Tue, Jul 15, 2003 - Page 5 News List

European mountaineers eye Afghanistan

AFP , KABUL

A young Afghan soldier guards the entrance to Sary Khouja village on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday. The region is in the heart of Afghanistan's mountain territory and could serve as a waystation for incoming climbers. Kabul is on the road west from the Afghan city of Jalalabad and Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

PHOTO: AP

A seven-man team of European climbers has begun an expedition in a remote corner of Afghanistan in an attempt to reconquer the war-ravaged country's highest peak and re-open its mountains to adventurers.

The team of French, Slovenian, Spanish and Swiss alpinists, accompanied by a trainee Afghan mountain guide and led by celebrated climber Italian Fausto de Stefani, embarked on their month-long trek on Saturday.

Their journey from the scorching foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains in northeastern Badakhshan Province to the icy peak of mount Noshaq, 7,492m above sea level, is likely to prove a gruelling challenge.

But the expedition's ultimate goal of reviving interest in Afghanistan's stunning peaks could prove even more of an uphill struggle in a country still reeling from the effects of more than two decades of brutal conflict.

"The time has come to re-open the Hindu Kush to mountaineering," Carlo Alberto Pinelli, one of the project's organizers told a recent press conference in Kabul.

"This peak is hugely popular with European and Japanese climbers; tourists must be able to come here like they did 30 years ago -- that is my hope for the future."

In the 1960s and 1970s, Afghanistan was a popular destination for adventurous climbers willing to weather primitive and occasionally treacherous conditions to explore the country's unspoilt scenery.

The romance of negotiating the rock and snow in the remote eastern Afghan region of Nuristan was popularized in the 1950s in British travel writer Eric Newby's classic account of a Short Walk in the Hindu Kush.

But, as Afghanistan succumbed to Soviet invasion, years of civil unrest and the oppressive rule of the hardline Taliban regime, Afghanistan disappeared from the mountaineering map.

Named after an Afghan river which springs from the Hindu Kush and skirts Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, the "Oxus: mountains for peace" expedition, jointly organized by Mountain Wilderness International and the Italian Embassy in Kabul, hopes to pick up the trail.

A walk up the Noshaq begins in the Wakkan corridor, a narrow strip of the Himalayas that separates Pakistan from Tajikistan and spills out into China in the extreme northeast of Afghanistan's Badakhshan province.

Relatively unscathed by the decade-long war against Soviet occupation, Badakshan was also spared from the oppressive fundamentalist Taliban that was ousted in 2001 by a US-led military coalition.

It now stands as one of the most stable provinces in Afghanistan but is also a top region for the cultivation and production of opium.

Although the group expects a smooth journey to its base camp at 4,000m and bivouac camps at 5,000m and 6,800m, armed men have been provided by the central Afghan government should threats arise.

Success for the expedition will also conquer a new goal for Afghanistan.

Sayd Akmal, a young Afghan climber from Badakhshan has been given high-altitude training by Italian experts in the Alps and will become one of the country's first certified high-altitude guides if he completes the trek.

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