The Philosopher's Stone

Article by John Arran
Monday 16th March 2009

- all photographs copyright David Pickford (www.davidpickford.com) -

A 3am start to jumar 300m in the dark is not an ideal way to start a day’s cragging. But this wasn’t an ordinary day and it certainly wasn’t an ordinary crag. The 1000m-plus Wall of Dykes towers directly above the 3000m basecamp in Kyrgyzstan’s Ak Su valley and thus far the only route up its monstrous West Face was Paul Pritchard and Dave Green’s The Great Game. Their E5 line is one of the harder free routes in the valley and weaves deviously up the left side of the wall, the exact line of which we were unable to make out from our poor photocopied info. We were trying the wall further right, following a striking ‘why-has-no-one-ever-done-this-before’ feature - a compelling white streak weaving like an enchanted pathway to the very apex of the barrier roof. We’d fixed all our spare rope and after a protracted struggle we’d tamed the lower wall. Now it was time for commitment, for once we launched out over the roofs turning back would no longer be an option.

Ak Su's awsome 1200-metre monolith The Russian Tower lies shrouded in morning cloud.

The fledgling independent states of Central Asia have been carved up on ethnic grounds from ex-Soviet states to leave a tangled patchwork of bordering nations, each with its own government, political strategy and economic prosperity. We knew there would be borders to cross - the map showed the road passing in and out of Uzbekistan, Tajikstan and Kyrgyzstan, through towns orphaned from their parent nation, like if Betws-y-Coed was part of France and Llanberis part of Germany - so we had expected a few difficulties. But when we were met at Bishkek International Airport by the British Consul with tales of terrorists and hostages in the very mountains to which we were heading we began to appreciate just what kind of a mess we had flown right into. The Consul told us the terrorists belonged to the "Islamic Rebirth Party of Uzbekistan" and advised against continuing, our tour company suggested another climbing area, and our attempts at gaining more detailed information about the situation were invariably met with sharp intakes of breath.

Our ITMC tour company had charged a great deal and arranged very little, so we bid a delicate farewell and spent a frustrating couple of days assembling a local crew of guides, interpreters, drivers and negotiators prepared to try and get us there, before heading off into the minefield of political uncertainty.

We were six climbers in the minibus; Anne and I, a trio of Plas y Brenin instructors (Jon, Mark and an already lassitude-ridden Chris quietly dying in the back) and Pete "fakyeh" Scott – our kiwi court jester. Besides ourselves and a large mountain of gear there was young Ahad (our super-negotiator and translator), everyone’s friend Aibek (who would be staying up in the valley with us), our driver ("the ox"), a driver’s mate, and Des, whose role no-one could quite work out but who seemed to complain rather a lot. Shielded by such an entourage, we hoped that no border would bar our way.

Looking up the Ak Su Valley into the teeth of a southerly storm, towards Wolf Peak and Tajikistan.

Sure enough Ahad came up with the goods, sweet-talking the heavily armed guards at eight border controls in a variety of local languages, amazingly having to part with nothing more than a few cigarettes, a lot of handshakes and a huge amount of being nice. We learned a lot from the soldiers; the hostages (which included the local Mayor) had now been released in return for a large wodge of cash, many of the rebels were still hiding in the hills nearby, and the Uzbek and Kyrgyz armies were bombing the area in the hope of flushing them out. Nevertheless we seemed to be getting through, sweetened by giving military officers rides between border posts.

 

We had already climbed half of the pitch above on the last rope-fixing day, looking for a line through the great roofs before lowering to the stance and abbing our five fixed lines. But at six in the morning and with a sack full of bivi supplies the initial E3 overhang now felt depressingly hard. Above this the tiered roofs loomed impenetrably, guarding access to the vast expanse of slabs and walls above. The only option was an awkward traverse down leftwards to cross the roof at its narrowest point by gymnastic monkeying on a spike.

Abandoning a quadcam to backrope an equally rucksack-laden Anne on the tricky descent was the quickest option; soon she appeared over the roof, pausing to recover from the unfamiliar early morning exertion. Unfortunately by this time I was suspended cross-legged from my hanging stance, shouting impatiently at Anne to f---ing hurry up please as I couldn’t hold the contents of my bottom where they were for much longer. She duly obliged and in return had the unenviable privilege of sharing my hanging belay while I dropped my thankfully releasable legloops and exploded a torrent of pungent brown liquid streaming and steaming down the wall beneath our feet. "You look white as a sheet", she commented reassuringly, but I’m sure I felt much worse than I looked. Time to move on, I thought, already queasy with the stench, so I grabbed enough gear and raced away in pursuit of an odour-free belay ledge. Sure enough I found a ledge, but what I hadn’t bargained for here in the middle of first ascent nowhere was finding an in situ belay bolt.

 

The remote nature of the Ak Su region is clearly evident on the local map.

Arriving at the roadhead in Vorukh after kipping by the roadside we were faced with a much thornier negotiating task. The more we argued about the price of the beaten-up old truck to take us 25k up the rough valley road the higher the price became. Finally Chris could take no more and very nearly came to blows with the shark in charge. This dangerous tactic surprisingly worked and pretty soon we were all being thrown around the back of the open truck as the driver negotiated the clearly undriveable track up the steep sided valley, getting off on occasion to put planks under the wheels for traction on the loose rubble hillside. With morbid fascination we peered over the edge to see where many sections of the track had given up and crashed down hundreds of metres into the raging torrent below. I swear I’ve felt far safer doing E5 solos on sight. The remaining eight hour uphill hike into Ak Su was easy by comparison, but by the time we arrived we felt like we’d come through a trauma. It had taken us a full week to get there and, like Sassenach weekend lemmings who fling themselves at Scottish winter regardless of conditions, we were determined to make it worth the effort.

Ian Parnell was there to meet us when we arrived, he and Zippy having been in the area for a few weeks already ticking off new lines. He gave us a quick tour of the existing routes and the staggering potential while we struggled to keep our enthusiasm in check. We couldn’t help but drool at the sight of clean rock towers rising like enormous monoliths either side of the valley, so close you felt like you could reach out and touch them. The nearest bit of rock to the camp - the 550m Pamir Pyramid – Ian told us had only three routes on it. ‘That’s just silly’, we thought, and Anne and I determined to help rectify this absurdity the following day by way of warm-up and acclimatisation.

Swinging leads on pitch after pitch of clean, solid rock we began to realise quite how big the walls hereabouts really were. Everything was foreshortened and we found ourselves having to double every guestimate we made of time or distance. We followed disappearing cracklines in vast compact slabs, with runout friction moves providing cruxes to numerous E3 and E4 pitches. With rain having stopped play, we returned to finish The Hostage and discovered laybacks on the headwall like we’d never seen before, culminating in a nervy but staggeringly good sixty metre E5 that raced up a blind, inescapable and largely unprotected flake. I’d never seen such immaculate rock and compelling lines outside of Yosemite, and we descended more excited than ever to get on something even bigger and even nastier.

The news back at camp was that there were now 450 fundamentalist Islamic mercenaries (‘Taliban’ rebels mainly from Afghanistan and Chechnya) in the hills around the town of Batken and that they were now holding four Japanese hostages. As this was on our exit route we weren’t sure how or even if we would be able to leave, but we felt relieved to be up out of harm’s way for now.

The spectacular rock architecture of the eastern side of the Ak Su Valley. Central Pyramid (1000 metres) is on the left. The rocket-shaped monolith on the right is The Russian Tower (1200 metres)

We quickly realised the belay bolt must have been on Paul and Dave’s route. Convinced they must have gone back up left from here, I looked up at our binocular-scoped disappearing flakeline that led steeply and committingly up rightwards. I wasn’t convinced I was up to the task, especially at seven in the morning during a bout of diarrhoea and with a rucksack-shaped albatross on my back, so I left the sack on the ledge and set off up the pitch hoping to clip only one of our 8.3mm twin ropes and leave the other free for hauling. Fifteen metres later the flake melted into blank granite, another bolt appeared, and it painfully dawned on me that we’d stumbled onto Paul and Dave’s crux pitch without the option of working the impossible-looking moves, redpointing and retreating back down fixed lines. And despite the ridiculously early hour we were very conscious that many hundreds of metres of wall lay ahead of us, so time was precious. Even reaching to clip the bolt was an ordeal, achieved only by creative use of three interleaved wires and a skyhook. The ensuing traverse - albeit now well protected - required all the friction, technique and confidence I could muster, and I ended up laying one on for the finishing holds rather than trust to marginal friction for a moment longer. By now I was shaking from the exertion, from my medical condition and from the sheer excitement of our situation. Relieved to see climbable rock above, I pulled my sack up on the spare rope and started belaying, privately relieved when Anne found the traverse hard too.

Some hours later it seemed like we’d been laybacking for days. The hoped-for easing we’d expected hadn’t materialised and pitch after pitch looked easy and felt desperate. Laybacking with a sack on is hard at the best of times but as someone had apparently stolen all the footholds it was seriously wearing us out. The whole wall was peppered with 5-10m layback flakes and it became quite a challenge to stay on flakes that connected; we often had to plan our line four or five flakes ahead to avoid blank sections which we quickly learned could be very blank indeed. I managed to spare Anne a repetition of earlier unpleasantness by coinciding my next anal urgency with her lead, and as we progressed ever upward the rock horizon above seemed if anything to grow further away.


We'd hoped to be able to fix all our ropes on the wall in one day, but a combination of hard climbing and poor weather meant it ended up taking three. Just getting to the start of the hard climbing was an ordeal in itself, my cunning plan to save rucksack weight on the approach pitches by trailing rather than carrying most of the ropes having badly backfired when I got 60m up and realised I now had the full weight of all the ropes plus 300m of rope drag! But all our travails were soon forgotten when we arrived at the base of the clean white streak and gazed up at the magnificent sheet of rock above. The surface undulated like waves on the ocean, its recesses suggesting just enough potential to give our voyage some hope of success. A few introductory flakes provided gear and holds but these were never to last for long. Mantling onto a small ledge after only fifteen metres the gear was already well below, as were most of the holds, and the options above for either looked minimal. I reluctantly conceded the need for a bolt and began hammering, but it took almost two hours to place and left me completely knackered. The white streak that made the line so compelling was apparently made of a quartz-filled granite of near diamond-like hardness.

After a good night’s sleep, I was psyched. Thin moves led passed the bolt and up to an equalised poor offset wire and skyhook. With unwarranted confidence I crept up the slab above, linking blind ripples and occasional edges with absorbing friction moves, devoid of pro until another hook some fifteen metres higher. 'This ought to do until I get into that corner over there', I thought, and tiptoed nervously across a 6a traverse to the sanctuary of a knifeblade crack. When I got there the blade went in only half an inch, but by then I had little option but to tie it off and continue. Besides, I could see more gear potential above, which turned out to be two brass offset micros hammered into flared placements, an aluminium copperhead and another hook. ‘Almost enough for a belay’, I thought, but deciding not to risk a factor two I brought Anne up only as far as the bolt and continued leading. The crux arrived five metres higher, was very thin and wasn’t at all reversible. With nothing but more blind ripples to aim for a leap of faith found me committed to a further twenty five metres of unprotected climbing, thankfully easing to ledges and a welcome peg crack just as the 60m ropes came taut. Anne followed with a huge smile on her face, giggling all the while with enjoyment at the sheer quality of the climbing – it’s not every day you get to share the first ascent of the finest single pitch either of you have ever done.

Still only a fraction of the way up the white streak, we spent another day creating two more superb long E6 and E5 pitches before we ran out of rope to fix. Whatever difficulties remained in the 500m or so ahead would now have to wait for ‘the big push’, which at this rate seemed to have all the chances of success of a WWI campaign.

Back at camp Ian had returned from a mammoth and impressive solo frenzy and the politics were closing in. Horsemen had come up from the nearest village with news of more hostages: the Japanese were now accompanied by twelve Kyrgyz military personnel, including a General, and the rebel numbers were now said to be over 600. Worst of all, it was feared they may decide to escape through the mountains, and the local authorities had ordered all local hillspeople to go down to the towns for safety. ‘Best get our route done quickly’, we thought, as we may not be able to stay much longer. Thus our preparations for the big push included stashing money, passports and valuables behind nearby rocks, in case some Talib militants came through in our absence and raided the camp.


The rain arrived in the afternoon, but at this altitude it was falling as hail. Sadly it was also my lead, and I climbed a cold and urgent pitch brushing hailstones off the holds before being able to pull on them. Thankfully the storm was also short-lived, and when the clouds swept away the sun revealed only one pitch to go before the easier summit ridge. As usual one pitch turned into two, but even then we still weren’t there. Three pitches of simulclimbing later we arrived, the ridge led interminably off into the distance and a bigger and badder storm was brewing. The race was on, and our tired limbs speed-climbed up Idwal Slabs terrain for pitch after pitch before finally admitting defeat in the gathering thunderous gloom and stopping at a well-appointed bivi ledge.

It hailed again and I shivered all night, sleeping barely a wink, and rising in the morning freezing, starving and miserable. Anne had a good night’s sleep. It turned out we’d been half an easy pitch from the summit moraine, so topping out was easy enough, but the allegedly three-hour blocky scree descent took us six in our exhausted and undernourished state. Two abseils became five as we could now barely lift our sacks let alone scramble with them, and we returned to camp to be greeted by a ready-prepared meal and the biggest storm yet which, were it to have arrived a day earlier, would have left us truly buggered.

The decision had been made to leave while we still had the option of horses to help with our gear, and we weren’t about to argue since we weren’t in a fit state to climb again for days anyway, so the following day we retrieved the fixed lines and we packed up camp.

On the descent, the truck driver tried hard to kill us all by overdoing the Colin MacRae act, eventually having to slow down when he smashed a rear wheel into a track-side boulder and exploded the tyre. But thankfully Ahad had got our message to arrive early with the minibus and was there to guide us back through the troubles. Fifteen times we were stopped, searched and interrogated in one day. The guards were now on full alert, hiding behind concrete shelters with fingers on triggers, which was exciting at first but became tiresome after a whole day. Once again, our fantastic support team got us through.

But after these skirmishes, are we still keen to go back? Too right we are, there are unclimbed lines enough to sustain us through many a weary winter’s training session. It would be nice, though, if we could plan another trip with some certainty of actually getting there.

 

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