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New Route on Kyzyl-Asker: an Interview with Oleg Khvostenko

[This past July, Russian alpinists Oleg Khvostenko, Vasya Terekhin and Alexander Parfyonov established a new route on the southeast face of Kyzyl-Asker (5842m). Located in the Western Kokshaal-Too range, the mountain is one of several imposing big walls in the Tien Shan Mountains along the border of Kyrgyzstan and China. Their new line, The Spear (Russian Grade VI, A3 M8, 1000m), marks the fifth ascent of the storm-beaten granite of the east or southeast face since the Russian team from St. Petersburg of Alexander Ruchkin, Mikhail Mikhailov and Alexander Odinstov made the first ascent in 2007.

Six years would pass before another ascent of the face. In 2011, over thirteen days of climbing, a team of climbers from France and Belgium established a free ascent of Kyzyl-Asker’s Southeast Pillar (5.12c M6/7). Their route began left of the Ruchkin-Mikhailov-Odinstov line, but eventually joined the Russians’ route above Camp 3.

In 2014 Sergey Nilov, Dmitry Golovchenko, and Dmitry Grigoryev (referred to as the Moscow team in the interview), climbed the east-southeast face, the first complete line up the face, and 1150 meters right of the Ruchkin-Mikhailov-Odinstov (St. Petersburg) line. They named their route War and Peace (Russian Grade 6B: A2 M6, 1350m). That same year, a team of climbers from Ecuador established a route up the far right side of the face.

In the following interview, Anna Piunova speaks with Khvostenko about Kyzyl-Asker’s notoriously difficult southeast face. Piunova has edited Mountain.RU, the premier climbing website for Russian-language speakers, since 1999. Piunova writes, “When Mountain.RU first launched, it was nothing more than a few people with an idea to build an online space where everybody could share mountaineering experiences and passion with others. But it has since grown to become a massive portal…for staying up to date with what’s happening in the mountaineering world.” The site also hosts stories about other mountain pursuits, including skiing, snowboarding, trekking and trail running, in Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and other Russian-speaking countries.–Ed.]

Routes on the southeast face of Kyzy-Asker (5842m)

Routes on the southeast face of Kyzy-Asker (5842m) include blue Odintsov-Ruchkin-Mikhailov, 2007 (Russian Grade 6B); yellow Franco-Belgian route, 2013 (5.12c M6/7, 1400m); green “War and Peace,” Nilov-Golovchenko-Grigoryev, 2014 (Russian Grade 6B, A2 M6, 1350m); teal “Sal con Cebolla,” Ecuador, 2014 (5.12a C1 WI5+ M6+, 1100m); and red “The Spear,” Khvostenko-Terekhin-Parfyonov, 2016 (Russian Grade 6, A3 M88, 1300m). [Photo] Team archive.

Anna Piunova: Why Kyzyl-Asker? As I understand it, you didn’t have any specific routes in mind?

Oleg Khvostenko: Back in 2010, Denis Prokofiev and I were planning an expedition to the Kyzyl-Asker area. For some reason, it didn’t come together. Then there were other projects and expeditions. Then finally the stars aligned, and we decided to turn our longtime dream into reality.

Another factor was the financial one. Still, Kyrgyzstan is a more or less “cheap” option, and we simply don’t have the resources right now for expeditions farther afield.

Of course, we were impressed and inspired by the ascents of the Odintsov-Ruchkin-Mikhailov (St. Petersburg) team, as well as Nilov-Golovchenko-Grigoryev (Moscow), and I decided that it wouldn’t be bad to establish a Krasnoyarsk route between the Petersburg and Moscow lines.

Piunova: How was the team chosen?

Khvostenko: Well, Den Prokofiev is my friend and longtime partner–we’ve climbed quite a few walls. He’s now training a young team, taking care of its members and nurturing them, and I’ve become an orphan. [Smiles.] Well, there was nothing to be done, so I put out the call: “Who wants to climb Kyzyl-Asker?” I immediately heard from Vasya Terekhin, who moved to Krasnoyarsk a year ago and is interested in everything. But no third warrior appeared. In Krasnoyarsk now there are a lot of skyrunners, but there are almost no wall climbers.

Then Sasha Parfyonov appeared on the horizon from Novosibirsk, and we immediately signed him up. He is young, motivated, and constantly training. I had never climbed with these guys before, but we all belong to the same Krasnoyarsk-area school of climbing, we train year-round at Stolby, and we participate in the same competitions and championships. Like good jazz musicians, we don’t need a lot of rehearsal. We get together and right away we’re having a jam session. If, for instance, I said, “We’re going to simul-climb with two dynamic belays,” everyone would get it.

The team we had was positive and motivated, with a large reserve of strength. Vasya Terekhin is a strong ice climber and far from last in his class in rock climbing. Sasha Parfyonov specializes more in aid climbing. If we encountered a monolithic slab, we’d send him in first – he loves skyhooks. I can do a bit of everything as well, but I consider my chief virtue to be the ability to endure.

Piunova: The approach. How difficult was it to get to the mountain, how many days did it take, how much gear did you have?

Khvostenko: At first I was a bit worried about the approach. You have to go through a pass in China, and we might have needed to shuttle back and forth and set up an interim camp. But everything turned out to be quite simple. The pass was actually very easy, like a walking path. The snow conditions were ideal, and we were able to bring up all the gear at once. We had to walk 15 kilometers, which is a small tragedy for an alpinist, of course. It was a bit boring, but bearable. But when you arrive at the basin, you see unclimbed walls all around, and it inspires you.

Piunova: What were the weather and temperature like?

Khvostenko: The weather in July, when we were there, was very unstable. No two days in a row were the same. If today the sky cleared and the sun was shining, it meant that tomorrow you should expect rain or snow. But you couldn’t call the conditions extreme. It was quite warm; I don’t think the temperature got below -5 degreesC. Over the seven days we spent on the mountain, there were two days of good weather–summer; one day of rain and snow–autumn; one day was winter, which is normal; and the rest of the days were 50-50, which is spring. The seasons.

Piunova: The “Spear” Route (what about the name, by the way?): Technical characteristics? Each day’s work?

Khvostenko: The Spear Route is on the center of the southeast wall, 1300 meters, [Russian Grade] 6, A3, M8. We started on July 19 at 11:00 a.m., summited on July 24 at 1:30 p.m. and descended to advanced base camp (by the line of ascent) on July 25 at 2:00 p.m.

The peak was originally called Kyzyl-Asker, meaning “Red Army Soldier,” but now we translate the name literally, as “Red Rider.” And a rider must have a spear. There’s a pointed snow cornice on the upper part of the wall, and, in planning the route, I said that we needed to climb that spear. A chimney crevasse leads right up to it, looking like a shaft.

July 19: On the first day, we didn’t begin too early, since there was a squally wind and zero visibility. We started off from the camp at 9 a.m., and by the time we’d reached the bottom of the mountain, got our gear and started to climb, it was already around 12. Vasya Terekhin was the first to get to work. He climbed an easy pitch from a bergschrund up a snow and ice slope, followed by mixed terrain. Vasya climbed about three pitches with hammers, and then, as the wall got steeper and steeper, switched to aid climbing.

One overhang, then another.

The weather started to get worse. Typical Big Wall.

Sasha Parfyonov went second with a small pack, and I went third, with a large pack and portaledge, food and gas. When Vasya got to a cornice with an overhang of two to three meters, he immediately placed a bolt, and I realized that was the last obstacle for today and it was time to think about a bivouac for the night. While he was working on the cornice, Sasha and I drilled a second bolt and set up the portaledge. We had made a start.

July 20: On the second day, Sanya [Alexander] Parfyonov climbed, Vasya belayed, and I once again came third with the gear. The weather was good, and we moved forward fairly briskly. The terrain led us definitively upward. Navigating a series of cornices, Sasha ended up in a dihedral leading to a chimney – the “shaft of the spear.” The entire crack was clogged with ice and was too unstable to climb with tools. While [Parfyonov] bravely fought the chimney, I looked for a spot under the cornice for the portaledge. When the guys got back from their work, Camp 2 was already set up.

July 21: Now came my turn to lead. After the chimney, there came a part of the route that from below I had identified as a “slab.” Luckily, there were excellent cracks in the plate, and I was able to avoid drilling. In the morning, the weather was good, the sun was shining, and the wall was streaming. Crossing the slab, I emerged on the base of the spear’s tip. Farther along was some mixed terrain. First I had to climb a small overhanging bulge of ice. Water was coursing down from above, and the ice, to put it mildly, was not very stable. I called to Vasya Terekhin, who was belaying me, and told him he had an excellent opportunity to demonstrate his ice-climbing skills.

While Vasya, grumbling involuntarily, jumared, I fixed a bolt for stability and decided that we’d lose too much time swapping leaders. Vasily passed me crampons and tools, and, newly shod, I climbed upward, loosing streams of ice and water down on the guys. After the hump, the terrain flattened out. I quickly slipped up another two ropes across the ice and came out on the spearhead. The guys had to sweat it out on fixed ropes. Meanwhile, the weather was getting worse and worse. First a cloud dropped down on us, and snow fell in large flakes. While the guys put up the portaledge, I worked another half of a rope. All night we were pelted with snow.

July 22: On the fourth day, the weather was kind of good, but visibility was 30 meters. Once again, Vasily was in the lead. First he climbed the ice-clogged dihedral, constantly bombarding us. A large cornice loomed ahead. The drop was about five meters, and two enormous icicles hung overhead. It was probably the key to the whole route. The approach to the cornice turned out to be made up of loose slabs. With some difficulty, Vasya was able to knock down one of the icicles and climb through the bend, pounding Fifis and anchors into the ice. This section could be considered A3, while difficulty of aid climbing the rest of the pitches did not exceed A2.

There was only another half a day left, but when Vasya disappeared behind the cornice, real rain started to fall. And this was above 5500 meters! The gear and the ropes immediately began to be covered in ice. While Sasha overcame the cornice under cascades of water, Vasya was chilled to the bone. He shouted down from above that in 10 meters he saw a good place to set up the portaledge. I was a bit luckier, standing at the station under the overhang. That day we were completely drenched and frozen. The gear was in a sorry state. On the other hand, the bivouac was luxurious: dry, safe, and with an amazing view.

July 23: It was winter in the morning. Everything was snowy and cold. It felt as if the wall would soon be done, and we decided to work farther, without removing the portaledge. It was Sasha’s turn to climb, with me on belay. Vasya had dealt with more than either of us the day before, so he had a rest day. He stayed on the portaledge to dry out our things. We began to climb silently, the terrain entirely covered in snow. We had to free the ropes from ice, and we heated the cams on the stove. We worked on one rock pitch and one mixed. By evening it became clear and obvious that we’d climbed high, meaning that the next day there was a chance of reaching the summit.

July 24: Sixth day of the ascent. It was my turn to climb, but since there was both mixed and ice terrain visible ahead, I suggested that Vasya do the work. In addition, he had rested the day before and had recovered his strength. In the morning it was sunny, with ideal weather, but streams were pouring down the wall and ice was falling. Vasily climbed one mixed pitch on rotten ice (M8), and then the wall ended and the “roof” began – an ice couloir leading to the ridge. Things were going much better, with belays drilled in, ice tools waving without concern. Only our breathing gave away the altitude we felt. We emerged onto the ridge and there was the summit, about one hundred meters away.

The summit was wonderful–warm, sunny, a breathtaking panorama. Kyzyl-Asker had presented us with a royal gift.

Drinking in our fill of the vista, we began our descent. Without rushing, we reached the portaledge by 6 in the evening.

July 25: Toward morning, a storm arrived. Lightning struck from all sides. We waited it out. But sitting or not, our desire drew us towards home. As soon as the storm quieted a bit, we began our descent along the route we’d used to ascend. Again, all was covered in snow, but streams were already running. The weather window wasn’t long. But down isn’t up, and by 2pm we were on the glacier.

[Translated from the Russian by Karen Freund–Ed.]