Brief how-to-do-it to the Afghan Hindu Kush

Aerial Wakhan Corridor

This information is collected from my two expeditions to the Afghan Hindu Kush Range; the first in 2011, which resulted in a successful ascent of Koh-e-Baba-Tangi (6530m) and the second in 2012 which resulted in an ascent of Koh-e-Rank (approx 6100m). Both were first ascents of their respective routes and second ascents of the mountains themselves (the first ascents being in the 1960’s).

The Afghan Hindu Kush has seen little climbing activity since the 1970,s due to the Russian Invasion and subsequent Mujahedeen and Taliban rules. A smattering of climbers has returned over the last decade, but the Taliban presence remains a deterrent. Don’t expect to meet other expeditions on your trip.

The Range lies to the south of the Wakhan and Panj rivers, which divide Afghanistan from neighboring Tajikistan. The mountains rise from 5,500m to 7,600m with the highest being at the western end of the range. The north south watershed forms the border with Pakistan to the south. Access to the glaciers and peaks is via the famous Wakhan Corridor and is comparatively short compared to other regions (eg the Karakoram) for basecamp can be reached in 2-3 days. However the travel involved in reaching the Wakhan from New Zealand is long and involved.

There is little porter culture in the Wakhan and on my trips only the men from the village of Kret (Koh-e-Baba-Tangi) had portered before (once). But they were extremely helpful and friendly and we had no problems getting to our respective basecamps without a sirdar or translator. There are no cooks.

Getting there
Travelling to Kabul and flying north is no longer an option since the flight to Faizabad was cancelled. And driving north is very dangerous- the Taliban have killed Red Cross workers and travellers on this route in recent years. The best, safest and cheapest option is to fly (China Southern) from Auckland to Guangzhou (12hrs), then hop across China to Urumqii ( 5 hrs), and then on to Dushanbe (2hrs), the capital of Tajikistan. The flight is long- expect some 12 hour stop over’s here and there.

From Dushanbe, hire a 4WD and driver (there are no public buses, the roads are too rough) and drive for two x 10-12 hour days south to the Tajik-Afghan border at Ishkashim. This is wild-west country at its best. If you want to take extra time, stop in the small town of Khorog- a good place to complete expedition shopping.

At Ishkashim cross the border (both the villages on the Tajik and the Afghan side of the border are calle Ishkashim) and then hire another (even more battered) 4WD to get you up the Wakhan Valley to your drop off point of choice. To travel to the end of the road takes about 12 hours. The road is extremely rough and is prone to flooding from the side rivers in the afternoon when the glaciers are in full ablation. If this happens you may have to cross on horseback and sort yourself out on the other side. 4WD rental is the biggest expense of any expedition to the Hindu Kush.

You will need three of them: 1) Chinese: a transit visa; 2) Tajikistan: a six week tourist visa and; 3) Afghanistan: thirty day tourist visa.
1) The Chinese visa is a breeze- the major cities in NZ have Chinese Consulates these days.
2) The Tajik visa must be got from the nearest Tajik embassy to New Zealand which is (wait for it!) in Brussels, Belgium. You will also need a permit (GBAO) to enter the Gordo-Badakshan area that borders Afghanistan. Give yourself a good six weeks to get your passport there and back, and be prepared to make some late night phone calls to jog things along.
3) The Afghan Embassy is in Canberra and here again, be prepared to be persistent if you want to get your visa before you leave.
4) Once you’ve reached Ishkashim (Afghanistan) you will need to get a permit from the District Governor to enter the Wakhan area.
Start the visa process at least three/ four months before you leave and prepare to be stressed.

Finding a mountain to climb
There is no easy way to do this- it’s a matter of hard research. Most of the ascents done in the 60’s and 70’s were done by Europeans and what reports there are you will need to translate into English.
Alberto Pinnelli has written a useful little guide called “Peaks of Silver and Jade” and this is a great starting point. There is a copy in the NZAC library. There are maps, but they are Russian and the scale is large and not much use.
Other than that there isn’t alot. Google Earth?

Travelling to Afghanistan is risky- there is no getting away from this fact. But there are things you can do to reduce this risk.
o Keep a low profile in the villages-don’t draw attention to yourself.
o Stick to the dress code: long shirt and trousers for men; the same for women and a head scarf.
o Leave your satellite phone and Eperb at home- they are a convenient means for the Taliban to track you down.
o Even keep cell phone usage to a minimum- there is little coverage anyway.
o Don’t try and bring alcohol across the border- the border guards will find it.
o Register with the New Zealand Embassy in Kabul and always always keep the Ambassador’s phone number with you (his name is Justin).
o If there is Taliban trouble in Ishkashim, or even in the surrounding villages, get out quick.

You will be relying entirely on self rescue on the mountain, but rest assured that once you are back in ‘civlisation’ the villagers will give all the assistance they can. Cell phone coverage is good in Iskashim- contact the NZ embassy as soon as you are able. Don’t think the New Zealand forces are going to give you any assistance- they are unable to help and pull out of Afghanistan in April 13 anyway. There is a hospital in Khorog, 100km the Tajik side of the border- aim for there.

Do as much of your shopping in Dushanbe as you can. You can get most things there, either from the small supermarkets or from the wonderful “Green Market.” If you stop in Khorog you can top up on fresh stuff. Afghanistan itself has very little- the locals live in poverty and subsist on a very basic diet of rice, curd and naan bread.
I have found gas canisters in Dushanbe but only after a big hunt. Better not to rely on getting them and bring a petrol stove as back up. Don’t buy petrol in Tajikistan- you will have it taken off you at the border- wait until Afghanistan.
In Ishkashim you can purchase 5kg gas bottles and a gas head for use at basecamp. Ive always taken two of these for basecamp cooking, used a gas cooker (Jetboil) on the mountain and had a petrol fueled MSR as back up. The petrol is filthy- be prepared to spend a lot of time cleaning your cooker.
Purchase a pressure cooker for cooking rice and a bucket for washing in the Ishkashim Bazaar and sacks for your porter loads.
In Ishkashim you can also buy jars of jam and cardboard cartons of clotted cream- put it on naan bread and it’s the nicest thing you’ll eat in Afghanistan.

Shopping list for three persons

tea bags 200
instant coffee 500g
porridge 2kg
milk powder 2kg
friut drink 8 sachets
hot chocolate 250g
Instant porridge sachets 20
Instant coffee sachets 20
semolina 2kg
flour 2kg
sugar 1kg
Biscuits 4kg
Nuts 4kg
Dried fruit 4kg
lollies 2kg
Halvah 2kg
instant noodles 15
tinned friut 6 tins
jam 2 jars
Happy cow cheese 6 packets
Potatoes 4kg
Onions 3 kg
Other veges that wont go off 4 kg
tinned tomatoes 8 tins
instant soup packets 10
oil 1 litre
salt 200g
toilet paper 8
clothes washing soap 1
person washing soap 4
indian spices (from home) plenty
instant sauce packet 10
lighters 1 each
boxes of clotted cream 8
Cake 4 pkts
Tinned fish 10 x 250g
Kamuch 12
Chocolate 500g
Pasta 2kg
Rice 2kg
Pickled chicken from Urumqi 3

Petrol 4 litres
5kg gas bottles 2
Gas head 1
Pressure cooker 1
Large sacks for porters 5

Once you’ve got all the required visas and permits, things are surprisingly straight forward.
There are a number of cheap (ex Russian) hotels in Dushanbe, but also some very nice smaller private hotels
The best way to get your 4WD in Dushanbe is to head for the ‘share taxi’ compound and rent a Pajero with a good roof rack. Make it clear you want to rent out the whole vehicle, otherwise you might find yourself sharing. The driver will organise cheap home stay accommodation for you en route.
Once in Ishkashim, head for the guest house of XXXXX across the creek from the main bazaar. This is a lovely oasis with good food and basic dormitory style bedrooms (men in one, women the other). Ask for a man called Malang to help you get your Wakhan permit and organise a 4WD for you the next day. If Malang is not available, the guesthouse owner with contact another English speaking Afghani to assist you. Don’t try and get the permit yourself unless you have a week to spare. Its also a good idea to take a translator up the valley to liaise with your porters, none of whom will speak English. Its important to establish the pay rate, and where you want you basecamp situated, before you leave the valley floor.
There are several questhouses situated in the Wakhan, established by the Aga Khan Foundation. The best, and newest of these is at Qala Panja, six hours drive up the corridor- worth a stay.

The mountains
The Hindu Kush is heavily glaciated and in my experience, the rock is poor. There is often good ice on the northern slopes. The climbs are big and time consuming: on Koh-e-Baba-Tangi we spent five days getting to the summit and another two days descending a different route. On Koh-e-Rank we could only take porters to 3200m, then we were on our own for eight days hauling food and equipment through the icefall to get into a position to climb our peak. There is no option to take porters higher than basecamp- they are not equipped and do not have the skills. Nor is there any means of insuring them.
On the plus side, the weather tends to be a lot more stable than in neighbouring Karakoram and the temperature is mild up until 6000m. There is often a wind above 6000m. On my first trip (Koh-e-Baba-Tangi) we only had one bad weather day in 30. On the second trip it was similar and we had 8 days where we didn’t see a single cloud.

This is is not a place for the faint hearted, but the views from the summits are sublime- where else can you look north into Tajikistan, east into China, south into Pakistan and west out over Afghanistan. Its like being at the ends of the earth. If you really want to get off the beaten track, climb mountains that havent seen a climber in 30 years, if at all, then the Hindu Kush is the place to go.

Climbing equipment- climbing partnership
2 xBC tent
First light tent
2 x 60m half rope
10 x various ice screws
Jet boil stove
5 x pitons
set of wired nuts
MSR stove
20 m rap or V-thread cord
3 x fuel bottles
2 x abalakov hook
1 x cooking pot set
2 long slings
6 x camming devices
10 x quickdraw
1 x snow shovel
2x snow stake/deadman
Repair kit
1 x binoculars Knife
2 x altimeter watch

Maps and photos
Spare gas head
1st aid kit
Spare bag for food

Medical Kit
Diamox: AMS
Niphedepine: Pulm oed
Voltaren: Anit-inflam
Tramadol: Severe pain
Dexamethazone tablet: Cerebral Oed
Dexamethazone inject: Cerebral Oed
Panadol: Pain
Codienne: Pain, alt cough, diahorrea
Fasigyn: Giardia
Amoxicillin: Broad spect antibiotic
Metqaclopramide: Anti naus
Nodia: Stopper upper
Eye drops: Snow blind