Story by Robin Hill. Photos by Brody Leven
After a blur of shitty pop movies and half conscious naps, I throw my thin blanket aside, and wander off the plane with my heavy snowboard bag. It’s been a while since Brody and I have been on an adventure together. I’m not going to lie, I’m a little nervous. We are in Kazakhstan with a bold agenda to climb and ski several un-skied 20,000-foot peaks. It’s a good thing I only have one day of snowboarding under my belt so far this year.
On the way to the hostel, our taxi driver stopped to buy up a carton of cigarettes, yelled aimlessly in Russian at a man on a balcony, picked up a random woman who sat on my lap for several blocks, and finally dropped us off at a partially furnished, sketchy hostel room. We were too tired to care. We threw our bags down on the old yellow shag carpet and crashed.
A Kazakh ski mountaineer named Vitaly “Rage” contacted Brody over a year ago with an invitation to come ski “the biggest and best un-skied mountains in the world.” A photo of a snow-covered goliath towering above the green city of Almaty fell in my inbox with a note from Brody: “Kazakhstan?” It wasn’t a hard sell, and we accepted to the invitation.
We offered to pay Rage to coordinate our logistics. He refused the money and offered to do the logistics for free if he could join our adventure. We were hesitant to say the least. Skiing giant peaks in Kazakhstan with your best friend seemed like a decent idea. Getting sketchy half way across the world with a wild card mountaineer named “Rage” seemed like a terrible idea. What the hell, lets give him a shot!
After a couple minutes baking in the mid-morning heat outside our hostel in Almaty, a man with white sunglasses, board shorts and an aggressive goggle tan charged around the corner on a mountain bike. “Brody Leven!!” Rage proclaimed with a full tooth grin!
After a quick exchange of high fives, and ski stories, Rage called us a taxi. The taxi driver swerved to a stop, obviously intoxicated. Rage and the taxi driver exchanged menacing words in Russian for several minutes. Finally, Rage puffed up his chest and shoved the man back towards his car. “I can see where he got his nickname,” I whispered to Brody.
The crew, Brody Leven, Robin Hill and Vitaly "Rage".
A Quick Warm Up...
After several days of packing, looking at potential ski lines on Rage’s computer and purchasing a myriad of unfamiliar Kazakh dairy products, we were ready for the mountains. Rage recommended a zone just outside of Almaty called Tuyuk-Suk as a warm-up for the bigger more challenging terrain in the Central and Northern Tien Shan. I pictured a rope tow with groomed runs!
I’m slogging through the mud in the sleet and rain, trying desperately to keep up. My backpack isn’t sitting right, my snowboard keeps hitting the back of my legs, and I have way too many layers on. I’m trying not to appear like a complete novice, but I surely feel like one. It doesn’t help that Brody looks like a futuristic Ninja with sleek, tight black ski gear that won’t be released to the public until 2020. I’m pretty sure he has rocket boosters in his Solomon approach shoes. I’m pretty sure there are rocks in mine.
Several hours into the approach to Tuyuk Suk, we left the muddy trail behind and climbed onto the snow and into the sun. We rounded the bend of big rock buttress made a glorious entrance into a cirque of giant 14,000-foot snow capped peaks. It was a mountaineer’s playground with couloirs, rocky ridges, and snowy faces everywhere you looked. Rage pointed to the base of the peaks at a small grouping of dilapidated huts. As we approached, a man in khaki shorts and an oversized fur parka stepped onto the snow and raised his arms in welcome. We parked our skis outside and ducked under the dripping icicles into the small shelter.
Alexey, the caretaker and resident meteorologist welcomed us with a fully load wooden stove, Led Zeppelin streaming from an old tape player, a hearty plate of rice and peppers and two steel spring cots to rest our heads.
Morning came too soon. We pulled our socks from above the wooden stove, packed our bags, and hit the skin track right as the sun lifted from behind the grey shadowed peaks. Ten minutes into our first tour of the trip and my skins malfunctioned. Rage was 100 yards ahead, and showed no signs of slowing down. In an attempt to maintain my cool, I urged Brody to continue while I fixed my board. He patiently waited and offered me an additional ski strap to secure my faulty skins to my board. It worked really well so we continued.
“Lightning!!” Brody yelled, crouched down with the buzzing of bees ruminating from his ice axe. BOOM! “We can’t stay on this ridge. Rage, can we drop in to our left?” I looked down at a line of steep snow that disappeared into a thick layer of fog. “Yes I’m sure,” Rage said without reservation. BOOM! “Ok, lets go!” Brody said, quickly dropping into the couloir. About half way down, the couloir narrowed to a steep choke. Brody came to a sharp stop, peered down and yelled up to us to hold tight. “There’s a cliff, but I think we can make it through,” Brody called up. What the hell, I thought to myself. I thought Rage knew the line. I used my ax to lower myself to the cliff’s jagged edge. Brody pointed to a thin band of snow that contoured to the left dropping off the shortest section of the cliff. I lifted my Ice axe, directed my board to the left, and arced around and off the cliff, landing in firm by edgeable snow next to Brody. Rage followed, nervously approaching the cliff. After a couple minutes of hesitation, he plopped off the cliff landing safely on his butt. “Close call,” Brody said, shaking his head.
Ticks and Talgar
“Brody, we must take a different path to Talgar,” Rage said, pointing at a map over dinner in Almaty. Evidently the trail to our next objective was impassible as a result of giant landslides, brain eating ticks and marmots with the Black Plague. Fantastic! Rage traced a new line on the map, circling away from Almaty, over several ridgelines to the east. “It won’t be so bad,” he said.
I grit my teeth as I pick my self up from another slip into the mud. “Why am I struggling so freaking hard?” I whisper to my self. “Probably because this mountain is fucking impossible to get to!” So far, we have invested 5 grueling days slogging through a thick jungle, loose moraines and dangerous crevassed slopes to get to the base camp of Talgar Peak. Our porters almost got in an avalanche, Brody fell into a creek, and we have used over half of our fuel already. “If this is hard, what will the climb be like?” I say out loud.
After sharing a quick meal of crackers, unidentified Kazakh cheese and half a Mountain House with Brody, I crawl into my slightly damp yet welcoming sleeping bag. With a precarious weather forecast, we decided we would climb if we could see stars in the sky at 1:00 AM. Dark crisp air wafted over my face as Brody silently crossed over me to leave the tent. Creeping down into the depths of my warm sleeping bag, I pictured the night sky. “Stars!” Brody exclaimed, already half way into his ski boots.
The wide slope steepened and narrowed into a small choke. With rhythmic cadence, I kept my pace until the small cull. My headlamp diminished into the morning sun, expanding my gaze to expansive valley below. We roped together and continued up a steep icy ramp. Front pointing in snowboard boots sucks! It was only a matter of time before I needed to take a break and rest my calves. Reluctantly, I called for the group to stop. Shivering in the shade, we looked up at our route for the first time.
An evil version of route depicted in Rage’s photo loomed above us. We looked up in horror at a sheet of dark rolling ice with a shark’s tooth bergschrund threatening to chew us up. After an eternity of silent speculation, Brody pointed up to the left side of the black ice, to a frail line of snow weaving up through the cliffs. “Its steeper that the original line, but I think it will go,” Brody said while loading his harness with ice crews, pitons, and snow pickets.
After crossing the low glacier, the slope kicked back and we entered the skinny line we potted from below. We bounced back and forth between technical rock, and thin brittle ice. After several hours, we reached a giant overhanging cliff that blocked our sneaky route and steered us menacingly towards the exposed ice sheet. “I don’t think we have enough gear to climb or rappel this next section.” Brody said hesitantly. “No problem, we can do it.” Rage said brushing off Brody’s concern with brash confidence. “How?” Brody and I said simultaneously. “We can ski the ice, or use the Russian suicide rappel.” My nerves nearly about exploded. “The Russian Suicide rappel?” I said angrily. “Chill, Bob,” Brody said. “I am not comfortable with either of those options,” I said. “It’s fine,” Rage said waiving off my concern again. I fired back, “How the hell do you know?” anger building up inside me.
Brody stepped in between us, and looked me in the eyes. “Bob, we aren’t going to do anything you are not comfortable with, I promise.” “I’m gripped dude,” I responded. “I know brother, but I know we can do this, trust me.” My mind flashed through the series adventures Brody and I had navigated together; from Chile to Montana and Denali. I looked back and saw the sincerity in his eyes. Taking a deep breath, I responded, “Ok. As long as we set a solid turn around time.” “How about noon?” Brody responded calmly. “Sure,” I said back, with a bit more confidence in my voice.
We avoided the icy face by sticking to a narrow windblown rib at the base of the cliffs. After rounding a bend, we entered a corridor of good snow. I started feeling a little more confident. At the end of this section, we reached another cliff. Unlike the previous one, this cliff was covered in small ledges and good hand holds. For the first time all day, I was excited about the potential for hard climbing. “We can do this!” I said, looking at Brody and Rage. Both men were grinning back at me. Brody climbed first, then Rage, and finally me on top rope. Although the rock was a little loose, it was an incredibly fun climb that required difficult axe placements and technical rock moves. I breached the top of the cliff with a heel hook and a fun mantel. Brody and Rage cheered me on as I reached the high plateau, the last of the difficult climbing, and a twenty-minute walk to the summit! Brody, Rage and I celebrated and insisted that Rage ski first. Despite his humble refusal, we gently pushed him off on his skis, making him the first person to ski from Talgar Peak’s 16,335-foot summit.
The Lost Trail
It’s 2:00 AM and my body is sore. I lay awake, looking at the dim ceiling of our tent. Brody’s dim light appears, and slowly, we start getting ready to descend. We decided as a group that it would be too difficult to descend via the approach route. Rage reassured us that we could safely navigate the old trail we initially decided against. My recent tensions with Rage and fear of brain eating ticks left me feeling restless. The first rays of light filled our view with vibrant green pine trees and purple wildflowers. As we descended, the trail faded into the brush like a ghost. Everything was so big, I felt like an ant in a lawn. I placed my feet gingerly in the deep thicket, careful to avoid slipping on a hidden rock or stump. In my concentrated state, I ran directly into the back of Brody, who was stopped dead in his tracks at the edge of a giant landslide. We were forced to hike directly upwards, following the contour of an undercut slope. The detour was unnaturally steep with hidden rocks, and impenetrable thickets of overgrown brush. The forest felt alive; a spirit hell bent upon slowing me down. I crawled slowly forward on my knees, keeping my snowboard tilted forward to push through the demon limbs of the forest. I stood up to catch my breath, only to see a mess of fallen logs ahead of me. My motivation was fading quickly.
“What if we literally can’t continue?” Brody said laughing, but half seriously. The gravity of his comment warranted a response, but I couldn’t figure out what to say. We kept walking, following the jagged contour of another giant landslide. The weak edge of the undercut ground flexed under my feet, sending pebbles rolling thousands of feet below to into the distant river. I tried to dig my feet into the brush, hoping for something secure to stand on. My feet kept slipping. I clawed the ground desperately digging in my ice axe into the dirt. We reached the apex of the massive hole and had to cross a small dirt bridge, only about 12 inches wide. I could see Brody standing in a secure place on the other side. I placed one foot after the other, staring at my feet to maintain my focus. I moved slowly taking each step with full intention. After an eternity, I finally meet Brody on the other side and clutched a small pine tree letting my legs shake.
Bayankol or Bust
One week later, after much needed rest in Almaty, a camouflage dressed guard prodded his rusty Ak-47 through my red North Face duffel bag at national park entrance gate, speaking aggressively in Russian. Meanwhile, a band of misfit horses conducted a similar raid on Brody’s things, speaking aggressively in... Horse I suppose. Negotiations were not going well. I am tried to explain in English to the guard that he couldn’t have my snowboard boots, because I seriously needed them to climb in. Meanwhile, Brody was pleading with a local farmer to give his hat back.
After promising the guards a gift upon our return, they reluctantly granted us access to move forward into the heart of the Central Tien Shan Mountains and towards our final objective, Bayankol Peak. This segment of our Kazakhstan adventure really started out with a bang. Prior to our incident at the military checkpoint, Brody and I were nearly sent to jail because of a selfie Brody took in from of a military building while waiting to get permits. Thankfully, Rage was able to explain to a group of 20 angry militants that Brody and I were just American idiots and not spies with a plan for espionage. Tuyuk Suk was a warm up, Talgar a healthy challenge, and now Bayankol was the real challenge as Rage put it. At nearly 20,000 feet, Bayonkol had never seen a ski descent, hadn’t seen a single climber in the last 6 years and was evidently guarded by menacing men with guns. Sweet, lets go!
After seeking out every pothole on the road, our old 1980’s shock-less Toyota finally stopped at a small hut. Thankfully, Rage arranged for horses and a porter to help carry gear our 2 weeks worth of climbing, skiing and camping gear up to our basecamp. The hut was empty. Rage finally spotted the porter and his horses across the river. A ten minute yelling battle in Russian commenced between Rage and the porter. “What did he say?” Brody asked. “He doesn’t feel like going today.” Rage said calmly.
As usual, it started raining right as we started to hike. Off we went into the mist, following a band of wild horses intent on not helping us carry our heavy things. We traced the banks of a black liquorish river looking for a place to cross. “Here it is!” Rage said, pointing to a cairn, precariously perched on a boulder in the middle of the raging river. “Fuck no!” Brody said. I nodded my head in agreement, happy that the “Fuck no” came from Brody before it came from me. With a nice trail in view, but completely out of our reach on the other side of the river, we had no other option but to climb into the complex glacial basin above.
The path we found took two days of precarious crevasse crossings, mud bogging and my least favorite, near vertical dirt climbing. When you have to use both ice axes to climb a crumbly dirt face, you know your in a real shit scenario. This continued for way too long, leaving me looking like a mud monster by the time we reached our base camp.
In the safety of our tent, we checked the weather using Brody’s Delorme. “The next two days look alright; however, a massive storm is coming in later in the week,” Brody reported. “Looks like one day to reach high camp, and one day to push for the summit.
What do you think, Brody?” Rage asked, directed his question at Brody. That doesn’t give us much wiggle room,” Brody responded.
Sun greeted us in the morning, revealing the giant granite face of Marble Wall Peak to the east and the giant exposed shoulder of Bayankol Peak above. After climbing for five hours in a series of couloirs, we reached a prominent ridgeline just before a thick layer of fog settled in. Soon, the wind picked up, and the snow began to blow. My nerves spiked after falling waste deep into a crevasse. Brody locked into the snow with his ice axe, preventing me from falling into the depths. Through the howl of the wind, I called out to Brody and Rage, “This is getting nasty! What do you guys think about digging in?” Rage answered immediately, “We need to go farther to get to the best camp spot.” Boom! A giant blast shook the mountainside! “Lightning, we need to get as low as possible,” Brody called out. We dropped into a little nook protected by a band of rocks. With wind and snow whipping over our heads, and thunder shaking the ground under our feet, we dug a shelter into the drift of snow and crawled into our tent.
Stars. In the clear quiet of the night, we started our summit bid trudging through waste deep snow deposited from the recent storm. The ridgeline dissipated, replacing the deep wind drifts with consistent boot deep snow. As the sun came up, the snow under our feet turned pink while the peaks in the distance glistened of frosty purple and gold. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my life.
At 18,000 feet, I caught my breath with Brody and Rage bellow a small roll. “How’s everyone doing?” “Great!” we all replied. I could sense Brody’s excitement: here we were, only an hour away from a first ski descent in perfect weather, incredible snow conditions and a crew totally unified and ready to make it happen. We crested the small roll together and gasped at what we saw.
A giant headwall stood between the summit, and our team like a dragon guarding a pile of gold. I cranked my head back at the 50 degree slope spanning a 1,000 feet wide, and 1,500 feet tall. We silently watched gentle wind wash over its smooth sparkling surface.
We moved ten steps onto its flank. The snow transitioned quickly from boot, to knee, to waist deep powder. I could sense the dragon stirring beneath my feet. Fear rose in my chest like nothing I have ever felt. What if Brody and Rage decide to continue? The previous month in Kazakhstan flashed through my mind: my tension with Rage, the hazards we encountered on Talgar, and my omnipresent fear.
Breaking through a wall of silence, Brody proclaimed, “We need to dig a pit.” Rage reacted, “No, it isn’t necessary, we shall continue.” I was speechless, my fears taking a very real shape. “No Rage, we need to dig a pit,” Brody retorted. Brody and I climbed up another ten feet to dig a pit, while Rage stood back. After isolating a pit Brody commanded, “Rage, you need to come see this.”
At the bottom of our snow pit, Brody slowly moved his glove from a firm layer of ice, through 5 inches of grainy facets, into a dense uniform slab. The dragon began to laugh from a distance, hidden by sunshine and sparkling snow.
Rage was the first to chime in, “That doesn’t look good at all.” The dragon grew quiet. Brody and I both nodded. “Lets get out of here,” Rage said intently. A giant weight lifted from my shoulders, replaced by immense respect for Rage. As I strapped into my board to head down, I looked over at Brody who stood clipped into his skis looking longingly up at the slope. With tears in his eyes, he said, “God, we’ve worked hard Bob.” “I know, I said placing a tender hand on his shoulder. We stood for a moment in silence before Brody let out a long sigh, smiled, and gave me a big high five.