High in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains in remote Kyrgyzstan, the air is as pure as anywhere on Earth, the feeling of freedom and escape from the mundane things of everyday life is unmissable, and the views are what that the term breathtaking was coined for. But for ten outdoor-loving hikers on a guided tour of the region, those benefits almost came at the ultimate price when a huge avalanche erupted not far from their location.
The group of ten – nine Britons and one American – were on a guided tour of the region that straddles the border between the southeastern tip of Kyrgyzstan and northwestern China. After reaching the highest point of the trek, one of the group, Briton Harry Shimmin, walked away from the rest of the group to take some photos from the top of the cliff when he heard in the distance “the sound of deep ice cracking behind me.”
At this point, Shimmin pressed the record button and watched the power of Mother Nature unfold before him, first in the distance before getting too close for comfort – all while maintaining a level of composure. truly remarkable as the wall of snow headed towards him. Shimmin shared his video in instagram and YouTube posts that drew comments of awe, dread and, inevitably, criticism that he didn’t turn around and fail to pull it off.
“As I had been there for a few minutes already, I knew there was a place right next to me for shelter. I was at the edge of a cliff, so the only place to run was towards the avalanche and away from the shelter next to me (hence why I’m not moving). Knowing that the rest of the group was farther from the unfolding carnage and probably safer than him, he kept his focus and his very steady hand holding the camera firmly to the avalanche until the last possible moment. “Yes, I waited until the last second to move, and yes I know it would have been safer to go to the shelter straight away. I am very aware that I took a huge risk. Anyway, when the snow started falling and it got dark/harder to breathe in, I was bricking it and thought I might die.
In the end, the band emerged largely unscathed except for a cut on their knee and minor bruising from a fall from a horse. “Once it was over, the adrenaline rush hit me hard… The whole group was laughing and crying, happy to be alive (including the girl who cut her knee). It was only later that we realized how lucky we had been. If we had (sic) walked 5 more minutes in our hike, we would all be dead.
The path the group was resting on would have led them directly into the path of the avalanche and would have been completely covered by it. “Massive rocks and boulders of ice spread further than we could have run, even though we acted immediately.”
Part of the ancient Silk Road trade route that first connected the empires of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the Tian Shan Mountains are also known as the Tengri Tagh Where Tengir-Too meaning the “mountains of heaven” or the “heavenly mountain”. One of the longest mountain ranges in the world at 1,550 miles, its highest peak is at the top of Jengish Chokusu, which winds its way up 24,406 feet (7,439 meters) of oxygen-thinning .
Less known but still very accessible hiking route, there are a few excellent guided tour operators spanning the region who work responsibly and sustainably with local guides, businesses and families to create unique experiences on the road less travelled. So if these frankly terrifying images haven’t put you off, consider visiting this extraordinary country yourself and while you’re there, don’t forget the new motto that Shimmin and his nine lucky companions brought back from their experience: ” live, laugh, ‘lanche’!