Kumtor’s White Gold | Johannes Hoffman In Kyrgyzstan

Words by Johannes Hoffman.

The facts of Kumtor, Kyrgyzstan’s largest gold mine, are impressive, but have little to do with skiing. 4100 meters above sea level. 500,906 ounces of gold per year. 2600 fixed jobs. 12% of the economic output of Kyrgyzstan. 15% of the total tax revenues of the country. 50% of total export. The reality that this is the one of the highest situated mines in the world, which digs far into the glacier region of the Ak-Shirak mountain, makes this place more attractive to people like us.

Now here we are, on the roadside of a well-prepared gravel road in the middle of the Tien-Shan mountain range. We can’t trust our eyes: in front of us is an arena of imposing steep walls, sharp ice flanks, wide glacier fields and untouched snow slopes stretched out. Below auspicious lines, a huge wound runs through the countryside: Kumtor. Massive white corridors are drawn through rock and ice, and drilled like a spiral into the depths. Beneath the snow-covered terrain there are impressive dump trucks and bizarre piles of debris, which sit beside the dikes of a large poison lake that stores the chemical waste of gold production. Environmentalists describe the lake as a “ticking time bomb”.

The mine captures our imagination. We consider both the positive and negative consequences of mining for humans and nature. While the infrastructure that allows us to advance into this remote region is impressive, our efforts to get permission to enter this fascinating area ends abruptly at the entrance to the mine. The white gold of Kumtor will remain untouched.

Camp I | On A Powder Keg

Plan B. We drive south on a lonely road for a long time until we stop at a deserted bridge. We pick up our skins. For two hours, we march through the lonely mountain landscape. In front of us, huge rock walls hulk up. We reach the end of the valley divided by two moraines. Tired, we set up camp in the basin. Glad to leave the frightful mine behind us, an explosive sound suddenly jolts us out of the sheltered nature. Black-yellow wads of smoke cover the sky. The eerie mine is still present. But the view over the Kumtor plateau endows us with a peaceful sunset.

Our attention is directed at an impressive north wall in one of the valleys. In the middle of a shallow glacier, the wall rises up to 400 meters – like a partition between the neighbouring glacier basins. On the east and north side, we see self-releases of huge snow fields. We walk around the wall and dare a first glance at the snowpack, our presumptions confirmed: 30 cm of fresh snow have spread like a veil on the fragile layers of hard melt crusts and embedded, loose crystal balls. The dangerous depth hoar, a 60 cm thick snow layer, covers the bare glacier ice. It bodes nothing good. A further approach confirms our doubts. Even if the steeper passages seem to be safer, a residual risk in the foothills and flats remains. We can’t take any risk out here. Disillusioned, we walk back to the camp and start to make alternative plans.

New day, new attempt. South of the camp, a long crest divides the neighbouring valley from the high plateau. We dare to ski the flatter slopes to test the stability of the snow cover. Fabi skies a gully that snakes through the rocks like an “S”. The snow dusts. His skies scratches on the snow cover. His hardshell clothes flutter. But the snow cover behaves peacefully. Johannes dares the first entrance into a steep ice flank that looks like a large funnel. To escape the sluff, he stops in front of the steep narrow section. Loose snow rushes past him. No more, no less. Motivated and with a gut feeling, we start skinning further into the valley. As the slopes invade westwards into the high plateau, steep and challenging lines move eastwards into the glacier basin. After long studying Mitch has found his line. We get ready. Kickoff. He skis through a steep channel onto an icy ridge. He continues to make dynamic turns at the edge, before he finally skis down the ice wall. He pauses on a small lead, letting the roaring sluff go first, then takes up the chase with high speed. While the sluff flashes over like a wave on the opposite slope, Mitch straightens with full speed over the glacier basin. Astonished faces followed by relief. What a line. What a ride. What a day!

UAZ Hunter | Russian Icebreaker

On the following day, we give up another attempt in this area due to approaching thunderclouds. We decide to go back to Lake Issykul for two days to relax and take advantage of the subsequent weather window. On the way back, we tamper with the liquid level of our tank. The car, a Russian off-road vehicle named UAZ Hunter, is a relatively new model, but with considerable defects: Squeaky wipers, leaky doors, a catastrophic heating and cooling system, loose sunblinds, a broken engine bonnet latch and, to make matters worse, an incorrectly adjusted tacho and odometer (as well as a defective fuel gauge). Without knowledge of the tank filling neither of the consumption nor the number of kilometers driven, the search for the next gas station becomes nerve-racking. But the important skills of the car are reliability: robustness, accessibility and reliability. We’ll come back to this later on.

Camp Part II | Fireworks on Skis

On the way back to the camp, we notice that the temperatures have risen significantly. Three of us struggle on foot through soaked snowfields, small river courses and muddy meadows. Joi and Fabi try to continue driving by car. An hour later, they finally arrive at the camp. Joi, relieved but exhausted, tells us about his hell-ride. Despite the unfavourable conditions, they were able to approach our tents after an hour of hiking. They had demanded everything from the off-road vehicle, but he’s not totally convinced of a safe return yet.

We focus on the lines that haven’t been skied yet. Again, our goal is the challenging north face. Fabi and Mitch climb on a shoulder at the west directly to the entrance. Fabi demonstrates his definition of skiing once again. After two turns, he crosses the steepest part of the wall with a huge drift turn, then briefly controls the speed in the softer snow and shoots down to the foot of the wall at high speed. Unintentionally, Mitch surpasses Fabi’s performance with even fewer turns. At the third turn, however, he loses the grip on the backside of his board and rolls down 2/3 of the wall like a comet with his tail. Luckily he manages to stabilize himself again in the softer part and finishes the line confidently.

We spend the last ski days of the trip on the long back of the mountain. Fabi rappels over a cornice into a steep slope. He climbs the last 40 meters underneath the cornice to the entrance. He skis his line powerfully and smoothly. As he realizes that his actual exit is not passable, he re-plans: he traverses over a rocky path to a small ramp. Due to the high differences of the temperature within the snowpack, the snow starts to stick to his ski cover. He loses his balance and falls over the rocks. Fortunately, the snow underneath the rocks catches him softly.

On this day, we return to the camp relieved and full of joy. However, the most difficult part is still ahead of us. How would we get our UAZ Hunter back on the road? An hour later we reach our fully loaded off-road vehicle. Due to the warm weather, the condition of the surface has deteriorates considerably. The streams are swollen, the meadows are soaked, and the ice sheets have lost their stability. We barely (but better-than-expected) make our way through streams, pebbles and ice sheets. After two hour,s we finally reach the road to the gold mine. Exhausted, but happy we look back one last time to the great, terribly fascinating wound in the alpine plateau, the Kumtor mine.


Watch the trailer of White Room Productions’ Searching For Gold, which is touring this winter 2018:

Searching for Gold – Trailer from Whiteroom Productions on Vimeo.