Trip over main ridge to the Munjan Valley


Leur voyage par-dessus de la chaine principale à la vallée du Munjan.

No room for improvisation in the Hindu Kush

The next day I came back up to Camp 1 and we decided to try Point 5797, just along the ridge from our previous summit. The outing started with the usual trudge across the “mine fields” and we soon arrived up on the glacier. This time we bivied on the right hand side and, lacking the usual supply of rocks to enclose the shelter, decided to build an igloo. This was also to justify the purchase (at the time considered rather extravagant) and lugging about of a “snow saw”. This device, with its one inch triangular teeth, was of absolutely no us for anything else and had given rise to a certain amount of ribbing. It now proved highly efficient for its designed purpose, cutting blocks of compacted snow, far more so than our own competence in igloo construction. The coffin like enclosure had no roof, but I suppose it was just as good a windbreak as its stone counterparts.

In the morning we set off up the buttress behind the igloo, hours later we had made little progress, partly because of the difficulty and partly the weight of our sacks. It became evident we would never reach the summit with the amount of food we had. We decided to go back to base camp to bring up more food and have a bit of a rest, improvisation was not sensible in this part of the world.

When, a few days later, we returned to Camp 1 from base camp, Mags told us that Rich and Ian were having a go at Point 5797, so, well loaded with food, either to back them up or for our own use, we set off up to our igloo. That evening we saw their green flare from high up and decided to look elsewhere.

Next morning we climbed up amongst the snow penitents, as the spikes are called, which were particularly tall and numerous on this side of the valley, all pointing towards the sun, like sunflowers. We continued up the buttress again then traversed to a gully. Once at the col we had splendid views of the surrounding mountains, Shah i Kabud in particular, climbed later on by Ian and Rich by the “South East Buttress”.

In search of the Scots

Dave and I were intrigued by the evidence of another party of climbers in the region. We had heard of the presence of a Scottish expedition operating from the other side of the range and found signs that they had been on the col, although there was nobody actually in sight. We considered the idea of crossing over the main ridge to try and find them. It would be interesting to know exactly what they had done and plan our climbing in consequence.

The way down the other side looked inviting, and our explorer’s instinct got the better of our better judgment, given the amount food we had. As I mentioned before, this is where the peanuts saved the day. The rather unpalatable nature of this fare, coupled with the (over) generous allocation in the rations, had lead to a certain accumulation in the bottom of our rucksacks. The ration packs, of Dave’s conception, also boasted a liberal quantity of instant porridge (most of his youth was spent in Glasgow, whence his accent, though, in truth, he is of Welsh extraction).

Peanuts and porridge

So, confident in the calorific value of peanuts and porridge, we dropped down the snow-ice slope to the Toghw glacier and headed towards what we thought must be the Munjan Valley. This is a tributary of the Kokcha which is itself a North East continuation of the Panschir Valley, familiar to all who turn on the telly these days, but which has probably been visited by few. At that time, and perhaps still today, there was no road access, and, given the length of the way round by Faizabad in the far North of Afghanistan, it was little frequented by tourists even in those more peaceful times.

We carried on down the easy dry glacier and after a couple of hours reached a grassy spot to camp. Next morning we left the tent and all our climbing gear and continued down. We kept an eye out for signs of climbers, but apart from a Mars bar wrapper in what looked like a camp site near a lake, found none, they had certainly already left.

The valley was long, austere and beautiful. Here and there, moraines from side valleys blocked it forming mirror-smooth turquoise lakes of glacier water. In for a penny, in for a pound, we decided to carry on down to the Munjan itself, telling ourselves that we could certainly find some food or other to buy.

A chance encounter

We met two Afghan hunters with their ancient matchlock rifles. About six feet long, inlaid with ivory or bone decorations, they were fitted with a wooden v-shaped stand on the muzzle which must have been necessary to have any chance of hitting anything with such heavy devices, they have certainly been replaced by Kalashnicovs these days. Unfortunately, like most of the people we met in Nuristan, there is little chance that these two are still alive. Quite apart from the life expectancy in the area, forty to fifty years on average, this region has been right in the middle of the fighting for twenty years.

We asked them the best way down to the village and they indicated a faint path that climbed high up the valley side to avoid a jumble of rocks near a lake that filled it there. We thanked them and sat watching as they headed off, walking easily and rapidly until in no time at all they were out of sight. We chose a route which seemed easier, following the lake and reflected on how pathetically incapable we, the members of an “official” climbing expedition, were compared to these ordinary country people, undernourished since birth on bread and tea, taking a walk barefoot and with no apparent signs of fatigue.


Eventually the patch-work (for once the metaphor is really merited) fields of the village in the main valley came into site. The photos speak for themselves; it was unreal, calm, extraordinarily beautiful and terribly poor. I have lost (or probably lent) some of the best slides, but at last I had got over my rather strange idea of using black and white film. Those included here give an idea of this huge v-shaped valley with its quiet slow moving river, very different from the tumultuous Bashgul. The houses too were different, low and built of dry stone, no sign of woodcarving, clearly we were no longer in Nuristan.

We tried to communicate with the men in the village, some of whom looked very old, though they were probably only in their sixties. The notion of age is different here, the Afghans could never believe us when we told them we were in our twenties, they thought sixteen or seventeen at most. At twenty they were mature hardened men, with burnt skin and calm steady eyes that gave the impression of having already seen many hard sights, and coped with them.

Even though the harvest was in full swing, the corn being trodden on circular earth threshing floors by oxen while the women cut the corn with tiny sickles, we were unable, as we should have known, to buy much in the way of transportable food. We were a little ashamed to ask people who clearly had very little to spare, but hunger and egoism got the better of scruples and we bought some eggs, a tiny chicken, little bigger than a pigeon when plucked, and some of the flat unleavened bread. We said goodbye and headed back up the valley.

That evening we could only find green wood and couldn’t get much of a fire going, we had left our stove with the tent up by the glacier, and we had to make do with a cold dinner. Next morning we returned to the village to buy more food and get some dry wood. After “shopping” we talked, or tried to, with some children on the river bank, skimmed a few stones on the limpid water, then headed back up over to our side of the hills.

I often wonder what the villagers must have thought of us turning up like that from a valley that I doubt they themselves ever used to cross the range, then disappearing again just as quickly. Perhaps they thought it just as normal as if we had stopped in a Sussex village for a pint of beer then left again on the next bus. Were they revolted by our futile preoccupation with mountain tops while they had every difficulty in surviving and providing for their families? They didn’t show it if they were. They remained friendly, inscrutable and dignified throughout our brief visit to the village they referred to as Shah-i-Pari. Does it still exist? I would be interested to know.

We plodded up the valley and bivied near a lake, where there was still a supply of brushwood. Dave plucked, cleaned and boiled the chicken that was so skinny it fitted in a climbing billy. A little dried milk was added for flavour, but even our hunger didn’t make it very appetizing.

The next evening saw us well up the valley that seemed much harder going up than coming down (surprising!). That night in the tent we could find little else to talk about except food, our admittedly self-imposed fast was beginning to tell. Even the peanuts we had left at the tent tasted good!

An unpleasant surprise

Next day, walking up the easy angled dry glacier, “dry” in the technical sense of “without snow cover”, but as anyone familiar with mountains knows, covered in all sizes of melt water rivers, swallow holes and so on, we stopped to drink from one of the streams. A few minutes later we were somewhat put out to come across a dead body just above where we had just drunk. This sight impressed us considerably, me perhaps more than Dave, in my famished state of mind I took this to be a bad omen, and even protested that we shouldn’t take photos. One was taken all the same and proved most effective in waking up somnolent audiences in slide shows given after our trip, I did have a copy, but it too has disappeared.

The body was of an Afghan, his hair and skin had been well preserved by the cold; the later was stretched like yellow parchment over his bones. He was on his back and his body was bent over a pillar of ice two or three feet high, which the shade from his body had prevented from melting and which made him look as if he had been the victim of some macabre sacrifice. His clothes were traditional, and beside him, on the ice, lay his matchlock rifle, just the same as those of the hunters. Curiously, the barrel was bent in two, what could have done that? Nearby there were a number of long wooden poles, about four or five inches thick and ten to fifteen feet long.

We thought he must have died many years ago, perhaps in some long forgotten war, or trying to cross the difficult col, his body would have been moved to where it was now by the movement of the glacier. This would have involved a good many years as even here the glaciers move very slowly. But what else could explain why he had been left here all this time, why had no one at least recovered his rifle, which must have a certain value, if he hadn’t died alone? It was a mystery that later on lead to vague recollections of someone long since missing from a Bashgul village when we enquired at the villages on the walk out, but nothing very clear. 

Whatever the explanation was, this find did little to improve our morale, but the main ridge was not far, we crossed back by the same route and were relieved to reach the igloo bivouac. It is amazing how quickly one adapts to relative levels of comfort, this now seemed like a familiar paradise, despite the newly opened crevasses nearby. That evening we sent off a green flare, the first for a week. I don’t remember if it was seen. The next day we were back in base camp, telling our story and listening to the quite justified but, in the circumstances, very mild rebukes. We had been away for eight days.

NB. The attached copy of the expedition report provides what is certainly a more accurate account, written at the time by Dave on our return to Britain. Comparing them, my version, written many years after, seems to see things in a rosier light, which must prove something I suppose.





 Updated 26/04/2014