Travel: A fright on the bare mountain

Clive Tully had a sprained ankle and a fear of horses - but his Kazakhstan trek took him close to heaven

There's no doubting that the might and grandeur of big mountains can make you feel humble. Doubly so when you look up at a summit in the certain knowledge that someone is up there fighting for his life. I am at the South Inylchek Glacier base camp at 13,000ft, gazing in awe at the towering bulk of Pobeda, 24,600ft high, and the second-highest mountain in Kazakhstan. Somewhere just below the summit is a stricken Japanese climber, too exhausted to go down with his three team-mates.

Making their way up in a desperate bid to rescue him is a party of Russian climbers, but the news on the radio isn't encouraging. It is halfway through the afternoon, and the Russians are exhausted and they may have to call a halt. It doesn't look good for the Japanese climber. He's already spent two storm-blasted nights on the edge of the death zone, and the chances of his surviving another are fading fast.

The whirr of helicopter rotor blades fills the air, the same machine that ferried me on to the glacier the day before. After a brief stop at base camp, it takes off again, climbing straight up the mountainside. Similar to those used by the Red Army as troop carriers during the Afghan war, it is doing something that I wouldn't have believed possible were I not witnessing it for myself.

This flying Transit van has gone way beyond its operational ceiling of 16,000 feet, and is now scuttling back and forth above the summit of Pobeda, looking first for the Japanese climber, then his rescuers. We watch open-mouthed as a package is tossed out to the Russians - food, fuel and oxygen - then back it comes in a series of wide circles before touching down at base camp. Although the helicopter evacuation of the climber Beck Weathers from the top of the Khumbu Icefall - around 20,000ft - below Everest is, I believe, the record for a helicopter physically plucking someone from a mountain, what I have just seen would almost certainly rank as the highest ever helicopter-assisted mountain rescue.

This is no mere Transit van, however. Doubtless ever so slightly tweaked, it is the Kazakhstan president's helicopter, leased out for the summer to Kan Tengri Mountain Services, the company which runs the South Inylchek base camp. He flies with the chopper as well, doing the daily 40-minute run from Karkara to the base camp - a stunning flight over mountains and glaciers, swooping close to spectacular knife-edge ridges. Perhaps it reminds him of former glories: he was a member of the first Soviet expedition up Everest in 1982.

For me, the trip on to the glacier - the largest by volume in the world - is like a journey to another planet. I had spent most of the previous two weeks trekking in the lower Tien Shan, soaking up the wonderful mix of birch forests, pretty valleys and mountain passes, along with some beautiful flower-strewn Alpine meadows.

There were plenty of opportunities to experience some of the local culture even before I pulled on my walking boots. Almaty, the former capital, has shops which range from classy fashion boutiques with sophisticated window displays to Soviet-style supermarkets with their drab hoardings.

Almaty, I was warned, is a hotbed of violent crime and it was unwise to go out on to the streets at night on your own. But there's an element of the Wild West here even in broad daylight. At an open-air bar just outside my hotel, the barman toys with an automatic pistol, snapping the magazine in and out of the butt - perhaps, in his mind, to impress the woman sitting opposite.

Outside Almaty, the tarmac gives way to dirt roads. Before hitting our first night's camp, we visit a man training a magnificent eagle to hunt foxes, whose pelts are highly prized by Russians for coats and hats. The rapport between man and bird is tangible. When he invites us in to have some tea, he impresses me with his ability to crack walnuts open with just his bare hands.

Once you adjust to the routine, trekking is a brilliant way of experiencing a country. Your slumbers are broken bright and early with a cup of tea brought to your tent. The walking varies from easy strolling to hard work, particularly the steep climbs up over the 11,500ft passes.

I prepared my lungs for the experience by using a gadget known as the Powerbreathe. Its spring-loaded valve enables you to improve the condition of the muscles surrounding your lungs, increasing their power and capacity. I know from previous treks that normally I would have suffered from some shortness of breath - this time I had no altitude-related problems at all.

Excitement comes too from the numerous river crossings. Some we cross by jumping from one rock to another, some by wading, with the powerful ones forded with the assistance of our luggage-carrying horses.

The trek was split into two sections, with a rest day at Karkara in between. The end of the first section was memorable for two reasons. It was then that I sprained my ankle, landing badly on a tussock of grass as I trotted down to the river. The following four hours' walk out to pick up our bus was excruciatingly painful.

My second memory is of driving to Lake Issyk-Kul, Kirgyzstan's jewel in the crown, top tourist attraction and now, unfortunately, number- one environmental disaster. A couple of months previously, a truck on its way to the Kumtor Gold Mine had overturned into one of the lake's tributary rivers, spilling nearly 4,000lb of sodium cyanide in the process. Large numbers of people were evacuated, and more than 500 were hospitalised with cyanide-related illnesses following the spill. Incredibly, when I visit, there are people at a lakeside holiday camp - a jumbled collection of wood and corrugated iron chalets - bathing in the lake with no apparent regard for their safety.

Wonderful memories, too, of the wood-fired sauna in a tiny cabin in the Ulken Kokpak valley - its low ceiling dripping hot water tinged with pine - and the short dash to cool off in a nearby icy stream. Then there was the encounter with Tursun, a farmer who spent the summer grazing sheep and horses in the mountains, living in a yurt, the traditional cross between a circular shed and a large tent. The lattice-work frame not only holds the outer felt covering in place, but also provides numerous hanging points for all kinds of possessions inside, including the large-bore shotgun used when the wolves get too close.

We ask him what he likes about the yurt lifestyle. "The freedom," he says, "and the beauty of the mountains." But he wonders why we want to come here for a holiday instead of going to the beach. Our answer, of course, is the same as his.

KAZAKHSTAN

GETTING THERE

Clive Tully joined the "On the Peaks and Lakes of Tien Shan" trip to Kazakhstan and Kirgyzstan as a guest of Expeditions Explore Worldwide (tel: 01252 333031; 24-hour brochure line, tel: 01252 760100; and the website: http://www. explore.co.uk). Return flights to Almaty, via Vienna, with Austrian Airlines (tel: 0171-434 7300) cost from pounds 599, plus tax. British subjects require a visa for Kazakhstan. Book through Explore Worldwide and your application will be processed by its visa-booking agency. Or, call the premium-rate 24-hour visa information line for details (tel: 0891 600207).

FURTHER INFORMATION

In mountains, it's vital to travel at the right time; in this case, June to August.

Powerbreathe costs pounds 49.95 from IMT Technologies Ltd, The Sports Medicine and Human Performance Unit, Freepost Mid15831, Birmingham B15 2BR (tel: 0121-414 7676).

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