In “Forgotten First Ascents,” Owen Clarke is digging up cool climbs from the past and talking to the climbers who made them happen. This week: Koh-e-Maghrebi, Afghanistan, 2005.
When Luis Miguel Soriano and David Cejudo Fernandez went into Afghanistan in July 2005, they went in blind. Ongoing war in the Middle East had halted any sort of climbing expeditions in the region. There had been few, if any, teams heading into Afghanistan’s mountains since the Soviet invasion in 1979. As such, there was little to no information on how to travel in Afghanistan or how to secure permission to climb a peak, much less information on viable objectives and routes. “We went into Afghanistan only a few months after the Taliban War,” said Soriano. “It was impossible to find information beforehand. We just went in to explore, to look for peaks and to climb them if we could.”
The pair flew into Kabul, and traveled by local transport to the remote Wakhan Corridor in the far northeast. Wedged in between Tajikistan and the Pamir Mountains to the north and Pakistan and the Karakoram to the south, this 185-mile narrow strip of land, the original gateway to China from the West, has provided passage to travelers from Marco Polo to Lord Curzon. It also grants access to some of the most remote unclimbed mountains in the world.
Once in the Wakhan region, as opposed to hiring a dedicated team of porters and animals for their gear, the Spaniards had to negotiate with a new Afghan every day. One man would take them to his village, packing their gear on yaks, the next, a different man would take the climbers another day deeper into the mountains, their gear stowed on horses, or perhaps donkeys. “We paid the people who carried our gear, but the people who hosted us, who gave us food every day, we tried to pay them any way we could, but they would not take anything,” Soriano said. “I have been traveling in a lot of places,” he added. “Nepal, India, Pakistan… but the hospitality I found in Afghanistan was unique. The people were very poor, in a very difficult situation, but always they gave us everything they had.” Still, the Spaniards managed to hide some of their rice and other provisions for their hosts in various places before leaving.
To climb in Afghanistan at this time, there was no standard permit process. Upon arriving in northern Afghanistan, the Spaniards had to get permission from the local warlords to pass through their territory. “The first permit to get is the most difficult one,” said Soriano. “If you get a letter from the first chief, when you meet another chief it is much easier, he will see this letter and write another letter with his hand, and you can continue traveling.” The pair received their first letter in Ishkashim, on the Tajikistan border at the far western edge of the Wakhan. The Afghans spoke no English and the Spaniards only spoke a few words of Persian, with the help of a book. “We tried to explain, ‘We want to go climb, we respect your culture, here is our proposal,’” said Soriano. But the Afghan warlord and his men were skeptical. “They were worried about our health, our security,” said Soriano. “They said you cannot travel in this land alone, especially because you speak no Persian.” Luckily, after several hours of choppy negotiations in broken Persian, the warlord gave them his blessing. Soriano himself still isn’t sure how they managed to persuade him, but he didn’t ask questions. They continued in this manner for several days into the Pamir Mountains, receiving new letters of permission from village chiefs they passed.
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As they had gone in unsure of where, when or if they would find a peak to climb, the climbers had brought very light equipment. They knew any objective would have to be relatively easy for them to have a shot at a summit. After seven days on foot traveling through the Wakhan, they made a base camp in the western Ali Su Glacier, in the Pamir. To their south, they had spied a viable target, the 6,040-meter (19,816-foot) Koh-e-Maghrebi. A 50-degree couloir running 700 meters (2,297 feet) up the south face offered a weakness the pair could exploit.
The peak itself proved to be the easiest part of the whole operation, however. The Spaniards embarked on a push from base camp up the glacier on August 12, setting up an advanced base camp at 5,000 meters. The next day they pushed up the couloir, which led to a low-angle 1,000-foot snowfield and then a short 60-degree section on the west ridge to the summit. Koh-e-Maghrebi was bagged in a 10 hour blitz from their advanced base camp. The Spaniards didn’t use rope on the ascent, but rapped some of the way down.
“We were very happy about the climb,” said Soriano. “It wasn’t so high, wasn’t so difficult, but conditions were good and it was beautiful. Also, we think it was the first ascent. Most importantly, we enjoyed our time in the range, with the local people.”
The most important thing of all when climbing in foreign locales, Soriano said, is respect for the local culture. “We are all the same,” he said. “People think those in different cultures or remote places have a different mind, but people everywhere are really more or less the same. When you discover that the people are more or less like you, you open your mind, and you connect with them. In the way of the mountains, the most important thing is the people who are living on them.”
Though the period preceding 2005 was marked by a steady decline in conflict, with democratic elections taking place in October 2004 for the first time since the Taliban’s fall from power, Soriano and Fernandez entered Afghanistan at an extremely volatile period. Between January 2005 and August 2006, the country saw 64 suicide bombings. It wasn’t the Taliban that gave the climbers their biggest scare while in Afghanistan, however. “The most dangerous situation on the trip was in our hotel in Kabul,” Soriano said.
On one of their first nights in the country, they shared a hotel with a group of American military contractors. The Americans were throwing a loud, drunken party, and in the middle of the night they started to shoot their guns inside of the hotel and fight among themselves. The Spaniards heard the roar of gunfire through the walls and woke, terrified. “We thought the Taliban was coming for us, to kill us,” Soriano said, laughing. “It was the moment I was most afraid in Afghanistan.”
These days, Luis Miguel Soriano is a photographer and videographer. For the last nine years, he has been documenting the life and climbing of Spaniard Carlos Soria. Soria, 81, is the only person to climb 10 8,000-meter peaks after the age of 60, summiting the brutal Annapurna in 2016 at the ripe old age of 77. Soria is attempting to become the oldest person in history to reach all 14 8,000-meter summits, and has two more to tag, Shishapangma and Dhaulagiri. He has already tried the latter over 10 times without success.
Soriano has attempted and summited virgin peaks around the world, in addition to several 8,000ers with Soria. He is especially proud of an attempt on Muchu Chhish (7,452 meters/24,449 feet) in the Karakorum, and his experience on Koh-e-Maghrebi. The Internet and increasing globalization has made information on many of even the most remote summits easily accessible, but Soriano is adamant that part of the beauty is in the lack of knowledge. “It is important to get some kind of information, maybe… but always you need to go,” he said. “You need to go to explore by yourself. Always, that is the best way. Not to rely on Google and Internet. To discover, for yourself.”
Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer based in Alabama. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fresh fish tacos. He is afraid of heights. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.