The World’s Most Dangerous Mountains

What really animates many of those we meet is the photograph of the frozen boy that Zana showed me. Like Zana, several have it stored on their phones. I first came across it next to articles in the Kurdish press explaining how Farhad Khosravi, 17, and his brother Azad, 21, set out on an overnight kolbar trip over Tateh from the village of Ney, outside Mariwan, on December 16, 2019. I track down their companion, Zanyar Kawe, who was 18 at the time and says that even though the mountains were covered in thick snow and the temperature was well below freezing, it should have been an easy walk. Kolbars routinely made the trip over Tateh in winter in nothing more than a hat, a coat, and a scarf, Zanyar said. Besides, the night was so cloudless, “you could have counted the stars.”

Initially, the trek went well. Setting out at 1 A.M., Zanyar, Farhad, and Azad made the pass at around 3 A.M. By 4 A.M., they had picked up loads of 90 pounds each and started back. But after taking a break at a cave, Zanyar said, “all of a sudden a snowstorm began. Heavy wind—so strong we could not see in front of us.” Azad began feeling unwell. This was a reversal—Azad was a man, while his two companions were barely more than boys—and when the younger pair asked their older companion what was wrong, he would shrug it off, pick up his load, and walk on. But soon he would stop again, and though the precise reason was unclear—“I don’t know what has happened to me,” Azad kept saying—to Zanyar, it was clear that he was “losing it.”

By the time the trio reached the pass for the second time, Farhad and Zanyar were helping Azad carry his pack. When that became impossible, they ditched their loads and tried shouldering his arms. By then, however, Azad was falling every few steps. Picking him up one time, Zanyar noticed that his friend’s hands were stiff and that his nose and the left side of his face were black. Whatever else ailed him, with only the thinnest protection in a blizzard above 8,000 feet, Azad was now freezing alive.

Finally, Azad said he couldn’t go any farther. The others tried to drag him, without success. As Azad lay on the open ground in the snowstorm, Zanyar and Farhad covered his hands with their jackets, swept the snow from his hair, and wound their scarves around his head. Then Zanyar confronted Farhad. They had to save themselves, he shouted above the storm. Once they were off the mountain, they could send a mule train back for Azad. Farhad shook his head. He was Azad’s brother. “I won’t leave him, Zanyar!” he shouted. The two boys looked at each other, cried briefly, and then Zanyar set off with Azad’s phone, to use once he got a signal. His last sight of the two brothers was of Farhad kneeling next to Azad’s motionless body and rubbing it.

Zanyar descended. After a while, the phone rang in his pocket. It was the load’s owner, wanting to know where they were. Zanyar described the brothers’ condition and location. The man said he would dispatch a search party and instructed Zanyar to continue down. Within half an hour, ­Zanyar was stripping in the cab of a pickup and warming himself on the heater. Around him, dozens of Ney men were setting off back up the mountain. They soon found Azad, “heart still beating, but half dead,” Zanyar said. “He passed away on the way.” The rescuers also discovered two other kolbars suffering from frostbite, who they carried down, plus three frozen mules, which they left.

There was no sign of Farhad, however. The search parties looked for three days. Finally, a neighbor came across the 17-year-old’s body on the doorstep of a hut at the foot of a mountain several miles away. Blood and ­broken glass around him suggested that Farhad had fought through the blizzard, only to be defeated by a locked door. Cutting himself when he smashed a window in an attempt to enter, he had collapsed. The picture I had seen was taken minutes after he was found, and showed a friend cradling his iced-over body in the back of an ambulance. Later a doctor would estimate that it had taken Farhad two days to bleed out and freeze to death.

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