“The what Mountains of where?” was most people’s response to my informing them of where I was off to in July.
KE Adventure Travel, for whom I was leading a trek around the range crossing its high passes, describe it thus.
"The southern edge of the Central Asian republics is defined by the rocky barrier of the Pamirs which includes the little-visited Fann Mountains. This spectacular range has numerous snow-capped 5000 metre peaks and the potential for brilliant trekking, through rocky valleys and across high passes. Accessed through the Tajikistan capital, Dushanbe, the sensational 12-day trek makes a comprehensive tour of this rugged and picturesque landscape, where Tajik shepherds graze their flocks on remote upland pastures. Climbing to many high passes and viewpoints, including the dramatic Mazalat Pass (4133m) and enjoying a succession of superb lakeside camping places, this is a truly memorable trek. After the trek, we travel into neighbouring Uzbekistan, where we visit the stunning Silk Road cities of Samarkand and Tashkent. More than 2500 years old and known as the 'Gem of the East', Samarkand is one of the wonders of the world, with mosaic-clad monuments that are guaranteed to take your breath away. This is Central Asia at its best!"
Chimtarga (5489 m) is the highest peak in the Fann Mountains. It is located near the Mutnye Lakes, or as I called them due to glacial outflow and my poor Russian, Murky Lakes. We camped at the Murky Lakes towards the end of our circumnavigation and climbed the scree and snow Mazalat Pass above. It is the highest of the seven major passes on the route. Nearby Chimtarga on the other hand has no trek-up route to the summit. The ascent routes start either directly from the Lakes or by crossing over the even higher and more technical 4750 m high Chimtarga Pass, which lies between the peaks Energia (5120 m) and Chimtarga.
The established climbing routes on it vary from Russian grade 2 to 6 on both rock and ice. The known routes were all first climbed by Russians between 1936 and 1984. The potential for new lines both here and across the whole range is almost unlimited. We saw very few other people throughout the trip. There are two former Soviet Mountaineering Schools in the valleys and we met three or four small climbing groups in the Chimtarga area and one trekking group. On a distant and low rock ridge I saw a group on a multi pitch climb. It was definitely, ahem, peak season.
We had a friendly local guide, cook and an interpreter with us and the gear was carried on donkeys supervised by 7 donkeymen. The food was traditional Tajik including lots of fresh veg and strangely loads of melon. On behalf of the group I declined the customary bottle of vodka on the dinner table every night!
Access to and from the mountains was by four wheel drive vehicle, although at the end of the trek even they could not get up the newly “improved” road up the narrow Bodhona Ravine to reach our final campsite, so we had to walk out. This was probably a considerably less scary finish to an amazing trip.
I’m going to start with an apology, to anyone whose Friday night walk between Hathersage and Sheffield over the last two months has been interrupted by a bloke panting away pretending to be a fell runner. In case you hadn’t guessed that was me……Sorry!
To anyone who reads our blogs regularly, it may come as a surprise that I am yet again writing a blog about running. My Nine Edges blog back in November was an insight into my passion for avoiding running where possible.
Once again the story starts with heavy doses of peer pressure, that and the ongoing quest for man points and banter. During a momentary lack of concentration I left my bank card with Phil (our web guy) and came back to find myself registered for the Coniston Trail Marathon…I’m still waiting to find out what else I have funded.
That was before Christmas when I had plenty of time to train mentally and physically, of course no one would waste that entire time running, would they? Training only really begins when you wake up in cold sweats having realised that there are only 8 weeks before the event.
I have no business being near the starting line of any race, yet that’s where I found myself. Surrounded by the kind of people who I assume wear short shorts and running Ts as their casual attire as well racing uniform, I was definitely feeling out of my depth as we set off. Straightaway I fell into the classic trap of trying to keep up with the guys in front at a totally unsustainable pace; needless to say I soon dropped back to a more natural position.
For the first half I was feeling strong. Claire, a friend who ran with me informed me that we had been doing 10 minute miles. I still have no idea whether this was fast or slow but it sounded good given that the first half was all uphill, broken up nicely with a lap and half round Tarn Hows. This stage did seem to cause issues for some who ended up doing two and a half laps! Miles 12-18 were mentally quite taxing as you follow rolling forestry tracks before finally making a long descent down to the bottom end of Coniston Water.
There followed a brief respite of a flat mile or two and a feed station; we then regained all the height previously lost as we climbed up to Beacon Tarn. This is where I hit the wall. Claire appeared to come into her own at this point (she had done the sensible thing and trained), and all I could do was try and tuck into her slipstream and hope she would pull me along.
We rounded the tarn to be told by a marshal there was only 10K left; this was a real boost for me as I had entered a few local fell races recently and knew I could make that distance in under an hour. I forgot to factor in that I had never run 20 miles before beginning a fell race. At least at this point I was too tired to calculate how long it would actually take.
Claire seemed to gain a second wind in the later stage of the race; she was still able to run uphill at least. I just had to rely on being stubborn rather than fit and not wanting to be left behind. Somehow I managed to just about keep up. In the back of my mind I could feel I was haemorrhaging man points but this just spurred me on as we were so close.
The last couple of miles were by far the hardest running I’ve ever done. I think real runners would call it technical terrain, but rooty, rocky broken ground meant that I needed to concentrate for every step. I thought I’d broken my toe on more than one occasion as I tripped and stumbled over it all - it’s a good job I couldn’t really feel my legs by this point!
I staggered across the line after 4hrs 50mins. For anyone who is thinking about entering a trail marathon I can thoroughly recommend Coniston. It is an incredibly scenic route for those moments you are not concentrating on your feet.
UD Body bottle 420ml – One of my favourite running accessories. When running with plastic sports bottles I start fearing for my sanity after a few miles listening to the sound of sloshing water. Body bottles shrink down as you drink, so no sloshing, less bulk and they promote drinking on the go as you don’t have to remove them from their pouches - just squeeze!
Scott Jurek Ultra pack – A great piece of kit with far less movement than you would experience when running with either a pack or bum bag. Having water on your front also acts as a good reminder that you need to drink. However, the large pockets at the back aren’t really accessible whilst moving so a bit of thought is needed before you set off otherwise you will need to stop. It also had the psychological advantage of making me feel like a real runner when surrounded by race vests (and real runners) at the starting line.
P.S. A further note for the chap who called into the shop the other week who referred to me as the mountain runner, whilst it made me feel like a champion, the rest of the staff have found this highly amusing ever since. Cheers!
John works for Outside in Hathersage
The 21st of June is a special time for climbers. The sun high in the sky, maximum daylight hours for climbing, dry mountain crags, surely the high point of a trad climber’s year. You can be one of those twisted individuals, hankering for snow and ice and winter climbing, longing for the hayfever to end, in which case the solstice is the turning point towards your own personal freezing idea of heaven, or you can revel in the moment, enjoy the magic that is about to occur. Climbing is like a religion for many of us, and this is the nearest we have to a ‘religious festival’, most of those seem to have hijacked pre-existing festivals coinciding with recurring astronomical events anyway, so why not reclaim our own?
I tried to sow the seed of a dawn-til-dusk, multi-crag enchainment, but this was quickly vetoed by Will and Claire, two fellow sun-worshippers, albeit ones that liked their sleep a bit much. No one likes an evangelist, and I was hijacking their trip anyway, so I resigned myself to just go with the flow. If every crag could be considered a place of devotion, today we need a cathedral and the foreboding gothic architectural might of Clogwyn D’ur Arddu is a worthy venue.
Cloggy is in shadow for most of the day, and the breeze is chill. Duncan has walked up in shorts and is soon suffering for his lack of legwear. Claire just so happens to have a shiny blue unitard in her bag, and Duncan just so happens to have the figure and attitude to style it with aplomb.
We head for The Sheaf, not the outstanding ale-and-whisky pub in Sheffield, the seven-pitch HVS that weaves its way through the overlaps of the West Buttress, but there’s a party on it already, and another waiting. In fact, nearly every route in the Ground-Up North Wales Rock Selective guidebook is occupied. Apart from one, White Slab.
This 6 pitch E2 starts with a long, intricate and unprotected traverse, and an alternative version of Rock Paper Scissors awards the lead to Will. The first section is, without a doubt, the psychological crux of the whole route, with delicate, balancey moves and the prospect of a hard pendulum into the ground should you fluff it. We all take our sweet time, not wanting to impact our pride or worse. As I pull on to the first belay ledge, completely out of the blue, a rock the size of a pomelo is dislodged from high on the cliff and smashes onto the ledge, just brushing the skin of my thumb. No clattering sound, no warning shout, no nothing. Two inches to the left and I’d have lost a hand for sure, two inches to the right and I’d be writing a review on how impact absorbent these new polyurethane helmets, but as it is, it’s a lucky escape. Enough drama, the rest of the route is delightfully delicate slab climbing, nicely exposed and a total gift at the grade.
Down below, in the sunshine, a couple strip off and dive into the tarn, while Claire and I shiver on the next belay. To keep warm we break into the belay dance, a foolproof, tried and tested method of heat generation. For someone who’s studied ballet and contempary dance, her moves are pretty wack, so I teach her how to douggie, and do the willie bounce, and we’re toasty warm in no time. On the face of it, choosing a crag that faces due north, with a stiff northerly breeze blowing straight onto it might seem like an odd choice, but at certain times of day, namely early morning and late evening, the buttresses and faces become illuminated, with the shadows shifting and colours deepening as we spin towards the sunset. On the longest day of the year, you get more time in the sun. It’s that simple.
Inexplicably the crag empties, just as the whole of the East Buttress is bathed in a warm orange glow. While Claire goes for a swim, Will and I romp up the plumb line of November. E3 5c it certainly ain’t, more like steep 5a all the way with a bit of 5b here and there, but we’re not complaining. Well, Will’s guts are, a bit, and he trumps his way triumphantly up the big pitch.
There are just two real certainties in life: farts will always amuse and sunsets will always enthral, so we linger a while to watch the sun slide beneath the horizon before stumbling off down the hill.
The day’s not over yet though… it seems like every climber in North Wales is in the mood to celebrate summer, so we head to Anglesey for an all-night techno party! You could draw parallels with the state of the universe, total chaos initially bound within the strict mathematical forms of pumping techno music, eventually entropy prevailing. Only the bravest manage to climb the next day.
Simon Kimber is the Web Editor for Outside.co.uk
So it’s an otherwise normal day at work, emails to write, postage quotes to work out. Then something weird happens. When the shop manager says “come on Phil, do the Grindleford Fell Race tonight”, rather than responding appropriately with a barrage of verbal abuse and reasons why not, I find myself saying “go on then”.
As it turns out, being lazy and not running very much is an exceedingly poor way to prepare for your first ever fell race. Who knew?
Fast forward a few hours and I’m lining up at the start with 300-odd other idiots, feeling really quite nervous. The vast majority of my running has been done on my own or with at most a couple of other people, so being surrounded by a huge crowd of fit-looking folk who clearly run a lot is both intimidating and weirdly claustrophobic.
Start-line banter seems to mainly revolve around how much deeper the river crossing looks this year. Excuse me? River crossing? Um... I didn’t sign up for THAT. Except of course, I did, and apparently pulling out before the race has started is something of a running faux-pas. Ah well, it’s only four and a half miles, how hard can it be?
Oh right, really quite hard then. A lap of the playing fields later and I’m puffing and blowing like... well I would say like an old man but there’s quite a few of those way ahead of me and sprinting rapidly into the distance. Damn it. We leave the playing fields and a few hundred yards later the route enters a narrow tree-lined path and heads rapidly uphill. Progress slows to a single-file walk and I join in the general grumbling about how annoying this is and how much faster we’d be going if there weren’t all these people in the way, whilst secretly being incredibly grateful for a chance to breathe.
Reaching what I sincerely hope is the end of the uphill bit, my calves complaining bitterly, we’re greeted by a nice open field. Unfortunately this turns out to hide a huge bog and we’re soon all splashing through calf- to knee-deep squishy stuff. Lovely. Some clown is lurking behind a nearby tree with a camera shouting “Smile!” and snaps a quick pic whilst I glare through sweat-filled eyes and try to figure out who he is. Oh, it’s one of Outside’s buyers – I consider stopping to smash the camera but I can hear the pounding of feet behind and I really don’t want to lose any places so I make a mental note to steal it later on.
Downhill through Padley Gorge it’s all about the rock hopping. Throwing caution to the winds I hurtle down the boulder-strewn path, making up a few places as I pass people who have elected to go at a much more sensible non-potential-ankle-breaking pace. At the bottom of the gorge the path flattens out (flat ground feels so hard after running downhill!) and I spy Paul from Rab up ahead. Paul’s an ex-Outside staff member and experienced fell runner with legs approximately the length of a giraffe’s, so I’m chuffed to bits to be anywhere near him. I pick the pace up a bit, run him down, and am then somewhat chastened to realise that he’s twisted BOTH ankles on the downhill and is basically barely hobbling along. He looks to be in quite a lot of pain, and I do feel quite sorry for him, but hey, we’re racing so I push him into a nettle bush and run past.
More downhill cowpat- and bog-dodging and I’m starting to feel quite sick. Perhaps eating a full meal an hour before the race wasn’t such a good idea? I’m musing on the likelihood of seeing chicken kiev again and trying to rub mud off my fancy GPS watch to see how much more of this torture there’s likely to be, when I notice that all the runners ahead of me are disappearing. Ah right, the river.
Trotting down the bank, I see that people seem to be adopting a cautious wading technique. Seeing this as the last opportunity to make up a couple of places, I break into a sprint and splash my way across, soaking both the other runners and the awaiting ranks of photographers and cheering spectators alike. I decide not to hang about to see how annoyed they all are, make a final stagger across the playing fields and then I’m over the finish line and making a beeline for an enticing table full of cups of much-needed water.
It’s now less than twenty-four hours since the race, I’ve no idea what place I made, my calves are tighter than a first-gear hairpin and I can quite confidently say without a shadow of a doubt that I will never put myself through that again. However I can also very confidently say without even a smidgen of a shadow of a doubt that in about a day I will have forgotten the pain, sweat, tears and midges and only remember the fact that it was awesome. What’s that? The Outside Challenge? Hope Wakes fell race on the 2nd July? Oh, go on then. How hard can it be?
P.S. If you’re out running this summer, get yourself a pair of MTR 141 shorts. If you should happen to run through a river and soak yourself completely from the waist down, they dry really very quickly!
Phil works in the Web Sales department.
Click here for more photos of the Grindleford Fell Race on the Outside Shop Facebook page.
Whilst on my family holiday in Scotland last week, my friend Mike (who was on a Northern work trip with Boreal) came up to meet us for a couple of days. We got a day pass out from my wife and headed for Glen Coe. With a good forecast it was decided that we would go to look at the Aonach Eagach. We had both been keen to walk this ridge for a while. We had been recommended by friends that it is well worth saving for a good day, as the views are very rewarding, and this did turn out to be the case.
We set off at midday, just as the morning cloud was starting to clear and by the time we reached the summit of Am Bodach it was starting to become really quite sunny and warm. The initial descent from Am Bodach was quite exposed and you wouldn’t want to make a mistake! We took a rope and harness with us but didn’t use them as it was dry and still, if you were of a more cautious disposition or it was wet and blowing you might want to consider using a confidence rope on some of the descents. There was a slabby section later along the ridge that I can imagine would be tricky in the wet. We both found it thirsty work in the sunshine as we only took a litre of water each, but thankfully we stumbled across several snow patches which we used to fill up our water bottles with very refreshing slushies!
We met a group of friendly chaps halfway along that gave us some tips on the descent. They said that we should avoid the Clachaig Gully, which I had heard from a few different sources, and suggested that there was a more gentle descent towards the Pap of Glencoe which followed a good path down to the back road to Glen Coe Village. This made the descent quite a bit longer than taking the steep side of the ridge, we later discovered that there was a more direct path that went down the side of the Clachaig Gully which, although very steep and scree covered, looked ok. This would have taken us back down to the pub much more quickly!
We had a quick beer in the sunshine as we contemplated the walk back along the road to collect the car (the walk is linear). However, we were fortunate enough to collect a lift from a friendly guy called Derek, who picked us up straight away when we stuck out our thumb. The Aonach Eagach is a great mountain day out and we were discussing how it would be a very good training day for those wanting to do the Cuillin Ridge on Skye. The style of scrambling is similar, the route finding is much easier, there are no real climbing pitches and it's considerably shorter!
We also discussed that our foot wear choices were not quite right for the dry day we had. I was wearing my trusty Scarpa SL’s, which I love for Scottish hill walking but, as this was more scrambling than walking, and a fine day, I wish I had been wearing my sticky soled shoes such as the Five.Ten Guide Tennie, Adidas Terrex Solo Stealth or Boreal Flyers (See James’ recent review of the Adidas Terrex Solo here).
Next time we will do it in winter!
Recommended books and maps for more info on the Aonach Eagach:
Scotland's Mountain Ridges by Dan Bailey (Cicerone 2010)
Glen Coe Superwalker 1:25 000 (Harvey)
Ben Nevis and Glen Coe 1:40 000 (BMC)
Glen Coe & Glen Etive 1:25 000 Explorer Active Map (Ordnance Survey)
Rob Turnbull is the Manager at the Outside Shop in Hathersage
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