Heights of Alay Loop, Day 5: Over Jiptick Pass

We have breakfast in the kitchen yurt this morning at 6:30, which is clearly too early for company according to the little boy in the camp. He has been woken up to make room for us, and he is crying when we come in. His mother gives him a bowl of yogurt to console him, and he turns his back to us hoping that if he can’t see us we aren’t really there. His sister is still sound asleep on the floor right next to where we are eating our fried eggs and potatoes. She doesn’t flinch the whole time we are there.

After breakfast, we filter water in the river running next to the camp. The freezing water hurts my hands when I collect it into the dirty water bag. I head up the hill to use the outhouse before hitting the trail. Just outside, I hear whimpering, and, when I open the door, the little boy is standing there still crying. He is definitely ready for all of these strange foreigners to leave his camp.

We say goodbye and thank you to our hosts for the evening just before leaving. We are particularly grateful to and impressed by these two women who are running this entire camp and raising two young children on their own up here in the mountains. From what we observe, it seems that they never stop working, and we keep asking where the men are. Timu tells us that they are back in the villages, cutting grass and making hay to feed the animals over the winter, but it sure seems like the Kyrgyz women are doing the lion’s share of the work from what we can see.

The trail continues on the old road that we followed yesterday. We climb high above the river and meander through the valley on the wide, rocky trail. It’s nice to be able to walk side-by-side for a change, and we drift in and out of conversations with each other as we stop to remove layers of clothing, take photos or use the bathroom.

We run into a herd of yaks hanging out by the trail, and this group acts just like the other one we encountered after coming down from Sary Mogul Pass. Most simply ignore us or move out of the way as we get close, but a few are curious and even a little aggressive. We lunge at the ones that actually come towards us, and that little display seems to scare them off. We are thankful they don’t call our bluff because I am pretty confident the huge creatures could take us if they wanted to.

Amy takes the lead today, and it seems like she is on a mission to get to the top of the Jiptick Pass without stopping, so we follow along as best as we can. Despite the high elevation, the trail today is much easier than some of the other passes we have done. Apparently, cars drove over this pass at some point, and we follow long, gentle switchbacks. Even so, we can barely keep up with Amy, and the porters are hopelessly behind. They try to take shortcuts whenever they can, but they are still no match for the Amy pace car.

Eventually we come to a cove with a snow-covered waterfall that makes a good resting place. We all convene here for a snack before the last 1500-foot climb. Rob starts a rock toss game targeting different boulders near the river, and it’s a huge hit with the crew. Timu has the best arm of the bunch and will be pitching for Kyrgyzstan when they get their first MLB team.

Just before we are about to set off, Rob asks Timu if he thinks the snow covering the waterfall is solid, which is all the motivation Timu needs to run up the face of it. Pretty soon, it’s a snow-climbing party, and Rob and all of the porters are testing their chops on the steep snow. Rob earns some mountain cred from the boys when he glissades back down standing on two feet. The others give it a go and barely stop before crashing into the rocks at the bottom. I can hardly watch.

From there, it’s a steep climb up a rocky ridge above the waterfall. We switchback our way slowly up the slope, occasionally passing old rusty car parts littered on the mountain side. We don’t know the story of why or when the pass closed to cars, but there’s no way a car could make it over the section we are on now. At some point, a huge rockslide that created the ridge we are climbing must have been the culprit.

From here, the road picks up again, and it makes a nice, wide swing as it works its way up to the pass. Timu, Rob and Amy have decided to go rogue, short-cutting the road by crossing a small snowfield and then climbing a steep slope over snow and scree to meet up with it again.

We decide to continue on the road, skirting the edge of the few spots where snow still covers the trail. There are a few places where we can’t really avoid the snow, but it’s soft enough to make steps without having to worry too much about post-holing or losing our footing.

We are all spread out now along the trail, each of us having our own personal struggle with conquering this pass, our last big challenge of this trek. Far ahead, we can see Amy, Rob and Timu climbing higher and then making the last big push along the long, gentle ramp to the saddle. Far below, we see the porters with their heavy, oversized packs struggling to climb the steep, snowy slope up to the wide trail. We fall somewhere in the middle, and, as always, we try to take some time to appreciate the views we work so hard to earn.

When we finally make it to the pass, we can hardly believe our eyes. A wall of white, snow-covered mountains stretches out on the horizon as far as we can see. Peak Lenin stands front and center at 23,405 feet. Somehow, over the past five days, we all forgot that this was the view we started with in Sary Mogul, and so it is a wonderful surprise to see it once again, now that we have come full circle. We all agree that it feels like quite an accomplishment to have earned this impressive view once again.

That white line you see in the sky isn’t clouds. It’s a line of 6-7000 meter peaks,!

The weather is absolutely perfect at the pass, so we take full advantage and spend at least an hour or so hanging out at the pass, taking photos, chilling out and enjoying a nice picnic lunch before we finally start making our way down.

The trail on the south side of the pass is a little more loose and slippery than the north side, so I slowly make my way down, appreciating the long switchbacks. We dodge a few small snow patches on this stretch by climbing over the talus rocks below the trail until we are in the clear.

Eventually, we make our way out of the stark, rocky environment of the upper elevations and into the grassy land of the jailoo. The grade eases, flowers reappear, and we walk and breathe a little easier in this more hospitable habitat. We follow a stream as it cuts through the valley and leads us down to our final yurt camp of this trek. There are a few river crossings to deal with, but we easily rock hop across them—they are child’s play compared to those on our first day.

The yurt camp we are staying at tonight is just across the river, and we cross on an old wooden door that is presently serving as a bridge. As soon as we can get our packs into the tent and our shoes off of our feet, we head to the river to cool down and wash off.

Afternoon tea is followed by some downtime to read, chat and write up our trail notes. After dinner, the dining area is cleared, and the yurt is transformed into our bedroom with countless layers of cushions and covers. We have a little coal stove in the middle of the yurt that has been stoked all evening. It is keeping us toasty warm and should insure a good night of sleep.

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