Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Wakhan Corridor

After abandoning our attempt on the north face of Karl Marx Peak, we decided to do a reconnaissance trip to the Wakhan Corridor along the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.  The Wakhan Corridor is the valley in the narrow neck of northeast Afghanistan that connects that country with China.  It separates Tajikistan to the north from Pakistan to the south.

Wakhan Corridor is the valley connecting China with Afghanistan
Wakhan Corridor is the big valley separating the Pamir Mountain Range to the north from the Hindu Kush in the south
We drove south from Khorog to the Tajikistan side of Ishkashim.  Across the Panj River is the other side of town that is in Afghanistan.  We did not go into the Afghan side of the Wakhan Corridor as we did not have multiple entry visas that would enable us to come back into Tajikistan and our way home.

The north side of the corridor separating Afghanistan from Tajikistan was created by an agreement in 1873 between Britain and Russia separating the two empires.  The agreement put an end to the Great Game which was a rivalry between these two countries for control of Central Asia.  The south side of the Corridor was created by the Durrand Line agreement in 1893 that created the boundary between Afghanistan and what was British India at that time.

Historically the Corridor was used as a trade route along the silk road to bring goods from China through what became Afghanistan and destinations further west.  Adventurers such as Francis Younghusband, Lord Curzon, Aurel Stein, and John Wood traveled through the Corridor, following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, and Ghenghis Khan.  The Communist revolutions in Russia and China in the twentieth century sealed the borders and with the current war in Afghanistan and the Pakistan tribal areas, the Corridor has become a dead end.

We stayed our first night at a clean and refreshing hot springs and walked around a 2000 year old fort that was part of the Kushan Kingdom that ruled the area from about the 1st until the 19th Century.

Looking east up the Wakhan Corridor and Panj River from 2,000 year old Kushan fort

Looking west down the Wakhan Corridor and Panj River from 2,000 year old Kushan fort
Confluence of Pamir River on left and the Wakhan River into the Panj River.  I think Koh-e-Safed (6513m) is the big mountain above the Wakhan River on the right.
As a climber I was very interested in the peaks we could see along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border south of the Wakhan Corridor.  These peaks are part of the Hindu Kush and could be easily approached from the Afghan side.  This area is isolated from the war in other parts of Afghanistan and at this time it is safe to travel there.  A number of international trekking companies were crossing into Afghanistan from Tajikistan and taking clients into the Wakhan to hike up the valley beyond the end of the road.  My understanding is climbers do not need to get permits from the Afghan Government to climb peaks there and like the trekkers, access to the Afghan side of the Hindu Kush would be easy and safe from Tajikistan.

Unknown peak in the Hindu Kush on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border south of the Wakhan

Unknown peak in the Hindu Kush on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border south of the Wakhan

Unknown peak in the Hindu Kush on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border south of the Wakhan

Unknown peak in the Hindu Kush on the Afghan side of the Pakistan border south of the Wakhan
From the Wakhan we drove back to Khorog and then to Dushanbe.  From there I flew home on August 10th.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The North Face of Karl Marx peak

On our climb of the Southwest Rib, I got a good look at the north face of Karl Marx Peak and after we got back to base camp I examined it further with the binoculars.   Based on my inspection I decided to inform Doug and Rusty that I would not to go up on the route.  I had several reasons for this;
  • The rock is not good - loose in places, and very compact with no crack systems in other places.  
  • The route is too steep, technical, and big to do in the lightweight style and minimal gear we had with us.  
  • It was hot and much of the north face was running with water during the day which combined with the loose rock meant there could be a lot of rock fall.  
  • The route we have chosen up the weakest line on the face had a big traverse halfway up.  If we got past the traverse and ran into terrain that we couldn't climb, or if someone got hurt, it  would be nearly impossible to retreat.  We wouldn't be able to rappel the traverse where we had come up.  The rock wall below the far end of the traverse looked overhanging and if we tried to go straight down from there we would be rappelling out into space away from the wall.  We also wouldn't have enough rock gear for anchors to get us all the way down.  
Rusty, and Doug were disappointed at my decision, and Doug came by awhile later and asked me to think about another option.  He  proposed that I could lead the ice pitches and they would lead all the mixed pitches.  They wanted a third person to share the work.  I said I would think about it, but the issue for me was not having to lead hard pitches - I just thought the route was dangerous and we are logistically not prepared for it.  But I thought about it and came up with a compromise which is to do a one day reconnaissance first.  We could go light and fast just to get a sense of whether the route is feasible.  I proposed this at lunch and at dinner we all agreed to do the recon as a threesome.

Approaching the North Face
On July 29th we left base camp to do our reconnaissance. Our goal was to camp that afternoon at a beautiful spot we found when we came down from the summit.  It was just off the glacier in a little pocket of soil that we called Shangri-la -  it was flat and full of wildflowers.  We got there about 10:30 as it was starting to get hot.  Rusty and Doug were looking at the face through binoculars while I was digging a tent platform in the dirt.  Rusty asked if we thought it was too hot to go up on the face.  He could see through the binoculars that there was water running everywhere on the face.  Doug mentioned that if we left at midnight we would be above the ice face in a sheltered spot at the base of the rock wall before the sun hit the face.  If there was any rockfall once it heated up, we could hang there under an overhang and wait till the sun went off the face which was around 1 or 2 PM.  Doug didn't think we would get stopped by rockfall, but he thought we might get stopped by technical difficulties.  I agreed with Doug, and we decided to go up.  It was a decision that we would soon regret.

Our camp we called Shangri-La
We left our camp at midnight anticipating that it would take 1.5 hours to get to the bergschrund (crevasse that you have to cross at the base of the wall) and then 5 hours up a 70 degree snow and ice face to the rock wall.  That would get us to the base of the rock wall by 6:30 when the sun hit the face.  We had explored the glacier approach from our camp yesterday afternoon so we didn't have to do that kind of macro-route finding in the dark.  As we went by in the dark, our headlamps illuminated a dead seabird frozen into the ice.  It was strange to see that kind of bird so far away from its natural habitat.  I should have taken it as an omen and walked away.

We made it to the bergschrund in a little over two hours, but we used more time to find a way across it.  By the time we got onto the ice face we were behind schedule by a couple of hours.  But we didn't anticipate any real problems if we were still on the ice face a little after 6:30AM as it should still be cold enough to climb for a few hours after the sun hit the face.  I already had the lead and the ice screws and rack so I took off.  Our system was I would lead as fast as I could, placing 2-3 screws in a 60 meter pitch and then set up an anchor (belay) and bring up Doug and Rusty.  They would quickly give me the gear they collected from the belay anchor and running belays and I would go again.  Once we were on the wall it was hard to tell where the upper snow and ice features were that we could see from below so we had to look at pictures on our cameras taken from Shangri-la.  We kept pitching it out and had gone about 5-6 rope lengths when the sun started to illuminate the upper wall in an orange glow.

Looking up the 6000 ft wall as the sun hit it.

I was leading about 20 feet past my last screw and Doug yelled “rock”. I instinctively looked up to see some giant boulders bouncing down the ice slope straight for me.    One in particular looked to be the size of a small hotel refrigerator.  I had been angling up and left so I thought Doug and Rusty would be safe, but that I would get clobbered.  I hunkered down with my head into the ice gripping both tools that I had planted firmly in the ice.  An small avalanche of small rocks, snow, and ice hit me, with one rock knocking my ice tool out of the ice but I didn't let go of it.  I planted it again in the ice as best as I could with the avalanche pouring over me .  It finally stopped and other than a few bruises from getting hit by small rocks, I was OK.  I looked back at Doug and Rusty and they appeared OK and I said, “shall we get out of here”?  They yelled yes so I placed a V-thread of rope in the ice and rappelled down to them.  

Doug and Rusty climbing up to the belay before the rock fall.
Doug had been hit in the shoulder by a rock and had limited use of his right arm.  There were more rocks coming down the the face so needed to get out of there as quickly as possible.  As we rappelled there was more rockfall, but nothing like the first one.  Doug got hit again in his other shoulder and one time in the face with a small rock when he looked up.  We were all worried about his face injury because there was blood everywhere.  But it was not such a big cut and luckily just missed his right eye.

Doug after getting hit in the face by a rock
We finally made our last rappel over the bergschrund and roped up for the glacier walk back to Shangri-la that we reached around 8AM.

Back on the glacier headed back to base camp
We were beat up and spent a couple of hours resting; packing: and doing a preliminary cleaning of Doug's face wound.  We reached base camp around 1PM, tired, hungry, and feeling lucky.  I felt like I should have paid more attention to my earlier instincts and to Rusty's concern about it being too warm.  Wandering past the dead seabird in the dark all by itself on the glacier also seemed like a warning.  We should have known better, but now everyone is convinced that this is not a good place to be.

Dead sea bird on the glacier far from home.  I thought it was a bad omen  

Monday, August 19, 2013

Acclimatization on Karl Marx Peak

Over the many years that people have been venturing into the high mountains, doctors and scientists have learned that to do this safely, the human body needs to have a period of acclimatization.  During acclimatization the human body undergoes physical changes in response to living at an altitude where there is a lot less oxygen.  These changes include increases in the percentage of red blood cells in your blood (red blood cells deliver oxygen throughout your body).  By moving to higher altitudes incrementally and taking the time needed for these changes to occur enables climbers to live and work at high altitude with a much lower risk of getting sick from it.  The higher a climber plans to go, the more time it takes acclimatize.  In my experience, it takes about three weeks to acclimatize to elevations over 26,000 feet; for a 20,000 foot peak it takes about 7-10 days; and for a 14,000 foot peak like Mt Rainier a fit climber can do that without any acclimatization.

Karl Marx Peak is about 22,000 feet - high enough that we needed to spend some time acclimatizing.  Our plan was to try and climb the steep 6000 foot high north face.  But before venturing onto such a difficult route, we decided to acclimatize by climbing the easier Southwest Rib.  Besides acclimatizing, the Southwest Rib would also give us the opportunity to get familiar with what would be our descent route if we made it to the top of the North Face.

On July 21st at around 7AM we left base camp at 13,000 feet and walked up the rubble on the left side of the glacier below Karl Marx Peak.  After awhile we crossed onto the middle of the glacier where it was easy to walk on the bare ice.  

Approaching Karl Marx Peak.  The north face is visible behind us

To get to the Southwest Rib, we needed to climb up to a pass to the right of a glacier tongue around the right side of the peak.  By noon we reached the base of  a loose rocky scree slope below the pass.  The climb up this slope was reminiscent of some of the worst scree slopes I've climbed in the Canadian Rockies.  

To reach the SW Rib we had to climb to a pass to the right of the glacier tongue to the right of the climber
We found an old rock platform at the pass where we pitched our tent at 16,000 feet in the early afternoon.  We passed the rest of the day reading.  We were moving up pretty quickly for not being acclimatized yet, so we had mild headaches and didn't sleep well.

Camp at 16,000 feet at the pass

The next morning on July 22 we climbed up a steep narrow glacier west of the summit.

We climbed the narrow glacier in the center of the photo
At the top of the steep narrow glacier was a glacial platform that we crossed to access the Southwest Rib.

Looking down from the top of the narrow glacier
Once we got onto the Rib and off the glacier, we didn't have to be concerned with falling into hidden crevasses so we took the rope off.  We climbed up the rib to nearly 20,000 feet where we dug a nice platform out of the snow next to a short rock wall.  We had taken only two days to climb from base camp at 13,000 feet to 20,000 feet and we were all feeling pretty poorly with the altitude.  We knew that we were going up too fast, but given that the climbing was pretty easy we were having a hard time holding ourselves back.  Before we went to sleep we talked about spending an extra day at 20,000 feet to acclimatize and then go to the top the following day.

Camp at 20,000 feet on the SW Rib.  Views of the Hindu Kush in Pakistan in the background
On July 23 we had another sleepless night and when we woke up early, we decided at first to spend a rest day here.  But around 10AM we got impatient and decided to go for the summit.  I wasn't sure sure this was such a good idea since that would mean going up from 13,000 feet at base camp to 22,000 feet in only three days, and this was after having come up to BC in one day and spending only a couple of nights there.  We left around 11AM and the climbing was technically easy, but we suffered from ascending so quickly without being acclimatized.  Doug went first as he seemed stronger than Rusty and me.  Fortunately the snow conditions were good and it was nice cramponing and only a little step kicking up to the ankle.

Climbing on the SW Rib

I was pretty out of breath with such a rapid ascent without acclimatization.  But my training before the trip paid off, and in spite of that discomfort I felt pretty good as we approached the summit rocks.  On the final 100 meters I felt some congestion in my chest but I was able to cough it up.  With some deep breathing to stay well oxygenated I was able to make it to the top OK, but on the last bit I moved slowly behind the others.  

The final summit rocks 
We reached the summit around 3PM and found a old plaque with a bust of Karl Marx from the Soviet days.  There was a great panorama from the summit of the Pamirs to the north and the Hindu Kush in Pakistan to the south.  Separating us from Pakistan was the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan below us to the south.  A crisp cold wind was blowing from the south and I was getting cold because I didn't have a lot of clothing so I soon headed down.  We were all suffering from the altitude and Rusty vomited on the way down.  It only took a couple of hours to reach our camp and we spent a second night there with little sleep again.

On the Summit of Karl Marx Peak (22,000 ft) with the plaque of the peak's namesake next to Doug
Doug got us up and going around 7AM and cooked for us.  This  wasn't easy because with our gasoline stove we had to cook outside the tent in the cold.  It was a good idea to get going as early as possible to avoid arriving at some of the snow slopes below that would get soft in the afternoon heat causing the snow to stick to our crampons.  The descent was uneventful cramponing down slopes that were barely low angle enough for me to face out.  It was nice to have new sharp crampons that bit hard into the icy slopes.  We got through the two steep sections of down climbing through the crappy rock below the pass where we camped the first night, and made our way onto the bare ice of the glacier in the valley.  We arrived at BC around 2 PM quite tired.   Bakhtiyore and Zadifa were there when we arrived and made us some good soup and a tomato and onion salad.  For dinner we had french fries and a fried cabbage and onion dish.  Now that we were back at 13,000 feet we slept well.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Khorog to Base Camp

It was about a four hour drive from Khorog to the road head at a village named Jawshangoz where we planned to spend the night before beginning our hike to base camp.    

Driving into the Pamirs.  Karl Marx Peak is in the distance on the right
The drive was beautiful up a gorge that brought us up onto a high steppe where we got our first view of Karl Marx peak.   We drove through a rather deep river to get to Jawshangoz where we found our Homestay amongst the few houses in the village.

It is a beautiful spot in a broad grassy valley that is good for pasturing, but not a tree in sight.  

Village of Jawshangoz at the end of the road

The Aga Khan Foundation and the EU had provided funding for local families to build or refurbish traditional Pamiri lodges as places for tourists to stay.  These Homestays were run by the women in the local family that ran the lodge and provided them with a bit of cash.  It gave these women some income and experience running a small business which seemed to give them some additional status in their families and the community. 

Traditional Pamiri Lodge where we had our Homestay

Girls in the village of  Jawshangoz
We met with the donkey drivers who will take our equipment to base camp.  Apparently it is only bout a 4-6 hour walk from here.  We have about 660lbs of food and equipment that we need to transport to base camp.  This afternoon they say the local men have only three small donkeys, but they claim they could carry 300 lbs each! We packed all the donkey loads and reshuffled our personal duffels in case the donkeys need two days to get all our stuff up to BC.  That way we can send loads up to base camp tomorrow and then move up there the next day if there are not enough donkeys to move everything at once.  We are pleasantly surprised that no other trekkers or climbers are here.  We have the place to ourselves.

On the morning of July 18th, only two donkeys showed up and now the locals are trying to talk us into hiring a jeep that they say will take our loads most of the way there.  There is a rough road up the valley but it only goes about two thirds of the distance to base camp.  We couldn't get a good answer as to how they would get our loads the rest of the way to base camp from the end of the road so we decided to not hire the jeep.  In the meantime a couple more donkeys showed up but the donkey drivers down graded the amount the donkeys could carry to 80 lbs.  We decided to load the donkeys with food and equipment we didn't need to spend another night in Jawshangoz and then move up to base camp tomorrow. I thought it was a good idea to stay here another night to acclimatize since we have come up pretty rapidly here to 11,000 feet.

Donkey driver taking a load to base camp

The valley was lush with grass and the locals graze animals all the way up to base camp

 Three donkeys showed up early this morning and were able to carry the rest of our loads.  We left Jawshangoz at 7AM up the valley towards Karl Marx peak.  It was an easy hike mostly on a road.  We arrived at base camp at around noon where we have an incredible views of Karl Marx Peak and Engels Peak from BC.  We spent several hours getting the camp all set up.   Bakhtiyore and Zadifa are doing well as assistant cook and cook for never having done this kind of thing before.  They were also helpful in communicating with the donkey drivers.  No one speaks any English here.

North Face of Karl Marx Peak

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tajikistan - from Dushanbe to Khorog

After the climbers were killed by Taliban insurgents at Nanga Parbat Base Camp in June (see previous posts), we abandoned our plans to climb in Pakistan this year.  We made a last minute decision to go climbing in the Pamirs in Tajikistan instead, largely because there are no permitting requirements.  Without any of the red tape, all we needed to do was buy tickets and go.  The little we knew was that Tajikistan had almost no tourism, so there were no adventure tour companies readily available to help us with our logistics.  We would have to do that ourselves.  This combined with little information on climbing objectives guaranteed that at a minimum it would be an adventure.

Tajikistan is one of the former Soviet Central Asian Republics and borders Afghanistan which is to the south.  We flew into the capital city of Dushanbe arriving at 2 AM, and without spending the night, got in a jeep for the 13 hour drive to the city of Khorog in the southeast part of the country.  We would provision there and then head into the Pamirs.

It was a beautiful drive up and over some mountains and then a big descent to the Panj River that separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan.  The drive follows the river the rest of the way to Khorog and was spectacular with huge relief from the valley to the tops of the rocky mountains above us.  It reminded me of the drive  to Skardu along the Indus River in Pakistan.  

Driving up the Panj River
We could look across the river to Afghanistan and the contrast with development was striking.  Tajikistan looked to have benefited considerably from the Soviet years with much better infrastructure (roads and power lines).  All we could see in Afghanistan were donkey tracks along the river and mud walled villages scattered along the dry hillsides where they had access to water for irrigation.

Afghan village on the other side of the Panj River
The road to Khorog is also called the Pamir Highway and was full of Chinese trucks hauling goods from the Western Chinese province of Xinjiang to Central Asia and further west.

Chinese goods along the Pamir Highway
In Khorog we met with Zhandia who is in charge of the Pamirs Eco-Cultural Tourism Association (PECTA), a new tourism agency funded by a grant from the Aga Khan Foundation to help develop a local industry for trekking and climbing in the region.  Bo White, an American who has been active in Tajikistan both climbing and helping the locals to develop a tourism industry, had put us in touch with her.  Zhandia lined us up with jeeps, assigned other staff to help us in the bazaar to buy all our food and supplies, and found us a cook and assistant cook/interpreters.  Our cook and assistant was something I had never had before, – a mother and son team - Zadifa and Bakhtiyore.  They both spoke some English and in this far flung outpost of the former Soviet Union everyone spoke Russian as a second language to their local tongue and all the writing was in Russian.  So having someone to interpret for us was important since none of us could speak or read Russian.   

Provisioning in Khorog
In the bazaar, three interns from PECTA, Sayora, Forugh and  Safina helped us with our shopping.  The people in Tajikistan are Muslims, but they are Ismailis, a liberal branch of Shia Islam.  In Tajikistan the women can dress in modern western clothes, are visibly active in educational institutions and commerce, and alcohol is readily served in restaurants and outdoor cafes.  

Our helpers from PECTA, Forugh and Safina
Although it was more work to have to do all this shopping ourselves, it was a fun way to connect with how everyday life is conducted in this part of the world.

Doug and his new friend
There was not a lot of information about what had been climbed in the Pamirs in the Soviet years.  Much of that information was not divulged to the West.  But after looking at the maps and photos that we could find, we decided to head up the Shakhdara Valley by jeep to the village of Jawshangoz and then walk to the base camp for two mountains, Karl Marx Peak and Engels Peak.  These peaks had been given Communist names during the Soviet occupation and although some had been given new names the old ones seem to have stuck.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Letter from Manzoor Hussain - President of Alpine Club of Pakistan

Dear Steve,

I thank the American climbing community and yourself for the thoughts and condolences in this hour of our shock and grief which we suffered due to the traumatic and brutal massacre of 10 innocent guest mountaineers and one local staff on the night of 22nd June 2013 at the Diamer Base Camp of Nanga Parbat, in Gilgit –Baltistan. It was painful for us to receive the bodies and then listen to the survivors and those climbers who were on the higher camps during that night. I personally apologised to the concerned federations, to the 43 mountaineers who were brought back to Islamabad on 24th June and the bereaved families, some of whom were in Islamabad to receive bodies of their kith and kin. ACP also held a Condolence Reference for the killed mountaineers on 25th June which was attended by all the Nanga Parbat mountaineers, government officials, ACP members and others. Nazir and I worked closely since he received the information early morning on 23nd June.     

We coordinated shifting of all NP mountaineers from Diamer Base Camp to Chilas by the Army helicopter sorties and its land transportation to Islamabad and handing over the stuff to all the mountaineers, including the deceased ones to expedition leaders on 29th June. I may mention that bodies of the killed mountaineers were despatched to their respective countries by Air force planes by the Government of Pakistan on 27th June.  Later baggage of the killed Ukrainian and Slovakian mountaineers was also despatched by special Air force plane on 30th June.

The masses and the Government of Pakistan have been shocked and jolted by this unfortunate tragedy and we are already working to revise our procedures and security system in the mountain areas to make the area secure for all the visitors to the areas.


Manzoor Hussain
Alpine Club of Pakistan