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American Expedition to Nuristan

American Expedition to Nuristan, 1968

Jeff Dozier

From ITS junction with the Pamir and Karakorum ranges at the tortuous Pamir Knot, the Hindu Kush extends westward for over 700 miles along the border between West Pakistan and the Wakhan region of Afghanistan, and then into Afghanistan itself, where its elevation progressively decreases. In Afghanistan, on the southern flank of the range near the Pakistan boundary, lies Nuristan—the “Land of Light.” The ancestors of Nuristan’s present inhabitants carved wooden idols and practiced a religion of animism, polytheism, ancestor worship, and animal sacrifices. They were called Kafirs—meaning infidels—by the Muslims who lived in the surrounding area and who were subject to frequent raids by these wily, hardy mountain peoples. The region was called Kafiristan—“Land of the Infidels.” Protected by their mountain fortress, they resisted several attempted conquests, and not until 1896 did Abdur Rahman, the “Iron Amir” of Afghanistan, invade the Land of the Kafirs and convert them to Islam. They had little choice but to destroy their wooden idols and begin building mosques. The area was ironically renamed Nuristan—“Land of Light” or Enlightenment.”

About 5000 square miles in area and with a population of about 50,000, Nuristan is composed of three major valleys which extend southward from the main crest of the Hindu Kush: the Alingar, the Pech, and the Bashgal. The Bashgal is the easternmost of the three valleys, and because of its proximity to the Pakistan border the Afghan government has seldom allowed foreigners into the area. Nevertheless, three expeditions in recent years have obtained permission to travel up the Bashgal to the high peaks of its watershed: the Scottish Hindu Kush Expedition of 19651 and our own expeditions of 1967 and 1968. In 1967 we were a small, ill-prepared group, and were not successful on any significant climbs. But in July 1968 we returned to attempt the unclimbed east face of Koh-i-Tundy Shagai Sha (6121 meters or 20,082 feet) on the main crest of the Hindu Kush. The peak had been previously climbed from the Munjan valley by three members of the Deutsche Naturfreunde Expedition of 1965.2 We were also equipped to make a documentary film on Nuristan.

The eleven members of the expedition covered a wide range of the American social spectrum, from a California judge and a New York film producer to two Yosemite climbers and a ski patrolman. My father, Jack Dozier, was the prime organizer of the adventure. Desiring to climb a high peak in good weather, he logically chose the Afghan Hindu Kush, just beyond the reach of the monsoon. Fosco Maraini’s Where Four Worlds Meet, with a chapter on the Kafir tribes of West Pakistan, stimulated curiousity about Nuristan, just across the border. Through a complex chain of relations and associations he met Les Buckland, an affable New York film producer, who assured him that making a documentary film would at least be a marvelous way to pay for the trip. Mike Wadley and Charles Hipszer, both New York cameramen, were inveigled into coming, and Mike trained Charles Grosebeek, a guide from Banff who lives in New Hampshire, to be a sound man. The rest of the expedition came from California. Jack’s twin brother Bill, a Superior Court judge, studied an old text on the Bashgali language, and by the time of the expedition he was able to converse. Eli Goldfarb and Gary Hill, both friends of the family, were easily convinced to go. To get into shape, all except Bill started running up stairs to work and through city parks in the dead of night. Bill would have none of it and sought to conserve what strength he had. The only thing lacking now was youth, and they were willing to sacrifice respectability to get it. I was counted in, and Dick Erb thought it a great way to escape the July and August heat of Yosemite. Perry Mann, a Mammouth Mountain ski patrolman, completed the group.

In early July we assembled in New York, with an enormous pile of food and climbing and photographic equipment. We flew to Kabul, capital of Afghanistan, where we met our liaison officer, Mr. Pir Mohammed of the Afghan Tourist Organization. From there we travelled by paved road through the Kabul Gorge to Jalalabad, thence by dirt road up the Kunar

River to its confluence with the Bashgal just beyond Barikot. Normally the road continues for another forty miles up the Bashgal to the village of Bargimatal, but the river had washed out much of it, so we hired donkeys in Barikot (elevation: 3000 feet) and began walking.

We followed the Bashgal, past fields of corn, wheat, and millet, irrigated by a complex system of ditches, many of them running along steep slopes. Between cultivated areas were forests of holly oak and meadows of hemp. Mulberry trees were profuse, and the sweet berries caused many delays.

After four long days we reached the Shkurigal, a tributary of the Bashgal, and turned up it. Here the terrain was steeper and the irrigation system even more amazing. The forests were now of pine and deodar; higher up they graded into aspens. Finally we reached Pachigram, at 10,800 feet the highest village of the Shkurigal. It has a population of 150 men, only three of whom were born elsewhere. When we asked the malik (mayor) the number of women and children, he replied with surprise, “Who counts women and children?” It is the function of women to do nearly all of the work and none of the talking, so the friendly, gregarious men were free to act as porters. Wondering about their ability, we pointed to a steep tower, visible up a nearby canyon, and asked if any of them could climb it. They replied, “Our children could climb it.” We dispensed with the donkeys, hired 22 men, and continued up the Shkurigal to a valley unnamed on our maps but called the Suingal by the villagers. At the head of this valley we set up our Base Camp at 13,000 feet, below the east face of Koh-i-Tundy Shagai Sha.

The face above us was steep, but a zig-zag route up it looked very feasible. On July 25 Dick Erb and I, accompanied by two porters, Machman Nazir and Machman Nacir, set out to scout the route. The two Nuristani carried heavy loads, so Dick and I were able to keep up with them, and together we moved up a gully below a hanging glacier we had named the Goo—the Nuristani word for worm or slug. Dodging and cowering beneath periodic rockfall, we skirted an ice wall on its right side and gained access to the Goo. Climbing up it, Dick and I, who had crampons, marvelled at the ability of the two porters, who were wearing only slip-on rubber boots. The Goo brought us to the left side of the face, below an icefall, at an altitude of about 16,200 feet. Here Dick and I set up Camp I, while the two porters dropped their loads and went back to Base Camp.

The following day the rest of the expedition dismantled Base Camp and climbed to Camp I. In the rockfall area below the Goo, by this time christened the “Bowling Alley,” Bill Dozier lost the tip of the ring finger of his left hand when a large rock shifted and severed it. A long delay resulted, but Charles Groesbeek managed to stop the bleeding. He bandaged the hand, and Bill felt that he could continue. The group proceeded up the Goo.

Meanwhile Erb and I, carrying loads of food and gas cartridges, climbed right of the icefall above Camp I and traversed beneath a band of cliffs to a couloir, which we ascended to an icefield. Crossing the icefield was the most strenuous part of the climb, as the surface was made up of closely spaced four-foot pillars of ice and hard snow, an extreme form of suncups. For over two miles we crashed through them, changing leads at short intervals, eating snow to relieve our tremendous thirst. By late afternoon we were only a few hundred yards from where the icefield met the north ridge of our mountain, and the remaining 2000 feet to the top looked inviting. Hopefully the snow would be better. We could go no further now, and we emptied our packs and descended. Camp II, at 18,200 feet, now had food and gas and a trail to it.

The next day the whole party moved up to Camp II. It was decided that from here we would climb to the summit in two teams on separate days. On the morning of July 28 Charles Groesbeek, Mike Wadley, Jack Dozier, Perry Mann, Eli Goldfarb, and I set out for the top. We gained the north ridge and relished the rock climbing in the warm sun, but filming caused much delay, and by one o’clock we were no higher than 19,000 feet. Clearly the top was out of reach that day. We had one tent with us, for Mike and Charles had planned to camp high on the mountain and then film the second party. The suggestion was made that we try for the top and bivouac wherever darkness caught us, but because of my somewhat obstinate wish to spend the night in my sleeping bag, which was at Camp II, we arrived at a more rational solution. The tent was erected on a platform hacked out of the slope, and here Jack, Mike, and Charles spent the night with the enormous pile of photographic gear. Eli, Perry, and I donated our down jackets and dashed back to a hot supper of beef stroganoff at Camp II. On the way down we met Charles Hipszer, who would spend the night in a protected spot on the ridge and film the next day’s events.

We arose at five on the morning of the 29th—Dick, Perry, Les, Bill, Eli, Gary, and I. Sunlight was all around us, but a small nearby peak kept our camp in shadow. Too cold to fix breakfast, we moved quickly toward the sunlit area. By eight o’clock we had reached the 19,000-foot camp, in time to see its groggy occupants peer out of the tent.

We were soon underway. The admirable Erb led upward at a rapid pace, kicking steps in the crusty snow. We stopped a few times to film; once when a pack containing a spare magazine and more than a thousand feet of film began to slide down toward Camp II, a magnificent dive by Jack Dozier saved it. By noon we were on the long, winding summit ridge; always a tower prevented us from seeing the actual summit as we wended our way along it. I began climbing at the base of one of them, with Dick and Perry slightly ahead of me. Suddenly Dick started shouting incoherently. The summit was right there, only a few feet away; I took the last few steps, slowly, deliberately to savor the moment. We then happily shook hands. My father and Eli followed close behind, and soon all ten of us were assembled on the small summit. The air was calm, and we basked in the warm sun. We could clearly see Tirich Mir, 100 miles to the northeast, and to the southeast the clouds of the monsoon towered above us. While Mike filmed, we spent over an hour on the summit, in a state of euphoric lethargy. The frustration caused by the ice pillars and the difficulties of exertion at high altitude quickly faded. As Dick Erb so aptly remarked, “I don’t see how it’s possible to have such a headache and yet feel so fine.”

Late that afternoon we returned to Camp II, and two days later we feasted on fried chicken in the village of Pachigram.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Hindu Kush, Nuristan, Afghanistan.

New Route: East Face of Koh-i-Tundy Shagai Sha, 6121 meters or 20,082 feet, July 29, 1968 (all except Hipszer).

Personnel: Jack Dozier, leader; Les Buckland, Charles Groesbeek, Mike Wadley, Charles Hipszer, Bill Dozier, Gary Hill, Eli Goldfarb, Perry Mann, Jeff Dozier, Dick Erb.

1. A.A.]., 1966, pp. 205-206.

2. A.A.]., 1966, p. 205.