All of the climbers and groups we spoke to cautioned against doing any major excursions alone. Because of the rugged terrain, the possibility of bad weather and the language barriers for non-Kazakh or non-Russian speakers, it is highly recommended that climbers and mountaineers hire local guides or join group expeditions. It's also a good idea to tell a local rescue team before you go into the mountains, says mountaineer Dastan Abdrakhmanov, 21, from Almaty. If you want to let someone else handle the details, there are lots of organizations and individuals that arrange hiking and climbing trips. They'll tell you what you need, organize your route, and provide you with a guide. Food and any necessary permits are often included in the trip price.
There's also a mountaineering school at Tuyuk Su, near Almaty. Abdrakhmanov recommends this school for beginning climbers who want to learn. "The Tuyuk Su alpinist camp is the best place to get started in mountaineering," he says. "The average cost for training courses is 5,000 tenge ($33), and it is a reasonable price. The equipment will also cost you about 5,000-6,000 tenge ($33-$40). In my opinion, this is the best option, taking into account that you are only one hour away from Almaty."
Kazakhstan uses the Russian grading system to grade the difficulty of climbing routes. This system is similar to the French system and takes into account altitude and exposure, as well as other factors. There are resources available online to help show the conversions between different international grading systems.
The Tien Shan Range, which forms much of Kazakhstan's southeastern border, is the home of the famous Khan Tengri, the highest peak in Kazakhstan. Khan Tengri, also called Blood Mountain and the Lord of Heaven, draws dedicated climbers to its 7,010-meter summit throughout the summer climbing season. It's the world's northernmost 7,000-meter peak and considered by some to be the most beautiful mountain in the world because of its symmetry and the red glow it has at sunset.
Khan Tengri (also often spelled "Hantengri") isn't the only Tien Shan peak worth visiting, though. For professionals and experienced climbers who want a challenge, there's Marble Wall Peak (6,400 meters) and Hidden Peak (6,873 meters). There's also Shipilov Peak, which is still unclimbed, according to Kazbek Valiyev of Khan Tengri Expeditions. Most of these peaks will take several days to ascend. The season for visiting these high mountains is short; July and August are the best months.
The Tien Shan Range spreads and merges into the Zailisky Alatau Moutains in the north, making differentiating between the two sometimes difficult. Individual peaks are often referred to as being in the Zailisky Alatau and/or the Northern Tien Shan.
The Central Tien Shan range is very high and most trips to peaks there will require more than one day. As the mountains get lower in the northern end of the range, in the Zailisky Alatau Mountains, there are more peaks scalable in a single day.
Khan Tengri, Marble Wall, and Komsomol Peak all require a time commitment. Komsomol Peak (4, 375 meters) is a two-day trip, usually crossing the Bogdanovich Glacier and spending the night on a moraine of the glacier.
Expeditions to Khan Tengri or Marble Wall can take 20-25 days and require a lot of experience. Many trips to these peaks use helicopters to fly over some area. Khan Tengri Tours organizes excursions with views of Khan Tengri.
Some expeditions in this area will require special permits because the peaks form the borders of several countries. Tour organizers should be able to arrange any necessary permits.
Also near Almaty are the granite Zailisky Alatau Mountains, the forerunners of the Northern Tien Shan. These mountains are smaller than the massive Tien Shan Range they flank; the highest point is Talgar Peak (5,017 meters). The variety and color of this mountain range earned them the name "Alatau," meaning multicolored. ("Zailisky," Russian for "beyond the Ili [River]," came later and is sometimes omitted.) The central area of this mountain range is the site of many glaciers. According to Kasbek Valiyev, the first Kazakh to climb Mount Everest, there is even good winter climbing in these mountains.
This area is particularly welcoming for beginners and mountaineers who want to walk or hike rather than climb, though there are challenges for all levels. Well-known coach Artem Skopin, 36, from Almaty, calls these limestone and marble mountains "The heart of Kazakhstan's mountain climbing. There are 120 routes for young and experienced alpinists here." Routes in the Alatau Mountains range from levels one to four of the Russian climbing system. Some maps and descriptions are available in English online at the www.mountain.ru website. Be warned, destinations in this area go by many names. The Big and Small Almaty Ravines, for example, also go by variations of Bolshoy and Malaya, using the Russian words for big and small.
"The most popular destination for alpinists of all levels is Amangeldy Peak," says Skopin. Abdrakhmanov agrees: "In Almaty, the favorite peaks are Amangeldy, Pioneer, Uchitel, Molodejniy, Manshuk Mametovoi and Octyabrist." Amangeldy and Octyabrist have bolted routes that go most of the way up, though to get to the very tops of the peaks you'll need your own equipment. (Octyabrist has a 4A route designation; Amangeldy's is 1B). Amangeldy Peak and Pioneer Peak are both great for day hikes and have routes rated as 1B difficulty levels.
"The Small Almaty ravine is a good, developed area for tourists—here you can find Shymbulak Ski Resort, a high-altitude hotel, the Tuyuk Su Gates, the Tuyuk Su training school. The peaks are not far away from tourist resort area," says Abdrakhmanov. The Tuyuk Su Gates is an area of towering rock cliffs that many of Kazakhstan's famous climbers train on. They're the entrance to the valley that leads to the Tuyuk Su glacier and the starting point for many treks into the region's higher altitudes. Skopin also recommends the Tuyuk Su area for anyone who doesn't want to stray too far from civilization. "Here there's wifi and cellular service," he points out.
The Shymbulak Ski Resort is in the Zailisky Alatau Mountains, about an hour from Tuyuk Su. Shymbulak Peak is rated 1A. There are lots of trails around the area of the resort, and of course, after your hike you can head to the resort for a drink or a snack.
Fancy a stroll instead? "If you want to go for a walk, without climbing, you can visit Kok Zhailay," says Skopin. Kok-Zhailay is a huge alpine meadow between two gorges, near the famous Medeu Ice Rink. Hikers will also want to visit Big Almaty Gorge, containing Big Almaty Peak and the pure, icy Big Almaty Lake, all about 25 kilometers from Almaty city. (There is a hotel near the lake, for hikers who want to make it an overnight trip.)
"We prefer the Turgen area in the Northern Tien Shan—the Turgen Gorge is wide and clear and some infrastructure is available there. Four years ago, we made a summer camping site in the upper reaches of Turgen, so we use it now as a starting point for the treks," says Asya Burambayeva, 29, of the Trekking Club in Almaty. The Trekking Club organizes trips in the Tien Shan and Alatau Mountains. For experienced climbers, Burambayeva recommends Trekking Club's six-day trek in the Turgen area, which reaches heights of 3,850 meters and includes lots of technical climbing. This trek passes Kairak Waterfall and several glaciers and includes overnights near the glaciers. For non-technical hikers, she recommends their three-day hike in the area, which follows the Turgen Gorge along the river.
Talgar, the northwestern part of the Zailisky Alatau, is another site for extended trips. "There are long and difficult routes in Talgar region," says Abdrakhmanov. Talgar Peak is the highest in the Alatau at 5,017 meters. Trips to this peak cross glaciers and may pass Issyk Lake; the many routes to the top are classified from 3A to 6A.
Southern Kazakhstan/Around Shymkent
Ugam Range and Sayram Mountain
"The Ugam Range very near Shymkent is popular for different levels of climbers, too. There are peaks 3,800 – 4,200 meters high with many routes from levels 1-4 in local classification," says Valiyev. The mountains are about 70 kilometers from Shymkent city. Its location in Kazakhstan's deep south means that the climbing seasons is longer here than in the rest of the country—the mountains are open in May. The mountains in this region are covered in archa and juniper forests, and trees more than 500 years old are common. This area sees fewer visitors than the mountains near Almaty. "Sayram Su is a wild destination," says Abdrakhmanov of the 4,000-meter mountain near Shymkent "but one with the most picturesque views for climbers."
Eastern Kazakhstan/Around Ust Kamengorsk
Less visited are the gorgeous Altai Mountains in Kazakhstan's northeast. Beluhka Mountain, 4,506 meters, is the range's highest peak and sits on Kazakhstan's border with Russia. There are many other 4,000-meter peaks in the area. A large swath of the Altai, called "Golden Mountains of Altai," has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Untrammeled paths, stunning views, and rich animal life make the Altai Mountains a wonderful mountaineering destination. Their northern location cuts the ideal hiking season short, though. Mid-July into September is best.
Silk Road Adventures, among others, arranges multi-day treks in the Altai Range.
Bouldering in Bektau-Ata
Bektau-Ata is Kazakhstan's hidden bouldering gem. The nearest city to Bektau-Ata is Balkash, but the mountains are 70 kilometers or so from the city, on the Astana-Almaty highway. The mountainous area is less than ten kilometers in size, but it has an unearthly beauty—the rock is folded in smooth layers to form rippling mountains and undulating rock landscapes. The area is a paradise—if you don't mind the almost total lack of infrastructure. There are almost no established routes or grades, but the granite boulders come in infinite sizes and formations. In addition to the cool rocks, Bektau-Ata has lots of rare plant species, eight of which are in Kazakhstan's Red Book.
Tour organizations arrange overnight camping trips in Bektau-Ata, but the area is also perfect for day trips. During summer holidays, some parts of Bektau-Ata can be crowded, but during the spring and fall the area is very quiet.
There is also bouldering near the Tamgaly Tas petroglyphs about 120 kilometers north of Almaty. There are some bolted climbing routes behind the petroglyphs as well. It's a popular climbing site in the spring and summer.
Sidebar: Kazakhstani Climbers
The wandering spirit of the people of Kazakhstan has led them not only across the steppe, but scrambling up and down their mountains. They have achieved some of the world's most difficult mountaineering feats: Kasbek Valiyev was the first Kazakh to climb Mount Everest, and now Kazakhstan's Maksut Zhumayev, Vasili Pivtsov and Denis Urubko are among the only 30 people to have climbed all 14 of the world's 8,000-meter-plus peaks. Zhumayev and Urubko reached the summits without oxygen, two of only 13 climbers in the world to have managed that.
Other Kazakh climbers have reached some of the Earth's highest points. Anatoli Boukreev made 18 successful ascents of peaks over 8,000 meters and was mentioned in Climbing Magazine for his "unreal" solo speed ascent of Denali in Alaska, which he completed in 10.5 hours.
Sidebar: Khan Tengri
Khan Tengri in the Tien Shan mountain range is Kazakhstan's highest and most famous peak. "Blood Mountain" or the Lord of Heaven in Kazakh looms red at sunset and as the world's northernmost 7,000-meter peak presents a serious challenge to climbers. It was first conquered in 1931 by a team from Ukraine, who reached the top by what is now the standard southern route. Over time, other routes were opened, but the approach from the south remains the most accessible; the rest are very difficult climbs. It's not unusual for only about one in three climbers who attempt Khan Tengri to make the summit.
But some do—and some like it fast. The Khan Tengri Mountain Festival, held each August, challenges climbers to race from Base Camp (at 4,200 meters) to the summit (7,010 meters) and back. (To put this in perspective, there are peaks between Base Camp and the summit, so climbers have to ascent and descend more than 6,000 meters to accomplish the feat. Most visitors to the mountains make the summit of Khan Tengri from Base Camp part of an eight to ten day trip, making multiple stops.)
The following companies organize trips to the destinations in this article, though they are certainly not the only options.
Khan Tengri Expeditions (http://www.kantengri.kz/index1.html)
Silk Road Adventures (http://www.silkroadadventures.info/en/)
Trekking Club (www.trekkingclub.kz)
Information and maps
Talgar Peak: http://www.mountain.ru/eng/climb/2005/talgar/
Zailisky Alatau routes: