Pamir-i-Wakhan, Koh-e-Iskander (5,561m), Koh-e-Khar (5,327m)
Asia, Afganistan, Pamir
Despite some effects from the much-publicized, devastating monsoon rain just south in Pakistan, in July and August Neil Gwynne and I, both from Scotland, were able to make first ascents in the Little and Big Pamir at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor. We were inspired to make this trip by a simple Japanese map that I had bought 20 years ago in a Glasgow climbing shop.
Like other recent visitors, we accessed the area from Tajikistan, via the town of Ishkashim. After a day buying supplies and arranging permits, we made a two-day drive by 4WD to the road- head at Sarhad-e-Boroghil, the vehicles becoming stuck in recent mud slides and deep rivers on several occasions. From there we made an eight-day approach on foot, in unusually wet conditions, to become the first mountaineers for many years to reach the interior of a mountain group west of the Wakhjir River. [Editor’s Note: The Wakhjir is the upper Oxus River. The Scots originally thought they were the first to reach these peaks, but Steffan Graupner, who traveled along this river in 2008, points out that in 1964 a German expedition climbed 5,424m Koh-e-Bay Qara, and 10 years later a Polish team climbed a 5,548m peak, both in this same mountain group; see below.] We followed a side valley south from the Wakhjir, starting from the point where the latter turns from southeast to east. Often we were forced to unload the horses and ferry loads up steep muddy slopes.
Finally, we left our horsemen in the valley and established a high camp, from which we subsequently reached a col at the valley head. This involved some of the loosest rock I have ever encountered and a brutal wade up a glacier, which would have been significantly worse were it not for snowshoes loaned to us by the Anglo-American team that climbed Noshaq. From the col I continued alone to make the first ascent of Koh-e-Iskander (5,561m), named after both Alexander the Great, whose armies passed nearby in 326 BC, and my two-year old son, Sandy. There was one section of Scottish 3 on loose rock. Carefully descending avalanche-prone slopes, we regained our high camp after a 12-hour day. [Editor’s note: This peak lies northeast of 6,094m Qara Jilga I—see AAJ 2010. Qara Jilga I, named by the 1974 Polish expedition after the glacier and river at its foot, remains unclimbed. The German Koh-e-Bay Qara is nine kilometers to the west, while the Polish 5,548m peak, named by them Awal-Wakhjir Sar, lies within a four kilometers of Koh-e-Iskander].
Time lost on the approach meant we were forced to leave the area almost immediately, but on the way out we did manage one more ascent. While crossing the Uween-e-Sar (a 4,887m pass), we traversed a ridge north and, finding relatively solid granodiorite, continued along the crest to a twin-summited mountain, which we named Koh-e-Khar (5,327m, Peak of the Donkey, the twin towers resembling donkey’s ears). This involved another pitch of loose Scottish 3 and an eventual 1,000m descent straight to the valley floor to reunite with our horsemen at nightfall. On our return to Sarhad-e-Boroghil we found the road had been washed away, so we had to hire more horses and spend two long days riding 80km to regain our vehicle.
A local agency named Wakhan Tourism helps visitors secure permits, interpreters (some local guides have undergone training with Italian alpine guides in recent years), and vehicles. Throughout our trip we met with nothing but kindness, respect, and incredible hospitality.
The security situation east of Ishkashim remained stable in 2010, with no threats to the 70 or so western tourists who visited the Wakhan. However, this means that in 2011 the region might be considered a tempting “soft target” for insurgent or criminal gangs, so it will be important to get local advice before visiting. There is certainly enormous potential for first ascents at a wide range of technical difficulty in the area east of Sarhad. Thanks to the Mount Everest Foundation, British Mountaineering Council, and Mountaineering Council of Scotland for their support.