Jesse Burkhardt reports on an epic trip to Tajikistan. With support from a McNeill-Nott Award, a grant offered annually by the AAC, the team was able to tick of several impressive first ascents. Read on for the full story!
Over the course of roughly one month the team of Darren Benton, Jesse Burkhardt, Robert (Bo) White and Chris Weidner successfully completed first ascents of four different peaks in the GBAO region of eastern Tajikistan and completed a handful of single and multipitch first ascent rock climbs. With the funds allotted by the American Alpine Club through the Mcneill-Nott Grant, the team members were able to accomplish their goal of exploring the alpine climbing opportunities in this sparsely traveled Central Asian country.
The trip began with Darren and Jesse arriving on the 15th of June in the capital city of Dushanbe. From here they were required to take a nineteen hour jeep ride to meet Bo in the city of Khorog; capital of the Gorno-Badakshan region. Located on the border with Afghanistan; this city was the main base for the team over the next month. With a population of around 30,000 inhabitants, Khorog is the largest city in the mountainous eastern half of the country. The population is nearly all of Pamiri ethnicity who practice a liberal form of Islam known as Ismailism. Here food and other supplies were bought before each trip into the nearby mountains.
The first major climb during the expedition was an attempt of a 5160 meter peak in the Gunt valley. Jesse and Darren, accompanied by Teo Kaye, a professional photographer based out of Dushanbe, reached base camp via a full day hike up a steep side valley. The approach to base camp proved to be rather difficult, with around 5000 feet of elevation gain over scree and loose dirt with numerous river crossings. The team reached a spot to establish base camp at around 14,000 feet on a small saddle of an otherwise very steep slope. The next day with a start of 5:00 A.M., the three set off up towards the mountain. The route began with around 1500 vertical feet of scrambling up steep talus and dirt to reach a small cirque at the base of the peak. From here the route followed a steep snow gulley up the right side of the rocky peak. All three were able to make their way to a saddle on the ridge by around 9:00 A.M. However, when the team reached this point about 600 feet below the summit it was observed that the ridge would be extremely difficult to cross. With three large pinnacles separating the team from the summit there looked to be no way to traverse around the obstacles; the only option being climbing over and rappelling several times. Taking into consideration the time of day, the loose rock on the ridge and the weather that was moving in from the north, the team decided to descend back to base camp.
While Jesse, Darren and Teo were attempting their climb of “Peak 5160,” Bo White, Jim Donini, Jenn Flemming, Chris Weidner and Mikey Church arrived from Dushanbe. Upon arrival Bo, Jim, Jenn and Chris made their first of two attempts on a sharp, granite peak referred to as “The Tooth,” located on the west side of the Gunt Valley. The aim was to climb its 900-foot tall east face. Bo and Jim tried a line up the center while Jenn and Chris tried a route one hundred feet to the left. After three false starts on rotten cracks on the second pitch, Jenn and Chris climbed a face peppered with giant huecos. Halfway into an 80-foot pitch of committing, insecure climbing (5.11a R) it began to rain. One more damp pitch up an enormous chimney ended on a ledge about 300 feet off the ground. Chris and Jenn bailed from there in the rain, with Bo and Jim already on the ground.
Two days later, on June 24, Chris and Jenn returned to their high point via a more direct start. A wide crack and tension traverse (5.10c A1) led to what appeared to be moderate climbing. Instead, steep, loose rock and a giant cactus rejected their efforts. Chris spent 45 minutes battling the next ten feet, and eventually fell backward trying to maneuver around the evil plant. The group bailed once again after about five hours and only 60 feet of upward progress.
After spending a few days climbing some lower elevation cliffs in the Gunt Valley and with Jesse, Darren and Teo returning from their climb, the group turned its attention to a side valley of the Gunt, known as Sizhd Valley. From a base camp of 12,500 feet there was good access to a large number of steep granite peaks on both sides of the valley, most with elevations above 4500 meters. Over the course of several days the team was able to successfully establish first ascents on four summits in the area.
After spending one night at base camp, all the teams set off the next morning with three distinct summit objectives. Darren and Jesse started off at 5:30 am by climbing up around 2000 vertical feet of scree and snow. After this lengthy section which they reached a cirque of snow at the base of several large peaks. Their objective was a flat topped peak on the right side with a summit elevation of around 4700 meters. From the cirque the two climbed around 1000 vertical feet of snow up a gulley to reach a saddle. From this point they were able to scramble up 80 feet of 4th class terrain followed by 120 feet of roped technical climbing. This section was done in two pitches; 5.10a followed by 5.4. The final section was an unprotected ridge traverse to reach the true summit, which they named The Akvan Div. Jesse and Darren reached the summit around 12:00 pm and were able to descend over the next three hours via three rappels and long sections of downclimbing.
That same morning Jenn, Mikey, and Chris left the grassy base camp at 5:45 am and hiked a steep gully toward the sharp, granite peak later to be named Rostam. Several thousand of feet of easy scrambling led to the base of its west face nearly four hours later. The climbing began on the left edge of the face, with the team roping up at the base of a chimney after 400 feet of loose fourth-class. Three long, right-trending pitches, with a few sections of vertical cracks (5.8), led to the sharp and snowy north ridge. It was early afternoon and the team was unable to discern their position in relation to several false summits along the ridge. However, a final steep section of verglassed rock (5.8) and a sharp arête led them to the top of Rostam at 2:00pm. Five rappels plus hundreds of feet of downclimbing brought them back to the base of the face. The team of three arrived safely in camp just after dark at 8:00pm.
The third team,Jim and Bo, left camp around 5:30 am and began an arduous 2000ft approach up a loose steep gully. Upon reaching the major talus field below the headwall they decided that the southeast side of the headwall was the choice route. A third class approach of the obvious low angle outcrop on the right side of the wall allowed them to gain the headwall (~600 vertical feet). The team proceeded with four well protected pitches following the path of least resistance and best rock (5.8-5.9). At the top of the fourth pitch they gained a position that allowed them to see the nature of the remaining climbing, which looked long and complicated. They decided that there was not enough daylight left for a summit push, and therefore, opted to go down, rig good rap stations, and come back after rethinking their strategy.
The following day in a team of three, Jesse, Darren and Mikey decided to attempt the first ascent of a pinnacle, later named Punginella, topping out around 13,500 feet. The team approached the climb with a scramble up 800 vertical feet of scree and snow to reach its base. They were subsequently able to quickly reach the summit with two moderate length pitches of 5.7. After spending some time on the precarious summit the team was able to safely descend back to camp with two rappels. Later that day, Jesse and Mikey climbed 3 pitches (5.7) on the opposite side of the valley, topping out in an obvious gulley and descending before more bad weather.
For Jim and Bo’s second attempt they left camp at 6:30am (now at 14,000 feet) and embarked on what would be twelve pitches of Sierra style climbing. The pitches ranged in difficulty from 5.7-5.10, with one 20ft. section that was aided (A1). The route involved tricky route finding with good rock on steep sections, and some debris on ledges. After every headwall they expected to see the summit, but another wall would just come into view. To connect the walls they were forced to rappel from towers and/or traverse. After 2000 feet of vertical climbing Jim and Bo were able to reach the 4960 meter summit of their peak Shahnameh at 4:00 pm. They were then able to descend via several rappels and two fifth class pitches, arriving back at camp half an hour after dark.
The three major summits were named Shahnameh, The Akvan Div and Rostam after the epic Persian book of mythology that is the heart of Iranian, Afghan, and Tajik literature.