What better way to prepare for a friend’s wedding in South Kazakhstan than going on the demented Inylchek Glacier trek into the heart of the Tien Shan mountains in Kyrgyzstan? Yes, it sounds rather ridiculous to us now too in hindsight! But, that is precisely what we did.
We were super excited when our friends, Eric from Seattle and Assela from Kazakhstan, told us they were to be wed in the bride’s hometown of Kulan, 400km west of Almaty. The wedding and related activities would take up four days but we weren’t going to fly all the way there and not check out more of the area. We had always wanted to do an extended Central Asia trip and this was a perfect opportunity to test the waters.
We looked at the map and figured we could visit the Tien Shan mountains across the border and nip back to join up with the American contingent of the wedding party in Almaty. We knew we wanted to do the Ala Kol trek out of Karakol, but that took only three days. That was just a limbering up trek. There is a mass of information about the Ala Kol trek, so we won’t add to it except to say that it’s a gorgeous trek and you should do it.
I had heard about the mythic South Inylchek Glacier trek from a guide when I was trekking in the K2 region of Pakistan. I heard tales of crazy camp hosts force feeding trekkers with vodka. And, I heard that you were flown out of the region on old Soviet Sikorsky helicopters with dubious safety records. Sounded gnarly as hell. But, we had ten days to fill up so we signed on the dotted line!
We trek at home in Washington State throughout the summers and we had done treks in the California Sierras and Nepal Himalaya, so we were not concerned by the distance or altitude. Camping on glaciers was new for Laura and the remoteness was concerning, but they were small considerations when the payoff looked so awesome. To be clear though, we are not expeditionists by any stretch of the imagination!
The South Inylchek Glacier Trek: Logistics
We organized our trip with Kazbek Valiyev at Kan Tengri travel agency in Almaty. Kazbek had climbed Pik Khan Tengri on numerous occasions and his company seemed reputable. He arranged our visas, border zone permits, transfers to and from Kyrgyzstan and the trailhead, a guide, and all the logistics on the trek. The company leases tent space in fixed camps managed by Ak-Sai Travel based in Bishkek.
You need to provide your own four-season sleeping bag and mat. Three meals a day are provided. We took a few snacks too to complement the admittedly more than adequate food on the trek. The food was somewhat repetitive but filling. Greasy fried rice, mutton, and chicken were dinner staples. Lunch was usually a packed lunch, wrapped up in cute Ak-Sai Travel branded bags. This was typically filling, but I recall one day that it only contained a Snickers bar. More on that later! Breakfast was usually eggs and bread. Occasionally, we found fresh melons at the camps. As everywhere else in Central Asia, a huge bowl of tasty candy was a centerpiece of the dinner table.
The Inylchek Glacier trek is one-way. You hike from At-Jailoo camp at the base of the valley to the South Inylchek Base Camp between the 7000m Khan Tengri and Pobedy Peaks. You fly back to civilization on the Soviet military helicopter that makes several runs per week to supply the camp and ferry mountaineers in and out. That is, if the helicopter turns up. More on that later!
Day 0: Karakol. Meet the guide.
We were accompanied on the trek by a friendly German man named Uwe, who lived in Arizona. It was his first trip to Asia and his first major multi-day trek. He trekked a lot at home and looked in fine fettle. He carried a litre of single malt Scottish whisky on the trek. We became good buddies fast! We were to meet up with our guide at a restaurant in Karakol to go over final details. We arrived at our meeting point at the agreed time but our guide was nowhere to be found. Oh, well… Asian time, right?
Ninety minutes later, a disheveled skittish looking fella lurched into the restaurant. He looked like he had been in a fight. He had a lump over his eye and his lip was swollen. We sat down with him, ordered dinner, and got down to business. He did not look or behave like a typical mountain guide. Our guide for our three day moderately easy Ala-Kol trek organized by the Karakol CBT had been amazing. A mountaineer, who made it clear 3-day treks were beneath him, but he was an assured presence who really went out of his way to make the trip easy for us.
Azamat, our guide, was a high school teacher in a nearby village who took the occasional guiding gig to supplement his wage in the summer months. This was a bit unnerving and totally not reassuring! I could tell Uwe was nervous too. Anyways, we had no choice but to give him the benefit of the doubt. He told us he had done the Inylchek glacier trek before so that calmed us down. We later speculated that Azamat was called up to do the trek at the last minute and had to scramble to get his shit together and drive into town. Maybe that was why he was so jittery.
Day 1: Drive to At-Jailoo.
The tour started with a leisurely wander around Karakol’s tourist sights. The town was founded by Cossacks, so it was no surprise to find a beautiful Orthodox Cathedral in town. The cathedral is an impressive wooden structure built without using any nails. The Dungan mosque was way more atmospheric, with lots of wispy bearded Central Asian dudes going about their duties in the mosque grounds.
But, hey, we are here to trek, right? Yup! But, first we had to get out to the trailhead. In the afternoon, we jumped into a sturdy 4WD Jeep for the six hour, two hundred kilometer ride out to At Jailoo base camp. We were joined by a guide and trekker from Ak-Sai Travel. Lucian, a Romanian guy, and his guide, Liliya, who by being a Russian-Kyrgyz female guide was unusual for Central Asia. Oh, and her extremely cute dog, Vintik. They were to be on-off companions for the remainder of the trip. Liliya was a much more experienced guide in the area than Azamat. Not only did she lead treks in summer, she worked as a backcountry ski guide in the winter. She knew all the camps well and was friendly with all the hosts. Her lively personality lifted moods everywhere. Lucian was quite a character too.
The weather turned gloomy and the drive out was cold and bleak to say the least. The drive passes through a couple of military outposts so you need permits to enter the area. The high point of the area is where Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and China meet at the summit of Khan Tengri. You can imagine how sensitive the area was during the Cold War era. Mountaineers have been heading into the region for decades, since this was where elite Soviet climbers came to hone their chops. If there is an area in Central Asia that exemplifies Cold War chic, it is the garrison town of Inylchek! It was totally unwelcoming, despite the best efforts of the soldiers.
The first camp sits at a chilly 2500m. You sleep in tents, but meals are served in a homely wooden lodge presided over by an imposing Russian matriarch. The food was good. The welcome, er, Russian. We all got to know each other a little better over a warming meal, prayed to the mountain gods for better weather, and turned in for the night.
Day 2: Hike to Camp Iva. River crossing on horseback.
Our prayers worked and the mountain guardians blessed us with clearer skies. The first full day of hiking is a real plod over steadily rising grasslands. However, the first obstacle comes fast. And, as we found out soon enough, furious. The river that flows out of the Inylchek Glacier is rough enough in good weather, but after a few days of rain it looks terrifying. We weren’t expecting a river crossing at all. We put on our sandals and dipped our toes in. Unsurprisingly, it was ferociously cold. Azamat lightened our mood by telling us that a Czech trekker had been washed away, presumed dead, a couple of days earlier. Damn! What to do? Abandon the trek? Tricky since calling up transport from base camp would not be easy.
Thankfully, and typically for Asia, there was a man on hand to help out and make a fast buck when life gets hard for a foreigner! He rode up on his sturdy stallion and offered us a ride. For a dollar. Or, fifty if he wants! Even on horseback the crossing was scary.
The rest of the day was fairly unmemorable. Just a slow slog through boggy ground. We got the occasional glimpse of a snowy high peak, which put a spring in our step and hope for better days ahead. We could see the glacier up ahead. Anyone expecting to see a wall of bluey white ice will be disappointed. The glacier is impressive in numbers. It is over 3km wide and 62km in length making it the 3rd longest glacier outside of the polar regions. However, it is covered in dirty gray moraine as a result of its millennia of churning its way through rock and ice.
After an 8 hour, 18km hike we were fit for food and sleep only. The camp hosts were truly welcoming, which was typical of the whole trek. Every tent camp has a manager and a cook who take great pride in their work. It cannot be easy being stationed up here for the whole three-month mountaineering season. A hot cup of tea and cheery conversation is always on offer.
The camp was at 2900m and a little more exposed than base camp. It was cold but scenic.
Day 3: Hike to Camp Glina. Rockfall and routefinding.
Another 8 hours of hiking but today we only covered 8km. The final destination was at 3100m, so altitude starts to take its toll a little. We were glad we had acclimatized at Ala Kol in preparation for this trek. Uwe struggled a little bit though. I think it was smart to go to Ala Kol before heading to Inylchek.
The trek goes along the lateral moraine to the confluence with the Putevodnyi Glacier. You cross a lot of glacial confluences in this trek, gnarly mash-ups of rock and ice. They are tricky to cross at times.
It felt like we were in some weird virtual reality game, a hobbit quest to Mordor or something. First challenge of the game came early in the day. The coffee hadn’t really kicked in before we got to this challenge. Pretty soon though the adrenaline was flying sky high! We came to a narrow passage beneath a towering steep slope. Azamat told us that we had to run real quick through the section. Uh, why? As if by magic, a rock came flying down from above. Damn thing would have taken our heads off. How many more times on this trek are we going to be terrified shitless?? A few more as it goes!
I got halfway across before the first rock flew by. They ping the rock wall like bullets. Then, a few more came down. Azamat yelled, ‘Run!’ No shit, Sherlock! I got to safety without incident. Now, it was Laura’s turn. If I was terrified by crossing through myself, I was utterly petrified at watching Laura run the gauntlet. One circular piece of rock spun through at a ferocious speed. I could barely watch. You are tempted to run while looking up to dodge incoming ordnance. Forget it. You cannot outrun or dodge. You run and hope. Laura made it. Thank the Buddhas! A quick kiss and a hug. Then on to the next challenge.
One feature of the Inylchek glacier trek is that the route changes every year. The huge geological forces at play conspire to batter previous good places of passage. In years past, the path on this section went high above the river. More recently a lower route opened up along the river. However, the river was high and the low route looked terrifying. Azamat decided to take the high road, which was the route he knew best. Sadly, he could not remember the exact route. We had to plow through some nasty short shrubs covered in fierce thorns. The forest got thicker, the path tougher. The route was on a vertiginous slope over the river. And it was pouring rain.
We took a timeout. Azamat suggested we head back down and negotiate the river route. We glared at him in utter disbelief. Death by a thousand cuts or death by drowning in icy waters? Some choice. Another group piled through the trees. At least we aren’t the only ones in this predicament. We sat down with our new pals, Ronald and Johanna from Austria. Smiles were in short supply. Even I couldn’t summon up appropriate black humor!
Azamat decided to head up the hill to find a path. I liked this initiative. Off he ran. He soon disappeared. We could hear him scurrying around looking for a path. Then, silence. Shit! Now, we have lost our damn guide!
‘It’s here, it’s up here’. We scrambled up through the thorns and eventually found our man. Now, he really looks like he has been in a fight but he had found the path. It was the happiest he had been all trek. Back at the valley floor, the rain stopped and we sat down to share chocolates and conversation with Ronald and Johanna. Their trek company had told them, inaccurately, that there were no fixed camps along the Inylchek glacier trek. They were carrying all their food and supplies for the trek and their packs were humongous. We on the other hand enjoyed a packed lunch prepared by the camp cook every day.
We followed the well-defined route to the safety of the muddy but cosy Camp Glina. We climbed a bank above the camp for some fine views. Nothing less than we deserved after a grim day’s trekking! Uwe raised spirits by his comical exploits in the camp shower. He ended up wearing the rickety shower tent but never got the shower to work. Probably a good thing in this cold.
Day 4: Hike to Merzbacher. Beautiful glacier scenery.
As Ice Cube once remarked, today was a good day. The weather was incredible. The views were astonishing. After, five days of toil through generally bleak landscapes and conditions the rewards were now on offer. Our destination was the Merzbacher meadow at 3400m. Another 8km of walking but it only took 5 hours. We had blue skies and white peaks. Bliss! We were to luncheon at the camp before taking the somewhat perilous hike across the main glacier to see Merzbacher Lake. The lake forms on the Merzbacher Glacier every summer and is famous for the icebergs that float in the lake. Quite a unique feature.
On the walk up the glacial moraine we bumped into Lucian, Lilia, and Vintik again. Lunch was amusing. We sat down by the side of a tiny glacial lake. The Europeans goaded each other into going for a swim. Seriously! I was okay with Lucian stripping down to his tight undies. It was bloody freezing so I thought he was demented, but at least his tiny underpants lent a little modesty to proceedings. Uwe on the other hand was not modest. Oblivious to local sentiments, Uwe plunged into the pool in his birthday suit! Not that I really cared, but clearly Liliya’s Kyrgyz upbringing led to a little discomfort in the presence of strange man penis! Azamat looked distinctly unimpressed at the idea, but clearly the Central Asian macho man in him couldn’t let the Europeans upstage him. Before we knew it, splash, in he went too!
The swim was short. Aspects of the male physique somewhat less impressive after the below zero plunge. Well, I suppose now we were true friends. I think it took Liliya a few more days to recover.
We wandered up the moraine and crossed a few side valley glaciers before hitting Merzbacher Glade. The last green grass of the hike. Merzbacher hosts a couple of scientific labs, which measure the effects of climate change on the glacial environment. It was a comfortable spot and there were plenty of folk around to chat to.
The trip over to the lake was cancelled. The lake had already burst its banks, a yearly occurrence, so the icebergs were no longer afloat. In addition, Liliya informed us that the route to the lake was now considered dangerous. No worries, the view from the camp more than compensated. Uwe cracked open his bottle of single malt so we were very happy campers.
Merzbacher is one of the few spots on the trail that you can get a real hot shower. They are solar powered and are found in one of the permanent metal huts. Ask your guide or the camp boss to hook you up.
Laura has always wanted to do some star trail photography with a perfect alpine backdrop. Skies were clear so Laura decided tonight was the night. I was less than keen since it was bloody freezing but I went out anyways to be photographer’s assistant. It really was a startlingly gorgeous night but so so cold. We were out there a couple of hours. But, when we got home Laura decided she didn’t like the photos. Boo!
Day 5: Hike to Camp Komsomolskiy. The terrain gets wilder and the weather gets windier.
This was a long but beautiful day’s hiking. An eight hour ten kilometer walk up to Komsomolskiy Camp. The camp is on the main glacier and the walk crosses the spectacular Komsomolskiy glacier en route. We crossed numerous ice rivers and the views up valley were incredible. This boded well for Laura’s birthday the next day.
We got into camp just in time for lunch. What a magnificent place to camp! Fantastic views up, down, and across the valley. As we waited for our lunch to be served, the wind started to blow from up valley. It sounded like the howling hordes of hell. We nipped outside to take a look. The wind picked up speed. And then started to pick up the tents. Shit! Our backpacks were in there. We ran over to the tents to stop them blowing away. The wind was now roaring. This was full-on gale force. I had to climb into the tent to add weight while Azamat laid more rocks on it to stop it blowing away. It was really hard work. Uwe was desperately hanging on to his tent. Other campers did likewise. We went from tent to tent and helped others secure their home for the night.
Eventually, we secured all the tents. The wind continued to howl. And, worse… I needed a crap! Why tell you this? So, I can tell you about the most amazing toilet ever!! The toilet was a flimsy wooden construction. It was undoubtedly a poo with a view situation! The toilet itself was ingenious but terrifying. You crouched over a crevasse in the glacier to do your business! Literally, one foot out of place and your leg would be stuck in a poopy crevasse.
OK. All good. Surely, we are over the worst. Lunch was filling and greasy. Dinner was the same. Suddenly, candy for each meal looked like the best option. The wind calmed down and we settled down for a chilly but cosy sleep.
Day 6: Hike to Camp Dikiy. Snow and staggering scenery.
‘How’d you sleep hon? Happy birthday!’
‘Pretty good. Chilly but looking forward to a nice day’s hike. Cuppa tea would be nice. Oh, the tent’s sagging a bit. Probably should tighten it up a bit. Anyways, that tea…’
A foot of snow, that’s what. There had been a storm overnight and the tent was snowed under. Fog lay low over the glacier. There was a foot of snow on the ground. This was not good. Typically, you don’t need to be roped together on the glacier or wear crampons since there is never snow on the ground in the summer and you can easily negotiate the open icy patches. In addition, you follow spray painted rocks that mark out the new route every year. With snow, low cloud, and covered cairns route finding would be damn tricky.
But, first things first. A number of the tents had collapsed under the weight of the snow. There are a number of groups in the camp and I was unsure which tents were occupied. We were first up so I had to go round to make sure all was well and let everyone know the bad news. We had to rebuild a number of tents. The kitchen tents were sturdy but hiker tents weren’t US quality mountain tents. A couple were broken beyond repair.
Breakfast was a somber affair. We had an extra day day built into the itinerary for a rest day or hike day around the final base camp. So, time wasn’t a major issue yet. However, the camp host told us we had to move on since there was a Japanese group behind us and they had booked the tents. Crap! It seemed ridiculous that we would move on in these conditions. We got chatting to a hardy bunch of German trekkers, who had dropped down to the glacier the same day as us. They had taken a different route in. The route they came in made our adventure seem like a walk round Times Square. They had some hair raising crossings of icy rivers on high altitude trails.
We shared a breakfast table with an elderly German couple, who were hiking alone without guide or tent. They were traveling in the opposite direction to us, having taken the helicopter to the upper base camp. They were relying on finding space in the fixed camps and negotiating bed and board for the night. A reckless venture if I ever heard one. But, I guess no-one was going to let them starve and sleep on the ice, right? For a couple who were relying on the goodwill of others, they were among the most obnoxious people I have ever met. I don’t use this term often but the woman was a real bitch. She was positively delighting in our crappy predicament. At one point, she showed us her photos of Khan Tengri since “there is no way you are going to see it now.” Incredible. She continued to goad us until we left.
The German expeditionist group took us under their wing and told us to wait until there was a window of 2 km clear sky ahead. After an hour or two, the clouds lifted a little and we set off with haste. The camp manager handed us our packed lunch: a Snickers bar in a paper bag. No wonder they had been eager to send us on our way. They were running low on food!
The camp guide took us about half way. We tipped him well and wished him luck! The Germans were a very reassuring presence but since they had porters carrying their tents, they were heading for a different camp site to us. The weather improved and the skies cleared, revealing some of the most starkly dramatic mountain scenery we’ve ever hiked in.
Intrepid trekkers in some really fantastic scenery.
Our destination was Dikiy Camp, situated on a spectacular icy ridge on top of the Dikiy Glacier that intersects the Inylchek Glacier. The camp is at 3900m and is a 7km or 4-6 hour hike in normal conditions from the previous camp. These were not normal conditions. We were worried about snow bridges forming over crevasses. Not a problem in regular years!
In addition, Ronald and Johanna were struggling with their heavy packs. As Ronald put it, “I cannot walk faster if you were poking me in the back with a stick.” Since they had tents, they and their guide decided to find a place nearby to set up camp.
Now we were on our own with Azamat. Azamat was not the guide you want in these circumstances. He was ill-prepared for these conditions both physically and mentally. He was clearly worried, unsure of the route, and verging on panic. It was getting dark. It was going to snow. We could see the camp on the glacier up to our right but didn’t know how to get there. At this point, I was envying the Austrians and their tent and provisions. Azamat was becoming increasingly agitated. Walking up one route then retreating. Trying another path. Ugh! In the end, we resorted to yelling up the glacier towards camp. Seriously, yelling! Thankfully, someone heard us and shouted down instructions to get to the camp.
The camp was in a bleak spot. It was exposed and cold. But, the camp hosts were absolutely fantastic. They could not have been more helpful and hospitable. They fed us, prepared hot drinks all day, and warmed us up with goofy behavior! Azamat looked beat but at least we were safe.
The views when the clouds broke on the hike were wonderful but at times it was hard to enjoy given the conditions. The layer of snow had made the trek even more beautiful than usual. Something I can appreciate now, while sitting in a safe warm house. In hindsight, it was one of the most scenic days of trekking ever. The photos certainly confirm that fact. Check them out yourself. I am sure you will agree.
Day 7: Hike to South Inylchek Base Camp. In the heart of the Tien Shan.
In a regular year, this is a short 3-4 hour 5km hike up to South Inylchek base camp. This was not a regular year. We were worried about Azamat’s route finding capabilities, particularly if the weather turned. Thankfully, the woman who ran the camp was itching to see her mountaineering porter boyfriend who was stationed at South Inylchek. So, we had a guide who knew the area, which made us feel better.
The hike was pretty challenging, particularly as we were not roped in and lacked crampons. We were often walking on narrow ridges between icy lakes on the glacier. We had to jump over the odd crevasse and at one point had to trust a snow bridge would hold. The weather was good and the sky clear and blue. Many of the glacial ridges were striated and weirdly shaped as a result of being whipped by winds over the centuries. There was the odd glimpse of clean blueish ice deep in the glacier. Stunning.
The yellow tents of base camp soon came into view. As did Khan Tengri and the mighty Pobeda Peak. We yelled a big ‘fuck you’ to the nasty German lady down the glacier. It had been a rough ride but we had made it. The camp was full of mountaineers, who had descended from the high peaks after the recent snowfall. We spent the afternoon wandering around the area. We took photos of the high peaks, the wreckage of two helicopters that missed their landing in days gone by, and supped a whisky with Uwe. Tomorrow we would soak up more of this magnificent scenery and fly out the next day.
We excitedly watched the giant Kyrgyz military helicopter fly in to drop off newbies and pick up departing mountaineers. We mentally yelled out ‘see you in a couple of days’ and retired to the mess tent to hang out with tens of mountaineers.
We wandered over to the separate Tien Shan Base Camp a couple of kilometers away to check on our Austrian buddies. They were in good spirits and we spent a fun afternoon with them eating fine Swiss chocolate and checking out the views. Ah, the views. This really is some of the finest mountain scenery in the world. Up there with the Annapurna Circuit, Everest/Gokyo, and K2 basecamp hikes.
Our tents for the night were tall, robust mountain tents with mattresses raised up above the ice on pallets. Not exactly luxurious but wonderful in the circumstances. We snuggled down to sleep.
Day 8: South Inylchek Base Camp. Snowed in.
‘Whoosh! It is warm in here’
‘Yup! Let me get some fresh air in here’
I could only see about five feet in front of me. The fog was all around and chilled me to the bone. Snow lay on the ground. Two feet deep. Maybe more. The tents were packed in close to each other and snow packed up between them. Maybe four feet deep. Snow covered the roof of the tent. It was warm in the tent because the thick layer of snow was insulating it.
Even after the events at Komsomolskiy, I was not prepared for this. This was scary. The snow was still falling too. I could hear avalanches roaring down slopes in the background.
Breakfast was stony silent. The mountaineers knew that their small climbing window was being rapidly reduced. Climbing ain’t cheap out here. I wasn’t going to mope around so I kept myself busy digging the tent out and clearing a safe path to the outhouse.
The only moments of fun were hanging out with Liliya and Vintik. The dog spent most of the time snuggled down in Liliya’s down jacket but once in awhile he came out to play. We would throw a ball across the snow and the short legged little beast hopped with great enthusiasm to try and get the ball. He got stuck often. Pretty funny… I guess you had to be there.
The only other fun on offer was the shower-cum-sauna. In typical Central Asian style, it was a mysterious process to book the sauna but Azamat came over to us when it was our turn. Or so we thought. We ended up having a dumb fight with a Russian dude, who was insistent we had taken his spot. I won. But, it was a shallow victory since I had to put up with his glares and shitty comments for the rest of the day.
There was no hiking today. The cloud cover was low and the snow intermittently fell. The helicopter flight out that day was cancelled.
Day 9: South Inylchek Base Camp. Last day… or so we thought.
Today we were meant to fly out on the helicopter, and the following day meet up with our buddies in Almaty. They had arranged hotels for us and a train to Kulan.
But, there was to be no flight today either. Overnight it had continued to snow. Maybe another two feet had fallen. Now, we were really scared. It was moderately comforting being stuck with 100+ mountain experts, but it has to be said that hanging out with frustrated high altitude mountaineers is not fun. They all have thousand yard stares and all they want to do is climb. Conversation is usually one way. Or, monosyllabic. It is a little unnerving when you are in a claustrophobic tent with a bunch of them.
We chatted with one Swiss climber, who managed to remain good humored despite the deteriorating conditions. He told us that he had been coming here on and off for over 20 years and he had never seen conditions like this before. At most, he recalls seeing a couple of inches of snow at this level at this time of year. It could be a freak storm. More likely, another stark warning that climate change is going to be making life difficult on Planet Earth.
I continued my hourly round of clearing away the snow from around the tents and toilets. But, emotions were fraught. We were now worried that we would miss the wedding if this continued. It was easy to lapse into more depressive mindsets too. What if this doesn’t stop? I didn’t really want to freeze or starve to death.
The food was beginning to grate too. There was less protein, the rice was poor quality, and more disturbing, there was less of it with every meal.
Laura had wished from the outset that she had brought more reading material. Now, she was really suffering without any goodly prose to distract her. There was a small book exchange in the dinner tent but none in languages that we could read. Mostly Russian. I think she should have packed some nail clippers too. “Stop cutting your nails with a pocket knife. It looks weird!”
Finally it was time to go to bed, but it wasn’t easy to sleep. Especially as we could hear the continuing snowfall and avalanches.
Day 10: Helicopter to Karkara.
We woke up early. Or, maybe we didn’t really sleep. There was no real change in the weather. If there was no helicopter today we would miss the wedding. We couldn’t get a message to our friends either so they would be worried.
The camp manager maintained a decent equilibrium despite being bombarded by questions all day. His crew was selling a lot of vodka too. The usual Russian fallback when shit hits the fan. A few of the mountaineers were getting upset though.
We were all kind of trapped. We couldn’t walk down the glacier since the snow was too deep. We couldn’t fly out. What to do? I didn’t really feel like vodka!
The day passed really slowly. Uwe and Azamat had become good buddies. Uwe helped Azamat with his English. Azamat really didn’t have a proper sleeping bag, or boots, or down jacket. Uwe promised to give him his boots and a bunch of other gear. Guides should not have to work without proper gear. This is a constant every time I have trekked in Asia.
The cloud was still low but in the afternoon rumors went around that the helicopter was on its way. Surely not. This is suicidal! A few quarrels broke out with people trying to muscle their way on to the flight list for the day. Azamat assured us we were on the list. We were highly skeptical but we figured we might as well be prepared so we packed our bags. The camp manager went up to the helipad to clear a new landing pad. The old one was five feet under snow.
We were still skeptical but after a few minutes, we were told to get ready. The camp manager moved into place to direct the helicopter in. This was really exciting. It felt like a scene from a crazy James Bond movie. And, then, nothing. The cloud suddenly dropped and the ‘rescue mission’ was abandoned. I don’t recall being more depressed anywhere. No wedding. No returning home. Shit, we are going to die here.
We took our bags back to the tent and slumped down. I really thought this was it. We will eat rancid rice for a day or two then slowly starve!
An hour later, Azamat rushed to the tent imploring us to go. Jeez… now the guide has altitude sickness! But, no, he was fully lucid and on a real mission. We struggled through the snow to the landing pad and waited.
‘Thud, ‘thud, thud’. And there it was: a huge helicopter breaking through the low cloud. We had to hunker down on the landing pad as the copter landed. It was utterly insane. The flying bird landed right on top of us. The noise of the rotors was insane and they whipped up nasty clouds of biting snow and ice. A few people lost their footing and slid down the snowy slope. Laura was filming and the draft knocked her off her feet. It was utter pandemonium. Like a scene from Apocalypse Now! Without the napalm. And, the tropical beach. Oh, for a tropical beach right now. Even with the napalm!
The helicopter doors flew open and out flew a watermelon. Then, another watermelon. Then a gas canister, a bag of rice, tons of potatoes, and mutton. Ah, so this is why they undertook such a risky mission. The camp was running out of supplies. Explains why the food had been so crappy recently.
Once the supplies were out, we all piled in. The pilot was a tough old Kyrgyz man. He looked like this was a mere school run. I liked him. More, I trusted him.
We sat on benches aligned along the side of the helicopter. There were no safety belts. No safety briefing. Our bags were tossed in a top more supplies. The take off was exhilarating. The cabin is not pressurized so we soon figured out we could open the windows and take a few videos. We were flying very close to the mountains and flying conditions were terrible. Visibility was negligible and the winds high. This was insane. Well, if we are going to die then I would rather it be in a spectacular crash than starving on a glacier.
We flew up Dikiy Glacier and hovered over the camp. A few hopeful Koreans gazed up but there was room for no more. We threw out some supplies. Then, headed off again. We repeated the supply run at Komsomolskiy. The visibility got better lower down the valley. Then, we whooped and hollered for joy as we took a hard right, swung out of the valley, and headed over the mountains. The flight was unbelievably scenic.
We eventually landed at Karkara Camp in a peaceful green jailoo with requisite yurts. The change in scenery and atmosphere could not have been more profound. We were shown to our plush yurts and went to the mess yurt to eat and drink to our hearts’ content. I think we even had a beer or two. I don’t think I have felt more relieved in my life. It was truly heavenly!
Azamat had a ride back to his hometown that night. We hugged him and thanked him for all his help. He was not the best mountain guide but he stuck with us and fought our corner for showers and that vital flight out. We were grateful on both accounts. We were happy and his tip was definitely beyond and above. But, we knew he was a good guy. He would be relieved to get back to his wife and kid, who we knew he had missed dearly for the whole trek. He is a poorly paid teacher and we wanted to make sure that he felt his trial of rock and ice had been worth it!!! He looked pleased enough!
Now, all we had to do was get our weary asses back to Almaty and, if our luck was in, get to that wedding on time.
Well, we did indeed get to the “church” on time. But, only just. The wedding party had already left Almaty when we got there. We managed to get a late bus to Kulan. Unfortunately, we turned up earlier than expected and were dropped at a place other than we had agreed with our friends. We didn’t have a cell phone either. We decided to hunker down for the rest of the night in the town center.
A drunk youth walked over to us and tried to persuade to stay at his place for the night. We were reluctant. He offered us a hot drink. A good guy after all. I gestured “cell phone at him” and gave him the paper with Assela’s number and name in Russian. Thank the Buddhas for small town life. He recognized Assela’s name since her mother taught him physics at school. Eric and Assela came over and soon we were relating this tale in a cosy yurt to an amazed and relieved group of family and friends. It was four a.m. The wedding was later that morning. The wedding was a whole other crazy tale but that can wait for another day!
You came here for hike inspiration, right? Should you do the Inylchek Glacier trek? Yes. It is a sublime trek. The best in Central Asia. Maybe one of the top five best treks in all Asia. Despite the crazy conditions we faced, I would still say it is a hike for well-prepared multi-day backpackers rather than one just for the expeditionists. But, come prepared for some unpredictable weather. To be honest, this is sound advice for anyone heading into the great outdoors anywhere in Central Asia these days.
You would be unlucky if you hit similar weather to us. But, bring an extra book, some nail clippers, and a few more snacks. You may need them! Oh, and go with Ak Sai agency. They had the best staff, they own all the tents in the area, and I was impressed by their guides.
Would I do this without a guide or travel agency? Hell, no. Having said that, if you are an experienced backcountry hiker with good navigating skills and some experience of glacier travel, then this should be possible. Route finding is not that tricky on the face of it. Walk up the valley. But it is deceptively difficult to find the right path to avoid dangerous river crossings, snow bridges, and impassable parts of the glacier. This is not a place to find out that your skills are lacking. It is remote and aside from the main base camp there are very few people around. This is not a teahouse trek in Nepal. There is no guarantee of getting food or a tent either. There are no supply centers en route a la Namche Bazaar. You must set out fully equipped for the entire route. As we found out on a subsequent Central Asian trip, picking up gear and supplies in Kyrgyzstan is difficult.
This is a trek for those who love the grand stark rugged scenery of the Nepal Himalaya but are willing to forego a few teahouse comforts. Unlike most Nepal treks, this is a true wilderness area. There are no villages or settlements for 200km. Be warned that this is not a casual trek. But unlike the famous treks in Nepal, there are very backpackers who make it out here. You will most likely be sharing this astonishing landscape in the company of five or six other very smug trekkers.
–> More hiking options can be found at trekking around Karakol.
This post was written by Laura & Paul and first appeared at their own website Designthinktravel, and is reproduced here with kind permission.