CHILL FEATURE: AN UPDATE FROM SEEKING BALANCE FINDING ADVENTURE IN KYRGYZSTAN
By Marian Krogh, Gabby Degagne and Nicole Mesman.
Close to two years ago we set out on a mission to go on a ski adventure with purpose. After a lot of research we settled on Kyrgyzstan as the destination.
We picked Kyrgyzstan because it is composed of more than 80 percent mountains and therefore had a high number of unexplored mountains and unskied faces available to us. We were searching for adventure, peaks to climb and mountains to ski. What we found definitely was an adventure and what we learnt was so much more than we could have imagined.
Arriving into the capital of Bishkek we were rearing to go but our bags were not. One ski bag and backpack were delayed. We weren't able to ski but continuing with our original plans we headed to the small village of Kara-Suu from where we were to access the At-Bashi range. The At-Bashi range is in the Naryn region and borders the western edge of China. At the western end of the range it is home to one of the most historically significant buildings on the silk road, Tash Rabat Caravanseri, where trading of goods and knowledge took place between China, the Middle East and Europe. There have been a few climbing expeditions into the At-Bashi range during summer but hardly any ski expeditions and as a result the range has many unexplored areas with the mountains frequently reaching over 4000 m.
We ended up waiting 8 days for the bags to arrive, although this was frustrating we later realised that it was during this time that we learnt some of our most important lessons and were able to gain a greater understanding of the people of Kyrgyzstan.
Alongside the ski element of the trip we wanted to gain an appreciation for how climate change was affecting this culture. The country is shaped by the high mountainous regions of the Tien Shan and it’s many significant glaciers. As a result it plays an important part in water supply for the rest of Central Asia. Visiting various local people in their homes, we not only drunk numerous cups of Chai (tea) and ate naan (bread) from bottomless baskets, but were able to talk with wifes and husbands, farmers and shepherds, school children and the elderly. They told us about the mountains, about how they were proud of the glaciers that they could see from their houses and how these formed part of their community’s identity. It saddened them that these glaciers were going brown and creeping backwards.
The majority of people in this area, and in most other rural areas of Kyrgyzstan, make their livings through the sale of livestock, the sale of about two sheep per month is generally enough to support a family. They told us about how winter wasn’t winter and summer wasn’t summer anymore and how this not only affected their ability to plan the movements of their stock, to avoid fatalities from flash floods, but also affected grass growth, water availability during the season and the presence of diseases and illness. Water is a key resource for survival here but also for the whole country as it earns money from the sale of water to its neighbours. The locals here told us how if their water supplies continue to decrease they will have to move to the cities, away from their animals and to a life which they know nothing of. “This is a global issue, it will take everyone to overcome it” one farmer told us.
Indeed there are many groups working to address climate change in Kyrgyzstan, despite the average person in Kyrgyzstan having a carbon footprint of only 0.7 metric tonnes/capita in 2013 compared with the average Canadian and New Zealander at 13.5 and 14.7 metric tonnes/capita respectively. During our time in Bishkek we were able to meet with a number of environmental and research organisations and the findings of these mirrored what we heard from the locals, that glaciers were receding and seasons were changing.
When the bags finally arrived we faced a new hurdle and the adventure continued. The part of the range where we had originally plotted our route for our seven plus day adventure had very little snow. The range normally receives 1.5 m of snow but this year some areas had a dismal 20 cm or less. Instead we reorganised ourselves to go into the Eastern part of the range. Heading in we were full of excitement and anticipation, no one had ever explored the mountains up this valley, especially not on skis! After a local farmer howled at us to warn us of wolves in the area we spent our first night a little wary but it was the second day when we became truly worried. On our ascent to our basecamp at 3200 m we started hearing whompfing in the snow pack when traversing low angle slopes and test pits revealed a significant depth hoar layer sometimes up to 20 cm at the base of the snowpack. The next day we headed further up the valley to dig a snow profile on another aspect. While skinning we remotely triggered a small avalanche from the valley which propagated on the slope above us. It was a scary experience with Maz and Gabby being carried down the slope and Gabby, buried up to her shoulders, needing to be digged out. Our thoughts before the avalanche were split between the seriousness of the snow conditions and our desire to ski. The mountains dictated the conditions were too dangerous to continue the search for summits and turns. We looked back on the local people we had met and their respect and appreciation for the mountains, they have so little but are so happy with what they have. Taking a page from their book we decided to be happy with what we had been able to accomplish and appreciate the beauty of these mountains and being able to just be in them.
Although we weren’t able to ski the lines we had hoped for, they are still there for a future trip. However what we did experience was how changing winters are affecting the local populations and how this is challenging much more than their ability to ski. It is their whole way of life and at the end of the day their livelihoods and this story is being told by many other communities around the world. We hope that by sharing this message through our own mountain communities that we can encourage people to make changes in their lives and become vocal to protect our winters. We aren’t professional athletes we just love to ski and are passionate about the environment. As an all ladies team we also hope that this project will inspire other everyday female adventurers to take on adventure travel together.
Marian Krogh ‘Maz’ is a Canadian born and New Zealand raised, physiotherapist who has lived in various mountains towns around the world. She follows the snow, finding new challenges one mountain and one season at a time. She is currently starting up POW NZ.
Nicole Mesman grew up amongst the southern alps of New Zealand where her life has been immersed in ski culture. She studies soil science and enjoys learning about agricultural practices in different communities around the world.
Gabby Degagne grew up skiing and exploring the coast mountains of her home region of British Columbia. She has travelled five continents, leading both land and water based expeditions and is currently working in the outdoor education industry in Asia.