How to Climb an Unclimbed Mountain in Kyrgyzstan
International Mountain Leader, Jen Roberts, takes us through the process of exactly how to plan a trip into the unknown
After five years of procrastination and pandemics my team, The Monstrous Regiment, are finally heading to Kyrgyzstan. We will venture into a valley nobody has visited before and try to climb some peaks that no one has ever attempted. It’s an enticing prospect in a world that seems to feel smaller and smaller: to actually explore. How did we get to this point after five years? More importantly: how could you plan and execute your own expedition to climb an unclimbed mountain?
1. Choose an Objective
It may seem obvious, but first you need to have a goal, a purpose. For us it was initially to climb some mountains that nobody had ever climbed before. Personally, I had done this in Greenland, back in 2017, as part of the British Stauning Alps Expedition. It was a month long self-supported ski expedition and, in addition to research into the ice sheet, we made two first ascents.
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The concept of going somewhere unexplored is enticing. It doesn't have to be a summit - just make sure your objective excites you, because you'll be researching it (and living it) for a while! We knew we wanted to complete some first ascents, and Kyrgyzstan was a place on many people's lips at the time, as a place with huge swathes of mountains that hadn't been tackled. So we put the two together.
Finding The Team
At the same time as I was thinking about potential objectives, I started to think about the people I would like to be part of the team. This can really affect your plans. Perhaps you already have some people in mind, members of a club or friends that you tend to go on adventures with? The team I put together originally was made up of colleagues and friends who were outdoor instructors. I chose them because they are familiar with being outdoors in challenging environments and they have the technical skills to be safe - not to mention they were all lovely people.
Life does have a habit of getting in the way though - for us it was injuries and work commitments - and over the development of this project, the team has changed three times. As the team evolved, so did our objectives. We realised that climbing some new peaks would be an adventure, but sharing our remote living skills and combined experience within this new team would be another great objective. So now we have both exploration and education as our objectives.
2. Research your Mountains
The more you do, the better prepared you will be!
We took a fairly methodical approach to this because we had to narrow down everything from the entire country, to a region and eventually a specific valley. Our first job was to choose a region. We consulted the guidebook Mountaineering Regions of Kyrgyzstan by Vladimir Komissarov, an essential resource highlighting Kyrgyzstan’s many mountain ranges, and their key features. We simultaneously consulted ITMC, a logistics company based in Bishkek, to ask about regions they knew had potential for first ascents. Local logistics companies are a fantastic source of information, as well as providing physical resources to help your expedition run smoothly on the ground.
The Zaalay range stood out for its altitude, climate and lack of expeditions. So we then consulted Issue 37 of the Asian Alpine E-News, which included hand drawn maps of the Zaalay region, detailing climbed and unclimbed peaks for the entire range.
Next came the ‘fun’ part. We plotted each of the peaks on Google Earth, providing a picture of the potential for first ascents for the entire Zaalay range. This was painstaking work as the hand drawn maps often had to be matched using glaciers and other topographical features. There was a lot of cross-referencing.
The ‘maps’ also only showed small sections and were not in any specific order, needing to be pieced together like a strange patchwork of doodles. In some ways we have to thank the global pandemic, because plotting individual summits into Google Earth based on hand drawn maps is incredibly time consuming. At least back in 2020 we had a lot of time!
We now had a clearer picture of what had and hadn’t been climbed but this was only from one source. We then trawled the internet, trying to find trip reports from teams relating to the areas that interested us. We consulted reports from places such as the Royal Geographical Society, American Alpine Journal and the BMC.
Remember expedition reports won’t always be in English. We knew Russian teams, among others, had been completing expeditions in Kyrgyzstan. So we translated our search criteria into other languages to see what we could find. We were glad we were thorough because we found some peaks that weren’t mentioned in the original document. While you are reading these reports, it is also good to make a note of any tips or tricks that the teams learnt from their expeditions which might make your expedition a little easier.
The research didn’t stop there though
We selected four potential areas and researched logistics for vehicle/foot access and the potential for a base camp. We read a variety of expedition reports and journal articles relating to these areas. However, few groups had visited this part of the Zaalay mountains and none had attempted to enter our first-choice valley. There were three expeditions that had been close, so it was time to chat to their expedition leaders, albeit virtually because, well, pandemic.
We dusted off our very rusty school French, aided by Google translate, and fired off some other emails (thankfully in English) to request images from their expeditions, which could include more detail than Google Earth. We received replies from the two non-commercial expeditions and were astonished at how helpful their leaders were, providing photos and reports and a range of resources to help us. You really get a sense of how fantastic the exploration and expedition community is in moments like this, sharing their time and resources and really wanting you to succeed.
3. Find Funding
Once you have an outline plan in place, it’s time to start applying for some funding. Funding can be the difference between a comfortable expedition and a stressful expedition, so get searching the internet for grants and awards relevant for the kind of expedition you want to complete. There are more than you think, and I have heard that very often they don’t get enough applications so have a lovely pot of money waiting for you.
“get searching the internet for grants and awards relevant for the kind of expedition you want to complete”
Completing these application forms can take a long time and they all have different deadlines - some are very rigid, others less so. Although very often they want similar kinds of information, so once you have done one detailed application you can cannibalise it for other applications, tweaking the information depending on how they ask the question. Don’t be disheartened if you aren’t awarded everything. But when you are successful you’ll need a bank account to deposit the money into, so don’t forget to set this up. If your funding goals are still running a little short of your target you could consider crowdfunding and using your social media to promote your financial goal. You may need to offer incentives, so get creative!
Sponsorship in Kind
There is also the possibility of sponsorship. I wrote a document as part of an application for an award which never amounted to anything. But since it was a generic document in a fairly engaging tone, we also sent it to some gear companies to introduce them to our project and see if they would provide us with some equipment. We were very lucky that Mountain Equipment decided our team’s adventure was worth some shiny new kit. Never be afraid to ask, you never know where it might get you.
One final thing on this topic is that unless you see the kit in front of you, don’t pin your hopes on it. We had been promised some items fairly early on in the process but as time wore on they never materialised. That left us rushing to arrange replacements with less than six weeks to go. Always have a back up plan for any kit that is being arranged by someone else!
4. Plan the Logistics
Once you know where you are going and have a little funding behind you, that’s when the real work begins. Be under no illusions, planning an expedition like this can feel like a part time job at some points. You need to have time to sit down and consider lots of different elements, so don’t be afraid to delegate at this point. Asking your team mates for help will reduce your overall workload while ensuring everyone is engaged in an area of the planning. This also tied in nicely with the aim of our expedition being about skill sharing.
We communicated via WhatsApp regularly, ramping up massively as our departure date loomed. We created a Google Drive with folders for everything and ensured everyone in the team could access it for full visibility. If, like me, you love a good spreadsheet you’ll love planning an expedition. We created an Expedition Planner with various tabs for travel, medical supplies and an equipment list with weights to help work out our baggage allowances.
Luckily many countries have logistics companies who can help with the in-country arrangements for a fee. They can usually arrange transport, help find accommodation, provide items that you cannot take past customs or on flights - and also be a fabulous source of local information. Things to consider include:
More importantly, your baggage allowance. How much are you going to be taking in terms of personal kit and mountaineering kit? If your flights aren’t direct then additional luggage will be charged per flight so think about this. How light can you pack?
How will you get from the airport to your particular objectives? If you are taking overland transport, how long does it take and will you need to stop over on the journey? Will you therefore need to arrange accommodation? In Kyrgyzstan, you sometimes need off-road vehicles to reach the remoter areas.
You never want to be hungry and you want to enjoy what you eat, so make sure you have food that is full of flavour. Oat cakes and mixed nuts were out! Think about the protein and calorie content. Will you have easy access to a base camp, where staff could cook for you? Or will you be more remote and carrying your food to your chosen objectives? Can you buy items at local markets so you don’t need to take food in your luggage? Food weight has been a big issue for our expedition.
You need to make sure that all the standard aspects of travelling are covered, in addition to your chosen activities. Does the insurance cover remote rescue and repatriation? Do you need to register with your country’s mountain rescue service?
5. Think about Safety
It goes without saying that if you are planning to go on a remote expedition you need to have the skills and knowledge to complete your objectives safely. Training trips are a great way to ensure your team is well prepared in this respect. You also need to ensure you have the correct equipment.
Have a couple of different methods of communication, such as a satellite phone and an EPIRB. If there is an emergency then you need to have a communication plan in place with a clear procedure to follow. Ensure your whole team understands this procedure. You could even have it printed and laminated for everyone to carry. We decided to have a UK-based team mate to help with these procedures, contacting our insurance company and coordinating with the mountain rescue service if required. Check your insurance company’s requirements if there is an issue.
Now tell the World
Finally, don’t forget to shout about your exploits to anyone and everyone that will hear about them. Set up a social media presence for the team and get people excited about what you are doing. Normalise women going to remote places and doing awesome stuff.
I realise that writing about this in a linear style looks like it is simply step-by-step, but very often everything overlapped. This expedition was a steep learning curve for me: I realised how difficult it can be to manage a team. I also feel a huge amount of pressure to bring everyone back safely. The weight of things hangs heavy sometimes, so prepare for a few sleepless nights.
Jennifer Roberts worked as a Marketing Manager for ten years before having a ‘lightbulb moment’ – selling her house, buying a van and moving to the mountains. She retrained as an outdoor instructor and that serendipitous career change has taken her to many corners of the world. Jen is now a qualified International Mountain Leader and has also worked as an Expedition Leader and Glacier Guide. She is based in sunny south Manchester (which might explain why she likes to travel).
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