Kyrgyz Trek – Day Five: Looking into the Abyss

That first hot cup of tea was glorious after a long cold night, and when I tipped my tent to dry in the morning sun and panes of ice cracked and fell off, all my shivers were vindicated. My companions had not emerged from their tent yet, so the tenacious flowers and I had the mountain lake to ourselves, as we woke with the breezes between the peaks. I have only vague notions of what I’m looking for when I leave home, but in moments like that I know I’ve found another piece of it.

After a viscous bowl of camping porridge, it was time for the last summit. You know how it was: loose rocks, insistent breaths, and godlike scenery living its own stories on geologic timescales. And then little me, feeling like I’d snuck into their eternal party to celebrate the immense strength and utter fragility of my own human moment. I dripped sweat onto stones. I picked up three small stones as souvenirs. I decided I really didn’t need to carry stone souvenirs. I put three small stones back. Step and step and step, stone and air and sunlight, ascending to 3900 meters.

My companions took a long rest before the final push, so I ascended that last slope as the only person on Earth. The tans, taupes, and ochres on the ground around me seemed a beautiful array, accented by fingers of dusty snow stretching from the untouchable white above, and the sky’s intense blue was more of a sensation than a color, too intense for eyes alone. I reached the top, king of the mountain, and greeted the peer court of others ruling their own days atop the world. Russian, German, Hungarian, French, English, Kyrgyz, all words spoken with a satiated lightness in the clarified air.

Behind was a jagged horizon of ice age peaks that sheltered little blue-green Ala Kul, tucked beneath her blanket of ice, grabbing a few more days’ sleep before waking to her short Summer. Ahead was the blue abyss, a sharp edge of snow with only depthless sky beyond. To the sides I could see the snow cornices on the sharp ridgeline’s leeward side, where shadow protected the snow from the predations of the slowly rousing sun, but straight ahead the path snapped at a sheer precipice of heaven. Looking at the daunting edge, I realized I’d left home to reach this place too.

That impossible ledge was of course the only way to go, so down we went, one by one over the lip. Kick your feet in hard enough to make little steps, and descend the nearly vertical wall. Except my shoes were too soft. Or I just wasn’t good at it. My kicks left battered toes and scornful snow, and my mind again wondered how long I would roll before finally coming to a stop. So I turned around. Sat back. And slid.

It was a long way down, delight and trepidation, a barely controlled one-man avalanche that tried not to think about shattered bones or how easily it could all get away from me, but a snow-slide among astonishing beauty in what had been an unlikely place on my personal map just a short time before. I exulted, wondered if I should have sent one more message to my loved ones, and laughed so my jaw wouldn’t clench.

On the way down I grabbed a forgotten plastic bottle. grasping at some good deed after realizing that my slide had wiped a smooth path down the slope where those behind me wanted steps. My inability to manage had made their descent more difficult. I felt like a schmuck. 

My guide only laughed at the question when I asked, and I didn’t press the point. Instead, I descended into one more perfect valley, making each step a prayer. This was the last real day of the trek, and I savored every stride as we approached the famous Arashan Valley. No more solitary mountain tentscapes, that last night I pitched my shelter among yurts and a guesthouse with small store, just past the hot spring cabins. It felt like a metropolis.

Day Five had begun in grandeur, then climbed, slid, and stepped its way through glorious, potentially disastrous, and at times embarrassing hours, to end with peace and the best mug of beer a man can drink. Cold suds in the glass, satisfaction in the muscles, and companions on the stools around me, I knew I had reached yet another part of the lifelong destination I left home to seek.