Scaling heights, changing perceptions

Nadjib Sirat, right, and Charles Hedrich in the Paghman district of Kabul province. (AFP)

When Nadjib Sirat laces up his climbing boots to become the first Afghan to scale the world's highest mountain, he will be driven by passion, not by the politics of his blighted homeland.

The 30-year-old believes that by becoming "the world's highest Afghan", he can draw attention to what his country has to offer besides war, poverty, misery and terror.

"There are fabulous summits and skiing destinations that are comparable to Tibet, Kashmir and Nepal because some parts of the country are very mountainous, with very high mountains and snow above 2,000 metres," he said.

"But no one knows this about Afghanistan because of the situation," he said, referring to the long war being waged by insurgents battling Afghan troops backed by more than 100,000 soldiers from US and Nato allies.

Sirat aims to change that perception by scaling some of the world's highest peaks to draw attention to Afghans as more than warriors, and to their country as one of breathtaking natural beauty.

With the help of French adventurer Charles Hedrich and the support of the Afghan Olympic Committee, Sirat has set up the Afghanistan Mountaineering Federation to transform his country in the minds of alpine athletes from hot war zone to cool extreme-sports destination.

As president of the new federation, Sirat said he knows now is not the time for even the most intrepid of tourists to travel to Afghanistan. That gives him time to draw attention to the country's natural assets, in preparation for the day peace descends and tourism becomes a realistic option.

He will travel to Nepal in April to climb the 8,201-metre Cho Oyu, the world's sixth-highest mountain.

If all goes well, September will see him back in the Himalayan country to take on Everest, at 8,848 metres the world's tallest peak.

It will also see him qualify as a bona fide mountaineering expedition leader in the eyes of his mentor and friend Hedrich, whose idea it was to find an Afghan climber to lay the foundations for an Afghan tourism industry. The two were introduced by the Afghan ambassador to France after Hedrich approached the embassy and received what he said was unbounded support.

The "job" of setting up the mountaineering federation – which has around 10 members – meant leaving his job in France to return to Kabul, where his mother and seven of his eight siblings live, and explore the country's mountains and ski runs. The Pamir Range in the Wakhan Corridor – the long finger of territory that points east, between Tajikistan and Pakistan towards China's far western border, seems the most likely base for his future business, Sirat said.

But his first stop after setting up the federation – with Hedrich as an honorary member "adding international credibility", he said – is a skiing trip to the Panshir Valley of northern Afghanistan, where he was born in 1980.

At age 18, he said, he was compelled to flee the wrath of the ruling Taliban regime while working for a French charity that set up schools for girls. He crossed the border into Pakistan, and after spending six months in Peshawar, left for Paris, where he was granted political asylum, completed his education and trained as a dental technician.

He moved to Grenoble, in the foothills of French Alps, and took up hiking and mountaineering, "an interest that became a passion", he said.

By contrast, he has no interest in politics, and both he and Hedrich are determined that their project set an example to young Afghans of what they can achieve, personally and professionally, in a peaceful environment.

That the Afghan government and its international supporters are now applying a new strategy against the Taliban – putting more emphasis on development and bringing insurgents in from the cold – is a "coincidence of timing," he said. (AFP)

 

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