Considering where I was going, I was surprised how easy it was to get to Iraq - a short flight to Vienna from London and then another connecting to Erbil before being picked up and driven to a hotel in the centre (which, although looked like it hadn't been refurbished since the 1970s, was clean and comfy). Erbil is the capital of a semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region in Northern Iraq, officially governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and it is one of the oldest inhabited citadels in the world. The Kurdish people, an ethnic minority, originate from the mountain regions of the Northern Middle East and currently number 25-35 million people, occupying an area spanning the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. They have anticipated, negotiated and fought for their own state since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire but so far this has been to no avail.
I was part of an expedition to climb Mount Halgurd - at 3,607m the highest peak wholly in Iraq - in the Zagros mountains of Kurdistan. We had a briefing that first evening from our guides Dave and Phil in our hotel in Erbil - showing us a map of where we would be heading in Kurdistan and the overall planned itinerary, although warned this of course could be subject to change! There were 11 others of us in the group, mostly from the UK but also the Netherlands, US, Russia, and Australia, and we shared our travel stories over kebabs in a local restaurant that night. Dave was an ex army Engineer and Phil had guided on several high altitude peaks so I felt in safe hands.
After a hearty breakfast in the hotel (egg and chips!) we packed our bags and boarded our minibus to reach the town of Choman at the foot of the Zagros mountains. The ride driving out of the city and onto windy country roads would have been ok if it wasn't for our driver who seemed to pay little attention to the road and more to his mobile phone - I nervously watched as he held one hand on the steering wheel and the other to his device, only for the other phone to ring and he picked it up and proceeded to steer with his elbows! We shouted in disbelief but I think he enjoyed the attention and carried on! It was a relief when we stopped for lunch in a kebab place at the side of the road, with plastic tables and chairs and... a disco ball. The speciality seemed to be fish with thick, sour pomegranate sauce (in fact this sauce seemed to be customary with everything!). We carried on past several military checkpoints where a surly soldier or two, armed with guns, would peer into the windows or come onto the bus asking to see our passports then wave us on.
We also stopped by the Shanidar Cave - an archaeological site located on Bradost Mountain. The remains of ten Neanderthals have been found within the cave as well as two later "proto-Neolithic" cemeteries. We had a look around the cave and then were on our way again - reaching the town of Choman at 8pm. There we met our local guide Omer's family including his animated elderly father Mohammed. Their house was basic with a couple of large rooms downstairs, sparse of furniture apart from cushions and rugs, a couple of rooms still being built upstairs, and a large flat roof deck. We ate some kebabs, rice, and bread seated on cushions, then slept in our sleeping bags on the downstairs floor of their house.
The next morning I set off with the two Dutch guys in our group - Remco and Jan - to buy supplies for the trip (including petrol) from Choman. It was a small town so didn't take long to explore, including local market and the butchers shop with cows heads laid bare on a wooden table and blood spilling out from the floor onto the street outside.
We left the town in two trucks towards the mountains later that afternoon, however their wheels weren't equipped for the snow-covered tracks as we eventually got higher. They inevitably got stuck in the snow so we took our kit off the trucks and trekked the rest of the way into camp (much to the concern of Mohammed for us women and our big packs!). It was a steep trek uphill into the Zagros mountains with around 20kg in our rucksacks with our personal kit, tents, and food so slow going for the next couple of hours.
Eventually we reached a snowy plateau where we set up our base camp, put up our tents, and cooked our dehydrated meals (surprisingly tasty!) over small gas stoves. We also got some time to practice our crampon skills (spikes to attach to our boots in the snow) and ice axe arrest technique (to stop us sliding should we slip on a slope). I was sharing a 2-man tent with Andrea, also from London, and we were warm cosied up in our sleeping bags that night despite the cold temperature outside.
It was tough waking up the next morning at 4am but we boiled some water and made porridge before packing our day-bags and setting off at 5.15am. Unfortunately Remco wasn't feeling well so decided to head back to Choman that day instead. The walk up snowy slopes in our crampons was sustained but nothing technical and it was beautiful seeing the snow glisten beneath us as the sun came up over the mountain range.
We continued on traversing up slopes and kicking in our crampons, until at 9am we came over the crest of the mountain to reach the summit. We all celebrated, taking out flags and hugging each other - my teammate Jarryd even did a handstand in celebration. A couple of hours later we were back down at camp and spent the rest of the day relaxing.
At 6.30am the next morning we awoke, had breakfast, and packed up our kit, leaving a couple of hours later. The walk was pleasant, along dirt paths surrounded by fields and hills and a scattering of small stone houses. We were passing a ball back and forth as we walked and at one point, after a particularly eager throw, Jarryd ran down a slope off the path to retrieve it. As we turned the corner however we were confronted by two men dressed head to toe in white protective outfits. They started shouting at us and waving their arms and Omer hastily translated that we were in fact walking in a MINEFIELD! After decades of conflict, the mountainous region along the Kurdistan border with Iran is covered with millions of landmines laid during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, most by the Iraqi regime who planted these to hinder the advance of Iranian troops. This team had been clearing it for some time warned whatever we did not to step off the path! We carried on gingerly until we were clear of the area they had indicated and then walked a bit further until we reached a flat area surrounded by low rocky walls (whereby the local shepherds would typically rest at night). Relaxed for the rest of the afternoon, playing cards and making our dehydrated meals using boiled water from a nearby stream.
The next day there was a debate around what to do next - some of the group was keen to go for another summit, but myself and a few others felt that following the minefield escape yesterday we were keen to descend back to Choman. Although our guides felt confident it was safe, I didn't fancy getting a leg blown off or worse just for the sake of bagging another peak! In the end 5 of us (Becky, Chris, Jarryd, Zhen and I) set off with our bags and a couple of tents. It was a lovely walk with long traverses down dirt trails with beautiful views over the surrounding valleys, and we all chatted lots en route over the next four hours.
Just as we were starting to flag and wondered if we'd make it back down before dark a truck rumbled past. I must say its the first and last time I've hitch-hiked and in Iraq of all places! The men in the front were Dr Kamal, who'd lived in Austria the past 35 years and was currently lecturing in Erbil, and his brother. They happily let us jump in the back of the pick-up and drove us back to Omer's family house in Choman. We were reunited with Remco and the family including Omer, Mohammed, two nephews and two children. They were so welcoming - although we couldn't communicate much they poured copious amounts of tea, played card games, and provided us with chicken and rice for dinner.
After more tea the next morning, the six of us grabbed a couple of taxis for a mini day-trip to the Iranian border. It was around 30 minutes drive away and as we approached I started to get a little nervous as to whether it was such a good idea, especially when someone pointed out that a group of American climbers had been caught trekking by the border some years ago without visas and were currently still in jail. The guards let us over into the "no mans land" between the two countries but took our passports for safekeeping, which was a little daunting. We changed some money into Iranian Rial (for proof of being there to the others more than anything!) and then drove back out again (I was relieved to get my passport back!). We also stopped just outside for a couple of cups of tea ("chai") in a little cafe.
Feeling on a risk-high we asked our driver to take us to somewhere in the dry-country to buy alcohol - which turned out to be over an hour's drive away in a little town called Soran. The off-licence was completely hidden in a house with no obvious indication of what lay inside. It was in fact a bit of an Aladdin's cave with every type of spirit and a fair selection of beer and wines. We stocked up on a couple of bottles and beers which we hid in the boot before driving back. At every checkpoint I was so nervous we'd get caught, but luckily had no trouble. By the time we'd got back to Choman the others had arrived and we caught up on their expedition to the second summit - which had thankfully gone well. Had dinner in a nearby cafe, with more fish and pomegranate, and the family entertained us with a musical evening on traditional instruments.
We wandered around town the next morning - buying ice-creams, watching children playing football, and Jan even got a shave! It was hard sometimes to think I was in a country synonymous with war. It was only when I walked past a checkpoint (and got a photo with the soldiers there!) that reminded me of where I was.
It was a long drive the next day to Erbil and I was sad to say goodbye to Omer, Mohammed, and his family. En route we visited a small museum on the history of Iraqi Kurdistan where we heard about the region's struggle for independence (likening it to the upcoming Scottish referendum!). We also stopped by a waterfall for more tea, finally reaching the city around midday. Enjoyed a nice long shower and a walk around the city, before joining the others for shisha next door to the hotel. We were invited to a plush celebration dinner that evening in a hotel eating Lebanese food with some local dignitaries, followed by drinks after in one of the hotel bar rooftops.
Just a couple of months after we went there in April 2014, ISIL and aligned forces began a major offensive in Northern Iraq against the Iraqi government. Then the US began a campaign of airstrikes in Iraq, in part to protect Kurdish areas such as Erbil from the militants. Back home in London, I thought of the people I'd met in Kurdistan and thankfully through Facebook knew they were safe but it was heartbreaking to think they could be caught up in the attacks. To think just a few weeks earlier we had been drinking tea in the streets, feeling completely relaxed, to there now being airstrikes seemed unreal and it brought home how easily this part of the world can become unstable. However when I think of Iraq what this expedition has taught me is to no longer associate it as a place connected with war and violence; I want to remember the kind and welcoming family I met in Choman, the children laughing and playing games in the streets, and the beautiful mountains of the Zagros range. Hopefully one day I'll be back to explore the region further.
With thanks to Jan Bakker, Hetty Horton, Andrea Powell, Elena Richter and Zhen Lim for the photos.
This trip was organised by Secret Compass, an independent expedition company that provides adventures in some of the most remote and undiscovered locations in the world. To find out more about their extraordinary expeditions click here.