Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder (updated)

If there’s a place so remote, so lost, that the seeds of curiosity don’t grow, it is the Wakhan Corridor of North East Afghanistan. Abandoned by government and severed from the rest of the world by geography, politics and ignorance, the people of the Wakhan have no desire to know what’s happening outside the small scattering of villages in which they live, for their lives look inward, as they should.

Christine and I travelled to the Wakhan Corridor in July, 2011 and over seven days climbed a mountain called Koh-e-Baba-Tangi (6577m). Christine is my sister and we’d spent little time together in thirty years. The climb pushed us hard and afterwards we were proud we’d achieved such a thing; two women in their fifties, summiting a mountain in a country renowned for being one of the most politically unstable areas on earth. And it was a Muslim enclave to boot, with all that implies for western women.

For thousands of year Koh-e-Baba-Tangi has towered over the village of Kret in the middle reaches of the Wakhan. Or rather Kret has sat at the bottom of Koh-e-Baba-Tangi for thousands of years; the mountain has been there forever. And yet the villagers ignored, or simply didn’t understand, our ascent of a physical presence so dominant in their daily lives. They were more interested in our shoes, our warm hats, our spare food. We were surprised, humbled by this. For what is a mountain climbed compared to the daily subsistence grind of feeding a family, being a good Muslim, staying alive? The average age of death for a Wakhi is 44 years; women die from child-birth, men from toil and ill-health. And why would they be curious about two foreigners from a country they’d never heard of? We had no relevance to their battle of life spent in the here and now. There was no place for curiosity because the here and now was all they had room for, all they could cope with.

The Wakhan Corridor is the thin filling of land in the far north eastern corner of Afghanistan, sandwiched between Tajikistan to the north and Pakistan to the south. The physical name for this type of land mass is ‘pan-handle. The borders were positioned such during the Great Game, to keep open a trade route between China and Afghanistan. These days only opium passes through on a one way track to the west. The corridor (valley) follows the path of first the Panj, then the Wakhan Rivers, and is wide, extremely arid and impossibly beautiful. Erratic and sparsely situated, the small villages of flat roofed mud houses huddle around hand built irrigation ditches hundreds of years old. These are the basis for existence in the Wakhan., without them there would be no food. They create an illusion of green. The children are ragged, suffer from malnutrition and spend their days looking after the least important of the family livestock- the goats. The men tend to the donkeys, the cattle and the occasional yak, driving them thousands of feet up the mountainsides each morning to graze, and bringing them down in the evening. The livestock are the villager’s gold and are kept in better health than their owners. Women are confined to the home- ephemeral presences that made Christine and I feel very foreign and very trivial.

To the south of the corridor narrow valleys of soil and rock lead to the moraine of the glaciers and then the icefalls which in turn climb to the peaks of the High Hindu Kush. During the seventies climbers came overland from Europe to make ascents of these peaks, lured by the easy access, the hospitality of the locals, and the drugs. It was a brief period of prosperity for the Wakhi, who were employed as porters, guides and cooks. But the Afghan/ Russian war brought an abrupt halt to this and since the end of the war in 1989, first the Mujahedeen and then Taliban rules have kept the climbers away…until recently, when a small smattering like Christine and I decided to stage a cautious return.

These days there is really only one way to get to the north of Afghanistan, and that’s to fly into Dushanbe (capital of Tajikistan) and travel south by 4WD for three rugged days to the ‘wild west’ border crossing near the village of Ishkashim. In the past you could fly to Kabul and make the exhilarating and historical road trip north across the Kalang Pass to Faizabad, which translates as “abode of divine bounty, blessing, and charity.’ But these days a Taliban presence makes the drive too dangerous. The Taliban have killed Red Cross and NGO workers on this road and posted the assassinations on YouTube. Now only gamblers tackle this route, and we arrived in Afghanistan via Tajikistan. We’d met my friend Satyabrata Dam (from India) in Dushanbe and he was with us. Satya is a character. With golden skin, golden eyes and a great sense of humor, he served as a submarine commander in the Indian Navy for 25 years before retiring at 47 on full pension. Now he travels the world and climbs and climbs. He’s been up Everest three times, once without oxygen, has done TED talks and is one of the most interesting and personable people I have ever met.

The border crossing is nothing more than two shacks plunked scatter and random in the middle of the wide boulder bed of the Panj River. Travellers must endure the 45 degree heat, the AK47’s of the border guards, the imposition of luggage checks in the open air, the confiscation of anything vaguely technological, before making the three kilometer drive up to the tiny crossroads village of Ishkashim, perched on a terrace above the river. And after the second world comforts of Tajikistan, the transition is severe, into a world of poverty, poverty and more poverty.

Securing permits from the Ishkashim border police to enter the corridor was easy despite a complete dearth of spoken English. The police were sitting under a tree in the compound playing chess, their AK47 tossed casually to the side. We shopped for the last supplies in the bazaar and any unease was allayed by the locals who seemed benignly curious but unfazed by two western women and an Indian in their village. That night we stayed in a small guest house, sharing a meal with two Pakistani builders; they worked for the Central Asian Institute as project managers building schools in the Wakhan. They spoke good English but knew nothing of the fracas engulfing Greg Mortenson and ‘Three Cups of Tea’. Next day, travelling the 120 km to Kret in a beat-up Pajero, we passed several ‘Star’ (CAI) schools full of children, both boys and girls. The scenery was wild and arid and lovely. The heat was intense. In Kret, Satya who realized that his second language of Urdu had some similarities to Afghani, organized porters, and over the next two days our team snaked its way up onto to the white ice of the Koh-e-Baba Glacier, where we set up a spartan camp under the west face of the mountain. The porters left us with a handshake and a shout of Salaam aalaikum, peace be with you, ever affable.They’d return in three weeks. It was just us three and the mountain now.

Over the next 10 days we acclimatized, read our books and scoped the north-west ridge (our route of choice) many times, Christine and I psyching ourselves for what lay ahead. Could we climb it? We had no idea. Satya announced himself camp cook and made us chapattis and Indian curries and chips from our staples of potatoes and onion. He scampered about with his large camera; the altitude didn’t seem to affect him. One lovely morning, Christine and I put aside our apprehension and left camp with a week of limited supplies; we could only carry so much. First thing, we needed to climb an initial 500m ice face, ten pitches of 60-80deg, and this went well. We practiced our systems, me leading the pitches, Christine seconding, sometimes by jumaring the rope and hauling the packs. By sunset we were camped on the ridge proper and we were feeling happy and confident as we looked down on Kret, thousands of meters below us.
“I can’t believe we’re actually here,” Christine said. “Climbing a mountain in Afghanistan, of all places! ”
Only one other party had climbed the Koh-e-Baba-Tangi; a team of Italian’s in 1963, led by Carlo Alberto Pinnelli, and via the west ridge.

Over the next four days we slowly ground the mountain down, step by step, pitch by pitch. There was ice of great quality, deep loose snow that tried us physically and bergschrund walls and rock steps we simply couldn’t climb. But the weather was idyllic; every day the sky was as clear as a pearl. On the forth night, weary from lack of food and pack hauling, we reached 6000m, and realized we were in a position to go for the summit.

Crawling out of our ice encrusted tent at 2am wasn’t easy, for bitter blasts from a mountain wind greeted us with exquisite cold. On those final slopes of sastrugi and air born powder snow the wind chased us relentlessly, blasting ice crystals in our eyes and tugging the rope into a wide westward arc. With the hoods of our down jackets pulled tight around our faces, we shed tears of fatigue and delight as, at 11am, we stood arm in arm on the summit. The cold didn’t matter now, for the long, long journey from New Zealand had been worth it. Infinitely worth it. I turned in a circle. To the north were the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan; to the east the brown steppe of China. For as far as south as I could see, the Karakoram Mountains stretched to the horizon. And out west, the high chain of the Hindu Kush. It was a magical moment, in a beautiful and lost part of the world, and I was there with my sister.

It took two long days to descend the West Ridge to the glacier. Struggling to get off the summit plateau, we’d resorted to rappelling five pitches of steep granite to access a sloping ice ledge running leftward to the top of the ridge proper. Then there was 6000ft of climbing down, with short roped sections, longer abseils…and no food. Stepping onto the glacier, midday on day seven, we hugged, and looked expectantly towards our camp. There was a small wandering figure, silhouetted against the midday white ice. “Satya, Satya,” we yelled. The figure paused for a minute, then raised both arms in the air and raced towards us.

I fell in love with the Wakhan in 2011, and decided on another visit the following year .From the start the 2012 trip was fraught with contention. My climbing partner lost his nerve and pulled out at the last minute, leaving me and the basecamp support team of my brother Bill (who had never climbed in his life) and friend Maryrose ( who hadn’t climbed in 20 years) to continue. We were no longer a prospect for making the first ascent of Rohazon-Zom (6750m), the original intent of the expedition, but decided to go to Afghanistan anyway. We would make the most of the situation, we agreed. If need be we would just be travellers. Then we missed our connecting flight from New Zealand because of bad weather, and couldn’t get out of the country for another four days. Back home I had a much needed rest and spent the time wandering around the house with my cat, enjoying the fact I wasn’t at work. Our team left again on a Tuesday, but I forgot my passport and had to make an emergency dash home, only to miss the flight for the second time. By the time all three of us were on the same plane, heading in the same direction, tension was high.

On this trip my brother Bill gave me my biggest surprise. He is very tall and very dark with hazel eyes, and women love him but to me he’s just the brother I’ve always had. When he was younger, our family thought that by now he’d be dead. Altercations in pubs, driving licenses lost for drunk driving, followed by court appearances for driving without a license lost for drunk driving. Written-off cars. Tattoos.Then he met Petrina, an English rose rising from the ashes of a broken marriage and complete with…three kids! Petrina and the children have been the making of Bill and twelve years on he is a successful farmer, aerial crop sprayer and step-father… who wanted just a few weeks divergence from his daily life.
“When people ask me where I went for my holiday this year, I don’t want to say the Gold Coast,” he explained to me before the trip. “I want to say I’ve been to AFGHANISTAN.”

For someone who’d never travelled to a third world county before, let alone one as extreme as Afghanistan, Bill made an effortless transition. He did all the right things; was friendly with our Tajik driver and helped with repairs on his vehicle; joked with the porters; was obsequious towards officials. He had a natural finger on the pulse of what’s required for trans-nation relations between one of the most privileged countries on earth, and one of the poorest and most neglected.

By mid July, the day after the border crossing, we were on our way east along the corridor to Qala Panja, a large smattering of a village at the confluence of the Panj and Wakhan Rivers. Irrigation was extensive, houses large spreading conglomerates of packed mud covered in straw and the drying cow slaps of manure used for winter fuel. North across the Panj River were Peaks Karl Marx and Engels, forgotten relics of the Soviet era where vast meadows of golden grass washed up and up to 6700m, capped by sublimely romantic peaks of rock and glistening ice. We spent the night in a guest house and were availed of the youngest household member’s desire to be a doctor “for the good of Afghanistan,” he said. One wonders if he will ever be a doctor. The odds were stacked against him.

It took us eight days to reach the upper neve of the Qala Panja Glacier at 5000m; eight days of lugging pack loads of food and equipment relentlessly upward to a point where we suddenly broke out above the humdrum clatter and cloud of the icefall into a wonderland of light. Here were the beautiful silver peaks of the Hindu Kush; here was the exciting Afghan/Pakistan border with views of the Karakorum Mountains, of Taliban country to the south and of China way to the east. This was what we had come for. We set up camp on a rocky knoll and sat in the sun recuperating. The weather was sublime.

Maryrose and I climbed Koh-e-Rank, as 6000m beauty unsullied by the feet of the European climbers of the 70’s. We were the first to climb it and we were proud- we’d worked hard in the icefall and deserved this. Maryrose, whose original intention for the trip was to be no more than basecamp support was thrilled, for it was her first mountain in two decades. The day we climbed Bill waited at basecamp, unwilling to put himself in a position, he said, where he might become injured, or God forbid, killed, and be unable to care for Petrina and the family.

Maryrose and I made a west/ east traverse of the mountain in a 14 hour sorte. After a two hour trudge across the neve, we crossed a frightening snow bridge on daybreak, feeling it sponge and creak under our weight. Maryrose, who was leading, gave a few yelps of fear. Battling rightward and up steep, unconsolidated snow to the west ridge, we ran a tight gauntlet under an imposing ice cliff and congratulated each other on reaching the ice arête without mishap. Several pitches of glorious seventy degree blue/ green ice followed, and while I belayed Maryrose towards me, I peered across a 15 kilometer span to Tirich Mir perched elegantly on the Afghan/ Pakistan border and the highest peak in the Hindu Kush. Out west was Noshaq, Afghanistan’s tallest mountain, a rounded glistening dome and I wondered why, at 7600m and technically easy, it wasnt drawing commercial expeditions. Surely it was a more exciting prospect than a mountain in the Khumbu? With every pitch Maryrose gained confidence until she finally said, “Hey ,I’m really loving this!”

The ice arête petered out on a broad snow slope, which ran far down the Pakistan side of the mountain to a narrow valley where we could see small patches of green; irrigated settlements, I thought, and what looked like a road, although it could have been an irrigation channel. I knew somewhere not to far south was the Chitral Valley and that this was Taliban terrain. Setting off once more I took the lead up the final slope and after a two hour plod I reached the top. Maryrose summitted an hour later, by which time snow clouds were rolling across from the Pamirs. Maryrose had a huge grin on her face. “Hey, amazing job step plugging,” she said, “I couldn’t have done that,” and I was grateful she’d acknowledged this for I was very tired and had a nasty headache: I just wanted down now. But descending the east ridge, the headache went away and we found ourselves scrambling stretches of mixed climbing we should probably have abseiled and chatting and giggling about no-hoper boyfriends of the past. A steep, mushy snow slope swept down to a truly colossal crevasse and we did an almighty 60m free hanging abseil over this to get onto the neve. “I can’t remember when I last abseiled,” Maryrose said with another grin. Back at camp, Bill had an enormous pot of noodles waiting for us. We were all very happy.

With the mountain done we were content to lie like seals in the sun on the rocks around camp, explore the high passes of the border and try and catch glimpses of Koh-e-Baba-Tangi, 25 km to our east. But there were so many mountains…which was it? Then we ran out of food. It was hard to leave, and the descent down the sides of the icefall was a long numbing day of excessively heavy packs and battered knees.

When we returned to Ishkashim we were unnerved to find there had been a massacre in the Tajik town of Khorog to the north and the border was closed. Four hundred civilians had been killed for no reason other than they were Pamiri (from the Pamir Mountains).The Tajiks had closed their side of the border to stop the insurgents from escaping into Afghanistan, and then on to Pakistan. The event was genocide, pure and simple. Of course it impacted on us and a German/ Polish expedition also stranded in Ishkashim. Eight of us waited days for the three embassies in Kabul to organize a military helicopter evacuation to the capital, which was to be at our own expense. The New Zealand ambassador, Justin was by far the most sympathetic to our plight, and we were on first name terms. In the end in desperation, we bribed our way across the border with the help of a fistful of US$100 bills. Afterwards we sat in the heat as a bunch on the dirt road outside the barb-wire border gate and swore to a man we’d never return to Afghanistan.

But absence makes the heart grow fonder and there are memories I cherish. How many people get the chance to chance to travel and climb with their middle aged siblings? How many people get to go to one of the most remote, beautiful and disadvantaged countries in the world? I could go to Nepal and climb a mountain with hundreds and hundreds of others, just to say I’ve done the highest. But I’d prefer to return to the Wakhan, to a culture that doesn’t need me, have a mountain range to myself and summit an unclimbed peak of infinite beauty. I will go back.