Central Asia

British tourists’ miracle escape from avalanche as mountain glacier collapses on Kyrgyzstan trek

A group of British tourists have escaped with their lives after getting caught in a huge avalanche caused by a mountain glacier collapsing in Kyrgyzstan.

Dramatic footage taken by Harry Shimmin – one of the group of nine Britons and an American on a guided tour of the Tian Shan mountains – showed the snow begin to race down the mountainside from a nearby peak before quickly crashing over the top of him and engulfing the camera lens.

Remarkably, Mr Shimmin said that despite fearing that he might die as it became harder to breathe during what felt “like being inside a blizzard”, he emerged from the tumult “without a scratch”.

One girl had “cut her knee quite badly” and made her way on horseback to the nearest medical facility, while another received “some light bruising” after falling off a horse, Mr Shimmin said in an account of the incident on Instagram.

The group had just reached the highest point in the trek when the glacier began to collapse and Mr Shimmin had separated from his companions to take pictures on top of a cliff edge when he “heard the sound of deep ice cracking behind” him.

“I’d been there for a few minutes already so I knew there was a spot for shelter right next to me,” he said, adding that he was “very aware that I took a big risk” in not moving to safety straight away. “I felt in control, but regardless, when the snow started coming over and it got dark/harder to breathe, I was bricking it and thought I might die.”

He added: “Once it was over the adrenaline rush hit me hard. I was only covered in a small layer of snow, without a scratch. I felt giddy.”

The rest of the group was “laughing and crying” and “happy to be alive” when he rejoined them, Mr Shimmin said, adding: “It was only later we realised just how lucky we’d been. If we had walked 5 minutes further on our trek, we would all be dead.”

Following on their intended route shortly afterwards, the group walked among “massive ice boulders and rocks that had been thrown much further than we could have run, even if we acted immediately”, he said.

“To make it worse, the path runs alongside a low ridge, hiding the mountain from view, so we would have only heard the roar before lights out,” Mr Shimmin added.

The Tian Shan mountain range is among the largest in the world, stretching some 2,500 kilometres across central Asia and straddling the border between Kyrgyzstan and China.

Translating in Chinese to “celestial mountains”, the Tian Shan range divides the historical region of Turkistan and was situated along the ancient Silk Road trading route.

At its widest point, it stretches some 300 miles across and its highest peak is Jengish Chokusu, which sits at 7,439 metres – fewer than 1,500 shy of Everest.

The disappearance of glaciers in Kyrgyzstan – which are a vital source of water in the summer months – has been described as an urgent problem by the United Nations, symptomatic of climate breakdown.

In the space of just 50 years, the Tien Shan range has lost more than a quarter of its ice mass, a 2015 study found, with some five gigatonnes of ice disappearing each year between 1961 and 2012.


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