Supported by a BMC expedition grant, John Proctor and Robert Taylor narrowly missed making the first ascent of the difficult north face of Muz Tok (5,066m) in Kyrgyzstan's Pamir Alai
Muz Tok lies at the head of the Jiptik Valley and Schurovsky Glacier, not far east of the famous big granite walls of the Karavshin.
The valley saw little activity in the Soviet era, with only a few straightforward routes completed, including an ascent of Muz Tok via the southwest ridge.
Paul Hersey's New Zealand expedition was the first non-Soviet team to enter the valley, and in 1996 climbed several peaks mid-way between the start of the Schurovsky Glacier and its head below the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border.
Hersey returned in 2009 and with Yewjin Tan and Graham Zimmerman climbed a difficult new route on Kyzyl Muz (5,127m), a peak previously climbed by Hersey. They failed to reach the head of the glacier, but noted that the north face of Muz Tok would be an excellent target. They also noted that the Jiptik holds "many excellent possibilities for technical first ascents, generally on steep ice".
In 2010 Russians penetrated the valley from Tajikistan but did not climb, while in 2012 a British pair, originally awarded a BMC grant, planned to attempt the north face of Muz Tok, but in the end had to cancel the trip. In 2014 Proctor and two companions also planned to attempt the north face of Muz Tok but for political reasons one of the members was denied a Tajik visa and in the end they had to climb elsewhere.
The need for a Tajik visa relates to Vorukh.
Vorukh is a Tajik enclave within Kyrgyzstan, and the approach to Jiptik (and indeed the Karavshin) passes through it. From time to time, eg in 2014, there are outbreaks of internal conflict and the border is closed. In 2016 the agency handling the British expedition managed to inaugurate a new approach that avoids this enclave, making access to both Jiptik and the Karavshin less risky.
The British team made two attempts on Muz Tok, both abandoned before starting the route due to bad weather or high temperatures.
On the third attempt the stars seemed aligned and Proctor and Taylor began climbing from 4,150m one hour after midnight. They planned to follow a long slender gully in the face, which finished on a ridge just short of the summit.
Studying the face had convinced them that this line was objectively safe, providing they could pass a lower "bottleneck" before dawn, which they did.
They first climbed the bed of the icy gully, and then when the sun hit the wall, a rock rib. Previous teams had noted the "middle valley" peaks were composed of limestone, not always of a good quality, so on reaching the area the British group was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the rock on the border peaks was granite.
By evening they reached the exit to the couloir, and found a small ledge, at 4,928m on the ridge above, to bivouac. There was no space to pitch the tent, so they lay down in line. Taylor got cramp and could only stretch his legs by placing them on top Proctor's head.
They had about one hour's "sleep" before leaving again at 1 a.m. The crest of the ridge above soon became impossible wading, so they took to the left flank and crossed 60° ice, though fortunately this took screws.
At 4,971m, only about 70 vertical metres below the summit, they hit a rock barrier straddling the entire ridge. It was no more than 20m high, but technical, loose (it wasn't granite) and with little in the way of protection. Despite attempts by both climbers, they were forced to retreat.
Descending to their bivouac site as it was getting light, they then made two abseils into a couloir on the west flank of the ridge. They were able to down-climb this, with two more abseils, to reach the glacier mid-afternoon. They felt their 800m climb in the north face couloir was TD in standard.
The two other members of the expedition, Phil Dawson and Ciaran Mullan, almost reached the top of Kara-Eet (4,900m), a peak summited by the 1996 expedition.
This expedition was also supported by the Austrian Alpine Club, MEF and Chris Walker Memorial Trust.