” To climb a virgin mountain and tread where no man had been before was one of my lifelong ambitions. I would spend hour on end trawling through old expedition reports in the libraries of the Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club in London in search of an unexplored corner of a mysterious mountain range. Most of the remaining unclimbed summits tend to be located in the geographically remote regions of Antarctica, Greenland, Alaska and the forested mountains of the Congo and Indonesia. The Himalayan kingdoms of Bhutan and Tibet contain some of the highest virgin peaks in the world but because of stringent bureaucracy, mountaineers are dissuaded from visiting them.
I then stumbled across a report by a Russian mountaineer about the new exploration possibilities opening up in the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Due to their location on the sensitive Soviet-Chinese border, they had been off-limits to all non-military personnel for decades, except for the odd yak herder. A prominent spur of the Himalayas called the Pamirs extends deep into these two small landlocked countries, reaching altitudes of 7,500 metres. The Pamirs lie alongside the ancient Silk Route trading highway and when Marco Polo visited the region in the thirteenth century he called it ‘the roof of the world’.
Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early nineties, the ‘Stans’ began opening their doors to climbers. Further investigation revealed a cluster of over forty peaks far higher than anything in the Alps in an area called the Eastern Zaalay range in the southeast corner of Kyrgyzstan. So little was known about the place that only Pik Kurumdy, the highest summit in the range, had been given a name. At 6,614 metres, Kurumdy was one of the highest unclimbed mountains on Earth. I simply had to go there.
The British Silk Mountains Expedition of 2000 took the best part of 18 months to organise. We set off for Kyrgyzstan at the end of June 2000 with the aim of exploring and mapping as much as we could of the Eastern Zaalay Mountain Range. Our sponsors, NOW TV, billed it as the world’s first truly ‘live’ expedition and our 7-man team were joined by a producer and technician to help us stream live footage of our climbs to the company’s website and satellite TV channels in Hong Kong and Singapore.
From an idyllic base camp on the banks of a large glacial river, which we named the Anduin after the mythical river in The Lord of the Rings, we made a total of nine first ascents over a period of six weeks. One of the privileges of the expedition was choosing names for these new mountains, rivers and valleys, which now appear on local maps. Mountains were named after my mother Quenelda (after a successful ascent on her birthday), our patron Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the spectacular Golova Orla, which translates as Eagle’s Head in the local dialect.
The expedition was an unqualified success, and we returned home feeling blessed to have been the first people to visit these secret mountains. The only disappointment was being thwarted by unstable snow just 500 metres below the summit of Pik Kurumdy, after spending five challenging days inchind our way up a knife-edge arete which we christened “The Ridge of Woe”. Nevertheless, our time in Kyrgyzstan was an enormously happy one and fuelled my own personal desire to organise something on a much grander scale. It was time for a new challenge, and it was then that the South Pole began to fill my daydreams again.”