Two weeks ago, I received an email inviting me to a party at a Foreign Service Officer (FSO)’s flat to welcome the new Fulbright Scholars to Almaty. I am not here on a Fulbright Scholarship, so I was confused about the invitation. It turns out they invited every young 20-something in Almaty to this event, including the Fulbrighters, the Carnegie Fellow, KIMEP’s Dr. Bang Fellows, and the Princeton in Asia Fellows, which included me.
Since I’ve been unsuccessfully trying to become an FSO for two years now, I showed up to the event in full networking mode. With plenty of my business cards in hand, I watched and waited, figuring out who the bigwigs in the room were while chit-chatting with other Fellows about this and that. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the US Consular General came over and introduced himself. I started to explain what I am doing at KIMEP, and what I want to do here in the region. I was slowly making progress, and BAM! one of the Bang Fellows discovered who he was and took over the conversation, gossiping about Kazakh and Russian Lawyers and things I knew nothing about. I was amiss, and out of the circle. No exchange of business cards, no “give me a call,” no helpful tips. I blew it.
Dejected, I meandered to the bar for a drink. I participated in a bit of small talk here and there while I silently fumed about my blown opportunity. It wasn’t long before a happy looking guy walked over and introduced himself as Bill, a librarian at the Consular office. He asked where I was from, and I answered Colorado. The conversation immediately turned to skiing. Bill is a big backcountry enthusiast who was very excited to talk to me about my experiences skiing, and especially all of my experience working with avalanche awareness with groups like the DU Alpine Club and Friends of Berthoud Pass. Talking about skiing made me super relaxed, and listening to him describe several zones I’ve scoped out recently as “great backcountry spots” made me pretty darn excited. We exchanged cards, and I decided to leave shortly thereafter since I was on a high note.
I awoke the next morning to an email from Bill inviting me to his home for burritos, beer, and a chance to meet some other skier enthusiasts the following Sunday. It almost seemed too good to be true. I found his apartment, met Bill’s bubbly wife Gloria, and met Matt and Mackenzie, a couple of US Government employees here for various reasons. The basic small talk conversations led us to discover that Mackenzie and I both went to DU’s Korbel School of International Studies and we were both climbers, which she was really stoked about since there are fewer of those here than skiers. Information was exchanged, burritos were eaten, and beer was drank. My future in Almaty started to look very optimistic for the upcoming winter season.
During the following week and a series of email exchanges, it became apparent that Mackenzie, a couple of British guys and I were to spend the three-day Kurban Ait holiday weekend together in the mountains. Different peaks and routes were named, for all of which I had no idea what they were talking about. We decided to spend a day scouting different opportunities after touring up Chimbulak, the local ski station, and then climb something Saturday, and possibly Sunday. The tour up Chimbulak, although very shallow, warmed up muscles hardly used over the past year. We also met Sergey and Margarita, two patrollers at Chimbulak (and also world-class climbers) who we would stay with that night in the Patrol shack.
After the tour, we skied a bit but mostly walked down Chimbulak as to save our bases from certain destruction back to Mack’s truck, where we exchanged our day packs for overnight packs. We snuck in a couple of beers at the resort’s base, and then hiked back up the hill for a night in the Patrol shack. After a delicious dinner, we made our way to bed. I had no idea where we were going to stay that night, so I brought my zero-degree bag in case we were to be out under the stars. Turns out I was to stay on the second floor of the shack, which turned into a night from hell. Russians and Kazakhs have a firm belief that heaters need to be on full blast at all times, and windows should never be opened for any reason (this is also causing some sweaty problems at my centrally-heated apartment in Almaty). It was a long night between trying to sleep in a sauna and hearing the sounds of mice scurrying in the walls.
A 5:30am wake up, walk back down the hill, a quick drive to as far as Mack’s truck could get us, and we hoofed it up an icey road for two hours. We found the “trail”, and then started the climb. The first half of the climb was simple enough, shallow snow or rock that was packed down by Sergey, Margarita, and two other Russian climbers that had joined us, but then it got interesting. We passed Alpengrad, which is a wonderful camping spot on the north side of Amangeldi, and then struggled through boot-deep sugar snow on top of slick talus. Plenty of slipping and near falls led us to the bottom of a couloir that will undoubtedly give me pleasant dreams for some time, at least until I go back when there is more snow and my skis are strapped on.
The couloir, although steeper, was a bit easier to climb since there was less snow. Four hours from the road, we topped out, put on harnesses, and roped up. We had two pairs of mountaineering crampons and one set of ice axes between Mack, myself, and James, one of the aforementioned British guys, so I ended up with the axes but no ‘pons. This worked out, however, I would have loved to have had some crampons as well.
I cleaned the first pitch, and then we let another party of Kazakh climbers pass us. James and I simul-climbed the much easier, but more exposed, second pitch. We untied for the final summit scramble, and took in the views of the surrounding mountains as fast-moving clouds caressed the surrounding ridges. It was a beautiful day to be on a beautiful summit.
We downclimbed to find that our Russian companions, and the other Brit, were rappelling off a very sketchy rock. We helped them keep the rope from sliding off the horn they were anchored on, but then downclimbed to a much safer anchor. We only had 2 ATC devices between the three of us, so the sharing process took some time, but before I knew it, we were slipping and sliding down the snow, talus, and mud we had ascended earlier. It was my first real technical summit here in Kazakhstan, and I was stoked beyond comparison.
I was also exhausted. I hadn’t done a big climb like this since Collin and I skied Mt. Hope back in April, and the sleeping situation in the Patrol Shack was far from beneficial to my mental state as well. After some debate, Mack and I decided to not do another big climb the next day, and instead she showed me around Asia Wall, a local crag near Medeu. Overall, it was an extremely successful weekend! I hope to do it again before the weather is too sour, but if not, I’m glad I got this chance to scope out spring skiing missions if nothing else. Big thanks to Mackenzie, James, Tristan, Sergey, Margarita, and the rest of the crew for showing me around! This year just got a whole lot more exciting because of this crew.
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