A Short March to the Hindu Kush

Posted on: November 27, 2006

United States Marines in a Humvee "highback" armored troop transport, coming back from a weapons cache raid in the Pech River Valley region of the Kunar Province, Afghanistan, as an Apache gunship flies cover overhead. After Osama bin Laden ordered the September 11 attacks on the US from the foothills of the Hindu Kush, Marines trained at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Pickel Meadow, California, were deployed to Afghanistan in retaliation. [Photo] Ed Darack

The sun has just set behind a spine of bare, tan rock. High above a green-bottomed valley the summit of a snow-dusted peak glows in the final light. The air cools with the press of autumn. Endorphins pulse through my body from an arduous day of up-and-down travel. While my friends prepare dinner, I peer at aretes and gendarmes and steep faces. Unclimbed, for sure. My friend Patrick Kinser joins me; together, we pick out lines and guess at the pitches and ratings.

I rest my tired back against a well-anchored boulder. Suddenly, puffs of air blast my head. Immediately after, I hear the unmistakable POP-POP-POP-POP of bullets whizzing above us. From the top of the beautiful ridge we've just been admiring, the Taliban is ambushing us with machine-gun fire.

It's mid-October 2005, and I'm in one of the most dangerous combat zones in the world: the foothills of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan's eastern Kunar Province, near the Pakistani border. Patrick is a rifle platoon commander; my other friends are local Afghans, hired by the Marines as interpreters. I'm an embedded freelance writer and photographer, in a place I've yearned to explore since my youth.

A generation earlier, when I was eight, I had watched Afghan mujahideen fighters battle the Soviets on evening television. Two lone mountain fighters had taken on a column of Soviet armor—and won. Even in their frayed shoes they had looked like naturals on the steep slopes, as though they needed only innate cunning, not the fancy climbing gear I already drooled over in catalogues, to move through the mountains. The grainy images fired my imagination in ways that mere summits never could.

During a decade of war, the Soviets struggled in vain to occupy Afghanistan. When they limped out in 1989, they left behind a legacy of displacement and landmines. I went on to pursue my dreams of cold heights in other ranges, and my obsession with the freedom fighters who defeated the Soviet Army receded to mere curiosity. But now, as we dive down a steep, rocky hillside, those same fighters I'd once fantasized about turn and shoot back, side by side with the Marines, at our ambushers.

Winter at the Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC): a trainee negotiates deep snow in a blizzard to set up a field hospital. Six-week courses are taught in both winter and summer; the winter course emphasizes backcountry travel, while the summer version focuses on mountaineering and climbing. Candidates for the competitive Mountain Leaders Courses (MLC) need to be a staff sergeant or above, have a combat arms military operations specialty and come recommended by a superior. Possibly the harshest training regime in the Marine Corps, the MLC can have an attrition rate of fifty percent. [Photo] Ed Darack

Otherwordly in its isolation, the Hindu Kush represents the northwestern curl of the orogenic arc known as the greater Himalayan complex. Across precipitous ravines, creaky footbridges connect terraced fields and rock homes carved from exposed geologic strata. Some 350 kilometers north of our patrol base, straddling the border with Pakistan, stands Noshaq (7493m), Afghanistan's highest mountain. Between Noshaq and the base lies the heart of the Hindu Kush, the far northern reaches of the Kunar and the province of Nuristan. They are blank spaces on my maps, interrupted by a few dotted lines that might be dirt roads. We are dominated by mountains of infinite possibility. As magnetic as they might be to a climber, however, this is Afghanistan, a country overlain by humanity's most obtrusive contrivance: war.

Eric Newby's classic adventure story, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, brought this region to the attention of Western readers in the late 1950s. Newby, a veteran afflicted by the British penchant for globetrotting, had received a communique from his old friend Hugh Carless: "CAN YOU TRAVEL NURISTAN JUNE?" Both of them novice mountaineers, their attempt on Mir Samir (6060m) in northeast Afghanistan ended predictably shy of the summit. Yet Newby, an everyday man, had gone places that even elite alpinists rarely trod. The popularity of his tale drove other adventure seekers, including seasoned climbers, to dream of the Hindu Kush.

In the fifty years since, though, overshadowed by the neighboring Everest and K2 and obstructed by war, the range has hosted relatively few mountaineering expeditions. The isolation of the country was heightened in late 1979 when the Soviet Army stormed in from the north. In 1996 the Taliban, whose armed forces were filled with veterans of the fight against the Soviets, took over Afghanistan and instituted an ultraconservative form of Islamic law. In retaliation for their support of Al Qaeda, after September 11, 2001, the United States, aided by the Northern Alliance (an amalgam of Afghan opposition groups), drove them from power. But the fighting isn't over, and the allied forces still occupy the Hindu Kush, led by US Marines from the Mountain Warfare Training Center in California's Eastern Sierra.

The story of the Mountain Warfare Training Center (MWTC) began on the night of November 27, 1950, in the Taebaek Mountains of North Korea. As temperatures plunged to a reported -54 degrees F, 8,000 Marines shivered at a place called the Chosin Reservoir after completing one of the most arduous advances of the Korean War. They possessed neither the gear nor the training to endure such conditions—and unknown to them, tens of thousands of Chinese soldiers had their position surrounded.

When darkness fell, the Chinese attacked. Completely isolated, the Marines taught themselves desperate mountain warfare tactics as they maneuvered toward the Sea of Japan. By the time they reached their destination, the mountains had inflicted more casualties on the Marines than the Chinese had. Their ability to fight in a mountain environment had affirmed the Corps' indispensability, but the thousands of cold-related injuries and deaths also proved that they would have to establish a mountain and cold-weather training facility—soon.

Ringed by high granite peaks, forests and streams, Pickel Meadow resembles the backdrop to any number of snooty mountain resorts. It also mirrors the Chosin region more accurately than does any other place in the US. By mid-September 2001, no one questioned the importance of the small, relatively unknown training base founded here in 1951. The US was headed to the last acknowledged place of residence of Osama bin Laden: the foothills of the Hindu Kush, where the Al Qaeda leader had ordered the most devastating attack on US soil in history.

I'd crossed paths with the Marines from the MWTC once before. In 1990, from the Denali base camp, I'd seen them as four tiny dots moving up the main Kahiltna Glacier in a storm. Weeks later, after extricating myself from a crevasse fall, I relied for my survival on an igloo they'd built and stocked with food. I'd been rescued by a team I didn't even know. As I dug into their military rations, I started daydreaming again about combat in the heights—and about Afghanistan.

In 1999 I traveled to Pakistan on a photography trip, and while trekking from Nanga Parbat to K2, brushed past some of the modern-day mujahideen. The sight of these rough, crevassed-faced men evoked the images I'd seen on television years ago. Fascinated, I made my way back to Islamabad, into the mud-walled Afghan consulate. "You will die," a member of the Taliban replied to my request to visit the Hindu Kush. "You're an American." I could tell from his glaring eyes that he meant I would die at the Taliban's hands, not from falling off a mountain.

Still, my dreams of the Hindu Kush persevered, and in early 2005, my friend Rick Crevier, a Major in the Marine Corps, encouraged me to go to the MWTC. "Just take some photographs and live what a battalion headed for Afghanistan lives," Rick said. "Develop an article idea, and present them with it. You're a mountain guy; so are they—but they're Marines first."

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