The Ala Archa Eco-Leader Project

Spreading New England Outdoor Ethics to Kyrgyzstan

The Ala Archa Eco-Leader Project

As climbers, most of us are shaped by the history, ethics, and geography of a few special places in the climbing world. We are proud of learning to climb on runout North Carolina slabs, placing pro for the first time on sandbagged Poke-o-Moonshine cracks, or taking on our first big wall in Yosemite. From each of those places, we take away certain styles not only for climbing, but also for our relationships with other climbers, with the community, and with the environment. For those of us fortunate enough to travel abroad to far-flung destinations on other continents, we always bring a little of those outlooks with us.
In 2014, I was preparing simultaneously for my first major international climbing trip and working on my graduate studies at the University of Vermont. I had encountered the towering peaks of the Kyrgyz Tian Shan mountains in 2012, en route to a military deployment to Afghanistan, and I had made a promise to myself that I would one day return to Kyrgyzstan to explore the glaciers, ridges, and amazing culture. Two years later, I had the time and finances to return to Kyrgyzstan and was actively making plans to spend my time in a small but rugged glacial cirque within Ala Archa National Park, just an hour south of the capital city of Bishkek. It was during that preparation period that my graduate work in Environment and Natural Resources led me to read a critique on the Kyrgyz National Sustainable Development Strategy, the Kyrgyz government’s attempt to reconcile its need to develop economically with protection of its amazing natural landscape. The Sustainable Development Strategy, the paper observed, failed to reach its full potential due to a lack of education in leadership, conservation, and the skills needed to develop a strong outdoor tourism industry. With no programs teaching these skills, the paper observed, the country would continue to struggle with developing visionary leaders in the outdoor tourism industry. As I continued with my preparation for my Kyrgyz climbing, I couldn’t help but consider how I might be able to make a positive contribution to this issue through my graduate work. Within several months, additional research and some phone calls to universities in Kyrgyzstan had kicked off a seed of an idea – the Ala Archa Ecological Leader Program, the first outdoor adventure and environmental education program for college students in Kyrgyzstan.

Now, nearly two years and a trip to Kyrgyzstan later, the Ecological Leader Program (ELP), is gaining momentum towards its August 2016 debut. Styled after US programs such as NOLS or Outward Bound, the ELP is a two week program for 14 Kyrgyz college students from the American University of Central Asia (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) that will cover lessons in three key topic areas: outdoor hard skills (backpacking, rock climbing, glacier travel), ecology (with a special focus on glaciology and human interaction with natural systems), and leadership. The curriculum, written especially for the ELP as part of my graduate work, is designed to build leaders who demonstrate responsible environmental behavior in their respective career fields and to inspire a vision for a sustainable future in Kyrgyzstan. The prospects for the project are exciting – as the first outdoor adventure education model in a country that is increasingly looking towards activities such as ski mountaineering and alpinism to build its economy in a sustainable manner, the ELP’s lessons can have truly strategic effects on how Kyrgyzstan crafts its tourism economy towards responsible and socially beneficial activities.

However, being first also has its drawbacks – namely, the Ecological Leadership Program is a completely grassroots effort with little support from outside organizations. As with most outdoor programs, the ELP has a critical need for items such as tents, sleeping bags, stoves, and other outdoor gear to provide its students with a quality backcountry experience. As the I and the other ELP instructors work diligently to secure grant funding to cover many of our startup costs, we are also reaching out to the local outdoor community to assist us in bringing our Northeastern outdoor ethics to a new group of people living and playing in the mountains a world away. As the winter draws to an end and you begin sorting through your gear room and replacing old gear with newer models, please consider donating gently used and functional gear to assist the Ecological Leader Program with having a successful inaugural year. We all understand what a special place our home in the ‘Daks, Green Mountains, or White Mountains is to us, largely based on the environmental ethics that they inspire. Help us share those ethics with the communities of the Tian Shan. And, if you’re looking to plan your next climbing or skiing trip, give some thought to heading over to Bishkek!

Please follow us on Facebook at, take a look at the ELP video at, or visit to provide monetary support. You can contact Nathan Fry, the project leader, at [email protected] for more information.
Nathan Fry is currently a graduate student at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, a company commander for a mountain infantry company in the Vermont Army National Guard, and a part-time guide for Adventure Spirit Guides of Burlington, VT.

The Ala Archa Ecological Leader Program is in most need of the equipment listed below. If shipping cost is a problem, we can cover associated shipping expenses! Simply contact Nathan to discuss options.

Items / Quantity

3-season tents
3x three-person tents / 4x two-person tents
Backpacks (45-50 liter)
Canister stoves
Sleeping bags (at least 15 degree)
Foam pad (closed or open cell)
Microspikes or similar hiking crampons
We also accept any down/synthetic layers, hard or soft shells, fleece jackets or pullovers!

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