In approximately one month Darren Benton, Jesse Burkhardt, Mikey Church, Jim Donini, Jennifer Flemming, Chris Weidner, and I completed first ascents of four peaks in the Gorno-Badakshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO) region of eastern Tajikistan. We also put up a handful of one-and multi-pitch rock climbs. The idea for the expedition arose after I moved to Khorog, a small town in southeast Tajikistan on the border with Afghanistan, to carry out a one-year research project. The mountains we visited lie above the Gunt Valley, which descends to the M41 a little east of Rivak, 35km northeast of Khorog.
Jesse and Darren, accompanied by Teo Kaye, a professional photographer based in Dushanbe, attempted Peak 5,160m in the Gunt Valley. The approach was long and difficult, and after establishing base camp the three scrambled up steep talus for 500m, then a steep snow gully, to reach a col on a ridge 200m below the summit. The way ahead looked extremely difficult, with three large gendarmes that would have to be climbed and rappelled. Considering the time of day and approaching bad weather from the north, they retreated.
In the meantime Jenn, Chris, Jim, and I made the first of two attempts on the 280m east face of a sharp granite peak located on the west side of the Gunt Valley and referred to as the Tooth. We tried two lines before rain moved in, Chris and Jenn getting 90m up after insecure 5.11a climbing. Two days later, on June 24, both teams returned but were unsuccessful, our attempts ending 120m-130m up.
The team now focused on a side valley of the Gunt known as Sizhd (37.694866° N, 71.763264° E). A base camp at 3,800m offered good access to a large number of steep granite peaks on both sides of the valley, mostly above 4,500m.
Darren and Jesse opted for a flat-topped peak of ca 4,700m, on the right side of a snow-covered cirque. On June 28 they climbed 300m up a south-facing snow gully to a col. Above, a short section of 4th class, followed by two pitches of technical rock (5.10a and 5.4), led to a final unprotected traverse along the southeast ridge. The pair reached the summit at mid-day, naming the peak Akvan Div. Descent involved three rappels and long sections of downclimbing.
The same day Jenn, Mikey, and Chris hiked up a steep gully toward a sharp, granite peak later named Rostam (ca 4,900m). After four hours and much easy scrambling, they reached the base of the west face. Starting at the left edge, they climbed 120m of loose 4th class before roping up at the base of a chimney. Three long, right-trending pitches, with sections of vertical cracks (5.8), led to the sharp, snowy north ridge. A final steep section of verglassed rock (5.8) and a sharp arête led to the summit. Five rappels plus much downclimbing brought them back to the foot of the face, and they arrived in camp at 8 p.m., after a 14-hour day.
Jim and I left camp at 5:30 a.m. and began an arduous 600m approach up a loose, steep gully toward a 4,960m peak (altimeter) we later named Shahnameh. From a major talus field below the headwall, we saw that the southeast side gave the choice route. An obvious low-angle outcrop on the right side of the wall gave 3rd class scrambling for 180m to the headwall. Four well-protected pitches, following the path of least resistance and best rock (5.8-5.9), took us to where we could see that the remaining climbing looked long and complicated. To the east we saw Darren and Jesse summiting Akvan Div, a little higher than us. As it was now 3p.m. and we didn’t fancy an open bivouac, we opted to go down, rig rap stations, and come back after rethinking our strategy.
The following day, while we refueled and moved our camp 600m higher, Jesse, Darren, and Mikey made the first ascent of a pinnacle they named Punginella (ca 4,100m). This involved 240m of scree, followed by two moderate length 5.7 pitches. After spending some time on the precarious summit, they descended with two rappels. Later that day, Jesse and Mikey climbed a three-pitch 5.7 route on the opposite side of the valley, topping out in an obvious gully and descending before bad weather moved in.
Jim and I left the following day, the 30th, at 6:30 a.m. and embarked on 12 pitches of Sierra-style climbing. These ranged from 5.7 to 5.10, with one 8m A1 section. Routefinding was tricky, but there was good rock on the steep sections, although ledges had debris. After each headwall we expected to see the summit, but another steep face would appear. Linking these walls involved rappelling from towers or traversing (which would have to be reversed on the descent). At 4 p.m., after 600m of vertical ascent (12 pitches and two long rappels), we reached the top of Shahnameh. We descended with several rappels and two fifth-class pitches, arriving back at camp half an hour after dark. Our three major summits, Shahnameh, Akvan Div, and Rostam, relate to the epic Persian book of mythology (Shahnameh) that is the heart of Iranian, Afghan, and Tajik literature.
Bo White, AAC with the help of Darren Benton, Jesse Burkhardt, and Chris Weidner