Noshaq Expedition in Afghanistan
Why Wakhan Corridor?
Let’s try to use our imagination. Relax, close your eyes and imagine that you are walking through a surrounded by mountains stony path. You look down, towards the ground because otherwise a strong wind is blowing sand directly into your eyes. From time to time you turn around to rest a bit and gaze at the wide valley. On the right, green farmland and river, on the left, slopes of peaks covered by snow. While walking you pass children with a grin from ear to ear taking care of goats and sheep.
The scorching sun makes the lips stick, the sand irritates cracking between the teeth. Several women with children are passing you by and timidly stare in your direction. You cross a mountain stream which flooded the road. A group of men diligently regulates the water flow with a help of spade. They send greetings and wish you the best. You go further, step by step…
Now let’s go back two hundred years earlier. The Russian Empire is growing rapidly. It subjugated the territories of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and now it is expanding to Central Asia, reaching the borders of Afghanistan. At the same time, the British Empire is expanding its influence in the Indian Empire. To assure neutrality and separate the zones of influence, the two superpowers came to an agreement to create a buffer in between. It was Wakhan that was joined to Afghanistan. People living in this area are mainly shepherds and farmers who, regardless of political influence, inhabit this narrow strip of land between the Pamir and the Hindu Kush for generations. They are people who live in humble conditions and have simple life, are warm and friendly to visitors. Now open your eyes. Do you know why do I go there?
The Wakhan Corridor is not characteristic only for friendly people, great hospitality and unique culture. It is also due to wide valleys, harsh glaciers and prominent mountains. Any trip to high mountains requires solid preparation and adequate experience. It consists of several issues that must be addressed appropriately. These include, inter alia, all necessary permits and visas, dedicated physical training, proper mental attitude, well balanced diet, all aspects related to logistics, careful study of the mountain topography, training in first aid and mountain rescue, communication, risk analysis, insurance, etc. Quite a lot of it.
Being high in the mountains of Afghanistan, far from civilization can be compared to the life of an ascetic. You must control yourself and often motivate yourself to move forward, especially that any inconvenience caused by slow acclimatization do not make it easier. Thus, mental training is also important as any the amenities of everyday life make us lazy and difficult to adapt in challenging mountain conditions. In the high mountains, success depends to large extent on determination, hardness and stubbornness towards achieving the goal. Let’s not forget that mountain expeditions are characterized by a high-risk profile and unpredictable things can happen. One must try to minimize the risk factors by keeping good physical condition, reliable planning, etc.
Polish expeditions to Noshaq
Noshaq is the second highest peak in the Hindu Kush and is located at the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Its height is 7492 m a.s.l. and is the highest peak of Afghanistan. The mountain is of great importance for Polish high altitude mountaineering.
First Poles on Noshaq: In 1960, a Polish expedition took place, the aim of which was to ascend unclimbed previously Noshaq. At the same time, another expedition from Japan was organized, which also had permission to reach the summit. Good preparation, acclimatization and insight in the field allowed the Japanese expedition to get to the top on August 17, 1960 (Toshiaki Sakai and Goro Iwatsubo). The Poles were at the top ten days later, that is, they made the second ascend to Noshak (Krzysztof Berbeka, Stanisław Biel, Jerzy Krajski, Stanisław Kuliński, Jan Mostowski, Zbigniew Rubinowski and Stanisław Zierhoffer).
First (Polish) women on Noshaq: In 1972, an expedition from Warsaw led by Janusz Kurczab set off to Hindu Kush. This time there were three women in the group of climbers. The expedition focused on two main objectives: (i) setting a new route at Noshaq in alpine style and (ii) feminine entry to the summit. All climbers managed to ascend successfully: Ewa Czarniecka-Marczak, Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz and Wanda Rutkiewicz and five male mountaineers.
First winter ascend of Noshaq: In 1973, Andrzej Zawada and Tadeusz Piotrowski made the first winter ascend of Noshaq. Climbing during the summit day of 800-meter vertically took up to 18 hours! The experience gained during the expedition resulted in the successes of Polish winter expeditions in the Himalayas.
First solo ascend of Noshaq: [1,2,3] According to the sources in 1976, Krzysztof Żurek left alone from the base camp, climbed to the top and returned within eleven hours.
Polish expeditions in Hindu Kush were a very important part of the history of Polish mountaineering. They made it possible to gain valuable experience in the high mountains and prepared Poles to test their strength in the Himalayas and Karakorum. Unfortunately all climbing activities in the Hindu Kush mountains ended with the commencement of the Saur Revolution in Afghanistan in 1978 and the entry of Soviet troops in December 1979.
1 Sylvain Jouty, Hubert Odier, „Dictionnaire de la montagne,” Omnibus, 2009
2 John Porter, „One Day as a Tiger: Alex MacIntyre and the birth of light and fast alpinism,” Vertebrate Publishing, 2014
3 Ryszard Szafirski, „Zakopiańska wyprawa w Hindukusz,” TATERNIK, Vol. 233, Issue 4, 1976, pp. 169-172
First Afghan ascend
In summer 2009, four Afghan climbers made an attempt to do what none of their countrymen even had dreamed of: they wanted to climb the highest peak in Afghanistan – Noshaq, which is 7492 meters high. They wanted to send to the Afghan communities and the whole world a message of hope and peace. Their aim was also to contribute to the revival of alpine tourism in Wakhan Corridor.
On July 19, at 14:30, after a long and difficult climb, two of the four Afghans: Malang and Amrudin managed to set foot on Noshaq. The two Wakhan highlanders opposed the cold weather and the gusty wind to reach the roof of Afghanistan with their national flag. This was a great success and message of hope for the entire Afghan community and a symbolic attempt to unite the whole nation beyond all divisions, ethnic, regional and religious differences that divide the whole country.
Interview with Malang
Łukasz Kocewiak: You are the first Afghan who climbed Noshaq. However, there was a long journey to reach the top of the summit. What pushed / motivated you to do high altitude mountaineering? How did it start?
Malang Darya: At the beginning I worked as a porter in trekking and high mountain expeditions. Afterwards, I was encouraged by climbers who supported and helped me to gain the necessary experience. With the help of Aga Khan Development Network, I started a preparatory program under which I went to France to train. After that, we set off for the highest peak in Afghanistan, on Noshaq.
Łukasz: How much did it take you to prepare for such a demanding climbing expedition? How difficult it was?
Malang: The Aga Khan Foundation has helped us to organize everything. The whole team consisted of four Afghans and four French mountaineers. Ultimately, only two of us from Wakhan reached the summit with one French climber. I remember that the ascend became really annoying above about 6700 m. We had to decide to go back to the base camp and rest. Afterwards, I came back to the top with my Wakhi friend and one person from France.
Łukasz: Right now you spend most of your life in the Wakhan Corridor and support / organize other expeditions. Do you remember / recall any interesting, funny or dramatic situation you would like to share from some of latest expeditions?
Malang: There are interesting and often funny situations with tourists in the Wakhan Corridor, such as during buzkashi (literally „goat pulling”, a team game on horses placed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Lists – ed.). Tourists often ride horses, play local instruments, improvise with the accompaniment of music, participate in the wedding ceremony. We spend time in the Pamir houses, which are dyed inside with smoke. A lot is happening.
Łukasz: What do you do on daily basis in the Wakhan Corridor when there is no climbing season?
Malang: I spend winter at home, where I work. Sometimes, tourists also come and I show them this part of the world when covered by show.
Łukasz: Thank you for the discussion. At the end do you have any message to climbers or tourists approaching Wakhan Corridor and Hindu Kush?
Malang: I would like to host as many tourists as possible in Wakhan and the mountains. This can help to change the lives of many poor people living here in the difficult mountain terrain. In 2014 the Aga Khan Foundation helped me establish a company, a tourist agency. Thanks to that myself and other local guides can show tourists interesting and beautiful places.
Malang Darya lives with his wife and four children in the village of Qazi Deh, which is at the entrance to the valley leading to the base camp near Noshaq. His kindness, professionalism, cheerful temperament and charisma help in interpersonal communication and implementation of complex mountain projects.
Afghan women at Noshaq
The situation of women in Afghanistan is very different from our European understanding. The roles of gender in society are clearly defined. The treatment of women by men and accepted standards of behavior may vary considerably depending on the region. There is a widespread belief that women should not travel without a family male member (e.g. farther, brother, husband) and should not interact with strangers in such places as schools, marketplaces and offices. In some areas of Afghanistan, on a daily basis, they experience physical violence, have arranged marriages, and honor killings on women are still a problem [3,4]. However, the general situation of Afghan women has improved over the last decade, especially in major urban areas, but rural residents still face many problems.
During the conservative Taliban regime in 1996-2001, women practically lost most of their rights they had earlier. Women were forbidden to work, obtain education, leave homes without a husband or relative, enjoy entertainment and even have access to medical services. After the loss of power by the Taliban as a consequence of the war in 2001, the situation has significantly improved. The women in Afghanistan gained more rights and began to actively participate in social life. The constitution adopted in 2004 guaranteed equality. As a result women nowadays attend schools and sit in the parliament.
The law is one thing and enforcement is the other. Female activists emphasize continuously existing discrimination against women in some regions of the country. They are exposed to brutal attacks on daily basis, but they know that changes are slowly introduced in the country by decades exposed to war. Now is the time for Afghan women to demand their rights even more clearly. This year, a group of Afghan female climbers will try to climb Noshaq, the highest mountain in Afghanistan. This will be the first attempt to reach the summit by a woman from Afghanistan. A very significant and symbolic step forward from the society development point of view, step towards equality of women and recovery of the climbing culture in Afghanistan.
However, the way for climbers to achieve the goal is not strewn with flowers. It is difficult to obtain public support and funds for woman’s expeditions. Afghanistan is a beautiful mountainous country, but the concept of climbing peaks for sport and leisure is quite new. In a conservative society, mountain climbing is considered as strange entertainment for men, not even considering women. That is why training often take place without much publicity because of fear not accepting or even rejection by the local community.
Girls, however, do not give up and this year they are going to face the mountain. Preparations for the expedition are already at a very advanced stage and the date of reaching the base camp near Noshaq is almost certain. I keep my fingers crossed and I firmly believe that they will succeed. Even the very attempt to enter is already a big step forward for the development of female climbing culture in Afghanistan. I hope to be a witness to this remarkable achievement.
3 „World Report 2018: Afghanistan,” Human Rights Watch, pp. 17-22, 2018
4 „Afghanistan: Child Marriage, Domestic Violence Harm Progress,” Human Rights Watch, 4 September 2013
First Afghan woman climbed Noshaq
Great news! On August 10, 24-year-old Hanifa Yousoufi became the first female Afghan climber who climbed Noshaq. It is a remarkable and simultaneously symbolic achievement in such a conservative country where in some regions, ethnic groups there is simply no social acceptance for women to do mountaineering.
Four Afghan women joined the Noshaq expedition, but due to unexpected and harsh conditions on the mountain, only Hanifa was the one who made the full ascent. Freshta, Hanifa, Neki, Shegufa prepared for the adventure together and supported each other all the time. The joint effort resulted in this remarkable success.
Due to safety reasons the team kept details of this climb quiet until it was finished. The climbers have just begun to publicize their efforts, as they try to balance between the advantages and disadvantages of making it public. Recently they decided that their names should be made public, after returning home from the mountains and thinking about the impact again.
The whole expedition was organized by a nonprofit organization called Ascend Athletics established by Marina Kiełpiński LeGree, led by experienced mountain guides and mountaineers Emilie Drinkwater and Vibeke Andrea Sefland, journalists (Theresa Breuer, Soraya Nelson), photographers other team members (Erin Trieb, Sandro Gromen-Hayes, Rob Gray, Naz Ahmed).
More about the successful ascend:
— The Christian Science Monitor: An Afghan woman, on top of the (tallest) mountain
— Outside: Afghan Climber Hanifa Yousoufi Just Made History
— Alpinist: First Afghan woman stands atop the country’s highest peak
— American Illustration – American Photography: Women Are Scaling New Heights in Afghanistan, and Erin Trieb Will Film It
— Piz Palü: Banebrytende ekspedisjon i Afghanistan
— The Pilot: First Afghan woman to scale country’s highest peak was helped by Norfolk nonprofit
— La Vanguaridia: En la cima, a pesar de los talibanes
— Gripped: Hanifa Yousoufi Climbs Highest Afghan Peak
— Explorers Web: An Interview with Hanifa Yousoufi: First Afghan Woman to Climb Mt. Noshaq
— Sierra: Hanifa Yousoufi on Her Historic Climb up Mt. Noshaq
— The Guardian: ‚I did it for every single girl’: the first Afghan woman to scale Mount Noshaq
— UKClimbing: INTERVIEW: Ascending Afghanistan: Hanifa Yousoufi summits Noshaq
— BBC: ‚Linda’s pride’ at young Afghan climber’s achievement
— Outside: Inside the First Afghan Women’s Ascent of Mount Noshaq
Noshaq (نوشاخ) solo climb
And another portion of good news. On August 2, after ten hours of climbing, I managed to set foot on the highest summit in Afghanistan – Noshaq, which towers at 7492 m. The success is even more important to me because the whole expedition was organized by me from the very beginning.
I want to dedicate this solo Noshaq climb to:
— Kārlis, who had very unfortunate experience two years ago at Noshaq and lost some fingers.
— Kuba, with whom we reached almost 7,200 m in 2016. We had to turn back because of the first symptoms of pulmonary edema.
— Afghan women mountaineers: Freshta, Hanifa, Neki, Shegufa who also decided to face Noshaq, to show that together women in Afghanistan can achieve a lot.
— my wife Patricia, whose support turned out to be substantial in reaching the goal.
Just drop me a line if you have any questions about the current situation in Afghanistan or climbing in the Hindu Kush mountains. Thanks!
1 Roman Gołędowski, Łukasz Kocewiak, „Noszak solo, czyli Afganistan w pojedynkę”, Annapurna, 2018, ISBN 978-83-61968-40-5.
2 Roman Gołędowski, Łukasz Kocewiak, „Noshaq solo. Alone in Afghanistan”, Annapurna Publishing House, 2019, ISBN 978-83-61968-46-7.
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