A Short March to the Hindu Kush
"Rockets and mortars. We practically set our watches by the attacks here." He taps his wrist with a boyish grin.
I can't help shuddering a little, but then, warfare is what I came to see—along with the landscape. Adjacent to the camp, a deep valley shelters thick stands of corn, studded with trees, and stone houses built into the hillsides: the village of Nangalam. "This place looks like a mountain heaven," I say to Bartels.
"It is. I love it. But it can be a hell, too. The governor of the province hasn't even been here—he's too scared. The landscape is tough, and the people here are tougher."
Nearby, a quiet man who looks to be in his early forties smiles warmly as he sets down his Kalashnikov. A slight droop to his eyes and the sun-chiseled lines on his face suggest years of battle. Bartels presents him as Sher Walli, the leader of the local Afghan Security Forces (ASF), who fight alongside the Marines. "He grew up here, fighting the Soviets."
Although Sher Walli's dressed in a dark camouflage uniform like the others, instead of combat boots, he wears a pair of white sneakers. Through the interpreter, I ask politely about his family. As he tells me he comes from a nearby village, where his wife and children tend to a small herd of goats, raise chickens and farm corn, I'm taken by the way his shoulders have relaxed, his head turned slightly to the side and his voice softened. When one of his fellow ASF soldiers interrupts to ask him a question, though, Sher Walli's militaristic stance quickly returns.
1st Lieutenant Patrick Kinser, Mountain Leader and rifle platoon commander of 1st Platoon, Company E, 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marine regiment, during Operation Valdez. An alpinist and a Marine, Kinser dreams of one day returning to Afghanistan to climb and ski some of the Hindu Kush's untouched mountains. For the moment, he is being redeployed to Iraq. [Photo] Ed Darack
"Ready for your first combat operation?" A square-jawed figure emerges from a doorway. Patrick Kinser is tall and lean, like a collegiate cross-country star. He introduces himself as a mountain lover—"skiing, climbing, snow camping, you name it"—but his quick, guttural responses to my questions project a controlled zeal: he's undoubtedly all Corps all the time. "You didn't come all the way out here to sit around, I hope," he says, standing as if at attention, his body completely immobile except for his head, which nods back and forth with increasing animation.
"Uh... no. I just didn't know if I'd be allowed to do more than short day patrols."
"Oh, hell yeah. You're with us, man. Birds roll in tomorrow at zero-seven. Have your shit ready."
The "birds" (CH-47 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters) deposit us on a narrow, grassy ridge, high above a valley, ready to begin Operation Valdez—named for a Marine killed days before my arrival in a mortar attack. The objective: find and destroy the source of the deadly fire, somewhere in the broken terrain ahead. I wander over to Sher Walli and the other ASF. Sher Walli is holding his radio in a rigid grasp, slightly askance. He keeps an eye on the ASF men loading a pack and at the same time scans the ridgeline with determination.
Patrick joins us. I shake my helmeted head in disbelief at the scene around me: I'm standing in this quiet aerie, in the cool mountain air, staring at lines of steeply faulted mountains, in the company of mujahideen and Marines, and for an instant we all feel at home. Sher Walli points out a distant goat herder. A minute later I trace potential routelines with my hands. "Damn, I want to go further north," Patrick exclaims, "into Nuristan, in winter, and go skiing."
But none of us can forget the landmines, unexploded grenades, bullets and weapons caches that have become so abundant in the Kunar they may go undiscovered for decades. Warfare continues to transform the mountainscape into a battlescape, not only in the minds of its observers, but also in its physical reality: bomb craters pockmark the earth in places, and every rock seems to hide some potential explosive. The mountain dwellers are the most scarred. Through an interpreter, I ask Sher Walli about the enemy. In a subdued tone, he says he just wants the conflict to end. Kinser adds quietly, "He's fighting because he wants to go home."
Although I've hardly spoken with Sher Walli, I'm drawn to his strength and thoughtfulness, and I ask permission to go on a patrol with him and the ASF. As we head up the ridgeline, the midday heat makes my body armor seem heavier than usual. Sweat runs down my face. Sher Walli's dark eyes look concerned. He offers me some of his water, then gestures that he'll take my pack. I insist on carrying my own weight, but throughout the day he keeps checking to make sure I'm all right, as he does for all his men. I feel the same way with him that I do with my best climbing partners; while I know he can't protect me from the bullets, any more than they can from rockfall, his competence and his regard for all our lives fill me with an irrational calm.
Later that day, after our return, the Marines discover the cave. Two blasts of TNT and C4 later, the cave is dust. We return to the valley floor almost directly across from a location infamous for Taliban. It is early evening—a favorite time for attacks. I try to distract myself with the view. Young, steep mountains, streaked with rockfall scars and teetering, split boulders, stretch out as far as I can see. "I bet in ten years we come back here and this is some type of eco-resort," I say to Patrick. We make a pact to return.
A few weeks later, in the same valley, I find myself caught in the ambush.
A village elder greets a member of the ASF, carrying an AK-47 and rocket-propelled grenade rounds, during a combat operation in the Hindu Kush. Many of the older ASF grew up fighting the Soviets during the 1979-1989 Soviet-Afghan War. Mountain warfare continues to devastate their homeland. [Photo] Ed Darack
I stumble out of a dusty ball of Marines and Afghan fighters and check my cameras for operability—and then myself for bullet holes. My ears ring from the explosions. The Taliban's rounds ricochet off the same rocks we relaxed against seconds earlier. For a moment, I feel almost exhilarated, as though I were swinging out from under an overhang on an upper pitch of an El Cap route. But only bad luck or personal screwups spell death on a wall; here, guerillas with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades will use the geologic features to kill me.
The firefight is over after a few minutes. I sprint from cover to cover behind large boulders back to my camp, nestled between two big rock fins. It is a great hideout. Over countless trips to the mountains in years past, I'd chosen similar places in which to unroll my sleeping bag—the Block on the Salathe; a high-walled snow compound on the edge of Denali's Peters Basin; an unnamed nook high on the northwest ridge of Sajama—not to avoid bullets and careening explosives, but because I felt safe, tucked into a mountainscape, yet protected from its hazards.
In this familiar kind of shelter I felt so comfortable, I didn't even have my flak jacket or my helmet on when we were attacked. This entire region had enraptured me so much I kept forgetting I was in a war zone. We're surrounded by villagers so insular in their mountain lives that they can hardly be called Afghans. Many of the locals offer us food as we pass through their villages. Others ignore us, herding their goats. Laughing children come to our patrol base in the morning and the evening, bringing tea. As I joke nervously with my friends about death, I realize I'm in this place because I've badly wanted to be here for years, in just these conditions, in just these circumstances.
A week later, when we exit from the patrol base, I need to call it quits. I'm almost out of film, my visa is due to expire, but most importantly, I'm spent. Camp Blessing is constantly on guard for rocket attacks, and I never get more than two or three hours of sleep at a time. Mountain warfare isn't The Eiger Sanction meets the Sands of Iwo Jima; it is continuous physical and emotional fatigue. "Mountains just kill people," Patrick says to me during our descent after the ambush. "Here, you throw in an enemy who's willing to die to kill you."