In Too Deep? | Escaping Avalanches on a Snowboarding Trip to Kyrgyzstan
When a group of snowboarders headed to the remote mountains of Central Asia they were hoping for the ultimate backcountry adventure. Then things started to go wrong...
Words by Tristan Kennedy | Photos by Dan Medhurst
I’m two thirds of the way down the couloir when the avalanche happens. For the first three turns, the snow has felt gorgeous. Soft and stable. But as I put in a heel edge and then rock back onto my toes I see it cracking ahead of me - a spidery line which quickly spreads left and right, fanning out terrifyingly fast about a foot in front of my board.
“Fuck!" My cousin Alex swears loudly. He’s stood about a hundred metres or so below and his iPhone captures the whole thing. My yell as the snow cracks. My desperate straight line out. My shouts (“woah, woa-ho-ho") as I make it out the bottom right of the couloir to safety and the relief in my voice as I look back and watch the slope I was on just a few seconds before collapsing in front of my eyes.
"I’m two thirds of the way down the couloir when the avalanche happens."
“How do you feel about that Trizza?" he asks. “Good," I say, almost laughing in disbelief. I feel exhilarated, lucky to be alive. But as I watch the slide slow down and eventually stop, my heart is pounding.
The group I’m with is experienced. We’d scoped the line carefully beforehand. We’d checked the snow conditions. I’d planned my escape routes and in the event, I’d managed to stick to that plan. But despite all that I can’t help but wonder if we’re out of our depth here. Have we bitten off more than we can chew?
It’s not the first time I’ve asked myself that question this week. The slopes we’re riding aren’t in the Alps or the Canadian Rockies - we’re in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia.
In fact we’re so far off the beaten piste that both the wide couloir I’ve just come down and the line my friend Daniel is splitboarding to are first descents. According to Azret, the owner of the cat-boarding lodge where we’re staying, no-one has ever ridden them before. Not because they’re particularly steep or technical, just because they’re so remote.
Even though the slide I’ve just set off wasn’t huge, we’re miles from any kind of mountain rescue service and a long way from the nearest hospital. An avalanche burial, or any kind of injury for that matter, doesn’t bear thinking about.
It’s something that’s been playing on my mind for months, ever since we started planning this trip. The idea came from my brother Rowan who lives and works in Kazakhstan, just across the border to the north. He visited Azret’s lodge with a group of local friends the previous season and comes back to the UK raving about cat-boarding.
Dubbed “the poor man’s heli-boarding", this sport uses modified piste bashers to ferry riders to the top of the slopes. Pioneered in the US and Canada (where the vehicles are known as snowcats) it allows access to fresh snow on mountains miles from the nearest lifts.
Unsurprisingly Rowan’s tales of endless untouched powder pique more than a few people’s interest, especially when he explains that a week, including flights from London, accommodation, food and snowcat time, will cost around £1,000 - roughly what you’d spend on a week’s snowboarding in France with a liftpass.
It hasn’t taken us long to gather our crew of 15, who are all buzzing about the idea. But while the prospect of riding perfect powder is a huge pull, there are nerves too. Our group, though all good riders with plenty of off-piste experience, are by no means backcountry pros.
In the weeks running up to departure our communal WhatsApp group is filled with messages that sound scared and stoked in equal measure. Excited photos of recently-purchased powder boards alternate with discussions about the relative merits of avalungs verses airbags. “I’ve been watching a load of avalanche survival videos," Alex says two days before we leave. “Absolutely terrifying."
“Pad asks only half-jokingly whether there’s any chance we’ll end up ‘in orange jumpsuits.’"
If the prospect of spending a whole week miles from the nearest piste is nerve-wracking in itself, the fact that it’s Kyrgyzstan adds an extra element. At one stage my friend Pad asks, only half-jokingly, whether there’s any chance we’ll end up “in orange jumpsuits."
In fact, he’s closer to the truth then he might have guessed. As we’re boarding the first leg of our London - Istanbul - Bishkek flight a bulky, suited man with a coil in his ear asks to see our passports. “Where’s you lads’ final destination today?"
“Kurdistan?" He mishears the response and pulls us to one side. “You wouldn’t be thinking of going to join ISIS would you?" He and his colleague are from Special Branch he says, charged with questioning suspicious passengers flying out to Turkey - particularly groups of young men. Thankfully when we we explain the differences between Kurdistan and Kyrgyzstan (and radical snowboarders versus radical Islamists) he lets us on our way. “They obviously think we’re extremists ‘cos we look so fucking extreeeeeme," someone quips once we’re safely out of earshot.
By the time we land in Bishkek at 3.25am any residual nervousness has been swept away by excitement. Either that or generous quantities of Turkish Airlines’ free booze. It’s impossible not to feel it. From the scrum of gold-toothed taxi drivers to the strange money coming out of the cash machines it’s obvious that this is a million miles away from a regular snowboarding holiday.
It’s 8am and minus 25 degrees Celsius as I step out of the lodge on our first full day riding. The sight that greets me is nothing short of breathtaking. The clouds have cleared and the sun, just visible over a ridge to the south east, catches individual crystals of snow making them sparkle.
We are literally in the in the middle of nowhere. I can see a petrol station 200 metres away, where we’ll refill the cat each day and buy our beer for the week (at the frankly ridiculous price of 85p a bottle). Opposite that there are three or four forlorn-looking cafés to serve passing truckers. That’s it. I stay outside snapping photos for as long as my freezing fingers will allow before heading back in to wolf down breakfast. We’re all keen to get shredding.
“It’s 8am and minus 25 degrees Celsius. We’re literally in the middle of nowhere."
As well as being remote, the Suusamyr River Valley in which the Suus-Lodge sits is high and wide. The building itself sits at over 2,000 metres, the same altitude as the highest resorts in the Alps. In summer this makes it perfect for the Kyrgyz herdsmen who pitch their yurts here and put their horses out to pasture. In winter it’s almost completely empty and the thick blanket of snow is largely untouched.
As we cross the valley floor and the cat begins to climb, the excitement in the back is palpable. By the time we arrive at the top of a long ridge line, we’re absolutely frothing.
Our first run doesn’t disappoint - the gradient is gentle enough that you can pretty much just point your board straight, and the snow we’re throwing up with every turn is soft, dry and deep.
“Yes! How fucking good is this?!" I shout to my mate Tom as we carve down the shoulder. Ahead of me I can hear people whooping as they ride, laughing all the way down. Even when people stack it, they come up giggling, with powdery grins plastered across their faces. If the atmosphere is difficult to describe, it’s easy enough to imagine. This is the first of six long, bluebird days and we’ll be riding fresh powder on every single run.
As the week goes on we fall into a routine, taking it in turns to ride down first and hyping ourselves on the way back up with a portable speaker in the back of the cat.
We also get into the habit of stashing a bottle of scotch in the back - which possibly goes some way to explaining why “Lifted" by Lighthouse Family seems to sneak onto the playlist with alarming regularity.
The only complaint we could possibly have is that the powder is almost too deep. Kyrgyzstan is about as far away from the sea as it’s possible to get, and its continental climate means it’s actually quite dry.
The skies are usually clear in winter (which is handy because up here above the treeline whiteout days are hard work) but when the snow does fall it’s ridiculously light and fluffy compared to the wetter, heavier precipitation you typically get in the Alps.
“Yes! How fucking good is this?!"
Step off your snowboard here and there’s a good chance you’ll sink up to your waist. It quickly becomes apparent that those in the group who have specialist powder sticks are going to fare much better.
Thankfully Azret has a quiver full of these for rent back at the base, including two enormous 186cm Apocalypse swallowtails and two splitboards. Evenings are spent switching bindings around as we take it in turns on these powder-specific planks, or watching back the GoPro highlights from the day.
The lodge has something of a youth hostel vibe - the rooms branch off a large central area which boasts sofas, babyfoot and table tennis. It’s not luxurious by any means but it’s comfortable, and the local food we’re served (prepared by an elderly chef with a demon ping-pong serve) is tasty, warming and plentiful.
“We built this ourselves," Azret explains one evening after dinner. “Well, my father and his friends built it for paragliding first and more people still come for paragliding in summer than for snowboarding." Clearly a wealthy man by anyone’s standards Azret’s father was something of a pioneer when it came to action sports in Kyrgyzstan.
“He always travelled to Europe and was meeting people and learned from them," Azret explains. “He was the first paraglider in Kyrgyzstan and one of the first snowboarders. I remember we [went] when I was young to a ski base near Bishkek. I was around eight or nine and he taught me to snowboard. Now I'm 26."
Having inherited the lodge and the lease on the surrounding land from his dad, Azret has set about turning it into a sort of playboy’s paradise. The inside is packed with pricey looking toys - as well as the ping-pong and table football there’s a massive flatscreen, a drone for filming, a big stereo and even strobe lighting should he feel like having a rave.
There’s a built-in banya, a traditional Russian sauna, which we make frequent use of, running out to roll in the snow in minus 25 - an activity greatly improved by a shot or two of vodka.
Outside in the garage he has a jeep, the two snowcats shipped in secondhand from Europe (one of them still has the ‘Hintertux’ branding on the side) and no fewer than three snowmobiles for him and his guests to play around on. It’s an incredible place to spend a week.
The skies are clear, but the wind is whipping up a gale as we park two of Azret’s sleds at the top of the cat track. It’s halfway through our trip and photographer Medhurst, Alex, Dan and I have headed up one ridgeline while the cat takes the rest of the group up another.
The open powder faces we’ve been riding are loads of fun, but I’m keen to try something more challenging. A photo of the 3,600m Korona Peak - the highest in the Suus-Lodge zone - has provided all the inspiration I need. We’ll use the snowmobiles to get up there and then switch to splitboards, enabling us to access lines that look eminently rideable.
I’m excited but I’ve got serious butterflies as we set off that morning. We’re pushing into uncharted territory here and we’ll be going it alone. For all his knowledge of the mountains round the lodge, Azret doesn’t have a guiding qualification. Neither do any of the guys who work with him. It’s not seen as so important out here - health and safety isn’t a concept that carries much weight in this part of the world.
This has its advantages, we can rag the snowmobiles around pretty much wherever we want for example, but the flipside is that the guys’ approach to safety on the mountain seems relaxed at best, especially when you’re used to riding with rigorous European guides.
On the lower, less exposed slopes we’ve been riding up until now, that’s not been a huge issue - we do our own transceiver checks, we have radios, we make sure we drop one at a time and we have one of the more experienced riders sweeping at the back of every run.
The high alpine terrain around peak Korona is another kettle of fish though. The access which looked easy enough on paper (or in the photo back at the lodge) feels very different and a whole lot more sketchy in reality.
“We’re pushing into uncharted territory here and we’ll be going it alone."
As we get off the snowmobiles, stinging spindrift is being flung into our faces, forcing us to huddle behind them to wrestle our skins onto the split skis. It’s so cold that they’ve iced up and the glue has all but stopped working, especially on the older board Alex has borrowed from Azret.
His skins slip off every few turns and the four of us have to work together to stick them back on in the biting wind. A hip flask of vodka that Dan has brought along provides some relief, acting as an impressively effective anti-freeze on the iced up skins, but it’s an exhausting process.
At one stage Medhurst and I, who’ve pushed on ahead at the others’ behest, hear Dan over the radio saying: “We can’t do it, Alex and I will have to turn back". Eventually they make it off the ridge and into the sheltered bowl at about 3,400 metres. But the whole thing has been far more difficult than we’d thought and it highlights once again just how alone we are out here.
Thankfully apart from the avalanche all goes well. There are some sketchy scrambles over rocks to get to the drop in points but by the time we’re finished Dan has safely picked off a first descent of his own and Alex has ridden an excellent line down the neighbouring face for Medhurst’s camera. As we skin our way back out to the snowmobiles, I begin to relax. But the day has a sting in its tail yet.
Alex and Dan head down first, driving one of the sleds. Exhausted by the day’s exertions, they are taking it very gingerly. But as they cross frozen Suusamyr river an uneven lump of snow pushes them violently to the right and they career off the track. The 200kg snowmobile rolls over on top of them, breaking through the ice and into the water.
“The 200kg snowmobile rolls over on top of them, breaking through the ice and into the water."
Somehow they both manage to jump clear and thankfully neither is hurt. The water at this point is only eight inches deep and they manage to free the snowmobile quickly but with the temperature plummeting to minus 25 again, they’re both frozen, not to mention shaken up, by the time they eventually make it back to base.
“OK, so we’ve ordered five kilos of meat, two bottles of vodka and a plate of horse sausage. Anything else?" It’s our final evening in Kyrgyzstan and we’re settling down for dinner. My sister Natalya, who speaks excellent Russian, is taking charge.
With the weather scheduled to close in on our last day we’ve opted to forgo a final morning riding so we can explore Bishkek, picking up postcards and souvenirs. It’s a friendly, sleepy-feeling place. Despite the two revolutions that have taken place since independence from the Soviet Union, the pace of change feels slow here - their huge statue of Lenin stood in the central square as recently as 2003.
If the capital is far from a metropolis then the rest of the country feels like even more of a backwater. Driving back to Bishkek in daylight we get a sense of just how rural - and how mountainous - Kyrgyzstan really is.
Horses are still used as a form of transport here. On one of the major mountain passes we drive past a mounted herdsmen who apparently thinks nothing of driving his sheep up the main highway. The country is known as “The Central Asian Switzerland" but only for its geography, not its riches. The villages we pass through are visibly poor - a world away from the wealth on display at Azret’s lodge.
“We’ve ordered five kilos of meat, two bottles of vodka and a plate of horse sausage. Anything else?"
Watching the landscape slide by the window, I realise quite how exhausted I am. A week of riding deep snow, skinning, snowmobiling and even just being outside in temperatures that rarely get above minus ten really takes it out of you. But it’s not just that - as I relax into my seat, it also hits me just how tense I’ve been for the past week.
That night before we went up Korona Peak I didn’t sleep much. Despite the careful preparation the remoteness of Suusamyr makes everything we’ve done slightly scary.
Snowboarding in Kyrgyzstan and picking off first descents are the kind of activities usually reserved for pros with deep-pocketed sponsors and heli budgets. Yet here we are, a bunch of pretty normal snowboarders, and we’ve spent a week doing just that. I’ve definitely pushed myself to the edge of my comfort zone. We all have.
Of course, the danger is part of why we wanted to come here in the first place - adventure wouldn’t be adventurous without an element of risk. But I’m very glad we’ve made it to the end of this particular adventure without any injuries.
We work our way through the bottles of vodka on that final evening in the approved Russian manner - everyone takes it in turns to stand and make a toast. There are toasts for the crew, the lodge, the lack of injuries.
When it comes to my turn I stand and raise a toast “To Kyrgyzstan. Despite the close shaves, this country’s been an incredible host. It’s been one hell of a week."
“So here’s to Kyrgyzstan, and to coming back soon."
DO IT YOURSELF:
Turkish Airlines fly from London to Bishkek via Istanbul for £330 return
The Suus-Lodge can arrange a minibus transfer from the airport which seats 15 people and is included in the price for the week.
Accommodation and Snowcats:
Contact Azret Danliarov at the Suus-Lodge:
One week’s accommodation including food and six days in the cat costs €1,000 (£785) per person, but discounts can be negotiated for larger groups.
Guiding and Safety:
As always when you venture off-piste, everyone in your party will need a transceiver, a shovel and a probe - and know how to use them.
As mentioned, neither Azret or his staff have official guiding qualifications. While experienced riders might feel comfortable self-guiding, we’d recommend hiring a guide, especially if you’re planning on splitboarding or venturing higher into the mountains.
Alexander Gabchenko (gabcheko.kz) is a highly experienced tour leader based in Almaty, Kazakhstan, who frequently leads trips to the Suus-Lodge and knows the area well.
Alternatively, contact the Kyrgyz Mountain Guide Association (mguide.in.kg). Supported by the Swiss Mountain Guides Association and the Association of British Mountain Guides, their guides are trained to UIAGM standards.
Make sure you have valid insurance that covers the cost of medical evacuation and riding off-piste.
Finally, prepare well and choose your crew wisely. The riding is not technically difficult but the risk of avalanches is real, so you don’t want to be riding with idiots. We were lucky enough to have two doctors in our group who came armed with medical supplies, which is obviously a plus.