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Noshaq 7492m Expedition Account
Text and photos by the Murmaster (Murray Macpherson)
In July of the year 2000, a five man international team of mountaineers attempted a south ridge ascent of Mt Noshaq in Afghanistan. The historic second try of this challenging route was the first attempt of the mountain since the beginning of hostilities with the Soviet Union in 1979. Battling illness, fatigue and altitude, the climbers encountered a seemingly endless series of objective dangers, which more than once threatened to turn them back, or swallow them whole. This is their story.
Noshaq is located in the north west corner of Afghanistan along the Durand line which is the formal border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The mountain has four separate peaks, of which the Main Summit is the second highest in the Hindu Kush Range, and the 68th tallest on Earth. It was first ascended in 1960 along the South East ridge from the Qadzi Deh Glacier in Afghanistan by Japanese and Polish teams, but since then the West ridge, also from Qadzi Deh, has become the normal route with several groups attempting each year until 1979.
-- Detail of Noshaq massif with original route in Yellow, standard route in blue, and our intended route in red
Approaching from Pakistan was for our group the most practical way get to the mountain and avoid the on-going civil war in Badakshan province. The route to the base of the mountain from this direction is the same for Tirich Mir and the local villagers know it well. We all had seen the excellent two page photo of Noshaq south face in Shirohito's book, The Mountains of the Karakorams, so we had an idea of what lay ahead and how the climb and camps would likely break down. Mountaineering in remote and relatively unclimbed areas has its own unique advantages, but it can also make the climb more difficult and more dangerous, as our party would soon discover.
On June 23rd the team members met for the first time on the occasion of a photo op for an accompanying article about the expedition for the Pakistan newspaper The Nation. After visiting friends, making arrangements with an emergency rescue company for a helicopter, meeting with the department of tourism and becoming acquainted with our liaison officer, Major Shaheed Mehmood, we gathered together our considerable food equipment and luxuries, piled it in a rented mini wagon and made the long journey to Chitral, North West Frontier Province.
Chitral town is the capital of the old kingom of Chitral, and with in it's precincts stand many buildings from it's regal period. Nestled beneath the massive face of Tirich Mir, it is remote, and friendly, and strange.
By the time we had reached Chitral, all of the initial organizing work was completed (researching and choosing a suitable peak, getting a team of climbers together, submitting an application for a permit to the government of Pakistan, and organizing food, medicine and equipment for a long expedition -- all of which were nearly full time jobs), and now the actual preparations for the climb could begin. One of the first things we did was to take all of the gear and supplies we brought, organized the food into pouches for daily consumption, and then divided everything into 25 kilo bundles, which is the maximum low elevation porter load for Pakistan.
With our cook/sirdar Big Ali Khan, we commandeered two jeeps for the decidedly tricky journey to the village of Shagrom. The road, like countless unpaved village connector roads throughout the Karakorams and Himalayas, was built in the 1930s by the British, and is an unheralded engineering feat. The road plunges to the valley floor, soars to the tops of mountains, traverses cliffs with a nimbleness that is frightening , and slowly winds its way to the Shagrom where it abruptly ends.
Shagrom is the last village before the Tirich Glacier, and it is a scenic place that has supplied high altitude porters to western expeditions for as long as the expeditions have been coming to their valleys. Indeed, the village elders will pull out boxes of memorabilia if given the chance and show pictures of climbers from the thirties, in which the elders participated as porters. From the village there is a universally accepted system of daily stages (length of one day's walk) that determines the time it takes to get to the base camp, and how much the porters will be paid. The going wage is about 50 Canadian dollars for 4 days of work plus meat (a goat). As such, loads are carried about 6-8 hours per day for 3 days over the glacier and up the ablation valley, with one rest day. The route is standard, and in places a very recognizable path scars the earth. It passes through a base camp for Istoronal, and ends at a high alpine meadow called Babu camp, which the the normal final stop for porters for a Tirich Mir group.
We required 46 porters, and once we negotiated our price with the village headsmen, it was up to the villagers to determine amongst themselves who got to go. We set out the next day with the understanding that we would be going beyond Babu camp to a yet undetermined site we had named Noshaq Basecamp, a few hours up the Noshaq glacier. But while on treks or expeditions, villagers can be counted on for two things every time: one, that they will not bring enough food to feed themselves for the length of the journey, and two, that they absolutely will not deviate from their ancestral patterns. Meaning if the path only goes as far as Babu camp, that is where the porters stop regardless of the wishes of the climbing party.
Our walk in was largely uneventful. Jamie came down with a VERY bad cold, slowly made the rounds to others in the party. The scenery along the glacier is magnificent, very reminiscent of the Biafo Hispar Traverse and we went quickly, gaining nearly 2000 metres of elevation in 4 days. On the third day, our rest day at the Istoronal base camp, a rumour started to circulate that the porters were unhappy, running out of food (despite the fact that we had sacrificed a goat two days earlier), and were planning on not going beyond Babu camp, if they didn't turn back before then. This is not an uncommon occurrence in Pakistan. The porters know that once they are a few days away from the village and a day or two from the destination, their value is at its highest level. If porters go on strike, the climber have only two options -- concede the porter's demands (which is nearly always for more money), or carry the loads themselves. We convened an emergency meeting, and decided to adopt a stand tough strategy that would get us at least to Babu camp, and from there we would see.
For well funded trips, a strike en route is at most an inconvenience, but for self supported expeditions, it can be a financial disaster. Our plan worked however, and we made it without a hitch to Babu camp, but the porters immediately let it be known that they were going no further, and they wanted to be paid. Admittedly Babu camp is a very pleasant place -- up on a grassy, flowered corner overlooking 270 degrees of breath taking scenery, but from there it is three to four arduous hours over the Noshaq glacier to the base of the mountain, and we had forty-six 25 kilo loads to take there. This was why we were worried about the porters turning back at Babu, and why we engaged them is such serious negotiations in hopes we could convince them to carry on for a few more hours without breaking the bank. In the end it was fruitless. By leaving right then they had just enough time to make it back to their houses before nightfall, and if they continued they would have to spend another night camping. We did manage to secure the services of 10 men, and got the ten most crucial loads delivered to the base of the mountain (fixed ropes, climbing hardware etc). The porters went up and returned with exciting stories of the enormous dangers they had faced on the glacier, and we decided to set our base camp at Babu and make the camp at the bottom of Noshaq an advanced base camp. It would have fewer comforts, and no cook, but there was no other way.
Thanks to Martin and Jamie, a route over the glacier had already been pioneered and marked with cairns, so getting to ABC safely and efficiently wasn't an issue. Instead the first order of business was to set up base camp, reorganize our things into priority loads, and figure out the best method to get the necessary equipment to ABC quickly. Now that the mountain was in front of us, we could also start to think about the specifics of the climb. With binoculars we could easily make out the details of the upper slopes, and began mapping possible routes and discussing them. The lower slopes from ABC to Camp Half didn't concern us at this point, how hard could it be?, and of course that section turned out to be the most time consuming, most difficult, and most dangerous part of the whole outing.
The transfer of gear from BC to ABC was relatively painless, aided as it was by our kitchen assistant, Qadir. A daily routine was developed where we loaded ourselves up in the morning, advanced to ABC, built tent platforms out of rocks in the afternoon, and returned to BC by evening. Working in such a manner, we made quick work of the loads. All of us were healthy and acclimatizing nicely to the rarified air, except for Carl, who continued to struggle with that brutal cold. It had, by this time, moved into his lungs and he began a course of antibiotics. Soon after, we left the security and warmth of BC and moved to stay permanently up at the foot of Noshaq. Everyone was getting impatient to get on the mountain, and now the actual climb was about to begin.
Advanced Base Camp was situated on the west lateral moraine of the Noshaq glacier, about one hundred metres from the confluence of the two ice falls that flowed down from Noshaq, and from the valley that separated Asp-e-Safed from Noshaq's south western rib. These ice falls were the first real obstacles we had to overcome in the climb. Again Martin and Jamie explored a few possible routes, and were successful in 'punching' a line up a central moraine which led with some interesting and startling twists and turns through the ice (safety ropes were affixed in many places) to a giant ice amphitheatre, replete with a number of bottomless crevasses and thunderous rolling boulders the size of cars and crashing ice blocks the size of houses, the likes of which I hope to never see again.
This section, with its many objective dangers nearly turned back the expedition. We discussed at length the tremendous risks that trespassing in the amphitheatre entailed, but in the end, it was the voices crying 'Noshaq, onwards!' which prevailed. It was a conditional agreement however, that stipulated that the loads would be carried through the ice fall before the sun came up, to minimize the danger of falling rock and ice. We spent the next day transporting loads of food and equipment up the moraine and through the ice maze to the entrance of the cathedral. The next morning we would wake up before the sun, pack and secure the camp (against scavenging birds), and get ourselves and our gear to the base of the fixed rope.
The amphitheatre posed such a challenge to our party because the route through was an ice ramp about 200 meters in length, over one very suspect ice bridge spanning two enormous chasms, and ended at a set of rock and scree cliffs, one hundred and fifty meters in height. In scouting our route, from BC, these slopes appeared moderate, but standing at their base, we realized they were far too steep and unstable for our party to ascend them. All other potential routes were impassable ice cliffs. The only promising route to the gentler slopes above was a mixed rock and scree climb which Jamie and myself had scouted the day before in three pitches, and had secured a fixed rope. We spent the morning and the remainder of the day taking loads to the bottom of the fixed rope, up the fixed rope, repelling and repeating and then carrying the loads up to a level area that we would call camp half. A few loads were further carried up to the beginning the snow, including all our tents, so we bivouacked in the snow. Our objective for the next day was to establish camp one.
We woke early, dusted off the over night snow, and headed out without breakfast. About an hour up the slopes was our stash of gear and food. We rested there and discovered that our energy from the day before had given way to some minor altitude sickness and lassitude. We ate and discussed our strategy, as now for the first time we could all see the start of snow slopes, on the other side of a short traverse. Sam, who had had some serious altitude problems on Denali (Mt McKinley) in Alaska two months earlier decided that he would remain behind and spend another night at an intermediate camp. The rest of us decided to pack up as much as was comfortable and work our way up the unknown slopes above in search of a place for camp one. The idea was to make a camp, spend the night there and then return to the bottom of the snow the next morning, retrieve Sam and the rest of the gear and return to camp one before sun down.
Jamie and Carl left before Martin and I, and made good progress up the steep gully. It was a warm sunny day as usual at this time of year in the Hindu Kush, and the slope seemed to be melting right out from under us. At the top of the slope a broad bowl opened up and we followed the tracks of Carl and Jamie, which hugged the rock along one side in order to minimize the risk of crevasse, as we were still walking unroped at this point. We could see our companions climbing ahead over a second rise, which would deliver them into the main bowl between the two ridges leading to the main shoulder to the summit. The snow was blown and melted into fantastic shapes, like frozen breakers crashing on to an ice beach, many several feet tall, which made each step a challenge. But proceed we did.
Martin and I finally met up with the other two on a small rock out crop half way up the steep slope leading from the main bowl. The plan was to attain the ridge and find a suitable camp. We had barely sat down and caught our breath, when Carl, who had nearly completely lost his voice, stunned us with the announcement that he was quitting the climb and going down. His chest infection would not relent and going up was only going to increase the likeliness of pneumonia. We said our good byes, Jamie continued up, and Martin and I sat down dumfounded as we watched Carl return the way we had all just come. Nothing was said at the time, nor afterwards, but I think if I could point to a single moment that broke the heart of the expedition it would be this. It may be hard for the reader to understand, but imagine: months of planning, weeks of back breaking work, and for what? An hours walk in the snow -- words can scarcely describe the disappointment felt by all. Still, we could allow ourselves but a moment, as we had to climb. By the end of that day, we had established camp one. And what a camp it was.
A little known fact about mountaineering expeditions, is that they have almost no glory compared with the amount of grueling effort. This is especially true for self supported teams. Even though we could now see a good deal more of the mountain now from camp I, all of our energies were still focused downwards to the rest of our supplies and our comrades.
to be continued...
Murray Macpherson ©1997 -2000