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.
View towards Bartang valley and Rushan.
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.
Ruined settlement, Bozbaital valley.
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.
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