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Kizil Asker (5842m) in the Western Kokshaal-too seen from the east. This shapely summit is the dominant peak toward the western end of a spectacular compact alpine range straddling the border of Kyrghyzstan and China. The left skyline is the south ridge, attempted in 2004 by a British pair. The upper section of the glaciated north face is clearly visible on the right. The lower section of the impressive rock walls forming the 1300-meter east face are partially hidden by the foreground ridge on Pik Panfilovski Division (5290m). The central, southeast, pillar forms the left edge of the east face, in front of and right of the snow ramps slanting up left to the south ridge. On September 14 a very strong Russian team led by Alexander Odintsov became the first to climb the huge rock wall on this side of the mountain. [Photo] Lindsay Griffin

On September 14 a powerful Russian team, part of the ongoing BASK-sponsored Russian Big Walls Project, reported making the highly coveted first ascent of the east or southeast face of Kizil Asker in the Western Kokshaal-too, one of the sub-ranges of the vast Tien Shan. This spectacular 5842-meter rock and ice pyramid of Kizil Asker (the Red Soldier) straddles the Kyrghyzstan-Chinese border and dominates the western sector of the range, where the rock is usually high quality granite. The five-man St. Petersburg team, led by the legendary Alexander Odintsov, included star climbers Mikhail Mikhailov and Alexander Ruchkin, the experienced Mikhail Bakin (a medical doctor), and Maxim Ignatenko. This was the ninth expedition that Odintsov has organized within the framework of the project, which has the explicit goal of completing first ascents of major big walls around the world (Read Odintsov’s “The Walls, The Walls” in Issue 19 for more about the Project). One of the most notable of these successes took place in the spring of 2004 when Mikhailov, Odintsov and Ruchkin took part in an expedition that successfully completed the historic first ascent of the true north face of Jannu (7710m) in the Nepal Himalaya. On that expedition the talented Odintsov was injured early in the proceedings, but Mikhailov and Ruchkin made the highest portaledge camp in history, spending several nights at 7400 meters before Mikhailov was forced down with pulmonary edema. Ruchkin summited, adding Jannu to a long list of prestigious ascents that include hard rock and ice routes in the Former Soviet Union, a repeat of No Siesta on the Grandes Jorasses, new routes on the Grand Capucin, Troll Wall (Norway) and Great Sail Peak (Baffin), and an attempt on the west face of Latok III.

The prominent feature of Kizil Asker’s southeast face is an elegant 1300-meter central pillar. To the right, the rock walls forming the east face are very steep but a little shorter, rising above an introductory hanging glacier. To the left, the face is not quite as steep and split by an impressive ice couloir that has formed an objective of desire for several teams. Unfortunately, the Western Kokshaal-too has something of a reputation for being climatically challenged: a couple of parties with designs on the pillar/face have never set on the route, while fickle conditions in the couloir have defeated other teams at around half-height.

One of the problems with making a “big wall” ascent of this face has been the long approach up the Komorova Glacier from the north, then over Window Col (4700m) and down the unnamed glacier on the far side to the foot of the wall. This time, unconfirmed reports suggest the climbers might have used a helicopter to ferry them close to the face. After making a couple of preliminary ascents in the area, the climbers appear to have taken around a week to make the climb during a fine spell of weather. They most likely benefited from Ruchkin’s previous experience here: a visit in 2002 had Kizil Asker as his main goal but Ruchkin arrived during October, the latest any expedition has tried to climb in the Western Kokshaal-too, and heavy snowfall prevented access to the peak.

Kizil Asker may have received three previous ascents, although only two of these are confirmed: the 1985 ascent of a 1500m big wall route on the west face to north ridge (Russian 6A), climbed during the competition era by Kasbek Valiev?s Kazakhstan team (a little to the left of the 1980 Popenko attempt) and the 2004 ascent by Pete Benson and Matt Halls via a couloir on the south side leading to the col between the mountain and Pik Panfilovski Division (5290m). From this col the pair was able to access the huge glaciated north face above the band of seracs that threatens the lower section. The 1200-meter route was completed in an eighteen-hour round trip, and most of the upper section of the north face was ascended and descended on skis. A mid- to late-1960s ascent also has been rumored, most likely via the north face.