I recently traveled with Yosemite heavies Nik Berry, Eric Bissell, and Dave Allfrey over a thirty-day mission to the Ak Su Valley of Kyrgyzstan to climb on Pik Slesova. The goal was to develop and establish the first free ascent on the northwest face of the peak, a 950-meter free variation we named “The American Way” (VI 5.13a.)
The long granite routes of Kyrgyzstan had actually never been on my radar. I never expected to go on an “expedition” being fairly risk-averse, and not enjoying the objective dangers of big mountain terrain. However, I was easily convinced on the climbing when Nik described sunny weather similar to Yosemite in November and promised that we wouldn’t even touch snow!
I was asked to be the team’s fourth climber about a month before the trip. The three others had a clear goal of freeing this specific route and felt an additional person would help with the big wall toiling. I knew Nik, Eric and Dave from overlapping at various climbing destinations. My name luckily came to their mind as a motivated, younger big wall free climber with new routing experience. I was specifically on their radar as having a varied skill set, with contrasting ticks ranging from rope solo’ing the Nose-In-A-Day to recently getting the second ascent of Nik’s 14a vertical granite mega line, Interrobang, in Lone Peak Cirque—an alpine area above Salt Lake City. I bought a plane ticket a few days after being invited, quickly solving all the logistical hurdles of being away for a month. I didn’t want to miss a chance to team up with some of the premier climbers of today in my favorite genre.
My initial impressions were that the face looked beautiful, but I had my doubts about the task being realistic. Nik had almost no information on the objective other than looking up at the line in-person on his last trip, seven years prior. We literally showed up with zero topos, and only a one-page photo of the wall with colored lines of routes, fully trusting Nik’s judgement... and all the route names were in Russian in the photo! Once we arrived, a little investigation from the ground with binoculars allowed us to piece together what was the free line up the major weakness, following an original aid route with a few variations.
We took on the route in two teams of two, alternating tasks each day. Our free line mostly follows an existing aid route. The upper team would repeat the established aid pitches, fixing static ropes down for the lower team to swing around on. The lower team was then scrubbing holds, trying variations, and generally prepping the free climbing. As the bottom, steeper half of the wall was prepped, we began redpointing the pitches in order over a few days, then committing to a multi-day push on the wall to establish the easier upper half.
Everyone was amazingly friendly. The whole region did not feel militarized at all. We felt safe and welcomed, especially by the nomadic people who live in the mountains along our approach, and even under the faces we were climbing.
I found the most challenging part to be the down time at camp, yet, at the same time, it was the most rewarding of the experience. With so much time resting at camp or waiting out bad weather, we became one with our boredom. I read a few books and journaled a bit. This was a welcomed detox from the bustle of urban life.
The coolest aspect of the trip was our team free ascent—sharing the task of redpointing each pitch with a group of good friends. It was unrealistic from a time standpoint for each of us to redpoint every pitch, even though it was within our individual climbing abilities. Instead, we decided to only have one person send each pitch but do them in order from the ground-up. Amazingly, we all pulled off our respective pitches on the first try of our send push!
One big takeaway was the value of having a dialed team for huge objectives like this. The on-route work all went incredibly smooth and we were able to build off each other’s expertise. Nik, Dave and Eric are all experienced El Cap climbers that I look up to. This trip was a big step for me in affirming my technical skill and has inspired me to aim a little bit higher with my climbing goals in the future.
With my schedule limitations of working a fulltime job, I’ll be climbing big wall free routes closer to home for a while, mainly in Zion and on El Cap.
Photos: Eric Bissell