The third British expedition to visit Afghanistan this summer has returned to the UK, having enjoyed incredible hospitality from the local population and made two first ascents towards the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor.
With grant support from the MEF, BMC and MC of S, Neil Gwynne from Glasgow and Alan Halewood from Fort William were able to access the Pamir-i-Wakhan Range despite the influence of heavy monsoon rain that caused such destruction just to the south in Pakistan.
The trip was inspired by a simple Japanese map that Halewood bought in a Glasgow climbing shop 20 years ago.
This year around 70 western travellers have visited the mountains of the Wakhan Corridor. These have mostly been trekkers but the number included the Welsh expedition to Noshaq, the British-Italian women's expedition to the Little Pamir, and a large Polish mountaineering team whose achievements are yet to be reported.
After a two-day 4WD ride to Sarad-i-Boroghil, and an eight-day trek with pack horses in unusually wet conditions, Gwynne and Halewood became most likely the first climbers to access the interior of a range of mountains west of the Wakhjir River.
After establishing a high camp, the two reached a col at the head of a glacier. From this point Halewood continued alone to make the first ascent of Koh-e-Iskander (5,561m), named after both Alexander the Great, whose armies passed close by in 326BC, and Halewood's two-year old son, Sandy.
The ascent involved a pitch of Scottish 3 over loose rock and after a careful descent of avalanche prone slopes, the pair regained their high camp after a 12-hour day.
Because the approach to this area had been severely hampered by mudslides, unusually deep rivers, and the recurring need to unload horses and ferry gear up steep mud slopes, the two had no more time available to continue their exploration.
However, on the way back, while crossing the Uween-e-Sar (a 4,887m pass), they traversed a ridge north and, finding relatively solid granitodiorite, continued a lengthy ascent to a twin-summitted mountain, which they named Koh-e-Khar (5,327m. Peak of the Donkey: the twin towers resembled 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 their horsemen.
Back at the Sarad-i-Boroghil roadhead, they found the way beyond washed out. The closest point to which a vehicle could drive was 80km distant, so the pair rode horses for two more days to reach their 4WD, and from there returned to Ishkashim and homewards through Tajikistan.
The team reports huge potential for first ascents of a wide range of difficulty in the mountains east of Sarad, and met nothing but kindness and respect from locals.
Security east of Ishkashim, the gateway village to the Wakhan, was as stable as ever this year, despite the recent murders of foreign aid workers in southern Badakhshan.
However, Halewood fears that due to increased western visitation, the area might be seen as a tempting 'soft target' for insurgent or criminal gangs next season. It will be important to keep abreast of local advice before visiting in 2011.
The photo shows Koh-e-Iskander. The route of ascent follows the left skyline snow ridge (on the day of the ascent the basin in front was avalanching regularly). The shoulder visible behind runs up to unclimbed Qara Jilga I (6,094m), a summit to the north west of the Afghan-Pakistan border peak Sakar Sar (6,272m).