John Thornton barely knew where Kyrgyzstan was, let alone why anyone would go there. By the end he’d given names to several features of the country’s landscape. In this Legend photostory he reveals a land of Soviet military six-wheelers, wild weather and endless potential for first ascents. Everything that makes life good.
Landing in Bishkek we met our local contact, Vladimir. He shared his knowledge and his homemade liquor, which was “somewhere between 70% and 85% alcohol.” Feeling a little warm we moved outside to an old Russian 6x6 Military vehicle. This beast would be our transport for the next month.
We were heading for the Ak-Shirak region which offered huge potential for first ascents. With our ‘tank’ it felt as though any terrain was open to us. Until we got stuck. We dug our way out of this problem only to sink into another. Our dreams of a base camp deep in the heart of the Ak-Shirak region were fading so we slept the night and prepared for another push.
The next morning we managed to gain a few kilometres but could push our camp no further. We were still 15km away from our planned base camp but we had nevertheless found a good place for exploration in a world where much has already been discovered.
Over the next few days we acclimatised and made a first ascent of Pik Raphaël (4650m) - dedicated to a friend who passed away this year – and Pik Finney (4670m) in an exhausting 25km day. We were all feeling good and camp life was comfortable until a storm hit in the night. The tent had collapsed and the rest of the night was grim to say the least.
We all wanted to reach the bigger peaks further in the valley. That is what we had come for and it was clear that we would need an advanced base camp.
After 15km of ski touring, gravel walking and river crossing we found an idyllic spot to bivvy. The next day we split into two teams and headed for Pik Volk (4988m) whilst the other team set out for the first ascent of Pik Kell (4850m). After several hours of avoiding wind lips, jumping over crevasses and ducking under seracs we eventually stood on the summit at 4988m! The route down involved steep slopes and exposure over large seracs and we had to be quick.
As we traversed into the face we could tell something wasn’t right. The snow under our feet slid straight off, disappearing into the giant black hole of a crevasse below. We navigated the terrain as quickly and efficiently as possible and got the hell out of there! The sun dropped down in the distance and the rest of the skiing was delightful.
We moved on to the Suek range, which offered freeride lines, couloirs and steep faces. We could relax more here and it didn’t matter if we climbed the highest peak or even got to the top. We could go fast and remember the pure fun of skiing without the extreme consequences that were very much present in Ak-Shirak.
On our final day we set out fast and light at 4am with the simple aim of climbing as many first ascents as possible. By 9:30am we had bagged Pik of Destiny (4600m). Descending down a tight couloir, narrower than our skis, we gained the glacier and began climbing our second summit - Pik Margaret/Marjorie (4460m). Wasting no time we traversed the ridge beyond this, losing height but gaining momentum, before making our final summit (and third FA of the day) on Pik Heleen (4520m).
We skied down as far as we could which left us a long, long way from home. As we began our hike back to base camp the sun beamed down into the valley bottom. We stood there enjoying the moment and the beautiful wilderness that surrounded us. The snow was melting fast, the rivers were rising and it felt like the ideal end to the winter season.
See more of John Thorton's images of Kyrgyzstan and other work from the Alps and beyond, at his website.