At 3,600m above sea level our breathing was laboured. Looking across the valley of the River Naryn from the damp little military-checkpoint at Kara-Say, we remembered to pace ourselves.
A dozen horses grazed the pasture nearby – our horses for the trip. We were to ride into the Djenghi-djer range, far into the mountainous wilderness to the west – as far from a road, in fact, as any of us had ever ventured.
What Churchill said of Russia could also be said of the mountain range we had chosen to explore: it was to us like a riddle wrapped in the mystery of this desolate region inside the enigma of Kyrgyzstan. We had identified a jagged scar of white on Google Maps and could find no expedition that had explored its mountains before. The Djenghi-djer, which means ‘new land’ in Kyrgyz, is a mountain range of about 70km from east to west, its most prominent peaks clustered on the eastern side. It lies within 20km of the Chinese border.
Stepping back in time, we saddled our steeds – one each, and six muscular beasts for gear. The grey clouds lifted just as we set off. Other expeditions have used ex-military 4x4s and even helicopters to penetrate Kyrgyzstan’s mountainous interiors, but our horses were powerful and nimble in equal measure, and more than capable of transporting us over the varying terrain.
After three arduous days in the saddle, we finally set a base camp in a sun-trap with a lively stream running nearby and a graceful, glaciated corrie sitting above us.
We woke early the next morning to a bitterly cold start – teeth chattering, boots frozen – a stark contrast to the previous evening. By 6am, we had reached the lightly snow-covered summit of the nearest peak to our camp, at 4,224m, and looking west we recced our route ahead for the next day: a long, sinuous valley which skirted the northern flanks of the Djenghi-djer. The mountains here were shrouded in a long, grassy robe which came up their sides and changed abruptly into the dense covering of scree which was common throughout this freshly glaciated landscape. There was an eagle feather and a colossal ibex skull not far from the summit. Although we had left human civilisation far behind, wildlife was all around us: ibex, mountain goats, marmots, wolves, as well as a remarkable variety of butterflies, insects and flowers.
Throughout our trip, the days frequently began with brilliant sunshine and ended with a snowstorm or a blanket of thick cloud and rain, or vice-versa. Depending on the altitude, the temperature varied dramatically from 20°C in the valleys to -10°C on the mountain tops. It was blisteringly hot in the sunlight, but the slightest cloud had all of us reaching for our down jackets.
Riding west, gaps in the mist revealed a series of awesome peaks to the south – bastions of pure rock and glaciers clinging to foreboding buttresses behind. The weather turned and we rode on in brutal hailstorms – at one point the horses had clearly had enough and forced us to get off and walk them. Descending a steep river bank, Struan was launched spectacularly head-first down the scree and narrowly avoided a swim, bruising only the biscuits in his pocket.
Erring on the side of caution, we turned into one of the long tributary valleys and pondered setting camp. Calum, however, loudly advocated pushing further south, uphill and closer to the foot of the moraines. A horse must have heard him, as it suddenly lashed out with a rear hoof and struck his thigh, sending him flying. No serious damage was done, though he spent the next week tent-bound, reading, making doughnuts, and taking co-codamol rather than climbing.
Base camp was idyllic. The rivers ran rapidly in their course, twisting round huge erratics, sometimes crystal clear, sometimes clouded with glacial sediments. Conditions were ever-changing but not always to our advantage, as we discovered when climbing. As usual in alpine climbing, we got up horrendously early when snow routes would still be frozen enough to be stable. However, our noble attempts at rising were sometimes thwarted by unfavourably warm, wet and cloudy conditions. On our first attempted ascent at Base Camp Two, it was not rain but a prolonged dumping of snow which sent us scurrying back into our sleeping bags at 4am. However, later that day the sky cleared and three of us managed to make the first ascent of a 4,412m peak, which we named Mount Stann Chonofsky.
There were more unforeseen events in the hills. One afternoon, three of us came face to face with a pack of wolves while exploring an upper corrie. They were beige and scrawny, and stared hungrily back at us before howling and continuing on their way. We didn’t venture out alone at night as readily after that!
Our next first ascent was the high point of the trip, metaphorically and literally. At 2am on 26 July, the skies were clear and the air crisp, so we set off to climb the 4,436m mass immediately west of camp. Much of the ascent was on punishingly steep slopes, covered with loose, gravely scree. The final, stiff 200m to gain the ridge was much more enjoyable – slicing our ice axes and crampons into firm snow, pausing for breath every few metres in the thin air.
On the ridge, it was rock with snow beneath on both sides. Several false summits later, we faced a final steep scramble before reaching the top of the mountain. We called it Mount Tризуб (‘Trident’ in Kyrgyz). The golden sunrise views from the summit were stupendous. Reluctantly, we retreated down the quickly softening snow and arrived back at base camp, exhausted, some 12 hours after we left.
After a week at Base Camp Two, it was time to shift. Our third camp was located in an adjacent valley so our ride that day was delightfully short and incident-free. The purple flowers on the plains were shimmering in the afternoon sunlight. Struan and Neil had spent the previous day exploring the hills and ridges above this valley, and had identified a prominent summit which looked like a good prospect. This was our most westerly camp, high up in a narrow corrie, but with a clear view back down the tributary valley to the northern plains.
As soon as we pitched camp, the weather turned again, cocooning the tents in snow two days in a row. Eventually, we made a break for the summit of ‘peak 4,370m’ late one morning. The scree slopes were terribly steep and dense all the way up until perhaps the last 50m below the summit – it was like climbing a mountain of crisps, and each step up had us sliding half a step back. Then, in our path, lay a near-vertical gully filled with snow. But by now it was early afternoon, and the snow was disintegrating with every blow from the ice axe and with every minute the sun blazed on it. To continue would have been too much of a risk, so we turned back some way up the snow and made for base camp and an evening of deep fried chorizo butties.
Ninety kilometres now separated us from Kara-Say, the road back to Bishkek where showers and fresh orange juice waited. We saddled up again and enjoyed some fantastic spells of weather on the way back. Neil had a bad ‘horse encounter’ – his horse rolled on top of him, then bolted and dragged him at top speed over the grass, his shoe still anchored in one of the stirrups. Thankfully his foot was flung out of his boot and he came to an undignified halt in the grass. Apart from that, days in the saddle were long and the riding was tiring – probably more so for man than beast.
Camping on the return journey, we were surrounded by monstrous peaks covered in snow. But we were too distracted to attempt them, as little silvery fish darted through the braided streams nearby. We spent a full day building dams, fishing with mosquito nets and flicking fish out of the water with our grizzly paws, then deep-frying our haul. It was a particularly serene time here, but soon it was time to set off again, tracking east and then northeast over the next few days, back the way we had come until we reached Kara-Say.
We would leave these mountains, but the effects of their solitude, their harshness and their beauty would not leave us. As we departed, we heard the sounds of wolves calling somewhere in the distance.
TEN OF THE BEST
Other than the horses, Neil Smith’s team used a variety of hiking and climbing equipment. The usual array of warm, rugged, waterproof clothing were as standard, but also handy walking poles doubling as crutches, sturdy ropes, and authentic ‘wild west’ food from the heart of Scotland…
Christopher Ward C60 Trident Pro 300 – £299-£360
Beautiful Swiss-made watches with a British heart: precise, durable and with luminous hands so that you can tell the time in pitch darkness when you wake up for an Alpine start. Reliable, even in wet conditions and at serious altitude. Water resistant to 300 metres, in case you fall off your horse into a deep puddle.
Jack Wolfskin Argo – £150
Layering is critical for a successful hike or climb. These down jackets are both lightweight and warm. They also fit into their own pocket-sized pouch, taking up no more space than a packet of biscuits.
3. Base layers
Snickers Workwear long johns and long-sleeve T-shirt – £35-£50
These base layers are close-fitting but extremely comfortable and will keep you warm even in damp conditions. Can be worn for days without causing offence to your team mates, thanks to their anti-odour fabric.
BLOC eyewear Chameleon X400 – £45
When you are up in the mountains at high altitude, a pair of good sunglasses is an indispensable piece of kit to protect your eyes from the strong UV rays. These BLOC sunglasses have a detachable gasket behind the frames which gives protection whatever the weather.
CiloGear Rucksack – £150-£300
CiloGear rucksacks get top marks for functionality, minimalism and versatility. CiloGear makes everything from super-lightweight 30L Alpine day sacks with ice axe loops and a crampon pouch, to big 75L expedition sacks.
6. Climbing rope
BEAL Ice Line rope (Lyon Outdoor) – £110
If you’re climbing, the BEAL Ice Line ropes have the weight and free-running of a twin rope together with the advantages of a double rope. The adherence of the core and sheath gives the Ice Line extra security, which is essential on a thin rope. It retains its flexibility well and was also really light (which mattered to the horses, as they were carrying everything).
Wild West Beef Jerky – £2.50
Wild West Beef Jerky is made in the wild west of the Scottish Hebrides and it’s simply our favourite expedition snack. Each pack gives you a considerable burst of protein. Very lightweight, and a treat to chew on when you are pausing for thought high up a snow slope.
8. Walking poles
Komperdell Stiletto Expedition – £120
Crafted from carbon and titanal rather than aluminium, these poles have excellent strength and corrosion-resistant properties. They came into their own for stabilisation and rehabilitation, which is how a few team members made use of them to stay on the move after horse-related leg injuries!
Sealskinz Performance Activity – £50
Sealskinz are the specialists in waterproof gloves. They have the edge over others for dealing with wet, cold, windy conditions. It’s essential if climbing on snow or ice to protect your hands if you slip. The gloves are a snug fit, and give brilliant protection.
Crocs – £30
On any trip, boots are your main footwear. But we’ve often underestimated how much time is spent at base camps, cooking, waiting for a gap in the weather, or just relaxing. A pair of lightweight, breathable Crocs is the best solution for a comfortable life. Also they have holes in them so they can be clipped on to rucksacks easily, taking up no space.
... a mosquito net! While there are no midges in Kyrgyzstan, and the country has only a very low risk of malaria, don’t leave home without your mosquito net, as they are brilliant for catching fish in mountain rivers and for straining tea.
This was published in the March 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.