American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Koh-e-Baba towers

Afghanistan, Koh-e-Baba Mountains,

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Author: Mike Libecki
  • Climb Year: 2010
  • Publication Year: 2011

In early July I arrived in Kabul alone and took a chartered flight to Bamiyan Province. Here I hired a 4×4 and local guide/translator and drove to the Koh-e-Baba Mountains, a western extension of the Hindu Kush 170km west of Kabul. I had photos of some towers, but no one I met recognized them. After several hours of driving, I spotted them from the road. Locals agreed to hire a horse and mule to take me to the towers. At first the locals were concerned that helping an American might cause political trouble in their village, but as I had official documents, they allowed me to continue. Next day we established base camp close to the towers. The photo had made them look like granite, but now I could see they were loose, crumbly limestone. Rain and wet snow settled in, part of the same system that caused horrific floods in Pakistan at that time.

A week later the weather stabilized, and I fixed a pitch through snow and ice (rock climbing shoes with crampons) and up into the gray-white limestone. The stone was so loose and sandy that most cam placements slid out under bodyweight. Next morning I started pitch two. After 175' the system I was following led to a questionable, chunky flake, about eight feet wide, five feet tall, and just over a foot thick. I tapped it lightly with my hammer. I had to pass through this section or retreat. I put in a cam on the very right edge of the flake, weighted it, and it pulled out. The limestone seemed to be all mudded together, so I decided not to touch the flake again. I drilled a couple of holes underneath it and hooked past the flake. Ten feet above and left of the flake, I started to drill an anchor. As I hammered the bolt, ckckrrrhhhupulchch. The entire flake exploded down the face. Frightening is an understatement. My main thought was that the ropes could be cut. I finished building my anchor, then, with two back-ups on my tag line, slowly lowered. The tag line was hit badly in two places; I tied double knots and passed them. My lead line was cut, exposing white cord. This was the worse rock I had come across in my life, and, tail between my legs, I went back to camp.

Next morning I swapped my lead line for a spare and continued. But 100' up the fourth pitch I finally accepted the message that the rock, lubricated by rain, was giving me. At that moment huge stonefall came down to my right. The lead rope was hit in two places. I had to go down now, finally limping away from the base of the tower after a grapefruit-sized stone connected with my foot.

I had a few days left before catching the plane home, so I focused on the remaining two summits. Several couloirs led to a ridge that would get me to the backside of the towers. I climbed one that was enjoyable: easy enough to climb fast with crampons, steep enough for a long fall. After about 1,500' I was on a ridge of dragon-back peaks and fins, again composed of the shittiest rock. I had come upon a self-born rating system, which I reference as Russian Roulette Rating to quantify the looseness of the rock. On a 1 to 5 RRR system, the first climb I attempted had to be RRR4 (am I sugar coating this, some kind of denial?), while this second tower was RRR3. The rock crumbled every few moves. Downclimbing would be scary. Twenty feet below the top I thought of turning back. I moved s-l-o-w-l-y, to the summit, touched it with my hand (tag, you’re it) and downclimbed.

It was now late afternoon, and I still had one more summit I wanted to climb. I scrambled through gullies and along ridges to reach its base. Although loose, the climbing was straightforward, and the ascent quick. I arrived back at camp as a manzanita-maroon sky and jagged black horizon became one.

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