Our 2012 climbing trip to Afghanistan had all the excitement and drama of last years successful expedition to climb Koh-e-Baba-Tangi, if not more! But it did get off to a rocky start! After months of planning and work, our fourth member (and my climbing partner) saw fit to pull out three days before out departure. With no explanation although he has since claimed he was worried about the ‘security’ in NE Afghanistan. Not to be disuaded, Maryrose, Bill and I flew to Auckland on 6th July, only to miss our connection to China because of fog in Auckland. We returned home for four days, then tried again. This time we were successful in leaving NZ for Guanghzou, although i did forget my passport and money (yes! believe it of not!) and have to catch a later flight to Auckland.
When eventually all three of us were on the same plane we had an eleven hour flight to Guangzhou (4th largest city in the world). A quick stopover and we were on our way across China to Urumqi, where we had a much needed 12 hours break. Then a three hour flight to Dushanbe (capital of Tajikistan), arriving at midnight. We were met by Tajik fix-it man Dima Melichnikov and whisked off to a very nice hotel, where we spent the next two nights.
The day after our arrival we shopped for our expedition food in the city. I knew from my last years experience there was little to be bought in Afhganistan, so we shopped up large. Bill,on his first trip to this part of the world, breezed into the centre of town to do some photography and was promptly robbed by a couple of policemen. We had a meaty (shishkabab) feast that night, knowing there wouldnt be alot of meat on the rest of the trip.
The following morning we began our journey south towards the Afghan border in a rented Pajero with a driver called Ordill. After two hours we broke down, then waited at a small service station for another vehicle and driver to come rescue us. After a five hour delay we arrived in Kali-Khum at around 10pm. Next day it was on to Khorog, where we got some disturbing news from Dima- there had been a ‘shoot-out’ between the Taliban and the police not far from Ishkashim, the town at the entrance to the Wakhan Corridor. We should think carefully about whether we wanted to continue on to Afghanistan, he said. We spent a day in Khorog considering our options. Maryrose was ill (the first of a few illnesses for the team) We decided to push on to Afghanistan and the following morning crossed the border at Ishkashim. We had arrived!
Ishkashim was much the same as last year…except for the amount of ‘security’ patrolling the dirt streets. There were more police and they had a couple of new armed ‘humvees’ which roared around the bazaar. We put this extra activity down to the ever encroaching presence of the Taliban which the community, being peaceful Ismaelie Muslim, is ever determined to keep out.
As last year, all the organisation id put in place for our trip (guide, transport etc) evaporated and we were forced to find another translator/guide to come up the valley with us, and find our own 4WD. Fortunately we met up with Malang, whom i had met last year, and he helped us procure our permit for travelling in the Wakhan, and a translator to help with the porters, and after a day and a half we were ready to travel on.
We left for Qala Panja in a battered Land Cruiser and after a 6 hour drive arrived in the sprawling village in the evening. Within a short period of time we had porters organised, and a local (Manam Akeem) deemed himself our minder, along with his friend, Baig Mamad.We left for the Qala Panja Glacier next morning- ourselves, seven porters and all our gear- but not without being waylaid by a police checkpoint and being ordered by the Commander to pay for two porters to guard our basecamp for the duration of the trip. Baig Mamad and Manam Akeem volunteered their services and this resulted in a bit of wrangling over the pay rate. Consequently these two remained at the basecamp for the next 17 days.
It took two short, rather frustrating days to get to the chosen site of our basecamp. The Qala Panja Glacier comes down very close to the Wakhan valley floor…consequently our porters in their sandals and gumboots were unable to travel up the ice any higher than 3200m. We set up a rather gritty camp on the lateral moraine and waved the porters off home (but for Amigo and Big Mama, as we’d nick named our two camp ‘guards.’) Next day were headed up the glacier with light loads for a scope. We went as far as the junction with large, very steep icefall coming in on the right, and established a ‘dump.’ The next few days were spent supplying before cutting loose from Basecamp altogether.
After three days of supplying our ‘dump’ and a couple of rest and acclimatisation days, we were ready to leave for good. With big packs we headed up to the dump, filled our packs some more and climbed further up the icefall to a height of about 4400m, where we set up an ‘intermediate camp’ on the white ice/. Next morning it was back down to collect the remainder of the dump and bring it up to ‘intermediate camp.’ That afternoon, after much debate and indecision, Bill and i climbed up through the icefall further, to try and find a way onto a rocky knob that promised a good camp site at around 5000m.
After seven days in the icefall we were ready to make a definitive effort to get up onto the ‘knob’ and establish a top camp. We left intermediate camp with massive packs and pushed on up the icefall to a position below the steep snow slopes under the knob. After crossing a nasty bridge we were all perched on a anchor at the bottom of the snow slope. I led on up and to the left, only to discover hard ice which i thought would be problematic considering the weight of the packs, so i decided to try the rock instead. I led straight up a pitch of ice and rotten rock, then up another pitch of rock to get us established under a short steep section. We decided to haul the packs up this, which we duly did with lots of huffing and puffing. Another pitch of rock and then we were on top of the knob and able to get fantastic views of the upper neve and our original objective, Rohazon Zom.. We set up camp…by this stage we were all completely done in!
After a day of rest and acclimatization ( and the start of eight days of gloriously fine weather) we decided to walk across the neve to the Afghanistan Pakistan border for a view to the south into Pakistan. An hour should get us across to the border, we thought, but the distance was deceiving and it was actually four hours before we stood on the ridge with tremendous views of the Western Karakoram. Ive spent a fair bit of time in this area- but i failed to recognize anyof the mountains, there was so many of them. From there we could see the true summit of Rohazon Zom, which lies a kilometer or so over the border into Pakistan.We were also right beside a smaller, very attractive mountain called Koh-e-Rant.
By this stage Maryrose and i had decided that we weren’t a strong enough team to tackle Rohazon Zom which would probably take five to seven days to summit and descend. We decided that Koh-e- Rant would be a suitable and enjoyable alternative- attractive and unclimbed. It also looked like we could climb it in a day from our topcamp. We aimed to set out for the summit the next day, but that afternoon it was my turn to become ill. By the following evening i was feeling a bit better, so at 3pm next morning we were up eating breakfast (courtesy of Bill) and then away back across the neve to the base of the climb.
The first obstacle was the large bergschrund, but Maryrose did a brave lead across a nasty snow bridge, and then up a steep and unconsolidated slope to reach the east ridge.This was hard work and we took a bit of time here to rest and consider the next part of the route- the ridge itself.
The ridge was actually very straight forward, and after three hours of climbing we summitted in cloudy weather. Despite this, we had great views back over to our camp, into Pakistan, and we could even see the vilage of Qala Panja. The most spectacular view was probably that of Peak Carl Marx(6800m) and Peak Engels (6600m) across in Tajikistan. No one has climbed these peaks since 2007.
We descended the ridge in quick time and did a big rappel back across the schrund. By the time we got back to Bill and our camp, we’d been on the go for over 12 hours and were quite tired.
Now that we’d climbed a mountain we felt we could relax and enjoy our beautiful surroundings so we spent some time chilling out at our camp. Bill and i made a day trip over to a high col beside Rohazon Zom to try and get a glimpse of Koh-e-Baba-Tangi, the mountain Christine and i had climbed in 2011. But there were so many mountains, i was unable to distinguish it, either because it was too far away, or because it was out of sight behind a spur of RZ. However the views west into the true right branch of the Qala Panja Glacier were truely beautiful. Needless, we had a wonderful day and the weather remained perfect.
All to soon our time (and food) was running out, so we packed up for our descent back to basecamp. This we did in a long day, which took it out of us, but Amigo and Big Mama were overjoyed to see us- they had spent the last 17 days feeling very responsible for us and worried about our whereabouts. Next day the porters arrived, and we headed back to Qala Panja.
Back in Ishkashim the following day we were in for a shock! Due to a terrible incident in Khorog where dozens of people had been killed, both army, police and civilians (see the previous entry on this blog) and consequently the Tajik Government had closed the border. We were stuck in Afghanistan, along with another expedition of Polish and German climbers. Banding together, our relevant Ambassadors in Kabul organised a military airlift for us to Kabul, from where we would fly back to Dushanbe. But at the last minute (after 3 days wait), with the help of one of the Polish climbers who could speak Russian, we managed to wheedle and connive our way across the border. We fast tracked on to Dushanbe to catch our flight home.
Although we didnt climb our original objective, this has been one of my most enjoyable of 14 expeditions over the last decade and a half. Many thanks to Maryrose and Bill for coming. Many thanks to the Mount Everest Foundation, Southern Approach/ Black Diamond, Macpac New Zealand, Jetboil and Gu for all making this expedition possible. And lastly, thankyou to the people of the Wakhan Corridor whose hospitality goes unsurpassed.