Remote, challenging, and stunning. The Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan have an endless supply of adventures. While perusing a topographic map of the Tien Shan mountains, Rhane Pfeiffer found a route through the mountains that intrigued all of us. It required ski touring up one valley, navigating a large glacier to its pass, and then skiing down the next valley over, down its glacier. This trip would take us four days to accomplish.
We found the best time in the winter to do this is middle of February through April. It is possible to accomplish this ski traverse in December/January, but you will experience temperatures as low as -30C. In Kyrgyzstan, spring comes quick bringing pleasant winter camping conditions, although spring also brings in more weather. During the first two days of our tour, it snowed sometimes completely shrouding our vision in clouds. The snow was also very deep, between 30 – 50cm of fresh snow on top of packed powder.
The time needed to accomplish this traverse all depends on the snow conditions and the fitness condition of the group. Deep snow can double the amount of time it would take in packed powder conditions. It can be done in as little as 3 days, but we recommend planning for 4-5 days.
A taxi ride up the mining road in the Turgenaksu Valley to the start of tour from Karakol will cost between 2500 – 4000 com. The taxi ride is a high cost because of winter road conditions getting out there. At the finish line in the town of Ak Suu, you can find a taxi for 500 com back to Karakol.
Level of Experience
These mountains are very remote and rescue for the most part is not an option until far down into the Ak Suu Valley. The ski traverse requires route finding on the ascent of the glacier and decent off the Glacier into Ak Suu. Experience with glacier travel is required. There is an obvious line up the Turgenaksu glacier and down the Ak Suu glacier which is not heavily crevassed, though in the event of a complete white-out you want to be prepared for a crevasse rescue. We roped up on the Turgenaksu glacier.
From Karakol you will need to find a taxi that is willing to drive far up into the Turgenaksu Valley towards the gold mine. It is suggested to find a four wheel drive vehicle with descent clearance such as a Mitsubishi Delica or UAZ Buhanka. We stoped by the entrance of the Ak Suu Valley just south of the town of Ak Suu to leave our Buhanka so we would have a vehicle when we finished. If you don’t have this option available, you could also find a taxi in the area to take you back to Karakol.
Four of us shared 2-four season tents for the three nights. Slava Miroshkin owns and operates the Ak Suu Yurt Lodge located eight miles or so before the finish line at the trail head. The accommodation includes three yurts, a sauna, and a hot tub. If you have the time and money, this is a great way to treat yourself for the past three or four days of trudging.
Since the traverse crosses over two large glaciers, it is highly recommending to bring a rope, axe, and gear needed for crevasse rescue. A four season tent is a must and a sleeping bag that will be warm enough to be comfortable in sub zero degree weather. Also because of the immense amount of condensation build up in the tent during the night, we recommend having a thin bivouac sack to keep your sleeping bag relatively dry. Most of our down bags were soaked and useless by the third night. A map, compass, and gps are necessary especially for whiteout conditions. The route for the most part stayed far away from any avalanche terrain, although it is good practice to have and know how to use a beacon, probe, and shovel.
Day 1: Karakol to the Turgenaksu Valley Camp
A few days prior, we contacted Slave Miroshkin to find a taxi into the Turgenaksu Valley. He sent a few of his guys to take us there in a Mitsubishi Delica. They picked us up at 10am. Along the way we dropped off our UAZ Buhanka at the exit of the Ak Suu Valley. The drive up to our drop off point in the Turgenaksu took about an hour. We were dropped off at the sharp left bend in the road valley where the road continues up left to the gold mine and the Turgenaksu Valley continues right (south-west). Our taxi drivers wished us good luck and then were gone. At this point, we were 70% committed to our objective being left an hour drive up the snowy, quite road.
We began to skin south-west up the valley, quickly realizing what the next four days would have in store for us: trudging through deep snow. Naturally, because breaking trail was so arduous, we alternated on lead allowing everyone to have an equal rest when not breaking trail. After 5km, tall featured mountains appeared in the distance that I dubbed as “Ala Archaen” after their similarities to the Ala Archa mountains. We only made it 10km before it began to get dark. We camped at the toe of the principle moraine, still many kilometers from the toe of the glacier.
Day 2: Turgenaksu Valley Camp to Ak Suu High Camp
The weather was poor; visibility was bad, but there was little wind. It was also very warm, as a low pressure continued to move in. Breaking trail began as a difficult start to the morning with already tired legs. Throughout the day, the skinning became easier and easier. The challenge was navigation. During much of the day, we were completely socked in white-out conditions. Our team relied heavily on maps, compass, and gps. Once on the glacier, Rhane led the way having the most glacier experience of the group. To guide him through the crevassed glacier, he used summer satellite photos of the area which worked out fabulously.
Roped up, Rhane led us to the summit of our pass, the highest point of the trip, ~4200m. The visibility became much better at the top, but the wind was relentless and very cold. The skiing down into the Ak Suu Valley was 30 degrees at the beginning and then mellowed out to a slow 10 degrees through deep snow. The weather on this side was more stable. The mountains around us began to glow in the sunset and it was imperative to set up camp. We chose a spot at the top of the moraine at around 4000m. Camp life didn’t exist too long that evening. Immediately after stuffing down some quick calories, we jumped into our damped feather filled bags. Before doing so, I couldn’t help but enjoy the full moon resurrecting behind us which lit up the white mountains of the Ak Suu Valley.
Day 3: Ak Suu High Camp to Ak Suu Valley Camp
There wasn’t much sleep among the group last night. Wet sleeping bags and cold temperatures left some of us awake and cold all night. Today was the mental crux for the group. The map showed a steep decent ahead of us. The avalanche danger was very high and with steep terrain all around us portrayed by the map, we planned on skiing the terrain in roped pitches. Luckily the map was wrong. The terrain was a mellow 25 degrees all of the way down into the main valley. Down in the main valley, we slapped on our skins and began the long, brutal skin out. The snow was much deeper in this valley. The weather was beautiful, giving us the maximum amount of light for the day. At around 6pm we made the decision to make camp.
Day 4: Ak Suu Valley Camp to Karakol
It was another night of very little sleep, but with the knowledge of the finish line close by, there was no complaining, only excitement. Only a few kilometers down valley from us was Slava Miroshkin’s Ak Suu Yurt Lodge. While passing by the manager on duty, Victor, flagged us down offering us food, tea, and a place to stay for the night. This was a grand act of hospitality as we were hungry, thirsty, and tired. We enjoyed some eggs and tea and then continued on, motivated to get back to a hot shower in Karakol. The last few kilometers down were down hill, a treat for our hard work. Though the biggest treat of all was getting the Buhanka to work when we got down.