Kyzyl Asker obsession (Greater ranges climbing)

Previously published in Scottish Mountaineer, February 2006.

Kyzyl Asker southeast face

Kyzyl Asker southeast face

“You try this face, alpine style, and you take no bolts?!?”.

The Spanish lilt echoes in my head. At the time we guffawed, played our part as bold Brits, out of our depth but evangelical about the style in which we would try to stay afloat. The Spaniards with whom we shared basecamp and a desire to climb this face seemed to think we were slightly unhinged. Up here such posturing seems vain, short sighted and plain stupid. I fight to clear a crack above me, frustrated by the knowledge that somewhere under all this ice there must be a bombproof belay but that I might be too pumped, too scared and too panicked to find it. I search the sidewalls for an edge, some nook on which to rest a Skyhook-our one concession to ethics. Blank, vertical granite greets me on both sides. A stern and fatherly voice rises up from beneath the icicles I’ve just climbed through; “Hurry up Es, it’s thawing fast down here”. Guy sounds genuinely scared. I don’t ponder how my reply sounds. The sun is making it’s presence felt and I hack away, eager to get through this section before the thaw that shut down our first attempt kicks in. Sweat pours down my sides and I swing my axe with the accuracy of a frightened beginner. The steps I’ve kicked for my feet finally collapse just after I clip the hex I’ve blindly pounded in. It passes this impromptu test. I ponder the realisation that, had I been trying to place a bolt, my footholds would have collapsed before I’d even made an impression on the perfect granite of this beautiful wall. Guy leads on through to the first ice field.

Two hours later we both conceded that the sun had turned eighty degree ice into unclimbable slush. Useful only for quenching our thirst. We agreed that we were out of time and out of luck, down was the only option. Months later as I stagnated in a university computer lab, I wondered whether in fact we just ran out of momentum. Retrospect is such a cruel light to shine on one’s achievements. Or lack of them.

Over the following months Guy and I met occasionally, to climb and drink. Our lives had changed, Guy had become a father, and I had graduated but talk always led back to “the line” on Kyzyl Asker. We were both bewitched, willing to believe that the route would go, that it would be everything we wanted it to be and then some.

My first expedition had been a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Thoroughly steeped in British climbing folklore, my notions of the perfect route were constructed around Fowleresque ideals. Urge provoking lines, following natural weaknesses, meeting the mountain on it’s own terms. In the grand architecture of Kyzyl Askers south east face I found every manifestation of those qualities; soaring alpine pillars split by line after line of improbably steep ice. The eye is innevitably drawn to the fattest central line. Here was a natural “Super Diretissima”, traced by a continuous line of white, on the steepest face of the highest peak in the area. A journal entry, penned excitedly the evening of arrival at advanced basecamp, captured my mood.

My god what a line. Honestly the best alpine route I have ever seen, in photos or for real. Looks hard, lots of vertical ice leading to a sort of overhanging bit – may be able to escape out left onto a rib. Only other worry is that it is in the sun all day.

Eight months earlier I had decided to organise an expedition and had gathered three other restless individuals to join me. Guy Robertson and I had never climbed together but cemented what was to become a fruitful climbing partnership with the second ascent of Mick Fowler’s infamous West Central Gully. Blair Fyffe and Neal Crampton were university friends and brought the team to four. I had chosen Kyrgyzstan’s Western Kokshaal Too after reading a report on Sean Isaac’s trip there in 2001. After quickly reading up on other expeditions that had been to the area I seized upon the mountains Northwest face, because it was the biggest, as our objective.

Upon arrival our truck became stuck in boggy ground long before the correct basecamp, making an attempt on the northwest face unfeasible. This turned out to be a piece of serendipity, as the northwest face, while large, was not nearly as steep, or as elegant, as the south east.

It was to be the beginning of a two year obsession that would turn my life upside down. Guy and I made two attempts on the route in 2002, both of which failed because whenever the sun hit the face it would turn to a waterfall. Our highpoint was about 500m up the face.

Edinburgh university mid December 2002

Uni is wearing me down, I spend lectures sketching pictures of Kyzyl in the side of my notes. Revision is a joke.

Exam term of my final year was the crux of my university degree. I couldn’t concentrate in lectures for daydreaming about when we might finally climb the SE face. I’d agreed with Guy that we would leave it for two years and go back in 2004, but I couldn’t help planning and wondering about the return. Would it be cold enough if we went back a month later? Could we go even later than that? Could we go in winter? Did we WANT to go in winter? In an attempt to salvage my degree I had made myself some rules about winter climbing. I was only allowed to go on routes that were at least Scottish Grade VII. For me always something of a benchmark grade, the best grade VIIs require rare conditions. I only did three routes that season, and failed on a few more. The day after my last university exam Guy and I cruised The Vicar, a short winter test piece that I’d long considered too desperate to try. I hadn’t climbed for two months but the passion was still there, waiting to be released from my library addled brain.

Part of the reason for waiting two years, beyond allowing me to graduate, was to give me a year in which to prepare myself for the route, mentally and physically. Scottish climbers, unless they are well travelled, are notoriously poor at steep ice climbing. Give us thinly iced slabs, turfy grooves, hoared up roofs and torque cracks and we are happy. Given plumb vertical pure ice, the average Scot panics. On the SE face I had felt out of my depth on the steep ice pitches. I had felt like a mediocre climber on a world class route, buoyed by inspiration and passion. I wondered about the best way to become the climber I knew I needed to be to succeed. I planned a couple of steep ice trips abroad, and set about funding these by cycle rickshawing around the cobbled and steep streets of Edinburgh.

The problem with cycle rickshawing for a living is that, although on paper you have lots of free time, most of it is spent too exhausted to do anything. The hours are timed to coincide with the Edinburgh weekend pub and club scene. I’d often see both sunset and sunrise in one shift. On busy nights I would have a constant stream of customers, allowing only enough time for one break in the entire shift. I spent days in a sleep deprived haze, feeding an insatiable hunger and nursing sore legs. Sometimes I would manage to climb on Wednesday or Thursday, before another weekend of toil came around. Another winter passed with a small haul of routes.

All my climbing experiences were coloured by the spectre of that line, looming in my future. All other routes appeared as boulder problems to the on-sighter. If I led a hard pitch the only questions that mattered were “Could I have led that on day three, at five and a half thousand metres? Could I have kept my sack on?” My whole life was on hold for this route.

By the beginning of 2004 the expedition was taking shape. Guy and I had recruited Pete Benson as extra fire power for our route. Matt Halls and Robin Thomas rounded our team off to a sociable but not unwieldy five.

In the spring I took my girlfriend to Kyrgyzstan to show her some of the country I had fallen in love with two years before. We did some trekking and easy routes, me hoping to speed my acclimatisation on return to Kyzyl Asker. It felt like the process of attempting the route had started, my life and imagination rushed forward towards the expedition. More than anything I wanted to have climbed the route. I wanted it to be over.

Training for climbing has never been a particular strong point of mine. From time to time in Kyrgyzstan however, worries about what we might be up against would spur me into a few hours of frenzied activity. I had sporadic but intense training sessions, running from 2000m to 4500m and back in four hours was a favourite.

Base camp 27th August 2004

Been here for two days. Seem to be acclimatising OK. Dumped some skis on the glacier yesterday, that fairly worked me! Plan to make a kit dump at the col tomorrow. It’s colder than last time and the weather seems (optimistically) better. I just really want to be over there, acclimatised and raring to go. I can’t wait but I also feel scared. Scared that it will be too hard or not as objectively safe as we thought last time. I need to keep telling myself I’ll be logical and systematic on the route, as always. This route is no different from any others, if it’s too hard we’ll retreat and if not we’ll continue. So why this level of dread?

BC 29th August 2004

Oh how it’s not going to plan! I was sick as a dog yesterday; vomiting, bad stomach and fever. I felt almost certain I’d have to go home, which felt like it would be a relief. Bit better now and trying to feed myself up again while Pete and Matt go to the col. We’ve all been ill in turn so our acclimatisation and load ferrying plan isn’t going too well. Plan to go to the col tomorrow then climb a peak for acclimatisation. This should see us in ABC in four or five days all going well. I need to re-find my desire for this route!

Lying in the tent at basecamp, sick bucket to one side, antibiotics to the other, while my friends shouldered their loads and skied to the col, I couldn’t help but wonder whether my illness was purely psychosomatic. It certainly seemed like a welcome get out cause; the others could go and try the route, if they got up it, I could share some of the glory because it had been my planning that had got us here. I could go home saying “what a shame, I was too ill to even have a go”.

A chapter in a book I was reading was hardly helping my state of mind. It described George Mallory’s fatal obsession with climbing Everest, his three visits and eventual death. The parallels to my obsession with Kyzyl Asker seemed all too obvious. I tried to reason with myself. I wouldn’t try to summit at all costs as Mallory appeared to have done. It seemed that at the time of leaving camp, Mallory’s final assault on the mountain had two possible outcomes; success or failure through death. I comforted myself with the idea that I would keep a third option open at all times; failure through safe retreat.

The next day I made it to my friends at the col. In my weakened state the seven hour ski under the beautiful Ochre walls was hard. Despite the struggle, it was impossible not to be inspired, the walls were laced with beautiful ice lines. My mind raced around the concept of there being more potential for mixed climbing on these walls than I could manage in a lifetime of expeditions.

BC 2nd September 2004

Slept last night at the col (c4900m) and didn’t feel too bad. I seem to be acclimatising reasonably quickly. The others repeated the Mrak-Willis route on Unmarked soldier (~5400m) in the morning, but my head was sore enough where we were. Back at basecamp now. Plan is to have a days rest here then head over to advanced basecamp the day after. I’m starting to feel a little more psyched by the whole process now. I think I’m approaching full health again…

Things were looking to be back on track, and with improving health my enthusiasm for the project returned. With this enthusiasm came an impatience that annoyed the other members of the team. It seemed to me that one thing we’d lacked in 2002 had been time, allowing only two attempts on the route. As far as I could see, the quicker we got over the col and to advanced basecamp, the greater our chances. Much to my annoyance everyone else wanted a rest day before going back up. I was keen to kick the plan into action, all the sooner to return to basecamp and get on with my life. Unburdened by the enormity of this project.

BC 3rd September 2004

Everyone has decided they want yet another rest day! I’m frustrated, and feel maybe I need to catch up with the others on the acclimatisation stakes, so I’m planning to go up tomorrow and solo the route they did on Unmarked Soldier.

The next day I woke feeling lazy, the weather wasn’t great and I made all the right excuses to myself. Three hours later I was glad I had-tucked up in my sleeping bag with a new book, the day long storm didn’t seem so bad!

Window col 5th September 2004

Yet again, our plan to leave early broke down and we didn’t leave till after a hearty lunch of fried potatoes. Consequently we didn’t get to the col till nightfall, and the plan to continue the ski to advanced basecamp was ditched in favour of another night high up.

The next day we ferried all the kit we’d stashed at the col down to advanced basecamp in two trips. Skiing down from the col I remembered first seeing the face in 2002. We had assumed that the ice we’d seen in photos was absent, as it was hidden at first. Instead, descending towards camp, the view around a huge buttress is revealed. This time the teasing effect was accentuated by the weather, with the clouds clearing periodically to reveal a glittering series of buttresses. How did it compare to my memory? This face had kept me awake on more nights than I cared to remember. After pitching the tents the clouds cleared, the sun came out, and the line dazzled us. Again.

Advanced Basecamp 7th September 2004

Had a ski around the cirque today checking out lines. Our route looks thinner lower down but fatter higher up. Feels really warm in the day, but I’m trying to stay optimistic and convince myself that it’s colder than last time. Robin and Matt are going for the S ridge on Kyzyl tonight. Guy, Pete and I are going for a line on the South face of Panfilovski Division.

The following night was clear as we made our way to the foot of our warm up route. By the time we had climbed the easy couloir leading to the foot of our line, the weather had deteriorated and we started to be continuously pummelled by spindrift avalanches. The climbing was fun. Steepish ice and grand situations. I couldn’t help feeling that it was all a fairly pointless exercise. The climbing on the SE face would be much harder than this. Anything we found remotely difficult here would only serve to instil yet more dread.

Guy finishes his block of leads. The ominous words float down from his belay; “get ready boys, the next pitch looks interesting”. Finally my motivation wakes up. On arrival at the belay I am immediately interested. Vertical, old ice leads to an overhang which sports an icicle plume. Getting onto the plume looks very interesting. It appears that interest will be maintained once successfully established. Behind the icicle lies a cave. If I can get into that, I reason, I’ll be able to rest and pull back onto onto the steep ice refreshed. Getting into the cave proves to be the crux of the route. Bullet hard ice and blunt picks (I am saving the sharpened ones for the SE face) contrive to have me pumped silly by the time I reach the entrance to the cave. Entrance is an optimistic term for this particular crevice. A foot jam between ice and rock enables me to pull my chest into the gap. Once wedged in I am unable to fully expand my chest with each breath. At 5000m and gasping for air, this is not a pleasant feeling!

Haggis Supper

Haggis Supper

After the cave pitch, things ease up a bit and after several hundred metres of moving together on insecure ground, we come to the end of the difficulties.

Guy is a superb climber, but he is most definitely a climber before a snow plodder. “We’ve done the hard climbing, finished the line, I can’t be bothered with a few hundred metres of plodding just to summit. Do you go to the top of Ben Nevis every time you climb there?” We muse on this for a while. No we don’t always go to the top of Ben Nevis, but that has been climbed innumerable times, and there is an easy route to the summit. This peak has been climbed perhaps only once before. “I’m going down” He announces. I think of his eight month old boy at home. I think about how I’d feel in his position. I think about whether I can really be bothered to carry on just to legitimise our claim to a new route. I think about the fact that it is getting dark and I really don’t feel that well with the altitude. Twelve ice threads later, followed by a bit of down-climbing and we are back on the glacier.

ABC 10th September 2004

Slept, ate and read yesterday under perfect cloudless skies. Felt a bit cruel after we’d spent the whole route suffering cold, damp weather and incessant spindrift. Skied up to look at the SE face in the middle of the day. Thawing again, maybe not quite as bad as 2002, but enough for it be a huge problem.

The following day, we felt sufficiently recovered to think about going on another route. The perfect skies were holding and we spent hours debating how best to climb the SE face. We packed our sacks for a super lightweight, climb by night approach-we’d be sleeping during the day as climbing would be impossible. In such good weather we’d be warm enough without sleeping bags, so we packed just a three man bivi sack. The initial excitement of the plan carried us along. It seemed so audacious an idea, to climb the hardest alpine route of our lives in the dark. To go for three days with no sleeping bags. But would we get shelter from falling ice during the day? If not, could we survive three days of pummelling? Slowly throughout the afternoon we started to realise that it was probably also a ridiculous idea. I don’t remember who said it first, but by nightfall we were all going for different routes, ones that didn’t face the sun.

Great walls of China

Great walls of China

Guy and I picked a line on the Great Walls of China while Matt, Robin and Pete went to attempt Kyzyl by another route. Our line faced North and looked good; thin icy mixed climbing leading to what looked like easier snow ice goulottes above. From where the line met the ridge crest of the Great Walls it looked like easy snow to a virgin summit. The walls were unclimbed. The approach was true convenience alpinism, five minutes of fast icy snow, whizzing over crevasses on skis, brought us to the foot of the route at dawn.

Rushing, I throw kit out of my sack; rope, crampons, Platypus. Oh shit! Those crampons are recently sharpened. I pick up the Platypus to find it spurting water out of a sizeable hole. Three litres of our days ration of four is on the floor. We down the rest and set off up the route.

We discuss who wants the first pitch. From the tent I had thought it might not go. The ice looked too thin for me, so I opted for the second. While this had a large gap in the ice I reasoned that we probably wouldn’t get there so I wouldn’t even have to try. Guy’s pitch was pure joy, delicate thin ice with spaced but adequate gear led to a snowpatch and belay below my pitch. Above me rises a mixed wall, leading to a steep hand crack with a small roof capping it to gain a hanging icy niche.

Border Control

Border Control

Some fun technical climbing brings me to the foot of the crack. It is steep, perfect hands but too narrow for crampon clad boots. There are few footholds and no ice. I consider aiding it but this is the 21st century. Dry tooling rules the roost, the “mixed climbing revolution”. Undoubtedly it could go free, but I know it will require a lot of effort and a fair bit of luck. Steep jamming in gloved hands, monopoints balanced on miniscule facets to the side of the crack, brings me to the small roof. I reach my axe over and sink the pick into a good hook at the base of the niche. By now the altitude is playing havoc with my arms. A hex at my waist winks temptingly at me, but no, this will go, just a few more moves. The niche is deep in powder, and it takes a lot of digging to get a placement that begins to feel secure. I pull hard, moving up till my face is level with my top axe. The axe rips under the strain, throwing me backwards, shock loading the lower axe. This also rips but catches a few inches lower down. That was the one big effort I had in me. “Take” I call down to Guy, knowing I’m too pumped to give it another go. Out come my home made aiders.

For me aid on alpine routes is a non issue. If it needs aid it needs aid. Still, I can’t help feeling the perfect route is one where you have to fight tooth and nail for every pitch. One that only just goes free. The problem with this attitude arises on pitches that might or might not require aid. An inordinate amount of effort is put into trying to free them first go, only to resort to aid when this fails. That I had used only two points made no difference. The pitch had aid, in the eyes of the purist it was tainted. I was as exhausted as if I had freed every move, and as disappointed as if I’d aided every one. The worst of both worlds.

We had climbed the initial steep section, and from the ground we’d predicted the rest would be easy. Perhaps it was, but in our dried out state it felt steep and hard.

We continue to inch upwards, several times falsely giving hope to the other at the belay; “looks easy from here”, only for them to turn the corner and be faced by yet more steep ground. A prominent feature that we had noted from below was two ice fields in the upper half of the route. Pulling from the vertical ice onto the first of these at dusk I look down to see my belay plate falling between my legs.

Linking the two ice fields had looked easy from the ground but it turns out to be a forty metre step of vertical ice, made all the more tasty by our meagre rack of six screws. Somehow the darkness helps, freeing me to focus on steady technique without being distracted by the distance to my last screw.

My headtorch beam shows what looks like a small cave on the side wall of the second snow field. I reach it on rope stretch. Never before have I longed so profoundly for absent bivi gear. We are completely exhausted and here is the perfect shelter; a large mouth to the cave would have made a perfect kitchen, and in the back is a luxury sleeping chamber. The smooth floor slopes gently into the mountain to allow unroping and it is sheltered from all but the worst of weather. Instead we settle for sucking some moisture from a snow melt dribble before it freezes solid for the night.

The rest of the climbing was just the sort Guy hates, and for good reason. Technically easy but loose and insecure. The summit would have been nice, but what had appeared to be an easy ridge from camp appeared remarkably complex to our shrivelled brains. We had climbed to the ridge, the route, and the wall, was in the bag. There was no debate, we were going down.

I used to work in a climbing shop. It was full of technical people who could spend hours teaching you the most obscure rope techniques when business was quiet. Thankfully someone had once shown me how to rig a karabiner break. Sometimes work experience is useful in the most unlikely of situations! The night passed slowly though, ropes jamming, as they always do, when you are least able to cope with it. By the time we touched down on the glacier it had been light for several hours. 27 hours on 300ml of water each made the mile long ski back to the tents feel like a marathon.

The route had been awesome, perhaps the best climbing I’d ever done, and crucially, it had faced North. We had discussed trying a neighbouring line, which faced east. The defining feature was a 300m pillar of ice, offering perhaps six pitches of mega steep ground. Pete described it as the most disturbing piece of ice he’d ever seen, which was enough of a bait for me. We decided to leave it till later in the trip, but after hearing the sickening whirring of rocks reaching terminal velocity past the pillar throughout the day, all thoughts of cranking pitch after pitch of flutings and umbrellas in the sun soon dissipated.

ABC 15th September

Pete and Matt climbed Kyzyl yesterday! Third time lucky! Awesome effort and a devious route-traversing onto the north face above the seracs. Weather has crapped out again, snowing non stop until now and now very cold. Food stocks are getting critical and everyone is getting narky with each other. Still got a fair bit but it’s all noodles and potatoes and we’re sick of them! All bets are off for the SE face, I just can’t imagine the weather needed to climb it safely-in good weather it’s falling down and in bad weather you’d get seriously gnarled.

And so it was over. Two years of dreaming about this route and we were going to leave without even trying it. Thinking back on 2002 I realised that we’d been incredibly lucky to get away with what we did unhurt. In the thaw we’d been able to find shelter, but there was no certainty of that higher on the route yet falling ice would be a problem every day. Surrendering before any shots had been fired felt a bit of a cop out, but our haul of routes so far more than made up for it. On the way back to basecamp we dumped the climbing gear and a tent below the Ochre walls, intent on adding another few routes to these (relatively) popular walls after some rest at basecamp.

Pete and I headed for a big ice smear visible from basecamp while Matt and Guy went for a line linking some ephemeral icy ramps on pik Gronky. The day started fine enough, sunny and clear, but with a vicious wind that whipped cruel spindrift into our faces no matter which way we looked. After moving together up the initial 250m one eye was frozen shut and I was seriously worried that I might loose my cheeks to frostbite!

The first pitch offers a choice. Steep, thin ice one way. A snow ramp leading out right the other. Perhaps there will be another snow ramp round the corner? I go for a look and discover not a snow ramp but an imposing off-width torque crack. I know I should probably go back and try the other way, but I’m feeling bloody minded. I’ve chosen this way so I’ll finish this way! Having just climbed easy ground, my last protection is some way below, so I blindly fiddle in a few wires before pulling round into a strenuous axe layback. Perhaps it is the constant spindrift pouring down my neck, or the lack of protection forced by our lightweight approach, but the pitch feels very hard, amongst the hardest I’ve ever climbed. Insecure hooks, tiny footholds and tension dependent torques lead to a stretch left to thin ice. By the time I run out of rope I have placed every one of my nuts, and am left to construct a belay from pegs, a hex and a surprisingly good jammed knot! Watching Pete second the pitch I reflect that I might have just led one of the hardest and most rewarding pitches of my life for absolutely no reason. The other option looks much easier than the way I have just gone!

It is bitter, much colder than either of the two previous routes, and by the time I have led the pitch and belayed, Pete is thoroughly chilled and offers me the next lead. It is the perfect pitch to lead, thin brittle ice that breaks off as you climb past it. This means what is relatively easy for me is rendered desperate for the Pete, nicely massaging the ego! Pete takes over and after one more steep pitch we are into ridge mode. Nearly level with surrounding summits we sense we must be nearly up. We race the fading light and stand on the summit at dusk, the mountains all around glowing a steely grey, tinged with red.

Properly fed and hydrated, the descent passes much more smoothly than from the Great walls. Passing the crux pitch I am glad to see that what I’d thought was an easier alternative to the way I’d gone looks to be 40m of thin ice with no obvious protection. Perhaps my lead hadn’t been so pointless after all!

On return to basecamp we learnt that Matt and Guy’s route had thawed in fifteen minutes of sun. While we were sheltered by a big buttress, they were in full glare. Despite it barely getting above -10 degrees c on our route, there’s had turned to mush and forced retreat! I felt our decision to leave the south east face had been justified.

Back at home there was a tangible relief to being free from the route. Having accepted that there were no conditions I was happy to climb it in, it ceased to haunt me. I had come to terms with the paradox of the route; stormy weather and intense sun were the very things that formed the copious perfect ice that defined “my” line. But these were the very things that made it unclimbable. The routes we had done had been beautiful, a perfect mix of ice and rock and I felt satisfied. I could go climbing without fantasising about success or failure on Kyzyl. My love of climbing for pleasure had been reawakened and I started to think of new objectives. Perhaps crucially, I started to think about how these could be fitted into a more conventional lifestyle than I’d enjoyed for the past two years.