Last week, 22-year-old Ann Piersall set out for the secluded Jetim-Bel mountain range in southeastern Kyrgyzstan, leaving behind the country’s riot-stricken capital, where violent clashes had left dozens dead and forced the president to flee the city.
The snowy mountains would present none of the human struggles plaguing Bishkek. In fact, this remote place would rarely even present humans at all.
Piersall wrote in her blog: “Bye bye Bishkek! We are headed to the mountains!”
Piersall is a Kalispell native and University of Montana graduate researching under a Fulbright student scholarship in Kyrgyzstan for 11 months. She departed Bishkek, where her apartment is located, to begin a nearly two-week ski mountaineering trip with two friends that would take them through a rugged stretch of Central Asian terrain and occasionally into uncharted territory.
On April 12, Piersall called the Beacon from a cell phone in the remote village of Barskoon. The mountaineering expedition was to begin the following day. The trio expected to conquer mountain ascents and winter traverses that had never been documented. Summer exploration, Piersall said, isn’t entirely uncommon in the region, but winter skiing is essentially unheard of.
The Jetim-Bel range is part of the Tien Shan mountain system, which has rocky peaks that soar to elevations of 20,000 feet and higher. The mountains run through isolated portions of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China.
“It’s pretty exploratory,” Piersall said from Barskoon. “We’re the first people to do any kind of traverse of this range on skis.”
Piersall is in Kyrgyzstan working on a research project that studies the area’s retreating glaciers and examines how the semi-nomadic livestock herders, along with other locals, are affected by climate change. The final result will be an in-depth social and physical analysis.
Another component of her research is high-mountain exploration: While the glaciers may be retreating, they can’t outrun Piersall. By incorporating research from her exploratory mountaineering, Piersall will be better able to inventory information for maps, climate study and photographs for historical data. The focus of her research is the Tien Shan’s At-Bashy range.
She plans to publish an academic paper, give presentations and share her findings through any other appropriate outlets after she returns in the fall. The professor who recommended the Fulbright program to her, Sarah Halvorson of the University of Montana, said Piersall’s research is largely unprecedented. Even if studies have documented the diminishing glaciers there, nobody has asked the locals what this might mean.
Halvorson, if political conditions allow, will join Piersall in May. Along with Professor Joel Harper, Halvorson helped Piersall formulate her research plan and has mentored Piersall along the way. Piersall graduated with a degree in biology and a minor in geography.
“No research has been done like this, at least in the At-Bashy range,” Halvorson, chair of the university’s geography department, said. “There is an immediacy to this because if (the locals) lose their springs and streams, they are forced to relocate.”
Halvorson also points out that Kyrgyzstan is a sensible choice because of its relationship with Montana through the National Guard State Partnership Program. The program began linking U.S. states with partner countries to promote international affairs in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Halvorson has had other students study in Kyrgyzstan, while students from Kyrgyzstan have attended UM.
Piersall’s 11-month research project is funded by a grant from the U.S. State Department’s Fulbright program, as well as an American Alpine Club Research Grant and a Nikwax Alpine Bellweather Grant. She arrived in November and, though an apartment in Bishkek is officially her residence, she spends most of her time traveling through the countryside and interviewing people, ranging from cultural experts to common villagers.
Piersall was, however, in Bishkek when the rioting erupted on April 6 and 7. She watched out her window as the upheaval unfolded and matter-of-factly recounted the occurrences in her online blog, observing: “Within an hour smoke from burning buildings filled the sky and gunfire filled the air.”
“Shortly after darkness,” she wrote later, “looting began on the streets below. We watched crowds of men smash into all the stores on the streets below us.”
When the crisis erupted, she called her parents back in Kalispell. Her father, Bob Piersall, said phone connections from Kyrgyzstan are spotty, but his daughter left reassuring messages in the absence of speaking directly with him. She also gave updates on her blog.
Her mother, Margie Strainer, noting that “this is not Ann’s first adventure,” has learned to remain stoic in these situations. Strainer said her daughter traveled by herself from Mexico to Panama a couple of years ago and has frequently completed harrowing backcountry mountaineering excursions. Strainer said she trekked through Nepal when she was her daughter’s age, so it appears to run in the blood.
“She’s an adventuresome little rascal,” Strainer said.
Since a young age, Piersall has been preparing herself for such a wide-ranging quest, one that involves both academic prowess and backcountry skills. Growing up in Montana, she lived for the mountains and, at age 14, became one of the youngest members of the Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol.
In the summers throughout high school and college, she worked on backcountry trail crews in Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness. She also has extensive avalanche safety and other outdoor training, including her Wilderness EMT certification. And she’s a hell of a skier.
“Ann has an intense love of the mountains and the land and Montana,” her father said. “Now she’s merging science with her deep passion for the mountains.”
Halvorson said few people are appropriately equipped to take on both the academic and expeditionary rigors of Piersall’s journey.
“Ann has got a set of very unique skills,” Halvorson said. “She’s totally amazing.”
But even though Piersall is drawn to mountains, she’s equally inspired by people. When she called from Barskoon, she said perhaps her most gratifying experience since November was when was invited by a local Uzbek man to teach avalanche safety classes in his village. She also helped village children learn to ski.
“Their enthusiasm was just contagious,” she said.
Halvorson would say the same about Piersall’s enthusiasm.
“She’s just a wonderful person,” Halvorson said. “I have the utmost respect for her.”
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