The next two days were to be devoted to crossing the mountains into the huge Saryjash valley to the south. To do this, we had to cross something marked Echkilitash Pass on the map. The elevation gain was about the same as the previous day, but the distance was longer. Some gonzo twenty-somethings do this all in one day, but our plan was to take two.
The weather looked bad. Although it was not raining when we awoke, the cloud cover was heavier than any day before. It looked like it could begin raining any moment and continue all day.
We held a council and reviewed our options. We had a spare day and could hole up in our tents if we wanted. But our guide and I both observed that such a weather pattern could continue for days. We could move camp about an hour across the valley, but we would still lose the day if we didn't make it to the pass. So we reluctantly agreed to continue through what promised to be a rainy day.
The team prepared breakfast and started to break camp. Just before our tents had to come down, a heavy cloudburst hit and we took shelter. It only lasted a few minutes, but we were pretty discouraged. Marcia would have abandoned the whole trip if she'd been given the choice.
We spent our first hour crossing to another side valley. This required us to wade two stream crossings in our sandals. On the slopes we were able to stay high and avoid too much elevation loss.
At the end of the second stream crossing, we observed some unexpected sunshine. A fairly large hole had opened to the north and we could even see some breaks in the clouds overhead. At first we dismissed it as a “sucker hole,” but when the clouds continued to break we thought it wise to apply sunscreen.
We climbed relentlessly along the side of a hill leading up to the ridge at the end of the valley. It was tough going and seemed longer than either of the two previous days. We finally reached the top right where the lateral hill met the ridge and were rewarded with our first view of the snow mountains of the Tian Shan to our south. The storm had now broken and left the air crystal clear.
We were shocked to hear our guide congratulate us on crossing “the first pass.” He assured us the second was only 40 minutes away, so we followed him thinking the true pass over the ridge would be just around the corner. Instead, he led us all the way down into the next lateral valley that still flowed north into Lake Issyk-Kol.
We were happy to see our porters coming back to look for us when we reached the bottom. They had crossed the lateral hill at a lower point and were wondering what was taking us so long. We were a bit annoyed that our guide had taken us over a needlessly high pass, but of course that gave us the chance to see the high mountains.
We camped in that valley rather than crossing the second pass. It was now bright sunshine and we could spread our things out to dry. Marcia was glad I hadn't given her the option to quit.