Planning hikes to lesser-known areas in Kyrgyzstan is always a bit of an adventure. We aren’t allowed to drive, so we have to find a taxi driver (who will lie about knowing the area) with a car suitable to drive up some terrible road. You also rarely have reliable information about what exactly you will find if the hike anything but the most commonly visited trails. AJ, a fellow PCV and Andre, a Dutch friend who owns a guesthouse in Karakol and I took a trip this past summer to Ontor Pass. Ontor Pass isn’t hiked more than a few times a year so it was a bit hard to know exactly what the hike would entail but it looked amazing and we really wanted to give it a shot. In early July we met up in Karakol and caught a taxi into Karakol National Park to give it a shot.
The first day started out with rain. Heavy rain. No taxi ride in Kyrgyzstan seems to be complete without some complication, this day our driver decided to pretend to misunderstand the bridge we said we wanted to be dropped off leaving us with an extra mile hike in (just an extra mile in pouring rain.) The beginning portion of the hike is up a road and is heavily trekked. Many people come up this road before turning left to see Lake Ala Kol. After passing the Ala Kol turnoff, the rain subsided. Soon, we reached a junction in Karakol Valley, we elected to go up the left side. The path we were taking would end up making a large loop and we expected to be exiting the right side of the valley in about 48 hours.
The path up the left side of the valley turned out to be way rougher than expected. We were following the river as told was the best path but it was incredibly slow moving as were bogged down by mud and thick forest. We reached a dead end and climbed a steep hill to our left, popping out into a wide open meadow. If following our hike, when you veer left in the valley, climb the hill immediately and don’t deal with the forest at all… The rain began falling again and the river was running very high. We knew we had to cross the river eventually and the rising level was making me a little nervous. Luckily, we came across a bridge however the swollen banks of the river had extended past the edge of the bridge and our feet got wet trying to cross. As we crossed, the lightning that had previously been in the distance started striking the adjacent hillside and we threw up my tent as an emergency shelter and took refuge from the storm for a while. When the rain let up, we continued on, determined to camp not far from the glacier as day 2 was going to be a beast of a day. We made it 11 miles before settling for a decent campsite amongst a herd of cows.
Day 2, got up kind of early but not nearly early enough as it turned out. We crossed a couple of large boulder fields and without a real trail to follow (we were above where the herders take their cows at this point) we had to fight through brush several times. Several miles in we found ourselves at the bottom of the glacier. This glacier was rock solid and covered in rocks so there wasn’t really any crevasse fears. There was a ton of rockfall in the area and more than once we chose a poor path, especially without helmets to protect us from softball size rocks that occasionally bounced down our path. After the first bit of glacier we came to a section with cleaner snow. Looking up, there were clearly hidden crevasses in areas. This is the part of the hike where the advice we were given seemed a little bit ‘casual’ and probably had some translation issues.
I was annoyed because we were already up here a little later than ideal and the conditions didn’t match what I was told. This wasn’t challenging terrain but I wasn’t prepared for glacier travel. The other two had more gear but didn’t have any training on glacier travel or crevasse rescue. I do know a little about these things but didn’t have crampons and my ‘harness’ was fashioned on the spot with some extra prussiks. Not ideal. We had a decision at this point to keep going or turnaround. I tried to make a case for why we should turn around but was secretly happy when we decided to continue on. We stayed to the edge and aside from punching through the soft snow a few times made it up to the pass ok and with reasonable speed. The day was getting very warm and we all got pretty sweaty with the sun reflecting off the icy walls surrounding us. After climbing the glacier, we had to cross Ontor Pass itself via a fun class 3 scramble to the top.
Upon reaching the top the wind, previously sheltered by the ridge I had just climbed, hit me full on immediately chilling me through my sweat-soaked shirt. The bad news however, was what I saw below. The only path after descending the scree slope was to cross the thick part of the glacier. I could clearly make out any crevasses crossing our path and this was the sun-facing slope. It was already 3pm and the surface had been softening in the sun all day. I bounced down the scree in a couple minutes but needed to wait half an hour for my teammates who were less familiar with navigating steep scree. When they arrived, we ate a quick snap and roped up again for the next glacier.
I was admittedly very nervous while on the glacier. Not only were we periodically finding soft spots and quickly plunging to our waist but being the only one with crevasse rescue practice it meant if I fell – I was in trouble. We walked slowly across the glacier, the most frustrating part was that the edge where we needed to go to get off the glacier was the most heavily crevassed section. Eventually we found a clear route to the edge and we were able to slide off the edge and onto the incredibly reassuring feel of solid rock beneath our feet. The path wasn’t easy however, there was no trail and we were often hopping from one rock to another. At least we were finally able to look around and admire the incredible views around us. An hour of boulder-hopping brought us to an incredible high alpine meadow wedged between massive cliffs on three sides and a glacier on the 4th. Until I visited Kel Suu, this was the most amazing landscape I’d seen in Kyrgyzstan.
We were all pretty beat at this point, we were about 22 miles in over two days of very strenuous terrain. But we were still high up on the side of the valley and had to make our way to the valley floor to find adequate camp sites and available water. We split up at this point and I went straight down hoping the chute I saw wouldn’t dead-end at a cliff. It was steep and I slid down a large portion of it but I was at the valley floor in just a few minutes. In a bit, the others joined me and we thought we were in the clear. In truth, we had not yet reached the actual valley floor and we found ourselves at the top of a waterfall, we could see a perfect campsite down below. Backtracking just a bit we could see the ideal path down was more than a mile behind us. Too tired to walk all the way back up to that trail we basically threw ourselves down a very steep, half rock, and half sand slope. I think we all left that section a bit bloodied (you’ll have to look at the video near the end to see it.) We set up camp quickly, refilled our water even quicker and passed out (although I did get my camera set up for my favorite photo of the trip.)
Day 3 was a bit of a blur. We woke up, camp somehow packed itself and we started walking. This day required numerous stream crossings as the whole valley was fairly flooded. We had decided to head out early so if we needed to cross the river it would be low enough to be safe. Walking down the right side of the valley turned out to be a mistake, if you come out this valley, be sure to cross the river to the left side of the valley first thing in the morning. The day was warm and this lower part of the valley was mostly grass so we were able to walk barefoot for a few miles which felt really nice after the pounding our feet had taken! We dodged a few herds of the most bizarrely aggressive cows I’ve ever seen and found a small trail leading steeply downhill where the slow river began to turn into rapids. Ahead, we could see the valley drop off steeply where there appeared to be a waterfall. The trail mostly disappeared and we realized out mistake, the right side of the valley led to an impassable cliff. To the left there was indeed a waterfall and on the other side of the river a real trail we needed to be on. By this time of the day the river had risen too high to safely cross so our only option was to hop across some boulders right at the top of the waterfall. With heavy packs and weary bodies it was a bit risky but we all made it safely across.
The rest of the hike was a long trudge out. Back on a real trail we started running into many other hikers, most heading up to or coming down from Ala Kol (a lake.) There’s no real transportation options when you come down unless you have something pre-arranged and cell phones don’t work until you are almost out of the park so it’s not really worth catching a taxi. Two miles from the gate where we could catch a bus, a mini-bus drove by. They were really nice and gave us a ride all the way back into Karakol, plus they gave us free beer! The hike turned out to be 36.5 miles and 7700’ of gain/loss over three days. With the terrain as it was, it was much more difficult than the numbers suggest!
The route: From Karakol you can take a taxi or the 101 marshrutka to the gate to Karakol National Park. Start walking up the road and then the trail until the valley splits about 7.5 miles in. I’d suggest going up the left side and camping around 12-14 miles in. When you make the turn up the left valley, get up the hill to your left to avoid the brush down below. On day 2, start early so you aren’t on the glacier as late as we were. You’ll want full glacier gear most of the year. After you curve up and over Ontor Pass, take the rocky trail to the right and then the scree down. You shouldn’t need to walk on the glacier more than ½ a mile, there is a bit of a trail through the rocks to the right. Camp once you get to the grassy valley floor below. Day three, wake up early and cross the river early, stay on the left side of the valley the whole way out. Contact me for the GPS track. Have fun!