“Are we technically lost if we can see our final destination, but can’t find a route to it?”
We couldn’t of picked better weather for our hike to the Four Peaks up in Kazakhstans Tian Shan Mountains. The plan was to catch a bus to Medeo, then a shuttle bus up to the ski village of Shymbulak. From there we were expecting to get a gondola up to the Talgar Pass at 3163m, but when we arrived the info lady told us it didn’t open until the next day. Bugger. So we had an additional 1000m climb on an already long hike. She took our details anyway and registered us incase anything happened because just a couple of days before a Kazakh girl from the city died while hiking in these mountains on her own.
So we set off on a gravel track below the ski lift and my god was it tough. On the way we passed two old men who we were surprised to see walking at a good speed with camping gear on their backs. They spoke some basic English and told us they come here every year, one was 72 years old and the other 77!!
After a couple of hours we reached the pass and the epic mountain view we’d been waiting for finally unveiled itself. After passing through steep mountains covered in green pastures and pine forest we were standing in front of a dramatic line of snow and glacier covered peaks. It was hard to believe we were in Kazakhstan. Clouds appeared out of nowhere and drifted across us like a group of ghosts passing by. They left as quickly as they arrived and we stopped for some lunch. We looked up at our next daunting challenge: Mount Chimbulacka, at 3540m. Our pace was very sluggish, the uphill sections at high altitude are just life sucking and really make me question why I bother hiking. Some clouds drifted below us through the valley, but the sun was still beating down on us and it was unbearably hot.
It was a horrible trail, just rocks and boulders along a ridge line and none of them were secure so we soon realised it was pointless warning the other person if one wobbled. The next three peaks were all lower altitudes so we expected the trail to become a lot easier from then on. But we didn’t anticipate having to climb steeply down a scoria trail and being met by a massive incline up Mount Bashuta.
We met three people coming the opposite way and we asked if we could cut sideways around the mountain to avoid the climb – not possible they said. It was already 3pm and we still had three peaks to climb and 10km walking back down to Medeo. It was looking unlikely that we’d make it back in time for the last bus so we pondered what to do. Going back the same way would be even more brutal than what was to come. But as we stood and talked about it Craig suggested walking down the valley to our left, a completely unknown route but below the valley we could see the ski resort where we could get the shuttle back from. The route looked about half the length of what we had ahead of us so it was very tempting but too unreliable. So I realised I needed to just get some energy from somewhere and I stormed up the mountain, determined to make it back to Medeo. But after just a short incline I was gasping for air again and my legs just didn’t want to go anymore. We realised we’d struggle to make it back so we abruptly went for the risky valley option.
It started off great, the area was overflowing with purple flowers and it was so beautiful. Our water ran out but we were heading downhill so it wasn’t too exerting and we managed to move down the mountain fairly quickly. The meadow soon went from shoe deep to knee deep with the odd section of loose boulders to navigate over. We soon came to a sort of river/canyon and we had to decide which side to go around it, the left plateau or the right. Craig said he was pretty sure we could get down the left, but the right looked like an easier route so we opted for that. I wasn’t feeling very confident with the situation, what if it led nowhere, I didn’t have the energy to go back. But we continued to go all the way down this valley with steep mountains on either side of us. After two hours our route led down a steep section along some rocks dripping with fresh water. It was perfect timing to fill up our bottles but I didn’t like the look of the area…if it was heavy rains then this would be a wild waterfall and we couldn’t see what happened over the edge. Craig went ahead to have a look while I chanted “please don’t be a drop off, please…”. He kept quiet for a while, peering down but not telling me what he saw so I angrily asked him what was down there. He told me the ground dropped thirty of so meters down to the bone dry river bed, there was no way we could get down and I was screaming with frustration and exhaustion. How the fuck were we going to get back?! We tried climbing up a steep bank using bushes and branches to pull ourselves up so we could see what the terrain was like further along but it was too difficult to get over. We only had one option really and that was to climb back up to the top of the river-bed where we could cross it and try the opposite side.
The only good thing about this situation was that we managed to fill up our water in the dribbling rocks. We treated it with a chlorine tablet so we had to wait thirty minutes before it was safe to drink and I was slowly lifting one foot in front of the other, back up the mountain while counting down the minutes until I could drink. We managed to cross the stony river bed towards the top where it’s sides weren’t too steep and we could slide down the gravel bank on our bums. Then we ventured along the left plateau, heading down into the unknown once again…there was nothing to say this route would lead us to safety. It was mostly meadow on the way down except for a few areas of piled up rocks. I was shattered and my legs were wobbly from tiredness, so when I stepped on the rocks and they wobbled I didn’t react quick enough and a bunch of them tumbled onto my legs. Craig thought I’d broken something but I just had a cut and bruise. I lost all positivity and was asking Craig what the heck were we going to do if this plan failed? Could we call mountain rescue if we weren’t injured or lost – we could see the ski resort below us, we just couldn’t get to it.
The dry river canyon which was now to our right joined into another river heading diagonally down from it. My fear now was we had to cross this river eventually, there was definitely water flowing down it but we didn’t know how much or if the banks would be canyon style like the other one. We got a brief glimpse down and we could see one side of the river was climbable so we persevered down and had to cut across a huge section of big bushes, scratching our legs and arms as we climbed over the strong branches. We eventually made it to a meadow-filled gully which we decided to follow down. It was very steep with wet grass so we were constantly slipping down. I lost count how many times we fell on our butts and it was so zapping having to pull ourselves back up again. We made it to the edge of the river bank and relief swept over us as we looked down at a traversable river and a river bank we could slide down. We were almost home, the detour took us four long hours, so we were hiking for 9 hours in total. I guess it was a blessing to take the wrong route first of all as that was the only water we found and I don’t think I could of gone on without it.
We had to find some more energy to run for the final shuttle bus at 7pm so we took a dirt track down. As we did so we got a view across the original section we tried to climb down and couldn’t believe how crazy the route was, we would have been trapped even if we got down the first river as the banks on the second river were almost vertical.
When we arrived at the bus stop the area was heaving with people. We queued for tickets and it looked like they were extending the hours of the shuttles, with the amount of people waiting we’d be on the third shuttle at best. But then some drama kicked off, a lady spotted some people who hadn’t been queuing sneak onto a bus and there was uproar. Lots of people left the queue and joined her in shouting at the driver and the people. When the next mini van came everyone charged for it and piled on without even buying tickets, it was every man for themselves. As soon as we saw another one coming up the hill Craig and I ran for it and with some sharp elbows we were some of the first people onboard. Now I realise why we went to India, it trained us for this very situation. The driver had no control as to how many people got inside so we were packed in like sardines with 25 people in a 13 seater van. I was relieved to be on board but Craig was unsettled, he said there was a high chance the breaks could fail due to the extra weight and insanely steep road we had to go down. We passed half a dozen run-away strips and I wondered if we’d suddenly have to zoom up one. But we didn’t and we made it down to Medeo, only to have to fight again for a seat on the next bus.
After starting the day with such incredible mountain views things really went downhill (excuse the pun). We didn’t get home until 9pm but we were happy to be alive and uninjured and grateful that we didn’t have to call mountain rescue. We’ve learnt many lessons though, never will we leave a trail for the unknown again, or set ourselves a hike so challenging. Craig sincerely apologised for even suggesting the detour we did, and his phrase of “if we just keep heading downhill we’ll get there eventually” has been disproved with great affect.