Oxus 2003, first return to Noshaq

By putting together an international expedition to Noshaq in 2003, the ecologically sound association Mountain Wilderness International (MWI) made the first step towards opening this traumatised country, once again, to western tourists. «Afghans to the top» considers itself to be in the same mindset.

Mountain Wilderness International brings together mountaineers who care about «preserving the natural and cultural identity of the high lands».  The most well known European mountain climbers take part in the association, like Chris Bonington, Kurt Diemberger, or Lionel Daudet. The association is most well known for its spectacular cleaning operations, and its campaigns and training courses on preserving the Alps and the Himalayas. For their first Afghan expedition, «Oxus, Mountains for Peace», MWI’s did what it took. It was a large expedition, that united 15 members (8 Italians, 3 Frenchmen, 2 Afghans, a Spaniard, and a Slovenian). To carry the three tons of food and equipment, 130 porters were drafted in the nearby villages, at the entrance to the Wakhan corridor. MWI took the villagers into consideration, as much as of the western and asian mountaineers, when they organised the expedition. «By doing this expedition, we wanted to send out a message that would show the return to normality, the end of the war in Afghanistan,» explains the Italian Carlo Alberto Pinelli, 68, head of the expedition. He was one of the first to explore the Hindu Kush in the 60s, before becoming before working at the head of MWI. «Our expedition was a first step, a sign of hope, that was supposed to reverse the isolation and misery that afflicted the Afghans who had been living in theses mountains for the last 30 years. The next step will be to train young villagers to become trekking, or mountain guides, to develop their own tourism built on the respect of their environment.» On July 27th 2003, the Italian mountaineer Fausto de Stefani was the first to make it to the top of Noshaq, followed, a few days later, by other members of the expedition : an Italian, a Slovenian, and a French photojournalist. Saïd Akmal, the young Afghan climber of the Oxus expedition, didn’t make it over 6 000 meters. It was a disappointment, but the collective victory ended up being more important.

With four climbers of three different nationalities making it to the top, the mission was accomplished ; and a strong signal was sent to mountaineers all over the world. There was a new trail that bypassed the mine field. The base camp was clean and tidy. The old ropes were removed. All the villagers of the Wakhan were waiting for, was more foreigners.

François Carrel, the French journalist who accompanied the Oxus expedition in 2003 wrote, once back from the top : «Noshaq winds shook our tents, kept us awake, and sharpened its attack with its numbing cold. But it ended up greeting us without too much fuss. A cliff to climb, right below 6 900 meters, and then a steep and beautiful couloirs right under 7 300 meters. We then got to an easy cap, that overlooked Afghanistan, and Pakistan with its hundreds of peaks. A summit that was forgotten for 25 years, and rediscovered in 7 days. A quarter of a century, a week. Both are insignificant for a mountain, but we would like to believe that this expedition opens a new era here in the Afghan Hindu Kush. Buried at the bottom of the Hindu Kush, the old Shah of Qazi Deh, smiling, told us the message he would like to send out to the world : «hello to all, remember us! you will always be welcome in our mountains...»

Hiking up Noshaq will have been MWI’s first symbolic step of a much larger project it is working on in the region. It hopes to open this beautiful Hindu Kush region, as well as the Wakhan corridor to adventure tourism. The association also plans to set up a national park in the Wakhan.
The training programs, which started in 2005, are of different types : techniques for future trekking and mountaineering guides, training in the economy of tourism, courses on the English language, and training in ecology. The association would also like to support the construction, in every village, of areas intended to host the travellers, and buildings to safeguard the equipment.

More info:

- About the «Oxus, Mountains for Peace» project, by Carlo Alberto Pinelli, Mountain Wilderness International. The pdf can be found by clicking on:
www.unama-afg.org/news/_pr/_english/UN/2006/06sep11-AsiaDesk-PressRelease.pdf

- «From Mujahideen to mountain guide», an article by Andrew North, correspondant for the BBC: 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/south_asia/4748989.stm

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