British mountaineers are generally renowned for exploratory visits to remote areas of the Greater Ranges. The most recent example took place in the rarely-seen, let alone visited, peaks of the Chinese Central Tien Shan that lie east of Pik Pobeda (7,439m), the highest mountain in the former Soviet Union.
Only a handful of climbing teams has ever penetrated this region of high mountains that lie south and east of the borders with Kyrghyzstan and Kazakhstan. A French expedition, rumoured (but not confirmed) to have attempted a peak in the south, is the sole known previous 'Western' visit.
The British-New Zealand expedition of Paul Knott, Guy McKinnon and Bruce Normand was offered a permit for Xuelian Feng (6,628m), the dominant peak in the eastern sector of the range and one of very few mountains to have received an ascent (by Japanese on their fourth attempt).
Wriggling through thousands of pre-Olympic check posts, the three became the first climbers to approach the Xuelian Range from the north, finding surprisingly excellent access roads and gentle horse-trekking through wooded, alpine valleys to a base camp at 3,500m beside the Muzart Glacier. From here they had direct access to the northern aspect of the entire Xuelian chain.
Extensive reconnaissance around the upper Muzart Glacier basin revealed that the easiest access to the mountains was from the upper eastern end. The team discovered many impressive virgin 5,000 and 6,000m summits. These were granitic and often sported steep walls, long ridges, serac-threatened slopes, and were accessible via mostly broken glaciers. On top of this, snow conditions proved to be somewhat difficult, the result of atypically poor August weather.
The three were able to acclimatize to altitudes of 5,400m amongst the peaks on the north side of Muzart basin, after which Normand, who last year became the first Scot to summit K2, and McKinnon made a bid on the Xuelian side. After climbing questionable snow and reasonable ice slopes, the pair reached a point of listed height 6,332m, well to the east of the main summit of Xuelian Feng.
Anatoliy Djuliy, a mountaineer from Moscow and three-times visitor to the Chinese Tien Shan, said that while base camps below Khan Tengri and other famous peaks off the Inylchek Glacier just north of the border are tremendously busy with alpinists every summer, the Chinese side has often gone many years without seeing a single climber.
The area's neglect in the past has been primarily due to ignorance, access problems when approaching from the south and administration difficulties from the north. However, the British-New Zealand team has brought home many alluring photos, which, together with news of the relatively easy access to the eastern sector, is sure to get a few more alpinists excited.