Martin Jones, Edward Lemon, Gareth Mottram and Jacob Wrathall, all members of the King’s College London Alumni Mountaineering Club, formed this year's BMC Approved and MEF supported expedition to the unexplored Sarychat Glacier in Kyrghyzstan's Western Kokshaal-too.
The four were one of several British parties operating in this remote area of the Tien Shan close to the Chinese border, and were successful in making five first ascents.
Unforeseen difficulties during the drive into the area resulted in the team being dropped 25km short of the valley, and they were forced to spend nine days ferrying loads to their proposed base camp.
Although this helped enormously with acclimatization, the end result was that by the time they had made a reconnaissance and established a high camp, their schedule allowed just two days for climbing.
The only known mountaineers to have set foot previously on the Sarychat Glacier were the Russian Daniel Popov and friends. In 2003 they crossed a high pass from the head of the parallel Fersmana Glacier to the upper Sarychat and from there climbed a high peak on the Chinese border.
The Fersmana marks the demarcation between the fine granite, for which the western half of the chain is well known, and the rather more friable limestone that characterises the eastern sector. The British team found peaks above the Sarychat were seemingly composed of shale rather than limestone and at very best were somewhat crumbly.
In 2005 An Anglo-New Zealand party (Paul Knott, Grant Piper and Graham Rowbotham) became the first to explore the Fersmana, making one successful ascent and several important attempts on peaks close to the border. They were followed in 2008 by a strong team of young Slovenians, which completed a number of technical ascents and named, but did not climb, a superb snow pyramid on the Fersmana-Sarychat divide; Fers III (5,210m).
Both teams found the long approach on tortuous moraine to the upper glacier to be both tedious and difficult, and the situation on the Sarychat seems to be no different. An initial attempt by this year’s British group to explore peaks on the eastern side of the Sarychat Glacier was thwarted by the difficulty of approach and onset of bad weather.
A second foray saw a camp established on the west bank, from where on the 11th August all four climbed the aptly named Slush and Rubble (Scottish 2 or 'soft' 3) to the crest of a ridge and then traversed to two previously unclimbed summits.
They named these after former King’s College lecturers: Pik Lyell (4,864m GPS: Charles Lyell was a 19th Century geologist), and Pik Thornes (5,014m GPS: marked as 4,989m on the 2005 American Alpine Club Map: John Thornes was a recently deceased geography and pioneer in the field of erosive modelling).
The following day Jones and Wrathall climbed a mixed route to the main crest further south (Choss Bros: Scottish 5). They then turned north and ascended Pik Katherine (4,840m GPS). Meanwhile Lemon and Mottram chose a line just to the left, staying on snow and ice for much of the way (Quartered Safe out Here: 70°), and then headed south along the ridge towards Fers III.
The two climbed Piks Sylvia (4,910m) and Hilarie (4,928m) but lack of time and deteriorating weather prevented continuation along the beautiful connecting snow ridge towards Fers III.
The compact alpine range of the Western Kokshaal-too was unvisited by non-Soviets before the mid/late 1990s but a succession of mostly British and North American expeditions have now explored most of the valley systems, biting into the vast potential for fine first ascents.
The photo shows, from left to right, Gareth Mottram, Edward Lemon and Martin Jones approaching the virgin (but not for long) corniced summit of Pik Thornes (5,014m GPS).