With temperatures dropping to well below zero last week in the Tweed Valley, Russ has written some words about a snowy hike on local hills and a challenging night on a Tian Shan mountain pass in Kyrgyzstan.
Temperatures dropped to around -7°C in the Tweed Valley last week resulting in everything frozen with plenty of snow at lower levels as well as on the hills. I love extremes of winter and we decided to take a hike up some local, less popular hills whilst the skies were clear. I would have dug out the skis, but still recovering from a back op in November I've been trying to be sensible.
We opted for Pikestone Hill near Drumelzier as it’s only a few miles away (lockdown I and all that) with the plan to do a horseshoe taking us back to the Tweed and Drumelzier. Everything started fine (if you don’t count a flat car battery), with clear skies and crisp snow that remained good until we hit exposed higher ground with spindrift blowing and deep drifts. This made the going hard with some points as deep as mid-thigh and the decision was made to bail – much to the relief of the dogs as well as ourselves.
It’s always disappointing to turn back, but sometimes the effort is not really worth it, but on the trudge back down and out of the wind we had lovely views to the west and even met a family starting their skin up the hill on skis. Maybe we should have taken them after all?
The cold cast my mind back a couple of years to the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan and getting caught on a Tian Shan mountain pass in a blizzard.
The day had gone well and I was keen to get over the 3,800m pass (and subsequent river crossing) before nightfall, but just as I topped out any views were blocked by a wall of grey and sky full of snow. Decision time. It was about 5:30pm and should I carry on with the risk of getting soaked and spend the night in sub-zero temperatures with minimal kit? Or stop now and risk a cold night at altitude, but dry and with time to find a sheltered spot in daylight.
The latter it was and after finding a flat-ish spot behind a small rise in the ground I quickly put up my faithful lightweight ‘tent’ looking a tad vulnerable in the face of some grim looking weather.
By the time I’d pitched, the snow had started and I knew it was going to be a long and miserable night. I found some rocks to weigh down the open sides and propped up some bike bags in the futile effort to keep spindrift out of the partially open front. Six Moons tents are great, but maybe not best suited for Alpine winter conditions... I’ve experienced one other night as cold during an exposed Alpine bivvi but this exceeded it with every minute spent shaking with cold and impatiently waiting for the day to come. Punctuated by frost falling from the flysheet and thoughts about why I didn’t take a slightly warmer sleeping bag.
Day eventually did arrive and although I should have been up pre-dawn (the sky was clear and filled with stars) I decided to wait till the sun rose above the surrounding tops to get some warmth before moving. One morning on the Chinese border a few days earlier it was not quite as cold, but a 4:30am start meant packing up with cold hands and some uncomfortable riding until daylight brought warmth. I enjoy early starts on multi-day rides but thought it would be counterproductive after a rough night and checking the GPS out of curiosity later it had recorded a low of -7°C during the night.
As usual, I’d slept with my butane gas canister to keep it warm (to try to maintain some pressure) and after some spicy ramen I was good to go. Socks and shoes were frozen stiff, but I didn’t care too much as the scenery was stunning in the morning light and quite frankly I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else at that moment.
It was a slow pedal across the plateau and onto the river crossing, whose conditions had been wildly debated, but it wasn’t so bad (after breaking the ice) and following 10km of pushing, the route eventually gave way to a dramatic decent heading in the direction of Issyk-Kul that dominates the northern part of the country.
Back to the present though and having done some digging to get the van out from its parking place, it was good to get the heater on and headed for home for hot chocolate and excessive number of marshmallows. Not something readily available in the wilds of Kyrgyzstan.
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