While working in Afghanistan with development projects, I was constantly impressed by the beauty of the Hindu Kush and excited about its climbing potential. “Being involved with projects that attempted to promote sustainable development for poor mountain communities, I was frustrated that insecurity in the region was stopping what could surely be a thriving mountain tourist industry, of great benefit to the local economy. “Economic development is desperately needed in a region where roughly 80 per cent of young men leave their homes and families to pursue cash incomes overseas, often taking great risks to cross international boundaries illegally.
A trek in 2008 to the ruggedly beautiful Wakhan Corridor made me realize the huge potential offered by this one hidden corner of Afghanistan, as an “adventure holiday” destination for those who like to walk the slightly wilder side of life. The region has no history of violent conflict, and being Ishmaili there is zero tolerance for Taliban ideals. The Wakhan is easily accessible from Tajikistan, allowing travelers to avoid insecure “mainland” Afghanistan.
I was spurred into organizing a climbing expedition for summer 2009, to be part of a growing interest in this region and help promote the potential of the Wakhan to the wider world. Our team of two Kiwis and three Brits met in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, ready for the journey south to the Afghan border. An 18-hour 4×4 trip got us near the frontier, and the following day we crossed to Ishkashim, the border town and capital of Wakhan. Here we finalized simple formalities with the help of Mountain Unity staff, met our indispensable guide Gorg Ali, and did our shopping for the month-long trip. There would be no opportunities to buy food once we headed east into the Corridor.
Our objective, the Qala-i-Hurst, is one of many high-altitude valleys in the Hindu Kush dominated by jagged peaks. Climbers had only visited this valley twice before, and all significant peaks remained unclimbed. Qala-i-Hurst is situated toward the eastern end of the Wakhan and can be reached in one day’s drive from Ishkashim—but bank on two as the road is seriously rough and claims many tires. As few foreigners ever visit Wakhan, local people greet you with a mixture of excitement and curiosity. “We took a Polaroid camera, which was definitely appreciated by local families.
On September 15 Chris Philipson and I climbed the north ridge of Koh-i-Beefy (5,410m GPS, 5,379m Google Earth Digital Elevation, 5,288m on some sketch maps), named in memory of Jamie “Beefy” Fiddes. The day was clear and sunny, although a little chilly with autumn advancing. Our route follows a beautiful 600m line, which dominates the upper basin of the Qala-i-Hurst Glacier. It was mainly straightforward snow at AD+/D- but had three steep ice pitches of Scottish 4 (60-70°). The ridge also involved several easy rock towers of UIAA II. At around mid-height we left the crest, when snow conditions became too unstable, and moved onto the north face. “We encountered spectacular penitentes at various points, due to the arid, high-altitude environment. While the technical crux was the ice pitches, the psychological crux was definitely the summit tower, which involved loose, sugary snow on a relatively steep, exposed ridge, with no secure belay. We descended using snow bollards and Abakalovs for rappel anchors.
Stable weather, great rock and ice, countless unclimbed peaks, and the superb hospitality of local Wakhi make this a very special region in which to climb or trek. “This is one of the last unexplored mountaineering destinations that our shrinking world has to offer, and a true adventure. “We will be heading back in 2010 with the aim of climbing the stunning granite and ice-clad pyramid of Baba Tangi (6,513m).
A big thank you to our fantastic local guide Gorg Ali and David James at Mountain Unity, both of whom helped make this expedition a success. There is footage from our expedition at http://www.youtube.com/ watch?v=m6iH-3YRCxM and more information, or help with organizing your own expedition to the Wakhan, at http://www.mountainunity.org/.