KAZAKHSTAN - The Marble Wall and Khan Tengri Traverse

August 2011


All content copyright © Ashley Burke 2011. Not to be copied, duplicated or used for any purpose without permission.


View of Khan Tengri from Marble Wall




Regional Map

Locality Map

Topographic Map of Climbing Route

My Letter From Kazakhstan

The Diary



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This was the mountaineering experience of a lifetime. This was the Tian Shan mountains of Kazakhstan. Not the familiar mountains of Australia, Europe or New Zealand. Not even the friendly and popular mountains of the Nepal Himalaya. This was Kazakhstan. A former Soviet state, now an independent country but retaining a distinctly Russian character. A country of vast and wild mountain ranges, home to the most northerly 7000m peaks on the planet. The Tian Shan mountain range in the far east of the country is relatively rarely visited by westerners and access to ths mountain wilderness is only possible by means of an awesome flight by Russian built Mi-17 helicopter. In August 2011 I ventured alone into this place. The entire trip had been organised purely by email and I went there to do an alpine crossing that had rarely been done by foreigners. I travelled to Kazakhstan where I was met by my mountain guide who led me on this adventurous route across the mountains. After completing this alpine traverse and climbing a 6100m peak called Marble Wall, and after much ordeal at the limit of my experience, we finally reached the North Inylchek Base Camp. For two months of every year this base camp serves as the base camp for mountaineering ascents of Khan Tengri, a beautiful 6995m peak in the heart of the Tian Shan mountain range. After two rest days at this camp I made an attempt on the summit of Khan Tengri. Then another incredible helicopter ride took me out of the mountains and back to civilization.

I survived the trip, but only after an amazing series of adventures that pushed me to the limits of my climbing ability and endurance. It was one of my life's great adventures.


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Spreading northwards from the western end of the greater Himalaya into the former Soviet states is a vast area of wild mountains - the Pamirs, the second highest mountain range on Earth. The greater Pamirs occupy 5 countries - Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, parts of Uzbekistan, western China and the far southeast corner of Kazakhstan. The Tian Shan mountains are an arm of the greater Pamirs, stretching across northern Kyrgyzstan and into western China. My journey approached these mountains from the south easternmost tip of Kazakhstan.

Click on a map thumbnail below to open a larger image in a separate window:

Regional Map showing the region and surrounding countries.
Locality Map showing the Tian Shan mountains at a larger scale.
Topographic Map of Climbing Route detailed relief map showing the route of my alpine traverse across Marble Wall and up Khan Tengri.


My Letter From Kazakhstan

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We live in an age of mobile phones and portable electronics. Nevertheless there was no mobile phone coverage anywhere near the mountains where I spent these 4 weeks climbing. Yet upon reaching the North Inylchek Base Camp after 12 days of lonely and demanding mountaineering, where my only company was two local guides who spoke only Kazakh and Russian, I began to write. I tried to capture in an email my experiences of the past 2 weeks. The email could not be sent until a week later once I returned to Almaty, but I wrote it anyway while the experience was still fresh in my mind. I have copied this email here as it best describes the experience. One day I will write a book about it, but for now, this email will do.

Hi everyone,

I'm back – alive – from a mountaineering trip in the Tian Shan mountains of Kazakhstan. It was an all-time epic experience. It is hard to encapsulate it in a few lines and I reckon I could write a book about it. It was absolutely at the edge of adventure, survival, physical, mental and emotional limits, the most harrowing, difficult, draining, suffering and enduring adventure yet. Yet I have no regrets. Few, if anyone, have done what I have over the last few weeks.

In case you're interested or for those who haven't already heard the story several times, here is a brief overview …

It started with a helicopter ride into the mountains that dropped me and my 2 guides into the absolute middle of nowhere, probably one of the wildest places on Earth. Just the 3 of us were dropped in a remote glacial valley, and a look up to the head of this valley showed the task ahead. The task was to cross within 10 days the mountains and glaciers that soared into the clouds ahead of us and reach the remote outpost of Khan Tengri Base Camp. At this base camp would be people, tents, and food, our resuscitation. But we had to get there ...

and ... neither of my guides spoke any English...

and ... neither of my guides had done this route before...

and ... there were no maps, just a few photos, and my one page itinerary that showed what I was supposed to do over these next 10 days ... and a few notes scrabbled in Russian by the boss back at the base where the helicopter came from.

And this is Russia ... ie: what are you worried about?

Well it took a few days to reach a camp at about 4500m, things were already tough. I had brought my own food but my guides took over all food matters and some of my food was wasted or ruined and the remainder was combined with theirs..... well food was only one of the hardships, after all, seasoned pig fat (salo) on stale biscuits is very high in calories...

We ascended to a camp at 5000m and another at 5500m and finally one at about 5900m, all in all I spent 8 consecutive days above 5000m enduring cold wind, bad weather and a cramped tent with these 2 guys who smell awful and press against you in grimy sleeping bags .....

So, already weakened with hunger and the results of spoilt and messed up food and altitude and weather difficulties we climbed our first peak, Marble Wall. It was a gigantic effort for me, against the odds of empty stomach, cold blasting wind and the steepness and challenging nature of the terrain. Back from the summit to our hard windswept camp at 6000m and another night of barely any food.....

We must get to base camp by tomorrow they said, because our gas and food would run out ... but ... the route was unknown except via those few photos and route notes, and the glaciers had changed everything since these photos and notes were written .....

Down the glacier we went, abseiling overhung ice cliffs smashing huge icicles as we swung on a rope under the giant jaws of an overhang ...

After wandering the glacier in fog and snow for hours, perilously steep, we were trapped and forced to camp on the glacier, 1 night overdue. Our food and gas were now almost gone and you need the gas to melt snow for tea or else you face dehydration... so just tea and biscuits that night ...

Next day we explored the glacier once more, had to cross onto a ridge but to do that you had to cross a maze of yawning ice formations, perilous! Imagine the Lord of the Rings and the wandering through the mines of Moria with danger everywhere, only this was 5000m up, it was foggy and snowing, you won't believe how dangerous the steep ice formations were that we climbed through, roped up, to get to the ridge...

And the ridge! A delicate contusion of ice cliffs, razor blade ice ridge, seracs, crevasses, overhung ice cliffs, like ice cream delicately frozen and poised to collapse at an instant ... they wanted me to traverse this ridge because their notes said there was a way off the end and I progressed along this ridge for a time until I refused to go any further, it was too dangerous and I knew from the photos there was no better way off the end of the ridge anyway...

So we abseiled off the side of the ridge down a 50 degree ice slope.... there was I clinging for dear life to an ice screw or sling on the side of this steep ridge with hundreds and hundreds of metres to fall .....

We abseiled and abseiled and abseiled ..... maybe 30m at a time ..... it grew dark and bitterly cold. The day had ended and the sun had set, we had eaten nothing all day, just a few biscuits at breakfast, only adrenaline could keep us going now. It was pitch dark now, still we abseiled. Avalanches started and we clung to a single ice screw tapped into the mountain side as tonnes of snow thundered over us in the dark ...

We kept abseiling ...

At last we reached the bottom and the waist deep snow at the head of the glacier, it was well after 10:30pm and savagely cold, by the time we got the tent up and inside it was after midnight...

Nothing to eat except luke warm tea, sweets and biscuits, in our sleeping bags by about 2am, crushed between these 2 bodies. 2 nights overdue now.

Up next morning, all gas and food gone. A cold morning began a hot sunny day. Slogging through thigh deep snow down the glacier aiming for the base camp ... It took all day, yes all day ... clambering up and down over ice and rock, I couldn't believe how far we still had to go, I was so weak and spent. Hour by hour I just kept going .....

Finally at about 5pm people came up the glacier from base camp to meet us bringing food ... We were saved! 20 minutes later I arrived at base camp to my own tent with an Australian flag on it .....

2 rest days spent eating, writing, and enjoying a spell in the Russian sauna ... my first English speaking company for 2 weeks.

Then ..... An attempt on the 7000m high massif of Khan Tengri, can you believe it???

So ... up to Camp 1 on day 1 and the tent unexpectedly was only a small 2 person tent so I had to jam pack myself in there with these 2 guys, it was claustrophobic to say the least and back to the routine of their mountain food...

Up to Camp 2 the next day, awesome climbing up a steep and amazing ridge that just went up and up and up ... ropes were fixed all the way and we scaled these using jumars. Amazing ...

Then on Day 3 we climbed over a 6200m peak called Chapaev and reached Camp 3 in a high saddle ... another night in a tiny 2 person tent for 3 people.

Finally Day 4 and summit day. Up and up more fixed ropes and getting steeper now ...

By now you may be getting the picture, after weeks of ordeal and hunger and body sapping effort here I was at 6400m struggling to climb this steep rocky ridge to the summit of Khan Tengri...well there was 1 rope too far, a frayed rope with no sheath dangled down a ragged overhung section of cliff and I was to climb it ... but ...

My strength had gone and so had a lot of my mental energy. I attached my jumar and hauled myself up but I couldn't do it and fell back ... this was as far as I could go and would be the limit for me .....

Back to Camp 3, stunning sunset, breathtaking majesty of the Tian Shan mountains, the cloud and the light glorifying the arêtes in perfection ...

Another miserable night like a sardine in this tent with these 2 guys.

Then down down down all the way to base camp in one gargantuan huge day of shinnying down the fixed ropes, you can't abseil these ropes because they are too frozen, too tight, too many knots in them, and in many cases the sheath missing ...

So just on dark on the last night I arrived back at base camp to a rousing welcome and hearty food and vodka and I was allowed to lead a round in Russian tradition.

And a day later the last helicopter flew out, nothing left of Khan Tengri Base Camp except a pile of wood, tent poles, discarded gas cylinders ..... these will freeze into the glacier until next year.

So you see I COULD write a book about this adventure, this email just scratches the surface...

Just thought you might enjoy the read

Off to India in 2 weeks!!


The Diary

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Here is what happened day by day. The links will take you to the relevant photos.

Date Comments
30 Jul 2011 Flew from Sydney to Almaty via Guangzhou and Urumqi. I was met at the airport late at night and taken to a hotel in Almaty.
31 Jul 2011 Bought 2 weeks' food for the mountain in Almaty. Was met by Kazbek, the director of the mountaineering outfit in Almaty. He drove me and two British guys to Karkara base camp, at the edge of the Tian Shan mountains.
1 Aug 2011 Cold and wet morning at Karkara base camp, but the weather improved. An awesome helicopter flight deep into the mountains. Was dropped in the middle of nowhere with my 2 guides who spoke virtually no English. We took a load of gear up a glacier after crossing a freezing cold glacial torrent. Then we returned to our tent at the helicopter dropoff point and camped - 3200m.
2 Aug 2011 Advanced with our tent and all remaining gear up the glacial morraine once more, and setup our tent at the spot where we'd deposited some gear the day before. Then we portaged a load of gear to a point on a ridge at 4285m. Very loose, slippery, steep and dangerous ground, the guides were obviously not following the most suitable route up Marble Wall, and they were following the side of the ridge rather than the ridge itself. After stashing some gear on the ridge we returned to our uncomfortable camp on rubble at 3600m.
3 Aug 2011 At my insistence we chose a better route up the ridge today, carrying all our remaining gear up the ridge to the spot where we'd deposited some gear the day before. We then continued a little further along the ridge and setup camp in the early afternoon at 4320m. One short steep snow slope had to be climbed to reach here. Altitude headache.
4 Aug 2011 Alarms went at 4:30am and we were off at around 6am. In fine weather we took a load of gear up to 5200m. All the climbing was on snow slopes and glacier. Superb climbing. Altitude headache has gone. Great views. Stashed the load of gear and then returned to our tent at 4320m. Starving hungry. Nothing much to eat today.
5 Aug 2011 Alarms went at 5am and we set off from Camp 1 at around 6:45am. We packed up and advanced the expedition to the spot where we'd deposited some gear the day before. After setting up the tent in this exposed place we then portaged some equipment further up the slope to an altitude of 5450m. Then in worsening weather we returned to our tent at 5160m. A very uncomfortable night was spent in high wind in this very exposed position. It was very cold and the tent was getting hammered. The food that evening did not agree with me, making the situation even less comfortable.
6 Aug 2011 Luckily the tent survived a night of raging wind. We had to sit out the bad weather until 10am whereupon we had some more disagreeable food which led to a toilet catastrophe. We packed up in the cold windy weather and carrying all our gear, returned to the cache of food that we had left at 5450m. From here we advanced, carrying everything, to 5500m. This was the first day of the trip where we carried everything with us in the one load, rather than carrying a stash up to a point and then returning for the remaining gear. At 5500m a rock step blocked our way and some very steep exposed climbing lay ahead. Serious communication issues and confusion between myself and my guides ensued, the language barrier presenting a major problem in working out what we were supposed to be doing. After a lot of confusion and altercation we abseiled back down from the base of the rock bluff to a point where the tent could be pitched. We dug in the tent at about 5500m in worsening weather. I am feeling very weak and malnourished.
7 Aug 2011 Our alarms woke us at 5am after a night of fitful sleep in this very cramped tent. We slowly packed up, everything is an effort at this altitude. I am not eating enough to replace calories burnt. It is very cold and windy. For some absurd reason that they were unable to communicate, we left the tent and gear and climbed back up the steep rocky step. I was unable to convince them that we needed to carry everything with us until we had reached the top of the ridge above this rocky rib. Altercations followed to no avail. Great effort was wasted climbing up these steep pitches in unpleasant weather and high wind. We finally reached the top of the ridge to gain views of the Marble Wall summit and Khan Tengri. My guides must have realised the mistake of coming up here without all our gear, because now we returned down the steep pitches to our tent at 5500m and stayed there. I am now utterly exhausted and desperately hungry. Again I am unable to sleep properly in these cramped conditions. It is very cold.
8 Aug 2011 Finally the wind had dropped. A lot of snow had fallen overnight. Everything was frozen. We packed up slowly. For the 3rd time we climbed to the crevice below the rock rib only this time we were carrying everything with us. Our 70m rope was setup as a fixed rope up part of the steep section so it could now be climbed with the aid of a jumar. This was better, and finally we and all our gear completed the ascent of the steep rocky section. But I am very weak and very breathless. We reached an exposed spot at 5680m and setup camp. The wind picked up again and it started snowing again. It is cold with snow building up everywhere and getting into the tent. Wind and snow is raging all about as I write my diary tonight.
9 Aug 2011 A terrible night's sleep in a roaring gale and again the tent was awfully cramped for space. I finally got to sleep, but they woke me up at 5am and then just laid there for an hour doing nothing. Finally at 10:30 we set off for the summit of Marble Wall, leaving our tent up. It was cold and windy and I was weak. I had little expectation of summit success. Again the guides chose a poor route on the steep and exposed side of the ridge rather than keeping to the ridge crest itself. I found it very hard in my weakened state. Pushing myself to my limit I finally reached the summit of Marble Wall at 6100m. Stunning views of Khan Tengri. The return trip to our tent was again via a dubious sidling route. I was utterly depleted when I arrived back at the tent at 5:30pm. Altitude cough. An exhilarating day but extremely hard.
10 Aug 2011 Another extraordinary and very hard day. All you can do just to survive. We left the high altitude Marble Wall camp at 9am. We now had to descend into a different valley via a glacier. We jumped a crevasse to reach level ground. After meandering down an ice shelf we reached the top of an overhung cliff of ice on the glacier. Edik and Danat talked among themselves and then retreated back up the slope. I realised they wanted to attempt an alternative route involving a heavily corniced ridge. They abandoned this idea eventually and we returned to the overhung ice cliff that we had reached before. We abseiled down this, smashing huge icicles that were hanging down from the roof of the overhung ice cavern. We continued down the glacier until the way was blocked by an icefall. This was followed by a lot of faffing around and uncertainty, backtracking, and no good decision making. The weather deteriorated. We were supposed to reach Khan Tengri Base Camp tonight and our supplies of food and gas were almost completely gone. With no way down the glacier we were forced to camp here at 5270m. I am now feeling like we are in a potentially serious situation with no obvious solution except the prospect of another long hard day ahead.
11 Aug 2011 Today was one of the most physically, mentally and emotionally trying days of my life. By now almost all food was gone and we were very low on gas. I was low on energy too. It began snowing and visibility dropped. We had to cross a steep and heavily crevassed glacier to reach a nearby ridge. A Lord of the Rings style labyrinth of ice bridges, this was the bridge of Kazad Dum on steriods. It was very trecherous crossing this ice labyrinth on a dodgy ice screw. We then climbed steeply to the ridge which was no safer than the glacier. We proceeded to do a harrowing decent of a bergschrund on the ridge and some other extreme moves to get to a safer spot on the ridge. The guides wanted to continue to the endmost pinnacle of the ridge which looked like an ice cream cone about to topple. I refused. It looked like an impossible situation. We turned back along the ridge and now we were running out of options. At 1pm we began abseiling off the side of the ridge and it got steeper and steeper. With only one 70m rope and 3 ice screws, descent was slow, scary and very risky. We depended on those 3 ice screws and there was no margin for error. Snow fell. Hours later it began getting dark. Still we were on the steep ridge abseiling 30m at a time. Mini avalanches buried us and obscured our anchors which had to be dug out. Cracklingly cold, it was finally after 10pm when we finally crossed a bergschrund and reached the bottom of the ridge. Pitched the tent in the savage cold. Totally exhausted and it was well after midnight by the time we had settled into the tent. We had eaten barely anything all day, and now we had a little tea, chocolate and light snacks. Gas almost finished. 16 hours of intense effort with virtually no food. Altitude here is 4800m. It was 2am by the time I turned in for what was left of the night.
12 Aug 2011 Getting up at 6am after the previous epic day was savage. The morning was cripplingly cold. We were able to have a luke warm cup of tea before the last remaining gas ran out. After a few pieces of chocolate all food was gone. The day proved to be one of perfect weather and once the sun reached us it became warm. We began a long trudge through waist deep snow down the glacier. This was a huge effort and there were some crevasses to cross. It was straightforward trekking until we reached the North Inylchek Glacier. Collosal scenery. A ridiculous sidle around a steep loose muddy slope covered in a slippery layer of snow in order to get to the main glacier. It was getting hot. I was now totally physically spent and starving, I barely had the energy to walk. Up and down on the steep and loose morraine. Eventually we headed to the centre of the glacier and walked along gentle ground. It was a long way. Eventually people at base camp saw us and came up with food. Finally we reached the North Inylchek base camp, I had my own tent, a feast of fresh food and vodka. I had cracked and split lips and a swollen tongue. Finally I could sleep in comfort.
13 Aug 2011 Today was spent fully resting in my own tent. The camp provided 3 hot meals per day, commencing with breakfast at 8am. I was slow, weak and thin. I could only eat average quantities of food. In the afternoon I enjoyed the Russian sauna, where I was able to wash myself for the first time in 2 weeks. The weather today was perfect.
14 Aug 2011 Today was another day of rest. Lunch did not agree with me. I felt that I was having trouble regaining my strength in time for the attempt on Khan Tengri. In the afternoon I joined some guides for some practise jumaring and cramponing on a nearby ice wall. I learned that I will not be abseiling down the fixed ropes when descending Khan Tengri. Rather, I would shinny down the ropes without a friction device.
15 Aug 2011 It was another beautiful morning at base camp and I had a good night's sleep at last. In the morning I packed my gear ready for the attempt on Khan Tengri. After lunch we set off for Camp 1 on Khan Tengri. The route crossed the glacier and then began climbing Chapaev Peak. I climbed alone on this easy route and the scenery was superb. my guides had gone ahead. I reached Camp 1 at about 6:45pm and crammed into a tiny 2 person tent with both my guides! Very cramped!
16 Aug 2011 After a calm night it was a clear morning and we advanced steeply up the fixed ropes to Camp 2 (5500m). I felt weak but was ok climbing. I was essentially alone, my guides had gone on ahead. As I approached Camp 2 the weather deteriorated and I found myself climbing alone up fixed ropes on a very steep and exposed mixture of snow and rock in poor visibility. Finally I reached Camp 2 at 5:30pm and crammed into another tiny 2 person tent which was already occupied by both my guides. Very uncomfortable. A pot of tea got spilt over everything in this cramped tent.
17 Aug 2011 Today was another amazing day. We woke to a beautiful morning and stunning scenery. We set off from Camp 2 at around 8am. It was slow and laborious climbing up the fixed ropes. The entire day was spent climbing alone and I didn't speak to anyone. I wasn't feeling too well. A spectacular knife-edge crest was crossed. Then a steep rock step had to be scaled. Long and exasperatingly hard climbing led to Chapaev Peak (6100m) which I reached in whiteout - alone. Now unroped I followed faint tracks in the snow to the saddle between Chapaev Peak and Khan Tengri. This was Camp 3 (5860m), and the tent there was already well dug in. Another cramped night. It is snowing outside.
18 Aug 2011 A miserable night with no sleep was spent sandwiched between these two stinking guys. Alarm went at 4am. This would be summit day. It was very hard to get going but the scenery was beautiful. The fixed ropes were very ragged and old, many of them just strands of core missing their sheath for whole lengths. My energy began to wane and it became steep and I was slow. I reached a rock overhang that I could not get up. I decided to turn back at this point, my altitude was about 6400m. Returned to Camp 3 (5860m). Beautiful evening views of Pobeda Peak.
19 Aug 2011 Another collosal day after a truly miserable night. Descended all the way from Camp 3 to Base Camp. After a miserable morning packing up we climbed back over Chapaev Peak in perfect weather. Spectacular panorama of peaks from Chapaev Peak. Shinnied down the ropes without a descending device to Camp 2. At Camp 2 I enjoyed a meal of muesli and powdered milk! Then it was down to Camp 1. It seemed to go forever. It was snowing heavily and visibility was poor as we left Camp 1 and descended to Base Camp. The fixed rope ended and it became harder to find our way down in the poor visibility. Descended a few steep sections and crossed some crevasses unroped. Reached the bottom at about 7pm and finally, at about 8pm, reached Base Camp just on dark. Base Camp had now been almost entirely dismantled and comprised no more than a few tents. A hearty meal in close-knit surrounds.
20 Aug 2011 Today was a well deserved day of rest at Khan Tengri base camp. The base camp was now almost deserted, just a couple of tents remaining and there would be only one more helicopter flight out this season. The helicopter was due at about 5pm. This left the entire day for rest and I enjoyed a hearty lunch of soup and chicken. The sauna was still operational, so I took the opportunity to have a much needed wash. Danat showed that he is an accomplished musician and he spent hours singing heartily in the sunshine. The the helicopter that was expected at 5pm didn't come and so we hastily resurrected one tent for one last night in the mountains.
21 Aug 2011 This morning we dismantled the last remaining tents at base camp once more and waited on the glacier hopeful of a helicopter ride back to Karkara. At 9:15am the helicopter arrived and took us back to Karkara Base Camp. The flight down the North Inylchek glacier was truly stunning with views of dozens of side glaciers pouring in. I didn't take a single photo of during the flight, I was so totally transfixed by the amazing scenery. After arrival at Karkara I enjoyed another sauna. This was followed by a huge long celebration lunch and shot after shot of vodka. Every round of vodka was accompanied by speeches and with Kazbek as translator I was able to exchange meaningful compliments with Danat and Edik at last. During the afternoon I slept off the vodka. When I woke up Edik had already gone. There was dinner and still more vodka. We had earned it.
22 Aug 2011 A restful morning. In the afternoon I was driven back to Almaty. I reorganised my flights so that I could return to Australia the following day.
23 Aug 2011 Spent the day in Almaty and then at 7pm went to the airport for my flight back to Australia.



I have organised the photos of this trip day by day. You can either click the next button below or a section of the above diary to go straight to a point of interest.



All content copyright © Ashley Burke 2011. Not to be copied, duplicated or used for any purpose without permission.

Page created 29 Nov 2011, last updated 7 Dec 2011.