An epic adventure in Iraqi Kurdistan
IRAQI KURDISTAN borders what is surely the most significant and tragic conflict zone of the 21st century. It is not your usual mountain trekking location and certainly not your typical tourist destination. Situated in northern Iraq, it is the country’s sole autonomous region. Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi forces, in conjunction with Coalition airstrikes, have reclaimed territory from Islamic State (IS) in recent months. Yet the extremists are still in control of large expanses of Iraq, and there is considerable tension between the Kurdish local government and the central Iraqi bureaucracy. Nevertheless, Iraqi Kurdistan contains some of the Middle East’s most appealing landscapes, and Kurdish hospitality is truly sincere.
Our objective was the 3607m Mount Halgurd, the highest mountain wholly in Iraq. Situated in the rugged Zagros Mountains, it lies only 2km from the Iranian border. A trip like this is typically planned many months ahead of time; its multi-faceted complexities far from our comfort zones of ‘Western Civilisation’ and ‘Great Walk’ hiking. This isn’t the Routeburn or Overland Track. With all this in mind, a group of strangers with a keen sense of adventure enlisted the support of a commercial expedition company.
However, as the commencement date approached, concerns were raised over Turkish airstrikes being directed against the Kurdistan People’s Party, or PKK, which is waging an armed struggle against the Turkish state for the self-determination of the Kurds. These strikes were reported to have recently encroached to within just 15km of Mount Halgurd. Further, new information on the targeting capabilities of the Turks had been provided. They seemed to be less capable than previously thought, with few PKK members actually being hit. As a result, the possible risks of ‘collateral damage’ had greatly increased. There was heightened concern about the potential for Turkish jets to either mistake the party on the mountain for a military target, or for an accidental strike in the proximity of the team. These new fears led the commercial expedition to be cancelled abruptly – only days before our departure.
INTO A WARZONE
Independently, we made inquiries and we determined that, as a non-commercial entity, the risk was acceptable. An undaunted five members of the original team of 12 continued towards the looming goal of Halgurd. Hurriedly, we established contacts with local drivers and located a mountain guide. We were greatly facilitated by the helpful members of the Kurdistan Mountaineering Federation. Everyone assured us that we would be safe from airstrikes and extremist infiltrators. We weren’t fully convinced, but we put these fears to the back of our minds. We obtained topographical maps from international mountaineering sources. These contained crucial data, indicating the location of minefields in the Iran-Iraq border region; a longstanding consequence of the armed conflict between Iran and Ba’athist Iraq from 1980-88.
Our abridged team re-energised over frantic emails; two Aussies, two Americans and a Brit, with a diverse mix of travel and outdoor backgrounds. Myself in the previous months had trekked in Northern Afghanistan, Far East Russia and Ethiopia; and had toured Mogadishu, Somalia. So this was a natural extension of my explorations and expeditions, intertwined with complicated cultural, political and security environments. Yet I was not complacent, as by the nature of the location and the surrounding political turmoil, this was no doubt going to be a problematic undertaking.
Our arrival at the airport in Erbil was daunting. At the time the front line against IS had been pushed back but still was only 50km away. Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, seemed peaceful, welcoming and was historically fascinating. There was no indication of the brutal war occurring over the horizon, except for the occasional thunderclap of explosions and the accompanying mushroom clouds. With our team hastily meeting, we greeted our drivers, who were to become crucial to our success. Haval was a friendly and resourceful (unpaid) government agricultural administrator. Wahed was a respected elder, conservative in his religion and manners. He had never collaborated with Westerners, and appeared to be distant and somewhat uneasy, especially when accompanying the women in our group.
Having made our rushed arrangements for climbing Halgurd, we headed off on a hectic but captivating two-day tour, which took us even closer to the frontline. Beginning in Lalish we met the Yazidi; ethnically Kurdish, yet belonging to an independent religious community with their
We headed off on a captivating two-day tour, which took us even closer to the frontline.
own unique culture. Since August 2014 they have suffered from genocide inflicted by IS. Yet during our April 2016 visit they were welcoming and generous as we participated in their New Year Feast. From here we visited the Saint Hormizd Monastery, carved into the mountainside in 640 AD. Here the peaceful atmosphere was shattered by the sound of a jet and the detonation of twin 2000-pound bombs, as we observed a Coalition airstrike against Islamic State positions in the direction of Mosul. In contrast to the incredible hospitality we had received, this was a stark reminder of the geopolitical realities of our mountain objective.
Passing one of Saddam Hussein’s vast, crumbling palace complexes we continued towards the Zagros Mountains. En route we made a side trip to Amedi, a beautiful citadel built on a mountain plateau over a millennium ago. Here we encountered Syrian refugees, who had fled the horrors of IS, and were now occupying a once lavish guesthouse of Saddam’s. By the evening we were nearing Choman, the closest town to Mount Halgurd. Here we encountered a final hurdle as the checkpoint guards questioned our intentions. With a recent visa stamp from Afghanistan in my passport there seemed to be some consternation. However, our dependable drivers, Haval and Wahed, ensured we passed scrutiny. After sharing some sweets with the soldiers and confirming there was no Afghan contraband concealed in my luggage we reached our staging base for climbing Halgurd, an abandoned house on the banks of the Choman River. That night we commissioned a local guide. His mountaineering competence was minimal, as was his English, but we had to overlook this as we needed a local guide through the minefields. We planned our mountain ascent to last two days – one night at high camp, an early summit over frozen snow, and then the long descent back to the road head.
On the morning of our summit trek we were met by a driver and his Toyota 4WD. We readied our mountain gear, but were delayed when we realised the bald tyres of this particular vehicle would not be sufficient to ascend the winding approach road. While another vehicle was arranged we finalised the formalities of seeking permission for our journey so close to the Iranian border. We met with the local security commander, and while tense at first, our meeting settled into copious tea drinking and photo taking. He offered us a military escort, which we declined, and provided his personal mobile number, in the event of an incident. After the pleasantries, and some gun-toting photos, we piled into the slightly better treaded replacement vehicle, and began the final road push. There was the driver, the guide, the five team members, and Haval and Wahed. They had insisted on coming along to make sure we got the full value out of our local support. Of course it was nothing to do with that – they had never stood on the slopes of such a prominent, snowy peak. So with the nine of us in our five-seat vehicle we at last began to close in on our goal. Passing several minefield warning signs increased our trepidation but our team was excited that despite the cancellation of the first expedition we might be summiting our objective after all – a feat rarely achieved by foreigners.
After a 40-minute drive we hit the snowline, said farewell for now to Haval and Wahed, shouldered our packs and commenced our ascent. The route was scattered with spent ammunition cartridges, ration tins, the odd army boot, and remains of exploded ordnance. Minefield markers became a constant accompaniment. The approach to our high camp was challenging due to the unseasonably deep snow. Then on reaching the intended vicinity of our camp we were battered by intense winds. With difficulty and an irrational fear of hitting landmines we cut our tent platforms into the frozen snow and erected flimsy tents. These were provided by our local guide and were the equivalent of department store beach tents that offered negligible protection against the elements. Our expensive mountaineering tents remained
behind as we had been assured we did not need them. Anyway, by then our group was familiar and we adopted cosy sleeping positions. Fortunately the wind eased overnight and we slept well in our distorted tents.
The next day we awoke at sunrise and assessed the mountain conditions, geared up and began the final ascent. While predominantly firm snow, there were some tricker rock sections to overcome. Two hours of moderate yet scenic climbing saw us reach the lower summit. Here the winds were powerful yet the view was overwhelming. We could observe rugged peaks in all directions and sighted the mountain range that continued deep into Iranian territory. We pushed on, gaining the final heights to stand on the true summit. It was indeed a lofty peak and fulfilment showed on our faces. After celebratory handshakes and the obligatory photos we were ready to descend. Facing down the long slope this was noticeably trickier than coming up. With a few stumbles, and application of our self-arrest skills, we managed to reach easier ground and arrived back at camp for a short but satisfying rest. Breaking camp we made a long push to rendezvous with our transport. Our success despite all of the many hurdles made the trudge through the deep, soft snow entirely bearable.
Having summited Halgurd over two days, we spent the rest of the trip touring and immersing ourselves in Kurdish culture and history. We headed east and arrived in As Sulaymaniyah, the most liberal and Western-styled city of Kurdistan. While appreciating the extravagance of a developed city it was here that we were confronted with the horrific modern history of Iraq. We visited Amna Suraka, or the Red Prison, which had functioned as the headquarters of the northern division of the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s former secret intelligence agency. It was now one of the world’s most disturbing museums memorialising the horrors inflicted under the Ba’athist regime. Between 1986 and 1989, the Iraqi state conducted the genocidal al-Anfal Campaign against the Iraqi Kurds. Led by Ali Hassan al-Majid under the direction of Saddam Hussein, al-Anfal utilised bombing, death squads, forced relocation, scorched earth tactics, torture and imprisonment, and chemical warfare in an attempt to destroy the Kurdish population.
The chemical gas attacks, part of al-Anfal, earned alMajid the nickname of ‘Chemical Ali’. A Human Rights Watch report documented the “systematic and deliberate murder of at least 50,000 and possibly as many as 100,000 Kurds” as a result of al-Anfal. During the first Gulf War of 1991, the Kurdish Peshmerga conducted an uprising in northern Iraq with the resolve of liberating the country from Hussein’s control. Though ultimately unsuccessful, the rebellion saw the takeover of Amna Suraka by the Kurds.
Departing As Sulaymaniyah, we hastily drove through Kirkuk, only recently on the frontline, and an ongoing loca- tion of suicide bombings, arriving back at Erbil where we had begun several adventurous days ago. We were most grateful for the calm and reassuring nature of our newfound friends Haval and Wahed. We celebrated in their homes with amazing Kurdish hospitality in a binge of eating that continued for most of the day. Though being a former soldier of Saddam Hussein’s army, Wahed had become our best ally through military checkpoints and car breakdowns. He had forgone the stereotypes of Westerners and their excesses, with a relaxed, joyful nature replacing his initial apprehension. By sharing his and his family’s stories he had shown a human side to a war-hardened generation of Kurds.
We finished with some German beer behind the stalwart walls of the well-concealed Deutscher Hof Erbil, a popular drinking hole for expats, the location of which now seems somewhat hazy. The following day we concluded our Kurdish journey exploring Erbil. The Citadel is said to be the oldest continually inhabited place in the world. The nearby Grand Bazaar was colourful and fascinating, welcoming and cheerful. I sensed the people here were not in denial of the horrors inflicted by past and present, but their human spirit superseded the extremism of religions and regimes.
On my flight to Jordan, I reflected on an incredible experience. I was in awe of the friendly Kurds who welcomed, fed and guided us. Without them and the determination of our team we could not have achieved a goal from the upper echelons of global adventure. For many adventurers we go to the mountains to escape the modern world. Yet on this trip, natural exploration and world politics were intertwined. This is the reality of today’s explorer.
The route was scattered with spent cartridges, ration tins, the odd army boot, and remains of exploded ordnance.
Approaching the summit of Mount Halgurd, at 3607m, the highest peak wholly in Iraq. Just beyond is the Iranian border.
Kurdish Peshmerga artwork on the wall of one of Saddam Hussein's former extravagant palaces.
Caution is required; mines and unexploded ordnance are scattered throughout Kurdistan.
Celebrating the Yazidi New Year in Lalish.