Following this John, Phil and Ciaran went for another acclimatization trip, this time up to a col at 4,700m (photo below)
But there was still no sign of Robert… We were supposed to have met him at Osh off his flight from Moscow.
Meanwhile, back in Osh, Robert was tearing his hair out trying to find what had happened to a holdall full of climbing kit; most of his worldly possessions. Here, in his own words, is an account of what happened.
I left the ship in Aberdeen harbor, jumped in my car, and made for Edinburgh. I spent the night there then caught a train the next morning, arriving at Heathrow in plenty of time for my flight.
Especially since my flight was delayed by two hours.
Thus I found myself in Dusseldorf, being re-routed back to London! I was assured my luggage would follow me and everything would be fine. I was bounced back to London, trying to ignore the feeling of dread in my stomach; what would go wrong next? I flew London-Moscow DME and spent the least enjoyable 17 hours of my life in that airport, a Kafkaesque experience I have no urge to repeat or to describe further.
I finally landed in Osh (long after Phil, Ciaran and John had departed for Batken), went to the carousel, and waited for my holdall. And waited, and waited. Once all the other luggage was gone I trailed despondently to the lost luggage office and filed a report. I was kicked out with only what I had in my hand luggage; one pair of pants, no spare socks, and no idea how to get to the hostel. Fortunately, Munar, the owner, had come to meet me. It’s a twenty-minute drive; I reached my bunk and passed out.
I spent the next five (yes, five) days in Osh trying desperately to find my kit; depending on who I spoke to (S7, BA or Moscow airport staff) it was in London, Moscow, or Dusseldorf. All the time I grew more and more stressed, knowing that I was falling further and further behind schedule and that my chances of getting a crack at Muz Tok (or indeed anything) were going from bad to worse.
Finally, though I got the bus to the airport to find my holdall sitting in a dusty concrete building, looking very tired and stressed, if a holdall can do that.
I got a taxi to the bus station and found the marshrutka that said ‘BaMp£3kek’ or something like that (Batken) on the front, paid my 300 com (£3), and braced myself for a seven-hour rumble across southwest Kyrgyzstan.
I arrived at Batken later that day. I had a rough plan from this point; find a taxi driver and ask to be taken to Batken travel services (I had a map showing the way to their base). This very poor plan didn’t have to be put into operation as Zhunusbek, the owner of the company, met me off the bus. We drove straight out of town, after two hours turning off a large, straight road and following a dirt track that soon became a river bed for miles up into the hills. At the end of this, the most improbable road I’ve ever seen was a hamlet of small huts; Sary-Zhaz.
I spent the night there under a canvas tent with ‘Red Crescent of Iran’ written on it. The next day Talivek, my guide for the next two days, loaded my equipment and bag of watermelons (another huge oversight on my part, I had neglected to bring much other than four watermelons and a carrier bag full of bread) onto two donkeys and beat them with a stick till they started uphill towards base camp. At last!
John has done a good job of describing the walk to basecamp. My experience was slightly different in that I ended up sleeping the night in a shepherds hut with Talivek and two other locals who very kindly shared their meal and gallons of tea with me.
The next day we reached basecamp. Phil, Ciaran, and John were elsewhere so I made myself comfortable and bid farewell to Talivek, who headed back down the valley on one of the donkeys with the other trotting after him.
I woke early the next day and crossed the river, wading up to my waist in the glacial meltwater. I slogged up to a col at 4100m to kickstart my acclimatization. As I made my way down I saw movement at basecamp; the guys were back!
Glacial meltwater streams are at their smallest in the early morning. By late afternoon they are always a lot bigger. The stream I’d barely managed to cross hours earlier as now a raging torrent. I stuck my trainers in my backpack and began wading across. As I reached the halfway point, knowing that it was about to get deeper and finding it at my stomach already it was plain that I was going to be swept off my feet. I took the initiative and launched for the other side, a desperate doggy-paddle to safety, sustaining a cut toe and a bruised knee in the process.
I didn’t want to get my socks bloody so I turned up at basecamp barefoot, bleeding and soaking wet, much to the amusement of my friends (John -‘Haha, exactly how I expected you to arrive’).
Of course, this is a highly condensed version of events; I’ve omitted loads of details that while fascinating to me would be boring to anyone else. In a nutshell, though this post brings us up to the point where we are all in base camp and preparing for the first forays towards Muz Tok…
The idea of exploratory mountaineering can conjure up visions of the Fedchenkos walking up the Jiptik valley and sketching out the locations of the peaks surrounding the Jiptik / Schurovsky glacier, or Shipton and Tilman setting up their plane table in the Nanda Devi sanctuary to survey the remotest corners of British India. But what does exploration entail when the whole world is at your fingertips on google earth? Well, the good news (for those who want to explore) is that google earth only gives you a quite limited set of information. It can give you only the vaguest hint of whether a remote mountain valley is accessible or not – I should know, after my 2014 trip to Kyrgyzstan! The resolution of the surveying is poor compared to the maps we are used to in Europe from the British Ordnance Survey (OS) or the French Institut Geographique National (IGN), for instance. And information on the terrain is lacking, it is hard to say if a slope is a pleasant grassy ramble or a terrifying scrabble of dangerously unstable choss. You cannot see how easy it will be to cross a river, or whether there are seracs, etc, etc.
In the former Soviet Union, however, there are better maps available than google maps/earth. The entire USSR was mapped to a high standard during the Soviet era, and at least a large proportion of these maps are now available to download for free from maps.vlasenko.net. As a subjective opinion, I would say that the surveying on these maps is as good as that on the OS or IGN maps, and the Soviet maps have a certain beauty about them:
But there are shortcomings; generally, they are only available in 1:100,000 resolution – understandable when you consider the size of the country the Soviets had to map! So the features on display on the maps are quite limited compared to what we are used to on OS or IGN maps and information on the kind of terrain underfoot is sometimes also limited. The youngest of the Soviet maps were done in circa 1985 and the glaciers have receded a lot since then. And there is also another problem – the Soviet maps use a datum (Pulkovo 1942 Krasovskii spheroid) which absolutely no-one uses anymore. Try finding a GPS with that one on!
So a few years ago I developed a method for drawing onto the electronic copy of the Soviet map a WGS84 datum; this is the datum used by google earth and available on any GPS. The method involved selecting 3 prominent summits or other landmarks, obtaining the co-ordinates of their pixels on the electronic copy of the Soviet map, and then using google earth to obtain the WGS84 datum longitude and latitude. Using this information you can then calculate where to put the WGS84 longitude and latitude grid lines (i.e. the datum) on the map – even accounting for the fact that the grid lines do not run parallel to the x and y axes.
So you can now turn on your GPS, read off your location, and place yourself on the map. So when your driver tells you that you have arrived at the point he agreed to drop you off you can inform him that there is another 10 miles still to go, when you are jungle-bashing your way up to some remote valley you can see what a depressingly short distance you have advanced in the past 4 hours, etc. etc. You can see the reasons why doing this is worth the effort!
My previous method, however, had the shortcoming that, whilst you can use the co-ordinates of some additional summits or landmarks to check that your grid lines are not too wide of the mark, you can only directly use 3 data points in calculating where they should be. And in each data point there must be some error – google earth often chops the tops off summits and consequently can get them in the wrong location, stream and road junctions can move a bit, etc. Here is an example of a data point: