The trail to summit of Noshaq now open to mountaineers as the Wildlife Conservation Society and others anticipate return of tourism to the mountain. Photograph by Anthony Simms/WCS Afghanistan Program
Closed off from the outside world for decades due to regional insecurity, Afghanistan’s highest mountain, Mount Noshaq, is once again accessible to the mountaineering community, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, Australian Geographic Outdoor, and other groups.
Located in the Hindu Kush Mountains of the Wakhan Corridor, an isolated panhandle of land connecting Afghanistan with China, Mount Noshaq stands at 7,492 meters (24,580 feet) in height. The region is home to many species of wildlife, including Marco Polo sheep, urial, ibex, and snow leopards.
The reopening of Mount Noshaq was commemorated by a recent mountain climbing expedition involving Anthony Simms, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Afghanistan Program Technical Advisor, and supported by The North Face/AG Outdoor Adventure Grant for 2011. Launched on July 25th, the expedition reached the summit of Noshaq on August 4th. The other members included: Tim Wood, who became the first Australian ever to reach the summit; Aziz Beg, who became only the third Afghan national to reach the summit; Abdul Hakim, a local ranger trained by WCS; and Malang Daria.
The expedition organized to help raise awareness of the beauty of Afghanistan’s natural resources and usher in a return of the tourism industry to this war-torn nation.
“This expedition marks the revival of a once popular tourist site that was forgotten during the country’s political unrest,” said Peter Zahler, Deputy Director of WCS’s Asia Program. “Despite the turmoil that continues in some parts of the country, Wakhan is just one of a number of areas in Afghanistan that are very safe from a security standpoint, and where tourism is already providing jobs and improved livelihoods for local people while providing an incentive to protect the country’s fragile environment and wildlife.”
Afghanistan was once a major draw for international tourists through the 1970s. After the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, mountaineers stopped visiting Noshaq because of the dangerous political climate. The laying of landmines in Noshaq Valley during the country’s civil war in the 1990s further isolated this enormous mountain. In recent months, however, with the support of USAID (United States Agency for International Development), the trail to Noshaq base camp has been repaired by WCS and local communities and now provides safe passage around the minefields. Combined with improved security conditions in the district, Noshaq is now again open for climbing.
The reopening of Noshaq is one of many projects undertaken by WCS to help the government of Afghanistan promote and protect its natural wonders. In 2009, the government gazetted the country’s first national park, Band-e-Amir, established with technical assistance from WCS’s Afghanistan Program. Since its creation, Band-e-Amir has become a significant draw for both national and international tourists, averaging some 4,000 visitors every Friday (the first day of the weekend in Afghanistan). In 2011, WCS researchers working in the Bamyan Plateau discovered another potential tourist destination: the Hazarchishma Natural Bridge, a massive natural arch measuring more than 200 feet across its base. Hazarchishma is the 12th largest natural arch in the world.
With funding from USAID, WCS has been working since 2006 with more than 55 local communities across Afghanistan to better manage their natural resources, helping them conserve wildlife while improving their livelihoods. WCS now works with every community found in the Wakhan Corridor, building community governance structures for natural resource management and working to create a suite of co-managed protected areas in the region. WCS is helping to study and conserve Afghanistan’s abundant wildlife; recent surveys have revealed healthy populations of snow leopards in the region. In addition, WCS has trained 59 community rangers to monitor not only snow leopards but other species including Marco Polo sheep and ibex while enforcing laws against poaching. WCS has also initiated the construction of predator-proof livestock corrals and a livestock insurance program that compensates shepherds, though initial WCS research shows that surprisingly few livestock fall to predators in the region. Conservation education is now occurring in every school in the Wakhan region, and WCS has been providing English language lessons and ecotourism job training for local villagers in expectation of the increase in mountaineering and adventure tourism.
For more information about the WCS Afghanistan Program, go to: www.wcsafghanistan.org