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At-Bash
skialp exploration in the XXI century 
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April 2016: skialp exploration in the At-Bash mountaing range Kyrgyzstan
Text by Paolo Vitali; maps and photos by Ruggero Vaia and Paolo Vitali; movie by Franco Scotti.



 
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From an early age I have had a fascination for exploring and this has become a permanent feature in my DNA as a mountaineer. In more recent years I have become a great enthusiast of mountain biking trips and ski touring. For me, life is too short to be able to visit all the places I'd like to know and experience. After many backcountry ski trips to snow-covered areas all over the world my friend Roger and I began to look for something different and unusual, a new and refreshing challenge. After bandying around various proposals we finally agreed. At-Bash, a virtually unknown name, as far as we were concerned, would be our chosen destination.Clicca per ingrandire
Kyrgyzstan is a mountainous country with a population of over five million people. The language is written in Cyrillic but rooted in Turkish like that of the neighboring population of Uighurs in China. The Kyrgyz Republic was founded in 1990 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like other former USSR states it has had an unsettled time with authoritarian governments but now, according to our young companion, Anarbek, a graduate who spent one year studying in the USA and another in China, has given way to a mature democracy where the current government can be challenged by the political left or right.

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Some of the mountains of this country, such as the Pic Lenin (7134m) on the border with Tajikistan, or Khan Tangri (7010m) located where the borders of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China converge, are well known and have been the focus of former expeditions. Most of the mountain corrugation, known with the Chinese name of Tien Shan (Celestial Mountain), is located in Kyrgyz territory. The very distinct range of At-Bash, isolated by wide longitudinal valleys, which extend in the ENE-WSW direction for about 100 km. with an average width of 25km and engraved by very deep transverse valleys and mostly rocky peaks reaching 4790m, is part of this corrugation. At-Bash, which in Kyrgyz language means Horse Head, is also the name of the river that borders the northern slopes and At-Bashi is the name of the largest town in the valley, located at 2200m above sea level at the confluence of the At-Bash and Kara-su (Black water) rivers. Here the wide valley provides a huge inclined plane crossed by the important road linking Kyrgyzstan with China through the Torugart Pass (3752m). The total population of the dozen or so villages scattered throughout the valley is approximately 15,000. The main activities of its inhabitants are livestock farming (horses, goats, sheep and cattle) and stunted agriculture due to the short duration of the summer season and the continental climate where temperatures vary between -40 degrees in winter and +40 degrees in summer. The river At-Bash is 180 km in length. It flows through Naryn, the capital city of the region (Oblast).

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Information regarding the At-Bash is scanty. The only topographic maps are old Russian military tablets with a scale 1:100,000. Digital contour lines at 25 meter intervals, found on the Internet, are very useful for installing on a GPS device. From a report available online and updated in 2015, 'Mountaineering Regions of Kyrgyzstan', written by Vladimir Komissarov, president of the Alpine Club of Kyrgyzstan (KAC), it appears that the At-Bash mountains were explored for the first time in 2002 by the same Komissarov together with climbers of the Naryn region, and then in 2007 and 2011, two British expeditions led respectively by Pat Littlejohn and Andrew Vielkovsky focused on the valleys of Kensu and Muzdabas on the southern slopes. Then ... the void. In this circumscribed region there are more than 60 peaks of over 4000m, more than 10 higher than 4500m, none of which has ever been climbed. Virgin peaks. It is no surprise therefore that there were no ski mountaineering approaches on these southern slopes and even less surprising that there were no approaches on the north side. How could we resist the lure of these wonderful mountains.
To feed my desire to revisit Kyrgyzstan there were also great memories of a trip in the now distant 1998 when we climbed on the walls of the valleys of Ak-Su[and Kara-Su. Even then our adventurous search for new spaces in a country that had just gained independence from the USSR was full of uncertainties and contradictions.
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Our first impression of the capital city Bishkek, which in Soviet times was called Frunze from the surname of a Bolshevik revolutionary born there, was very positive. It is very green, very clean, although the traffic, which is a bit chaotic for a capital city, reflects the current economic growth associated with Central Asia. Even though At-Bashi is only 360km from Bishkek we spent 10 hours in the noisy and slow Ural 4320, an old van of military origin - 10 tons, six wheel drive, with a Diesel 10,000cc engine, which runs 2km per litre at an average speed of 40km/hr on a paved road. We needed this off-road vehicle to access the valleys. This is part of the charm of these trips in countries where life is not all neatly planned and organised with rigid timetables and reliable schedules, where the great virtue of patience leaves large and unexpected spaces to fantasy and imagination. If we are able to endure some discomfort, given our western lifestyle which attempts to cater to our every desire, the satisfaction and wonderful memories reward us beyond measure.

Clicca per ingrandireLeaving the green valley of Bishkek behind, the landscape becomes more severe: great open spaces, mountains without names that appear in every direction, some ups and downs between steep cliffs, wooded slopes giving way to arid rolling hills as far as the eye can see, with all of the erosive valleys adding to the beautiful tapestry of colours from grey to greenish ochre then red. A bright sunset greets us in At-Bashi where we are accommodated in the house of a matriarchal family (it seems that everyone obeys the mother). We are given a friendly welcome and led to large dormitories with walls covered with huge carpets, some beds and mattresses on the floor. We are given hot food and introduced to the local environment. The toilets are outside, as in the homes of our (bis) grandparents, as is the shower that needs to be loaded with water containers. For personal cleaning we also have access to the nearby banya, the Russian-style excellent sauna. Although it is very rustic, it is the place that will regenerate us after each day of skiing.
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The alarm at six in the morning begins the first day of ski mountaineering activities. Finally the first sealskins are in place to help us tread the snows in the At-Bash. The weather is ugly but we start with great curiosity and enthusiasm as we set out for one of the two main valleys facing the town which we think, according to our map, are named Acha Kayindy (west) and Boskurba (east). However we must remember that the scale of the Cyrillic maps is 1:100,000.  As our cumbersome but effective Ural limps along bumpy tracks, dirt roads and dry grasslands we note with a little concern that the lines on the map which we had hoped would represent access roads are, in fact, only poor  tracks, passable only by horses or perhaps by motorbike. To complicate matters further, snow is very scarce until you reach high altitudes. The hands of the clock move round relentlessly and we need to make a decision if we are not to waste the day. Yesterday, when we were coming down from the northern valley, we had noticed that in the easternmost part of the chain the snow cover was better. We decided to change direction completely and began to make our way towards the eastern valley until we reached substantial snow cover. Here we stop Sasha, our driver, whom we fondly named Gambadilegno (Woodleg) because of his sudden braking of the vehicle. We attach the skins to our skis and start off in the direction of a valley with no idea of the destination. Like all the side valleys of the chain, it creeps southward through the mountains that exceed 4000m, with the aim of accessing the interior and finding some interesting elevations for skiing. Our intuition proves to be correct. After some slightly sloped kilometres, finally steep slopes surround us. From the GPS we understand that we are in a furrow leading to a pass that gives access to a 4125m peak listed on the Russian map. Unfortunately the weather is getting worse, the wind is strengthening and visibility is poor. As it is getting late and we are alone without external aid we decide not to venture beyond this point. Bringing a makeshift stretcher to these endless valleys in the case of emergency would take a long time. Reluctantly therefore, we do a turnabout.

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The next day, Thursday April 7th, we decide to check the conditions at the Torugart Pass, which we still hoped to visit. This area which borders China, is a militarised zone and a special permit which we had already procured, is necessary for entry. We had only travelled 160km from At-Bashi but our Ural seemed to suffer altitude sickness more than we do and it is already afternoon when we reach the place. Despite the fact that we are now over 3500m there is very little snow. We are attracted to the southern ridge but, as it happens, the Kyrgyz government recently sold these slopes to China, from the valley floor up to the ridges that marked the historical border. They immediately erected a horrible double barbed-wire fence that prevents any access. The ridges, now all Chinese, show mountains of over 5,000m, protected by large ice seracs. On the opposite side there is a huge frozen lake, the Chatyr-Kul, at 3530m with a surface measuring 180 square kilometres, just visible because the road is 5 kilometres away. For me the place has great appeal but I wonder if my friends can appreciate it as I do. They seem more concerned about not finding snow in the coming days. Some doubts begin to surface. However, after studying the maps and digital contour lines that evening we agree that the valley immediately west of the one we failed to access previously, may lead to some beautiful snow-covered mountains. We know in which direction we will point the Ural the following morning without wasting time.

Clicca per ingrandireAs Friday 8th April dawns our adventure begins again with another long valley to access followed by steep, rocky slopes that seem to bar the way. Proceeding, a little by  'following our nose' and a little by GPS, we reach  the top of a steep slope. Finally an outlet appears at a pass at around 4000m. From here we can easily climb to a perfectly skiable peak quoted on our Russian map as reaching 4,159.2m. Our morale soars as doubts begin to fade. My mind flashes back to the summer of 1992 when with the ever present Sonja and three bold young friends we ventured into a Himalayan valley, without the aid of cartography, searching for some unknown granite towers to climb. After four days of walking we turned the corner of an unnamed glacier. There, resplendent before us, stood the most magnificent granite spiers ever seen by human eyes. It was the Miyar Valley. Although bad weather forced us to spend four days on a small ledge a few pitches from the top, denying us the satisfaction of reaching the summit, those visions, those feelings, the thrill of discovering a valley, a whole group of mountains hitherto unknown but which after our discovery became very famous for their climbing quality, form a more intense and profound memory than many other experiences. Clicca per ingrandire

But back to the new 'discovery', the At-Bash. The skiing from the peak quoted as 4159.2m is on perfect firn snow with good slopes up to the halfway point, then more gentle slopes and the long valley, with a final surprise on the last meadows where the afternoon melting plunges us up to our waist, and unexpectedly  complicates the last stretch. Despite the challenges we reach the Ural with smiles on our faces, feeling super-motivated. The evening is celebrated, first with beer, which in fact we always have on our table, and then the great Kyrgyz cognac. Having reason to believe the mountain has never been climbed before (Komissarov later confirms this), we begin to fantasise about how to give it a name. Trying to match our Latin imaginations with local place names we come up with Choku Chichi-bel (cyrillic ЧОKУ ЧИЧИБЭЛ, Choku="peak").

Clicca per ingrandireSaturday April 9th. The weather worsens and, while part of the group rests their weary limbs, fatigued by the Choku Chichi-bel, the fiercest among us decide to try to force an entry into the Acha Kayindy, the narrow valley that cast us off on the first day. We have no ambition to climb any 4000m peaks but we begin to ascend the first mountain with a bit of snow, just to take a look around. From the point reached the first time only a few days earlier, Woodleg pushes his terrible Ural along a bumpy track through meadows and ridges up to the valley and then a little further... maybe a little too far ... as the ten tons of screaming iron begin to slip sideways on a narrow bend, coming to a merciful stop at the edge of a cliff. Feeling like powerless spectators, we breathe a sigh of relief. Fortunately we manage somehow to turn the vehicle and get back on track. Finally we are able to start our walk. We shoulder our skis for a long time because the path is low in the valley. At first the snow is spread among cypress shrubs (local analogue of our impassable dwarf pines) and we start to climb zigzag using techniques dear to us on home terrain when snow is scarce. In the midst of a snowfall we reach the first summit (3671m) of an endless ridge with a series of peaks, some exceeding 4000m. However, given that access to this valley is evidently more complex and lengthy than others and that our time is limited, with only a few days left of our trip, we decide to give up on the area. Our experiences so far have given us a better understanding of the typical topography of these valleys and so, with the help of the digital contour lines at 25m, more useful than the Russian maps, we draw on the GPS a hypothetical line that could lead us to a 4000m mountain the next day.

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Sunday April 10th. We head with Sasha-Woodleg from the village called 'May 1st' to the Tuyuk Bogoshti, a beautiful, wide valley that runs through the whole group. This time we stop him before the mud gives us any problems. We head off, still shouldering our skis, but not for long. As we walk the first section on skins we are surprised to be joined by a young shepherd on horseback who is definitely intrigued by our equipment and intentions. Clicca per ingrandireAs a 'folk figure' he immediately becomes the subject of our photos but we, in turn, must have looked equally unusual to him, as he now produces his mobile phone to catch pictures of us. We will no doubt end up on some Kyrgyz social network as the 'strange visitors' of the day. The main valley continues rising gently for a long way when suddenly our 'theoretical' GPS track advises us to follow a rugged and narrow valley/channel that branches off to the right and culminates in perfectly snowy peaks with steep access. Our diligent shepherd however encourages us to continue along the main groove and most members of the group are inclined to take his advice. But the valley on the right would allow us to gain altitude much faster. There is a bit of wavering and indecision. In these moments democracy does not work and an 'executive' decision is required. Earning a moment of unpopularity I head to the right on ground that is immediately narrow with a lot of snow and impossible for the young horse to manage. While the horse gives us an offended look as it turns around, the group follows me with no objections. We pass easily the initial ravine thanks to the accumulated snow from avalanches. The valley continues between very steep side slopes, a mousetrap in wintertime, but now perfectly safe. It continues toboggan style for several hundred meters to the base of 'our' mountain. The track prepared on the GPS is perfect... congratulations to Roger, our chief cartographer. We climb a ridge on the right culminating in a 3954m crest, not a true summit but a kind of hill. The rest of the group is happy and satisfied with the day's achievements. Between us and the true summit there is a ridge, mostly rocky and apparently not simple. I explore a little and find that down on the right there is a ride so I remove my skis and continue walking. Clicca per ingrandireThree of the group follow me. In a connecting portion between the rocks where snow has drifted I sink down to my armpits. Fortunately Mirco, who weighs 10k less than me, is able to pass the next three steps needed to reach the rocks. From here we have no difficulty reaching the summit where the altimeter marks 4016m. We hug and raise our arms to greet our friends who remained on the crest. They cannot resist the temptation to join us and as they in turn make the journey we share our moment of stardom. We continue to celebrate our achievement that evening after our descent on this perfect firn snow with a sauna, yet another toast and another beautiful evening in good company, with the proposal to dedicate the new mountain to the young Chiara, hence Choku Kiara (ЧОKУ KИAРA).

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Monday 11th. April... our last day. It would be nice to try the 4000m peak we missed on the first day but with the accumulation of fatigue this might prove too ambitious. Furthermore, the weather forecasts give a picture of deteriorating weather conditions. Once on the road we decide to head for a highly visible peak and try to track a hypothetical itinerary using GPS. We cannot find the track that should lead us to our chosen starting point. Eventually Sasha stops the vehicle at the beginning of the forest where a very narrow valley begins. At least it is snowy. To avoid shouldering our skis we climb this steep, dense forest. Once again we are reminded of our home terrain. When we emerge from the wood we are rewarded by the sight of a couple of valleys and right above us a beautiful snow-covered peak (3650m), which we reach quite easily and from which we serpentine down, again with satisfyingly firn snow. The summit on which we had initially set our sights is on the continuation of the ridge which is marked on the Russian map at 3806.6m but we are happy and content with our achievements.

Clicca per ingrandireWe are already at the end of a week of exhilarating experiences. Our sincere thanks go to the family who hosted us and to Sasha Woodleg, our driver and Anarbek, our guide. The hospitality we received was wonderful and the Kyrgyz people will remain in our memories with great affection. After Patagonia '84, Karakorum '88, the Indian Himalayas '91 and '92 and Greenland '96 I thought my opportunities for discovery could not be surpassed. But, as the world becomes increasingly globalised, to discover and climb virgin mountains, explore unknown and unmapped valleys and even baptise unnamed peaks is still possible. As a rule I would not use the word 'exploratory' to describe our trips as I feel it is often used out of turn by those travelling for the first time in a place that has already been described and mapped. However, our experiences here at At-Bash can only be described as a true 'ski mountaineering exploration'. Who knows how many places like this still exist hidden in the folds of the planet? Hopefully, the serendipity which led us to the At-Bash will lead us to more discoveries in the future, maybe even just by pointing the chance finger at the world map! 
Paolo Vitali, April 2016
Photos and maps by Ruggero Vaia and Paolo Vitali
 
Expedition sponsored by CAI-SAT section of Cavalese

Skiers of the group
Sonia Brambati, Franz Carrara, Gianni Corti, Mirco Gusmeroli, Denis Ganz, Vigilio Ganz, Giulia Meregalli, Renato Pizzagalli, Fedorino Salvadori, Franco Scotti, Ruggero Vaia, Paolo Vitali.

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Ski tours
1)  April 6 2016 – Q. 4125 m, valley Karaili Bulak  (tentative, till quote 3674 m)
2)  April 8 2016 – Q. 4159,2 m, valley Sari Tal – proposed name Choku Chichi-Bel (ЧОKУ ЧИЧИБЭЛ)
3)  April 9 2016 – Q. 3671 m, valley Acha Kayindy
4) April 10 2016 – Q. 4016 m, valley Tuyuk Bogoshti – proposed name Choku Kiara (ЧОKУ KИAРA)
5) Aprile 11 2016 – Q. 3650 m (lower-summit of Q. 3806.6 m), valley Kichino Kek Djol

Practical info

Clicca per ingrandirePeriodo: in winter, temperatures can reach -40 C (-40 F). However in April the sun heats up very quickly and the snow at low altitude disappears quickly. So, at the beginning of April you must consider the need for shouldering skis at times. The end of March might be a better time provided there have not been recent heavy snow falls, in which case you must be very careful on the steep slopes. In the middle of winter it is probably possible to ski with beautiful powdery snow but make do with the outer peaks of the chain without going into the valleys.
Access: By air to the capital Bishkek. Currently the most frequent flights are those of Turkish Airlines and Aeroflot. A good paved road covers the distance of about 360km between Bishkek and At-Bashi. In At-Bash an off-road vehicle is necessary to access the valleys.

Accomodation: In At-Bashi the family of Mrs. Eva Aka Turunkan offers half-board accommodation, ul.Arpa 25, tel. (+996) (0) 3534 23944, mobile (+996) (0)773 105774.
Exchange rate: in April 2016, the exchange rate was approximately 78 “Kyrgystani Som” for 1 €.
GPS: very useful for orientation in the valleys and in case of bad weather. The map of Kyrgyzstan is available on Openmtbmap.org and for a moderate price, also the useful contour lines.
Maps: the image-file of the Russian army maps are available on loadmap.net; the best available scale is 1: 100,000 (1: 100k).
Telephone: the best solution is to buy a local prepaid card, the cost of international calls are much cheaper than any offer of European operators, whose basic rates arrive at 6 € per minute. In the valleys of course there is no signal, but there is in the towns and along all roads.
Self rescue: Carefully consider the fact of being completely alone in the valleys; in these places you cannot expect rapid external aid, so it is necessary to have self-rescue equipment and provide for the possibility of setting up an emergency stretcher.


Europ and Western Asia, Khirghizistan in red
Mappa geberale d'inquadramento
 
Localization of At-Bash range in Kirghizistan


 
Map of the region ( oblast ) of Naryn
with the full At-Bash mountain range



Map with the detail of the ski-tour (numbers)
The track marked with 'K' is a previous exploring tour done by V.Komissarov in March 2014



 Testi, disegni e immagini  Copyright    2016 Paolo Vitali – www.paolo-sonja.net