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Asia, Afghanistan, High Hindu Kush – Wakhan Corridor, Koh-e-Baba Tangi (6,513m), Attempt

Koh-e-Baba Tangi (6,513m), attempt. In September an all-woman Italian team of Eloise Barbieri, Elisabetta Galli, Roberta Vittorangeli, and I as leader tried to climb Koh-e-Baba Tangi, at the head of the Kezget Valley in the upper Wakhan Darya. Our expedition had several goals: exploring this remote mountain region, demonstrating to climbers that visiting the Wakhan is no longer dangerous, attempting the second ascent of the beautiful Baba Tangi via the original route on the west spur, climbed by Italians in 1963, and meeting local Ishmael women and using our status as Western female alpinists to show there can be different roles for women than those to which the people of this region are accustomed. Ours may have been the first all-female climbing expedition to visit the Wakhan Corridor.

Over the last few years Carlo Pinelli and Mountain Wilderness, with the Aga Khan Foundation, have been trying to develop tourism in the Wakhan through the promotion of expeditions and trekking. We flew to Dushanbe in Tajikistan and used Pamirs Eco-Cultural Tourism Association (PECTA, pecta@pamirs .org) to organize transport to the Afghan border at Ishkashim (althoughnot essential, it helps to have a smattering of Russian). Applications to enter the Wakhan, information on the region, logistics, and contact with local Afghani guides should be made through the Aga Khan Development Network.

AKDN has groomed some of the best men in the region as guides, providing cultural and alpine training, as well as setting up English language courses. It has built tourist guesthouses and established a consistent pricing structure for accommodation, guides, porters, and pack animals throughout the Wakhan. Now all they need are foreign visitors. Accompanying us on our adventure were Amruddin, Afiat Khan, Aziz Big, and Gurg Ali, all trained for three years by Mountain Wilderness and, we believe, competent to work with any trekking or climbing party. The most gifted alpinist is Afiat, an ex-mujaheddin who has abandoned a Kalashnikov for an ice axe. We highly recommend these locals, for no one else speaks English, and you need to be familiar with local customs when looking for porters and animals.

We first drove east along the Wakhan to the village of Kezget, where there is a simple guesthouse and the opportunity to recruit porters. From there it was a two-day walk south up the Kezget Valley to a base camp below the mountain, which lies on the border with Pakistan. It looked much drier than in pictures from the 1960s, with many hanging serac barriers.

The west spur was not a walk, as we thought it might be. From base camp we climbed mixed ground, with rock up to UIAA III and a short 45° ice gully, where I fixed a rope. Above, we made Camp 1 at 5,500m. The next 200m was mixed climbing leading to a 45-50° ice slope which rose from 5,700 to 6,000m. Above, the terrain became more mixed. However, the weather throughout our stay was not on our side. Snowstorms followed one another in quick succession. When Afiat Khan, Roberta, and I reached 6,000m, the wind was icy, and we were sinking deep into fresh snow. We abandoned the attempt, and the weather never improved sufficiently to make another. Nonetheless, I created a new start to the ridge with Afiat Khan, climbing through the seracs to join the original route at 5,300m (350m, D+).

I came to Afghanistan to speak about emancipation of women but was crushed by a world far from my own. My original idea had been to make an ascent with Wakhi girls, but after a long silence the Aga Khan Foundation told us a month or two before departure that this would not be possible; permission had not been given by the village chiefs. On arrival I understood the problem. Women in the Wakhan marry at 16 and then have children. Children become arms for working and bringing goats to pasture; it is impossible to see them in any other role. The women of the Wakhan have a certain autonomy, being Ishmaeli they do not have to wear the Burka, as do Muslim Afghans, but are still subordinate to men. In 2007 three women participated in a Mountain Wilderness ice-climbing course, but they were young students from Kabul and therefore in a different cultural class from their counterparts in Wakhan. I felt impotent to speak about emancipation and realized that it is not only the attitude of the women in this region that would have to change to provide more freedom but also that of the men. Amruddin and Gurg Ali can be contacted directly at amruddin@gmail.com (Tel: 00937965136860 and gurgalibabatangi@gmail.com (Tel: 0093796513942). For more information look at www.mountainunity.org, particularly the forum.

Anna Torretta, Italy (translated by Marina Heusch)