Thursday, 25 June 2015

Afghanistan revisited - Himal Southasian

Afghanistan revisited - Himal Southasian




Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Climbs and journeys in Afghanistan's Hindu Kush

It is wonderful being back in Afghanistan and to wake up in the morning in Kabul and see the Hindu Kush ringing the horizon to the north. Afghan friends have asked me about the climbs and journeys we did 20 years ago so I pieced together various articles, especially for a young Afghan mountaineer, Baryalai Saidi. I hope you enjoy them.


John Tinker (l) and Ian Clarke with Mir Samir in the background. The route they attempted was a ridge on the face just to the left of centre to the left of a small avalanche in a snow gulley: Photo: Bob McKerrow



FROM THE AMERICAN ALPINE JOURNAL 1995
Mir Samir and ascent of P5000. After years when it was too dangerous to enter the mountains of Afghanistan, New Zealander Bob McKerrow and Englishmen Ian Clarke and Jon Tinker headed for Mir Samir in the Hindu Kush. McKerrow is head of the International Red Cross in Afghanistan and Clarke is a former Royal Marine, now head of the Halo Trust mine clearance organisation in Afghanistan.

Tinker has worked in the country a number of times in the last seven years.The three climbers set out from Kabul on September 23, 1994, acclimatizing near the Salang Pass before setting out for Parian in the upper Panjchir.
Above, The peak climbed solo by Bob McKerrow on 1 October 1994. The peak was named P5000 by the American Alpine Journal 1995. The photo is taken from the Chamar Valley. 












There four horses were hired to carry food and equipment up the Chamar valley to base camp at 3,400 m. Clarke's skills were put to the test when the saw air-dropped scatterable anti-personnel mines.


They established a high camp at 4,300 m on September 29.Because of the deep snow, the two Englishmen made slow progress the next day to bivouac at 4,900 meters on an unclimbed snow route on the southwest face of Mir Samir. On October 1 they made While Clarke and Tinker were climbing Mir Samir, McKerrow climbed an unclimbed peak at approximately 5000 metres, a prominent feature when viewed from the Chamar Valley. a summit attempt.but unseasonable deep snow turned the back at 5200 meters, some 600 meters from the summit.(end of article from American Alpine Club Journal, 1995)






We spent a few night in the Panjcher valley. This trigger-happy commander put us up for a few nights free. Photo: Bob McKerrow




Tinker with parts of land mines which we found scattered through the region. Photo: Bob McKerrow


Bob McKerrow (l) with John Tinker at Base Camp on Mir Samir. Photo: Bob McKerrow



The donkey that carried our supplies in with Mir Samir in the background. Photo: Bob McKerrow


I couldn't resist putting the photo of Eric Newby taken on their attempt on Mir Samir in 1956 and an extract from his obituary in the New York Times, October 24, 2006.




Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1956, Mr. Newby set out on the trip that would make him famous: a voyage by station wagon, foot and horseback to climb Mir Samir, a 20,000-foot peak in Nuristan, a wild region in northeastern Afghanistan. The fact that he had never climbed a mountain did not deter him in the slightest.

                                          Mir Samir. Photo: Bob McKerrow





Mr. Newby chronicled the trip in “A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush,” published in Britain by Secker & Warburg in 1958 and in the United States by Doubleday the next year. As in all his work, the narrative was marked by genial self-effacement and overwhelming understatement.



Bob McKerrow reading some pages from Eric Newby's A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush to children whose Grandfathers helped Newby. We retraced a large part of their journey, Photo: Bob McKerrow






Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review in 1959, William O. Douglas, a noted travel memoirist who by day was a justice of the United States Supreme Court, called the book “a chatty, humorous and perceptive account.” He added: “Even the unsanitary hotel accommodations, the infected drinking water, the unpalatable food, the inevitable dysentery are lively, amusing, laughable episodes.”




Here is the article I wrote on various climbs in Afghanistan we did between 1993 and 1996.







No foreigners have climbed in Afghanistan since the Soviets arrived in late 1978. I had heard about the passes and valleys strewn with land mines so it was with some trepidation I embarked from Kabul in October 1994 on what was probably the first expedition into the Hindu Kush for at least 17 years.


Roads in the Hindu Kush are difficult to negotiate in winter. We are heading up to the Salang Tunnel which is the only tunnel through the Hindu Kush. Photo: Bob McKerrow





I travelled with two British climbers, Ian Clarke and John Tinker, to the Chamar valley for an attempt Mir Samir, a peak made famous by Eric Newby in his book, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. Tinker was fresh off an ascent of Everest by a new route on the north side and Clarke was head of a British Mine clearance organisation in Afghanistan and was a necessary companion as the area had received large amounts of small scatterable mines, dropped from Soviet aircrafts to prevent the freedom fighters crossing the mountain passes.

Having lunch at our base camp with a bunch of Pashtoon soldiers returning from just being released from prison in the north, to their home in the east of Afghanistan, a journey of 400 km through remote wild mountain areas. John Tinker left, and Ian Clarke 3rd from left. Photo: Bob McKerrow







Our safety was dependent on his knowledge of mines and where battles had taken place. Tinker and Clarke attempted an unclimbed face on Mir Samir and got surprising high considering the unseasonably soft snow that had fallen.
The mountains to the extreme left of Mir Samir at the head of the Chamar Valley. Photo: Bob McKerrow







While the others were attempting Mir Samir, I climbed an unnamed peak around 5000 metres and looked over to the enticing mountains of Nuristan, formerly Kafirstan. We explored a number of neighbouring regions with the hope of returning to do further climbing. .In June 1995 I did another trip was Clarke, crossing from the Panjcher valley to southern Badakshan by way of the 4260 m Anjuman Pass.



Early 1995, Ian Clarke and I did another trip over the Anjuman Pass on a journey towards the Wakhan Corridor. Photo: Bob McKerrow







It was a unique opportunity to explore this spectacular part of the Hindu Kush and check routes on the major peaks in the area ranging from 5900 to 6500 metres.



                          A rather dubious group we came across. Photo: Bob McKerrow







One of the best peaks in the area in Kohi Bandak. The highlight of the trip was when returning back over the Anjuman Pass when at about 3400 metres in high alpine pastures we met about 50 Kuchi (nomad) families on their annual journey to this area. Some were on the move, other camping in their black, low-slung goat hair tents. We passed strings of camels with babies and young children with intricately embroidered bonnets, tied on the backs.




Camped at a lake on the northern side of the Hindu Kush. We crossed by Kotali Anjuman, the low pass on the right. Photo: Bob McKerrow




                              Kuchi nomads wending their way through the Hindu Kush.









Young girls with page-boy style hair cuts, flashed their shy blue eyes at us as we passed.

We stopped in tents to share pots of tea and watched how they cared for their animals. Young goats were inside the tent, sheltering from the hot sun, women tenderly carried young lambs in their arms, and an old lame sheep, rode past on the back of a camel. Over the hillsides women and children were gathering alpine herbs, wood, leaves and wild vegetables. Nearby an old women was weaving a carpet. This is what the mountains of Afghanistan are about, tough friendly mountain people who have a symbiotic relations with the hills. They name their children after the mountains, names such as ‘Kohzad’, meaning of the mountains.


                                                         Kuchi nomads on the move.







Despite the warmth of the people, many disasters befall them. Thousands are killed annually by avalanches and landslides. In late March word reached Kabul that a massive landslides had hit the village of Qarluk, situated high in the mountains of Badakhshan.
I was part of a Red Cross survey team that walked and rode by horse to the site. The whole village had been engulfed killing 350 people, all women and children. The landslide occurred at 11 am when the men and boys were out in the fields and the women. We arrived to find only one female survivor, 11 year old Gulnesa Beg, her arm broken in two places and with her good arm, hugging her father. A whole village wiped out by nature. Here we spent weeks running a relief operation to assist during the emergency phase and started helping these rugged Hazara people put their lives back together again.

In August 1996, the highlight of my time in Afghanistan was a trip to Nuristan, the legendary 'land of light'.
                                           Parun Valley, Nuristan. Photo: Bob McKerrow







The Afghan Red Cross is establishing a medical clinic in the Parun valley and I went with our medical staff. Nuristan hugs the southern side of the Hindu Kush and is been isolated from the rest of the country. Six main valleys make up Nuristan each with their own language and for four to five months of the year, the mountain passes in and out of Nuristan are blocked. In is an area where snow panthers, wolves and fox thrive in forests almost untouched by human hand, this is paradise on earth. These blue-eyed and sometimes blond haired people claim they are either descendants of the original Aryans, while others say they are descendants of Alexander the Great. In 1895 they were forcibly converted to Islam and even today their are remnants of their former pagan past. Nuristani villages cling to mountain sides, sometimes perched on peak-tops. a legacy of the past to avoid invaders. Like the mountain Tajiks, the Nuristanis are true mountaineers. In 1889 George Robertson the author of the book ‘Kafirs of the Hindu Kush’, described the Nuristanis as" 'magnificent mountaineers<-"' because of their mountain skills, fitness and agility.


The northern entrance to the Salang Tunnel and the men who keep the road open. February 1996. Bob McKerrow

  McKerrow and Tinker sorting out gear at Base Camp in 1994. Photo: Bob McKerrow


                             The writer sitting on an old Soviet tank. Photo: Bob McKerrow



Our last climbs in Afghanistan were in June 1996. I went with Mathias Luft, Ross Everson and Bruce Watson. Mathias and Ross climbed  Kohe Jalgya 6260m, the peak in the background in the photo above. Bruce and I climbed a 5300 m peak. Photo: Bob McKerrow 




This was quite a difficult expedition and the first mistake made, was letting a Frenchman buy the food without supervision. We ended up with pasta, stale and hard bread, rice, onions sugar and tea. There were no breakfast food, no milk powder, no salt, nuts, meat, chocolate meat or sardines. I wrote in my diary after six days we were starving. A group of armed locals stole equipment from us and Mathias was threatened by a soldier with an AK 47.


Bruce Watson on our Kohe Jalgya  (Kuh-e Jalgya)  expedition at about 4,800 metres, just above our base camp. Photo: Bob McKerrow 

It took us five days to cross from the Panjcher Valley over Kotali Anjoman, down to Anjoman village, where we turned a sharp right up a side valley called Darrahe Paghar and set up a base camp at 4300 metres under Kohe Jalgya.

We soon realised that Kohe Jalgya was quite a technical climb and we didn’t have enough climbing equipment for such an ice climb. So Ross and Mathias head for Kohe Jalgya and Bruce and I for another less technical climb, an unnamed peak at 5,300 metres.

On the ascent of Kohe Jalgya, Ross and Mathias spent a night half way up the peak. They made good progress the next day but found the ice climbing difficult. After negotiating the hardest part of the climb, they came to a small snow field where they had to plug through waist-deep snow near the summit. They turned back at 4 pm on the 6th of June as the weather closed in. The descent turned into an epic in worsening weather. Mathias had two axes for front pointing down the face, but Ross only had one which slowed him down. Mathias gave Ross one of his ice axes, and he used one axe and an ice screw as a dagger, to descend. About 9 pm, Mathias lost footing and fell down an icy coliour and tumbled head over heals for 300 metres, just coming to a stop before a rocky bluff. Although cut and bruised, he was able to walk. Meanwhile Ross continued descending alone in the dark on steep ice. Now seperated by 300 metres, Mathias managed to stagger back to their tent situated on a snow ledge. Ross kept down climbing on ice another two hours, reaching the tent at midnight.

Meanwhile at base camp, Bruce and I were anxiously waiting, for they were a day late. We had eaten our last spoon of milk powder, and had no food left, not even a cooker to make tea.

So on Saturday 8 June, Bruce and I left a note and emergency equipment under a rock cairn, and said we were leaving for the valley to buy a sheep, cook it and come up with some locals to effect a rescue.

We got down to a small hamlet in the valley about 4.30 pm and I glanced back at the mountain, and saw two specks slowly moving on the lower snow slopes of the mountain. It could only be Ross and Mathias. Bruce and I were elated. They were alive! We bought a stringy old female sheep and got the farmer to skin it, cut it up and boil it, preparing a feast for Ross and Mathias. Four hours later Mathias and Ross crossed the rising river, and joined us for a feast of mutton. Four days later we were back in Kabul.


Two of the best ! Over the years i have climbed with many high competent mountaineers but John Tinker (left) and Ian Clarke (right) are two of the best I have climbed with. We did an expedition to Mir Samir together and Clarke and I did a recce of the Anjuman Pass area in 1995, trying to reach the Wakhan.  The central Hindu Kush in the background.




So during the three years I lived and worked in Afghanistan, (1993-96), I was fortunate to get out to many parts of the Hindu Kush, and explore, trek and climb. With the difficult security situation today, I am so grateful to have taken that opportunity. On reflection, I suppose it was minefield mountaineering. Thanks to Ian Clarke for giving me the confidence to travel in a country that was heavily mined, and teaching me what was safe and what was not.