Kazakhstan: chasing snow leopards, dodging avalanches

March 2016

A couple of days ago, some local advice lured me south of Almaty and into the Medeu valley (1500m), a gateway into the Zailiyskiy Alatau Range, which lines the Kyrgyz border. The Range is home to snow leopards, space observatories and ski slopes, but once I stepped from the roadside and onto the trail, I was completely alone for the next two days.


The weather rapidly improved during the first morning until inverted clouds lay in the valleys, but the sky was spotlessly blue an...d the sun strong. The deep snow made for an arduous 1700m ascent to the summit of Kumbel Peak (3200m). Here, I dug a trench beside a boulder, gorged on my rations and bivouacked below shooting stars and the Milky Way after watching a spectacular sunset.


The next day, after melting snow over a fire in an old sweetcorn tin, I set off across a long ridge line, hoping to reach a 3800m summit a few miles away. As I ascended a fairly steep snow face though, I heard an incredible bang. I looked over to see a huge cornice falling away from a ridge ahead of me and down into the valley. I looked up at the blazing sun, and decided that today wasn't the day - the snow face I was climbing felt suddenly unstable, in my mind at least. Turning back meant walking at least twice as far to reach the road, but it was the best option. Anyway, I'd summited a peak already. After a twelve hour hike into nightfall, I hitchhiked back into Almaty to conclude the most enjoyable mountain walk of my trip so far.


I arrived today in Kyrgyzstan, the rugged heartland of Central Asia, which I cannot wait to explore!


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© Oliver France