Many of the peaks on both sides of the valley were unclimbed. Doug kept shouting for the driver to stop so we could crawl over our duffel bags, spill out the side door, and take pictures.
Back in the early seventies, stories of expeditions to the Wakhan's 20,000-foot summits generated enormous excitement. The Brits, Germans, Austrians, Spaniards, Italians, Japanese—they'd all come here to climb. In 1971, Italian alpinists led by Carlo Alberto Pinelli explored the eastern Wakhan's Big Pamir range and climbed three of its highest mountains, Koh–i–Marco Polo (20,256 feet), Koh-i-Pamir (20,670 feet), and Koh-i-Hilal (20,607 feet). On the very western edge of the Wakhan, in the Hindu Kush, 24,580-foot Noshaq was a popular peak.
But the 1979 Russian invasion essentially put an end to Wakhan mountaineering for more than two decades. In 2003, Pinelli returned and managed to galvanize a successful expedition to Noshaq, but not a soul had summited in the heart of the Wakhan for a generation. Doug and I were itching for an ascent.
That first night in the Wakhan we slept in a khun, a traditional Wakhi home with a layered, square-patterned wood ceiling and red Afghan rugs spread over an elevated platform. The Wakhi, a tough-knuckled, wiry tribe, have ancient Iranian roots and have lived in the Wakhan for at least a thousand years. They speak Wakhi, an old Persian dialect, and adhere to the Ismaeli sect of Islam. Subsistence farmers, they use yaks to till the sandy soil and plant potatoes, wheat, barley, and lentils. The growing season is extremely short, the winters hideously harsh. One out of three Wakhi infants dies before the age of one, and women still commonly die in childbirth.
The extended family that took us in that night—grandparents, parents, kids, aunts, uncles—were old friends of Sarfraz, but it wouldn't have mattered; throughout the trip, wherever we stopped, we were warmly welcomed with food and a bed. An Afghan's wealth and generosity are measured by the kindness he shows strangers. Sarfraz's friends fed us ibex and brown rice, which we ate with our hands from a common plate. Several months earlier, the village school had been destroyed by an avalanche. Sarfraz spent the evening working on a plan to build a new CAI school.
The next day we continued up-valley, often walking ahead of the grinding, bottom-scraping van—our stubborn, modern-day camel. We were passing into the Wakhan's Big Pamirs, but the valley was so deep and the mountains to either side so high, we couldn't see any peaks beyond those along the front range. We were searching for what appeared on the map to be a cleft in the left-hand wall. We needn't have worried. It was obvious the moment we saw it—a V-shaped fissure with a 300-foot waterfall crashing onto boulders.
We stopped in a yak meadow near the falls, at 10,000 feet. Sarfraz was taking the van back to Faizabad to pick up Greg and bring him out to meet us. This was base camp. We dragged out our backpacks and duffel bags, and then Sarfraz was gone. We had one week to climb the mountain.
AS OFTEN HAPPENS in very remote, sparsely populated places, a man showed up out of nowhere: a Wakhi named Sher Ali, rough as a rock, with his own alpenstock. He helped clear away the yak pies and set up our tents, then stood off at a distance, staring.