Asan (4230m) in the Kara-Su Valley of Kyrgyzstan’s Pamir-Alai, showing the line taken by brothers Mike and Andy Libecki in red and the seventeen-pitch rappel line they used to descend. Their line of ascent (VI 5.11 A2, twenty-one pitches, 3,000′) encountered signs of previous passage; they believe it to be a variation, one accomplished between bouts of illness that dogged them the entire trip. [Photo] Mike Libecki
Absolute, utter sickness is what this adventure was all about–in more ways than one. The aftereffects of eating local goat head and intestine were only the beginning of a theme that would dominate the entire journey. The value of a fully stocked first-aid kit filled with meds can never be underrated on an expedition into remote territory. From our four-day, thirty-mile approach to the end of our five-week expedition, I had to go through four series of them. If you’ve experienced such suffering in the wilderness, you know one of the worst cruxes possible for any climber.
As it usually does, this adventure all started with photographs. When an Austrian friend of mine showed me pictures of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tadjikistan, taken from a helicopter in the late 1980s, there was little else to be said. I had to have a look at these steep towers myself. While the images of Kyrgyzstan and Tadjikstan showed walls that already have a history of climbing, I could still see an amazing potential for new routes. The ones in Uzbekistan, however, had to be unclimbed. I immediately tracked down more maps, got out the magnifying glass, bought some tickets and packed my bags.
My main goal was to reconnoiter and–I hoped–to climb the granite formations in Uzbekistan. Kyrgyzstan would be the backup. In Uzbekistan, my brother, Andy, and I indeed saw valleys like those of the photos, with finger-like spires enfolded by snowy peaks. But with river crossings and bushwhacking it would have taken a few weeks just to get our gear to a base camp, and we had not allotted enough time. I still felt fortunate: this could be the object of a future adventure.
Proceeding with the backup plan, we headed to an area near the Karavshin in Kyrgyzstan, near the Tadjikistan border. While the beautiful landscape and local people fueled our enthusiasm and appreciation for life, our meals of boiled goat, horse milk and yogurt curds had another effect altogether. As we walked in our weakened state from sunrise to sunset, we scoped some enticing granite towers and slabs in two valleys near the Karavshin. Though, once we got up on a ridge that looked out on the “twins,” Asan (4230m) and Usen (4378m), we couldn’t resist the temptation: we set up base camp beneath the 3000-foot, sheer golden granite of Asan.
The first round of antibiotics had worked, or so it seemed. Yet when we started shuttling water to the base of Asan, the sickness found its way back. Our bodies became void of energy; all that kept us going was our psyche to get into the vertical world.
Nonetheless we gained some easy pitches to a big ledge about 800 feet up. That’s when the sickest part of the route itself began: four consistent offwidth ropelengths that challenged old skills forced upon me in Yosemite. Nothing better than an eighty-foot runout, as you walk a fully spread cam probably only good enough to hold itself.
Though my brother had jumared before, he’d never been on a wall as my sole climbing partner. While I led all the pitches, he belayed, cleaned, and dealt with hauling issues for the very first time. For someone unfamiliar with jumaring and cleaning horizontal pitches on an utterly remote wall, you can imagine the focus needed.
On two pitches we found ancient rivets and a couple of remnants that looked like hemp rope. Once we got higher on the route, we traversed out left to virgin splitters: some of the best 5.11 climbing I’ve experienced, as well as some basic A2 coral digging. Since we were moving slower than I’d hoped, we fixed six pitches. Although we appreciated a couple of rainy rest days, we still had at least 1,500 feet to gain the summit. We were running out of time. Furthermore, unlike any other of my expeditions, I wasn’t exactly sure how we’d get back to civilization, an uncertainty that weighed heavy in the back of my mind.
As we sat listening to the rhythm of raindrops on nylon, my brother shook a water bottle as though it were a snow globe, watching the black specs in it swirl. He suddenly shouted, “Mike, you gotta check this out!” Inside the bottle squirmed two, 8-millimeter worms with snail-like tentacles. We knew it would soon be time for another series of antibiotics.
Just before dawn we started our summit push, with only one liter of suspect water each. My brother’s optimism ruled over his pain, frustration and bloody hands. After twenty hours we found a nice ledge, ate two inches of summer sausage, proceeded to fetal position and shivered like cartoon characters until dawn. Ice formations filled the large voids in the gaping chimneys giving off an arctic chill. We made the summit just a few hours after the sun hit our faces, with a swallow of water each to spare. In total, our new variation had consisted of twenty-one pitches (5.11 A2, 3,000′).
We spent just five minutes on the summit boulder taking pictures in our Year of the Dog masks. I felt desperate to find a way down, since I knew we couldn’t rappel our route–too much risk of loose flakes and stuck ropes–and I was also aware that rappelling into unknown terrain could leave us stranded, without water, already dehydrated from our illness.
For the next twenty hours, I set up over seventeen rappels in a terrified trance, knowing that if the ropes got stuck, we’d be fucked. On the upside, our lack of food gave our digestive system a rest.
At the base of the mountain, we now had to cross the Tadjikistan border with locals we hadn’t met before. Before leaving to go into the mountains, we’d warned about one exact area, where locals had been shot and killed, and some German engineers had been kidnapped the year before. Before we knew what happened, we were left alone in this very same area. Our only conclusion was our Kyrgyz companion wanted to leave on his horse so not to be caught in the dark in this spot. We had no choice but to hide out in the bushes until dawn, hoping he planned to return with horses to take us to a village where someone had a car.
At three in the morning someone came walking toward our hideout and shone a light in our eyes. He sat down next to us and said nothing, apart from “Tadjik, Tadjik.” About an hour later, a tiny army jeep came puttering slowly down the road. Eight Kyrgyz soldiers and a family climbed out of the jeep.
Before leaving to the mountains on the start of our journey, we had our Russian contacts write down several notes in Kygryz and Russian. Fortunately, one of the notes we had them write said: we need to get to Bishkek. The jeep had arrived to take a Kyrgyz woman to the hospital. In the end, it would be her sickness that would result in our safe journey home.