SI Vault
Robert Cantwell
July 28, 1969
The legends of Nuristan and the Hindu Kush mountains are as tall and as numerous as the peaks themselves. Last summer a party of American amateurs wrote a new chapter by putting the whole team on 20,300-foot Koh-i-Tundi
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July 28, 1969

High Above The Land Of Light

The legends of Nuristan and the Hindu Kush mountains are as tall and as numerous as the peaks themselves. Last summer a party of American amateurs wrote a new chapter by putting the whole team on 20,300-foot Koh-i-Tundi

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That was probably true. No one ever conquered the natives. Even Tamerlane the Great, who slaughtered millions of Afghans elsewhere, was beaten by these warlike mountain people. Students long held that the natives were remnants of the original Aryan stock from Asia. Now the best scientific opinion is that nobody knows where they came from. Four years ago a party of German climbers was murdered by natives in the mountains, but the American climbers had no trouble beyond ceremonious bargaining with the porters over their pay of $1.50 a day.

When they reached the village of Pachigram, Buckland noted in his diary, "This place looks like Chamonix." A 25-mile trail led up the valley of the Shkuri-Gul, a beautiful little stream lined with an ancient irrigation system which, at 11,000 feet, produced fields of wheat and barley. Even at the head of the valley the intricate web of irrigation canals created grassy meadows where sheep and cattle grazed.

Here they could see Koh-i-Marchek. It soared almost a mile higher than the 17,000-foot peaks around it, rising straight up, too steep in places for snow to hold to its sides, immense needles rising from a sharp ridge. And here they faced a problem. They all wanted to get above 20,000 feet. Jeff Dozier and Richard Erb, who were better climbers than most of the party, went ahead to study Koh-i-Marchek. They came back with the report that there were thousands of feet of Class 5 climbing. "We will never get all of us up there," Erb said. "We'll be lucky if we get one rope."

That would mean only two of the party. And it could not be done in less than 10 days. In the discussion that followed it was argued that traditionally an expedition that got one rope on top was a success. But here everyone wanted to reach the summit. And most of the party had to get back to work. In the end they abandoned Koh-i-Marchek and hiked on 15 miles to try Koh-i-Tundi again. This time they chose a different route; by any route the mountain was over 20,000 feet and there was a chance everyone could make it.

Twelve days out of Kabul they were camped on a grassy meadow at the base of a mile-long scree slope leading to the glaciers of Koh-i-Tundi. Jeff Dozier and Dick Erb scouted ahead to locate the first base camp on the mountain. They sent back word for the others to start early the next morning because of a rockfall. No one got much sleep. The peak of Koh-i-Tundi rose 8,000 feet above their camp, its glaciers and snowfields shining in the starlight.

They were up at 5 o'clock, which turned out to be too late. The scree was solid and steep, and it was 10 minutes after 8 when they reached a gully down which stones bounded every minute or so. They came in a bombardment, from bullet-sized to great boulders. "We are here too late," Buckland noted in his diary. "The sun is melting the rocks out of the ice. We should have been in this suicidal spot well before dawn."

They ran across the gully one at a time. A rock smashed the fourth finger of Judge Dozier's left hand; otherwise there were no injuries. But running across the gully, carrying their packs at 14,000 feet, left them exhausted. Climbing to the first base camp that Jeff Dozier and Erb had established was slow—three upward steps at a time was the average, three steps and heavy breathing for 30 seconds, three steps and stop, up and up, with thumping chests and headaches with the rhythm of pulsebeats. Spikes of snow (nieves penitentes), strange and beautiful but hard to get through, studded the plateau. At 6 o'clock they pitched their tents at the base camp at 16,200 feet, brewed soup and stew and carried their headaches to bed.

The next day they again moved slowly upward, relaying their heavy movie and sound equipment. Only the weather remained ideal, an unbelievable combination of hot sun and cold wind that eased the pain of climbing. At 5 o'clock, when the sun disappeared behind the summit, they began to freeze on the rocky ridge of the next camp at 18,200 feet.

At 4 the next morning, when they resumed the climb, the cold was intense; every movement was agony, and the lacing of boots and the making of tea required monumental effort. By 7:30 they were in sunlight. By noon they could see they were going to make it. Suddenly there was no more snow, no more height. One by one they stumbled to the summit, Judge Dozier crawling the last few feet on all fours. But they were all on the summit of Koh-i-Tundi at one time. "Mostly I am terribly dizzy," Buckland noted, "have a hell of a headache and feel that the last cone was anticlimactically easy."

They sat there for a few moments taking in the view, a 360� panorama of peaks in four countries. What was there left to do? They signed a statement to be left for later climbers. Judge Dozier interpreted it as a triumph. Although they had accepted a slightly less elevated destination, one that could be reached by all of them, they were, he wrote later, "the first expedition in history to put so many men on a 20,000-plus mountain. We sat there awhile and thought that we had done it. Then the moment was over and we started down."

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