British team explores remote Russian Altai

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 23/07/2009
Approaching the Kurai mountains. www.davidtett.com

Awarded a grant from the Mount Everest Foundation and Approval from the BMC, Marc Bullock, Matthew Freear, Tim Moss, Nancy Pickup, Michael 'Spike' Reid and David Tett travelled to the South Kurai, becoming almost certainly the first non-soviet mountaineers to visit this area of the Siberian Altai.

After a long day's drive from Barnaul, followed by a two-day approach trek with horsemen, the team, several members of which work for the Royal Geographical Society, first established base camp, and then over the next eight days placed two advanced camps and made a total of five ascents.

Their Liaison Officer, Igor Fediaev from the Russian agency K2 Adventures, had previously visited the area but not ascended any mountains. In his opinion no one had ever climbed there. However, the British group found cairns and a Hammer and Sickle signpost on a relatively easy walk-up summit above base camp.

On the four other peaks climbed - Pts 3,259m (Alpine PD), 3,167m (F: largely walking), 3,089m (PD) and 3,071m (PD) - no sign of previous activity was discovered and these may well have been first ascents. Climbs were on snow and rock with no need for a belay.

Throughout their stay the weather was perfect and surprisingly hot, meaning that snow conditions were generally poor, as indeed is the rock in this area.

At the end of the expedition Freear and Moss walked south into the fringes of the Northern Chuisky and completed the locally well-known Teacher Horseshoe (F), which reaches an altitude of 3,179m.

The Altai begins in southern Siberia - the Dead Heart of Asia - and extends for almost 1,500km to the south east, largely through Western Mongolia. For the most part the mountains would hardly raise an alpinist's eyebrow but certain isolated pockets at the northern end of the chain hold hidden gems.

Where the Altai passes through the triple border point of Russia, Mongolia and China, it becomes a compact cluster of alpine peaks - the Taban Bogdo - with fine snow and ice faces reminiscent of the Bernese Oberland. The highest summit, Huiten (4,356m), lies just south of the Russian border, as do nearly all the technically interesting summits of this group.

North west of the Tabun Bogdo the range peters out in to the Siberian steppe before rising and splitting in two. The western arm is referred to as the Katun Range. Approximately 100km to the north of Huiten it culminates in Bielukha (4,506m: first climbed in 1914), the highest summit in the Altai. The peaks of the Bielukha Massif are heavily glaciated and offer superb ice and mixed climbs of a similar scale to those found in the Western Alps.

The eastern arm holds the little-known Kurai Range. These relatively low mountains lie more or less due north of the Taban Bogdo and north east of Bielukha. Immediately south of the Kurai rise the more extensive North and South Chuisky.

While several British expeditions have now visited Bielukha (a popular venue for international camps in the days of the Soviet Union) and the Mongolian Altai, only two apart from this year's team have explored elsewhere.

The South Chuisky, felt to be similar to parts of the French Alps with peaks falling just short of 4,000m, was explored in 1995 by an eight member team primarily from the UK, while in 1997 Paul Knott's Anglo-American expedition climbed new routes in the sterner Northern Chuisky.

The better known Northern Chuisky, the site of the first ever Soviet Mountaineering Camp (opened just before the Second World War) is notable for its hard lines on the c1,400m North Faces of the highest peaks, such as Maashey (4,117m).

The recent British expedition has proved that there is still much scope in this region for exciting exploration and first ascents at a modest standard.
 



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