BORKOLDOY: ROBBIE’S REVENGE, A MACC Fund Expedition
Robbie’s expression as I said this reminded me of my nephews’ faces when they realised it was Christmas morning. We had all been struck by the look of the ice line that carved a path up the north-east face, but Robbie had been particularly smitten. The object of his desires was a beautiful path of white and blue ice that zig-zagged steeply to the pointed summit of Peak 5044. This mountain was one of the most impressive of a range that wasn’t short of impressive peaks. We were in the Borkoldoy region of Kyrgyzstan and we were literally surrounded by unclimbed summits, most of which were higher than Mont Blanc, and only a handful of them had received previous ascents. No wonder Robbie looked like he had just been given his Christmas presents to unwrap.
The Climb: Robbie’s Revenge.
Altitude: 4400m – 5044m.
Grade: TD, WI4.
FA: Robbie Blease and Tom Greenham, 6th August 2018.
Words & Photos: Tom Greenham
There were eight of us on the expedition to Kyrgyzstan, all members of the newly rejuvenated Alpine Climbing Group. Another ACG member, Neil Peter, had tipped us off to the potential of the Borkoldoy area, having led the first known climbing trip to this system of valleys and glaciers the previous year. This was the first ‘real expedition’ for all of us and the learning curve was as steep as the routes we were here to climb. Our previous experience of less remote alpinism would only help us with the climbing aspects of the trip – the logistics of such a venture demanded a whole new skillset. Fortunately, we were a mixed bunch with a varied set of talents, ranging from fluent Russian to expert flatbread baking, so our debut expedition went relatively smoothly.
Our motley crew of climbers also had a wide range of experience in different climbing games and it was the oldest and youngest members of the team who stood below the north-east face of Peak 5044. At twenty-one, this was Robbie’s first time in love and he had fallen head over heels, hopefully, the only falling that would happen. I was not immune to the charms of such a good-looking ice line but, at thirty-three, knew that even the prettiest face could hide a cruel nature.
It was my caution that had led to Robbie’s initial frustration, as I was nervous about the ice quality on the approach slopes to our potential new route. The main part of the line was guarded by about two-hundred metres of fifty-degree ice – easy ground except for the fact that the ice looked old, bullet-hard and full of grit. It reminded me of the exit slopes on Les Courtes where, after cruising the lower ‘crux’ of the Swiss Route, I’d had an epic teetering up the last few hundred metres on crampon points that barely penetrated ice that was too hard to even take an ice screw. I definitely didn’t want to start this route, where the consequences of a mishap were pretty grave, with that kind of climbing. Robbie was confident that it would be easy to both climb and protect, so had volunteered to run a reconnaissance rope length up the ice field to check. Having reassured the nervy old man that the ice quality was fine for both crampon and screw, he downclimbed back to await my verdict: “It’s on!”
And so we found ourselves settling down in our assault tent on the glacier below the face, kit sorted, snow melted, drinks brewed and noodles eaten, to attempt the ever challenging task of sleeping through the excitement and nerves of tomorrow’s climb. A surprisingly good sleep, broken only by the grinding roar of an enormous rockfall further down the valley, carried us through to the buzz of our one a.m. alarm. Brewing and gearing up was surprisingly ‘faff-free’ and we were soon charging up the easy angled ice to reach the bottom of the steeper climbing. Moving together kept the pace fast and, with our head torches only piercing a short distance into the darkness, it came as quite a surprise to find ourselves at the foot of the left-trending gully of steep ice that marked the start of the more technical climbing. Conditions were perfect, with squeaky neve merging seamlessly with underlying snow ice to give the perfect combination of great climbing and solid protection. The angle reared up past sixty degrees, but with such secure tool placements, it felt fine to continue moving together. Another three or four rope lengths took us to a further steepening with the hard neve giving way to slick ice that glinted in the first light of the sunrise.
We had come to Borkoldoy for technical climbing on virgin lines in remote mountains and this was exactly what we had found.
As I brought Robbie up to the belay I could see his gaze being drawn upwards, following the beautiful line of sparkling ice. The apprehension was visible in the nervous energy with which he re-racked the ice screws on his harness, but his facial expression was one of pure resolve. I could sense how psyched he was to get on the harder climbing. Robbie had patiently waited in base camp for a partner to become free, dealt with the uncertainty of my assessment of the initial ice pitches, prayed for the weather to hold and now he was finally on the route. I knew that the hard climbing was no longer his challenge -it was his reward. Robbie stepped rightwards on to the main sheet of ice. It reminded me of a wave, rearing up ever steeper. An early ice screw placement from comfortable ground and then up on to eighty degrees, blue-grey water ice. Robbie moved steadily, keeping cool enough to deploy all of those tricks that delay the arrival of the dreaded ‘pump’. Bridging out to unweight his arms for each screw placement, squatting down to allow a rest on straight arms, tactical shake-outs all allowing steady progress up the glistening face. I could hear his breath getting ragged as he fought against the pump and the altitude, but I knew he had the pitch beaten. A helpful rock protrusion at twenty-five metres allowed a brief rest for the calf muscles and then a few swift moves to gain a hollow in the left wall of the gully. The first hard lead, thirty metres of WI4 at the height of the summit of Mont Blanc, done in fine style.
Taking the remaining ice screws off Robbie I kicked my front-points into the ice. The angle had eased now to between seventy and eighty degrees and the snow ramp that marked the start of the summit slopes was tantalisingly close. With the heat of the sun starting to trigger the occasional bit of stone fall I was keen to exit the gully to less exposed ground. Moving up, the climbing felt easy, just like a very long Mirror Direct in the Cairngorms. I tried to keep moving swiftly, but the top of the ice fall still seemed quite far away and my calves and arms were beginning to protest. Saving one ice screw for the belay I ran out the last ten metres, trying to ignore the pump as I pulled over the top of the ice fall on to easy ground. Running out a full rope length was worth a bit of pump as it had taken us to one of the most perfect belay ledges I’ve ever found in the mountains. Completely flat and big enough for two people to comfortably lie down, it almost seemed a shame that it wasn’t later in the day so we could have stopped to bivi! We contented ourselves with a drink and some Kyrgyzstan cereal bars -breakfast of champions!
Although it was tempting to lounge around on our perfect ledge, admiring the view of the glacier four hundred meters below, we still had a lot of ground to cover. We weren’t sure whether descent down the South face would be safe when heated by the afternoon sun, so were prepared for a bivi to allow it to refreeze, but we still wanted to reach the summit in good time. We were relatively sure that we had climbed the technical crux of the route but, as the first people to ever climb this route, there was still the chance of some nasty surprises. We moved together up the snow ramp that led to the final summit slopes, easy climbing but the altitude and early start were now making their presence felt a little. Some more steep neve around some slightly complex rock terrain took us to around one hundred metres below the summit ridge. Repetitive step kicking with little in the way of protection was rewarded by a beautiful couple of rope lengths up the summit ridge. At just below 5000 metres we had better views of the range than we had seen so far on the trip. Some quick photos were snapped to use to help plan future routes and then it was time for the grand finale. The summit was guarded by an unbroken cornice -not enormous, but certainly big enough to be a little thought-provoking! Robbie explored the possibility of bypassing this on the left, but eventually conceded to the inevitable and climbed up to excavate a passage through the looming white overhang. After some slightly frenzied hacking, there was a big enough slot to admit a slim young alpinist and Robbie mantelled up on to the summit plateau using the tried and tested ‘walrus’ technique. After a testing first week of the trip, Robbie had definitely got his revenge on Borkoldoy, with the first ascent of the best-looking line in the valley.
Summit celebrations were slightly curtailed by the beeping of the InReach device. “Snow and high winds coming in from west” was the message from Julian, our home contact and weatherman. We could already feel a drop in temperature and see the sky turning grey down the valley, so we decided to have a quick brew and then check out the descent. Suitably fuelled, we traversed the South-East ridge before abseiling down into a col above the glacier which was to be our route back out to our base camp valley. There was a choice between descending on ice, with easier and more reliable Abalakov anchors, or a more complicated series of abseils down the chossy rock spur of the South face. Although the route down the ice was much easier it took us on to very loaded snow slopes at a perfect angle for avalanches, so we decided to take the rock line directly down to the glacier. After a slightly harrowing series of abseils (Borkoldoy rock quality ranges from bad to atrocious!), we reached the glacier. Crossing the upper ‘wet’ glacier was made slightly more exciting by a thick crust of snow over a deep layer of powder. Every few dozen steps the crust would collapse and the resultant downward plunge was remarkably similar to the sensation of falling into a crevasse. However, we arrived at the nose of the glacier without incident, although here we realised that there was no easy way down the steep seracs and so a diversion was required to find a point to get down off the glacier. We reached the first valley of our walk out just as it was getting dark. With head torches on, making plenty of noise to keep the resident wolves away, we began the eight-kilometre trudge through the valley systems back to base camp.
We arrived back at base camp at 11:30 pm, exactly twenty-one hours after starting the route. All that was left to do was drink tea, lots of tea, and get some rest. Sleep came a lot easier than it had the night before the climb! It was a strange feeling to think that we had climbed a route that nobody had ever climbed before, especially given the quality of the climbing, the purity of the line and the beauty of the mountain. In the European Alps, ‘Robbie’s Revenge’ would be a classic tick on the list of Grand Courses, akin to some of the big North face routes in the Mont Blanc massif. Even more surreal is that from the summit we could see the potential for literally dozens of new routes on unclimbed 5000 metre peaks, just waiting to be climbed. It was a privilege to be able to visit such an amazing part of the world and, as our first foray in to exploratory climbing, it has been an inspiration to continue to climb new routes and new mountains. ‘Robbie’s Revenge’ was our first ‘first ascent’ in the mountains but I’m sure it won’t be our last. Looking at the photographs we took of other unclimbed lines brings us back to the phrase that started this climb: “It’s on!”