Rich, Richmond and I met up variously in Istanbul and Dushanbe after various hassles with visas. There followed 2 days of progressively worse roads and bouts of diarrhoea all round before we reached and crossed the Afghan border at Ishkashem.
Adab Shah our agent was on the case and we met the ever hospitable Hamidallah our interpreter and Mohammed our cook who helped us with the necessary permits scrawled onto scraps of paper and into what was left of an old land cruiser that bumped, splashed, slid and scraped its way up the Wakhan for 2 days.
After negotiating our way past a 1 quite officious local character there followed quite a touching meeting with a senior local policeman who was at great pains to tell us how grateful he and his countrymen were for the aid the UK has sent and the sacrifice of our armed forces personnel. A genuine and heartfelt thanks from a man who was obviously concerned about what will happen in his country in the future.
Sarhad is the end of the road and soon we were in caravan with 4 donkeys, 2 horses and 6 staff up the side of the Panj river. 4 days rough walking and icey river crossings with poor food and some more D and V (better than 2010 thanks to some shopping in Dushanbe) brought us to Kasch Goz and a farewll to our Wakhi horse/donkey handlers. After a little haggling Haji Osman Khan agreed to bully a horseman into accompanying us 2 days up the Kara Jeelga (The Dark Valley).
Hamidallah and Mohammed came to the end of the road (as far as horses could go) with us and then kindly carried loads for us for another hour up to the glacier snout.
A day later and we were installed in a base camp beneath the North Face of our objective. After a day when Richmond and I recced the other side of the peak and Rich scouted an acclimatisation route and picked up the last food dump we were ready to climb.
The couloir we chose wasn't too long but the snow was unhelpful and the rock atrociously shattered- every anchor was hard fought but after many hours we were on the crest of the main N ridge of the peak. We waited until late afternoon and the onset of cooler conditions to descend planning a summit attempt the next day but 7 abseils into the way down it all went a bit wrong.
I was 10m from Rich and Richmond who were secured to a snow bollard when the rockfall hit. The boulder was pale, square and a little bigger than Richmond's head. It landed on the crest of his helmet with a crack that shattered the peace of the north face. I froze, hunched over, peering up to see if there was more on the way. Rich looked serious "Al get over here now we've got a problem!"
Richmond was hanging slumped on the anchor, eyes rolled back in his head, a little blood leaking out from under his helmet which looked as if it had been struck neatly with an axe. Saliva streamed from his mouth and he was completely unresponsive to Rich's attempts to get him to react to him.
In the first 10 seconds as I abseiled to them my mind did back flips. 10 days to get here, no hope of outside assistance, a long way down, if he's dead, what am I going to tell his wife?
By the time I clipped into the anchor and began pulling the rope a few words with Rich were all it needed to put us into action. He attached himself to Richmond and whilst I pulled the ropes through and backed up the anchor to lower the two of them he carried on trying to look after our injured team member.
Soon into the first lower we'd shed Richmond's crampons and by the end of the second I'd adopted his rucksack (and was using his axes to back up the snow stakes I left behind on the next 2 ropelegths). Richmond had rejoined us slowly! Against the odds he'd started asking questions: "What country am I in?", "Who are you". Rich patiently explained what was happening and our casualty went from unresponsive through a period of confusion to where he could help as Rich struggled to put him in a belay jacket. There was a further moment of excitement where 50m below me in the dark they went freefall over the bergschrund but after 5 lowers and abseils a wobbly South African was able to stagger with a shoulder back to the tent.
Our initial relief was enormous but we weren't out of the woods yet. Even after a physical examination of the wound didn't seem to serious we had no idea what was going on in his battered body. We were worried about possible spinal injuries or bleeding inside his skull and our priority was to get him out as soon as possible.
The Wakhan is one of the most isolated spots in Central Asia. We were days of walking or riding from the end of a poor excuse for a road. The nature of the terrain and the proximity of so many borders (China, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Afghan territory all crammed into the area) making a helicopter rescue a hugely complex Diplomatic task. Rich made Sat Phone calls to our partners at home and the Embassy were as helpful as they could be but as we'd expected all along the casevac was going to be down to us.
Richmond is a tough character. After a day's rest he was walking and after another we had him riding with a supportive collar on despite neck pain and altered vision in one eye . We reversed the 10 day approach in 7 days despite a washed out road, vehicles in terrible condition, a river that we crossed using porters and a wrecked lorry as a bridge and due largely to the help of our excellent Wakhi staff.
By the time we had him back at the border we were happy that he would survive a couple more days to Dushanbe and a flight home. Long term there is no permanent damage.
So no summit this time, no first ascent. Just another mad adventure and more help from the Wakhi the wonderful inhabitants of this small corner of a troubled country. Richmond turned out to be OK fortunately but things could have been worse so we had to leave early to make sure. Since my visit in 2010 fighting has moved closer to Ishkashem and it remains to be seen if it will, for the first time, encroach on the peaceful people of the Wakhan Corridor. I do hope not.
30 pictures to show the trip. Video to follow!
Shopping in The Green Market, Dushanbe
On the road Tajikistan- check the folding on the peak behind!
Mohammed the chef shopping in Ishkashem
On the road, Afghanistan
Have yak... will travel
Young ladies of Sarhad
The start of the first day's trek
Moonrise over an un-named and largely inaccessible peak across the Panj in the Pamir
Haji Osman Khan, Kirghiz leader
Richmond heading up
On the ridge
Richmond injured back in the tent
The helmet and a rock similar to the one that hit him
Ready to head out
My only injury from the rockfall
The Dark Valley
Hamidullah leading Richmond out
Curiosity in Kasch Goz
Rich waiting for Kirghiz horsemen
6 beers please!
Many thanks to: MEF, MCofS, MCSA, Cotswold Outdoors Aberdeen and Adventure Food, Sport Pursuit, Ellis Brigham Fort William and not least Lowe Alpine