5:15 AM, Friday, April 29, 2016.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP!!!
“Oh shut the…….$@#&! Wake up!”
I rifled through the blankets, struggling to find my phone in the dark to make that horrible noise go away. Having already hit the snooze button twice, I was running late. Lazily, I brushed my teeth, took a quick look in the fridge and opted for the banana sitting on the counter instead, grabbed my ski gear, kissed my girlfriend goodbye, and headed out the door. I ran across the street to take shelter under the bus stop, as the ferocious ever-changing wind was blowing rain in every direction. While dozing off under the bus stop roof, my phone started to ring and a Delica van drove by, loaded with skis on the roof. I jumped in and we set off to Ala Archa, a national park just outside of Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where the mountains rise up from the outskirts of the city to well over 4,000m elevation.
Already stuffed to the max with skis, boots, ski pants and jacket, helmet, skins, avalanche gear, harness, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc., somehow I still had to find space in my backpack for a giant bag of food. It seemed we had bought all of the heaviest items in the supermarket for a hiking trip, including loaves of dense bread, coca cola, raw meat, potatoes, enough candy to last a normal person a decade, and nearly half a pig’s worth of salo (Ukrainian pig fat that’s eaten with bread and vodka).
The weather wasn’t exactly inviting as we began the 18km (11mi) hike up to the snow, but we hoped that the rain would mean fresh powder at the top. Three kilometers in, a bridge had been washed away, meaning that we had to walk the first few kilometers off-trail so that we would be on the right side of the river after the lost bridge. This section consisted of large boulder fields separated by dense patches of trees. The “trail” between the boulder fields was extremely steep and muddy and required us to hunch over so that our skis would point forward and not get caught on low hanging tree branches.
By the time we finally reached the main trail, all of my clothes were completely soaked through and my shoulders were in such intense pain that I thought they might just fall off. I lightened my load a bit by drinking the Coca Cola that had so ridiculously been brought along but it didn’t make a noticeable difference. The next couple hours went by in a blur of rain, fog, shivering, and trying not to think about how much my shoulders hurt. A few cold and wet river crossings later, we arrived at the crumbling skeleton of an old weather station which provided refuge from the rain for several minutes. As we emerged from the one room which still had a roof, we were greeted by a very welcome sight, sun!
Onward and upward, the snow line appeared deceivingly close. My shoulders were still searing with pain but I ignored it by counting my steps to pass the time. I was immensely glad that I had been on the swim team as a teenager, as it taught me my physical limits and that it is possible to continue through intense muscle pain until the end. When my shoulders felt like they wouldn’t hold a backpack any more, I would think back to the feeling of a long-distance sprint workout and think “well at least this isn’t as bad as that was”. 7,335 steps later, I stopped, set down my bag, and ate a giant handful of snow. Made it!
Excitedly, I switched my hiking boots for ski boots and clipped the skins onto my skis to enable them to walk uphill. It wasn’t quite cold enough to warrant pants, so I opted for a ski jacket and shorts for the rest of the trek. Without ski boots or skis, my backpack felt like a pair of wings lifting me up the mountain.
False peak after false peak, the hut where we would sleep still hadn’t come into view. Past an abandoned bulldozer that someone had driven into a ditch and just left there, past numerous recent avalanches, up and up and up the trail continued into the fog. The sun was beginning to set and the precipitation had turned to somewhere between rain and snow, just at the point where it hurt when the wind blew it in my face but was still wet enough to soak through my jacket. Finally, after 10 hours on the trail, the hut came into view, backed by massive rocky and glaciated mountains. I immediately collapsed in a pile on one of the ancient beds inside and stuffed my face with salo, bread, and candy.
The hut was originally built by the Soviet Union several decades ago. Ala Archa used to be a ski resort where the USSR national team would practice in the summer, but when the USSR dissolved there was no more money or motivation to keep it open, so the lifts were dismantled and the hut was left unlocked. Minus some holes in the roof, the hut is still in pretty decent shape and even has some bunk beds left under intact sections of roof. There was still a snow base of about a meter around the hut which made the walk to the outhouse pretty inconvenient in the middle of the night.
The next morning we woke up to cloudy weather and wet snow–not the most optimal conditions–but we began the hike with hopes that the weather would change in the next couple hours. Big Ala Archa glacier began somewhere behind the hut but due to the deep snow base it was impossible to tell where was glacier and where was just snow. This glacier is supposedly crevasse-free, so we didn’t need to use ropes, just the usual avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, and helmet. Walking uphill on skis is much easier than using snowshoes or boots, but I always find myself wanting to go faster when I’m on skis, which led to being constantly out of breath at 4,000m elevation. Finally, we made it to the top of the ridge where the glacier originates, and were treated to an incredible view of further snowy ridges stretching towards the horizon. After a 5 minute break to remove the skins from our skis, set our bindings to ski mode, and rest our lungs, it was time to shred.
Due to the extremely avalanche-prone snow pack we weren’t able to go on any steep slopes that day, but it was still a nice ride back down to the hut in a beautiful place. Though the snow was certainly less than optimal, the amazing views and simply being in Kyrgyz mountains surrounded by glaciers made up for it. We got back to the hut around noon and the warm Spring weather meant that the snow was too wet for another ride. Being with a bunch of Russians, this situation left only one thing to do: drink vodka.
My new friends and ski companions consisted of 2 mountain guides, the director of a ski tour company, a university student, and another guy who I never actually learned much about. It was a really cool opportunity to ski with guides who had so much more experience than me, and to ski with them as a friend rather than as a client. They all spoke decent English, but of course the conversation was always in Russian so I didn’t understand a whole lot. The evening passed with a lot of eating, drinking, and sleeping, and we woke up the next morning to beautiful weather.
The second day of ski touring was much better than the first. Due to the more stable and dry snow in the morning, we were able to ski steeper and faster slopes. This day we went up Toktogul glacier, a less-explored area, so we used ropes and harnesses for the hike up to avoid death-by-crevasse.
The ride was, in three words, тоталлй фукинг охуенно. So awesome, in fact, that as soon as we reached the bottom we immediately put our skins back on and hiked up again for a second ride.
By the time we got down the second time, the snow was getting baked by the sun and was too wet to do another run. We went inside, and, like the previous day, ate and drank while I struggled to understand Russian.
Our plans to ski again the next morning were scrapped when we woke up to heavy rain, so instead we got an early start on the hike back down. The first couple of kilometers went by quickly, consisting mostly of skiing with only a few uphill sections. Carrying our skis on our backs the rest of the way wasn’t so bad, as walking downhill without the weight of the food made it much easier. We made it back to the car in half the time it took to hike up, having opted to ford the river at the site of the washed out bridge rather than scrambling over the scree/boulder fields.
The drive back to Bishkek included an unexpected stop at one of the guys’ friend’s house. For a couple of hours, I stood around wondering what we were doing at this house, until someone waved us in and presented the giant feast laid out on the table. Apparently it was orthodox Easter, a holiday on which Russians like to eat a lot and drink even more. It was incredible–ashlan foo (Kyrgyz sour noodle soup), plov (Uzbek rice and meat cooked in sheep lard), cake, holodyets (meat jello), and of course ample amounts of vodka. Plate after plate of food and shot after shot of vodka, it seemed like the meal would never end. After the third bottle of vodka was finished, someone brought chacha (Georgian moonshine) out of the closet, served from a plastic water bottle in true Georgian style. I had vowed never to drink chacha again after witnessing it’s liver-destroying potential in Georgia, but here I was faced with the decision of breaking my vow or greatly offending the people who were nice enough to feed me and take me skiing. I drank the chacha, and eventually left the party full, drunk, and exhausted, but stoked about an amazing ski touring trip in Kyrgyzstan of all places and the fact that I had just eaten meat jello.