-road.

God knows where these people had been trying to go as we were not on a route to any setlements we knew of – to our knowledge the nearest settlement was Khudara about 40km away to the south-west.  Perhaps they had been trying to take a short cut there?  The other possibility is that there is a summer settlement (small enough not to be marked on the map) closer by – while we could see nothing, there is a place on the map about 11k to the south where one might reasonably expect nomads to spend the summer.  My Russian didn’t stretch to asking whem where the vehicle had been trying to get to.  I could remember how to say “Good luck!” but not “you’re gonna need it!”  One of the people offered us Koumys (fermented mare’s milk) so we ran away.

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A strange place to park.  Koumys (in yellow container) is on tap to help resolve matters.  Photo copyright © Jonathan Davey

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Marco Polo sheep horns.  Alas we did not see any living specimens.

I’d like to finish by describing some new innovations at basecamp, as they may interest some readers.  Firstly, the issue of water.  Of course, it is essential to have basecamp close to a plentiful supply of clean water but in the high mountains this is not as simple as it sounds as most of the water that comes off the mountains in the summer is the product of ice melting at the snouts of the glaciers – ice that has spent the last few hundred years grinding away at the rock beneath it.  The result is water that is full of sand-like particles, grey in colour, not very pleasant to drink and not very good for you if you drink a lot of it.

So instead you need to find a stream which is fed by melting of snow (in practice the previous winter’s snow) from higher up on the mountain, and in the past we have been a bit hamstrung in our choice of basecamp site by this requirement.  But this year…. We took an inflatable water carrier with a tap at the bottom, meaning we could fill it up with the sandy glacial melt water, leave it overnight for the sediment to settle out and drink clear water in the morning.  Definitely something I will do again, as it eliminates the necessity to find a snowmelt stream – these are often few and far between.

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Sediment settling out of glacial melt water in the water carrier.

The second change this year is in choice of stove.  On holidays like this, a petrol stove is a necessity.  Canisters of camping gas are usually not available, and if they are they are extremely expensive.  On previous trips to the Tien Shan (2010) and Pamirs (2012) I suffered a lot with unreliable petrol stoves and grew to hate the things.  The morning when we started this route in 2012 (http://www.flickr.com/photos/71640968@N04/7846795166/in/set-72157631213123266) we spent the best part of an hour trying to coax our petrol stove into action, and climbed in fear that it would pack in when we needed to melt snow so that we could drink.  I won’t say which brand of stove we were using in 2010 and 2012 for fear of being sued but suffice to say it was a well-known and reputable brand.  I always viewed petrol stoves as being inconvenient, unreliable and generally a liability, only to be used if there is no alternative.  Even a petrol stove that functions well back in the UK can struggle with the variable-quality petrol found in countries such as Tajikistan.

Anyway, 2013….step forward the Optimus Svea 123!  This stove was first produced in 1955 (reputedly the first compact backpacking stove ever produced) and – amazingly – is still being produced today.  We were lent one by a friend (thanks Dave) to try out on this trip and came back very impressed.  It is (I think) unique in a number of ways.  Firstly, it has an effective cleaning needle built in to avoid clogging of the burner.  If you turn the valve a bit further than is required for burning, the needle comes up and clears blockage from the burner.  Secondly (perhaps more importantly) it has a built-in heat exchanger.  The brass burner screws directly on to the brass fuel tank, ensuring that the fuel tank is heated and pressure in the fuel is maintained as the stove burns.  The stove also packs away in a very compact and robust manner, reducing the risk of damage during transit, and it is easy to pack a few spare parts just in case.

I can honestly say that this stove has transformed my view of petrol stoves.  In contrast to the long waits often experienced with other stoves in the past, this stove never took more than a few minutes to get going.  Making a brew was a pleasure rather than a chore and I will definitely be happy to take an Optimus Svea as the only stove on future trips.

But, it is fair to say that this is a stove to use at your own risk.  Firstly, the heat exchanger.  Not sure that would be allowed on a modern design.  The heat exchanger (presumably) cools the flame, resulting in more CO production so it is definitely a stove that must be kept well ventilated.  It also results in the fuel tank becoming (to my mind at least) worryingly hot so we usually operated the stove in a shallow bath of water to keep the temperature of the fuel tank under control.

Also, we did have a few fireballs.  Priming sometimes took several attempts, and on the second or third attempt worked better by pouring a small quantity of petrol onto the burner rather than letting fuel out of the stove tank.  Sometimes in this case the fuel you were pouring on would ignite instantly due to heat left over from previous priming attempt and a fireball would ensue.  In the later stages of cooking we sometimes had a second flame appear, coming out of the safety valve.  It was a bit unnerving at first but after a while we got used to it.

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Optimus Svea ready to go.  Rock in foreground doubles as windshield and chopping board.

One could argue that a stove producing large quantities of CO and the occasional fireball is not very safe, but I would respond that these are hazards you can look out for and control, and dealing with these is vastly preferable to the situation last year in which the stove on which we relied to be able to drink during our multiday climb (by melting snow) was in the habit of letting us down.

I must also stress that the fireballs, additional flames appearing etc. were certainly as a result of the fact that we were not using the stove in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.  The instructions state on safety grounds that the stove is to be used with white gas only, and never with car gasoline.  For us, the key reason for having the stove was the fact that it worked so well with car gasoline….

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Jonny at base camp.

PS They did manage to retrieve their van eventually!

Delays in Murgab…

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I’ll start this post by telling you a bit about the town of Murgab.  In eastern Tajikistan, it stands on the remote but strategically important border with China.  The Pamir highway drives roughly parallel to the border on the Tajik (formerly Russian / Soviet) side, and the Karakorum highway drives roughly parallel to the border on the Chinese side.  Muztagh Ata can be clearly seen from here.  In the past there was an important Russian military garrison here (the Pamirsky Post), and the large statue of Lenin in the town centre is a reminder of the Russian presence.  Competing for prominence with Lenin is Tajikistan’s president Emomali Rahmon who is featured on a number of posters and billboards throughout the town, just as elsewhere in Tajikistan.

SAM_1401 View across Murgab.  Muztagh Ata (in China) visible on the skyline in centre.

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Statue of Lenin in Murgab.

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President Rahmon saying something important.

While the town of Murgab is not the most beautiful from the architectural point of view, its situation high on the Pamir plateau is quite spectacular and the buildings do not rise high enough to block the views of the extraordinary natural beauty surrounding the town.  We found ourselves delayed in Murgab for an entire day, so had plenty of time to appreciate the place.  We were delayed over the issues of transport and permits – issues that may interest some readers, and which I will therefore describe here.

Firstly, the issue of permits.  As I think I mentioned briefly in a post before the trip, if you want to climb in the Himalaya and surrounding ranges in Asia the cost and bureaucracy involved in obtaining the permits is a major factor in determining your choice of holiday destination as it varies widely from country to country.  The general trends are that the safer the country in question is perceived to be in the western world the more expensive the permit is, and the more famous and desirable the mountain(s) in question are in the western world, the more expensive the permit is.  At one extreme, permits to climb in Nepal, India and China can often run into thousands of dollars/pounds – especially if you want to climb a mountain hitherto unclimbed.  At the other extreme, if you want to go to Afghanistan to climb Mir Samir or Noshaq, no permit is required.

The various ex-Soviet central Asian countries are, in my view, very good places to do cost-effective mountaineering as permits to climb here don’t tend to cost more than about $100 each.  No doubt Eric Shipton and Bill Tilman, whose eponymous grant we received from Gore-tex®, would have approved.  Due to their slight political instability and proximity to Afghanistan these countries are sometimes perceived in the west as not being safe for visitors but I feel that a bit of careful research reveals that perception to be false.  Nevertheless, the perception is (I guess) a factor in ensuring that permits to climb there are relatively cheap.  The fact that the mountains are not as famous in the west as peaks of similar stature elsewhere in the world is also a contributory factor in keeping the permits cheap.

An extreme case of how under-recognised the mountains in ex-Soviet central Asia are is the Karavshin valley in Batken province, south-western Kyrgyzstan.  It has granite big walls and trekking to rival Yosemite but the entirety of Batken province gets only 1 page in the Odyssey guidebook to Kyrgyzstan and less than ½-page in the Lonely Planet guide to central Asia (themselves arguably fairly niche publications!)

Anyway, I should stop digressing and giving away my plans for next summer’s holiday.  In the case of Tajikistan the only permit required until very recently was a permit to visit Gorno-Badakhshan province (in which most of the mountains are located) costing the princely sum of £50 ($80).  You apply for the permit at the same time as applying for your visa, and the permit is stamped in your passport next to your visa.  However, very recently (the last year or so) an additional permit has been introduced for visiting the Pamirs “national park” (not defined).  At the time of travel we had conflicting reports on whether or not this permit was required and enforced for the range we were visiting so had decided to ascertain the situation once we were in Murgab.

In Murgab we chatted about the permits to the English-speaking teenager and future business magnate who seemed to be running the show at the guesthouse where we were staying, and were advised that there is some chance of our permits being checked – admittedly we were unlikely to encounter a Tajik official at basecamp or on the mountain, but driving close to the Pamir highway round lake Kara-Kul we could do.  Given that the additional cost involved in getting this permit was small there seemed little point in risking it so we went with our hosts to the newly-established permit office to purchase the necessary pieces of paper.

Inevitably, this being Tajikistan, the amount to actually be paid was negotiable as the rules regarding how much you have to pay are complex and open to interpretation.  For instance, you have to pay extra to visit important historical and religious sites.  Unfortunately our proposed route into the mountains passed by an important shrine so we had to convince the police that we would look the other way whilst we passed it.  Our host from the guesthouse who was interpreting for us showed us locations on the map on the wall, pointing out that we wouldn’t be able to drive down the kokuy’bel valley to our proposed drop-off point as it was too muddy, and would instead need to be dropped off at the top of the valley.  We readily agreed to this, knowing he was probably saying it to secure the cheaper permit.

Eventually a final price was agreed, less than £35 ($55) each and the necessary pieces of paper were filled in for us.  On the way out we encountered a group of French butterfly collectors who had been caught without a permit and were negotiating the size of the fine they would have to pay.

The second factor delaying us in Murgab was our onward transport arrangements.  One can travel from Dushanbe to Murgab on standard public transport, but of course to reach the mountains we were travelling to we needed to drive a track that is rarely driven, if the track even existed at all.  We therefore arranged, and paid half the price for, our transport onwards from Murgab before leaving the UK.  We had been told that the staff at the guesthouse where we were staying would put us in touch with our driver.  But on arrival in Murgab, we found that the guesthouse staff had no idea that such an arrangement existed and explained that the company with whom we had booked the transport had recently moved their office from Murgab to Dushanbe.  Phoning the company at their new office, we were promised that our transport would arrive at the guesthouse soon.

Eventually, said transport turned up but the driver took a look at our map showing where we wanted to go and explained that his vehicle (a land cruiser) would not be able to get there – the road was too bad.  Instead, we were advised that a Russian Uaz jeep would be a better bet.  So, after a little more to-ing and fro-ing, a Russian Uaz jeep was organised to take us to the mountains the following morning at no additional cost…

Next post (probably Thursday) will feature some photos of the Muzkol mountains!  (I promise)

- John

Driving the Pamir highway…the roof of the world!

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So, where are we now in the narrative?  Oh yes, Khorog.  Sleepy town in eastern Tajikistan, straddling the Gunt river just upstream of its confluence with the Panj river and the Afghan border.  Khorog is often quoted as being one end of the Pamir highway, a road built through improbable mountain terrain during the Soviet era to keep control over some of the most remote parts of the empire.  Nowadays the Pamir Highway is often compared to its more famous counterpart connecting Pakistan to China, the Karakorum highway.

The Pamir highway starts in Osh, south-western Kyrgyzstan, passes into Tajikistan, through Murgab in the eastern Pamir, and then on to Khorog.  During the course of our expedition we drove just over half of the Pamir highway, from Khorog through Murgab as far as lake Kara-Kul.  Our travels on the Pamir highway were the only part of the trip where we met significant numbers of other tourists, as the Pamir Highway is deservedly quite popular.  A lot of people cycle the Pamir highway, though this sounds like quite hard work given that there are a number of passes at over 4,000m altitude and scorching hot daytime temperatures during the summer.

On our trip we turned up late at night at the Pamir Guesthouse in Khorog, to find other visitors chatting away into the early hours on the terrace.  Our driver had kindly dropped us off at the guesthouse, saving us the hassle of carrying our heavy bags up the hill.  We savoured a night spent in proper beds after several days spent sleeping outside on the tapchan in our friend’s garden in Dushanbe.  The following morning our hosts provided us with a breakfast of copious quantities of bread, butter and jam, fried egg and unlimited tea which we ate contentedly in the slightly cooler mountain air (Khorog is at an altitude of 2,500m).  The weather remained beautiful (as it did for 99% of the trip!) as we set off into town to buy petrol for our camping stove.

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Pamir guesthouse

Eventually settling for Tajikistan’s second best petrol we returned to the guesthouse to check out and make our way to the departure point for shared taxis to Murgab.  Just as elsewhere in Tajikistan, one cannot walk far without encountering a billboard or mural presenting the wise thoughts of President Emomali Rahmon:

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President Rahmon says something important!

Unfortunately the minibus service to the town centre failed to materialise so we eventually carried our bags to the main road and hailed a minibus there.  We arrived at the departure point for shared taxis to Murgab and entered negotiations with a prospective driver.  We had got a very good price for the journey from Dushanbe to Khorog but negotiations this time were tough.  After the delays procuring petrol and getting our bags across to the departure point we had missed the boat as most drivers heading to Murgab that day had already departed.  Only 2 drivers vied for our custom, offering fares significantly above normal but succeeding in communicating to us that the fare was higher because they would not be able to find other passengers to fill the vehicle.  Jonny stayed with the bags whilst I cast around elsewhere for anyone who might take us to Murgab.  By the time I returned the driver offering the (slightly) cheaper price was nowhere to be seen and we had not much choice but to pay the higher price and get going to Murgab.  We were paying significantly more than we had paid for the ride from Dushanbe to Khorog despite the journey to Murgab being only 2/3rds the distance and ½ the journey time.

We shared the taxi with a mother and child who were travelling as far as Jelandy (roughly 1/3rd of the journey we were making) and the drivers mate who was travelling all the way to Murgab.  We made our way up the valley in which our driver lived, passing between increasingly snowy and beautiful mountains and stopping off at every village for our driver to make a delivery or chat with his friends.  We filled up with petrol and the driver had a bottle of beer as he drove.

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Gunt river, increasingly good hills.

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Harvest in progress.

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Entering Murgab county, but unfortunately still some distance from Murgab…

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Moo…

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Sassyk-Kul salt lake, Pamir plateau

Our driver proposed stopping for lunch at his friends house / restaurant.  We sat down in the living room, inexplicably plastered from floor to ceiling in wallpaper featuring a Caribbean beach and ate a simple but effective lunch of bread and (yet more) fried egg.  Unlimited tea was on tap as always.  Later on we stopped for food for a second time in the small town of Alichur, nestling on the Pamir plateau at about 3,600m altitude.  Life is tough here during the winter.  Again we stopped at our drivers friends house, and this time were presented with Tajik dairy products.  The Tajiks are very keen on dairy products.  At one extreme, you can get koumys  – fermented (i.e. gone off) unpasteurized horse milk and national drink in neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, at the other extreme you can get qurut, rock hard salty cheeseballs the size of large marbles.  Dairy products of every viscosity between these 2 extremes are available.

Undoubtedly the Tajiks make brilliant and tasty dairy products, but the weather during summer is extremely hot and most people do not have fridges so sometimes the food you are offered is not the freshest.  It is pot luck, you have to take your chances and tuck in.  But this time, we were in luck with exceptionally good butter and Keffir (runny natural yoghurt).  Jonny later admitted he was convinced we were going to die when the range of dairy products was unveiled to us but we both had to agree that they were in fact rather good.

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Jonny about to sample finest dairy products at our drivers friends house in Alichur.

We drove on as night fell, through another military checkpoint (relaxed but slow) and on towards Murgab.  Our driver dropped us off next to his friends guesthouse and was clearly keen for us to stay there but we resisted the hard sell and instead tried to work out where we were on the map and make our way to the Erali guesthouse which had been recommended to us.  Two teenagers working there heard us approaching, offered us tea and showed us where to sleep…..

And that is all for this post!  Tomorrow night myself and my fellrunning partner are going for what will probably be our last evening fellrun of the year and on Friday night I am going to the pub.  So most probably your next post will be on Saturday!  In the next post we will have amusing haggling with police over permits to visit the national park, carry 25kg rucksacks in 45°c heat and reach basecamp!  I do also need to tell all at some point about the very fine cuisine of central Asia – plov/osh, laghman, manti, shorpa, qurutob, shashlik… But maybe that is more suited to the last or last but one post.

John

Finally…we tell you what we got up to!

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A whole month (over a month) has passed since we returned from Tajikistan.  In my case the time has flown by since I have been enaged with a total of about 900 miles driving to ferry my personal belongings and laboratory equipment from Hull to Manchester, phoning, visiting and emailing gas, electricity, water and car insurance companies, British Telecom, DVLA, local councils, estate agents and University administrators.  As if that wasn’t enough, also an important conference presentation and proposal deadline at work.

Anyway, the last detailed post (http://britishmuzkol2013.wordpress.com/type/aside/) had us in Dushanbe and about to depart to Khorog, the capital of Gorno-Badakhshan province and major town en-route to the Pamirs so I will pick up where we left off.  Second time lucky, we did finally depart for Khorog.  The road to Khorog is, in many sections, simply a dirt track so the only public transport available on the road consists of shared 4×4 vehicles.  There is a departure rank for the vehicles in Dushanbe where you simply turn up, negotiate a price with the driver and set off as soon as the driver has succeeded in attracting enough passengers to fill the vehicle.

Fortunately we found a vehicle which had a roof-rack, so it was no trouble to accommodate our copious amounts of baggage.  Just after I took this photo of our baggage being loaded onto the roofrack Jonny realised that his passport (essential to pass through the many military checkpoints en-route to Khorog) was in a bag secured under the tarpaulin on the roof.  The driver’s head sunk into his hands and a period of repacking ensued but eventually we were on our way.

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Packing the vehicle for the drive from Dushanbe to Khorog.

Our driver got off to a slightly dubious start when he drove onto the dual carriageway via the exit sliproad but after that things went smoothly as we sped off towards the Pamirs.  The dual carriageway ended after Vahdat and the road circled around hairpin bends up to the first of a number of mountain passes we would traverse over the next few days.  After the pass the road winds down from the mountains to pass the Nurek reservoir, formed by the second highest dam in the world (according to Wikipedia).  Constructed during the Soviet era, it was the highest dam in the world at the time but has since been knocked from the top spot by the Jinping-I dam in China.

After a stop for lunch at a roadside café, another mountain pass and the first military checkpoint the road winds its way down to the follow the Panj river (forming the Afghan border) for the remaining 6-8 hours of the journey to Khorog.  Scenically, it is absolutely stupendous – Tajikistan is on one side, Afghanistan on the other side, and in the middle is the thundering Panj river hemmed in by enormous cliffs and carrying half the snowmelt from the Pamir mountains towards the Amu Darya river and eventually the remnants of the Aral sea.

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A modern-day Eric Newby and Hugh Carless having lunch in roadside café, Shurabad.

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First views of Afghanistan across the Panj river

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Gorge of the Panj river.  Afghanistan on left, Tajikistan on right (photo was taken on our return to Dushanbe).

But the scenery on this journey is only one aspect to it.  Occasionally one is reminded about the fact that drug smuggling from Afghanistan across this border makes up a large proportion of Tajikistan’s GDP by the large BMWs, Mercs and SUVs driving around with no numberplates and by the unguarded bridges across to Afghanistan.

The road to Khorog is currently undergoing significant improvements – guidebooks just 5 years old quote an 18-hour journey time, but our journey in the end took “just” 13 hours.  Sections of dirt track along which we traveled at walking or bicycle speed were interspersed with sections of smooth tarmac.  Last year myself and Ed Lemon were turned back by the Militsia at the second checkpoint, alongside the Panj river near Zigar, but this year it was all very relaxed at the military checkpoints.  Often they did not even bother to confirm a likeness to our passport photos.

We drove on through the afternoon, becoming increasingly uncomfortable in the back of the taxi with our fellow passengers.  Sleep was impossible.  If the windows were opened dust flew in, if they were closed it became unbearably hot.  Afternoon turned into evening as we passed the next checkpoint at Vanj, and night fell as we continued to Khorog.  Our driver kindly dropped us and other passengers off at our homes or accommodation and we had arrived.

After the trials and tribulations of last year (http://britishmuzkol2013.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/how-it-all-began/) it felt as if we had arrived in the promised land!

Jonny may write some posts while I’m away in Wasdale over the weekend, if not you’ll get a new post from me on Tuesday evening!

Successful return to civilization!

Hello everyone,

So yes we are now back safe and well in Dushanbe. To summarise, we believe we climbed a new route topping out at ca. 5700m altitude, starting from the glacial cirque to the SE of Pik Frunze which is completely unexplored so far as we can tell. The route tops out on a ridge line rather than a distinct summit so we are unsure whether or not we should claim to have made the first ascent of an unclimbed peak. It was all a bit epic but very scenic and by far the biggest and best route I have ever climbed in the greater ranges!

We did not attempt either of the unclimbed 6,000m peaks because it was only after finishing this route that we felt suitably acclimatized for 6,000m and by then there was no time left… But not to worry, the route we did is good enough for me!

Will post again with photos (we have some good ones!) in a few days. Thanks for following us!

John

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