In Kyrgyzstan, a team from a sixth form college experience the thrill of making the first footsteps on a virgin peak. Yolanda Brooks reports
Kyrgyzstan has yet to find a place on the tourist trail. Most people would struggle to find it on a map. Even the embassy website admits that it is a "remote and mysterious place." But those in the know, including an intrepid climbing team from Welbeck College in Nottinghamshire, can confirm that it is a country of raw and startling beauty.
Last summer, three staff and seven students reached the top of an unnamed and previously unclimbed peak during a three-week expedition to the Pamir mountain range in the south-east of the country. Welbeck is a residential sixth-form college for A-level students planning a military career, so rugged expeditions are nothing new.
Even so, Kyrgyzstan still presented a challenge, says, Joe Dufton, the trip leader. "Technically, the climbing was as difficult as anything we have ever taken on. But it was more of an adventure because we went to an area that was relatively uncharted."
In preparation, the group took part in a five-day training expedition in Scotland last February. It involved ice and snow climbing as well as the honing of winter survival skills.
On July 27, they flew to Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, before setting off for their base camp in the Nura Valley across the border in Kyrgyzstan. They made the two-day journey in Ladas, a battered army truck and horses. It took them past border patrols, down dirt tracks and across unforded rivers. On the way they stopped off at a yurt cafe (a yurt is circular tent made of wooden poles and covered in animal skins) to hire local herders to act as porters, carrying the equipment to base camp at 3,400m.
Enduring weather that swung from snow showers to warm sunshine, the group spent the next week looking for clean water, carrying out reconnaissance missions, building rope bridges, moving up the mountain and plotting a route to the summit. From the top camp at 4,000m, they set off for the peak on August 7 and reached the summit - now called Peak Welbeck - at 10.30am local time.
Although there were plans to make a final ascent together, the group insisted that Joe Dufton be the first to plant the Union Jack and Welbeck flags. "It was quite an emotional moment - especially for me," he recalls.
"It was a joyous occasion and the weather was glorious, although that didn't last long."
Team Welbeck spent half-an-hour enjoying the view and taking victory photos before hurrying down the ridge to avoid the incoming bad weather.
The Kyrgyzstan authorities are now in the process of verifying the climb and confirming the name of the 4,609m peak. After the climb, the students and teachers spent time exploring glaciers and other unclimbed peaks. But once back in the town of Osh, the weary but jubilant group spent the rest of their time enjoying more leisurely holiday pursuits.
Welbeck's travel arrangements, including flights, visas, and guide hire, were made through EWP (Executive Wilderness Programmes). Company director and Russian speaker Andrew Wielochowski accompanied the group on the trek.
EWP (UK), tel: 01550 721319; email: email@example.com; www.ewpnet.com; www.kyrgyz-embassy.org.ukwww.army.mod.ukwelbeckintro.html
WHERE IS IT IN THE WORLD
The Kyrgyz Republic, or Kyrgyzstan, in central Asia is two-thirds the size of Italy and has a population of 4.8 million. It was annexed by Russia in 1864 and gained independence when the USSR broke up in 1991. The official languages are Kyrgyz and Russian, and the currency is the som.
It is a place of great natural beauty and proud nomadic traditions.
Mountains cover 94 per cent of the land. Farmers eke out an existence in the remaining desert, steppes, forests and tundra. More than half live below the poverty line.