High mountains are not far from big cities in Afghanistan. It is only 203 miles from downtown Kabul, the capital, to the highest peaks of the Hindu Kush in Nuristan—200 miles across country and three miles straight up. The Hindu Kush is that enormous western extension of the Himalayas that slices across Afghanistan and which for ages blocked the tribes of central Asia from India. Nuristan is a legendary region so secluded by the mountains as to be almost a geographical secret (try to find it in your atlas)—a land of little emerald-green valleys hemmed in by 18,000-to 20,000-foot peaks, inhabited by a fair-skinned people of mysterious antecedents. It sometimes is called the Land of Light. Afghanistan is the worst-mapped country on earth, and Nuristan is the worst-mapped part of Afghanistan.
Consequently the area exerts a magnetic pull on mountaineers. The Hindu Kush appeals particularly to seasoned vacation climbers, people who have spent a good deal of time in the Alps and the Rockies but who have never achieved the mystic goal of modern mountaineers—to get above 20,000 feet—and who cannot organize the long and costly expeditions required for the Himalayas. In 1967 a Stockton, Calif. attorney, Jack Dozier, led one party to the northern edge of Nuristan, about 50 miles south of the Soviet Union. They were stopped by a sheer 400-foot wall on the north face of Koh-i-Tundi (20,300 feet) and had to turn back. But the enchantment of the country and their astonishment when they were told that they were the first foreigners to thread through the hidden valleys on the way provided an irresistible enticement to try again. Last summer they did so, this time aiming for a higher peak, Koh-i-Marchek, 21,800 feet, not far from Koh-i-Tundi.
In all this they were acting according to the pattern of climbing in the Hindu Kush. Only amateurs know the region. As Mountain World put it tactfully, "With few exceptions, the explorations of these mountains have been the work of mountaineers who never had a chance of being invited to take part in a Himalaya climb."
The second party that assembled in Kabul in July included Jack Dozier, 53, and his twin brother, Judge William Dozier of the California Superior Court; Eli Goldfarb, a 43-year-old electronics engineer; Charles Groesbeck, 36, a philosophy professor; and Leslie Buckland, 40, the head of a movie company. There were six younger climbers in their 20s and 30s: Jack Dozier's son Jeff; Perry Mann, a ski patrolman with the U.S. Forest Service; Richard Erb, a geology student; Mike Wadley, a cameraman; and Gary Hill, a court reporter. No rigorous standard of selectivity governed the composition of the group. If they were united in anything it was in their common hope of getting above 20,000 feet—"Once before I die," as one of them said—-and by the fact that they had to be back at work in 30 days.
They hurried out of Kabul in rented cars, driving eastward along the Kabul River on the route Alexander the Great followed when he invaded India 2,295 years ago. At Jalalabad near the Pakistan border they left the highway to head north along the Kunar River on a narrow road under sheer cliffs between 14,000-foot mountains. The Kunar forms high in the Hindu Kush in that little-known keystone of Asia where the borders of Afghanistan, China, Russia and Pakistan adjoin. The river surges down in continuous explosive rapids, carrying with it snow melt, rocks and occasional travelers. Two weeks before the Americans arrived the river carried off a bus loaded with 40 natives.
It also carried off the road. Five miles beyond the town of Asmar the mountaineers found a huge hole in the narrow shelf. For most of a day they lugged big stones and dropped them into the hole, only to see the river current roll them away like bowling balls. But they gradually got it filled. Exhausted but triumphant, they drove on—all of two miles. There the whole shelf had washed into the river. Nothing was left but a ledge on the cliff just wide enough to walk on.
A traveler came by, going the other way, from Kamdesh (pop. 700), one of the few big towns in Nuristan. They persuaded him to go back and return with porters and donkeys. When they started on again the supplies that had been carried in cars and trucks were carried by five porters and 16 donkeys and in 50-pound packs on the backs of the climbers.
For days they traveled along the Bashgal River that enters the Kunar from the west, through cedar forests, fields of wild marijuana, irrigated farmlands and rock-walled meadows, into parklike wild gardens of orchids, forget-me-nots, hollyhocks, apricot trees, mulberries, loganberries, walnuts, wild peach, wild lemon, wild almond, honeysuckles, roses and gooseberries.
The mountain heights of the Hindu Kush are not far below those of the Himalayas. The highest Hindu Kush peak, Tirich Mir, is 25,263 feet (Everest is 29,002) and there are three higher than 24,000 feet, six above 23,000 and, as one awed amateur climber wrote in Mountain World, "A multitude of 20,000-foot peaks all around the place." What makes the Hindu Kush easier than the Himalayas is the fine summer weather (70° temperatures, cool mountain breezes), clear blue skies and scenery, white cascades dropping from mountain walls, precipitous slopes rising 10,000 feet to blue-white glaciers on the 20,000 foot peaks.
The way led through a few villages, some with faint traces of recorded history. The climbers stopped to re-arrange their packs and rest their blistered feet at Bragmatal (also known as Barg-a-Metal, Barg-i-Metal, or, in the Himalaya Journal, as Bragmetal), which Europeans first reached in 1883. In that year an extraordinary British civil servant named William Watts McNair shaved his head, darkened his skin with a weak solution of caustic soda and walnut juice and visited Nuristan posing as a Moslem holy man. The region was then called Kafiristan, meaning land of unbelievers, and was strictly forbidden to foreigners. Since McNair had disobeyed orders he was publicly censured by the viceroy of India on his return, but privately praised by the viceroy for "one of the most adventurous journeys anyone could attempt."
That was probably true. No one ever conquered the natives. Even Tamerlane the Great, who slaughtered millions of Afghans elsewhere, was beaten by these warlike mountain people. Students long held that the natives were remnants of the original Aryan stock from Asia. Now the best scientific opinion is that nobody knows where they came from. Four years ago a party of German climbers was murdered by natives in the mountains, but the American climbers had no trouble beyond ceremonious bargaining with the porters over their pay of $1.50 a day.
When they reached the village of Pachigram, Buckland noted in his diary, "This place looks like Chamonix." A 25-mile trail led up the valley of the Shkuri-Gul, a beautiful little stream lined with an ancient irrigation system which, at 11,000 feet, produced fields of wheat and barley. Even at the head of the valley the intricate web of irrigation canals created grassy meadows where sheep and cattle grazed.
Here they could see Koh-i-Marchek. It soared almost a mile higher than the 17,000-foot peaks around it, rising straight up, too steep in places for snow to hold to its sides, immense needles rising from a sharp ridge. And here they faced a problem. They all wanted to get above 20,000 feet. Jeff Dozier and Richard Erb, who were better climbers than most of the party, went ahead to study Koh-i-Marchek. They came back with the report that there were thousands of feet of Class 5 climbing. "We will never get all of us up there," Erb said. "We'll be lucky if we get one rope."
That would mean only two of the party. And it could not be done in less than 10 days. In the discussion that followed it was argued that traditionally an expedition that got one rope on top was a success. But here everyone wanted to reach the summit. And most of the party had to get back to work. In the end they abandoned Koh-i-Marchek and hiked on 15 miles to try Koh-i-Tundi again. This time they chose a different route; by any route the mountain was over 20,000 feet and there was a chance everyone could make it.
Twelve days out of Kabul they were camped on a grassy meadow at the base of a mile-long scree slope leading to the glaciers of Koh-i-Tundi. Jeff Dozier and Dick Erb scouted ahead to locate the first base camp on the mountain. They sent back word for the others to start early the next morning because of a rockfall. No one got much sleep. The peak of Koh-i-Tundi rose 8,000 feet above their camp, its glaciers and snowfields shining in the starlight.
They were up at 5 o'clock, which turned out to be too late. The scree was solid and steep, and it was 10 minutes after 8 when they reached a gully down which stones bounded every minute or so. They came in a bombardment, from bullet-sized to great boulders. "We are here too late," Buckland noted in his diary. "The sun is melting the rocks out of the ice. We should have been in this suicidal spot well before dawn."
They ran across the gully one at a time. A rock smashed the fourth finger of Judge Dozier's left hand; otherwise there were no injuries. But running across the gully, carrying their packs at 14,000 feet, left them exhausted. Climbing to the first base camp that Jeff Dozier and Erb had established was slow—three upward steps at a time was the average, three steps and heavy breathing for 30 seconds, three steps and stop, up and up, with thumping chests and headaches with the rhythm of pulsebeats. Spikes of snow (nieves penitentes), strange and beautiful but hard to get through, studded the plateau. At 6 o'clock they pitched their tents at the base camp at 16,200 feet, brewed soup and stew and carried their headaches to bed.
The next day they again moved slowly upward, relaying their heavy movie and sound equipment. Only the weather remained ideal, an unbelievable combination of hot sun and cold wind that eased the pain of climbing. At 5 o'clock, when the sun disappeared behind the summit, they began to freeze on the rocky ridge of the next camp at 18,200 feet.
At 4 the next morning, when they resumed the climb, the cold was intense; every movement was agony, and the lacing of boots and the making of tea required monumental effort. By 7:30 they were in sunlight. By noon they could see they were going to make it. Suddenly there was no more snow, no more height. One by one they stumbled to the summit, Judge Dozier crawling the last few feet on all fours. But they were all on the summit of Koh-i-Tundi at one time. "Mostly I am terribly dizzy," Buckland noted, "have a hell of a headache and feel that the last cone was anticlimactically easy."
They sat there for a few moments taking in the view, a 360° panorama of peaks in four countries. What was there left to do? They signed a statement to be left for later climbers. Judge Dozier interpreted it as a triumph. Although they had accepted a slightly less elevated destination, one that could be reached by all of them, they were, he wrote later, "the first expedition in history to put so many men on a 20,000-plus mountain. We sat there awhile and thought that we had done it. Then the moment was over and we started down."