Is there any place in the world you’d rather be during the Apocalypse?
A friend had made the comment a year previously.
These days it’s on repeat in my head anytime we are hanging out in front of the yurt at night. I know how good the scene is inside: the wood stove is raging and it’s approaching +25C, couple of chocolate bars out on the table, a few guys may be knocked out – exhausted from the day – and already in their sleeping bags, the rest are pouring cognac tea and throwing a bit of Yahtzee. My fingers, nose and toes are frozen solid, but I’m not going in quite yet, because, well, it’s insanely gorgeous out here. Especially at night. Spread across the valley below us are dozens of constellations, each demarcating a village of a thousand households, maybe more. That, at the head of the valley, is Ichke-Jergez, our partner village. The one to the left is Konstantinovka. The small one out there, that’s Shapak. Were it not for the huge stretch of mountains at the opposite side of the valley, the shimmering village lights would blend together almost seamlessly with the night sky. Actually no, the sky is a gazillion times brighter. Look up, the Milky Way is on fire right now! And check out the brightest one over there: Jupiter! Maybe there is no place I’d rather be.
Had I still been star gazing outside I’m sure I would have seen sparks fly from the chimney. Boot liners and globs of clothing and gear hang from the lattice walls of the yurt, drying out ahead of our early morning departure. Maybe there is no place I’d rather be.
We are in a remote corner of Kyrgyzstan. 1.5 hours by car, 22 hours by plane, another 7.5 hours by car, and either a 1.5 hour horse ride or 2.5 hour splitboard tour from my home in Colorado. It’s remarkable here, and with five consecutive winters under my belt, I alternate between phases of feeling totally at home, and so far away. China’s Xinjiang Province is to our south and east. Almaty Province, Kazakhstan is to the north. Mountains: everywhere. Terskey is the namesake for the range we are in. In Kyrgyz it means dark or shaded. Directly across the valley from the Terskey-Alatoo is the Kungey, meaning bright or sunny, -Alatoo. Khan Tengri (7010m) and Pik Pobeda (7439m) aren’t far to our south/southeast. Throw in the second largest alpine lake in the world, Issyk-Kul, and BAM: a paradise in its own right…with decent (lake-effect!) snowfall despite being located farthest from any ocean in the world.
Ryan Koupal/40 Tribes
It’s the 14th of February, nighttime. Here, at 2650m and not far from the pole of the Eurasian continent, it’s cold – probably -15-20C. My face could use a good thaw, plus it’s getting late for yurt life (9pm) and we have big plans the next day. My sleeping bag is calling. Inside the others have all crashed out, spread around the floor of the yurt as if having carved out their own piece of the pie. Heads out, feet in. Someone is snoring. The Soviet-era tea kettle I had earlier filled with snowmelt water sounds like it’s nearing boil atop the wood stove. The fire cracks and pops. Had I still been star gazing outside I’m sure I would have seen sparks fly from the chimney. Boot liners and globs of clothing and gear hang from the lattice walls of the yurt, drying out ahead of our early morning departure. Maybe there is no place I’d rather be.Touring in the remote mountains of Kyrgyzstan inherently equals first descents. New lines, new ways of approaching lines, new tours that link a bunch of lines together.
We inquire with the locals about the names of the peaks we are exploring. More often than not, they respond with the name of the pasture, or jailoo, at the base of the peak, where families take their yurts and animals for epic grazing sessions each summer. Kyzyl-Tash, Alpay-Tur, Kyzyl-Monyok, Kerege-Tash. Each zone has its prime objectives, and our goal for the day is a new line in a zone called Kara-Zo. We actually just found out about the purported name, Kara-Zo, this year. It means black rocks, and seems to make sense.
Before that we had simply been calling it The Gamburger Stand, named after the delicious Kyrgyz fast food treat: the, you guessed it, gamburger. It’s not the mightiest peak in the world at no higher than 3600m, but it is super aesthetic and offers steeps, chutes, fins, big aprons, and the whole big mountain scenario, especially in Chugachistan, the never-before-ridden east face. As we are reminded via a nice morning approach, just getting to Kara-Zo is a huge part of the appeal. Like the peak, it’s not the mightiest of approaches, but remarkable, a bit exposed in places, and lot of fun, with a good mix of touring, simple boot packing, and finally a more technical ridge traverse to finish off. The tour or walk across the saddle at 3450m affords big views of the north face of the peak.After the initial rush of scoping potential lines, the traverse gets a bit gnarlier with some skinning around the back side of one peak (moderate exposure, lot of rocks), then you strap your board to your pack and it’s a mix of kicking steps, scrambling, and occasionally some tunneling along the west ridge. One of the great things about the ridge is the constant view of the mountain with the coolest name on earth, the Matterhorn’s Kyrgyz brother: Tashtanbek Tur Bashi (4463m). The other great thing is that as soon as you get on the west ridge, it’s pretty much pick your pleasure! Drop in low, go for the summit, or go for Chugachistan.
We all shared the same two thoughts: 1. Looks like this face might ski pretty well!, and 2. The friggin’ cornice looks like a meteor! Awesome to watch and great to see that stability may just be on our side
Ryan Koupal/40 Tribes
Ryan Koupal/40 Tribes
The next day, February 15, at 9:20 in the morning, a meteor with an estimated speed of 18km/second and initial mass of 11,000 tons entered the earth’s atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia
Chugachistan wasn’t in the cards for us that day, but there were plenty of other firsts to choose from. We bypassed the Izzy Vibes zone (first skied in 2012). Then Meat Cake (skied and named later in the 2013 season). Tunneling up from the back side of the ridge, we found ourselves on top of a face that we had been eying from the saddle. Beauty! We had to pick around a bit to figure out how to get down into it, but first decided to take advantage of the cornices that were clinging to the rock amphitheater above the face. It was the perfect opportunity to drop one in order to get a sense of possible slope stability so we started sawing away with our poles, freeing up a pretty large chunk. It barreled down slope, taking with it nothing more than the expected slough. The thing was huge! As it came to a stop at the bottom of the face – mostly intact and enshrouded in a cloud of white smoke – we all shared the same two thoughts: 1. Looks like this face might ski pretty well!, and 2. The friggin’ cornice looks like a meteor! Awesome to watch and great to see that stability may just be on our side, but with an entire ridgeline of options ahead of us, we decided to push on. We’d be back for Asteroid another day.
Our ultimate line of choice that day may not have been the gnarliest line on the face, but choice nonetheless. By the time we were ready to drop, the afternoon sun was scraping across the face, catching the top half and very bottom of our selected line. High speed turns sent snow flying up against the rock fins to the rider’s right. The last to drop, I enjoyed watching each rider as they sent it through the wide open middle section, increasingly getting smaller and smaller, and finally brighter and brighter as they straightlined it out into the basin. Space theme was in full effect that day when it came to naming lines. We called it Jupiter, the brightest one out there.The next day, February 15, at 9:20 in the morning, a meteor with an estimated speed of 18km/second and initial mass of 11,000 tons entered the earth’s atmosphere above Chelyabinsk, Russia, not terribly far to our north. True story. It wasn’t the end of the world, but had it been, we were definitely in the right place, doing the right things, and clearly thinking of the right names.
Ryan Koupal is the Founder/Director and Chief Splitboarder of 40 Tribes Backcountry (www.40tribesbackcountry.com), which offers guided and self-guided tours, avalanche courses, and snowboard mountaineering courses based out of a traditional yurt in Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan Mountains. Join them for their first-ever splitfest, a splitboard-only guided week planned for February or March 2014: firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Ryan Koupal/40 Tribes
Elena González de Murillo