Update from Molly Loomis and Melis Cody
Last I wrote we were heading up into Ala Archa National Park to start to do some climbing!!!
Misha came early for us in his old Lada 4X4 coupe and we loaded up and headed out just 45 minutes outside of Bishkek- the capital city. The hike in was beautiful - harebell, rosehips, juniper, shrubby cinquefoil, black-eyed Susan, dock, daisies, bistort - hiking high above a ranging river fed by the draining glaciers below.
We finally arrived in Ak Su, a high narrow glacial valley where we'd be climbing with an old stone cabin in the middle- the Ratsek. It is a huge part of Soviet mountaineering history- sort of an Alpine version of Camp 4. Misha said more than once in his broken English how dirty the place was. The way of dealing with trash and human waste is very different here. When the wind blows the right direction it stinks like shit.
It was fun walking through the camps on the way to finding ours. So many little differences. Party central- some guys in particular set up with a cook tent/lean to with their Russian flag, bunch of vodka bottles and a photo of a Playboy lady hanging up- Another guy playing the bugle in his long johns. Sometimes he and the guitar player would duel.
An incredible dinner of mutton, rice and carrots and Misha pulled out two bottles of vodka and we each had some shots followed by slices of sweet pepper and salt. (never learned that one in college). Its for real these people really do like their vodka!
The mountains here are of perfect scale for climbing. Big enough to be awe inspiring but little enough to seem obtainable. Steep straight couilors, big rock buttresses, steep patches of clean ice. Sort of feels like if there were a big earthquake everything would topple in a heartbeat.
One nice surprise is that there are a large number of women, more actually than you'd typically find in the US in a similar situation.
So we climbed a couple of routes. Not really going into the details since many of you don't climb and those that do know the deal- you go up and then come down.
We met a man hiking in on our way out- a friend of Misha's. Just wearing his tighty whities (although black) My kind of guy. Misha didn't think there was anything unusual about it.
Back to Bishkek for two days of finalizing plans before heading south to the Kokshall.
We decided to go to the Embassy to check out emergency evac options and register. What a wild experience. It is a fortress! After having our passports inspected once we then were allowed one at a time into an examining room where they checked our passports again, x rayed, wanded and frisked us. Melis had to leave her water and pen behind unless she wanted to wait while they ran tests on them. Then into the building where another guard checked our passports again (a US marine stood guard behind a heavy glass window with a lot of computers machines etc.) I wanted to try and ask him and the consulate guy out for a beer. Melis wasn't interested. Finally the marine unlocked the door into the consular office where we spoke to the American consular through a thick pane of glass.
Morning of departure Misha came for us early, and tension grew thick as he thought we'd said two bags while we thought he'd understood 2 bags each. But no chance would we eliminate any of the 9 kilos worth of raw meat we'd bought. Not even worth mentioning.
The drive was beautiful and the rest of the country so different from the city. People on horseback, riding carts, lots of crops, farmers walking with long old-fashioned scythes. For a while the land was like the reds, grays, browns of the Southwest and Nevada. Then gave way to green meadows and craggy limestone cliffs. For a ways tucked into every little nook was a yurt with horses, cows, sheep, goats grazing outside, neat high piles of cow patties and little plots tilled next to the yurt as a garden. Big delivery trucks overloaded to the tipping point with scrap metal on their way to China chugging up the hill in a cloud of black diesel. We make our way through three border check points. Misha keeps cigarettes, vodka, and cognac handy ready for the likely possibility of leaving a "gift" with the officers.
I have never seen so many hawks in my life - maybe Sharp Shinned or Coopers. They are like ravens so common or so close.
We continue bouncing our way up and down, around washed out bridges, through rivers, rearranging ourselves for the uneven road. We paralleled for miles and miles a barbed wire and electric fence marking the boarder between China and old Russia. (no longer electric) At one point a golden eagle swings dead in the wire- it's wing caught in the barbs. The final 10 km are worth every cent of our 35cents per km. We move at a snails pace.
The kokshall is a beautiful place. Yes- same mountainous qualities of Ala Archa but arranged in a different way just as stunning and intriguing. Only maybe 6 maximum climbing expeditions have been to this place- the last one being a French military team that left about 10 days prior to us. I get pretty worked up about the amount of trash this team has left behind. It is totally disgusting and disappointing. I still am riled up about it. It was a crime how they'd treated this place.
We set up our base camp at the head of the river valley about a 2-hour walk to the toe of the glacier and 4 hours to where we will establish our high camp. The weather for the next week is beautiful. Sort of unheard of for this area. But as we liked to joke- while some people sit out the bad weather we shat out the good weather. Melis and I alternated between cases of traveler's tummy. We decided to name our first new route we did "LBS" Leaky Butt Syndrome.
Hope all is well and I'll write again soon.