Kyrgyzstan; a ski expedition to Ak Sai

The last weeks I have been traveling around Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have all showed me some amazing culture and landscapes. The landscapes showed me the potential for ski mountaineering. After all the sightseeing, a trip with my skis into the high mountains of Kyrgyzstan seemed like a great adventure!

The last decade I have explored many mountains all over the world for skiing but I had never been to Central Asia in search of the white gold. One of the reasons is the continental climate that determines the snow stability in the region during the winter. Extremely low temperatures generally create instabilities in the snow pack and as a result only mellow slopes can be skied. Since I’m looking for steeper slopes and couloirs in particular this kept me and my skis away from “the Stans” for years. In spring however, the snow pack usually settles due to melt-freeze cycles, meaning steeper terrain can be skied. But where do you find interesting terrain late in spring that is accessible by foot? And…, why do you want to do something like that anyway?

Deep in the Ala Archa national park there is a glacier, named Ak Sai, offering nice terrain ranging from moderately steep lines to challenging couloirs. Due to its elevation (the glacier is located between 3.800 and 4.000 meters) conditions tend to be optimal for ski mountaineering in May and June. Since I had skied in all months of the year except June, my choice for timing was easy. June 10-16, 2017 I visited the Ak Sai glacier. It was a bit weird to get my ski gear together in Bishkek in 32 degrees Celsius though…

the mountains surrounding Altyn Arashan would hopefully offer me some options to acclimatize

So, why did I chose to do this trip? Well, first of all there is the adventure. You can follow the Lonely Planet and tick off all the tours recommended in there but I believe it’s more fun to venture a little bit off the beaten track and explore the relatively unknown. Then there is the challenge to push your own boundaries. For me this was the first ski expedition. The combination of elevation, remoteness and duration made it very special. Being alone with nature was another aspect of this trip that attracted me. It gives a certain feeling of freedom. According to the guide, Artur, a lynx had been spotting on the glacier on several occasions. This to indicate it’s pretty quiet in terms of human activity on the glacier. Unfortunately we didn’t see any cats during our stay. Being “off the grid” was another bonus. No messages on LinkedIn, WhatsApp or other social media and no sudden phone calls from recruitment companies. Going back to basic is something I always enjoy for at least a few days, so why not on this trip.

Because of the high elevation of the Ak Sai glacier, I figured some acclimatization would be recommended. Also, getting into the right mental state wouldn’t hurt. Several days of trekking would hopefully give me a decent preparation for everything that still had to come. So, I started the trip in Karakol from where a three day trekking was on the agenda. After my return to the capital, I would start the ski trip. The first two days would be spent in order to get to the glacier. Day 3-6 were scheduled as ski days before I would make my way back to civilization, Bishkek that is.

A marshrutka brought me to Karakol in roughly six hours. Karakol feels like an old village, but is in fact the fourth largest town of the country with an estimated 67.000 inhabitants. In winter Karakol is a popular destination for skiing but I was there for different reasons. Some visits to the travel agencies in town showed me not many were interested in doing a serious trekking. I didn’t want to risk it myself so decided to visit Altyn Arashan, a popular destination among tourists. Hopefully I could meet some like minded people there…

the hike to Altyn Arashan (right photo) provided a lot of “green views”…

Ideally I would visit a pass at 3.800 meters from where one has a great view of Ala-Kul lake. The view would be a nice reward in addition to the acclimatization. Unfortunately there was still too much snow (can there be something as too much snow?!?!) at high elevation in order to reach the lake safely. Hopefully there would be more options for trekking from Altyn Arashan. This little settlement is located at 2.400 meters and is mostly known for its hot springs. A three to four hour hike is required to get there from Ak-Suu which is located near Karakol at 1.810 meters. I started my trekking with an open mindset, hoping to meet other hikers and if not, explore the mountains surrounding Altyn Arashan on my own…

After 3,5 hours I arrived at one of the yurt camps. The guy at my guest house in Karakol had made a reservation for me but, of course, nobody seemed to know anything about it on arrival. A few minutes later though, I had a whole yurt to myself for a shocking 500 som (7 euros…). In the evening all guests gathered in the dining area. A French group of friends was amongst the visitors and they clearly seemed into some serious trekking. Two of them were ski instructors (Courchevel and Les Arcs) and all of them were wearing the right clothes to undertake some nice adventures. Their plan was to visit Ala-Kul lake or at least try to get as far as possible. They had heard through the grapevine that a couple had made it to Ala-Kul lake. Would it be possible to get there after all? The next day they invited me to tag along…

the hike to Ala Kul was made even harder due to rough weather conditions

The weather turned out to be really bad on this day with hail, horizontal snow storms and some lightning and thunderstorms to spice things up. Nevertheless we continued our mission. We crossed some rivers and slowly gained elevation. Every now and then we came across other hikers, returning disappointed not to have made it to Ala-Kul lake. After about an hour or three, we noticed some yurts and shepherds in the distance. We decided to pay them a visit. After some tea and comfort, they made it very clear that reaching Ala-Kul would be a very serious challenge because of the amounts of snow. Without the right equipment this would be too risky, so we turned around. In the afternoon we got back at our yurt camp for a well-deserved session in the hot springs!

The French group, consisting of six people, was actually composed of two groups. One group was on a two week trip and left the next morning. The two remaining guys, Antoine and Nicolas, had a bit more time in Kyrgyzstan and were up for some more trekking. Together we explored another valley and hiked towards Angrtor lake, about six kilometers and just over two hours away from Altyn Arashan. This day the weather was absolutely perfect for a day in the outdoors. After about an hour of hiking, we arrived at a local family who gave us directions to the lake. Besides the family there was nobody around. Well, no people that is. Some beautiful horses added to the already spectacular environment of green pastures with lakes and white mountain tops…

Just over an hour after meeting the family, we arrived at Angrtor lake. It most likely was not as impressive as Ala-Kul would have been, but we enjoyed the tranquility of the setting. The lake was rather small and because of the timing, middle of the day, reflections and beautiful light were not present in order to take the most impressive photos. Nevertheless, the hike offered many things I was looking for on this little trip. I hiked 27 kilometers on this day alone (6 up and 6 down from and to Altyn Arashan and a further 15 kilometers down to Ak-Suu) and I had reached some acceptable elevations with 3.400 meters on day two and 3.200 meters on day three in order to acclimatize. Back in Karakol I enjoyed a hearty meal at Kochevnik Cafe before going to bed early. The next day I would take a shared taxi at 7 am in order to be back in Bishkek to meet a friend…

scenery during the trekking to Angrtor lake

Back in Bishkek, a friend who would join me on the ski trip, had not arrived. Despite knowing this trip was coming up for weeks, he had not arranged his equipment yet. He promised to arrive the next day. That would be the day we started hiking to the first hut. Of course, the next day he didn’t arrive either, so I had to go alone with the guide. Last minute, or more appropriate in this situation, last second preparations don’t work in situations like these. It partly ruined my preparations too because I was constantly thinking about it and because I traveled back to Bishkek early morning in order to meet him (and I’m not even talking about the people who waited for more than three hours for him to check into the apartment or the guide who went to the airport at 5 am to pick him up only to find out he was not there…). It affected my sleep the days before departure which doesn’t help either when you’re about to climb to high elevation with a significant amount of equipment. So thanks for that!

One benefit of doing such a trip together with a friend, is that you can motivate each other. After all, it’s not quite natural to walk up a mountain for several days with heavy backpacks or to start climbing in the middle of the night. This being vanished just before departure, I had to tap a different tune. I’m so crazy about skiing that I was confident I could still manage, based on previous experiences, to complete this adventure without him. Luckily Artur, my guide on this trip, did have his preparations in order. On June 10 we headed towards the parking lot in Ala Archa national park to start our expedition…

hiking with the skis in the beautiful Ala Archa national park

A trip like this is not your regular ski adventure. To reach the Ak Sai glacier two days of hiking are required. There is no food, no rescue and no connection with the outside world. So, you have to be self-sufficient. You will have to take all the necessary equipment, food and probably most important … knowledge to the hut on the glacier. Let’s start with the equipment. Skis, skins, boots, poles and avalanche equipment belong to the regular gear, next to the ski clothing, when you go ski touring for a day. Since it’s late spring, both ski crampons and boot crampons are a welcome addition. Being on a glacier means a harness, ropes and all the required gear for a crevasse rescue are needed too. Couloirs were on the menu, so having an ice axe wouldn’t hurt either. The hut doesn’t provide any proper bedding so mattresses and sleeping bags have to be brought too. Finally there is the regular clothing. After all, you don’t want to walk around and sleep in the ski clothes constantly. So, I brought a few extra shirts, underwear and socks too. So far, the equipment…

The Ak Sai glacier doesn’t provide some haute cuisine. No, we had to bring our own food and cooking facilities. Bread, sausages, cheese, snacks, tea and so-called “travellunch” packages were all carried into the high alpine in addition to a stove, pan and several gas cartridges. The equipment alone is too much to carry, let alone combined with all the food. Therefore, two porters carried a lot of stuff all the way to the Korona hut on the Ak Sai glacier. The last and most important thing to bring to the glacier is knowledge. I feel I have gathered quite some knowledge over the years but most certainly not enough to spend a week on a remote glacier. Therefore, I hired a local mountain guide. After all, the plan was to return alive!

Artur’s private hut at the Ratsek station, a unique hut in a beautiful setting

Together with Artur (the guide) and two porters, I entered the Ala Archa national park on our way to the first stop: the Ratsek station at 3.200 meters. For a week we wouldn’t have a signal on our phones or access to any form of social media. We would be alone in the mountains, together with our skis. Where in the world can you have such an experience nowadays?

We started hiking in the morning when temperatures were not too high yet. The parking is located at 2.200 meters, so compared to Bishkek (800 m) already a significant gain in elevation. The park sees many tourists who visit for the day in order to see a beautiful waterfall. Hiking with your skis this time of year therefore results in a lot of remarks and conversations. “Are you serious, skiing?!?!” or “There is no snow, is there?” are questions often heard. Once we had convinced everyone there was still some snow in the high alpine and we had passed the waterfall, we finally arrived at the Ratsek station after 3,5 hours. According to Artur this was pretty quick, which was nice to hear…

the team: Artur (the guide) and two strong Kyrgyz porters

The Ratsek station has a public hut, open to everyone. However, only a few meters away, Artur has its own private hut. He used to live there for six or seven months a year. Of course, it’s quite basic but it definitely has more charm than a regular hut. Luckily, it also has slightly more comfort. We enjoyed some sausages and cheese together with some typical Kyrgyz bread and, of course, tea. A lot of tea.

You can tell Artur has spent a fair amount of time on his own in the mountains. I consider myself to be quite good on my own but Artur definitely beats me by a long shot. He can easily spend hours doing nothing, just laying in bed presumably thinking about the bigger things in life. He climbs Lenin peak (7.134 m.) several times a season and has several high peaks in Tajikistan and China under his belt. The man has significant experience of coping with periods of downtime. Because of his intense work, he is also extremely fit. He easily carries a backpack of 20+ kilos up a mountain to serious elevations, even though his BMI must be the lowest in the world. With his 60 kilos (after the climbing season that is) and 185 cm, he rightfully deserves the same nickname as Co Stompé: “The matchstick”!

the Korona hut is located on the edge of the Ak Sai glacier and surrounded by steep mountain faces

Unlike the hike from the parking to the Ratsek station, which was relatively flat, the second day offered a more challenging hike. We had to cross a moraine directly above the Ratsek station which started steep and continued to an elevation of about 3.700 meters where the glacier started. There we, Artur and myself, could start skinning. The porters however, continued to walk in the sometimes deep snow with their heavy packs. Just over an hour later, we arrived at the Korona hut at 3.900 meters. This hut is probably as basic as they can be but provides just enough shelter to get through the nights…

The setting is spectacular and easily makes up for the lack of comfort. The same lack of comfort, how crazy it may sound, is probably also part of the adventure and in a strange way exactly what I was looking for. After all, staying at a beautiful lodge doesn’t fit the picture of a true expedition, right?

the inside of the Korona hut with its tasteful decoration…

The Korona hut consists of one relatively big room and a storage room if you can call it that. The big room has a table and a sleeping area (see picture). The construction is very interesting. It looks like it can fall apart any minute but at the same time I was confident it would protect us this week. At first sight, the sleeping area has a capacity of 5 persons which is already pretty tight. But Artur told me at some days about 30 people sleep in there. Below the sleeping area is another sleeping area. It’s extremely claustrophobic and you’re accompanied by a few mice, but technically you could sleep there. People also sleep on top and below the table, on the bench and on the floor. People have varying agendas and as a result they wake up at different times during the night. Not to forget what happens when somebody has to pee in the night!?!? Let’s say I was quite happy it was just Artur and myself this time…

Daily routine in the mountains is fairly simple. Early morning you start the day with breakfast before heading out for a nice adventure. Before the temperatures rise too much, you’ll be back in the hut for tea. Next is usually a nap before lunchtime has arrived. After another meal it’s time for some relaxing. This can vary from listening to some music, walking around the hut or a bit of chit chat. Later in the afternoon, plans for the next day will be discussed, mainly based on weather conditions and interests. Dinner is served pretty early in order to go to bed before sunset and be ready the next day for the adventures to come…

arriving at the skier’s summit of Korona peak at 4.750 meters

The third day of the trip was the first day of skiing. A perfect sunny day meant we had Korona peak on the menu. This is the classic descent of the Ak Sai glacier and we better checked it off our list immediately. Breakfast at 6 am before we started climbing at 7 am. Steepness and characteristics of Korona peak change with the rise in elevation. As a result different climbing techniques are used at different stages of the ascent. Skins and both boot and ski crampons are all needed in order to reach the summit. Since Korona peak has glaciated terrain, we were always roped up. Of course, my harness had all the tools to look cool on pictures too. Oh wait, in case of a crevasse rescue I might actually need them…

After about four hours, we reached the skier’s summit around 4.750 meters. The actual summit of Korona peak is a little bit higher but doesn’t provide any additional skiing. The serious elevation meant I needed some time to recover before stepping into my skis. Nevertheless it was a great feeling to be up there and to enjoy the spectacular panorama. Knowing I had made it to the highest summit of the trip also was a nice confidence boost for everything yet to come…

skiing down Korona peak at roughly 4.500 meters…

The skiing was much better than I expected. Of course, during the climb, I already felt the snow was in pretty good condition but before the trip, I expected to ski old hard packed snow at best. So, to find a nice layer of soft snow on top, it felt even like fresh powder, was a welcome bonus! The upper part was kind of steep with 35 to 40 degrees until we reached the bergschrund (let’s say this is a huge crevasse). Next was a beautiful section of mellow terrain with spectacular views of the surrounding valleys and mountains (see picture above). This was also a section where some delicious turns could be made. Nothing challenging but very enjoyable!

What followed was another steepish section. The snow became slightly more compacted but still nicely skiable, at least if you’d ask me. With nobody around, it was a pleasure anyway. We could take our time and enjoy the scenery without having to worry other people might take our lines. There was simply no other person around, did I already mention that…

The final part of the descent was another very nice section to ski. Lovely snow and a perfect gradient to make big GS turns was all that was left between us and the Korona hut. Around 11 am we returned at the hut, both happy and satisfied. We had some tea with snacks to celebrate before relaxing became our main priority of the day…

Here you can see a short video I made about my ski descent of Korona peak:

We had made big plans for the next day and went to bed early in order to be ready for our adventures. However, we woke up at 4 am (yes, you read that correctly!) only to be confronted with rain and wind events. This meant we went back to sleep and skipped the skiing. We had our first down day. Our plans were simply postponed to the next day…

So instead of skiing, on day 4 Artur improved my bed and cleaned the hut. We moved some of the posters as to improve the interior of our temporary accommodation. Artur had introduced the scantily dressed girls into the hut a few years ago. Since most of the climbers are men he received great feedback. However, one time a woman visited the hut and was not pleased with the decoration. The next time Artur visited the hut, he put a poster of a rapper on the wall too. Now everybody should be happy…

The fifth day would turn out to be a great day. The alarm was set again at 4 am. Temperatures in June can rise to serious heights and you want to be climbing when it’s freezing. As a result very early starts are the only way to explore the area. Getting up at 4 am is one thing but getting into your ski clothes when it’s very cold and windy is another. You can hear the last remaining mouse quickly sneaking away before you change the clothes in order to jump into the ski gear. Once finished, you quickly grab the tea in order to warm up. Outside the only light is provided by the moon while the howling winds provide some noise in the background. In short, a great time to start a ski adventure…

breakfast at 4 am in order to start skinning in the moonlight at 4:30 am…

Once you’re outside, it quickly becomes a completely different story. The cold goes away because of the efforts made on skis and the special atmosphere created by the moonlight makes you realize it’s actually very special to be out there at that given moment. From the hut it’s about an hour on skins to reach a special area in the back of the Ak Sai basin full of couloirs, the “couloir corner”. Very interesting terrain but what can we actually attempt to climb and ski without taking too much risk?

We had our eyes set on a specific couloir, one I had seen in a movie about this area. It was tucked away in the corner and once we arrived at the bottom of the run it was clear why we were here. A beautiful straight line surrounded by impressive rock formations on both sides. In other words, a classic couloir. We made some zigzags to reach the apron of the couloir where we transitioned to bootpacking. The wind was strong which made it very uncomfortable. Even though it was June and down below in Bishkek it might have been 32 degrees Celsius, believe me, it was freaking cold and my hands were freezing while I removed my skins and put on my crampons. But with the prospect of skiing a beautiful couloir, nothing is too much for daddy!

Artur in the lead during a climb of one of the couloirs in the “couloir corner” of the Ak Sai basin

Artur approached the couloir with care. We climbed on the side close to the rocks and he analyzed the snow constantly. After finishing my AIARE level 2 course recently in April, I could of course only agree with his plan of action. We gradually gained elevation and after a while we found ourselves in the middle of the couloir in between huge walls of rocks, it’s impressive time after time. Just when the top of the couloir was within sight, Artur slowed down. “Hmm, when a guide slows down, something’s wrong”, were my immediate thoughts…

Shortly after, Artur announced he didn’t want to go any further. In order to reach the top we had to traverse to the other side of the couloir where the snow hardly sees any sun during the day. Without the melt-freeze cycles, the snow would be too incoherent in his opinion. In other words, climbing the couloir all the way to the top would involve an unacceptable risk. We agreed on skipping the remaining part and stepped into our skis. By this time it felt like we were out there for hours and it was around noon. Well, we were out there for hours but because of our 4:30 start, it was only 7 am by now. Skiing a couloir at 7 am, the world’s really going crazy…

this is definitely the best skiing I have done at 7 am!

We still had energy left and since it was only 7:30 am by now, we decided to climb another couloir. This one we summited and around 9 am we had more or less skied two couloirs. On a normal ski day I take the first lift or attach the skins to my skis at this time…

We returned to the Korona hut and took a well deserved rest. The afternoon was sunny and comfortable, a beautiful time to relax outside the hut and enjoy the setting. We also couldn’t help but make plans for the following days, more couloirs were on the agenda. I had spotted another very interesting looking couloir and we had agreed to check it out early the next morning. Roughly twelve hours later we woke up and followed the same rituals as the day before. However, when we reached the apron at about 6 am, Artur concluded that it had gotten too warm. Rock falls and instabilities in the snowpack were serious concerns. We turned around and skied a mellow section near the hut just to get some exercise. Slightly disappointed we found ourselves back in bed by 9 am…

another beautiful couloir, one we didn’t get to ski unfortunately…

With the temperatures not changing, we decided to head down in the afternoon because the chances of skiing something interesting the following morning were negligible. It had been a great stay in the Korona hut. Of course I would have liked to ski more, especially more of the couloirs. But, this trip was not only about skiing the best lines. The feeling of being on a ski expedition was new for me and turned out to be quite special. We were truly alone on the glacier for several days. Every climb and descent you want to do, requires the utmost respect because of the remoteness of the location. Therefore every descent we completed was extra special!

However, the trip was far from over yet. We still had to make our way down, back to civilization. Fully packed with ski gear, sleeping bag, mattress, other personal items and garbage from the days in the hut, we said goodbye to the Ak Sai glacier and went down to the Ratsek station. In order to get there we had to make our way down a moraine, lots of rocks with some sort of a path here and there. Thunderstorms and lightning added an extra dimension, not a particularly nice one, to the descent. Navigating on slippery rocks while wearing a heavy backpack and looking into the ravine, was something rather unpleasant for me. Artur just hopped from one rock to the other without any problems…

with heavy backpacks we made our way down from the Ak Sai glacier towards the Ratsek station

At the end of the day we made it back to the hut at Ratsek station safely. It already felt closer to civilization because of the presence of a few other people. The level of comfort in this hut was also significantly higher compared to the Korona hut where we had spent the previous days. But, we still had a few hours to go the following morning. After a decent night of sleep, most likely because of the improved level of comfort, we were greeted by the sun in the morning. Artur left some of his equipment in his hut and offered to carry my ski boots, an offer hard to decline. Shortly after we had started our final descent, we found ourselves surrounded by a few tourists who were exploring Ala Archa national park. Several replies (“Yes, it’s really possible to ski up there…”) later, we finally arrived back at the car and drove back into the relative chaos that is Bishkek.

My ski expedition to Ak Sai has been a great experience. Skiing in a remote location where you have to be self-sufficient, was something new to me. The mountains around the Ak Sai glacier are simply stunning. It clearly was no punishment to just lay down on a rock in the afternoon to absorb the scenery. The skiing we did, perhaps a bit limited in quantity, surely can be rated highly in quality. The run from Korona peak was smooth and enjoyable and the couloirs we skied were a bit more adventurous and had some sort of an exploratory feel to them. One thing I have to mention here, is that when you are seriously considering a trip like this, please make sure you’re really crazy about skiing. Getting up at 4 am in order to go climbing and skiing, is something you can not take lightly. If you’re still interested and a trip to Ak Sai is on top of your list, make sure to contact Artur Usmanov (my guide on this trip, I can get you in touch with him) directly and avoid booking this trip through travel agencies in Bishkek in order to avoid certain disappointments.

Click here to see more pictures of my ski expedition to the Ak Sai glacier in Kyrgyzstan!

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