I wake up at 2 in the morning and need to use the bathroom, but I’m too lazy to get out of bed. At 5:30, I can’t take it anymore, and I finally decide to get up. The sun is just about to come up over the mountains, and a sliver of a crescent moon is hanging in the deep blue sky just above the snowy peaks. Nobody is up but me, so, after taking care of business, I walk around camp for a few minutes, taking in the beautiful pre-dawn scene at 14,435 feet.
Today is our last big day of hiking here in Kyrgyzstan, and we will be doing the return trip from Camp One back to Base Camp. This is the first time that we are doing an out and back hike and retreading our steps since we have been in Kyrgyzstan, but, if we had to pick any hike to do twice, this would definitely be the one. Almost every single step of the 13.5 kilometers back to Base Camp is jaw-dropping beautiful, and we are excited to see it again, only this time in a different light.
The late breakfast at camp is served at 8:00. As soon as we are done eating, we grab our packs and hit the trail. Ak-Sai Camp is sponsoring a mountain trail race today called the Lenin Peak Sky Race that goes from Base Camp to Camp One and back. They have set up a hydration station for the runners with water, cookies and watermelon just as you enter Camp One. Once the runners get here, they have to turn around and go back. It makes us tired just thinking about it.
We head out of camp around 9, and we couldn’t ask for a more beautiful day. The sun is shining. The temperature is cool enough to wear long sleeves, and the scenery is just as stunning the second time around.
We see our first runners about 15 minutes or so down the trail. We hoot and holler for them as they pass us by. Some seem to appreciate it, while others keep their game faces on and don’t react at all. The first three racers that pass us are men, but the fourth is a woman. You go, girl!
Our first big downhill of the day comes when we head down to the river. This is the spot of the chaotic scene with all of the horsemen and the broken poles, but, at this time in the morning, the only people there are monitoring the race. Timu has found a spot a little upstream where we can hop across on rocks. The river is deep and running a little too fast for my poles to be of much use, but Rob extends a helping hand and I am across. Challenge one of the day is done. Hooray!
As we pick up the trail again, we see the first runner coming back down the trail on his return trip to Base Camp. Instead of taking the switchbacks down to the river, he flies down the soft scree cliff, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake. There are no flags marking the race course, so runners must be able to choose their own route, especially on the downhills.
Much of the trail today is on the narrow ledge traversing a steep slope high above the glacier. We are all a little worried about how best to get out of the runners’ way if we happen to pass at inopportune spots on the trail. In addition, there is a lot of horse traffic of backpacks, gear and even people and the odd 2×4 being ferried back and forth between the two camps.
We climb up onto the rocky slope above the trail to let one horseman pass, and he stops suddenly right next to Matt. He points at the binoculars on Matt’s waistbelt and pulls a wad of som out of his pocket, indicating that he would like to buy them. Matt tries to explain that they are in bad shape, and he would do better getting himself a new pair in Osh.
Matt is telling him the truth, but the horseman is definitely disappointed about not being able to get Matt’s pair on the spot. His binoculars have been a huge hit with all of our guides and porters here in Krygyzstan. It would be fun to be able to give them all a pair. Some day, when we win the lottery, right?
Matt and I end up hiking the long, glacial traverse on our own. When we aren’t gawking at the unbelievable landscape in front of us, we reminisce about all of the amazing hiking that we have done in this gorgeous country. From Jyrgalan and Karakol to the Alay and Pamir Mountains here in the south, we have been blown away by the alpine scenery and cultural encounters that we’ve had these past five weeks. We feel like we have done so much, but there is still so much more to see. Kyrgyzstan is definitely a place that warrants coming back to, especially if hiking and enjoying the outdoors is your passion.
The realization that this may be our last time hiking for a while begins to set in, and we try to enjoy every last step of today. The closer we get to Travelers Pass, the more colorful and rugged the scenery becomes. Layers of rich reds, fiery oranges and purpley pink rocks mesmerize us on our left, while a chain of glacier-covered peaks dominate the expanse to the right. It’s Grand Canyon meets Alaska in one incredible, breath-taking scene.
The hike up and over Travelers Pass is our second big challenge of the day. After yesterday’s climb up to Peak Yuhina, I’m feeling a bit wiped out and eager for a rest at the top. We linger there, enjoying one last unobstructed look at mighty Peak Lenin before we begin the long descent down to the other side.
Once we are down, the rest of the day’s hike is relatively easy, and the four of us hike together on the wide flat plain that takes us most of the way back to Base Camp. Along the way, we run into a woman and man who recognize us from cheering them on during the race earlier in the day.
They are a cute young couple from the Czech Republic who took second and third place in the race, respectively. They are headed back to their tent up the trail, all smiles and pumped full of adrenaline from their performance in the race. Next week, they will compete again in another trail race that goes from Camp One to Camp Three at over 6100 meters, most of which is in the snow. They are really excited about it. Crazy!
The rest of the hike is longer than we remember, but we press on, eager to have lunch at Base Camp. We stop briefly to get a good look at a juvenile Golden eagle perched on a hilltop not far from the trail, but otherwise we keep our foot on the gas paddle, full speed ahead to Base Camp.
We arrive around 3:00 and have a late lunch at the CBT Yurt Camp. It’s nothing to write home about, so we are pleased to learn that this yurt camp is full and that we will be staying in the one next door, which is a little smaller and quieter. Fingers crossed, the food will be better as well.
Our yurt looks promising. It has six single beds with clean, white linens arranged in a circle around the periphery. After the past several nights sleeping on the ground, a true bed feels like a luxury. We are able to get a Russian-style sauna bucket shower in before dinner, which is served in a little cargo container cum dining room.
When we head back to the yurt, the sun is setting, and the mountain in front of us looks almost psychedelic pink and green. We grab our cameras and run for the hills where we hope to get a better view of the glowing sky. Matt leads the charge, and we make it just in time. What a fitting end to this gorgeous and colorful trek!