The North Face team athlete, Jackson Marvell, climbing a massive ice wall in Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan on Ice

April 10, 2020

Our team athlete Jackson Marvell has always set his sights on big trips to far-away locations to find the best places to climb. His wish became a reality in late January 2020, when Jackson and friends traveled to Kyrgyzstan for an ice climbing adventure of a lifetime. The goal was to search for the most impressive mountains and unclimbed ice routes, all while traveling on the second-highest road in the world—The Pamir Highway.

Jackson Marvell standing on top of his rented 4-wheel drive van scanning the horizon for new ice routes to climb.
Driving the thrilling, yet remote Pamir Highway in search of new ice lines to climb.

They flew into the capital city of Bishkek and rented a 4-wheel drive van the crew of three could all fit in called a UAZ, or better known as a “Bukhanka”. The van felt like driving an old 1947 GMC as it would grind through gears and creep up steep mountain passes nearing 15,272 feet at an average speed of 35 mph. Traveling through these remote parts of Kyrgyzstan was frigid and lonely at times, often not seeing people or cars for a whole day, yet the crew would keep driving, buying fuel out of barrels until they saw something worthy to climb.

The Bukhanka felt like driving an old 1947 GMC.

Jackson Marvell wading through an icy river with a fully loaded pack and his pant legs rolled up.
Jackson doing what he has to do (and in any condition) en-route to a new climb.

When they found something to climb, the approaches varied from roadside river crossings in freezing temps to 5-hour slogs. The lines they climbed were all first ascents, putting up seven ice lines in total ranging from a single pitch to 900m and with difficulty ranging from WI3+ to WI6.

Three images of The North Face team athlete, Jackson Marvell, climbing yet un-ascended ice walls in remote areas of Kyrgyzstan.
Unsure if routes had been seen (let alone touched), the crew conquers the first ascent—leaving them unnamed for now.

The crew spent their evenings huddled in the Bukhanka, braving -25F temps. Some nights they were lucky enough to lodge with locals at Homestays. The locals were some of the friendliest the crew had ever met as they got invited into stranger’s houses for tea and bread and soup. It didn’t take long for the residents to play music for them, as they provided rounds of vodka and shared photos.

They would play music, keep the tea or vodka flowing, and we would exchange photos, making hand gestures to explain what we were doing.

Jackson Marvell sitting at a table with a local Kyrgyzstani, holding a small guitar. Both are smiling.
A warm welcome in a remote world, Jackson plays music and shares stories with a Kyrgyzstani local.

At the end of the trip, the crew was stoked to have traveled nearly 3000 miles together. They witnessed an incredibly remote yet beautiful country with generous people and climbed massive untouched ice routes. And somehow, they all stayed friends and would happily return to Kyrgyzstan to find and climb more incredible ice routes again and again.

Jackson Marvell, Drew Smith, the photographer, and Jack Cramer, another climber, posing for a photo on top of their 4-wheel drive van in almost whiteout conditions.
The crew: Team Athlete Jackson Marvell, Drew Smith (photographer), and Jack Cramer, now lifelong friends who hope to return Kyrgyzstan again.