Story by Mitch Toelderer and Michi Trjoer. Photos by White Room Productions
Gold crowns in teeth, in jewelry, in electronic connectors, gold as an investment… The world’s consumption of new gold is about 50% for jewelry, 40% for investments and 10% for industry. Gold isn’t an essential element and it’s not as useful as iron or other metals, but nonetheless, the value of gold makes blowing up rock and glacial ice in an otherwise super remote area of Kyrgzstan a viable business.
We, a group of 5 skiers, snowboarders and filmmakers, are standing on the side of a dirt road at 4000 meters in the Ak-Shirak mountains staring with disbelief at this spectacular mountain arena of glaciers, ice flanks and steep snow faces. Right under the best looking ski lines is a huge hole in the earth cut through the mountainscape. Monstrous mining machines owned by the Canadian company that operates the Kumtor gold mine churn up and down the long terraces surrounding the hole. As we stare at the terrifying and fascinating scene unfolding in front of our eyes, a column of huge trucks led by a security truck rumbles past us on the road. The dust kicked up by the convoy reminds us that the only reason we’re even standing this close to this spectacular mountain plateau is thanks to our world’s insatiable fascination with gold that dates back to 5000 BC.
Before we left home, we tried for several weeks to get a permit to pass through the mine to search for our "gold" - the unridden and untouched terrain sitting behind the mine. The information we got varied from “no problem” at the beginning of our research, to “not possible” a few days before we left Austria. Their reason for denying us was that some Russian mountaineers fell into a crevasse behind the mine and the mining company had to recover their bodies. The new policy was that the mine was closed to all public access.
After driving up this mountain road for several hours, surprised that we did not get stopped before, we are suddenly at the last gate before the mine entrance. We watch a line of trucks getting carefully scanned with mirrors from below and by opening up the engine rooms. Soon a big Russian speaking security guard approaches us asking what we are here for. We tell him that we would like to pass through the mine to access the mountains for climbing up and skiing down. Ten minutes later he returns and confirms what we had heard before we left. We can not access or drive through the mines property. Time for plan B.
After camping our first night just off the mining road, we drive our UAZ Hunter, a rustic Russian offroad vehicle, south on another old road that winds through the grass and snow drifts. Learning from getting stuck twice and shoveling for hours to free the car the day before, we decide to leave our car at a bridge where the snow pack starts to deepen. We pack up everything we would need to stay out for a week and start skinning towards a promising looking valley area we had spotted from the road. After a couple hours marching through the lonely mountain landscape we set up camp not far from the bottom of the glaciers where a lower valley splits into two higher valleys. Our camp is west facing so we bask in the warm evening sun looking out to the mountains surrounding the wide snowy Kumtor plateau.
The first day of exploring the zone we focus our attention on an impressive northwest facing wall in one of the valleys. The wall rises up 400 meters between two neighboring glacier basins. On the east and north side, we see signs of huge natural avalanches. Touring around the wall we find a spot to take our first look at the snowpack. The red flags we saw are echoed in our snow pit. 30 cm of fresh snow has spread like a veil on multiple fragile crust and hoar layers. The dangerous depth hoar, a 60 cm thick layer, sits on bare glacier ice. Sketchy! A further approach confirms our doubts. Even if the steeper passages seem to be safer, a residual risk in the foothills and flats remains. We can’t take any risk out here. Disillusioned, we walk back to the camp and start to make alternative plans.
South of the camp, a long crest divides the neighboring valley from the high plateau. We dare to ski the flatter slopes to test the stability of the snow cover. Starting with a few turns not far from our camp we climb higher and step up our game. Our skiing filmmaker Joi dares the first entrance into a steep ice flank that looks like a large funnel. To escape the sluff, Joi stops to the side of the steep narrow section. Loose snow rushes past him. No more, no less. Motivated and with a good feeling in our guts, we start skinning further into the valley.
After a couple hours of skinning and boot packing along the 4500m high ridgeline I make it to the top of a line that draws my full attention. The line has a steep technical entrance then moves to a spine above a couloir. Most of the line looks filled in with snow, but you can see ice shining through in a couple spots. Looking into it from above and planning my turns my heart starts racing. This is the excitement I live for! The first part below the cornice is exposed and looks a bit loaded, it scares me a bit but I have a good feeling. I start with cautious slow turns, feeling for any instability and trying not to get too much sluff going. The snow feels good so when I make it to the entrance of the steep chute I let go and accelerate towards the spine. To control my speed I lay into a hard toe turn. The hard cut instantly releases a small slab just below me. Still on my line I have some great turns up on the edge of the spine watching with one eye the sluff plunging like a wave on the opposite side of the couloir. I follow the roaring sluff down the couloir riding a little patch to the right that’s untouched. Straight lining with full speed over the glacier basin I yell out what’s left in my lungs and soak in the rush and happiness of a successfully mastered line.
On the following day, Joi and myself hike further along the ridgeline to access a steep flank at the end of the valley. After a couple hours of hiking the clouds start getting darker and the winds starts to blow the falling snow uphill. When the edges of my splitboard start tickling my butt with static electricity we throw all our metal gear away and hide as best we can on the exposed ridge. The storm soon passes through and we make it to the top of the face but we can’t find a good entrance due to huge cornices that we can’t judge from the top. It’s getting late so we decide to give up on our project for the day and head back to camp. Once back at camp we call out on our satellite phone for a weather report. Faced with two days of bad weather, we decide to leave our gear and camp and skin back to the truck to ride out the storms in a village on the shore of Lake Issykul.
Lake Issykul is the 2nd largest alpine lake in the world. It’s a spectacular lake sitting at 1500m above sea level with 5000m mountains all around it. We stay with a friendly local family in the village of Tamga at a very nice little homestay.
Heading back out to camp after the storms we notice that the temperatures have risen significantly. We struggle through soaked snowfields, small river courses and muddy meadows. Thankfully our camp is intact upon arrival other then a bivy sac torn apart by a fox.
Getting back in the mountains we focus on the lines that haven’t been skied yet. We decide to go back to where we started, the challenging north face we began calling `Brochkogel´ for it’s similar character to a mountain in Austria holding this same name. Fabi and myself decide to access the face from the backside. Looking down from the top the first 50 meters of the snow covered ice flank looks really steep even before it rolls over out of view. Fabi drops in first and disappears with speed behind the rollover. On the radio he lets me know that there isn’t much new snow and that the face is much harder snow than we thought.
3,2,1... I drop in and head toward the rollover. Having barely made a turn I immediately lose grip on my heel side. As my board starts to accelerate into a slide I try to steer while trying not to bounce off and start cartwheeling. When I start to feel the snow soften up a bit I screw up my courage to flip on my toeside edge and control my speed. The toe side edge hooks up and I enjoy a few turns into the basin below.
The last days of the trip we go back to the long ridge where we got caught in the thunderstorm. Joi and myself find the entrance to our line this time and ride a steep flank in perfect snow conditions. We return to camp relieved and full of joy. It’s time to head home.
A couple hours later we reach our fully loaded off-road vehicle. Due to the warm weather, the condition of the road surface has deteriorated considerably. The streams are swollen, the meadows are soaked, and the ice sheets are noticeable thinner. After two hours of crawling the vehicle through the water logged terrain we finally reach the road to the gold mine. Exhausted but happy, we look back one last time to the jagged peaks and the jarring man-made gash in the earth that allows access to this stunning part of the world.
See the full length film by Whiteroom Productions at the Freeride Film Festival and other dates listed below:
Freeride Film Festival Tour
Nov 2 - Innsbruck
Nov 3 - Luzern
Nov 4 - Zürich
Nov 5 - München
Nov 6 - Darmstadt
Nov 7 - Köln
Nov 8 - Berlin
Nov 9 - Wien
Nov 19 - Salzburg
Nov 20 - Dornbirn
Other Festivals And Premiere Events:
End of Oct - Winter Film Festival - Boston, USA
Nov 3 - Amsterdam, Netherlands
Nov 5 - Splitboard Film Festival - Vic, Spain
Nov 9 - London, UK
Nov 10 - Umea, Sweden
Nov 10 - Bergfilm Festival - Zirl, Austria
Nov 11 - Winter Film Festival - Bourg Saint Maurice, France
Nov 18 - Göteborg, Sweden
Nov 25 - Bergfilm Festival - Salzburg, Austria
Dec 8 - Åre, Sweden
Nordic Adventure Film Festival Tour
End of Nov - beginning Dec 2017