The Altai

Exploration in Southern Siberia, 9th-28th August 2012

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Blog & Updates

Mystery on Irbistu

24th February 2013, by George

The summit of Irbistu lies at 3967m, and despite Igor's claims that it presented a good opportunity for a first ascent in the Altai, it has in fact been summitted many times before.

Here is a picture of Eleri from the top:

Eleri and Greg's ascent on 17th August saw them encounter an (empty) bottle of champagne, and this mysterious plaque on the top. After a recent lecture in Bristol a friend of mine, Alina Lyuleeva, got in touch to tell me the mystery had been solved!

To be fair to her, speaking Russian gave her a decided advantage. The bottom line simply means "70 years", whilst the top is the logo and name of the Helicopter Factory of Novosibirsk.

More information on them can be found here, thanks to Alina for solving this one small mystery!

Alpkit Zhota: Detailed Review

8th January 2013, by Greg

For the expedition, Alpkit were kind enough to loan us one of their Zhota 3-person tents which we used as our basecamp / mess tent.

Briefly, the design is a pitch inner-first, mountain spec / geodesic, 3-4 person tent.

The Zhota (red) in action in the Russian Altai

One of the key features is the configuration of the crossing poles along the top of the inner - they have a ‘spreader bar’ between them thus creating extra internal space, added to this the walls of the tent are steeper than other similar tents I have used. The benefit being more internal space and a more even ceiling height distribution (the inside really is huge!). Most tents taper off dramatically at the sides, so unless you’re sat in the middle, the ceiling is much lower and it’s not usually comfortable to sit upright for any lengthy period.

The 'spreader bar'

Considering the relatively large amounts of time we were in this tent and the fact that we were eating / planning / sorting gear (thus sat up rather than lying down sleeping) and also sharing the space with 2 weeks worth of food, the extra headroom was very welcome and it sets the Zhota well above other similar specced and priced tents.

For its size and spec, the weight of 4.9kg is pretty much what you’d expect (it’s easily separated out into two similar weight loads for easier distribution when carrying) and the build quality throughout is extremely high. The seams are solid, guy line attachment points are very hard-wearing (the 3-point ones spreading the load well) and the poles are noticeably light yet strong. We had no issues at all during the expedition with regards to any of the materials.

The roomy interior

Pitching the tent is speedy, although the spreader bar does mean the two crossing poles are a little more fiddly to thread (since they’re connected via the bar) but this really isn’t an issue (especially since pitching was minimal, being our basecamp tent).

One potential issue we did come across is the thinness of the groundsheet. It’s made from 70D/210T Nylon (and has quite a rubbery feel to it from the PU coating) which keeps water out nicely, however you do have to be careful with any bits of rock or sharp / rough objects under the tent - good advice in general of course, but we found that we had to be extra cautious when clearing the ground as even smaller rocks had a tendency to stress the fabric if weighted from the inside. The flip-side is that the groundsheet most likely weighs a good deal less than the more traditional HD Nylon style.

A welcome feature is the addition of a porthole style window on each of the outer doors - these came in handy for keeping an eye on the weather (or indeed the local yak population).

I would like to see Alpkit offering the addition of snow valances to their tent range. Whilst not needed for this particular expedition, having spent a number of weeks in the Swedish Arctic with Terra Nova Quasars (with fitted valances) and a Force Ten Vortex 300 (sold with valances) they really come in immensely useful in situations where solid ground anchors are hard to come by (ie. you’ve run out of skis and there’s no ice to get some screws in to) and / or you want to stabilise the tent and cut out drafts by piling up snow around the outside.

The lack of valences is really the one thing stopping the otherwise excellent Zhota from being my first choice tent for every expedition. It’s extremely well built and monstrously spacious, considering its packed down size & weight.

This blog article was also posted on Greg's blog at http://gregannandale.com/gear/alpkit-zhota-tent-review/

Alpkit Zhota Tent Review

27th October 2012, by Clay

This is the 3-4 man Alpkit Zhota tent:

I already owned a large selection of Alpkit gear and so I knew they offered kit that was well designed and built, for less than you'd expect to pay anywhere else. With this in mind, the new range of Alpkit tents caught my eye when we decided to take a larger tent with us.

We spoke to the guys at Alpkit and they kindly lent us a Zhota tent for our trip. The tent is relatively easy to pitch (which was handy given we hadn't had chance to try it out before we left) although inner first is always a bit of a pain if it's raining, as it was when we reached basecamp.

The tent is spacious inside, helped by the steep sides. This means you can happily sit up even right near the edge of the tent, a big bonus when using it as a communal basecamp tent. There are pockets and hooks everywhere, literally.

As for more extreme weather testing - we had no really violent winds or heavy snow in camp. Although the one time it was fairly windy this tent was sturdy and seemed fine whilst one of our smaller tents was flexing a fair bit in the wind.

Overall - for an expedition of our size and scale, we'd definitely recommend it as an excellent bascamp tent. We also enjoyed the humorous safety message. Thanks once more to Alpkit for their generosity!

Handmade Soviet Climbing Gear

13th September 2012, by George

Ever wondered what 30 year old, handmade Soviet climbing gear looks like? Well here you are:

Whilst in basecamp, we were joined for a few days by some Russian trekkers. Primarily there to walk, they were planning on an attempt on Irbistu involving a glacier crossing and some easy scrambling, so they had brought with them a stripped-down climbing rack. Out of curiosity we asked to take a look at what they had, and were excited to see an assortment of thoroughly non-CE rated equipment. A couple of nuts, a handmade tri-cam, several pegs cut from sheet steel, and possibly most intriguingly of all were their handmade ice-screws.

In our conversation of broken English, we came to understand that in Soviet Russian it had been almost impossible to source genuine climbing gear from the West, and so climbers had to resort to making their own. Having fallen on the nuts several times, Alex the climber clearly saw no reason to bother upgrading his rack!

I was so excited by these works of art, roughly machined from some metal offcuts, with the wires crudely soldered on, that I promptly swapped a couple of my own pieces of gear for two of his nuts. They'll probably not be making their way onto my rack anytime soon mind...

We're back!

30th August 2012, by George

5 great alpine routes, 8 summits, lots of yak and no bears. We flew in late Tuesday night, videos images and stories to follow in due course. Keep an eye on our twitter feed @thealtai where we will be posting new content as we have it!

EPIC TV Appearance

13th August 2012, by George

Just as we headed off, EpicTV based out of Chamonix featured us in their EpicTV Threesome show. Jump ahead in the video embedded below to 7:50 to see Trey, Jools and the other guy discussing where exactly we are heading to, and to see George discussing how he is scared of the sheep and has no idea quite which basecamp we will end up at.

Logistics - The Facts

7th August 2012, by Eleri

One of the most important factors in organising an expedition is whether you can get there, but with modern transportation it is possible to get pretty much anywhere in the world (or beyond?). Often your only constraints are whether you can find someone crazy enough to get you there, and whether you can afford to pay enough to make it worthwhile for them.

For our first big expedition we decided to pick somewhere that wasn’t going to be a logistical nightmare, but was still a big step up from jumping on a cable car. The lower valleys of the Altai are largely accessible by off-road 4x4, and where the terrain becomes too difficult for motorised transport it is possible to revert to the trusty mule.

How to Start?

First of all, we decided on where we wanted to go, The Altai Mountain Range. Then we looked at where the nearest airport was (Barnaul) and whether we could fly there for a reasonable price (yes, we can). Kayak.co.uk , opodo.co.uk and skyscanner.net were particularly useful in finding cheap flights.

We decided to go with the Russian airline Aeroflot because they let you space out your flights within one journey- so on our return flights we have arranged a 36hr stop in Moscow. Flights take around 5 and a half hours from Heathrow to Moscow, and 4 hours from Moscow to Barnaul. Moscow is GMT + 4hrs and Barnaul is GMT + 7hrs. Just don't look at the Wikipedia page for their safety record...

Once we had ascertained that we could get within a 300km radius of our chosen destination with a couple of commercial flights that was it, decision made, we knew we’d be able to sort out the rest. The trip was on!

Where to climb?

We then used Google Earth to identify some potential base camp areas. We also took account of the terrain we could see on Google Earth and thus whether we though it was likely that motorised transport could take us all or part of the way to our destination. Having seen a flat plain leading to the valleys below the South Chuyski Range we reasoned that an off road vehicle should be able to take us to the base of our valley, and maybe even up into the valley.

We searched the internet for guiding / mountaineering companies in the area who might be able to assist us in sorting out logistics. We also used previous trip reports to get an idea of how expeditions before us had travelled around, and what kind of prices they had paid.

After a few months of emails in broken Russian, replies in broken English and a fair amount of online translation we settled on using K2 Adventures. There weren't many operators who responded positively, but K2 came recommended from previous UK teams and sounded like they knew what they were doing. Only time will tell if they actually do!

We still haven’t finalised a base camp, our contact has explained that some of the access tracks have been damaged by flooding, and so we won’t actually know how far we can get until we’re in the truck with the driver. We also speak neither Russian, or the local language Altay. At the moment we have a lot of ideas for routes and areas we want to be, but essentially we’re going to have to adapt to where we can get to!

So that brings us up to date, finalising the details with our Russian fixer. Igor was also kind enough to send us a photo of our final transport, good to see he has a sense of humour! We also understand it to be Russian mountaineering tradition to have a small party before leaving the road and heading into the mountains. We’re not sure whether this is accurate, or he just wants a party at our expense, but either way we’ve a feeling it’s going to be one crazy journey!

Extras

One thing to note is that upon arrival in Russia you need to register your visa with the local authorities in any place which you are intending to stay more than 7 days. This is fine if you don’t arrive on a Sunday- when all possible registration centres are closed, or if you don’t mind hanging around in Barnaul until Monday. However we will arrive on a Sunday morning and don’t want to waste valuable climbing time, so we have arranged for our fixer to do the registration for us.

Wildlife Risk Assessment

10th July 2012, by Eleri

The Altai are full of all kinds of exciting animals it seems. Eleri takes a quick look at the sorts of carnivores we don't plan on encountering...

Snow Leopard

Weight: Up to 75kg
Top speed: 37mph

Key characteristics:
Carnivorous, eats mainly sheep, wild boar, marmots and other small rodents.

Action plan:
Snow leopards are the least aggressive of the big cats. They do not attack humans unless provoked. Therefore upon meeting a snow leopard the plan will be to smile sweetly and back away slowly.

Risk rating: Low. They look quite cute really.

Brown Bear (Grizzly)

Weight: Up to 600kg
Top speed: 35mph

Key characteristics:
The brown bear is extremely omnivorous, and will be curious about the potential of eating virtually any organism or object that they encounter. Despite their reputation, however, brown bears derive up to 90% of their dietary food energy through vegetable matter.

Action Plan:
Brown bears usually avoid humans and will not attack unless surprised or threatened. However when they do attack, the attack is likely to end in serious injury, or death. In direct confrontations, people who run are statistically more likely to be attacked than those who stand their ground.

Studies have also indicated that pepper spray can be more effective at stopping aggressive bear behaviour than guns. So the plan is to not run away from a bear, store all food and toiletries away from our sleeping tents, and maybe buy some pepper spray.
N.B Adult bears can’t climb trees, young ones can. So if it looks old and there’s a tree nearby...

Risk Rating: Moderate. It’s unlikely that we’ll see one, it’s unlikely it will attack us, but if these two events do happen then we could be in a lot of trouble.

Lynx

Weight: Up to 30kg
Top speed: 34mph

Key characteristics:
The Lynx is native to Siberian forests. It is a solitary and nocturnal animal, which tends to hunt during dawn and dusk. It tends to eat small mammals like rabbits, hares and mice.

Action plan:
A Lynx won’t attack a human unless it is defending itself or it’s young. Therefore the plan is just to stay away!

Risk rating: Low. Another case of cute cat.

Kuril Tea

This stuff grows in the Altai mountain range. It is a bush with plumose leaves. Apparently it’s very good for you, and can help ease diarrhoea, problems with the cardiovascular system, diseases of the liver, and a high body temperature. So it pretty much covers all bases then!

Note: Must make sure not to confuse with the Cannabis Selvia plant, as apparently this grows in the area too.

Risk rating: Very low. Even if we do mistake the Cannabis plant for it, the effects aren’t going to be too catastrophic.

Altai argali

Weight: 170-180kg

Key characteristics:
This is a traditional subspecies of argali, wild sheep. It is the largest sheep in the world! It has HUGE horns, with those of mature males weighing up to 35kg.

Action plan:
The Altai Argali are unlikely to cause any problems for us, unless we upset them and they start getting angry with their horns. So the plan is to take pictures from a safe distance and remember that although they might look fluffy and cuddly, they do have massive horns.

Risk rating: Low

Pitching for Berghaus

23rd May 2012, by George

This weekend, myself and Clay Conlon travelled up to the Keswick Mountain Festival to compete in the live final of the Berghaus Live for Adventure contest. We are absolutely delighted to say that we won against some very good competition, and we are really excited to have the support of Berghaus for the Altai 2012 expedition.

There were three other finalists. First up was Ben Hudson, who is leading Oxford University Caving Club to the Picos de Europa in Northern Spain. They plan to travel over a kilometre down below the surface, traverse across a bit, and then pop up somewhere else. It sounded pretty dark, cold and cramped, but also very impressive.

Finalist number two was Jason King who was conducting his own “European Three Peaks Challenge”. His plan is to summit three peaks in three different styles in three different locations (in 9 days). The routes are Via Vertigine on Monte Brento, the Cassin route up the NE face of Piz Badile and a traverse of the Matterhorn up the Lion ridge then down the Hornli ridge. He also quoted from Games Climbers Play, which we appreciated.

Next up were Matt Burdekin & Polly Hamer. This was by far the closest expedition to ours in terms of style and objectives. They are heading to Kygryzstan to attempt the first ascent of the North face of Muz Tok, followed by another first ascent of an un-named 5000m peak. They seem pretty competent and keen, and you can follow what they get up to on their Facebook page. Best of luck to them. Polly is also this year’s winner of the Julie Tulis award.

Then it was us. I’d had an awful train and bus journey up from London after a friend’s party the night before, (not ideal preparation) but I was pretty excited and raring to go by the time the moment came. The five minutes was gone in a flash, a few mis-pronounced Russian names got the odd laugh, and I tried to emphasise the adventurous aspect of our trip as much as I could. We were pretty bloody excited when Mick announced us as the winners, and there is a huge cheque now sitting propped up in my bedroom as a reminder of what a great weekend we had.

Ticking off the to-do list

14th April 2012, by George

Spent the weekend have a detailed planning session at Eleri's in Bristol. A planned 4 hour session ended in a 12 hour marathon all day, with barely any time left for climbing! Still, at least we now know where we are going, how we are getting there, what we are taking, and what it will cost.

It must be the other Belukha

30th March 2012, by George

Typing Mount Belukha into Google brings up a raft of relevant information (except in Google Maps: “Did you mean Belgium?”). Given the breadth of information available online when expedition planning, we would have been foolish to rely upon nothing more than Wikipedia as a source of basic facts about the mountain. However, when going into our MEF interview, we felt fairly confident that not only were we well aware of what Belukha was (the highest mountain in the Altai) and how high it was (4,506m), but also where it was:

Mount Belukha: Sitting visibly on the Russian (north) and Kazakhstan (west) border. Mongolia is to the south, and China to the east.

Of course, the fact that we would be climbing nowhere near it meant that we had conducted little further research on the matter. So imagine our surprise and slight concern when the first 5 minutes of debate centred around where exactly Belukha was located.

Quite how this situation arose we aren’t sure, but sitting around a table with seven of the great mountaineers of our age can be fairly intimidating. The Altai are a fairly novel venue for an excursion, so we had begun by looking for some familiar landmarks to help orientate ourselves. The highest mountain seemed like a good place to start.

However, they seemed convinced that Belukha lay well into Russia, well north of the border. We politely pointed to the Google Maps projection they had (along with the large pin marked “Belukha Mountain”), but they assured us that there are photos taken from the Mongolian border looking at the summit due North into Russia, and that Mick Fowler had climbed there many years ago and reported it as lying nowhere near a border.

We politely disagreed, and they toyed with the idea that Mick had “pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes”, after which the conversation ended with “well, the map marker must be the other Belukha”. Slightly nervous and keen to demonstrate we had at least done some research, we moved on hurriedly.

But in my head, the issue wasn’t resolved. So I decided to go and ask him...

Let’s ask Mick

A few weeks later, after delivering an Alpine Club lecture, I collared Mick as he was leaving with the opening line of: “I hear you climbed Mt. Belukha some years ago. Where was it when you climbed it?” After running through a little back story to this unconventional request, I sat back to await an answer to set us straight. But it never came. Belukha, he assured us, was nowhere near the Kazakhstan border and lay well within Russia.

Convinced that we, Google, Wikipedia, and every other expedition report reference couldn’t be wrong, I retired to the pub. And there I found the answer. We were both right:

 

The opening pages of the 1988 British Altai Expedition. Can you spot the answer?

The answer lies on the first page of the Alpine Journal’s report on Mick Fowler’s expedition. No further in than the subtitle. In 1988, Kazakhstan was in fact the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic, a part of the USSR since 1936. This would have placed it well within Russia, nowhere near the (non-existent) Kazakhstan border, and visible North of the Mongolian-Russian border.

Mystery solved and lesson learnt: mountains never move, but borders do.