Durham man’s trek leaves mark on distant peak

jshaffer@newsobserver.comAugust 22, 2013 

  • Kyrgyzstan

    • Pronounced Ker-ga-stan

    • Formerly part of the Soviet Union

    • Population 5.5 million

    • Bordered by Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China

— The peak loomed in the remote and vowel-challenged nation of Kyrgyzstan, next door to China, nameless because nobody had climbed it.

It stood nearly 18,000 feet tall – the height of three Mt. Mitchells – a forbidding mixture of ice, snow and rock.

For Ryan Stolp, a 24-year-old climber from Durham, getting there meant flying halfway around the world, catching a ride in a rattling ex-Soviet helicopter and a 22-hour climb and descent with ice axes and crampons on his boots.

But now he and four college buddies can boast that they stood where, to best of anyone’s knowledge, no other living human has planted a footprint, and that they left their own name for the peak behind.

“I could see the sunrise on my left and the full moon on my right,” he said. “One side blue, one side sunrise orange.”

Stolp made this expedition last month with friends from Tufts University near Boston, where he graduated with a degree in engineering psychology.

The Durham native and Eagle Scout had twin agendas in ascending an unclimbed peak in a far-flung Central Asian nation.

Back in college, he and his housemates joined VICE, a high-intensity ice-climbing club dedicating to outdoors limit-pushing. He’d made a habit of hardcore activity: hiking the southern half of the Appalachian Trail, serving a stint as a dogsled guide and making it to the top of Aconcagua – the 22,000 -foot Andes Mountain summit. He’d gone ice-climbing in North Carolina once before, a harrowing trip involving a frozen waterfall.

The group of adventurer-friends had scattered after college and were looking to reunite when one of them suggested Kyrgyzstan, which is still largely unclimbed, and where 94 percent of the terrain rises higher than 3,200 feet. They chose peak 5318, named for its altitude in meters, begging for something with more flair.

“It was kind of there for the asking,” Stolp explained. “And it’s nomadic. So you can camp anywhere for free.”

Pleasure and business

But at the same time, Stolp was developing his own line of outdoor products as partner in a pair of startup companies: Deep South Mountaineering and Alpine Hammock, the latter of which is funded through grants on kickstarter.com.

He has carried the lifetime goal of reducing both the weight of gear on his back and the human impact on terrain he explores, a credo built into his gear experiments. And the Kyrgyzstan trip was a chance to put his equipment to the test.

For this trip, Stolp crafted his own jacket, bib and pack.

“I learned to sew on YouTube,” he said. “I didn’t freeze to death.”

The peak Stolp climbed in July is part of the Djangart region in the northeast part of the country. Reaching it with five climbers in all required a half-globe flight to the capital Bishkek, then a six-hour bus ride, several side hikes to acclimatize and finally a helicopter ride to the peak, which was delayed by three days.

They had sponsors provide both money and supplies, and they organized to the last detail. But once there, they knew that previous attempts to climb 5318 had come, close but failed.

Two British climbers met a 36-hour snowstorm there in 2011 and turned back.

“The cracking of an avalanche slab around us as we tentatively ventured to link up with another safe passage spelled the end of our climb,” one of the British climbers, Alex Brighton, wrote on the Web site outerlocal.com. “Point 5318 is a worthy and achievable objective just waiting to be climbed.”

Stolp and his comrades had to turn back on their first try. The snow had piled up too deep only 200 meters from the summit.

But they tried again, minus one climber whose boots had broken. This time, the five climbed mostly at night so that the sun was hottest when they reached the deepest snow. And on the second try, they brought shovels.

Hearing about the trip impressed local climbers.

“Wow,” said Phil Hoffman, vice president of Carolina Climbers Coalition. “Congrats to that team. That is a pretty big deal!”

“What better time?”

But back in Durham, the idea of a young man dangling from a distant and icy mountain had Stolp’s parents on a knife edge.

They had a GPS unit that could signal their location and call for help, but beyond that, there was no communication for weeks.

“I now know what I did to my parents,” said father Bret Stolp. “We tried to second-guess, but the six of them were so good and had climbed together for so long. They had good judgment and they know when to stop. And what better time to do it than at that age?”

Once at the top, the five climbers had a rare privilege: christening the peak.

“We named it ‘After You,’” he said with a grin.

Mt. After You. It’s a playful name for a very playful crew.

Shaffer: (919) 829-4818

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