August 9, 2011: The mountains march east into China. That silver sentinel on the horizon is Muztagh Ata, I tell my sister, Christine. To the south rise the dusky ramparts of the Hindu Raj, indistinct in the morning haze. I point north across the Wakhan Corridor, panhandle of Northern Afghanistan. In the nineteenth century, this strip of land became a buffer between Tsarist Russia and the British Raj. Those brown, ice-clipped peaks of the southern Pamirs were later named after communist leaders. The High Hindu Kush pushes west for hundreds of miles, toward the dun hills of central Afghanistan. We’re on the summit of Koh-e-Baba-Tangi, having made the first ascent of its Northwest Ridge, and the second ascent of the 6516-meter peak. It feels like the ends of the earth.
Our journey began a year before, in 2010, when I discovered a smattering of climbers were returning to the Wakhan after a thirty-year hiatus brought on by the battle between the Soviets and the mujahideen, then by the reign of the Taliban and the American invasion. Ever since I’d read accounts of the early Polish expeditions, decades ago, I’d longed to go to the Hindu Kush for the remoteness of the range and the lack of other climbers. And I’d wanted to travel with Christine. We had the same no-fuss, low-key attitude–a family trait. But although we’d climbed together for nearly two decades in New Zealand, we’d never shared an overseas expedition.
Page 160 of the only mountaineering guide to the Wakhan, Carlo Alberto Pinelli and Gianni Predan’s Peaks of Silver and Jade, had a photograph of a shining pyramid, Koh-e-Baba-Tangi, rising above a tiny village of dotted houses and patchwork fields. It had an unclimbed northwest ridge: a mix of rambling rock buttresses and blue ice leading to a sculpted white summit dome. In 1963 an Italian team had climbed the peak by its West Ridge; the only other attempt had been by a team of Italian women in 2008, again by the West Ridge. Christine was intrigued by the photo, but she found it hard to read. How steep will it be? she asked. She’s a talented climber, but she lacks confidence. We agreed that I’d take the lead while she jumared with the larger load. It was a methodical approach, which, if weather and snow conditions were in our favor, should get us to the summit. Both in our early fifties, we knew that time was running out.
A strong wind blows across the summit, and although the sky is clear and the sun brittle-bright, the temperature is low. Crystals of ice splatter our clothes. After five days of ascent, Christine is disappointed that it’s too cold to sit and savor our efforts. By midafternoon, we’ve descended 500 meters to our high camp. She curls on her side in the snow, and I worry: Have I put her through too much?
[Photo] Christine Byrch
When we left for China in June 2011, I was exhausted from packing and from waiting anxiously for the visa from Afghanistan. I slept the twelve hours to Guangzhou, where we changed flights for Urumqi. I looked down from 30,000 feet on the vast, rippled sand dunes of the Gobi Desert, wondering about the people who lived there. Another change and we were in Dushanbe, capital of Tajikistan, at 3 a.m. Christine loved the pastel buildings, and she loped off to take photos while I fretted over our food-shopping list. Here we met my Indian friend Satya, a mountaineer and a retired submariner, who was also drawn to the Hindu Kush.
Christine says she doesn’t want to go back the way we’ve come. Too many abseils. We believe the head of the rocky West Ridge is somewhere 400 meters below and to the left–we’ll try that. Do you think we’ll get down OK? Christine asks, and I say of course, although I’m secretly unsure. What if crevasses block the route? What if we choose the wrong ridge? Satya waits at base camp–I hope he isn’t worrying. For food, we have little more than protein bars, and we are finding these indigestible. My sleeping pad has a hole. When night comes, a cold wind nags the tent. I lie awake praying the weather will hold. Christine sleeps soundly. A tousle of red hair escapes from her sleeping bag, and I remembered sharing a bedroom when we were little girls.
At the Tajik/Afghan border, two paint-peeled buildings squatted among the boulders of the dusty Panj riverbed, manned by bored soldiers with AK-47s slung across their hips. It was 40 degrees Celsius, and Christine and I sweltered in our salwar kameez and headscarves, while Satya looked fresh and unbothered. At the dirt crossroads of Ishkashim, we wandered dazed. Satya, with his meager Farsi, managed a rudimentary communication with the men in the local bazaar. Despite their stares, we soon had the requisite permit and vehicle to get us up the Corridor.
The sun is on the tent early. The Qala-e-Hurst glacier winds smooth and white toward a horizon muted in haze. Elegant peaks seem to hang suspended. I suspect these are Kohana and Rohazon-Zom. Base camp feels closer than the night before. Taking a reckless punt, we abseil off a buttress onto a snow ramp that will lead, we hope, to the West Ridge. Five rappels and a long snow and ice traverse later, we find sticks…charred sticks…campfire relics from 1963.
Our base camp is nestled among gritty ice hummocks on an inauspicious glacier west of the mountain. The porters left with a handshake. Come back in three weeks, we’d indicated by waving our hands. We felt very alone. Satya cooked a comfort meal of dahl with rice and chapati. He had an injured leg and was unsure if he’d join us on the climb. But I can be the expedition cook, he said.
At the end of day two of our descent–our seventh day on the mountain–we draw near the bottom of the West Ridge. We move slowly, clumsily. The year before, I’d broken my back in a rock-climbing fall, and now it aches and aches. We find a flat spot and lie on the gravel, without bothering to put up the tent. I prop on one elbow and divide our remaining food: a protein bar and handful of nuts. Christine starts the cooker, and over its reassuring purr, we speak of family members waiting for word. The sky turns pale, the stars wake, the air chills.
For the first ten pitches, we’d practiced our agreed-upon systems–the jumaring, the pack hauling–on the steeper sections of ice. The sky was as clear as glass, the only sound our “On belay”s and the occasional crump of a small avalanche. We camped on the ridge: the green-gold fields of Kezget were bright jewels far below. For the first time in days, we felt relaxed.
We spot base camp from a mile off and whoop with joy. A figure zig-zags up the glacier, and we bellow, “Satya, Satya!” He puts two arms in the air and runs toward us. “Congratulations, ladies, congratulations,” he says, and he grasps our hands. At camp, Christine dives into the food bag, emerging with a tin of peaches. “I’ll make fried potato first,” Satya says, “then spaghetti.” I unzip my tent and take in the orderliness of it: my clothes folded and stacked against the wall, my Kindle, toiletries, diary. My body floods with relief–it’s like coming home.
Our ascent had passed quickly as we inched up the steepening spur, our base-camp tents on the glacier diminishing to tiny buttons. Do you think we’re doing OK? Christine asked repeatedly, to which I’d reply, Sure. We weren’t breaking any speed records; we just needed to keep going. One pitch after another. We measured our progress against a rocky peak across the valley, looming and austere on day one, fragile and diminished by the end of day three.
[Photo] Christine Byrch
Now the talk is of getting home: Will the porters return on the designated day? Will we find a ride back to Ishkashim, and another to Dushanbe? Christine wants to call her husband; she misses him badly. We don’t have a satellite phone. The mountain settles for the night, the only sounds the pit-pit of stones skipping off the ridge, the small groans of the glacier, a touch of wind.
At the end of the fourth day of our ascent, we were poised, fractious with fatigue, for the summit. It had snowed the evening before. Our night on a sloping ice ledge had been wet and uncomfortable. We’d floundered through dense snow for eight hours to reach our final camp, in a windy hollow beneath a large crevasse. We’d eaten a scrap meal of noodles in sullen silence.
By 1 a.m., the sky had cleared and the air crackled with cold. As we roped up, tiny shards of ice glinted in the halos of our headlamp beams. The unspoken tension felt heavy: get to the top, and then all the effort will be worthwhile. Six hours later, Christine put both arms in the air. We hugged as we stepped onto the summit. The fingers of the new day touched the horizon, and the snow turned gold. It was August 9, 2011.
That’s Muztagh Ata on the horizon, I said. Beneath us, the slopes fell away into deep grey shadows, unraveling in a blink five days of tension, of worry, of fatigue, of unknowing.