adventures

A Short Ski in the Hindu Kush

Two women on a horse ski mountaineering odyssey in Afghanistan. Sounds bonkers? With no maps or photos to guide them, they travel along the krux of the Silk Route through the Hindu Kush and Pamirs, stopping wherever a snowy mountain tickles their fancy. A part of the World where only a handful of Westerners have been since Marco polo in 1271, they discover a place where no one has climbed or seen skis, far away from the bombs and burkas of this beautiful country.

"The Wakhan Valley is the deepest darkest pit of hell. You'll never get out of there alive. I hope you're good with horses." A bold statement from the wizened Brit, who looked like he had spent a lot of time sneaking around as some ex spy military type. "It's a place for madmen, missionaries and mercenaries." ‘And mountaineers' I thought to myself. It sounded fabulous.

In north east Afghanistan, the Wakhan Valley pokes a finger of land towards China. The legendary mountain range of the Hindu Kush creates a southern border with Pakistan and the Pamirs a northern border with Tajikistan. Since Marco Polo travelled this crux of the Silk Route in 1271, only a handful of Westerners have completed the arduous journey on horse and foot, most mountains are unclimbed and unnamed and no one has ever skied there. Perfect for an adventurous ski mountaineer, despite the reaction of my wizened adviser.

Our aim was to travel East along the river Oxus to lake Chaqmartin, stopping to ski anything which tickled our fancy along the way. We had no maps or photos to guide us and knew there was one difficult snowy pass to cross. We didn't even know whether we would get to ski. And I had never ridden a horse.

Just getting to Afghanistan was tricky. The safe route via Tajikistan involved a rough two day 4x4 journey south east to the Tajik Afghan border at Ishkashim.

"No good," said the customs policeman at the airport. He was even fiercer than his moustache. He pointed to a tiny tear in my passport, lifted his arms sideways in the air like a child imitating a plane and said, "Riga". I'd just flown in from there, and definitely did not want to go back. That is not where the Hindu Kush and Pamirs are. I didn't know whether to shout, cry or bribe, so remained calm and felt helpless. After half an hour he got bored of my glum face and let me through. I found Anna, my mountaineering companion who was missing a bag. Pointlessly, she was attempting to complete a PIR form in Russian. That was one bag that would never be united with its owner.

Many check points, fired eggs and broken vertebrae later, we crossed the border at Ishkashim. This sensitive border is renowned for opium and people smuggling, so imagine my astonishment when I stepped outside of the smoky wooden passport hut and spotted Anna filming with her video camera. Was she mad? A shriek from a border guard tells me some one certainly was. My nostril got nervous as a gun was poked up it. Not good. She took the tape out and offered it to the police. I wanted to snatch it from her, stamp on it with my heavy mountaineering boot and attack it with my ice axe. Slowly, slowly the matter was settled with cigarettes, cash and diplomacy, and my nostril breathed again. Heaving our kit across the border bridge, we were ecstatic to be in Afghanistan. Not something you read every day.

Blue ghosts of women floated past the abandoned Russian tanks down the dusty street of Ishkashim. The burka is far fiercer up close. Two days meeting more police and getting permits left us desperate to get to the mountains. Another two day drive took us past the unexplored valleys and mountains of the Hindu Kush. An overwhelming feeling of being at the end of the World washed over me arriving in Sarhad. The village was encircled by snow capped peaks, I couldn't see how one could travel any further.

After six days of bum numbing travel, it was time for some skiing. "I think the peak is about 4,000m" said Anna. Having started that morning at 3,000m, by 4,500m I was fried. My feet were on fire and throat as dry as the Sahara from six hours of ascent in ski boots. We started the day bumping across the Oxus river on horses. A triumphant first ride ever. We then scrambled for two hours on scree and skinned (skied uphill) for four hours. It was a bold acclimatisation day, but every sweaty painful step was worth it for the astonishing views into Pakistan from the top of ‘Koh I Suzanna'. A fist ascent and magical ski descent in spring snow.

The next day, on horseback, we went beyond the end of the world.

At 3,500m I couldn't bear the heaving and panting of my horse any longer, so slipped off. The snow patches were getting thicker and more frequent as we approached the tricky Daliz pass. Were we going to get over? We passed a group of yaks and herdsman. Nightmare. The pass was unpassable. I wanted to weep. Was oir journey completed wasted. Our horsemen decided we should try again early the next day when the snow was firmer, so we set up camp and Anna and I attempted a small peak on skis. But the soft snow on the pass made for slidey snow on the mountains so we turned around. Our lives are worth more than a random Afghan summit.

The screaming loaded horses wallowed waist deep in heavy snow. It was absolutely awful. We ripped all the weight off them and dragged it ourselves, as the horses staggered across the pass, sprinkling droplets of blood on the white snow. Leaving at 5.30am had not been early enough. Whilst Anna was fighting her own personal stomach battle, `I seemed much more concerned than the horsemen as they goaded them on. Incredibly, there was a dry path on the descent and the horses merrily trotted beside us as we skied from the pass.

Spellbound, for the next three days we walked and rode into the Small Pamir, the ‘Roof of the World'. There was no human habitation. We occasionally crossed paths with Kyrghiz nomads driving yak herds as we were on and off horses, up and down 13000m of passes, and travelled along paths as wide as a yak's foot with thousands of metres below us. A big motivation for a novice to cling onto a horse.

Appearing out of nowhere, kilometers of confused barbed wire ripped through the emptyness. An ex Soviet camp strategically placed close to the Chinese and Pakistan borders. Littered with rusty cans and twisted, deformed metal it was a bizarre jolt in this land of nothing.

Eventually we got to Bozai Gumbaz, a Kyrghiz nomad's spring village. We stopped, invited for tea and bought bread from the gorgeously colourful women who looked like Quality Street sweets in the frigid desert. I am not sure whether they or we were more curious and intrigued by the other. After some tough negotiation for horse payments, we continued on in increasingly grim weather. I spotted a couple of great looking skiable peaks so we stopped, set up camp and huddled together against the wind and snow.

We snuck in a couple of first ascents and gorgeous ski descents here in the midst of yucky weather. The ascents typically involved a couple of hours of blister inducing ski boot scree joy to the snow and then some skinning. Camping at 4000m we skied the newly named ‘Koh I Ski' at 4765m amd ‘Koh I Grivel' at 4680m.

Finally it was time to venture further east to Lake Chaqmartin. After a frankly exhausting five hour walk, the water seemed as much as a mirage as the handsome Kyrghiz horseman whose hand I shook in the midst of my meditative fatigue earlier that day. I still don't know whether he was a dream or real, and it was only by poking a toe in the frigid water that I trusted my eyes. I'm not surprised so few Westerners have made it here.

The lake is a lush spot, a broad valley caressed by the snow capped peaks of the Small Pamir. The snow line was very high and any skiing was going to involve hours of ski boot walking torture.

Minging weather and disappearing Afghan guide presented us with an opportunity to get naked and wash for the first time in two weeks. But borrowing Anna's mirror was a big mistake. My face was etched with valleys and crevasses as deep as the hindu Kush. I slapped on a load of moisturizer and quickly returned the mirror of judgement to Anna. I wouldn't make that mistake again. Anna and I finished the day huddled up in the communal tent with washed underwear dripping above us, reviewing our rapidly dimishing food stocks. Not that restful a rest day.

Mountaineering is a game of patience, preparation and opportunism. The temperature was swinging between 25C and -15C in the space of 5 seconds and any sun was always rapidly followed by hail or snow. The next day we awoke to sun. The most hideous scree climb up 700m, the like of which I never want to repeat was rewarded with a fantastic ski down, ‘Koh I Donne'.

I was exhausted and nauseous. Unfortunately we had to leave. We were dependent on the closest Kyrghiz for their horse transport and they were leaving to go to Sarhad to collect supplies from the World Food Programme. They rely on food aid to survive. Despite feeling like I was being sucked into a vortex of my own fatigue, I would have liked to have stayed a few more days to ski some other stuff and absorb the beauty of this place. Doing this makes me feel like I belong in the world, like life isn't just passing me by. It offers freedom, space, calm. Some one once said it is just an expensive, dangerous form of meditation.

On the trek to the Kyghiz village of Chlap, both Anna and I are dragging. Our first warm night indoors for two weeks excites us until we read, ‘Kyrghiz guest rooms are not suitable for female travelers. The have fleas, lice and bed bugs.' Frankly, they could have had snow leopards and we still would have slept. But imagine our surprise when, just as we were snuggling in with the tiny critters, the door burst open and in marched two of the village men and bunked down. Cozy.

The end of the Odyssey was nigh, an eight day journey on horse, foot, ski and 4x4 back to rejoin the world. My love of skiing brought me to this incredible place and be amongst these wonderful, hospitable people. I just wish that everyone could discover their passion, and see where it takes them and what it brings them.

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