The last time Dylan Taylor saw his climbing partner, Aiden, they were peering at each other from either side of a razor-wire fence between the border of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, having set out on a climbing expedition 36 days earlier. At the start, neither one of them imagined that the hardest challenge wouldn’t be a first ascent of a 20,000-foot peak, but navigating in this confusing, foreign land.
Not that attempting to climb little-known peaks in Afghanistan was easy. Far from it. As Dylan’s third team member, Mick, said, once you’re climbing, it becomes familiar. It’s everything leading up to that point that is so foreign, challenging, and exhausting.
This was Dylan’s second trip to the Wakhan Corridor, the northeastern region of Afghanistan that pokes past Tajikistan and Pakistan to brush the western edge of China. Wild and remote, it’s populated by a patchwork quilt of tribal people who eke out an existence amid deep grassland valleys that drain from dramatic snow-capped peaks.
Traveling to this region isn’t for the faint of heart. First, you have to fly to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, because it’s too dangerous to go to Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. Then you endure a two-day bone-rattling ride along the Panj River to the border town of Khorag, where you apply for a visa—which can take an hour or a week, if you get it at all.
Visa secured, you head for the border at Ishkashim, where a cranky guard can turn you away on a whim, as was the case with Dylan and his team. They had to backtrack two days to Khorag, then travel all the way back to Ishkashim on the Afghan side over a significantly rougher road that takes nearly four times as long.
If you’re not disheartened at this point, then you qualify for the journey’s next leg.
Getting to base camp in Afghanistan is fraught with difficulty. You need a translator, who accompanies you partway and leaves you with handwritten notes. Then, even after you’ve negotiated, prices are subject to change. Written contracts crumble. Bribes and bickering abound.
By the time the three finally made it to the base of their objective, a week later than expected, they were reconsidering. Originally they intended to attempt Kohe Pamir, the highest peak in the Big Pamir—a range that repeatedly pierces 20,000 feet and is known as the “roof of the world.” But with shortening days casting long shadows, climbing the peak’s looming granite buttresses seemed unwise.
So they moved to a neighboring, unnamed peak that probably had never been climbed. On scant maps sketched by Austrian explorers nearly 40 years ago, it looked to be a quick, easy ice and snow climb up to about 20,000 feet. But like everything in Afghanistan, it was harder than expected—especially since the team forgot some gear and had to painstakingly hand-build anchors for 15 big rappels. The climbers ended the 18-hour day cold and frustrated, but with peak in hand.
So what’s next after bagging a possible first ascent in Afghanistan? Across the glacier, another summit beckoned with nice lines along fins of vertical ice. The trio set off in search of summits. It turned out to be steep and difficult, with black, rotten ice layers that crumbled under their picks, disintegrating like their well-laid plans. Demoralized, they had to retreat.
With just a few days left, Dylan and his buddies decided to try the same peak with lighter loads. It’s a fine balance. With more gear comes security. Carry less and you can move faster—but survival then depends on speed.
On the second attempt, the team made it through the dicey ice but then slowed. Everything was steeper and more exhausting than any of them anticipated. Water dripped down on them from above, freezing their ropes and soaking their clothes.
After 12 hours of unrelenting travel, determination fading, Dylan realized this was the most committed environment he’d ever experienced. “It’s as far out there as you can get,” he said. In the event of disaster, there’s no helicopter rescue of chance of assistance. You’re on your own, left to fend for yourself in a hostile land.”
When it seemed like it was going to take 30 hours to reach the summit, they once again bailed.
So Dylan did something only a wound-licking mountaineer would consider. He retrieved a paraglider he’d stashed at base camp and launched onto the winds of the Afghan valleys, as if in stubborn rebellion against a landscape that refused to give in to his demands. It was a tricky flight, yet one that took a little sting out of the trip not going as planned.
Finally the three reached the border to return to Tajikistan. The neighboring former-Soviet country, which just a few weeks ago had seemed primitive and decrepit, now beckoned with apparent luxury—power lines and metal roofs. But then the border delivered another blow. An error on Aiden’s visa prevented him from re-entering Tajikistan. Aiden was stuck.
With Dylan and Mick hastily tossing food, a stove and sleeping bag to their friend, the border guard shoved Aiden on the Afghan side and slammed the gate closed. “I have to get to dinner,” the guard said. It would take a month for the stranded climber to escape the physical hold of Afghanistan. But no doubt its mental shackles will remain intact for years to come—locking in a reminder of that for which he strived but never attained.
Afghanistan represents the epitome of adventure. As Dylan said, it’s a soul-defying travel experience. You have to be willing to venture beyond the lifeline, with no guarantees. Normal rules don’t apply. It’s mentally exhausting. But for those who dare explore this 21st-century frontier, endless potential awaits—both for climbing, and for seeing the essence of a culture without the outside influences that tend to soften the edges of modern adventure.
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer who lives in Boulder, Colo. Follow her on Twitter: @averystonich.