Ski Kazakhstan - Telemark
Adventures in Central Asia
By Bob Mazarei
..North Inylchek Glacier, Tian Shan
Range, Kazakhstan.--ph. Bob Mazarei
Luca smiled and gave a wink as I
heaved my big pack across the cold, deep glacial creek. It landed
with a thud and slid next to my skis that I had just javelined
Okay Bob-a, now jump across
like that Olympic girl, whats-a her name? Miriam Jones-a?
I always loved Lucas amusing Italian accented English.
From a running start I planted both
my poles on the firm névé edging the creek and
very un-Olympian like, hurled my fleece and nylon clad body across
the impasse. I picked myself up from my butt plant.
Very good Bob-a, now we will
go into the séracs, okay?
We were in Kazakhstan, former Russian
republic and now after the breakup, the ninth largest country
in the world.
Some years back, early into a hot
Alps August, Luca Gasparini rang and asked if I could go with
him to Kazakhstan. Yes Bob-a, how are youu-a? drawing
it out. We have been invited to cover the Khan Tengri Climbing
Festival, a speed-climbing competition. I think we will be able
to ski as well. Like finding a long-lost Benjamin zipped
into an old K2 boot bag, the sudden opportunity had me buzzing.
Some research was in order: back
in the USSR days, speed-climbing competitions in the Caucasus,
Pamir and Tian Shan were the main way the best climbers sifted
through the boldness colander to be crowned Master of Sport
in mountaineering. This was akin to winning Olympic gold, and
once you became MoS the perks allowed a decent living. More importantly,
you would be chosen to participate in international climbing
skiing in August? "Yeah, I'm into it!" Luca Gasparini
summer skiing in the Tian Shan.--ph. Mazarei
Back in the
day, many bold, bad-ass climbers fought hard for recognition amongst
these peaks.--ph. Mazarei
Expeditions are costly no matter
what country you are from, this especially so for the Soviets
of the era. This system fell by the wayside with the arrival
of capitalism and the breakup of the republics.
Our host, Rinat Khaibullin, a Kazakh
climber brought up in the aforementioned hard school of Soviet
climbing, was reviving the tradition of speed-climbing in the
Tian Shan but with infrastructure more fitting with the times.
This would be the first year of
the revival with seven or eight climbers from the former republics
(CIS) competing for top honors by speed-climbing Khan Tengri
from the North Inylchek glacier. Khan Tengri at 7010m is considered
by many to be one of the most beautiful peaks in the world.
Some more digging revealed it indeed
possible to ski the region in August. This sounded good, and
when I saw pictures of Khan Tengri, the visual and contextual
info came together to clinch the deal.
Unlike in the
West, during the Soviet era, top-notch equipment was hard to aquire.
What was the attitude? Well, you climb and make do. Old-school.--ph.
North side. The competition route follows the Z-ridge to the right
peak, down and back up to 7010m.--ph. Mazarei
I was pleasantly surprised with
Kazakhstans former capital, Almaty. It was overcast and
warm as I strode the streets to what I came to realize was a
very cosmopolitan and clean city. There were trees everywhere
and it being the middle of August, leaves were raining down as
fast as city workers were sweeping up. Although the ethnic mixture
is varied, with many nationalities represented, Kazakhs, Russians,
and Uyghurs form the majority with Russian being the most widely
- The City of Apples.--ph. Mazarei
Hero of Kazakhstan
driving the cuff.--ph. Mazarei
Almaty is a city very much on the
upswing and its potential as a global economic force is becoming
increasingly evident. Traders, business people, diplomats and
financiers from the East and West, as well as quickly changing
cosmopolitan styles within the city point to Almatys coming
of age. And then there are the Alatau Mountains, 4000m peaks
30 minutes to the South.
The snow stays through April, with
myriad opportunities to climb and ski. Really wild helicopter
skiing is possible in the region as was evidenced in a Warren
Miller film some years back.
There is even a small ski area named
Shymbulak that the locals enjoy frequenting, making the Alatau
easily a worthy destination on its own.
..Memorial to Kazakhs who died in
The United Nations of White Planet
The next morning found us driving
East through quaint villages, front yards of homes full of just
harvested tobacco leaves hanging from cords, tiny roadside stands
one right after another selling sweets, cigarettes, sodas, other
basic staple items, and oh yeah, lots of large sweet melons.
Kiosk economy is the best phrase to describe how
these small rural villages function. That and Philip Morris.
Later, as we drove through the flat and barren steppe, the Alatau
Mountains a jagged line rippling far away above the ground dust,
I came to realize how much I love this kind of travel. To read
about, then see, feel, and possibly ski; to try and get a handle
on the vast histories involved. The ideas, relationships, and
Kazakh is a Turkic word
meaning free-rider, adventurer, outlaw. Funny, that: besides
taking in the speed-climbing, this is precisely why Luca and
I swooped in for a visit. I smiled as I thought of how many nomadic
horsemen, free-riders if you will, passed through these lands
over the millennia. Finally, as we neared the hills bordering
China, the road turned south. Passing the sleepy hamlet of Bayankol,
we entered the foothills of the Tian Shan. Beautiful rolling
terrain perfect for ski touring stretched out in every direction.
Perfectly spaced forests of Tian
Shan Fir, very Idaho-like, aproned up from herders summer pastures,
yurts alongside, very un-Idaho-like. Indeed, there are dozens
of excellent trekking routes all along this region. The landscape
We bumped along a dirt road up a
side valley and minutes later came upon Akkol, a mini tent village
with a newly constructed, large two-story metal hanger serving
as its dining hall, assembly area, and of course, party hut.
Next to that stood, like a giant
metal dragonfly, the Russian built Mi-8T helicopter that would
ferry us up to within spitting distance of Khan Tengris
The type of porterage found in Himalayan
countries is absent in Kazakhstan necessitating the use of the
big helicopters to set up the large tented camps on both the
North and South Inylchek glaciers at the start of every summer
..Kazakh lasses sporting their axes.--ph.
on horseback, a time-honored Central Asian tradition.--ph. Mazarei
Mil Mi-8T. The worlds most-produced helicopter. Used in over 50
countries. Twin-turbine bad-ass ticket to ride.--ph. Mazarei
After settling into our bed equipped
tent, Luca and I took refuge from the sudden rain in the spacious
hanger. There was a veritable United Nations of climbers in the
hanger and base area that lent a cool, inspired international
buzz to the scene. There were Russians chilling with the Slovenians.
Kazakhs making time with the Almaty girls that were cooking and
serving. Canadians, Hungarians, Italians, French, Kyrgyz, Swiss,
Latvians, Kiwis. There was a Columbian girl, the ever-present
Germans and even a few Americans thrown into the stew. Leaning
against the bar downing cold beers, Luca and I heard of all the
snow that had fallen in the last several days, making things
tense up high. Another round came as Luca and I wondered how
steep and wild it would actually be up there.
Pines and fir to...
...spines and spurs, all in
20 minutes...Photos: Mazarei
To Luca and I, everything around
us looked steep and exposed and not too conducive to skiing.
Twenty-five minutes after leaving Akkol, we landed in a swirl
next to the large box-tented base camp.
Clear for Take-off
The few clouds that lingered were
gone after breakfast and we were cleared to fly. We bucket-brigaded
13 climbers worth of expedition duffels and other base camp supplies
through the rear and got settled into the bench seats. The pilot
took off straight up for 70m while doing a slow half turn. I
was feeling giddy as we moved up valley, the engine quieter than
I stuck my head out the open porthole,
blasted by the rotor wash. Why? Because I could! The flight was
incredibly beautiful. We flew past steep skiable peaks to our
west where heli skiing is possible earlier in the season at altitudes
Luca and I would be playing it by
ear, as we really had no information about skiing on the N. Inylchek.
Looking forward past the pilots, the huge, dark north face of
Khan Tengri appeared and I knew we were going into a different
Crossing a final col, we flew into
the isolated N. Inylchek glacier. The pilot buzzed right over
the ridge that marks the normal route up Khan Tengri. We spied
climbers looking impossibly small as they were ascending and
..Ambience par excellance.--ph. Mazarei
It's like driving
a bus...a kilometer up in the sky. Khan Tengri bus stop ahead.--ph.
We got to hang with Simone Moro,
a good friend of Lucas from Italy. He gave us a quick low-down
before boarding the heli for his flight out. He pointed east
up glacier to a peak on the north side that looked like it had
all the makings of a classic ski.
Looking over we could see it profiled
behind an incredibly broken up icefall that stretched to the
sky. We bid adieu to Simone who was ready for Almaty after three
weeks of climbing.
We met Iztok from Slovenia. A doctor,
mountain guide, and big mountain extreme skier, he and his team
had hoped to ski off the summit of Khan Tengri but found the
conditions too dangerous and had to abandon their attempt.
The ski next to the normal route
is steep but doable given the right conditions. It had snowed
60cms the last three days and the deep snow was avalanching regularly.
We decided on a recon ski in the
afternoon to check the access route to what we now knew was called
Mt. Karlytau. We had a few strange looks among the exceptional
mountaineers occupying BC, being the only active skiers.
..Dragonfly, Mahogany Rush.--ph.
......to check-in. Room with a view
The next several hours were spent
skinning amongst the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods, this Galen
Rowell description befitting in every sense. Tian Shan means
Celestial Mountains in Chinese and indeed, we were skiing next
to a universe of shining peaks. The sun and moon, the stars,
the sky and the earth. The Tian Shan. We got a good look at Karlytau
with its three-tongued glacier thickly covering the scree. A
large sérac field would have to be negotiated and it looked
sketchy. Karlytau itself looked fantastic. The big question was
if the 60cms of new snow would be settled enough.
The weather held, promising a spectacular
day for the speed contest. Luca and I along with most everyone
in BC got up at 6am to watch the start. The competitorsseven
in allranged in age from 27 year-old Denis Urubko (Almaty)
to 50 year-old Nicolai Zhilin (Russia). Rinat told me that in
future competitions participants from all over the globe would
be represented. I hope Rinats vision becomes reality because
it was awe-inspiring to see how hard these athlete-mountaineers
cranked. It is on par of an ultramarathon...at altitude.
Six of the CIS climbers stood in
a loose line a little ways onto the glacier. Then I spied the
seventh, 50 year-old Zhilin, looking like a Russian Papa Smurf
smoking a cigarette and filming on his old movie camera along
with all the other journalists. He wore utilitarian mountain
clothing and a circa 70s backpack. The favorite, Denis
Urubko, wore tights, a fanny pack, and a borrowed pair of boots.
It looked like he was out for a jog on the local fire road. They
all looked incredibly hard. With little fanfare they took off
quickly at a jog. Zhilin fell in behind a moment later still
smoking and filming.
The start at BC was 4100m. There
were four checkpoints at the normal camps on the regular route,
along with officials on the summit at 7010m. To gain perspective,
a normal well-acclimatized climber would do well to pull this
climb off in four days, longer to climb high and sleep low.
.."You guys psyched?"--ph.
Although all the technical bits
were fixed and the route was as safe as could be under the circumstances,
it was still unnerving whenever a sérac would suddenly
cut loose to the left of the route. Of course, anything could
happen and I knew that Rinat couldnt rest easy until all
the climbers and officials were safely down.
The boys powered up the first boot-deep
section as the beautiful morning unfolded. After some time, four
broke away trading leads. Camp 1 fell in 1hr. 15min., an unbelievable
time. Conditions seemed perfect from where we watched, sunny
with just a bit of wind, the BC spotting scope in constant use
next to Rinats tent. Lazing around most of the day, a buzz
passed through camp at 4pm when word spread that Denis hit the
top in 7hrs. 40min.!
It was still light out at 6:50pm
when Denis crossed the tape. Collapsing for about 10 seconds,
he regained composure and smiled at our cheering. He got up and
down in a stunning 12hrs. 20min., setting the bar for future
speed climbs from the north. Second place went to Nicolai Chervenko
who came in after dark, three and a half hours later. The partying
continued late into the night and by noon the next day, all the
climbers and officials had been cleared off the mountain, the
competition a resounding success.
Urubko. He has since become the 15th climber to summit all 14-8000m
peaks. Denis eschews using supplemental oxygen.--ph. Mazarei
Race day came and went without a
hitch and I was hoping our attempt to ski Karlytau would also.
Optimistically, Luca and I started skinning up the Inylchek.
The glacier was firm, the skinning easy even with our large packs,
the conversation pleasant.
Later, we arrived at the gauntlet, a stretch where we were exposed
to a hanging glacier looming two kilometers above. This sort
of thing happens in the mountains and you deal with it using
speed to get past the dangers. Luck helps also.
..Leaving the competition venue.
Luca Gasparini.--ph. Mazarei
..The Celestial Mountains.--ph. Luca
..Beautiful and inspiring.--ph. Mazarei
..Speed climbing? Not really...--ph.
I did my best Miriam Jones long
jump over the swollen glacial creek and soon we were out of the
zone, our heads off the chopping block. Looking ahead
to the maze of crevasses and séracs, Karlytau looked sweet
and enticingly close as we started into the labyrinth.
The first snow bridge of any significance
came towards the end of our convoluted skin and we darted across
without mishap. The second one was more involved. The crevasse
was a big-un, wide enough to swallow you whole, black as the
devils own gullet. The bridge was a foot-wide block of snow wedged
like a cork across the gap. Gingerly sidestepping down next to
the block, Luca stepped across as far as he could, casually kickturned
and sidestepped up. OK, my turn: sidestep down and step across.
I went for the kickturn, heart in throat, the crevasse dark as
childhood nightmares...and got my ski stuck. I got it free and
scrambled up, heart racing. Then we were across and onto the
Our camp spot was beautiful: Khan
Tengri in all its majesty to our right, dominating. Karlytau
was behind us waiting for our skin tracks with the North Inylchek
amphitheater out to our left containing every ice feature imaginable.
It had been so quiet all day that
when we heard the sudden roar across the glacier, we looked at
each other wide-eyed, understanding. A huge section of the hanging
glacier had cut loose, hit the face underneath causing that to
avalanche, the whole thing thundering down traveling well over
200kph. Tons of ice and snow hit the Inylchek not far from where
we had hooked left into the sérac zone. As we snapped
photos, the rumble settled into a murmur and the ice blast mushroomed
towards us. Two minutes later, the bright sun was transformed
into a surreal snowfall.
..An agreeable spot to camp.--ph.
..Sequential Overdrive.--ph. Mazarei
It was 2:30pm, so we geared up and
hiked up the scree to where we could start skinning. Gaining
the first tongue we clicked in and started climbing up the steep
but very skinnable face. Quickly gaining altitude, we reached
a point where the angle eased off a bit. Stopping to regroup
and assess, it became apparent that the snow that fell earlier
in the week hadnt completely settled. We could see the
slight depressions that marked the hidden crevasses. I wanted
to know what this face looked like the week before. Were the
snow bridges still thick and safe? Or were they recently open;
the new snow combined with the wind covering them up again? It
was hard to say for sure, but as we continued and crossed some,
it felt pretty safe. That is, until the whole slope under me
whoomped and settled. I swear I felt the air underneath escape
and blow my hair back slightly! Ive been on slopes when
they have settled before, but this one took the cake as far as
skipped heartbeats were concerned. This was turning into a cold
sweat, prickly back, itchy skin kind of day, for certain. Skinning
quickly past the large half-moon crack that was above me, I joined
Luca on the relative safety of the ridge we had been aiming for.
We zigzagged up this ridge and stopped. Not wanting to push our
luck any further, we prudently decided that we shouldnt
go further and prepared for our descent from around 5500m.
..Bob Mazarei loving Kazakhstan.--ph.
..Luca workin' it.--ph. Mazarei
From here on down, we figured, we
would be safer as we had speed on our side...so long as we avoided
stopping on one of the myriad dips. The ski down was exquisite,
the snow just a touch too soft being as late in the day as it
was. Luca carved high speed GS turns, fully angulating, keeping
the knees tight and controlled.
Can one feel mighty and insubstantial
at the same time? Potent yet insignificant? Powerful yet diminutive?
One can, in these, the Celestial Mountains.
..Holy Sweetness! Luca Gasparini
in his element. The Tian Shan.--ph. Mazarei
I followed Lucas example keeping
speed up, making large turns. The setting was overwhelming. First,
you would be concentrating on your turns, the snow silky underfoot,
knocking off dozens of arcs at a time. Then stopping in an appropriate
place, catching your breath, you slowly look up...at the immense,
untamed beauty of it all. Down lower where it was steeper yet
safer, we headed left towards the second tongue, giving it a
lashing. As we got lower, towards the terminus, I had the distinct
feeling of drop off to my left. I dont know how I knew,
just that inner feeling that you get sometimes. Finishing the
run and back on the scree, we saw that it dropped straight off
30 meters, as if the glacier had been cut with a giant hot knife.
Definitely not a place to catch an edge.
..Edge finesse.--ph. Gasparini
..Nope, don't want to catch an edge.--ph.
Sleep came easy and so did the strange
dreams, the occasional rumbling across the way waking us from
time to time. Wanting to give the summit a determined effort,
we awoke early in order to climb on firm, safer snow. Skinning
was twice the effort, a good stomp needed to get a grip on our
skin track. Everything seemed better and indeed it was...until
near the ridge. Following Lucas skin track, I kickturned
left and punched my pole into blackness. I had no idea how large
the crevasse was that I had just kickturned on, as there was
no telltale concavity, just a Twilight Zone void where I had
planted my pole. Getting to safer ground, I just shook my head.
It was not letting up! We worked the ridge past our high point,
the slope dropping off deathly steep to our left. A long cornice
line continued up ahead of us with the final face to its right.
Stopping at about 5700m, we got a good look at the final summit
face. It didnt look good: there were hidden crevasses by
the dozen all the way up. And we knew we would get more of that
settling action up higher. It just wasnt right so we called
it good and got what we could.
..Wish Bard and Carter were here.--ph.
..Wish Bonatti and Thöni were
..They should put a lift here...--ph.
..Heli up, then skin a bit, then
ride the lift.--ph. Gasparini
The descent started firm but turned
perfect after 100 meters. The weather started to move in, the
light turning flatter as we carved fast turns on the windboard.
Turn after sweet turn, smiles on our faces. All the dangers aside,
the skiing itself was truly good to the last drop.
Luca smiled as I muscled my pack
on. Okay Bob-a, we go to your favorite crevasse?
I didnt answer him but just
stood silent and looked around at the beauty and harsh reality
of these mountains, massive and totally wild. Past the séracs
and crevasses without incident, we stopped in the flats for a
..Crevasse parking lot.--ph. Gasparini
..Gangsta lean.--ph. Gasparini
..Skiing rules. Skiing in Kazakhstan
rules even harder.--ph. Mazarei
Bob-a, maybe we dont-a
stay under this face. We were near the icefall area. Besides-a,
I want to buy you a beer or two. For staying so calm-a!
Yeah, right. The weather deteriorated by the time we skied to
BC. Back in the dining tent, we cracked a couple of cold guys
and smiled at each other as it started dumping outside.
(Note: An abridged version
of this story previously appeared in Craig
Dostie's Couloir Magazine.)
About the author:
..Khan Tengri - 7010m, majestically
dominating the scene. Tian Shan, Kazakhstan.--ph. Gasparini
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