Page last updated at 22:48 GMT, Tuesday, 30 June 2009 23:48 UK

Afghan climbers hope to make history

Oxus river in the Wakhan corridor (Pic: Aunohita Mojumdar)
The jaw-dropping Wakhan corridor has the makings of a major tourist attraction

By Aunohita Mojumdar
BBC News, Kabul

It sounds like an old joke - a farmer, a cook, a mason and a schoolteacher go climbing together.

But this unlikely foursome from the Wakhi community in north-eastern Afghanistan hopes to make mountaineering history.

On Thursday, they aim to become the first ever Afghans to scale the country's highest mountain peak, Mount Noshaq, in a remote corner of Badakshan province.

At 7,492m (25,000 ft), Noshaq is the second-highest peak of the famous Hindu Kush range - only just topped by the tallest summit, Tirich Mir.

Mt Noshaq is located at the beginning of the Wakhan corridor, the tiny strip of land jutting out of Afghanistan, like a finger pointing towards China, a corridor that separated British Imperial India from Tsarist Russia.

From mujahideen to mountaineering

In the 1960s and 1970s the mountain peaks along the Wakhan were an international draw.

Afiyat Khan
I didn't know we needed special equipment or special shoes - I just started climbing
Afiyat Khan
Afghan mountaineer

Three decades of war, however, ended that.

International teams abandoned the area as many Afghans struggled for survival.

Among them was Afiyat Khan.

Losing his father at a young age, he dropped out of school and signed up with the mujahideen, joining Northern Alliance commanders in the only area of the country to keep the Taliban at bay.

He emerged from the war to become a skilled master mason.

But stories of his father, who worked with visiting tourists, stayed with him.

"I just had the idea that someday I wanted to climb the mountains," he recalled.

The opportunity came in 2002 when an accomplished Italian climber, Carlo Alberto Pinelli, came to revive mountaineering in Afghanistan, and train local Afghan youths.

Mr Khan joined immediately.

"At that time I didn't know we needed special equipment or special shoes. I just started climbing."

Afghan students recite Islamic prayers in a makeshift outdoor classroom in the remote Wakhan Corridor
Tourism could give a welcome cash injection to the region

Since then he has been to the Alps on several professional training courses - the latest in April and May.

Mt Noshaq was first ascended in 1960 by a Japanese team and most recently tackled, by a European-led expedition, in 2003.

But the peak has never been conquered by Afghans before.

Making the July expedition possible is a young group of Frenchmen who have been living and working in Afghanistan for the past several years: Louis Meunier, Jerome Veyret and Nicolas Fasquelleis.

'Symbol of hope'

"This is a symbolic expedition," said Mr Meunier who was in Kabul last week to finish buying supplies and equipment.

"The idea is to plant an Afghan flag at the top, as a symbol of hope and achievement in Afghanistan."

There is a path to the top of even the highest mountain
Afghan proverb

The expedition is being launched under the aegis of the Rome-based organisation, Mountain Wilderness and the French national Alpine skiing school among others, but has been organised by the three Frenchmen.

The team comprises the four Afghan climbers and two experienced international guides as well as Mr Munier and Mr Veyret.

It aims to "send a message of peace and hope and to foster national pride and unity".

"This will be a strong positive message illustrating the determination of Afghans to overcome difficulties and bring peace and success to a country torn apart by 30 years of war," the expedition's mission statement says.

There is also a more concrete aim. They hope to pave the way for more high-altitude adventures and sustainable tourism in the area.

Despite the violence in other parts of the country, the Wakhan region has remained safe.

Tourism here has been growing steadily, with visitors lured by the area's spectacular beauty and its gentle inhabitants.

The area is surrounded by the Pamir, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush mountain range, which lies between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and each valley is distinct.

'Luck and pluck'

Add to that the pristine peaks and beautiful rivers, and there is every reason for it to prove catnip to tourists and climbers in search of pastures new.

Wakhi children
The Wakhan corridor is mostly populated by the Wakhi community

Increased tourism would give a welcome cash injection.

The inhabitants of the Wakhan corridor live off subsistence agriculture and herding, with the semi-arid zone yielding few crops.

No-one knows this better than the four Wakhis about to attempt the Noshaq.

Mr Khan himself has worked as a porter on previous expeditions.

Now their own mission will bring short-term employment to the 80 porters who will accompany them to base camp.

Training in the Alps, none of the four has climbed heights beyond 6,000m (20,000 ft).

Much of the success of the attempt will depend on good weather, luck and sheer pluck.

Despite a short warm season, the weather in the area is considered ideal for climbing, as is the short distance from the road to base camp.

Adopted as the motto of the expedition is an Afghan proverb that seems to echo not just the determination of the mission, but even the lives of the climbers.

It simply says: "There is a path to the top of even the highest mountain."

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