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:
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.
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!
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.
A strange place to park. Koumys (in yellow container) is on tap to help resolve matters. Photo copyright © Jonathan Davey
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.
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.
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….
Jonny at base camp.
PS They did manage to retrieve their van eventually!