Emelie Stenberg pulled out a map of the Pamirs and walked us through her plan to traverse the Fedchenko Glacier in Tajikistan. Her idea sounded horrible. Vince and I were hooked. So we started planning the longest and most ambitious expedition of our lives. – Story by Holly Walker, photos and video by Vince Shuley
Day 8 of 29: May 7 (4200m)
I leaned on the outside wall of the Gorbunov meteorological station, sipping on a splash of génépi to celebrate with the team. Our arrival onto the Fedchenko Glacier was now just 300m away. Warm sun beat on my face and I wiggled my toes on the dry rocks in front of me. Taking another sip of génépi – one of our two bottles of booze we carried up here – I questioned the bottle’s weight. At that point, I also questioned how we’d even gotten here.
It had taken two years of planning, three days of flights, five days of in-country preparation with three days of ground transportation in an overloaded Nissan Patrol SUV and a GAZ-66 Russian military truck in the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Province (GBAP). Then eight days of slogging up and down, up and down the talus-covered Russian Geographical Society (RGS) Glacier with almost 90kg of gear each.
Now we were at the access point onto the Fedchenko Glacier. We’d travelled up the crevasse-ridden RGS Headwall three times, and our five-person team – Team Flow – was deep in the Pamir Mountains, the so-called Roof of the World. The surrounding peaks were massive, some rising above 6000m, and the 77km Fedchenko Glacier was vast.
I felt so little.
587 days prior to day 1: (200m)
Photojournalist Vince Shuley and I met Ski Guide Emelie Stenberg for dinner. She had ideas to ski crazy zones in Central Asia, and walked us through her plan to traverse the Fedchenko Glacier. During her research, she’d also found an old Alpine Journal article about a Russian ski expedition that traversed the Pamirs in 1995.
“Ours was the first unsupported expedition to cross the Pamirs from the SE to the NW – a distance of 480km. If you try to imagine spending 30 days as one of a small four-member group, at altitudes up to 6000m and temperatures sometimes down to -34°C, with only 550 grams of dry food per person per day, you will have some idea of the challenge we faced.” – From the Transpamirs Ski Expedition, The Alpine Journal, 1995
I knew nothing of the former Soviet Union “stans” nor the Pamirs. Tajikistan is west of China, north of Afghanistan, east of Uzbekistan and south of Kyrgystan. The Pamirs take up about eighty per cent of the country and mainly lie in the GBAP, and there are few recorded stories of its 6000m-plus peaks.
Day 1 of 29: April 30, (2500m)
Yesterday, Team Flow passed all the necessary military checkpoints and we were only three kilometres away from Poi Mazar when our overloaded SUV burst a tire trying to cross the river. Saidali, our local fixer from Pamir Guides, made a call on his cellphone to Jafar, our host in Poi Mazar. We frantically organized our gear for the 30-day expedition in the dark, leaving any unnecessary equipment and food in the SUV. Jafar and his GAZ-66 truck arrived and we loaded it up as I negotiated the rate of passage – what later seemed like a pointless task when our other choice was to sit in the dark on a riverbank full of boulders for the night. Our driver bade us farewell and left us with a warning, “Be careful, you will get so high that Sputnik will hit you.”
When we arrived at Jafar’s home, he fed us our final home-cooked meal for the next month and registered our team’s entrance into Tajik National Park. We wrote our team’s intention of crossing the RGS glacier, traversing the Fedchenko and exiting out towards the Bartang Valley. Jafar gestured avalanches with his hands and shook his head. He then flipped through his Tajik-English dictionary and pointed at one word: “impossible.”
We loaded back into the military truck and continued the bumpy ride to the foot of the RGS glacier, and started ski touring with our packed sleds. After 400m, we hit the River Abdulkhahor. As I sat with my gut rotting from recently ingested water or food, Selena entered the river to gauge the deepness. Zebulon shimmed across a destroyed bridge line to the other side of the river to create a Tyrolean traverse. We shuttled our 90kg duffles and backpacks over before crossing the river on foot and soaking ourselves.
Two months before our departure, Emilie, Vince and I had decided that our team would need at least one or two more members in case one of us got hurt and the other two couldn’t begin the traverse. We had recruited Zebulon Blais, a guide on Mount Rainier with numerous Denali expeditions under his belt, and Selena Cordeau, a glaciologist and expedition cook who’d completed several sizeable ski traverses. Their experience was obvious and we were happy to have them on board, despite only having travelled less than a kilometre on our first day.
Day 15 of 29: May 14 (4800m)
Whumpf… “Avalanche! Avalanche!” yelled Zeb. I watched his yellow jacket sliding down about 10–12m to the left of me. The slab continued to propagate, hitting Vince. Emelie had been standing next to me on the track digging a hasty pit, now she began traversing away quickly from the slide path. I took my eyes off of Zeb’s yellow jacket, flipped a 180 and began descending in touring mode with my ski crampons.
As I stopped, Emelie raced back towards the slide path and yelled for everyone to switch their transceivers to search mode. Selena, the most downhill of the group, raced up towards Vince, who screamed he was fine and to go find Zeb.
We spotted a hand wiggling its fingers in the debris. Zeb had raised his arm in a desperate effort to fight the snow as it slowed and solidified around him. Emelie and Selena dug his face free with their bare hands, and Selena and I dropped down to the side of his body to quickly dig in a conveyor belt fashion. As Emelie protected Zeb’s face, he gasped for air. Selena and I cleared his body, removed his backpack and checked him for injuries from head to toe. Zeb was unharmed but cold and shaken.
We found his skis and poles a metre deep in the debris and quickly gathered our gear to return to Camp 7. Having left camp at 5:00am with -25°C and no formal breakfast, we headed to the kitchen tent to eat, evaluate the incident and examine the human factors that lead to this incident. We had already skied two days of 20-degree slopes and decided that risking our group on any steeper terrain this deep in the Pamirs would be frivolous. Our dreams of first descents were beaten.
Day 22 of 29: May 21 (5500m)
After four days of bad weather, and being tent-bound reading our books backwards, we awoke at 6:30am to sun shining on our tents. It was our window, our “go time.” We rallied a quick breakfast, put on our skins, grabbed our day kits and started skinning fast in frigid temperatures.
Again, I felt so little. As we reached the fork at the end of the Fedchenko Glacier, 6940-m Independence Peak (formerly Peak Revolution) towered above us. Team Flow smiled and took a group picture before Selena retreated back to Camp 8. She’d been plagued with symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness for almost ten days with our altitude above 4000m, and Diamox offered her little help.
The four of us continued on to ascend a col to the west. At our high point of 5500m, we looked down the Yazgulom Valley to another vast glacier and endless high peaks of the Pamir Range.
Day 28 of 29: May 27 (3900m)
We awoke at 5:00am, had a quick breakfast, and set off back up the Tanimas Valley. Our backpacks were empty and we had one final load to retrieve before settling back into Kok Jar Pass for the night to wait for our pick up from Pamir Guides the next morning.
My biggest challenges were at the beginning and the end, where we were forced to carry the weight all on our backs. Off the glaciers, we couldn’t use our sleds due to talus, scree and crevasses. On day six, I broke down and sobbed my first tears to Vince, and he gave me a reassuring hug. I hadn’t expected to walk in running shoes over scree for days, carrying all my load. I told him my body ached and that I wanted to go home.
Now, near the end of our journey, Vince and I made a pact to retrieve our final load by 11:00am. I got there at 10:55am, loaded my pack, traded my last salami with Emelie in exchange for some Clif Shot Bloks, and started to shuffle over rocks and plunge through the river crossing with my final 27kg of gear. I was amazed to see goshawks flying in the air, ibex scaling the sides of mountains, and rusted tin cans in the dirt, all signs that we were no longer so far from civilization.
Both Vince and I were reaching exhaustion and we knew we’d each lost about 4.5kg, but the last section continued to test us.
In the final 10km of our 43km day, the wind picked up and tried to blow us back up to the Fedchenko. On our last river crossing, I was almost swept away because the bottom of my sled got caught by the swift water and nearly flipped me on my back. Vince threw me his ski pole and pulled me to shore, where we rested and ate our last few Clif shots. Then, with Camp 13 in sight, we got hit by a big dust storm, followed by a torrential downpour.
We dragged ourselves into camp, wet and exhausted. We could see the road on the mountain side and knew that another SUV would greet us with the next sunrise.
Vince gave me a big hug and said, “We’re going home Holly, we’re going home.”
Photography and video by Vince Shuley. Skier and writer Holly Walker lives in Whistler when she’s not travelling in search of perfect pow. She is sponsored by Mammut, K2 Skis, Clif Bar, Smith, POW and Mons Royale.
The Fedchenko Expedition was made possible with grants from the MEC Expedition Support Fund, Alpine Club of Canada Jen Higgins Fund and Polartec Challenge Grant. Additional expedition sponsors include inReach Canada, Goal Zero, Clif Bar, Darn Tough Socks and Beal Ropes. Over 135kg of clothing donations to villagers in the GBAP was made possible by MEC, Whistler Blackcomb and the kind people of Tahoe and Whistler. Special thanks to Pamir Guides / Saidali Gaidbuldaev for ground transportation and logistics and to Sebastian Tallent for Pamir weather updates.