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Paddling into the Pamirs

Adventures in Tajikistan
By Andrew McEwan, Simon Beardmore, and Middy Tilghman

Middy Tilghman

December 5, 2007 -- Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan

We were at 14,500 feet, it had snowed the night before, the river was completely frozen, and we had been hiking for days with boats laden with two weeks of food and gear. We asked ourselves why we got into such a situation.

Our response was a shrug; the same shrug response to people’s inquiring years before why we would possibly be doing a long, flat wildwater workout in icy winter. Smile. Shrug. We are freaks, and that is fine with us.

After seriously racing and training wildwater for a group total of 23 years, we have all retired from racing. But the same boneheaded love of being outside- way outside- and slow, steady pain lives on inside us, now in expedition form. Without wildwater, we had to go to Tajikistan to satisfy our addiction. Tajikistan knew just how to quench our needs.

After three months of paddling around Tajikistan, we were venturing into this countries most remote region, a river without villages along its edges. Breathtakingly high in the Pamir mountains, lies the legendary Musku river. Hardcore Russians teams first paddled the river in the 1980’s; our November descent was late in the year even for these bad ass teams of Slavs. As we sat in the snow, looking at the frozen river we had planned to paddle into the mighty Muksu all we could do was smile and shrug. Underneath our frozen exteriors, we were quite happy with ourselves.

A week earlier we had set out on a long and painful drive, typical in a country with virtually no pavement, that was the first leg of our Muksu journey. In the town of Khorog we were told it would be 15 hours of driving to the initial pass, so we found a sturdy-looking Russian vehicle piloted by two friendly- seeming Pamiris and paid them half of our agreed- upon price before embarking. We drove all day and spent the night in the house of a family 30 miles short of our destination. In the morning, our drivers refused to continue, citing the poor mountain roads and their low fuel. We considered these complaints to be tardy for the negotiation process and withheld the second half of the money until we could find a ride the rest of the way. This went over poorly. All morning we argued with them and rehashed the pieces of our broken agreement. Eventually they tried to take our boats. Andrew grabbed the one they were taking, and the odium of the co-pilot truly blossomed. While Andrew struggled to match Russian adjectives and nouns for case, gender, and number, the co-pilot grabbed him by the collar and started punching him in the mouth. Meanwhile, twenty Pamiri townsmen had gathered around, and it was our best guess that their sympathies lay elsewhere. Simon simultaneously restrained himself and the co-pilot, and we quickly reached an agreement to pay them some of the money.

It wasn't until they had left that the townspeople asked us why we had ever hired such crazy drivers and found us another ride, albeit an exorbitantly priced one. Before leaving, an opportunistic national park representative found us and charged us $100 to cross park land. In these cases, what can you do? Feel outraged for sure, but then hopefully, move on. We got an UAZ ride to the dismal Kok Jar, alleged by our map to be a "forest of outstanding beauty" but more aptly just a "forest that's still standing." This early stop added six miles and 1,300 vertical feet to our hike, but to distance ourselves from the last twenty- four hours, we were happy to take it.

Our newer, nicer driver dropped us off at the bottom of a pass in gale force winds and late afternoon sun. He eagerly pointed out the best footpath; the road was long he said and wished us safe travels with a gift of bread. We harnessed the boats to our backs as before in Tajikistan. Maybe it was the added weight of enough food for almost two weeks, maybe it was the screaming wind, but we all staggered those first steps. Ahead loomed two passes taking us up to 14,800 feet and at least 20 miles as the crow flies to the Belandkyk River, that might be frozen. Consciously we were late in the year in order to avoid the extreme floods of the summer. The winter cold and a potentially dewatered tributary that would take us off our feet and into boats and the Muksu, the Belandkyk, seemed like a small price to pay for the assurance of lower water on the Muksu. Thinking about all this only made the boats heavier as we sucked wind up the pass. We hunkered down for the night in a flat spot most of the way up the pass and tried not to speculate about the future.

The morning began with headaches from the altitude and cracking ice out of our water bottles for cooking water. The headaches went away with time; carrying something about half our body weight warmed us up. A slight redefinition of terms is necessary at this point. Carrying was not a continuous motion but rather a repeating cycle of 20-50 feet of walking then a 30 second break to parse oxygen from the thin air.

By mid-day, we reached the valley leading to the Takhtakorum Pass. The ground was fine dust, scattered with cow and sheep dung. We dropped our boats and dragged them behind us to give our shoulders a break. By evening, we were at 13,200 feet, and our Russian stove required a cleaning to start.

Frozen water bottles, headaches, and the cold were fast becoming routine to our mornings. The next day saw more trudging. If you didn't fully catch your breath during a short rest, you would lose it after your first two steps and have to stop again. We hiked in jackets, hats, and 2 layers of warm clothes. Andrew spotted 4 Marco Polo sheep wearing nothing but fur.

The next morning we reached the pass, or "summit," and looked into the watershed that had occupied so much of our thoughts for the past months. Wind had blown the ice on a small lake at the top slightly to one side and, exhausted and shoulder sore from carrying, we paddled a half mile in the exposed water, carefully avoiding any splashes or drips. The descent was tough- over large, sharp, black slate rocks- but short- 825 feet and 4 miles. Days ago it had become too cold to rest for long and enjoy our breaks; we just wanted to schlep on and start paddling.

Finally, the Belandkyk. Thick ice covered the edges and the rocks but water flowed in the middle. Not enough to paddle but it looked promising for the next day once tributaries joined in the fun. After lining our boats, we settled into the four walls that remained of a shepherds' hut and discovered a valuable trick we would use for the remainder of our Tajik travels: sleeping squished together provides warmth.

The valley was spectacular and seemed to end directly in mountain tops. We saw a herd of ibex and were becoming convinced a sasquatch- size marmot was pilfering our food at night. Our stove, and now fuel pump, required multiple cleanings to work every time. There was an almost full moon.

The next day was a tough one, as the Belandkyk disappeared all together- either from freezing up or going underground. We started to wonder how long we would be walking. That night, our edifices slowly deteriorating, we slept between two walls of loosely stacked rocks against a cliff. It snowed on us, which was beautiful but added an unnecessary shockwave to our morning headaches. Our hands now had a dry black sheen from dirt and the crisp air that we had previously seen on shepherds, but the snow seem to coat the land and our troubles with an attractive layer.

Cresting a rolling hill, we saw people at a large cabin. Our minds sifted through possibilities of what on God's green Earth people would be doing high up in the mountains that time of year besides the obvious, like watersports.

Their greetings were friendly, and as we approached we noticed western items and then a guy talking on a satellite phone. They welcomed us warmly with tea and food and revealed they were a hunting camp presently occupied by Norwegians and an Italian. A helicopter would come for these clients in a couple days and replace them with new people all of whom were there to hunt species we are pretty sure are endangered.

At one point conversation became heated by politics, which could not have been more surreal when through the window was snow and 20,000 foot peaks. They invited us for the night, but when we opted to catch the afternoon glacial melt and begin paddling, they advised us about a cabin downstream.

With three and half hours of daylight to cover the distance to the hunting cabin, we hastily packed our boats and geared up amidst the on-looking Tajik guides and staff. We thanked them for their hospitality, bid them farewell, and commenced the "paddling" leg of our journey. The first few miles involved more pushing off rocks and ice than actual strokes, but we were relieved to be unyoked from the burden of carrying. The air was cold, and almost immediately a veneer of ice coated our life-jackets, dry-tops, and pogies. We paddled hard to stay warm, and to secure a night of warmth in the cabin, whose stove and well-stocked woodpile awaited. As dusk approached, we got out occasionally to scan the valley for the hospice, but to no avail. Even with a push well into twilight, the cabin failed to materialize. Defeated, we snapped icicles from our helmets, frost from our beards (some expedition members more than others), and braced ourselves for a cold night under the tarp. On the upside, in our rapid decent we had crossed the snowline, and saw small shrubs for the first time since the far side of the Takhtakorum pass. On the downside, Jack Frost was not to be outdone so easily, and we passed the night slowly as snowflakes stealthily settled around us.

We started late the next morning to allow the river to rise and to let our frozen gear become pliable, if not dry. The paddling picked up where it left off; rocky boat abuse and cold hands. We reached a short canyon section of the Belandkyk mid-morning, where an iced-over narrow drop forced us to portage up a snowy embankment and seal launch back in below before resuming the frustrating downriver battle. For a second time, we crossed the snowline, and were heartened by the return of full-sized vegetation. That night we celebrated the advent of fire like Neolithic cavemen, while simultaneously lamenting the new-found split in Andrew's boat. That nocturnal asshole Jack Frost paid us another visit, and we awoke to more snow, another late morning of gear thawing, and temporary boat repair before setting off.

By 11, we reached the foot of the massive Fedchenko glacier, one of the longest in the world, and the flow more than doubled to about 1,000 cfs. The next section of river, a pre-curser to the canyons of the Muksu, wandered from side to side of the wide U-shaped valley, 20,000 foot peaks in the distance. An upstream wind kept things chilly, especially for Andrew, who's boat routinely took on submarine properties after parting with its patch at nearest convenience. We found a sheltered campsite in the afternoon, indulged in another fire, and speculated about the infamous canyons of the Muksu for one last night.

Late the next morning, we found ourselves on the threshold of the first of such canyons, 300' above the river, watching the river disappear around a blind corner. Middy returned from scouting, stymied by a scree slope even an ibex would balk at. With no other options, we looked at each other, shrugged, and got back in our boats. Guarding the entrance to this canyon was a stalwart rapid with 2 beastly holes in quick succession. Fortunately, we all caught the must-make eddy on the lip of the first hole and portaged without incident. During the portage, we saw footprints in the sand likely belonging to a Russian group rumored to have been here two weeks prior. These signs of voyageurs on the same route gave us a bit of comfort, but perhaps detracted slightly from the sense of remoteness. We rounded the bend, finding only more beautiful canyon, and runnable rapids below.

Our deliberately late season run on the Muksu seemed to work all too well. And we found little of the ferocity that had lurked in the back of our minds for months. The rapids were largely fun, though committing, and it is easy to envisage the maelstrom that would accompany higher water. As it was, we boat scouted most rapids, except when Andrew had to empty, in which case he'd give directions to Middy and Simon, e.g. "If you back-paddle at the lip of that drop…no, no, closer…closer…closer….yeah, you can see a big rock below the ledge. Drop off side-ways in front of it."

Since we were behind schedule getting to the canyon section of the Muksu, we had cut back our food rations to allow a couple of extra days. Sooner than we expected though, the canyons opened up after only a day and half, and we passed the first signs of civilization, Tajiks panning for gold. After a marathon, blister-inducing day, we reached the Surkhob River and paddled in to Djirgatal, where 1 month prior we had explored the south flowing rivers. We feasted on our excess ¾ of sausage before heading into town. We met our old friend Ismonoli, who let us back into our home away from home, the Djirgatal Regional Airport.

The late-season Muksu proved to be wildwater in nature. Our freakish appetite had been appeased. Like grueling, painful year-round training for a fleeting 20-minute race, we had just portaged for a frozen week at altitude for a day and a half of whitewater. Smile. Shrug.