Saturday, 27 August 2011

The killer mountain - K2 1995

The 1995 New Zealand K2 Expedition

It was the hottest day recorded in Peshawar, Pakistan for years when my plane from Kabul touched down in Peshawar on 11 June 1995. It was 50 oC. I drove for a scorching two and a half hours to Ralwapindi and walked into 'Flashman's Hotel' and met the leader Kim Logan, a warm and handsome man of Maori heritage.Then I met the others on the New Zealand K2 expedition. It hit 46 o C. The five-members of the New Zealand K2 expedition were Peter Hillary, Kim Logan, Bruce Grant, Matt Comesky and Jeff Lakes, Only three of the five survived the climb of K2.

Peter Hillary, Gary Ball and Rob Hall back in Auckland after their ascent of Mount Everest in 1990. Photo: Bob McKerrow 

I enjoyed the week I spent in Islamabad and Rawalpindi assisting the NZ K2 expedition. Each member was an outstanding athlete and all were kind and fun-loving people. Bruce Grant was an impressive young man who at the age of 22 was an Olympic skier, first-class mountaineering, extreme sportsman and extraordinary individual. He was a Queenstown adventurer whose special attitude to life touched a community and provide inspiration to local young people.

During the day the expedition members worked hard packing and buying last minutes items in temperatures of 45 oC plus.  On the afternoon of 15 June, I invited Kim Logan came round for beer as I could feel he needed a break from the others.  He spoke of his early climbing days in the Darrans with Bill Denz, his love of hunting, skiing and life in general. I asked him how many times he had climbed Aoraki/Mt. Cook and he replied, " I've climbed it 23 times by most major routes." Kim's father was a famous New Zealand military man and respected Maori leader.  

One of the problems of getting to Skardu with the expedition members and gear was that trucks were checked, asked for bribes and generally hassled at every stop and checkpoint.  I was able to find a wise old driver who worked for me and suggested the way to get there quickly and safely, was to hire a bus and put gear and members in it. The next day, four members of the expedition left for Skardu with all their supplies in a bus, thence the long trek to K2 Base Camp. Peter Hillary stayed with me.

Kim Logan (right) his daughter Katie and Bob McKerrow (left), a year after the K2 expedition. A few months after the deaths on K2, Kim returned with Katie to pay homage to those who died. Katie was 10 years old at the time.

Peter Hillary needed to stay behind in Islamabad to clear up some last-minute paperwork which took some days so we shared a guest house together, and got to know each other better. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was on at the time and we watched a few games together.
While watching the rugby, we were drinking Hanky Bannister whiskey, a brand of Scotch that was first manufactured in London in 1799. It was named after Mr Hankey and Mr Bannister who first produced it. It was reported to be a favourite Scotch of Winston Churchill.
We watched the England New Zealand rugby match and at the start of the match I went out for two minutes for a pee and when I came back Peter told me how Jonah Lomu scored that famous try where he just ran over English fullback Mike Catt.

The day after watching that match, another great NZ climber passed through Islamabad, Rob Hall, I had lunch with Rob and he told me he was joining a Tibetan Expedition to Gasherbrum 1 and 2.

I enjoyed Peter Hillary's company over a period of a week in Islamabad, but my leave was over and I needed to head back to Afghanistan, and Peter off to K2. Peter, the son of Sir Edmund Hillary, I found a highly intelligent man, a great conversationist, well-read and fun to be with. In both Kim Logan and Peter Hillary, I found a kindred spirit. I could tell the story of what happened on the New Zealand K2 expedition but I think it best left to an outstanding writer and friend of Peter Hillary, John Elder.
                        K2 is considered the deadliest mountain on the earth by the world's renowned mountaineers including Italian Reinhold Messner.

"In between talk of other things, we go back to K2, Pakistan, August just past. Eight climbers are headed to the summit, to 8580 metres. Six reach the top and are wiped out by the kind of storm we don’t see down on earth. Civilisations have been devastated by lessThe seventh man, Canadian Jeff Lakes, turns back too late and is buried by an avalanche in his tent. He digs himself out, but can’t find his ice axes, crampons, harness or anything to eat. He makes it down to Camp Two hand over hand, with little pieces of tape stuck over his eyes in place of sunglasses, urged on by walkie-talkie by his companions below.

But he is doomed anyway; what is left of him goes quietly as his friends sleep at his side. One of the men who talked him down and cuddled him for comfort is Lake’s climbing partner – Peter Hillary, the eighth man, the only one to make it down and out and home.

Hillary is thinking about this now, sitting on a lounge room floor in Carlton, two blocks from his own thin red house. He is 40, a divorced father of two, a mountain climber with a regular life back on earth that is as complicated as any.

It is nearly three in the morning. He has been talking about this recent calamity and about other moments, hideous and glorious, that he has not thought about for years. “It is bizarre,” he says, “to be one of eight people up on that shoulder pyramid and the only one alive today. Dad told me the most important thing I know: how to be bravely independent when making a decision.

                                           Peter Hillary today: Photo: Peter Jordan

“It’s becoming more clear to me as I get older, especially after what happened on K2, that people have this really horrifying propensity to let other people make decisions for them. You can teach your children how to push themselves and how to know when to pull back. That allows you to say: “Not for you today, old boy.” I felt a lot of pressure not to listen to that voice up on K2.

So I don’t feel any guilt for being here. I actually feel that I left my decision too late because it was getting bloody tough getting down. Up there I kept feeling ‘Oh God …’ It’s a very common attitude among people that there is safety in numbers, which is absolute rubbish. “Everyone’s looking at everyone else thinking, “They’re feeling all right so it must be all right.” It’s hard to go against that. That storm was coming in and it was incredibly obvious that going on was not the right thing to do.”

The newspapers pulled their facts together from a long distance and made the finish of British climber Alison Hargreaves a cause of most concern, leaving the dead men just footnotes in passing. The six up top may well have died six different ways.

There’s falling, of course; blown off the wall or tripping away after tangling your own spiked feet. Freezing at the tips while the cold and wind sucks the life out of you. Dehydration. Exhaustion and madness. Brains and lungs turned liquid from the lack of air. Sheer fright at being lost. One day a glacier may bring some of them down to the rocky floor where they will give a future generation of climbers something to think about.

Peter Hillary got lost up there after turning back towards Camp Four, at 8000 metres, to get warm. He lost his way above the shoulder in the dark clouds and thick white cold. Close to blindly diving, he kicked snow in front of himself to find a safe place to step. If it disappeared, he didn’t follow.

He kept wandering around this way looking for footprints and not finding any. Heading down a slope, he stepped into a crevasse, sending his body out into the nothing and then forward. He stretched out and got most of himself over the crack, landing on his chest and skidding down and over another crevasse and another.

After making it to the tents through the murk he found Jeff Lakes and told him he was going down because the weather looked bad. Jeff said he’d push on. And so they parted. As he made his descent, it would momentarily clear above his head and he could see the tiny figures heading up. One of them was his friend Bruce Grant. (Photo left: taken on the expedition in Pakistan)

Did Peter think they must come down? “You know, you find yourself locked into staying alive, not having diverse or interesting thoughts. Of course, I thought ‘My God, what would it be like up there?’ Some people can’t pull back and they were a very driven group.”

His voice softens, for he is now talking to himself and seeing things that are not in this room. “When it hit, I don’t think they would have had very long to think about it. A very short time. That’s the only possible good thing about it.”

He is now a man floating in rough seas catching sight of people drowning in the distance. “You can’t call out to anybody, you can’t just pop up and have a word. If you were on Mount Kosciusko, it might take you five minutes to go up one of the steeper flanks of 600 feet. At 8000 metres, it could take you five hours. You take two moves and you slump against your axes and hang there breathing for a long time.

“You take risks and get down quickly or otherwise it’s not going to work out. You’re staggering and feeling pretty feeble and you’re scared shitless. You can’t find the route, you’re getting blown around.

“You can’t think about anything too much. Chances are your mind will start wandering into all the horrifying things that might come your way.

In between talk of other things, we go back to K2, Pakistan, August just past. Eight climbers are headed to the summit, to 8580 metres. Six reach the top and are wiped out by the kind of storm we don’t see down on earth. Civilisations have been devastated by less." ( finish of John elder's writings)

On August the 24th 1995 I flew from Afghanistan back to Pakistan to link up with the returning New Zealand K2  Expedition members.  I had got the news of the death of Bruce Grant and Jeff Lakes some days earlier. On arrival at Islamabad airport I met Peter Hillary, who was waiting for Kim Logan and Matt Comesky to arrive from Skardu. Their flight didn't turn up. Peter told me he had flown out from Skardu yesterday. He looked haggard and washed out and on the way back to town, he related events of those tragic days when Bruce and Jeff died, along with five other climbers on other expeditions. The story is similar to the one told above.

Peter told me how after he and Kim buried Jeff Lakes at Camp II on K2, Kim with tears rolling down his cheeks said, " You and I are survivors, aren't we?"

I remember farewelling five expedition member in June, and two months later there were only three.

As hour after Peter finisjed telling me events of the climb, Kim and Matt unexpectedly turned up. We hugged and sat down and I broke open a few drinks, and Bruce and Jeff were with us in spirit through the evening as we mourned and recounted events.

Last week I had an exchange of emails with Peter Hillary and he recalled our time in Pakistan together:  "Yes that 1995 Rugby World Cup and our time in Islamabad was all very memorable even if Hanky Banister was not – though the reasons are more to do with its debilitating effects than anything else. K2 was an incredible trip with a tragic finale and it was great having some good friends to help us through that aftermath. "

Bruce Grant is remembered by a trust and if you would like to go to Peter Hillary's website here it is.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Russian rugby has made it to World Cup in New Zealand - Александр Сергеевич Оболенский;

With the Rugby World Cup due to commence next month in New Zealand, I would like to highlight some of the more unusual stories about this noble game, once described as ' a game for thugs played by    Gentlemen."

For 75 years the most famous Russian rugby player has been Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky, an escapee from the purges of the Soviet revolution who famously ran in two tries against the All Blacks in England’s 13-0 win at Twickenham in 1936.

With Russia making its first appearance at the Rugby World Cup, that may be about to change.

Future generations may yet talk about the likes of Vasili Artemiev, Vladislov Korshunov or Andrei Ostrikov in the same ones.

The Bears are the only new boys at this edition but that is not to say that rugby is new to the country.

Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky, right.

The first recorded match was in the 1880s although it was frowned upon by the Tsarist police to such an extent that there was next to no activity until the 1920s with the first Soviet championship taking place in 1936. Outlawed again by the Soviets for a decade, it struggled to compete alongside football and the state-sponsored Olympic sports.

The Soviet Union turned down an invitation to compete in the inaugural event in 1987. But they are through to the 2011 tournament after qualifying second from Europe behind Georgia - their big rivals and former teammates in Soviet days.

Left: Alexander Gvozdovskiy in action for Russia against Namibia earlier this year.

Drawn in the same pool as Australia, Ireland, Italy and the United States, there has been a great deal of focus placed on the opening game against the American Eagles, something their national team director Kingsley Jones has tried to play down.

“It is wrong to say it is our World Cup final because it suggests we are not focussing on the other games,” the former Sale Sharks coach told AFP.

“Of course, it is our best chance of winning a match and so we will be very eager to give it everything. But we play Italy five days later - how do we pick ourselves up and prepare for that if we focus only on the USA?

Left: A statue remembering the England rugby legend, of Russian origin, and pilot Prince Alexander Obolensky, who died during World War II in Suffolk.


Jones has every reason to be optimistic. At the recent Churchill Cup in England, an understrength Russia side had the better of Canada for 70 minutes before losing and were edged 24-19 by a very decent Italy A team.

Not world-beaters yet and certainly no serious challenge to Australia or Ireland but they are confident they can move the game in Russia forwards.

“Part of the motivation for us in the World Cup is to create a cycle,” backrow forward Ostrikov told AFP.

“We want to play well enough for some more players to catch the eye of some top clubs in Europe so they can go and get the experience.

If that happens then we can come back in four years time as a much better team.” The Georgians, who have successfully parked a large number of players at French clubs, are known for the strength and power of their forwards but Jones says the Russians have more flair.

“The Russians like to play with the ball in hand,” he says. “They play some very good attacking rugby when they look like a tier one side.

Above: Russian rugby is undergoing a revolution

“With the ball in hand and with a strong back three they are very good. Their strength will be a sunny day when the game is fast and loose and open.”

Russia coach Nikolai Nerush named his 30-man squad on yesterday for the national team's first-ever Rugby World Cup, which starts September 9 in New Zealand.

The squad will be led by hooker Vladislav Korshunov and is a blend of youth and experience. Seven players have more than 50 caps, including Andrey Kuzin, who is one away from Soviet legend Igor Minorov's record 74 caps (73 for USSR, one for Russia).

                                                  The Russian rugby team in training.

At the other end of the spectrum, the squad includes uncapped 20-year-old Denis Simplikevich, who showed promise at the IRB's Junior World Rugby Trophy this year. Other youngsters include Denis Antonov and Mikhail Sidorov, a pair of 24-year-old forwards who play for Moscow team Slava.

Adam Byrnes of the Melbourne Rebels is the other newcomer to the squad. The Australian-born lock qualifies for Russia due to Soviet-born grandparents.

Thanks to Barney SPENDER of AFP for permission to quote from his recent article on Prince Alexander Sergeevich Obolensky.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The man behind Kenya’s largest relief food drive

.It was a pleasure to read of the outstanding work being done by my old friend Abbas Gullet, Secretary General of the Kenya Red Cross.  I have known Abbas for over 18 years and have followed vhis career back in Kenya with great interest. Here is an article from the Daily Nation in Nairobi.

Kenya Red Cross Society Secretary General Abbas Gullet. Photo/FILE

He was orphaned at the tender age of six and does not ever want to hear that a person has died of hunger

Mr Abbas Gullet, the man at the helm of the Kenya Red Cross Society, is in the face of a massive humanitarian crisis in Northern Kenya triggered by the worst drought in the region in more than six decades, putting 3.5 million Kenyans’ lives in danger.

Flash floods have also recently conspired to worsen the anguish of the drought-stricken pastoralists in Turkana.

The society, working with corporations and media houses, recently launched a campaign called Kenyans for Kenya which this week had raised about $7 million (about Sh650 million) to feed the hungry.

An early riser, Mr Gullet’s day at the office begins well before 7am

Saw a dead person

“Our mandate is to protect lives and alleviate suffering and it is as disheartening as it is belittling when I hear this debate about whether people have died or not,” he told Saturday Nation in between taking calls at his Nairobi offices this week.

“Okay, we saw a dead person in Turkana but we don’t want to engage in a shouting match about it. In any case, even the many others we saw there who are suffering should not have been in that condition. It is those pictures that we brought from Turkana which inspired the funds-drive,” he says.

Apart from the Kenya for Kenyans campaign, the Red Cross provides relief food in Ijara, Garissa, Kwale, Malindi and Kibwezi where 400,000 schoolchildren, pregnant women, the elderly and HIV and Aids orphans are fed.

Drawn criticism

A few minutes into the interview, he plunges into the investments the organisation is involved in, which have been criticised.

Critics say humanitarian organisations should not engage in business.

The Kenya Red Cross is created through an Act of Parliament.

He says: “The aid business has become very competitive with many NGOs competing for the same resources. Donor funding is diminishing by the day and we had to think of a way of sustaining our programmes,” he said.

“We got a loan of $22.5 million (Sh2.1) billion from Equity Bank payable over 10 years to build hotels in the country after realising there was inadequate bed capacity and that the investment would employ many young Kenyans,” he said.


Sunday, 21 August 2011

Arugam Bay attracts the 2011 SriLankan Airlines Pro

Arugam Bay has to be one of the most idyllic surfing beaches in the world. Above an Australian surfer catches a wave, a small one, but an hour later the surf was really running big and fast. Photo: Bob McKerrow 

Last Friday I was delighted to read that Sri Lankan Airlines and the ASP are pleased to announce the addition of the 2011 SriLankan Airlines Pro to the ASP Tour calendar. Top ranked surfers around the world will ride on the gigantic waves at Arugam Bay when the world class surfing competition, 'SriLankan Airlines Pro-2011' starts on August 30. It will continue till September 4 on the spectacular shores of Arugam Bay.

SriLamkan Airlines in collaboration with Australia's Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP) has taken this major event in international surfing calender to Arugam Bay, recognized as one of the best surfing destinations in the world. It was revealed during a press conference at the Taj Samudra Hotel on Wednesday.

96 international surfers from 19 countries will compete for the ASP Men's World Long board Title while the Sri Lanka's first ever ASP 6-star Womens' event will see 60 top women's surfers in action.

Among the men's long-board surfers there will be few former world bests taking part in this year's competition including Duane Desoto (2010), Bonga Parkings (2008), Josh Constable (2006) and Phil Rajzman (2007) while former ASP World Junior Champions Alize Arnaud (2010) and Pauline Ado (2009) along with elite surfers Alan Blanchard, Courtney Cologue, Bruna Schmitz are expected to take part in the women's short board event.
“Arugam Bay is such a great venue for both competitors and spectators,” Jordan said. “Last year the men (6 star event) scored almost perfect waves every day and now it’s the women and the longboarders’ turn. Sri Lanka is such an exotic destination for surfers and to have a World Title event at Arugam Bay is great for the sport worldwide and within Sri Lanka. It’s great to have a world-class airline sponsoring our events and we are proud to continue our partnership with SriLankan Airlines to showcase Sri Lanka to the world.”

Left: SriLankan Airlines Chairman Nishantha Wickremasinghe presenting the official Tee shirt of the ‘SriLankan Airlines Pro-2011’ to the Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Dr. Nalaka Godahewa. Picture by Saman Mendis

Arugam Bay has been known as a top surfing area for many years now. During the season, from about May to November, it is easily the most popular destination for foreign visitors to the east coast. It’s a working fishing beach and there is quite a lot of rubbish on the sands, compared with the southern beaches, and is perhaps not the best place to come just for a beach holiday: most foreigners I met were there for the surfing. Many locals want to clean up the beach, and are trying to make improvementto the area. For now it’s still very pretty, and quiet, if you want a place to gather your thoughts, and you can visit nearby mangroves on Pottuvil lagoon, or go to Kudimbigala Forest Hermitage to see Buddhist shrines. The Lahugala-Kitulana National Park is 16km inland from Pottuvil and large herds of elephants move there during the dry season (July and August).

One of the reasons I know Arugam Bay well is that the Red Cross spent more than US$800 on recovery after the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami and built many houses, water supplies, hospitals, clinics, schools and other community facilities. The water supply at Arugam Bay comes from a Red Cross funded and constructed water supply bomes from this one million litre water tank in nearby Potuvil (photo right) and the base hospital at Potuvil was funded by the Finnish Red Cross/Sri Lanka Red Cross. So when surfers turn on a tap, or flush the toilet at Arugam bay, it comes from a Red Cross water supply.

Speaking at the press briefing yesterday Sri Lanka Tourism Chairman Dr. Nalaka Godahewa said with the increasing tourist arrivals Sri Lanka must offer diverse products to entertain them. "Sports tourism will play a major role in the national economy in time to come and this annual surfing competition has attracted the world attention to our country. Arugam Bay is ready to welcome all these foreigners and there will be good facilities for them in the region. The six day event will be full of entertainment for both participants and spectators. We have arranged some other beach sports such as Beach volleyball, Beach Rugby, Kite Flying, Sand Castle, Elephant Rides to give an opportunity to local enthusiasts.

It's a busy beach at Arugam with hundreds of fishing boats, many waterfront hotels, and hoards of surfers on the waves. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The SriLankan Airline Pro-2011 will be supported by co-sponsor Sri lanka Tourisum Promotion Bureau, Grand Hotel, Lanka SportReizen. The international sponsors will be Lufthansa Technik and Swatch. Etisalat will be the communication partner while Arugam Bay Beachwear is the local sponsors. Also keenly involved in the event are the members of the Arugam Bay Surfing Association.

Yes, everyone os off to Arugam Bay at the end of August, including me and the boys. Sunrise at Arugam Bay, as surfers head of for the action 1 km away.Photo: Bob McKerrow

“SriLankan Airlines have always made a point of promoting Adventure and Sports tour ism into Sri Lanka through events such as Golf, Surfing, Rugby and Marathons. With peace firmly established in Sri Lanka we want to showcase the diverse attractions the island has to offer.

Fishermen and surfers mix freely at Arugam Bay and this thriving seaside village is humming with fun and activity. At local bars you can sip delicious Sri lankan-made stout, that almost equals Guniness. Photo: Bob McKerrow 

“SriLankan Airlines are firmly geared towards making this year’s event a huge success and maintain Arugam Bay’s standing as a favourite among the top surfing destinations in the world. We are expecting lots of excitement and great waves like last year’s event.”

Lazily waiting for a wave. Photo: Bob McKerrow

I like to stay at the Tristar as you can walk straight from your room to the beach and they serve good food. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Never ask a Frenchman to buy food for a mountaineering expedition

Our camp on Kohe Jalgya at 4300 metres. The peak is at the top left. Photo: Bob McKerrow

My last climb in Afghanistan was in June 1996. I got a group of mountaineers together; Mathias Luft from France, Ross Everson an Australian, and Bruce Watson an old friend from New Zealand who travelled all the way from New Zealand to join us.. In the previous three years of living and working in Afghanistan, I had done a number of trips in the Hindu Kush, and somehow I was attracted to a group of peaks known as Koh-e-Jalgya. Here was my last opportunity for my last trip into the Hindu Kush before I finished my contract working with the International Red Cross.
Mathias Luft (r) from France with Ross Everson,  an Australian, climbing up towards base camp on Koh-e-Jalgya.Photo: Bob McKerrow
A group of local bandits I photographed and some days later they stole some of our equipment. Photo: Bob McKerrow

This was quite an 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.

Approaching the Anjoman Pass from the Panjcher side of the Hindu Kush. In the background are peaks of Nuristan and Mir Sami to the right of centre. 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. The Anjoman Pass seperates Parwan province from Badakhshan province.

Our camp on the northern side of the Hindu Kush with Anjoman Pass the low depression to the right of centre. We spent a day here recovereing from a tiring crossing of the pass. Photio: Bob McKerrow

Mathias (right) and Ross (left) leaving for the climb. Photo: Bob McKerrow

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 headed for Kohe Jalgya and Bruce and I for another less technical climb, an unnamed peak at 5,300 metres.

Bruce Watson on a high point about 4800 metres near to Kohe Jalgya. The range in the background is part of the Jalgya massif. Photo: Bob McKerrow

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 wal on alone trying to find the tent. 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.

Mathias on the left with sunglasses, talking with a group of local Afghans trying to find the easiest access to our mountain group. Photo: Bob McKerrow
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.

A young boy and his donkey in the Darrahe Paghar valley at the foot of Kohe Japgya. Photo: Bob McKerrow 

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.

Climbing up to the Anjoman Pass from the Badakhshan side. Photo: Bob McKerrow
For further information on mountaineering in Afghanistan, try this:

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

News Zealand women climbers summit Koh-e-Baba-Tangi in Afghanistan

My heart leapt today when I got the news that sisters Patricia Deavoll and Christine Byrch climbed Koh-e-Baba-Tangi in Afghanistan. What a magnificent achievement ! I know the Wakhan well and saw it from inside Afghanistan, and different views from Tajikistan when I worked in both countries in the 1990s.

Here is the news first hand from Pat:

Christine and I summitted Koh-e-Baba-Tangi (6515m) in the Wakhan Corridor (Afgahnistan) on the 9th August. Five days to the summit with some good steep ice, then 2 days to decend the West Ridge (line of the original 1963 ascent). Ours is only the second climb of the mountain, done via a new route up the N'NW ridge.

Took a lot out of us...but we are very pleased.The Wakhan is a beautiful remote area unlike anywhere ive been.

Now back in Khorog, Tajikistan, on our way home.

Here is further information on ttheir amazing expedition

An aerial view of the Wakhan corridor, Afghanistan.

2010 New Zealand Women’s Mountaineering Expedition to the Wakhan Corridor,

Patricia Deavoll and Christine Byrch

To make the first ascent of the North West Ridge of Koh-e-Baba-Tangi (6516m) in the Wakhan Corridor
Hindu Kush Range,Northern Afghanistan


Koh-e-Baba Tangi is in the upper Kezget Valley, at the far end of the Wakhan Corridor and is considered by many mountaineers to be the most fascinating peak in the Afghan Hindu Kush. It was first climbed by an Italian team via the West Ridge. There are accounts of this expedition in:

• The American Alpine Club Journal 1964. pp 324-235

• The British AC Journal No. 308 May 1964.

Pat and Christine wish to make the second ascent of the mountain via the unclimbed North West Ridge, which will take them into an area rarely visited by climbers, and which has certainly not had a visit in the last thirty years. If the North West Ridge doesn’t offer a safe climbing option they will make their attempt via either the unclimbed East Ridge, or via the West Ridge (route of the first ascentionists).


Pat Deavoll

Christine Byrch

Pat and Christine are sisters.

Expedition duration: 15th July 2011- 30th August 2011.

Nomadic Kyrgyz who live in the Wakhan for part of the year and often cross into tajikistan for trading. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The mountains of Afghanistan’s High Hindu Kush are located in the north east of the country, in the long finger of land known as the Wakhan Corridor, which separates Pakistan and Tajikistan. These mountains are gradually being revisited by climbers, who report the area to be remote, safe and worlds apart from the on-going war with the Taliban. Peaks in the Wakhan Corridor were hugely popular in the 1960’s and 70’s, particularly among European climbers who would often reach the area overland via the “hippy trail.” They were enticed by generally easier access than found in other parts of the Himalaya/ Karakoram, more stable weather and the ability to climb without the constraints of a restrictive permit system. But after the coup d’etat in 1978 and the Soviet Invasion in 1979 the climbing became strictly off-limits and remained so for
almost 30 years.
However in 2003 Carlo Alberto Pinelli, an Italian mountaineer who in the 1960’s climbed extensively in the area (and was one of the first ascentionists of Koh-e-Baba Tangi) organised an expedition he called the Oxuz: Mountains for Peace, with the objective of climbing Noshaq (7492m), Afghanistan’s highest mountain. He wanted to let the Afghan’s know they had not been forgotten by the climbers who had benefited from their generous hospitality. The successful expedition effectively marked the beginning of a new era of climbing in the region. Over the past five years a steadily increasing number of expeditions have, once again, enjoyed the superb climbing in the Afghan Hindu Kush.

Distinctive aims and objectives of the expedition:

• For two sisters from New Zealand to make the first ascent of the North West Ridge of Koh-e-Baba Tangi (6516m) in the Wahkan Corridor of the Hindu Kush Range of Afghanistan (second ascent of mountain)

• To showcase this neglected but fascinating region to other climbers worldwide and to determine its renewed safety as a mountaineering destination.

• To show solidarity towards the people of the Wakhan Corridor by supporting their economy, which has suffered over the past three decades with the demise of tourism.

• To showcase the abilities of strong female mountaineers in a male-dominant sport. Koh-e-Baba Tangi from Kezget

• To run an environmentally sound and socially conscientious expedition.

• To make a short amateur documentary on the expedition to be gifted to Wakhan Tourism for the promotion of future tourism in the area. We are hoping that a film of two western women travelling and climbing in Afghanistan will be of use to the organisation.

• To produce feature articles for leading outdoor publication on the expedition with the intention of promoting: a) the Afghan Hindu Kush as an area to climb, and b) the abilities of strong female mountaineers.

Intended route on Koh-e-Baba-Tangi

Description of North West Ridge Route from Guide Book (Peaks of Silver and Jade)

“The ascent of the Nth/Nth/West Spur…seems to be particularly attractive. It is a varied and hard route, but probably not to dangerous, alternating stretched of rock, mixed terrain and ice. Nothing is known about the bergschrund. A rock promontory protrudes from the glacier followed by an almost vertical ice dip. On top of it the slopes are less steep but then they straighten up once more along a small rocky ridge. From here a long crossing to the right could be attempted towards a large well visible ramp that takes you near the Western Ridge… It looks like and easy route. However it is partially exposed to the possible collapse of an overhanging barrier of seracs.

Above the little rocky ridge you proceed to your left on a second ridge until you land on a small snow plateau. The plateau ends at a spur of mixed terrain. Once you have negotiated this spur, you are soon on the summit.”

Detailed itinerary/schedule:

• Day 1: Arrive in Kabul

• Day 2: Shopping for food and equipment.

• Day 3: Fly to Faizabad.

• Day 4-5-6: Organisation with Wakhan Tourism and Mountain Unity.

• Day 7: Drive to village of Ishakashum .

• Day 9: Drive to Kandud

• Day 10: Drive to Kezget.

• Day 12-13: Trek to Basecamp (with expedition staff and porters/horses)

• Day 14-32: Acclimatization and climbing of Koh-e-Baba Tangi (6516m)

• Day 32-33: Trek to Kezget.

• Day 34-35: Drive to Ishakasum

• Day 36-40: Site seeing and liaison with Mountain Unity and Wakhan Tourism.

• Day 41: Flight to Kabul.

• Day 42: Leave Kabul for New Zealand

Some of the scenery is stunning, especially clolse to the Tajik border. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Why Pat and Christine think they will be successful?

Pat and Christine are two highly accomplished mountaineers; between them they have over fifty years of climbing experience. Pat has been on ten expeditions to Asia in the past nine years, all to climb mountains between 6000m and 7000m in height. Three of these (2007, 2008, 2009) have been to Afghanistan’s close neighbour, Pakistan, thus she is very aware of the risks of traveling in a Muslim country during periods of political unrest. Christine has also travelled extensively in Pakistan; therefore both women know how to conduct themselves as western women in an Islamic culture.

As a mountaineering partnership they climb well together, due mainly to the fact they are sisters and have known each other for ever! They are both extremely fit, despite their age. They have chosen Koh-e-Baba Tangi because it is a mountain of moderate height (6516m) and looks to be technically within their capabilities, but also, due to its position at the far end of the Wahkan Corridor, because it offers an exciting adventure just in reaching its base.

Both are confident they can summit Koh-e-Baba Tangi, if not by the North West Ridge, then via the East or West Ridge options.

My heartiest congratulations Pat and to your sister Christine. I am proud to be a Kiwi.

Kyrgyz nomads who spent time in the Wakhan and cross often into Tajikistan. Photo: Bob McKerrow


An expedition in the Hindu Kush combines the delight of high mountain, the loveliness of the journey and exploration. That huge massif which stretches over nearly 1,000 km. can be divided into three parts—the occidental part is 5,143 m. high at Koh-e-Baba. The central Hindu Kush with its highest part in the Koh-e-Bandakor (6,600 m.) and which presents considerable interest for mountaineering but is rather well known nowadays. The best part for the alpinist is the high Hindu Kush which groups most of the seven-thousanders and numerous six-thousanders— its culminating point is Tirich Mir (7,706 m.) ascended in 1950 by the Norwegians from the valley of Chitral in Pakistan. We are not going to refer to that area of the high Hindu Kush attain­able from the south, but only about the less known part—the Wakhan. In fact, Wakhan is the narrow gully which separates the Hindu Kush from the mountains of the Soviet Pamir, but that same term is also used to characterize the northern’ part of the Hindu Kush attainable from Afghanistan.

In the whole of the Hindu Kush, the Wakhan is the part which has remained the least known up to now. The first expedition took place only in 1960. The reason why it has been so are simple. Before 1963 the access to the Wakhan was difficult because of the lack of roads. Even now, it depends on the summer season—when the torrents don’t cut the track, one can go as far as Quala Panja by jeep and by other vehicles; on the other hand, the permit to go to that region is not delivered every year so that some summers no climbing has been done, as has been the case in 1961 and 1967.

One of the many stunning peaks in the Wakhan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

In 1960 a Japanese expedition climbed Noshaq (7 492 m) the second highest summit in Hindu Kush and the highest in Afghanistan—some days later a Polish expedition succeeded in the second ascent of the same summit. The two expeditions began the ascents of the Wakhan mountains and explored the most western part of the massif near its entrance.

1 This is a translation of one of the articles printed in an excellent booklet ‘Montagne arides du Wakhan’ by the author

In 1962 the second Polish expedition joined by four French­men (Moreau, Ginat, Bruneau and Langevin) explored the valleys of Mandaras and of Urgen-Bala, climbing Koh-e-Tez (6,800 m.) and Koh-e-Mandaras (6,600 m.).

The year 1963 is one of the most important in the discovery of these mountains. Six expeditions were given the permit to get to them, and for the first time, a group of alpinists penetrated far to the east, towards the plateau of Pamir. After having explored the different valleys, among which was the valley of Lunkho, the Italians climbed Baba-Tangi (6,513 m.). However, it is once more in the region of Noshaq that the main activity of alpinists could be seen. Two Austrian expeditions, one directed by Dr. Gruber and the other by Pilz, ascended the western crest and went over the ridge to Noshaq, thus realizing the third ascent of that summit. The same year a third Austrian expedition climbed Kishmi-Khan (6,700 m.) twice.

The same summer the third Polish expedition succeeded in the first ascent of Languta-e-Barfi and the third and fourth of Kishmi- Khan after a rather elaborate attempt on the northern spur of Shakhaur (7,000 m.). That attempt foreshadowed the advent of the 6 Sporting era’ in the Wakhan. To complete the year 1963, let us mention a Swiss expedition led by Eiselin. Over and above the seven-thousander Urgen, that expedition climbed Shash-Dhar (6,550 m.) and Urup (5,650 m.). At the end of 1963 the occidental part of Wakhan was well explored, but a lot of things had to be done further to the east. There numerous summits, often difficult, but not reaching more than 7,000 m. rose along over a hundred kilometres losing height gradually as it approached the plateau of Pamir—the crossroads where the Hindu Kush meets the Pamirs, the Tien-shan and the Kara- korams. If the present political situation remains unchanged these frontier massifs will, no doubt, remain difficult of access to the alpinists for a long time.

The rugged landscape in the Wakhan. Photo: Bob McKerrow

In 1964 a German expedition directed by Von Dobeneck climbed the 7,000 m. high Langar. Then because of the persistent bad weather—which is likely to be rather rare on a massif not subject to the monsoon—undertook the longest penetration to the east ever realized up to that time by alpinists—as far as the Chinese frontier. Their account, thrilling from the exploration and adventure standpoint, contains precious details about those mountains of Asia which are still very little known.

The following year an important Czech expedition climbed seventeen summits in the Ishmurgh valley at the foot of Lunkho.

It left untouched the main problem of that part, but revealed the existence of beautiful mountains with huge and very steep face which can be compared to the north face of the Grandes Jorasses, but twice as high and reaching to about 7,000 m.

The weather was still rather bad and it prevented the Czechs from their great realizations in this area.

In 1966 again, only one expedition obtained permit to get to the Wakhan, for only the first twenty kilometres of the valley. It’s in that way that the fourth Polish expedition, joined by a Belgian, J. Bourgeois, and two French, my wife and myself, succeeded in the ascent of Noshaq (7,492 m.) by the Austrians’ route and different virgin summits of no great importance such as the Sad-Istragh (5,800 m.), M. 10 (6,000 m.), Chap Zom (5,400 m.)… During an attempt on a seven-thousander, Barban Zom near Noshaq, Potocki disappears in an avalanche. Bour­geois and Heinrich succeed in returning to the main camp after a week of superhuman efforts and thanks to much luck.

Before 1968, the discovery of the Wakhan developed fairly well in the occidental part, the central and eastern valleys, in spite of some incursions, kept their problems unresolved. All the ambitions were directed in fact towards the Lunkho region and it is in this region that five out of the six expeditions of 1968 were made. The sixth one, a group of Frenchmen led by L. Dubost, climbed Koh-e-Lakhsh (5,786 m.) at the entrance of Wakhan from its northern spur.

Going on to the east we find in the Yamit valley an Italo- Polish expedition which is said to have climbed the western ramparts of Lunkho and different summits of less importance in this valley as well as some in Khandud.

In the Khandud valley two expeditions—an Austrian and a Yugoslavian—succeeded together on the same day the ascent of Lunkho-e-Dosare (6,868 m.); a few days later, on 13 August the Austrians succeeded in climbing the central tongue of Lunkho- e-Hawar (6,872 m.). They also made the first ascents of the summits of Wala No. 321 (6,450 m.) and No. 353 (6,434 m.), as well as the second ascent of Koh-e-Hevad (6,849 m.) and with the Yugoslavians the second ascent of the Koh-e-Myani (5,632 m.). In the Ishmurgh valley where a Czech expedition went in 1965, a Scottish expedition, directed by Ian Rowe, climbed the northern spur of Lunkho-e-Hawar, but did not reach the top and had to stop 100 to 200 metres lower. During that diffi­cult climbing, Alan North lost his left foot toes. More to the east we find in the Quala Panja valley, our expedition. The 1968 year has then been very important in the discovery and conquest of the central part of the Wakhan mountains, namely all the summits around Lunkho. Thus as far as Quala Panja all the valleys are known. Most of the summits have been reached. More to the east, however, all the summits are virgin, except for Baba-Tangi.

In 1969 seven groups went to the Wakhan. An American team (Hechtel) and an Austrian (Axt) went to Noshaq. A French group (Dabos) climbed Kishmi-Khan by opening a new route by its south-west pillar, while a Franco-Swiss group (Dittert) went to the region of Mandaras and climbed some five- thousanders. Isabelle and I went back for the third time to the Wakhan with a team from Lyon. We climbed the northern pillar of Shakhaur. A Japanese group went to the Pegish valley, and a French group to the Quala Panja valley to try Koh-e-Wakhan, the first ascent of which has been realized on the same date from the Pakistani side by Helga and Rudolph Lindner.[1]

Some summits are still waiting for lovers of beautiful problems. Lunkho-e-Hawar (6,872 m.) presents a wall 1,000-2,000 m. high and which stretches over several kilometres to the east as far as the Uparisina and to the west as far as the Lunkho-e-Dosare. More to the east, the Quala-e-Ust (6,300 m.)[2] is virgin. The seven-thousanders have often been climbed only by a single route—walls of over 2,000 m. are not rare—around Shakhaur they reach 3,000 m. Beautiful granite pillars which remind you of the southern aspects of Mont Blanc but rise to 6,000-7,000 m. here and there. Let us mention for instance those we have seen on the Sad-Istragh, the Koh-e-Setara, the Saraghrar…

Notes on Summit Identification by Dr. A. Diemberger

Rahezom Zom North = Koh-e-Wakhan

In 1968 Henry and Isabella Agresti also reconnoitred Koh-e- Wakhan, the imposing summit in the south-east corner of the east glacier of the valley of Quala Panja. For this purpose they climbed two summits beside Col. Est (5,650 m.).

Southwards from Koh-e-Wakhan, and separated by a Col, towers another high peak which appears to belong to the system of Koh-e-Wakhan. Dr. Gerald Gruber names, in OAZ Fg. 1365, these two peaks Rahezom Zom North and South Height according to Agresti: North peak 6,400 m. South peak 6,636 m. Height according to Gruber: North peak 6,535 m. South peak 6,502 m. (taken from quarter inch and from Wala maps).

In 1969 Helga and Rudolf Lindner attacked both peaks from the south, from Chitral. From the Chi-Gari glacier, that is from south-west, they reached by step cutting, the big Col between the north and south peaks. They named this beautiful and broad Col ‘Silver Saddle’.

From Silver Saddle they scaled first on 4.8.69 the North peak and thereafter on 6.8.69 the South peak. They found that the South peak was higher than the North peak. The altitude meter showed a difference of approx 120 m. It would have been purposeful—and H. Agresti and G. Gruber would have agreed to it—to give the name Koh-e-Wakhan to the North peak. It lies on the border ridge between Wakhan and Chitral and is acces­sible from Wakhan. The name Rahezom Zom could be for the South peak which exists totally independent of the North peak It is pushed towards Chitral. Provisional height approx: Koh- e-Wakhan above 6,400 m., Rahezom Zom about 6,550 m The Lindners found no sign of any previous climbing on the North peak. On the peak edge one could only ride. Clear peak photos show, in the east Ouala Wust, above 6,300 m„ and Baba-Tangi above 6,500 m.

An Alpine Magazine reported a scaling of Koh-e-Wakhan from the north side on 2.8.69. That is, two days before the scaling of the Lindner team. Now the problem has been cleared. On 2.8.69 a French team came from north side up to the cornices below the summit of Koh-e-Wakhan, but could not reach the summit.

Further notes on the article by Henri Agresti in the Himalayan Journal, Vol. XXIX, 1969, by Dr. A. Diemberger.

The credit to Henry Agresti regarding the opening up of the Ouala Panja Valley cannot be sufficiently stressed. A few more remarks on the article on pp. 65 and 66, and on the ridge sketch.

1. The first summit north of Koh-e-Tirma (5,950 m ) is Koh-e-Andaval, approx. 5,640 m. In 1968 it was scaled by a Scottish Team from the Ishmurgh Valley.

2. Between Koh-e-Tirma and Koh-e-Setara (6,050 m.), a group of three summits lie, one said to have a height of 6,150 m.

H. Agresti takes all these three summits under a provisional name Koh-e-Bakera. The western one is a neve summit, the eastern one a complex of rock towers. These summits have not been scaled yet (1970) and deserve an ascent.

3. Further references:

(a) H.J., Vol. XXIX, 1969, pp. 65-66, 67-69, 69-70, 71-74 (the first three being reprints from A.J., 1969).

(b) A.J., 1970, pp. 169-172 (Austrian Expedition, 1969), p. 173 (American Expedition, 1969), pp. 173-174 (French Expedition, 1969), pp. 174-175 (Franco-Swiss Expedition, 1969), pp. 175-176 (French ascent of Shakhaur, 1669) (reprinted in H.J., Vol. XXX, 1970 pp. 275-277).

(c) H.J., Vol. XXX, 1970, pp. 264-269 (Austrian Expedi­tion, 1969), pp. 282-300 (Review of Scottish Expedi­tions, 1965-1970).

(d) AJ., 1971, pp. 213-214 (British Expedition, 1970), pp. 214-216 (Austrian Expedition, 1970).

(e) A.AJ., 1971, pp. 456-461 (Various Expeditions of 1970).

[1] See Dr. A. Diemberger’s notes which immediately follow this article regarding Koh-e-Wakhan and the 1968 French Expedition to Quala Panja.

[2] Also spelt Quala Wust.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Horn of Africa: Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers at the heart of the response

Having worked twice in the Horn of Africa, I am following this humanitarian tragedy closely and I am incedibly impressed by the work of the 120,000 Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers who are out there working with the affected populations: . Katherine Roux of the IFRC tells their story: Donate now:

When Abdullahi Ibrahim, Kenya Red Cross Society volunteer in Tana River District, Kenya, was asked why he volunteers to help pregnant women in his community, the answer was simple: “I feel happy when I help someone,” he said.

In Djibouti, amid 40-degree heat and the fasting hours of Ramadan, Safia Houssein Awaleh, a Djibouti Red Crescent volunteer visits people door-to-door in her community to pass on health messaging. She proudly states: “I work for my country, to enrich the community where I live.”

Further west in the dry Oromia lands of southern Ethiopia, Guyo Golicha, a volunteer from Tuka village explains his motivation to be a part of the Red Cross movement is because “I know this area well, so I can make sure the Red Cross can reach every corner of the community.”

Abdulllahi, Safia and Guyo represent just a few of the 120,000 volunteers of Red Cross Red Crescent (RCRC) throughout the Horn of Africa responding to the drought. They are the individuals that drive the response at a community-level, which allows RCRC programmes not only to develop, but also to sustain, long after this seasonal drought ends.

As a part of the local community, these volunteers also have the trust of people around them. They speak the same language, live in the same neighbourhood, and face similar challenges during a drought. And to each of them, the current drought is not something new.

Headlines in the news will eventually change, and the world may soon forget about the chronic needs in the Horn of Africa in six months time. But life for these volunteers will not; each of them will continue living in Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia, in their respective communities long after this drought period ends. These are the volunteers, which are the strength of the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.

Opinion Piece

If you are interested in reading more about the situation in the horn of Africa, I found this opinion piece written by Alexander Matheou enlightening as he explains how  politics, war and demographic changes are undermining the ability of nomadic populations to safely get through the cycles of drought.

Pastoralist women dispense camel milk near Moyale, Somali region, Ethiopia. Alex Wynter/IFRC

Politics, war, migration: the anatomy of a humanitarian crisis

Another drought has hit the Horn of Africa, but we need to look beyond the lack of rain to find the reasons why these long, dry seasons become humanitarian crises, and these reasons should tell us something about how we need to respond.

When drought hits the Horn, the worst affected are the Somali communities, who live in the driest regions, crossing parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti.

For centuries these communities had mastered strategies to survive such cycles of drought: by reducing livestock to a manageable size at critical moments, and through ingenious pursuit of pasture and water across the arid lands.

Today it’s a different story. Many of the same survival strategies are still used, but politics, war and demographic changes are undermining their ability to see populations safely through the cycles of drought.

The borders of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti carve up the Somali lands and restrict the migration patterns that had historically been essential for pastoralist survival. Since independence, East African states had an inherent mistrust of nomadic peoples who had little interest in being governed by distant capitals rooted in alien languages and traditions. In Ethiopia and Kenya particularly, pastoralist movement was restricted, and they remained largely isolated from development agendas in other parts of the country.

Yet they couldn’t remain isolated from the effects of international agendas, both malign and benevolent in intent. Regional conflict and power games filled the arid lands with small arms, escalating low level disputes into bloodier, more decisive conflicts. Aid agencies flocked in, and unwittingly cultivated new traditions of dependency, propping up unviable lifestyles and engraining emergency aid into the everyday coping mechanisms of pastoralists.

Beneath the surface

This complex web of agendas was only the surface covering more seismic changes impacting on the viability of pastoralist life in arid lands, the most prominent being population growth. There are over four times as many people in Kenya and Ethiopia today than there were fifty years ago.

Pasture quickly becomes scarce under such human and livestock pressure, and extended dry seasons soon turn into crises.

In other words, inevitable and natural cycles of drought are just the straw that breaks the camel’s back – but they are not the cause.

Now it appears the camel’s back is broken again. Refugees are pouring across borders with alarming malnutrition rates, fighting is breaking out over the few remaining functioning boreholes, children are leaving schools and spending their days in search of water, livestock are dying and livelihoods are being lost. In humanitarian circles, people are beginning to whisper the word ‘famine’.

Much of this suffering could have been avoided by more early action. There were seasonal forecasts showing that the rains across the arid lands would fail. The right actions taken at the right time could have stopped many communities from tipping over into destitution. Yet despite all the lessons from previous droughts, and all the advances in early warning, government and public donors still don’t support mitigation work at the scale needed. Somehow, this must change.

Even now, there is much we can do to ensure the humanitarian response is appropriate.
First, we need to avoid the apathy trap that lingers around slow onset emergencies in the Horn. Recurrent crises have heightened the world’s tolerance of malnutrition and suffering in the region, but when a threshold is crossed, we must still be prepared to respond.

Secondly, while saving lives will always be the first priority, an underlying focus of humanitarian response should be to protect people’s capacity for economic regeneration. This will mean looking for flexible ways to provide assistance that avoid people moving into settlements from which they may never leave.

Thirdly, we need to keep listening to aspirations that people have for their lives. There are big shifts going on in the Horn: from pastoralist to agriculture, from agriculture to urban. Assistance should complement capacities to make these shifts successfully.

Fourthly, we need to focus on keeping children in schools. Their future options and resilience will be forever shaped by whether or not they have an education.

Finally, we need to remember that there is always a risk that the humanitarian community will shield governments from healthy accountability by taking over emergency relief. The best protection against cycles of drought becoming humanitarian crises lies with accountable government, and our work must assist, and not undermine, that end.

Emergency response is not going to address the root causes of this crisis, but well resourced and managed, it can at least help people through it.

On the 22 July 2011, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC)  launched an emergency appeal for 14.7m Swiss francs (17.9m US dollars / 12.4m Euros) to raise vital funds and provide assistance to the men, women and children who continue to face unimaginable suffering and hardship as a result of the worst regional drought in 60 years.

 More than 3.2 million Kenyans are now classified as food insecure and in desperate need of assistance as a severe drought continues to ravage many parts of the country.

“Today we witnessed people simply collapsing from hunger and exhaustion, many having not eaten for several days,” says the IFRC’s Alexander Matheou who is in Turkana, the northwesternmost district in Kenya, one of the worst affected regions where malnutrition rates are double the emergency levels.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Climbing and exploring in the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan

Today I took time to update various climbs and expeditions I went on in Afghanistan during the period, 1993-1996.
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

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.
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)

Above, he 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.  

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 this year (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.
Skiing near the Salang Pass. Photo: Bob McKerrow

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 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 risinf 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 Kuah 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.