Gavin Macfie crammed an expedition to Central Asia into a week’s annual leave, thanks to the highly accessible 4,000m peaks outside Kazakhstan’s southern city of Almaty
PERHAPS BEST KNOWN to the British as the home of Sasha Baron Cohen’s obnoxious fictional journalist Borat, the vast country of Kazakhstan offers the adventurous traveller a compelling mix of ancient and modern, of east and west. Humvees meet donkey carts; stern Soviet statues – remnants of the communist past – rub shoulders with the glittering glass office towers of the country’s oil-fuelled capitalist present.
Prior to visiting the country two summers ago, I assumed that an expedition to Central Asia would be too expensive, too difficult, too dangerous, or maybe all three. In reality Kazakhstan is none of these things.
In August 2016 I travelled with friends to Kazakhstan’s Zailiskiy Alatau Mountains, 4,000m peaks that rise abruptly from the suburbs of the southern city of Almaty. We climbed Peak Pogrebetskiy, a magnificent snow peak with a long glacier approach, then drove onto the steppe to camp in Charyn Canyon, a miniature version of Utah’s Bryce Canyon, before rounding off the week with a night in Almaty, eating horse steaks and dancing till dawn.
ARRIVAL AT FIRST LIGHT
We arrived in Almaty from Kiev in the middle of the night and collected our hire car in the dark. The first light blushed
the summits as we drove through the suburbs of Almaty towards Medeu, where a gondola provided access to the ski resort of Chimbulak, and our acclimatisation peak, Chimbulachka (3,500m). This popular short hike gives great views to the spectacular Peak Komsomala, which dominates the view of the mountains from the city below.
The gondola carried us over a dam, built to protect the city below from glacial floods. In 1921 the catastrophic release of a glacial lake flattened the village of Chimbulak and even killed people in Almaty far below. The dam proved its worth in the summer of 1973 when it successfully contained a flood of millions of tonnes of water and debris.
After a short but steep 300m ascent from the gondola, we sat on Chimbulachka’s summit, with our backs to the hazy plains of the steppe, gazing in awe at the high country of rock and ice. A startling crack rang out as a huge and sobering avalanche of snow and rock roared down the steep north face of Peak Komsomola’s smaller neighbour, Peak Fitzkulturnik. Shed-sized boulders cartwheeled ahead of a cloud of ice and dust, down onto the Bogdanovich glacier and up the slopes on the other side. If we wanted to get home in one piece we would have to remain mindful of the dangers presented by these crumbling mountains.
We rode the gondola down and started our approach up the Tuyuk-su Valley, with the glacial torrent of the Malaya Almatinka River below on the right and the great granite cliffs of the Gates of Tuyuk-su to the left. The trees thinned as we ascended into the alpine zone, replaced with tired late summer grass and occasional flowers. The view ahead was dominated by the lurking mass of Tuyuk-su Peak, its dark rock split by glaciers. We camped near the remains of an old tank, minus turret and tracks.
The track split below the huge terminal moraine of the Tuyuk-su glacier. The left fork accessed the best hike in the range, through the high meadows of Alpengrad to Manzuk Mametov Lake, a sizeable turquoise body of water that is the favourite to provide the next test of Almaty’s flood defences.
We headed right, fording the clear waters of the Malaya Almatinka, then ascended past whistling marmots towards the ramshackle buildings of a Soviet-era glaciological research station.
The dirty glacier ice of Peak Molodenzhy, home to a fine technical snow climb, provided a striking backdrop to the post-apocalyptic station, perched amid an almost lifeless moraine. A man wearing underpants opened the door of the largest building and invited us in for tea. He introduced himself as Alexei, a glaciologist making observations of climate and glacier action. He was keen to practise his English.
Twenty years ago the station would have teemed with glaciologists, seismologists, meteorologists, men and women, with a party atmosphere in the evenings. Only the hardworking glaciologists rose in time for breakfast. He regaled us with Kazakh mountain stories, of ski descents on Khan Tengri, and of the elusive snow leopard, whose prints he had seen nearby.
A NIGHT BELOW THE GLACIER We departed for the short walk across clean granite boulders to our campsite at 3400m, beside a stream carrying meltwater from the glacier above. Out left were the red-stained rock peaks of the Alpengrad cirque, where purple-tinged rock bands smeared downhill, draped over the mountains’ shoulders like blankets. These ochre ridges merged into the dark, forbidding rock of Tuyuk-su, riven by glaciers and seemingly impregnable, defended by curtains of regular rockfall. Our summit, Peak Pogrebetskiy, rose high and white above the remaining two-mile stump of the Tuyuk-su glacier.
We uncovered a mysterious, unlabelled tin hidden beneath a boulder. Did it contain caviar? Meatballs? Rice pudding? A live alien embryo from some long-forgotten and sinister Soviet experimental camp?
Our speculation was interrupted by the arrival of a bearded and bespectacled man wearing a black skullcap. He introduced himself as a Catholic priest, whose parishioners were the descendants of Poles and Ukrainians transported to Stalin’s Gulags. He held court in our camp, answering our questions about the country, dispensing practical advice on bribing policemen. Once he departed we ate our dinner, sorted gear and made plans before a disturbed sleep in the thin air.
In the morning I boiled water and was soon surrounded by men brandishing cups, bowls and foil packs at me out of the gloom, like beggars. We set off towards the glacier by torchlight through still, cold air. At its snout we stopped to attach our crampons and rope up. With six on the rope we had plenty of muscle power to retrieve anyone unlucky enough to fall into a crevasse.
The rising sun cast the summits of Pogrebetskiy and Lokomotiv in pink alpenglow, bathed the ridge of Peak Kosmodenyanskya on our right in deep orange, then light began to seep down the wall of ice before us, illuminating garlands of icicles below overhangs. It gave an illusion of solidity and permanence, but two previous collapses had left the glacier littered with fridge-sized blocks.
A steep snow slope led to the Tuyuk-su Pass, which gave views to range upon range of peaks across the border in Kyrgyzstan. We removed crampons for a rocky section, but soon reattached them so we could give a wide berth to some huge cornices. The route was a long ridge walk on firm, crunchy snow, over a lower top, then down to a col before the final ascent.
A CHALLENGING DESCENT
The summit was marked by a Soviet star on a metal wand. We lingered in the still air, savouring the warm sun, reluctant to leave such a beautiful spot, one that we would almost certainly never return to. The clear sky became dotted with puffy clouds, urging us to start the descent.
The glacier was not a place to linger, with crumbling ice cliffs on the left and rockfall hazard on the right. We skirted its edge to reach a safer point, until the appearance of disquieting cracks encouraged us to stop and rope up. A memory of the rock and ice avalanche on Fitzkulturnik prompted me to imagine what would happen if a chunk peeled off the ice wall above. Tumbling ice blocks would crush and bury us, incorporating us into the glacier.
The snow covering the glacier was disconcertingly soft in the warmth of the afternoon. We plodded urgently towards piles of bouldery moraine, keen to leave this menacing place. Suddenly the first man on the rope disappeared in slow motion, feet first, then knees. I had all the time in the world to react. By the time he was halfway down I was on the deck, heels dug in, braced, watching the ground swallow the last of my friend. A gloved hand soon appeared, and a quick pull plucked him from its icy jaws, unharmed, but shaken by his short immersion in the cold, dark void.
We made our way gingerly to the flatter portion of the glacier, and down to our homely and inviting camp. I brewed endless rounds of tea in the afternoon sun as eagles soared on thermals above. Against all the odds in this lifeless place we managed to scavenge enough wood scraps for a small fire. We reflected on the best mountain day that any of us could recall, a long route on a distant mountain with no other parties in sight. We could likely count ourselves among only a handful of foreigners to have stood on Pogrebetskiy’s remote summit.
In the morning, before we left camp, we cracked open the mystery can. It was stew, and looked quite edible. We emptied it out onto a rock for the birds. I paused on the walk out to see yellow-beaked choughs tucking in, with eagles circling above, ready to take their turn.
CHOOSING AN OBJECTIVE
The accessibility of mountaineering in Kazakhstan has been improved by Matthew Kregor, who lived for several years in the ancient Silk Road staging post of Almaty.
In his leisure time he explored the Zailiskiy Alatau, the northernmost section of the Tian Shan mountain range that stretches almost 3,000km from Uzbekistan to China. Frustrated with the unreliability of existing information sources, he wrote his own hiking, climbing and camping guide, Outside Almaty.
The Zailiskiy Alatau are a year-round destination. The weather is generally pleasant with light winds and few thunderstorms, though winters are extremely cold. Hiking is generally best from April to November. Mountaineering conditions are excellent in August and September. The winter months are overly cold and snowy for mountaineering, making skis a good choice between October and March.
Kregor rates Peak Komsomola (4376m, Rock to VS, Moderate snow/ice) as the best climb in the range. Peak Pogrebetskiy (4,231m, Mild scrambling, Moderate snow / ice) is technically more straightforward and boasts the best views. If you wish to avoid technical climbing, Peak Kumbel (3,250m) is a good choice. For those without summit ambitions the best overall hike is to Manzuk Mametov Lake.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Kazakhstan has adjusted better to life after the Soviet Union than the neighbouring Stans, and is generally safe and stable. There are, however, some potential hazards worth mentioning.
Very little English is spoken. The locals speak Kazakh or Russian, and the use of Cyrillic script further reinforces this language barrier.
Policemen in Kazakhstan wear hats straight out of North Korea, and are likely to pull you over and ask for a bribe. We found inanely reciting the names of Scottish football teams to be an effective anti-corruption strategy.
The mountains contain a lot of loose rock, which local climbers have no qualms about dislodging rock onto parties below. There are, however, plenty of good hikes and climbs with no rockfall danger whatsoever.
You’re unlikely to see a snow leopard, but there are other animal hazards lower down such as ticks. If you head out onto the steppe you may enjoy the company of scorpions, spiders and snakes.