High mountains are not far from big cities in Afghanistan. It is only 203 miles from downtown Kabul, the capital, to the highest peaks of the Hindu Kush in Nuristan—200 miles across country and three miles straight up. The Hindu Kush is that enormous western extension of the Himalayas that slices across Afghanistan and which for ages blocked the tribes of central Asia from India. Nuristan is a legendary region so secluded by the mountains as to be almost a geographical secret (try to find it in your atlas)—a land of little emerald-green valleys hemmed in by 18,000-to 20,000-foot peaks, inhabited by a fair-skinned people of mysterious antecedents. It sometimes is called the Land of Light. Afghanistan is the worst-mapped country on earth, and Nuristan is the worst-mapped part of Afghanistan.
Consequently the area exerts a magnetic pull on mountaineers. The Hindu Kush appeals particularly to seasoned vacation climbers, people who have spent a good deal of time in the Alps and the Rockies but who have never achieved the mystic goal of modern mountaineers—to get above 20,000 feet—and who cannot organize the long and costly expeditions required for the Himalayas. In 1967 a Stockton, Calif. attorney, Jack Dozier, led one party to the northern edge of Nuristan, about 50 miles south of the Soviet Union. They were stopped by a sheer 400-foot wall on the north face of Koh-i-Tundi (20,300 feet) and had to turn back. But the enchantment of the country and their astonishment when they were told that they were the first foreigners to thread through the hidden valleys on the way provided an irresistible enticement to try again. Last summer they did so, this time aiming for a higher peak, Koh-i-Marchek, 21,800 feet, not far from Koh-i-Tundi.
In all this they were acting according to the pattern of climbing in the Hindu Kush. Only amateurs know the region. As Mountain World put it tactfully, "With few exceptions, the explorations of these mountains have been the work of mountaineers who never had a chance of being invited to take part in a Himalaya climb."
The second party that assembled in Kabul in July included Jack Dozier, 53, and his twin brother, Judge William Dozier of the California Superior Court; Eli Goldfarb, a 43-year-old electronics engineer; Charles Groesbeck, 36, a philosophy professor; and Leslie Buckland, 40, the head of a movie company. There were six younger climbers in their 20s and 30s: Jack Dozier's son Jeff; Perry Mann, a ski patrolman with the U.S. Forest Service; Richard Erb, a geology student; Mike Wadley, a cameraman; and Gary Hill, a court reporter. No rigorous standard of selectivity governed the composition of the group. If they were united in anything it was in their common hope of getting above 20,000 feet—"Once before I die," as one of them said—-and by the fact that they had to be back at work in 30 days.
They hurried out of Kabul in rented cars, driving eastward along the Kabul River on the route Alexander the Great followed when he invaded India 2,295 years ago. At Jalalabad near the Pakistan border they left the highway to head north along the Kunar River on a narrow road under sheer cliffs between 14,000-foot mountains. The Kunar forms high in the Hindu Kush in that little-known keystone of Asia where the borders of Afghanistan, China, Russia and Pakistan adjoin. The river surges down in continuous explosive rapids, carrying with it snow melt, rocks and occasional travelers. Two weeks before the Americans arrived the river carried off a bus loaded with 40 natives.
It also carried off the road. Five miles beyond the town of Asmar the mountaineers found a huge hole in the narrow shelf. For most of a day they lugged big stones and dropped them into the hole, only to see the river current roll them away like bowling balls. But they gradually got it filled. Exhausted but triumphant, they drove on—all of two miles. There the whole shelf had washed into the river. Nothing was left but a ledge on the cliff just wide enough to walk on.
A traveler came by, going the other way, from Kamdesh (pop. 700), one of the few big towns in Nuristan. They persuaded him to go back and return with porters and donkeys. When they started on again the supplies that had been carried in cars and trucks were carried by five porters and 16 donkeys and in 50-pound packs on the backs of the climbers.
For days they traveled along the Bashgal River that enters the Kunar from the west, through cedar forests, fields of wild marijuana, irrigated farmlands and rock-walled meadows, into parklike wild gardens of orchids, forget-me-nots, hollyhocks, apricot trees, mulberries, loganberries, walnuts, wild peach, wild lemon, wild almond, honeysuckles, roses and gooseberries.
The mountain heights of the Hindu Kush are not far below those of the Himalayas. The highest Hindu Kush peak, Tirich Mir, is 25,263 feet (Everest is 29,002) and there are three higher than 24,000 feet, six above 23,000 and, as one awed amateur climber wrote in Mountain World, "A multitude of 20,000-foot peaks all around the place." What makes the Hindu Kush easier than the Himalayas is the fine summer weather (70� temperatures, cool mountain breezes), clear blue skies and scenery, white cascades dropping from mountain walls, precipitous slopes rising 10,000 feet to blue-white glaciers on the 20,000 foot peaks.
The way led through a few villages, some with faint traces of recorded history. The climbers stopped to re-arrange their packs and rest their blistered feet at Bragmatal (also known as Barg-a-Metal, Barg-i-Metal, or, in the Himalaya Journal, as Bragmetal), which Europeans first reached in 1883. In that year an extraordinary British civil servant named William Watts McNair shaved his head, darkened his skin with a weak solution of caustic soda and walnut juice and visited Nuristan posing as a Moslem holy man. The region was then called Kafiristan, meaning land of unbelievers, and was strictly forbidden to foreigners. Since McNair had disobeyed orders he was publicly censured by the viceroy of India on his return, but privately praised by the viceroy for "one of the most adventurous journeys anyone could attempt."