Organisation

The planning and execution of the expedition was split between the members as soon as we decided on our location. This allowed Dave to concentrate on the in-country logistics and mountaineering while things like communication, food and medical details were worked out by other team members. The size of the team meant we also had a dedicated environment manager, web master, publicity guru and treasurer, which meant these jobs were done very thoroughly. The split of tasks was far from equal, and there was room for adjustment through the planning stages, but the splits made logical sense so were stuck to fairly rigidly. We had bi-weekly meetings during October- November and January - March by which point most of the planning was finished in time for the students' exams. A final push around a month before the expedition then prepared us before the team split up at the end of the university year. In this way the team made most decisions as a team with advice from the person responsible for the area.

Flight

We flew Aeroflot as the 23kg baggage allowance was greater than the direct flights operated by BMI (route stopped in Autumn 2012), and it was also much cheaper (£628 return). The stopover in Moscow was manageable, and the flight reasonably comfortable.

ITMC

ITMC were recommended to us by Pat Littlejohn, who runs frequent expeditions in Kyrgyzstan with the International School of Mountaineering. They organised travel from the airport, accommodation in Bishkek, and travel to our expedition area. We also bought gas from them, and could have hired satellite phones and a variety of other things from them. They were highly organised, professional and helpful; it was very reassuring having their support. The same company also runs the Kyrgyz mountain rescue services. They spoke excellent English, and we got by without any real knowledge of Russian or Kyrgyz. We used the ITMC offices as a base while buying food and supplies as soon as we got to Bishkek. We were then taken to two apartments for the night, which were adequate and cheap. It should be noted that accommodation in Bishkek is fairly Western in price, especially for large groups. ITMC supplied us with a ‘truck-bus’ – literally a Russian truck (Ural 375), with a coach compartment on the back. As ITMC hadn’t been to our valley for a while they promised this would take us as far as possible – and it was definitely the best vehicle for this. The track was actually better than expected, so on the return journey we had a slightly less enormous truck. Both trucks were in very good condition. ITMC also offered to organise our trip around the country in the last week, although we chose to do it ourselves.

Access to Basecamp

From the road head we walked the final 5km and 600m of ascent over 2 days. The first day we started walking at 1200 and finished around 2000. On the second day we started around 0900 and were finished by 1800. We carried our kit in two loads of around 25kg each. To prevent animals eating our equipment or food we always left two people with any kit store. The transit camp was at around 2700m and 2km from the road.

People Logistics

We split ourselves into two teams of four. Each team of four alternated between climbing on the mountain and doing duties around camp. The four on the mountain kept together, acting as a rope of four the majority of the time, but with the option of splitting into two pairs for technical sections. Given the terrain, this was a sensible option. This plan worked out very well, with everyone getting just enough rest between mountain days, and the camp duties being rotated as well. The only issues were when someone was ill and missed a mountain day, they had another enforced rest day to get themselves back in sync. There wasn't quite enough flexibility to change teams of four around (no-one wanted to have two days on the mountain consecutively). Similarly, 2-day routes would have been slightly annoying to fit into the system, and bad weather could also disrupt the system. So although our plan went very well, and pleased everyone, there was potential for complications.

Attached files: 

Catering

Sources of information:

We found comprehensive information on generic expedition catering in the RGS Expedition Handbook. Further information was gained from past expedition reports on the BMC website, particularly the few available from expeditions in Kyrgyzstan, some of which gave details of food availability in the country, but also those from expeditions around the world. We also used personal contacts to gain further valuable information on food availability in Kyrgyzstan.

Planning

Calorific requirements:

We decided to take 4000kCal per person per day (pppd). The RGS Handbook recommended 5000kCal pppd, but this figure is based on an expedition where everything is moved every day, whereas we would have relatively light packs and regular rest days, although our mountain days would be relatively long. We decided to allocate 4000kCal for every day, as, although rest days would naturally be less strenuous, we would still need plenty of calories in order to recover as much as possible in the short time available. This allowance did turn out to be somewhat excessive, though (see below).

Weight to be carried in to Base Camp:

It soon became clear that we would be unable to carry all of our food, fuel and kit into camp in one load, so we worked on the basis of each team member carrying two loads of no more than 25kg, ( i.e. a total of 400kg), into Base Camp, using a relay system. Having subtracted the weight of all other kit (~225kg) and fuel (see below, 10kg), a maximum of 165kg for food remained, equal to ~21kg per person, or 1.2kg pppd.

Personal preferences / tastiness:

We were aware that having sufficient food would be useless if people didn’t want to eat it, and unappetising food could become a source of discontent and depression among the team, so ensuring that food tasted (relatively) good to all team members was vital. A ‘Food Quiz’ was carried out to gauge people’s preferences, although many major decisions on what to take were actually determined by other factors. Vegetables are very poor in terms of calorie : weight ratio, but significantly improve the taste of dinners, so we decided to take 100g pppd.

Nutritional requirements:

Maintaining sufficient vitamin and mineral intake, in order to stay healthy, was a consideration, but given the relatively short length of our expedition was not a major concern. Vegetables and dried fruit were our main source of vitamins and minerals.

Food availability in Bishkek and weight allowance on flight:

Based on information from various sources (see above) and the weight of other kit to be carried from the UK, we decided to take ~40kg of food from the UK. These were mainly wraps (3 week use-by date), full-fat milk powder (Nestle Nido, 400g canisters), oat cakes, and tomato powder (Healthy Foods).

Food availability in Bishkek

From Osh Bazaar (large quantities of everything easily available): rice, dried noodles, pasta (extremely starchy – better to stick to rice and noodles), “couscous” (avoid this – takes hours to cook and doesn’t taste good), oats, vegetables, dried fruit, nuts (peanuts (non-salted), walnuts, almonds, cashews, pistachios), hard cheese (around 7kg blocks can be taken sealed or cut to size), jam, honey, nutella, biscuits (aka ‘sawdust’…), sweets, spices, tea, coffee. Items at the Bazaar were all priced, and there was little haggling. The prices were very reasonable.

From Beta Stores (medium sized supermarket, stock levels variable, several other small supermarkets also Bishkek): chocolate, Pringles, Mars Bars (and equivalents), hot chocolate powder (not available in tubs, only sachets), muesli, cake (only sponge available, very crushable)

The only items which we hoped to find in Bishkek but couldn’t (though we naturally didn’t look everywhere) were peanut butter and cereal bars. None of the items which we brought from the UK turned out to be available in Bishkek.

Fuel

We opted to use gas rather than multi-fuel stoves as the fuel weight would have been similar, gas stoves are lighter, we had the necessary stoves already (so no additional expenditure was required), and our previous experience of using them meant we stood a reasonably high chance of resolving any problems.

We pre-ordered gas canisters from our logistics company, ITMC. The only size canisters available were 230g (350g including the weight of the canister itself).

Monitoring Food Usage

We had most food which we bought from Osh Bazaar weighed out and bagged directly into ziplock bags which we provided (mainly dried fruit, nuts, oats), or carrier bags (pasta, rice, couscous), with one bag per day / two days, as necessary according to the food plan. Had we needed to ration food stringently, this would have worked well and been a good way of ensuring the correct amount of food was consumed each day.

On the expedition we planned certain quantities of each food per day. For ‘high-demand / low quantity’ foods this was applied fairly stringently, (e.g. cheese, powder puddings), but for many foods Doug (catering manager) simply ensured that we weren’t generally over-using as the expedition progressed, (e.g. chocolate, hot chocolate), and for several foods it soon became clear that we had an excess so there was no need to ration at all, (e.g. dried fruit, nuts, biscuits).

Successes, problems and lessons learnt:

Overall Quantity of Food

In retrospect 4000kCal pppd was excessive, and 3500kCal would have been sufficient. However, our food intake did increase noticeably over the course of the expedition, and during the last few days we were eating nearly our full allowance each day.

Dinners

The amount we ate in the evenings depended significantly on the tastiness of the food. Rice and noodles were much tastier than pasta and couscous. The tomato powder was very good for adding flavour to meals, but we massively underestimated its potency, and used only 1500g for the whole expedition, of the 6,000g taken. By trial and error, we found that thin, watery sauces were much more appetising than thick sauces, which were, on the whole, overpoweringly tomato-flavoured. We were lucky to have a good chef in the team, and his knowledge of spices played a major role in making many meals not only edible, but actually quite tasty. Powder puddings were generally very edible, and we could have eaten significantly more than the 25g pppd of powder allowed.

Lunches / Snacks

The wraps were generally very successful and lasted reasonably well for the whole expedition. 75g pppd of cheese was sufficient but not plentiful, and cheese wraps were significantly improved by mayonnaise (15g pppd). The oat cakes were also successful, though had to be packaged well in order to survive the journey relatively unscathed. The dried fruit was quite tasty, but several team members elected to eat very little due to the risk of becoming unwell from the unidentified bits on some pieces. Salty foods were particularly popular (pistachios, almonds, pringles), walnuts and peanuts less so. Virtually all other lunch and snack food taken on the expedition was eaten.

Breakfasts: Having muesli on mountain days and porridge on rest days worked very well, indeed, copious amounts of porridge with sultanas, honey, jam (particularly tasty), nutella and cinnamon was a highlight of these days. However, as with most food, slightly less would have been sufficient.

Drinks

Hot chocolate was particularly popular and we could have used more than the 75 sachets obtained when we bought Beta Stores out of stock. We had an excess of coffee due to confusion between instant and filter coffee. In general, 3- 4 hot drinks (of ~300ml) pppd seemed about right.

 

Attached files: 

Medical

Before we travelled there was a lot of preparation to do for all team members. All members completed a medical form and immunisation record. We received differing advice about whether we needed the Tick-borne encephalitis vaccination but in the end after reading a couple of articles it was decided that we should work on the side of caution and virtually every team member received the course. Deciding whether to carry antibiotics, and if so then how they might be obtained, proved something of a problem. We received varying advice on this as well but we decided to get Ciprofloxacin prescribed to us from our GPs. Four of us were successful. All members completed a Remote Emergency Care (REC) Level 2 First Aid course.

As hoped we had no serious medical issues. However, a few minor issues did arise. The initial walk-in and acclimatisation days saw three of the team suffering from Traveller’s Diarrhoea (e-coli). We had tried to be careful in Bishkek with hygiene and food choice, but this was not completely successful, most probably exacerbated by the heat and exhaustion from travel. We ate no unpeeled fresh fruit but we did eat bread from a market, which may have been the source of the infection. At base camp diarrhoea was treated with rest, access to the trowel pit and as many rehydration sachets as could be managed by those ill. By the second day of their illness all were showing signs of improvement and began managing to eat sufficiently well to rebuild strength.

The second incident occurred after the first team got back from the first mountain day when one team member had lost a large proportion of his water due to a water bottle leak. Despite some sharing of water, the team member became quite dehydrated on the descent in the early afternoon sun. His symptoms included sickness, pale skin and feeling cold and tired. After treating with Buccastem M prochlorperazinemateate to contain the nausea, he managed to rehydrate, though needed an extra rest day for recovery.

On the other team’s first day one member twisted their ankle on the way down; the injury did not prevent further ascents, but many hours of walking on moraine and other difficult terrain made it difficult for the injury to heal. Icy water treatment was used along with an ankle support and tightly laced boots on mountain days. There was several minor scratches to arms and legs which were all cleaned with antiseptic wipes, water and, where necessary, covered. Blisters were treated with plasters and tape. There was one minor case of hay fever or similar allergic response. Antihistamines and remaining in the tent seemed to help with this.

During our 'Phase 2' there was a minor injury due to unseen street furniture and one of the team came down with constipation (one of the only illnesses we didn't have drugs for).

First aid course

Seven of the members took a first aid course with Jon Parry (Activate Training), which was well tailored to the expedition and very relevant to the types of problem we may find. It taught some members from scratch and refreshed everyone else. Jon also gave us some confidence in our first aid kit supplies and emergency preparation, which was very helpful.

Attached files: 

Equipment

The equipment required for a mountaineering expedition such as this falls into three approximate categories: mountaineering, living/camping and emergencies. As all of us have spent several summers in the European Alps and have walked and climbed extensively within the UK as well, between us we had accumulated a reasonable amount of mountaineering equipment, and were able to gather enough for the expedition with the addition of relatively few extra purchases. The same is true of the basic camping equipment, in that we had access to sufficient tents, stoves, sleeping bags, mats etc. but we did not have the water filters needed for an extended stay in an area with water of unknown quality. There is considerable overlap between emergency equipment and mountaineering/living gear: ropes, karabiners, warm clothes, sleeping bags etc. could all be essential if a rescue from the mountain was required, but more emergency equipment was required which is not needed on a typical walk in more populous areas.

Mountaineering equipment

As we planned to carry all of our food and equipment into base camp, weight was a major consideration in the type and quantity of mountaineering equipment we used. Whilst each person required much of their own equipment such as waterproofs and layers, some could be shared. Climbing groups consisted of four people, and we did not want to be limited in what we could climb by the equipment we had brought, so we took a pair of technical axes for each member of the climbing team (eight technical axes in total).

In an emergency, the base camp team would be the first people on the mountain to attempt a rescue, so they would clearly need axes of their own if they were to climb safely to the mountain team. However, they would likely be moving much more slowly and carefully and with more equipment (first aid kits, tent(s), sleeping bags etc.). They would also be unlikely to attempt any excessively difficult terrain, as this would endanger the rescue team and risk complicating the situation significantly. Because of this, the rescue team were provided with one light-weight walking axe each.

A similar decision was made regarding ropes: whilst the mountain team might be expected to pitch sections of the route, and thus could benefit from having two ropes and being able to climb faster, in pairs, the base camp/rescue team would be able to make do with a single rope. Indeed, as they were not expected to attempt any terrain more difficult than a glacier crossing, a single rope would be preferable in any case. We took with us two 50m ropes, intended for the climbing team, and one 60m rope for any rescue. It turned out that the 60m rope (alone) was used by the mountain team on several days, to save weight on routes which were not expected to require much or any pitching.

We wanted to ensure there was always sufficient gear in base camp to mount a rescue, and as we did not know how difficult the routes would be in advance we took three complete racks. This allowed one for each climbing pair, plus one in base camp (with extra tat) for the rescue team. For most of the mountain days, the group climbed as a four with a single rack, and occasionally with a much-reduced rack when a simple snow route was planned. There were a few days which required two racks on the mountain though, leaving one in base camp as planned. If the mountain routes had been much harder, this would have been the case for most of the time.

Communications equipment

The aim was to provide a communications chain between the mountain team and base camp, and onwards from base camp to Bishkek or the UK. This meant that base camp could be kept informed of any changes in planned route or timing and also that they could provide assistance in case of a serious problem on the mountain. Depending on what was required by the mountain team, those at base camp could call for advice from a UK doctor (through the BMC, our insurance provider), or arrange for an evacuation by helicopter or by truck from the road-head. They could also climb up to the mountain team with food, shelter, and the more extensive base camp first aid kit, to assist on the mountain with first aid, stretcher making, shelter or whatever else was required.

In addition to these emergency uses, the availability of a satellite phone, radios and charging facilities was helpful in more day-to-day scenarios. For example, the solar panel and battery were used to charge music players and e-books and a smartphone with cached Google Earth data was used to plan routes and examine mountains from new angles. The radios were used to announce when the climbing team had made it to a summit, or turned around, and for the all-important task of requesting tea when returning to base camp. The satellite phone was used to update our website.

Short-range radios

On the training weekend in the Lake District, we had experimented with using PMR1 band unlicensed radios, with a transmit power of 0.5 watts. These were found effective over line-of-sight distances of a kilometre or two, but were not good enough for reliable use in mountainous terrain over significant distances. Because of this, we instead took marine VHF radios, with a transmit power of 5 watts. These were more expensive, but also had longer-lasting batteries and were of tougher construction, which proved useful when one of them took an extended tumble down a mountain (and survived, with only cosmetic damage). These are not legal for land-based use in the UK, and it was not possible to discover the legal situation in Kyrgyzstan. Because of the limited transmit power of the radios and the remoteness of the area, we did not expect to conflict with any local users of the radio spectrum. Indeed, during the expedition we did not hear any other transmissions on the frequencies we were using.

It was anticipated that the climbing pairs might go out of sight of each other, so three radios were provided: one for each climbing pair and one for base camp. This also provided some redundancy in case of equipment failure (either of the radios or the chargers). In reality, the mountain teams climbed together almost all of the time and the radios worked throughout, so this was not required, but it was a useful to have such redundancy when out of reach of any means of repairing broken electronics.

The mountain and base camp teams were able to contact each other most of the time, though sometimes this would involve standing up or walking a few metres to a higher point to get through. A few times, when the mountain team were behind several obstacles, it was not possible to make a radio call, but since these were not emergency calls this did not cause any issues. If an emergency had arisen in these circumstances, a member of the mountain team would have to find a point from which a call could be made, but given how rarely this was a problem, it is likely that they would not have to walk far.

Satellite Phone

We had one satellite phone (Iridium Extreme) at base camp which was kept charged via our solar panel system. The phone was provided with free calls by Cambridge Consultants, with the requirement we turned it on for ten minutes every few days. We were very lucky that Tom works for Cambridge Consultants and therefore had access to this facility. The phone provided the link between base camp and the UK and Bishkek for organisation and emergencies. Our solar panel gave us enough charge that we were also able to call home frequently.

Solar Panel and Battery

We had a large flexible solar panel (PowerTec MMP16) that charged a 12V lead acid battery (bought in Osh Bazaar, after ours was confiscated on the flight out). The battery was then able to charge our radios, satellite phone, cameras and other personal electronic items. It was able to charge many items at once (via a system of adapters), and never struggled. Our solar panel suffered a loose connection late on the expedition. It was possible to make it work by prodding it randomly for around 10 minutes until the connection was made. Luckily this only needed doing once a day.

Attached files: 

Environment

Overall, there was a high level of compliance with our environmental management plan (EMP) while we were at base camp. The parts of the expedition spent in Bishkek and involving transport followed it less successfully, but these required the most ambitious and arguably the least important mitigating actions. More detail is given in the sections below; refer to EMP (below) for intended strategy. We carried out approximately 70 litres (roughly 20-25kg) of waste, mostly food packaging. The majority was packed in the field into empty milk powder tins. We left some packaging (mostly outer cardboard) in Bishkek and retrieved it before our return home. Once back in the UK, as much as possible, including used batteries, was recycled.

Travel and Bishkek

Although we used scheduled flights, flying east across five time zones made it impossible to avoid flying at night on the outward journey. The return flight was, however, completed during daylight hours. Partly because of the large amount of luggage and partly because of awkward timing, most of us used private cars and taxis to get to and from the airport, but as these were full they were on a par with public transport for fuel efficiency. On our return, a superfluous taxi journey was unavoidable: our booked cars got caught in a traffic jam on the M25 and were unable to get to Heathrow, forcing us to seek an alternative vehicle. We had very little control over our overland transportation (a 6-wheeled Ural truck-bus). The most that can be said is that the vehicle seemed in excellent condition, did not drive too fast, and stayed on roads and tracks where they existed. We were just able to manage to walk-in from the road head to base camp without needing porters or donkeys, although we were on the limit of this and it did mean multiple journeys were required. However, a path existed most of the way and by using this we minimised additional erosion and plant damage.

In Bishkek, we stayed all but one night in two apartments; Community-Based Tourism, which organises eco-friendly homestays elsewhere in Kyrgyzstan, does not operate in the capital. Nevertheless, the apartments were more environmentally sound than a hotel, having a smaller footprint and allowing us to control gas, electricity and water usage. Except for the final night, there was no air conditioning. During the course of the entire trip, five person-nights were spent in hotels in unavoidable circumstances. While in Bishkek on our way to the expedition area, we generated more waste than expected. This was largely due to drinking large amounts of bottled water in 500ml units left at ITMC by another expedition (dehydration was not an option). Although we kept some of these to take back to the UK for recycling, space was at a premium and some had to be discarded. As planned, we were able to minimise food packaging through buying the majority of supplies loose or in large units from Osh Bazaar.

At base camp

The lack of flat ground at base camp made it impossible to periodically move our tents (other than the store tent) and cooking area as planned. It also proved impossible to prevent paths from developing; again, this was partly due to topographic limits. However, because the river was some 30m down a steep slope from camp, people did tend to plan ahead so that they could do several things while there and minimise movement around camp. Additionally, the climate was significantly wetter than anticipated and the vegetation correspondingly lush, meaning that the grass is likely to recover relatively quickly.

The assumption that all food would be eaten proved far too optimistic. Particularly early on when appetites were affected by altitude and illness, significant amounts of cooked food had to be disposed of: far too much to dry out and add to the normal waste. We solved this by burying it along with vegetable matter. This was not a perfect solution; ideally we should have been more careful about only cooking food that we thought we would eat (and indeed, we got better at this as time went on). Some of our spare uncooked food was donated to the residents living in the last house in the valley. While this should probably not be encouraged in the long run, we felt that as a one-off, and in return for their generous hospitality, this was acceptable. The remainder of the spare uncooked food was donated to ITMC or brought back to the UK. We were able to use refillable gas canisters (supplied by ITMC) and most of our food required minimal cooking - the only exception was a bag of what we thought was couscous, but seemed to need simmering for several hours to be at all palatable!

Central provision of biodegradeable toiletries and washing-up liquid (Lifeventure blue soap, Kingfisher natural toothpaste, Boots natural insect repellent) ensured that no toxic chemicals were used. Sun-cream was the only exception. The implementation of washing and washing-up routines worked well; in particular, a pair of tights mounted on a ring of garden wire was excellent for straining waste water to catch food scraps, which were then buried. For personal and clothes washing water, it was decided that straining through tights was unnecessary and natural filtering through rocks and soil would be enough to protect the aquatic ecosystem. Human waste disposal went almost exactly as planned. Base camp provided natural privacy in separate areas for urinating (a large area so the effects were dispersed) and locating the poo trench, both well away from the river. Using the trench was unexpectedly pleasant: the area was clean and did not smell, and the system hygienic and easy to use. The main problem was the rate at which we filled the trench. This was initially much higher than expected owing to widespread occurrence of traveller’s diarrhoea, which unfortunately also meant fewer people available to dig the trench! Nevertheless, we managed to keep up with demand, even if the trowel gave up the ghost on day 2 (B&Q Verve trowel not recommended). As a result, we discovered that an ice axe is a very useful tool for trench-digging, and is also good at preserving sods of turf that can be replaced afterwards. The trowel handle found a new lease of life as the engaged sign.

After some debate, we decided to bury toilet paper in the same trench (rather than burning it or burying it in a separate, deeper pit) for the sake of hygiene. Placing a stone on top of the paper before covering with soil seemed to prevent it from escaping. There were a few teething problems regarding the dimensions of the trench, the direction from which it should be used and the fact that there never seemed to be enough soil to put back afterwards, but these were minor issues. The marmots must have had an unpleasant few weeks and the hillside is likely to take some time to recover from our activities; nevertheless, this is a highly recommended system and much better than any of the alternatives for an un-portered expedition of this size.

Mountaineering

Large portions of the approaches to the mountains were on moraine, meaning that we did not need to worry about trails developing. It was, however, very difficult to avoid accelerating natural erosion processes by dislodging rocks. We undoubtedly left crampon scratches on several rock sections (time and weather constraints often meant that removing them was inadvisable), but the little abseiling we did was from natural or retrievable anchors, and we abandoned no gear. The use of ‘poo packs’ while at altitudes higher than base camp was always a somewhat experimental part of the EMP, and met with mixed success. Their main limitation was that they did not cope with liquid and so could not be used in all cases. There were also complaints about the smell. However, there is no doubt that we left less of ourselves up the mountain than we would have without them.

Post-expedition travelling

The EMP was written with only the expedition phase of the trip in mind. Although it would have been great to carry the same principles right through the subsequent week of travelling, this proved impossible, in large part due to the necessity of buying bottled water everywhere. We had intended to continue using our water filters, but they had clogged up too much to meet our requirements by gravity alone, and the provided tap adapter failed to work with any tap we found. We tried to minimise packaging by buying 5L bottles and decanting it to our own reusable containers wherever possible. There was some debate as to whether, with limited luggage space, we should sacrifice some of our expedition rubbish in order to take home our post-expedition plastic bottles, the logic being that the bottles could be recycled in the UK. Although this made absolute sense, it was eventually decided that it was important to make a statement by showing unequivocally that it is possible to bring home all the waste generated by a mountaineering expedition. In addition, it would have been very difficult to keep hold of all the bottles for this week because of the amount of travelling we did. We used public transport (minibuses) almost everywhere. Taxis were only used for short distances and always by multiple people; in fact they were nearly always filled.

Attached files: 

Landscape and Wildlife

Geography and geology

From the dusty plains around the town of Tokmok, we travelled south into the Kyrgyz Ala-Too mountains alongside a glacial river. This was lively and fast-flowing and in some places had carved out a narrow gorge, but in general the valley floor was relatively wide, allowing numerous dwellings to exist on both sides of the river. Lower in the valley, we passed several outcrops of very soft red- and orange-coloured sedimentary rocks. Approaching base camp, the river became braided and shallow enough to cross without getting wet feet, but it is clearly a permanent feature. Although melting was prolific on the glaciers every day from mid-morning, there was no noticeable change in river discharge related to the time of day. We found no potable water above base camp: the river emerged from the bottom of the moraine there and must have been fed largely by basal melting.

The geology of the area was more or less as expected, consisting of mixed sedimentary and metasedimentary rocks. Fine and medium-grained sandstones were common around base camp and in the valley to the south-east; further up the main valley, slate was more abundant.  Without thorough investigation, it was impossible to get an idea of geological structure as there was very little bedrock visible – mostly it was deeply buried under moraine, scree and snow. The moraine was ubiquitous, but varied widely in nature. In the main valley, it formed an undulating tongue along the top of which soil and vegetation had developed. The sides, particularly further down, were still largely unconsolidated. The vegetation disappeared near to the glacier, to be replaced by piles of rock and dried muddy depressions. The side valley to the west (leading to the second glacier system) was also partly grassy, and ended in a steep headwall of relatively fine, very loose scree. In the valley to the south-east of base camp, a higher proportion of the moraine was in the form of large boulders and there was little vegetation. As a general theme, the moraine extended well onto all the glaciers, often quite thickly, so that it was impossible to tell where they really ended.

The glaciers themselves could not be described as beautiful, and crossing them proved frequently unpleasant, particularly on the descents when snow became slushy and underlying ice began to melt. As the map suggests, the glacier in the main valley originated in several distinct areas, separated by substantial rock spurs. The bottom section was dry, while upper sections were snow-covered. In most cases the snow covered both the steep glacier headwalls and the upper flat sections, but the westernmost arm (the approach to Peak 4383) was dry right up to the headwall.  The approach to Point 4215 was extremely crevassed, although crevasses were a danger everywhere. The small glacier to the south-east of base camp was similar to the main one; mostly wet but dry at the bottom. This was the only notable case where we found the map to be inaccurate: in reality, the moraine was much more extensive and the area of visible glacier was much reduced. The glacier system in the valley to the west was wet as far as we explored it, and much more continuous in its upper reaches than the main valley. Bergschrunds for all glaciers tended to be located partway up the headwall, but we came across none that were impassable (at least while the snow was solid).

Flora and fauna

There were few trees in the valley, the lower sections being too dry and dusty and the upper section too high. They became more common as we approached the end of the road, and there was a small section of coniferous forest from shortly before the last house to shortly afterwards. Beyond this, ground vegetation was quite varied, and at our ‘transit camp’ we had to flatten broad-leaf plants at least a foot high in order to make space for the tents. As we got higher up, these plants gave way to short grass – much better for camping on. There were many wild flowers including aconites and gentians, particularly beside the stream and in the meadows which covered the moraine, though we lacked the knowledge to identify all of these. A species of onion grass was abundant in the meadows, with large chive-like leaves and spherical white flowers. We also spotted edelweiss on a handful of occasions, always relatively high on the moraine where few other plants grew.

As expected, we saw no signs of the endangered snow leopard. Nor did we see any ibex, but there were several skulls and horns high on the moraine, and we learnt from valley locals that the area is sometimes visited by foreign parties hunting these animals. Our most frequent interactions with local wildlife were the marmots whose home we temporarily invaded. There were marmot holes all around base camp, as well as further down the valley and on the vegetated moraine. The marmots were shy at first, but by the end of the trip they were more or less ignoring us and going about their business as usual. We identified them as Grey Marmots (Marmota baibacina), which are widespread in the steppes and alpine meadows of Russia, Central Asia and China. There were no positive sightings of the rare Menzbier’s or Long-Tailed varieties that are also native to the area. As well as the marmots, we caught rare glimpses of several smaller rodents, but never got a good enough look to identify them. There were also several large birds that had clearly made the valley their home. On being shown pictures of one, Michel, a Belgian wildlife guide whom we met during our week travelling, had no hesitation in identifying it as a bearded vulture. There may also have been other species; some of the behaviour we observed (hovering, scanning the ground) was suggestive of birds of prey such as eagles, although bearded vultures are known to attack live prey as well as scavenging. 

 

Phase 2

‘Is it Kool?’ Post-Expedition Travelling: Lake Issyk Kul and Beyond


Day 1: ‘All aboard the bus’ – The journey begins, on the road to Cholpon Ata

Following a much appreciated three-course dinner in an Italian restaurant and a nice evening walk through the centre of Bishkek, we had a relatively gentle start to our first full day since returning from the mountains. After enjoying a very tasty breakfast at Fatboys, saying goodbye to Michael, sorting out some last-minute logistics with ITMC, buying some food from the supermarket and devouring two tubs of ice cream, we boarded a minibus heading to Cholpon Ata, on the northen shore of Lake Issyk Kul. After a bumpy but very fast journey, we arrived in the busy resort town, found our way to the small but comfortable Pegasus Guest House and enjoyed an excellent dinner.

Day 2: Horses, beaches and pot-bellied men

With our host a locally renowned equine expert, we spent much of the day on horseback in the foothills north of Cholpon Ata, with great views down to the lake below. Though none of us had much prior experience of horse riding, we soon picked it up and a fun time was had by all. In the afternoon we took a quick dip in the lake and observed Russian men ‘sunbathing’ standing up on the crowded beach, before visiting the local hippodrome for the Equine Games, where highlights included ‘rugby’ with a dead sheep and wrestling on horseback.

Day 3: Yurts and Yak Tours

With time against us it was time to board a minibus again, this time taking us to Karakol, a large town at the end of the lake. Today marked the end of Ramadan, and the entire town’s population seemed to be inside, presumably feasting after a month of daytime fasting, leaving the town somewhat deserted and a little eerie at times! Nonetheless, we visited an unusual wooden church, found a very nice, though slightly out-of-place, café and made a somewhat vague arrangement with the infamous Yak Tours for transport the following day. Crossing off another ‘Kyrgyz experience’, we slept in Turkmenistan Yurt Camp.

Day 4: Bumps, breakdowns and hot-spring bathing

Following another Lonely Planet recommendation, we planned an excursion from Karakol up into the mountains once more to the tiny settlement of Altyn Arashan, renowned for its hot springs. Though the trip up the ‘road’ was about the roughest any of us had ever experienced, in a vehicle which could easily have been destined for the scrap heap several decades ago, the hot springs were a great reward. We spent over an hour sitting in the 40° water, which wasn’t even too pungent, and made several sporadic dips into the icy river rushing by outside. Our planned accommodation was full, so we were put up by a friendly local family, whose bright and playful and son made friends with Matthew over juggling balls and an MP3 player.

Day 5: Two buses, two taxis and a walk

Not fancying another trip in the ancient minibus we decided to make the 14km trip back down to the main road head on foot. Though rather dusty and hot at times, the views were nice and it was a pleasant and relatively easy walk. We boarded a passing minibus to take us back to Karakol, and after buying some lunch at the market made our way to Karakol’s South Bus Terminal where we jumped onto yet another minibus to continue our journey around the lake, along its southern shore. This time the destination was the small town of Kadji Sai, where we stayed with the family of local eagle hunter Ishenbek.

Day 6: Completing the circle – back to Bishkek

A final minibus ride completed our trip around the shores of Lake Issyk Kul and after returning along the bumpy road through the dramatic Shoestring Gorge, we shortly arrived back to Bishkek. Here we spent a long time attempting to find suitable accommodation, but unfortunately to no avail and we eventually decided to split up, with half of the group staying at the Hotel Alpinist and the remainder at a flat-cum-hostel on the 7th floor of a Soviet tower block.

Day 7: To the mountains once more…

Our final excursion took us up the Ala Archa valley to the south of Bishkek, a widely used mountaineering area. We were pleased to find a seven-seater taxi, but somewhat less pleased to find the vehicle seemed to be runnning short of petrol, resulting in us travelling at 20mph for most of the trip. Nonetheless, in spite of this and a brief diversion when we missed a turn, we arrived at the road head in good time, and booked into a cheap and satisfactory hotel. We spent the afternoon walking back up into the Tien Shan mountains for a final time, and a few of the group made it up to the alpine hut at the base of the glacier. The cloud cleared just enough on the descent to provide brief glimpses of several dramatic granite north faces and glacier-clad slopes.

Day 8: Back where it all began…

It was fortunately only a short wait until another 7 seat taxi appeared to take us back down the valley to Bishkek, rather more quickly than the taxi on the way up. Our final afternoon was spent back where the trip began, in Osh Bazaar, but this time seeking souvenirs rather than expedition supplies. We enjoyed our last Kyrgyz meal in an outdoor restaurant in the centre of town, and toasted a highly successful and truly unforgettable trip. All too soon, though, the evening was over, and just a few hours later the minibus arrived to take us back to the airport for our early morning flight to Moscow.

Financial

We opened an expedition bank account with the Co-operative Bank. This allowed all expedition transactions to be made from a single, shared account, making the accounting much easier. The account allowed us to take multiple debit cards on one account, allowing us a higher daily withdrawal limit (useful as we were only in Bishkek for a day at a time). It also meant that we wouldn't lose access to our account if the one person’s wallet was stolen. A downside to this was that setting up a 'community' account required lots of paperwork to prove we were not money-laundering. We think that a dedicated personal account in one person’s name rather than a business account would be a good compromise. However, it could cause issues with security, withdrawal limits and tax arrangements in the UK.

We initially agreed on a budget of £1800 each as a total maximum, but with many students on the expedition we tried our hardest to reduce this. Any choice we had to save money without compromising safety we took. This included taking indirect flights, buying our own food in the markets and staying in self catering apartments in Bishkek. Our major costs were insurance (£1880 in total), flights (£5025) and medical vaccinations (£3200). The only other major expedition cost was equipment, much of which has been sold second hand to recuperate some costs. Costs while in Kyrgyzstan were minimal in comparison. Phase 2, our week of travelling, was put through the accounts to make our life easier. It shows a cost of £235 each for a week of eating out, B&B accommodation and bus travel. Around £60 of that was insurance.

In total, the cost per person (including the ‘Phase 2’ week of travelling) was £2025, the grants for the mountaineering reduced our personal contribution to £1335.

Grants and Sponsorship

We applied to a great number of grant-giving organisations, not thinking we’d get very far. In fact, the idea of young mountaineers exploring an entirely new area seemed to capture people’s imagination more than we thought, and we were very successful. The lesson we learnt is that if you don’t apply you certainly won’t get. In addition, the writing of applications forced us to ensure we’d thought of everything and was useful in helping the expedition to be well planned out from the beginning. 

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Bibliography