High in the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains in remote Kyrgyzstan the air is as clean as just about anywhere on Earth, the sense of freedom and escape from the mundanities of everyday life is inescapable, and the views are what the term jaw-dropping was invented for. But for ten outdoor-loving hikers on a guided tour of the region, those benefits almost came at the ultimate cost when an enormous avalanche erupted not far from their location.
The group of ten – nine Britons and one American – were taking a guided tour in the region that straddles the border between the southeastern tip of Kyrgyzstan and northwestern China. Having just reached the highest point in the trek one of the group, Brit Harry Shimmin, strolled away from the rest of the group to take some pictures from the top of the cliff when he heard in the distance “the sound of deep ice cracking behind me.”
At this point, Shimmin hit the record button and watched the might of Mother Nature unfold before him, initially in the far distance before getting all too close for comfort – all the while keeping a truly remarkable level of composure as the wall of snow careered towards him. Shimmin shared his video in Instagram and YouTube posts that have brought about comments of awe, terror and, inevitably, criticism that he didn’t turn and hightail it out of there.
“As I was there for a few minutes already, I knew there was a spot right next to me to shelter. I was on a cliff edge, so the only place to run was towards the avalanche and away from the shelter next to me (hence why I don’t move).” Knowing the rest of the group was further away from the unfolding carnage and likely safer than he was, he kept his focus and very steady camera-holding hand firmly on the avalanche until the last possible moment. “Yes I left it to the last second to move, and yes I know it would have been safer moving to the shelter straight away. I’m very aware that I took a huge risk. Regardless, when the snow started coming over and it got dark/harder to breathe, I was bricking it and thought I might die.”
In the end the group emerged largely unscathed except for a cut knee and some light bruising from falling off 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 realised just how lucky we’d been. If we have (sic) walked 5 minutes further on our trek, we would all be dead.”
The path the group were resting from would have led them directly into the path of the avalanche and was completely covered by it. “Massive ice boulders and rocks had been spread further than we could have run, even if we acted immediately.”
Part of the ancient Silk Road trading route that first connected the empires of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, the Tian Shan Mountains are also known as the Tengri Tagh or 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 atop Jengish Chokusu, which claws its way to an oxygen-thinning 24,406 feet (7,439 meters).
A lesser-known but still very accessible hiking route, there are some excellent guided tour operators covering the region that work responsibly and sustainably with local guides, businesses and families to create unique experiences on the road less traveled. So if this frankly terrifying footage hasn’t put you off, consider visiting this extraordinary country yourself and while you’re there don’t forget the new motto Shimmin and his nine fortunate companions took home from their experience: “live, laugh, ‘lanche”!