Weekend Warm-Up: Pamir Pilgrimage

An easy section of the Pamir Highway.

Picture this: a crappy Russian van, 4,700km of frozen road, an elevation of 4,600m, and civilization disappearing in your rearview mirror as you judder forward at a mere 55 kilometres an hour. Would you dare? Any normal person would not. For Drew Smith, Jack Cramer, and Jackson Marvell, it was probably the dumbest thing they ever did. But hey, at least it was fun. 

While the Pamir Highway, the world’s second-highest highway, is undeniably beautiful, it is less than ideal for travel, especially in winter. Stretching from Kyrgyzstan to Tajikistan through one of the highest mountain ranges in the world, it is bumpy, isolated and you probably won’t see another living soul for weeks.

Nevertheless, over the centuries the road played an essential cultural role. Even 1,400 years ago, the Pamirs drew Buddhist pilgrims. The highway was also a key piece of the mercantile Silk Road between East and West. Nowadays, it is a pilgrimage for cyclists, mountaineers, and anyone else craving adventure in desolation. This includes ragtag fellows like these. 

The three loaded their Soviet-grade van with equipment and supplies, rather proud that they managed to acquire such a heavy-duty and reliable piece of machinery…which managed to start by sheer will alone. 

The goal of their journey was to scour the mountains for frozen waterfalls to climb. If they found a worthy piece of hanging ice, they immediately pulled over and set to work.

Photo: Drew Smith

The team was likely the first to climb the beautiful ice tucked away in these shadowy gorges and broad canyons. Once, their footprints en route to the base of the climb mingled with the prints of a snow leopard.

Another lovely surprise occurred when their van stalled in the middle of nowhere. After coaxing it to what resembled a gas station, they discovered that their alternator had exploded. This took a few days to fix. It seemed that they were driving on whatever life was left in the thing, as parts kept falling off, keys broke, and the heat wasn’t working. But as if by divine providence, the van managed to soldier on for one last mountain, one last adventure.

#vanlife?? Photo: Drew Smith

Mostly, things got worse before they got better. They encountered more potholes on a road that became ever-narrower. The craziness and uncertainty did not seem to end. Then, just as they were about to abort their mission, they spotted a column of ice at the top of one of the mountains. No words were needed. They shouldered their packs and traversed the slope to the icicle. The ice didn’t agree with them at first, falling off in small chunks. But Jackson was convincing. The three climbed into the night and cried out in victory. Sometimes, it’s best to let go of the outcome. That way, success comes naturally. 

About the Author

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine De Abreu

Kristine is a travel writer and editorial assistant from Trinidad and Tobago.

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