Former Afghan fighters go climbing

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 24/06/2009
Afghans on the Mer de Glace Chamonix. David James

This August, four Afghans from the Wakhan Corridor in the north east of the country will attempt Afghanistan's highest summit, 7,492m Noshaq.

Twenty-five-year-old Amruddin, Gurg Ali (28), Afiat Khan (28) and Malang (35) all live in the shadow of the High Hindu Kush, in that narrow finger of Afghan territory that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan and follows the course of the mighty Amu Darya. This river, formerly known as Oxus, rises in the Little Pamir and flows c3,200km along the southern boundary of the old Russian Empire to the Aral Sea.

Afiat Khan, who in 2008 opened a new start to the West Ridge of Koh-e-Baba Tangi (6,513m) with World Cup ice climbing champion Anna Torretta, fought for the Northern Alliance against the Taliban but has now exchanged the Kalashnikov for an ice axe.

Peaks of the Wakhan were hugely popular in the 1960s and '70s, not least because they experienced more stable weather and snow conditions than the Karakoram-Himalaya, and were generally free from a restrictive permit system. But the Coup d’Etat in 1978 and the subsequent Soviet invasion at the end of the following year put the Hindu Kush strictly off-limits.

The country's highest mountain, which translates as 'nine horns' and is second only in the Hindu Kush to Pakistan's Tirich Mir, has a long but technically straightforward West Ridge. First climbed in 1963, it was this route that was used 10 years later by Andrezj Zawada's Polish expedition to make the first winter ascent of any mountain above 7,000m.

Were it not for the Afghan war, Noshaq's West Ridge would now be one of the World's most popular objectives for commercially-organized expeditions attempting a high but technically moderate ascent.

In 2003, Carlo Alberto Pinelli, Director of Mountain Wilderness International, gained official permission to visit the Wakhan Corridor with his expedition 'Oxus, Mountains for Peace in Afghanistan'. His team successfully made the first ascent of Noshaq for 25 years, though they had deal with unexpected objective danger in the approach valley, which they discovered had been planted three years previously with over 600 anti-personnel mines.

Members of this expedition have returned several times from 2005-2008, as part of Mountain Wilderness's initiative to train local people as mountain guides. During April-May this year Amruddin, Gurg Ali, Afiat Khan and Malang travelled to Chamonix for further coaching.

The four will be accompanied on Noshaq by the experienced French guide, Jean Annequin from ENSA, assisted by fellow guide Simon Destombes. Although local Afghans portered for the earlier expeditions - Afiat Khan comes from Qaz-i-Deh, the village at the entrance to the Noshaq valley, and his father worked as a porter for visiting climbers before the Soviet invasion - there is no history of them climbing high above the snowline. 

It is hoped that a successful ascent by the four Afghans will send an important peace message, fostering national pride and unity in this war-torn country. It should also give further publicity to the region, and assist future economic development of the Wakhan through locally driven and sustainable tourism.

It is now possible to reach the area safely by a direct route from the north through Tajikistan, and four expeditions enjoyed climbing in the Wakhan during 2008.



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