Only 16km wide at its narrowest, the Wakhan Corridor is an obscure panhandle of land giving Afghanistan a tiny border with China. Exploration started long before mountaineers ventured into the area. Marco Polo is reputed to have spent time here recovering from malaria, and the source of the Oxus was discovered deep in the upper Wakhan. Before the 1979 Soviet invasion, the Wakhan was a popular, if remote, mountaineering destination. Now it is an oasis of calm and relative security.
Early mountaineering expeditions concentrated on the lower Wakhan. The local people are Wakhi and follow a liberal form of Islam, known as Ismailism. With the Soviet Union to the north proving more impenetrable to Western mountaineers than the Hindu Kush, expeditions traveled overland from Kabul. Today the security situation makes this route inadvisable, and access is from Tajikistan. Expeditions have an extra visa hurdle to jump, but we found the paperwork straightforward, though getting insurance was prohibitively expensive.
James Kitson and I used Adab Shah, a 22-year-old Afghan, to organize the required permits and expedition logistics. He whisked us around the various police units and the District Governor’s office in a morning. By the afternoon we were able to load the vehicle and set out on the road east. The track soon became nonexistent and meltwater rivers more difficult to ford. As the sun dipped behind the mountains, the car got stuck and started to fill with water. Unable to push it out ourselves, we gathered reinforcements from a local village and, after bailing out footwells, were on our way again. Greg Mortenson’s schools were apparent in many tiny settlements.
On the following day we met pre-arranged men with donkeys at the entrance to the Raij Jurm Valley. One of the animals was probably the smallest donkey I have ever seen. James and I rearranged the bags, shouldering the larger packs, but we had walked no more than 100m when the men insisted that they carry the loads. Two days later they helped establish a base camp at 4,200m.
The Jurm Valley had been visited by Italian expeditions twice, in 1972 and, unknown to us, in 1973. Unfortunately the 1972 report underestimated the heights of the peaks summited by the expedition, which misled us on the potential for first ascents.
After we negotiated unstable moraines and crevasses, our first attempt on a summit at the head of the valley was thwarted by weather. We sat it out in advanced base camp at 4,920m, but when food and fuel supplies were exhausted, we retreated down-glacier in terrible weather.
Once dried out, we made a second attempt, using the same approach. This time we continued along the glacier toward a col west of the peak. Above, we found the initial rock ridge to be loose and precarious, so we took an easier line that traversed right, below a small, stable ice cliff and went up a steady incline. After several false summits we reached the top, which consisted of a broad dome with jaw-dropping vistas across Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. We descended our route, which we rated PD+.
When we returned home, back issues of the 1972 Himalayan Journal were newly available online. A photograph from the 1972 Italian expedition showed that our peak was Koh-e-Sauze (Blue Peak), ascended via the same route in 1972. The 1973 expedition claimed in a later report that there were few further first ascents of interest to be made in the valley. However, it is a wonderful destination, and there is potential for new routes. Virgin peaks in the Wakhan will be found mainly to the east, in the upper Wakhan.
We were generally surprised at the ease with which logistics could be organized and how accommodating local people were. It seems that the mountaineering legacy in the Wakhan, from its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, continues today, and we found it rewarding to employ local people, who were dignified, honest, and generous. Hopefully a resurgence in mountaineering can play a part in providing an income for communities. We thank the Mount Everest Foundation, Jeremy Willson Mountain Exploration Grant, and Julie Tullis Memorial Award for financial support.
Editor’s Note: Koh-e-Sauze was first climbed in August 1972, from the west, by Lino Bortolami (leader), Alfredo dal Santo, Paoli Lion, Ugo Quintily, and Elide Veronese. True heights in this area are usually a little higher than on Russian maps, making Koh-e-Sauze ca 5,730m. The Jurm Valley was visited in 1977 by Poles, who made several first ascents and repeated some Italian routes. The highest peak of the valley, Koh-e-Jurm I (ca 6,000m), lies on the western rim and was first climbed in 1969 by Japanese, approaching from the Pakistan side. Several other peaks on the rim have also been climbed from adjacent valleys. It is thought that several minor summits remain virgin.