NOSHAQ - A ROUTE OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
H. C. ENGELE
'BASECAMP BAKSHEESH?' Two young eyes regard me inquiringly and expectantly. 'Basecamp baksheesh’ I reply. The carrier shifts his pack, gets up laboriously and hurries on. He is one of our youngest carriers, only 18. He marches quickly, I walk more slowly.
Soon I catch up with him. He is sitting at the edge of the path. I le has put down his burden, an aluminium case. It is on the ground beside him. His shoes are causing him trouble, they are too big. I give him some string so that he can tie them. Then he picks up his pack again. He fastens it carefully to his back with ropes. It must be very painful, but he doesn't show it. Only when he gets up and is just about to go on, this questing look 'Basecamp baksheesh?'
We have been climbing up the Qazi-Deh valley for some hours now. The heat is oppressive. Our carrier caravan has spread mi! The leading group is perhaps two hours in the lead. It doesn't bother me.
I am the last man of our group. Every now and again I come across carriers- resting; for me this is an excuse to have a rest ton I enjoy the breaks, for we have plenty of time. Today we only want to reach the mouth of the Mandaras brook. We will all meet up again there and spend the night there. Tomorrow we will go on up the Qazi-Deh valley until we set our base camp at the foot of the Noshaq in the evening.
This undertaking had been in planning and preparation for a year.
We had all got to know one another in previous years in the University Mountaineering Club in Konstanz, a loose union of mountain lovers and mountaineer at the polytechnic and the and the University, and had often undertaken tours together and finally made a team: Matthias Avirovio, Hans Christoph Engele, Helmut. The Bochum surgeon Dr Wolfgang Heydernreich joined our group as expedition doctor. Each of us had an equal say.Hubert Weinzierle acted as leader of the expedition.
The goal of our expedition was the Nonhaq group in the high Hindu Kush. We learned from several publications that there was a worth while new route on Noshaq: the 3000 ft North Wall.
The Noshaq was the last of the four big Hindu Kush mountains to be climbed in 1960, by a Japanese expedition. Three years later some Austrains opened a new route over the western spur which has been the usual route since then. This route became more and more popular in recent yeans, particularly since the climb does not present any great difficulties-with the exception of the rock barrier between 21,000 and 22,000 ft, where however the most difficult stretches are made easier by fixed ropes-and since it is for the most part free of objective dangers. Thus the Noshaq became the most climbed seven-thousander after the Pik Lenin.
The northern precipices however remained untouched. Only rarely did mountaineers penetrate into the broad plateau-like glacial valley which stretches between Noshaq and Darban Zom.
In 1965 M. Schmuck and companions reached the plateau after a laborious climb over the fissured Darban glacier, and from there climbed the Darban Zom for the first time.
A year later three Poles were on the Darban plateau. They had reached the lonely glacier valley from Camp 3 on the western spur-the camp above the rock barrier-via a long, descending traverse along the northern precipices of the Noshaq. Bad weather forced them into inactivity there. Finally they decided to retreat to Camp 3. Then, in the traverse, it happened -they were buried by an avalanche. Two of them managed to escape, one died in the masses of snow.
In 1969 two members of an Austrian expedition, the Aichhorn brothers, reached the Darban plateau by the same route. In the following days, they achieved the first ascent of Shingeik Zom II and III.
Our plan was to erect three high camps on the western spur. We wanted, as our predecessors did, to reach the Darban plateau in a descending traverse from Camp 3 and to erect Camp 4 there. From there we wanted to attempt the first crossing of Shingeik Zom III-I and to ascend the Noshaq for the first time via the eastern ridge and/or the north wall.
The organization proved to need a lot of time, but did not put any unsurmountable obstacles in our way especially after the German Alpine Club and various firms and promised us financial and material support.
When we received the permit from Afghanistan for the ascent in January 1978, it seemed there were no more obstacles in our way-a false conclusion, as was to prove three months later.
The coup d'etat in Afghanistan in April 1978 suddenly jeopardized the whole undertaking. Our permit was no longer worth the paper it was written on. For weeks we lived in tormenting uncertainty, telex messages, telephone calls, letters between Konstanz, Bonn and Kabul, until at last at the beginning of June, to our great surprise-we had more or less given up hope- we learned that a permit for the expedition had been granted.
We set off from Konstanz on 4 July, three of us, with 2000 lb. luggage and a Mercedes diesel which we had acquired from the post office. We reached Kabul in 11 days.
Numberless bureaucratic formalities, and always, waiting. Waiting for the permit for the Wakhan, waiting for our visas to be extended, and finally waiting for our friends who were going to arrive by plane via Moscow-Tashkent.
Ten days in Kabul, then we left the capital, six of us now- we had an interpreter with us, We drove in our lorry, in spite of many warnings, into the northeastern province of Badakhshan. 'Roads' which hardly deserved the name, fragile-looking bridges, rivers to be forded, surprise after surprise. Sometimes we had to push our lorry.
Finally we had reached Qazi-Deh one day early, the little village at the entrance to Wakhan, starting-point for so many expeditions to the Noshaq.
'Basecamp baksheesh?' The carrier brings me back to reality from my day-dreaming and memories. 'Yes, basecamp baksheesh,' I reply, rather irritably. For him his baksheesh is the only reason to climb up into this hostile area. What we Europeans are doing up here will presumably remain a puzzle to him for the rest of his life (to me too, by the way).
In the evening of the next day we have reached the spot for the base camp. The carriers are paid off, basecamp baksheesh. My little friend will presumably be satisfied now. Then we erect our camp.
In order to get acclimatized, but also to get an idea of the area, we climb the five-thousanders Kharposht-e-Yaki and Roch- e-Daros and the six-thousander Asp-e-Safed T in the next few days. In between we spend rest days in the base camp.
After these we turn to the Noshaq. We erect two camps on the west spur, then the weather deteriorates. During a bright period we climb through the rock barrier and erect Camp 3. The night is stormy and there is fresh snow. We can't climb any further now. We climb down again.
The mountain rejects us a second time. We have climbed up to the beginning of the rock barrier, a place we named Swiss Shop because we found a heap of equipment mostly of Swiss origin here. A snowstorm and icy cold force us to retreat again.
The proverbial good weather of the Hindu Kush-where is it? It has been unsettled for more than a week. And always the same picture: the sky becomes cloud around midday. Occasionally it snows a little.
Evening in Camp. The sun is setting in the west; it will become unpleasantly cold right away. The last clouds disperse. Tomorrow we will have good weather.
The bad weather of the last few days has altered our plans. We are short of time now. Therefore we decide not to bother with a fourth high camp. We will attempt the North wall tomorrow from the 3rd camp. In doing so we are deliberately taking the risk of having to camp in the open in the wall. But we don't want to give up the idea of reaching the summit altogether.
The next morning is cloudless and cold. We set off for the long traverse at 7 o'clock which will lead us to the start of the North wall. At the beginning the ground is flat, afterwards it gets steeper, sometimes we have to descend across 45°-50° precipices. Somewhere in this area must be where the Poles had their accident. The precipices are objectively dangerous. But conditions are good today. We have nothing to fear.
Around midday we are at the foot of the wall after climbing down 1200 ft from the 3rd camp. The wall looks different from on the old photos which we had when planning the expedition. Where we had expected an even flank are numerous seracs and ribs of rock projecting out of the ice.
We enter the wall. Up to now we had done everything without ropes. We rope up below a huge marginal crevasse. The technical difficulties remain within bounds at first. However deep snow makes climbing at an angle of 45° quite exhausting.
We reach a rock barrier, the first question mark of the wall. It is traversed by a narrow, steep couloir. It is slippery-hard, brittle water-ice. This piece costs us quite a bit of energy. Above that, wide icefields, in between always slippery ice.
It is late. We look for a spot to bivouac. Above us a further ledge in the rock on which we hope to find something. When we reach it at last-great disappointment-nothing. So we start digging a platform out of the ice by laborious work with pickaxes, so that we will at least be able to sit down. After two hours-in the meantime it has become completely dark-we are able to huddle up together in our bivouac sacks. Our spot is 2 yds long and 1J ft wide. Below us, the wall drops sheer 2200 ft to the Darban glacier.
We start boiling snow, hour after hour, it is very tiring. But we must ingest liquid. Finally we give up from tiredness and exhaustion although we still haven't quenched our thirst. Then we try to 'sleep'. It is cold. The night is long.
At last we see a pale stripe over the Karakoram in the east; morning is approaching, but it will be a long time before the sun reaches us with its warming rays. We escape from our icy prison as quickly as possible.
The terrain after this is deceptive, powdery snow over ice. After four hours we reach the ridge on which we find a spot sheltered from the wind and can catch up on our breakfast; electrolyte drink and food concentrate.
Then we climb up the last few yards to the peak.
Sometimes during the past weeks and months when I was occupying myself with the Noshaq, I wished and hoped to be able to stand on the peak of this mountain some day. Now the moment has arrived, a long-held dream has become reality. But I can't appreciate that at the moment.
No emotional outbursts such as some mountaineers report of their experiences on reaching the peak-or afterwards feel that they ought to report-no satisfaction over having reached a long desired peak via a new route, nothing like that.
The tension of the last days and hours doesn't disappear when we reach the peak. Later, when we are down again and the tension has dissolved, we will be able to feel real joy in our success.
My friends are now all up too. I photograph the panorama. The view is magnificent-cloudless sky. Only a few minutes, then a heavy storm drives us away.
The descent is along the usual route. Monotonous slogging through the snow; it is very tiring. A couloir promises some variation, but demands complete concentration. Towards evening we finally reach Camp 3. Drink, more and more drink, food and sleep.
The next morning we realize that Helmut and Matthias have frost-bitten feet. As quickly as possible, we clear the high camp and climb down to the base camp. Two days later the porters come. We had expected them later but now, with our friends' had feet, we are glad to see them. Then we pack up tents and descend the long Qazi-Deh valley with them.
The mountaineering part of the expedition is over for us. What is still to come, the difficulties and surprises (mostly negative ones) on our way home, we don't yet guess at. We also don't know that we will need fully another month until we are in Konstanz again.
We have been back home now since the end of September, The doctor and the two with bad feet flew back from Kabul. Hubert and I travelled back to Germany in our diesel lorry.
We have achieved one of the goals of our expedition: the ascent via the north wall of the Noshaq-but there are other goals we have have not achieved: The eastern ridge of the Noshaq still awaits the first climbers, and the Shingeik Zom I-III have not been traversed Both are undertakings which could be attempted from the Darban Plateau. The long ridge between Asp-e-Safed IV and Roch - e - Daros has not yet been travered at one go. It would be a very long undertaking in the rock which is probably broken. And in the south wall of the Gumbaz-e-Safed there are some couloirs we toyed with the idea for a while-worthwhile with logical contours, direct; in good conditions the objective dangers should remain within hounds
Weather this region (the Hindu Kush) will be as easy to reach for Western mountaineers in the years to come as in the past is uncertain at since the coup of April 1978, the country has been subjected to numerous changes. Unrest has shaken provinces and the capital. These are mainly internal problems for Afghanistan. However they will surely also affect mountaineers who want to climb the Afghan Hindu Kush, possibly mountaineering expeditions will be refused permits or made more difficult.1
Noshaq North Wall. O = bivouac site.