Forty-eight hours supervised incarceration in a military compound in Western China leaves one with plenty of time for contemplation, and that’s just what my sister Christine and I did while awaiting deportation back to New Zealand in late August this year. We were on our way home from Afghanistan, after successfully summiting Koh-e-Baba-Tangi via a new route, making us only the second people to ever climb the mountain, and the first in 48 years. We were on a high, but keen to get home as the travel and the climbing had taken its toll- we were tired. But the Chinese immigration officials in Urumqui had other plans for us. “You need a visa to transit,” we were told. “You need to organise another flight out of China, and in the meantime, you are staying here.” Safely home a few days later we could laugh about it, but at the time we felt in a serious bind and a long way from New Zealand.
Plans for our trip to climb in the Wakhan Corridor in NE Afghanistan had begun back in 2010. For a lifetime I’d wanted to mountaineer there, but with one war or another, the country had been out of bounds to climbers for more than 30 years. Then in the late 2000’s a trickle began to return. “Now’s my chance,” I determined and set about coercing Christine and Indian friend and renown climber Satyabrata Dam from Delhi into coming with me. For the next 12 months we battled with embassies for visas, applied for financial grants and appealed for sponsorship for our expedition. We (supposedly) organised an Afghan company named Wakhan Tourism to help with internal permits, 4WD transport and local porters. In mid July we flew out of New Zealand bound for Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, where we would meet Satya. We were finally on our way.
Arriving in Dushanbe we were surprised to find a lovely uncongested city of elegant buildings, wide boulevards and numerous splashy fountains –apparently the showpiece of Central Asia. There was not a scrap of rubbish anywhere. But the temperature was in the 40’s (thank goodness for the fountains), so it was good to be on the road after a day spent organising final permits and shopping in the bazaar for the luxuries we obviously weren’t going to find in Afghanistan. We’d pre-booked a 4WD vehicle via the internet with Pamir Silk Travel, and our large Nissan (or was it a Range Rover or a Hi-lux) promptly arrived at our hotel at 10am on the morning of departure, driven by a cheerful Tajik named Gordo, who spoke not a word of English. We roared out of town, but after 10km were reduced to a top speed of 20km hour by the state of the roads, and retained this speed for the next three days as we inched slowly closer to the Afghan border.
My immediate impressions of Tajikistan were;
a) That there was not a flat piece of ground anywhere- the terrains stupendously mountainous.
b) That it was fascinating seeing up-turned tanks in the river beds- the legacy of the Russian departure from Afghanistan decades ago.
c) That the national dress for women (a baggy tunic, pantaloons and head scarf in garish colours) would leave me forever grateful I wasn’t born into a culture where Id be forced to wear anything so ugly.
d) That the constant allusion to drug trafficking (from Afghanistan) gave the place an exciting ‘edginess’ that captured my imagination.
We stopped in the small university town of Khorog at the end of the second days drive, and arrived at the Afghan border the next morning. Gordo bundled us and our bags out of the car at a large gate that fronted a bridge across the Panj River. It was about 50deg. In the middle of the wide dusty river bed were two small buildings- the Tajik immigration post and the Afghan immigration post. Two smiling soldier let us through the gate and we struggled up to the first post with our entire luggage, at risk of expiring. The formalities went smoothly… but where was the representative from Wakhan Tourism who was sposed to meet us? He eventually turned up, claimed he was very ill, accompanied us up the road to the small village of Ishkashim, and then disappeared off to hospital. That was the last we saw of him.
When no replacement was sent it became obvious we would have to do our own organising, and this turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as we saved ourselves quite a sum of money. Wandering into the middle of Ishkashim (no more than a dirt crossroads around a rough bazaar but charming in its simplicity) Satya and I shopped successfully for the remainder of our food, purchased a pressure cooker, two 5kg gas cylinders for cooking at basecamp and organised a 4WD to take us 120km up the Wakhan Valley to the village of Kret from where we would start our walk into the base of the mountain.
We also met the locals who were a very friendly and helpful lot and not averse to having their photos taken (unfortunately it’s not de rigueur to smile for the camera in Afghanistan). There were plenty of women and girls in the colorful Wakhi dress on the street. The odd burkha. We were befriended by a young man named Adab who marched us round to see the regional governor and the local and border police to obtain the required bits of paper to enter the Wakhan. (Adab is the future of tourism in this area- he speaks excellent English and is committed to introducing mountain tourism to the area. He will have a website soon- watch this space.) Inside the border police compound, the men had laid down their AK47’s and were playing chess at a large table in the sun. We spent two nights in an excellent guest house with a smattering of other western travellers and were treated to a music evening courtesy of Dua’d, another young man we’d commissioned as translator to help us locate porters in Kret. It was fun. Then it was on the road again.
Driving to up the Wakhan Corridor to the village of Kret I was reminded of the overland travel I’d done in the 80’s- no internet , no mobile or satellite phone, not contact with the outside world. We were our own, incommunicado for almost a month; we had cut loose. The scenery was unworldly – vast arid mountains with brief glimpses of glaciers and snow and ice capped mountains up the side valleys. Remote villages of mud houses and all the while the vast Panj River barricaded us from Tajikistan and the Pamir mountains on the far side. Our driver was an elderly Afghan who cheerfully dealt with a puncture and at one point backed over a huge rock. The vehicle had to be jacked up and off the rock before we could continue…but inshallah! These things happen.
We arrived in Kret late in the afternoon and had our first view of our mountain, which seemed to tower over the village. We were invited to stay in the village guest house. The next day I was ill with a stomach complaint, but Satya and Christine met with the village community leader and our porters were organised. An old man tried to teach Christine to spin with a spindle! We left the next morning for our base camp- ourselves, eight porters and a dog! Our adventure had really begun!
The climb up onto the glacier where we’d establish our base camp was steep. On the first day we climbed 1000m, a great effort by our porters who were all lumping 25kg plus.They were a delightful team- funny kind and generous, sharing their tea, rice and naan with us and making sure that Christine and I especially, could follow the faint trail. One had bought his dog with him. We spent the first night at the toe of the glacier after climbing a steep incline all afternoon, then next day moved on up to the place the Italian team had used as basecamp three years ago. This team had tried the West Ridge (line of the original ascent) but given up at 6000m. It wasn’t the most salubrious spot for a camp- on the white ice with a smattering of moraine over top, but it was the best there was; everywhere else was too steep.After a final cup of tea and naan the porters headed back to Kret, with a promise to return in three weeks time. We waved them off, then set about making ourselves as comfortable as possible.
Over the next ten days we did our best to acclimatize ourselves to the altitude before making our summit attempt. I’m never the best acclimatizer, and neither was Christine, but for Satya, who has climbed Everest without oxygen the time was nothing more than a rest before the real climbing started. Unfortunately for Christine and I there was little suitable terrain for acclimatizing- almost everywhere was steep and strenuous climbing bar a col at about 5200m, where we spent two nights.We also walked to the base of our chosen route (the NW ridge) to scope the line as best we could. The route would begin with a 500m ice face of 60-80deg, and then progress into a narrow ice gully. From there we weren’t sure what would happen, but hoped a few days of climbing would bring us onto the summit plateau, and then the summit. We would either V-thread our way back down the route, or traverse over the mountain and come down the West Ridge. Those were the plans. In the meantime, Satya proclaimed himself camp cook, and we enjoyed some great Indian cuisine rustled up from our vary limited supplies.
By early August there was little more we could do to acclimatize or prepare for the climb. Now the real work would begin. Then,to our dismay, Satya, who had been suffering an injury (from training with 5kg weights round his ankles!) decided not to accompany us on the climb. It would be just Christine and I! Could we do it by ourselves? Confidence somewhat dampened we knew we had to come up with a plan for dealing with our pack-loads, should we not be able to carry them on the steep terrain. I would do the leading, we decided, while Christine would jumar the rope with the heavier ‘seconds’ pack. If this proved too strenuous we would haul. On August 4th we waved goodbye to Satya, who promised to raise the alarm if we hadn’t returned in 10 days, and headed up the glacier to an Advanced Base Camp under the ice face. That night we camped under a crystal clear sky, with beautiful views of Tajikistan and the Pamir Mountains to the north.
The next day the ice face went surprisingly well. The bergschrund proved no problem and after seven pitches we were perched beneath a ‘bulge’ of about 80deg ice.“Time to try out our plan,” we deliberated, and I passed my pack to Christine, who then attached hers to the end of one of our double ropes. Off I went and it didn’t seem too long before I’d dispatched the pitch and Christine was seconding towards me. The pack, dangling 60m beneath us, duly followed. Another couple of pitches of lesser angle, and we reached a small col that offered a good camp for the night. I set about chopping a platform from the ice while Christine melted water. We were on a high- the day had gone well and we were on our way!
The next morning we were up at 3am in an effort to be packed up and away by five. We knew we had anarrow ice gully to climb but weren’t sure where the gully would exit, and wanted to give ourselves plenty of time for hauling the packs. Things went slightly array when I climbed the wrong way on the first pitch, but we soon had ourselves back on track and Christine led quickly out beneath a large ice cliff and into the base of the gully,where we discovered to ice to be rotten and fragile. But after a few moves it improved and I quickly started to enjoy myself. Here I was, climbing good steep ice, on a mountain in Afghanistan! How lucky I was! I felt confident and happy and knew that, if the weather stayed settled and if we broke the mountain down into sections and dealt with each as they presented themselves…we would climb Koh-e-Baba-Tangi.
After the first pitch the gully relented in angle and widened. Above, it was ringed by a cornice that even though it was small would prove hard to climb through, so I began to lead out to the right, hoping to breach it where a buttress of rock butted against the ice. Not such a good move, as once Christine
reached me and we began hauling, the pack swung into the rock and lodged there. We yanked and tugged and jiggled to no avail, and in the end Christine abseiled back down and freed it. By now the day was done, and we chopped out a ledge at the apex of the ridge and settled in for another fine night.
Day 3 also resulted in an early start and we were hoping for the same fine weather that had been gracing the expedition from the start. But once the sun rose we could see a series of dark clouds marring the western sky, and although we weren’t that concerned, we did wonder what they would bring. Now that we’d exited the ice gully we were confronted with a large rock buttress, and deciding to try and get around it on the right hand (northern) side, we set off trudging in deep snow. We were soon hot and bothered. Rounding the ridge, we could see ahead of us was another steep ice slope, fringed by a nasty looking bergschrund.I tried my hardest to climb across this but couldn’t find any purchase in the rotten snow, and kept falling in a heap on the ground. Then I dragged the rope out to the right for 30m, climbed across a bridge and started a rather nasty traverse back across the top of the schrund, worrying that with the ice so fragile and unconsolidated Christine would have a hard time jumaring.
Next morning we were away at 4.30am and climbing mixed ice and snow slopes towards the summit ridge. It was bitterly cold and the wind hadn’t let up- hence we were both wearing every stitch of clothing we had with us. At nine we were beneath what we thought was the summit and I led off up a moderate ice pitch, only to discover to our disappointment that the ridge went on up…and up. But an hour later, after traversing beneath a large cornice, suddenly there was the true summit ahead…and then I was there!Christine followed and we stood on top, looking west into Pakistan, north into Tajikistan and east into China. We took lots of photos. It was a magic moment, only marred by the bitter cold, and it wasn’t long before we were heading down and back to our camp. We were very happy.
Back at camp mid afternoon we collapsed in a heap- we were very tired. The next day, we decided, we would start down the West Ridge (the route of the original ascent) in the hope of being back at basecamp in two days. It would be a nice touch to do a traverse of the mountain.At six the next morning we were standing at the edge of the plateau wondering which way to go. Below us was a large granite buttress and there seemed nothing for it but to abseil over the edge. which we duly did, very aware that if our ropes jammed we would have a hard time dealing with them in our depleted state. But things went well and five abseils later we were at the left hand end of a long snow/ice traverse that took us to the top of the West Ridge proper. Here we found cairns and an old camp site of the original ascentionist, complete with firewood!
We began a scrambling descent down the 1500m rocky spur. At the end of the afternoon, by good fortune as there were few flat areas, we came across another cleared campsite and decided to stop for the night- our seventh on the mountain.We were down to the last of our food- exhausted, hungry and keen to be down. But it was a beautiful evening, and we didn’t bother pitching the tent and instead lay under the stars.
Next morning we completed the descent and elated, arrived on the glacier. We were so excited- we’d made it! Then Christine spied a figure in the distance. There was Satya, who’d spent the last week at basecamp alone, waiting for our return – he was coming up the glacier to meet us!
From there it was just a matter of making the long journey home- we’d completed what we’d come to do. Two days later, during which we ate continuously, our porters returned to collect us; the next day we were driving back down the Wakhan Corridor to Ishkashim. Satya had some trouble with a recalcitrant immigration official as we crossed back into Tajikistan but managed to extricate himself; then it was the long 4WD journey back to Dushanbe. The leg across China? Well! Its something we can notch up to experience. Hopefully there’s nothing in our passports that will stop us returning to what must be one of the wildest and most unexplored mountain areas on earth. I will certainly be returning, hopefully very soon.