Category Archives: 1 – Kyrgyzstan

Day 10 – Sept 9 – Up alongside the glacier

Today we began our route up the south side of the glacier.

We actually spent very little of this first day on the glacier, because the trail climbed the lateral moraine on its side. In many ways, we would have preferred the glacier, because the trail climbed through numerous slopes of unstable rocks. One difficult stretch almost defeated Marcia and it ran a greater risk of rockfalls than I like to take. I asked our guide to find a safer way on the return back down to the valley.

We did cross one stretch of glacier where a smaller glacier came in from the side. In many ways it was easier than hiking on the moraine, although we had to take several ups and downs to avoid places where the ice was unstable.

Our camp was in a flat area missed by the glacier's incessant scouring. Unfortunately, even after six hours of difficult hiking, we had not made it as far as we had originally planned. And with the weather increasingly bad, it seems we have just used up our spare day.

It was snowing lightly as we went to bed. We hope that will not set us back further in the morning.

Day 11 – Sept 10 – Merzbacher Meadow

Today was a short day going the rest of the way to Merzbacher Meadow, an established camping place overlooking the glacier. The hike was a relatively easy four hours along the lateral moraine.

The meadow had an old mouse-infested hut and five spiffy new dwellings airlifted in by German researchers from GFZ Potsdam, who were doing some high-tech glacial monitoring. In a way, they were following their compatriot Merzbacher, who had been one of the first explorers of this area in 1905. All of the huts were deserted for the winter, though they had kindly left their pit toilets open. We slept in our tent to avoid the mice.

We discussed our plan with our guide and interpreter. I was concerned that because of the limitations of camping sites on the glacier we would be forced either to miss our goal of getting to the high peaks or to do a series of inhumanely long hiking days to get out. I was also hoping to change our itinerary to go up the valley now while we appeared to be entering a stretch of good weather. Our guide explained that we had to stop for a day here to give the porters rest, but we could have ample time for our goals up the valley if we camped in alternative places on the glacier. We had no choice but to agree.

Day 12 – Sept 11 – Merzbacher Lake

Today was a rest day for our porters and a dayhike for us to Merzbacher Lake, an interesting feature on the other side of the glacier where the North Inylchek Glacier used to join the main glacier out of a side valley. Due to glacial retreat that started long before global warming, the north glacier now ends a few kilometers uphill, and a large lake and a unique set of icebergs fill the gap.

It is a lake only one or two months of the year. As glacial and snow melt increase in the early summer, the lake fills with water. As it grows large enough to touch the north glacier, chunks of the toe calve off as icebergs into the lake just as in Alaska's Glacier Bay and other seaside glaciers. The icebergs float down and collect near the main glacier, plugging the lake's underwater outlet. Once the water level rises high enough to float the ice around the end of July; the plug opens and the lake drains in a huge flood under the main glacier and down the valley below. This time of the year the lake is empty, leaving its icebergs sitting on the bottom.

Walking across the glacier is challenging. Although the Inylchek Glacier is flat enough to avoid the deep crevasses that make mountain glaciers dangerous, it still has many ups and downs and cracks that we had to avoid. The surface is mostly rocky with boulders of many types, including white marble. It took us two and a half hours to cover four kilometers across the grain.

The weather, which we thought would be clearing, turned unpredictable. For a few hours it got cloudy and threatened to rain or snow, but then cleared up for some dazzling afternoon views. We saw several avalanches come down the mountains.

We had borscht for dinner to prepare for the long hike of the next day.

Day 13 – Sept 12 – A long hike up the glacier

We knew this would be our longest day hiking eight hours up the glacier. There were no good campsites in between, and some of the route was reportedly challenging.

The weather was also uncooperative. Morning clouds warned us of precipitation, which turned out to be snow. Fortunately, there were also periods of sunshine, so we could put up with a couple of hour-long snow showers. The glacier's rock cover was warm enough to melt the snow immediately.

The glacier walking was not as hard as we had feared. This time we were going with the grain of the glacier, so long stretches were like hiking up a rock-covered valley. There were several sections, though, where we had to go up and down and around ice cliffs and glacial lakes. And we had to cover a long distance, so we were both quite tired when we reached camp.

Soon after we arrived, another snow shower hit and left about 5 centimeters (2 inches) of snow on the ground. We ate dinner inside our very small tent and hoped for better weather in the morning.

Day 14 – Sept 13 – Snow day

Alas, it snowed more in the night. It only left about 10 centimeters (4 inches), but that was enough to upset our plans. Walking on a glacier is tricky enough even when you can see the rocks, but walking on top of a blanket of snow is dangerous.

So, instead of moving up to the end of the glacial valley, we could do nothing but sit in our tent and read. And with the end of our time approaching, we would not have enough time to go up to the base camp with the best mountain views, which had been our ultimate goal. At best we might be able to make a dayhike further up the valley if weather was good the next day.

At least it was beautiful.

Clouds continued to blow through all evening, but no more snow. The clouds continued in the night and we resigned ourselves to going down a day early.

Day 15 – Sept 14 – An unexpected dayhike up the glacier

In the morning, our guide came to the tent to discuss our plan. It was still cloudy, but he seemed surprised when I said we had agreed to go down today. But happy to get out, he didn't object.

As the team was finishing packing around 9am, we realized what a mistake we had made. The weather was clearing and it was going to be a spectacular day. Our guide offered that we could take a ona-hour hike before leaving, but that would have made it a really long day. Marcia wasn't interested and she didn't want to wait while I did it. Almost in tears, I realized a one-hour hike wouldn't make things any better, since the big mountains were further away than that.

As a last resort, I made a face-saving proposal. Instead of going downhill today, maybe we could move the camp one or two hours up the valley and then do a more substantial dayhike in the afternoon. To my delight, the team (and Marcia) agreed.

We reached our new camp in about 90 minutes, but already Marcia's poorly waterproofed boots had made her feet wet and cold. It was probably good we hadn't gone eight hours downhill in the snow like that. With the bright sun, more snow should have melted by tomorrow, and the long trip downhill should be easier. Not as interested in the high peaks as me, Marcia elected to skip the dayhike and spend the afternoon in the tent.

Ah, what scenery! We went about two hours further up the valley, though not quite to the base camp. Glaciers sparkled and the high peaks were spectacularly clear. We were able to get a good view of the avalanche-stroked south face of 7000-meter (23,000 foot) Khan Tengri. The views were still oblique and not the classic Matterhorn-like perspective, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances. The elusive 7450-meter (24,400 foot) Peak Pobiedy remained hidden behind other peaks, but at least we had seen it from the passes the week before. I returned to camp tired but satisfied.

Day 16 – Sept 15 – Down the glacier

This was a long and difficult day that began our trip back down the glacier. Because of limited campsites, we had to make it all the way back to Merzbacher Meadow, reversing the route of Day 13 plus the 90 minutes we had walked further yesterday. At least it was mostly downhill.

The first part of the day went quickly, as our guide was able to find a way across a shortcut that had not been possible on the way up in the snow. This saved us at least an hour since we no longer needed to walk all the way around a large glacial lake.

Further down, however, we found that due to higher meltwater, we could no longer cross a glacier-top stream and an icebridge that had simplified the passage across a difficult side glacier. So we had to take another route across difficult glacial ridges and a long stretch of boulders on top of the glacier. Finally we made it to the moraine and up to Merzbacher Meadow, where we had camped two nights earlier in the trip. It had taken us nine hours.

Although the snow had mostly melted, falls were almost inevitable on the loose rock and slippery glacial ice. Both Marcia and I slipped several times, and I once cut the palm of my left hand, fortunately not badly. I managed to avoid reinjuring my ankle, which was still hurting and weak from the fall I had taken in Canada.

Unfortunately, there was a new sprained ankle in our team. The young woman interpreter Jennia, athletic though inexperienced at hiking, had gone with the porters so that she could hike fast. Being fast and strong, the porters leaped across the stream and icebridge that our guide had wisely turned us back from. Trying to keep up, Jennia also tried to leap but came down on the side of her foot, spraining her ankle quite badly. The porters had to mostly carry her to camp, arriving only a few minutes before us.

Day 17 – Sept 16 – An easy day down the moraine

This day reversed the path of Day 11, the four-hour day up the second part of the moraine. It was mostly level or an easy descent, so we made it even faster going down.

Our hearts all went out to our interpreter Jennia, who bravely limped much of the way on her sprained ankle. I suggested to our guide that we could create a sling for her using the climbing rope, but the other porters seemed to do fine just carrying her across the difficult sections.

The weather had been sunny but deteriorating for the last day or two. Around 5pm, the clouds moved in quickly, and it began snowing after dinner. Fortunately, the wet snow melted on the ground, so our difficult trail for the next day would be muddy but not icy.

Day 18 – Sept 17 – Down to the toe of the glacier

We knew this would be a difficult day, since it reversed the route down the moraine that we had disliked on Day 10.

To make matters worse, it began snowing again as we packed our camp and continued to snow all day. Although it melted for the most part and didn't make the trail particularly slippery, it was unpleasant and cold, especially for Marcia.

Perhaps because of the snow, we kept moving and made it down in under five hours, much less than we had spent going up.

Also, our guide listened to my complaints about the rockfall dangers of the most difficult stretch and chose a different safer route that took us down across the toe of the glacier. This was good, because the rain and snow had loosened the slope so badly that it would have been a constant rain of rocks falling from high above. We called it the “bowling alley” and admired it from a distance.

Just before we arrived in our camp, we saw an impressive slide on the opposite slope. Along with a lot of rocks and dirt, a full-size fir tree came tumbling down the slope and cracked in two. Nature is powerful.

We spent the afternoon in our tent trying to stay as dry as possible in the continuing rain and wet snow.

Day 19 – Sept 18 – Trailhead

It continued to rain most of the night and our raingear and other things were still very wet when we woke up. I am a Stoic and take such things in stride, especially on our last day when we could carry out a few wet clothes. But Marcia was not pleased. Fortunately, the rain pretty much stopped around the time we had to begin walking.

Our last day of hiking was a mostly level walk down the Inylchek valley left behind when the glacier receded. At one stretch, however, we had to climb high up a steep bank to avoid the river. This stretch was very slippery due to the rain, but we somehow made it through.

Soon after that at the planned trailhead called At-Jailoo, we rejoiced to see our vehicle coming up the valley to meet us. This was the same six-wheel-drive ex-Soviet military transport that had taken us out on Day 1, and now its serious power was clearly needed, as there was no road for the next 30 kilometers.

With fresh food, we had an excellent lunch. The jeep also brought a bottle of vodka, which we quickly drained in toasts to our successful trip.

The plan had been to camp there and drive back the next day. But since some of the porters were also cold with wet sleeping bags, everyone agreed we should try to drive back rather than spending another night in the tent. The drive was seven hours, but we'd be glad to have a shower and a bed, no matter how late.

But nature soon blocked us. The jeep track climbed a slope above the river, often very steeply. In one place, even the six-wheel drive was insufficient and our team had to get out and put branches over the mud.

And then we reached a mudslide that had happened in the few hours since the jeep passed the other direction. A large tree was blocking the road and even the jeep's 6-ton winch couldn't move it. After several attempts, we backed down the road to a place where we could turn around and went back almost to the trailhead, where we could abandon the track and just drive right down the river bed. By this time we had lost three hours and it was getting dark.

Rather than drive all night through challenging terrain, we all agreed to stop and spend the night in and alongside the vehicle. We'll try again in the morning.