The Army had this elaborate plan to find the caves. Dozens of soldiers would be dropped via helicopter into an isolated valley in Taliban country, each carrying enough equipment, food and water for several days of marching. From there, they would target ten or so suspected cave sites that had been reconnoitered by air, dotted into a nearby mountain range. It sounded fun, so I tagged along, and jumped off the helicopter onto the muddy farm field with everyone else. Almost before we had a chance to hit the soil, the Blackhawk lurched up again into the sky, the roar of the rotors quickly fading away. Soon it was quiet. The rising sun was just peeking over the horizon.
The platoons regrouped, and then headed off for their objectives. The one I stayed with was lead by an ebullient and witty staff sergeant from Indiana named Steven Caldwell, whose platoon was a motley group of young men from across America. They irreverently cracked jokes as they marched, mostly banter about their girlfriends back home or discussions on the bathroom habits of local Afghans. Also along for the ride was a somber Air Force dog handler named Schwartz and his pride and joy, a black German Shepherd named Bleck, who was trained to sniff out explosives. All of them were hauling huge packs full of 100 pounds or more of gear, along with their heavy weapons and ammunition.
The entire first day of the mission was earmarked for finding the first two caves, but a short walk took us to the spot where they were, and it turned out they weren’t caves at all, just natural ridges in the rock that apparently looked like caves from the air. Caldwell shrugged, entered the information on a rugged handheld GPS-type device that he was using to find the targets, and we continued on to look for the rest, some miles ahead on a windy path.
We passed through several villages along the way, the Pashtun tribalists regarding us with curious stares as we walked by. A few hours of hiking brought us to a road that hugged the base of a long, imposing cliff face. Caldwell glanced down as his computer and back up at the moutainside.
“Looks like the next few caves are right up there,” he said, pointing to a spot on the cliff far above us. He looked over at his men, “Who’s coming with me?”
No volunteers. Caldwell rolled his eyes, and muttered several unprintable things. Then he drooped his pack with a thud onto the dirt.
“Fine, just watch the road. I need the K-9, though,” and with that, he started clamoring up the mountain. Schwartz and Bleck scrambled up after him. Soon they were all over the ridge and out of sight.
I hesitated for a few minutes, trying to convince myself there was something productive to photograph right where I was, without venturing up into the heights. The platoon laughed and loudly started back with their discussion about the Afghan’s toilet habits. I sighed, slung my camera over my shoulder, and headed up the mountain.
It was ridiculously dangers; the route up ranged from a steep incline to nearly vertical, and the rock itself was a grey shale of some kind that had a disquieting tendency to disintegrate as you searched for a foothold on it. One slip on this thing and you’d go for a long, painful tumble onto jagged rocks somewhere below. Eventually, I caught up with Caldwell, Schwartz and Bleck on a narrow ridge. They were barely sweating.
“Caldwell, you’re from Indiana,” I said, panting. “Where did you learn how to climb mountains?”
He smiled without looking up from his computer.
“Man, I’ve been stationed in Alaska for five years. We do this stuff all day… a-ha, it’s over by that crevasse.” He bolted off and started making his way literally across the base of the long vertical crack that wound down the cliff face. Schwartz and Bleck gamely followed after him.
The way they went looked nearly impossible to me, so I hiked up a bit instead, looking for a better place to cross the crack. But there was nothing a few feet up either, and I couldn’t go down because I couldn’t see, so I went up still farther. Still there was no way to cross. Before long, I couldn’t go up any more and the sides were nothing but an inclined slope of loose pebbles. Somehow I’d gotten 50 feet over the others, and was completely stuck.
After a few minutes of self-pity, I lunged to the left and danced across the crumbly slope like a barefoot teenager on the hot sands of vertical beach. I made it to the crevasse and awkwardly landed on my rear, and instantly started sliding down. But inside the crack I could use my feet to slow myself and it was actually kind of fun, like a waterslide. (My pants would disagree; I shredded them and, as they were my only pair, an Afghan tailor working on the Army base later laboriously put them back together.) Finally, I tumbled to a stop at the bottom, landing with a cloud of dust right next to Caldwell, who was still absorbed in his GPS.
“Hey there,” he said. “Man, this ain’t no cave here, either. You about ready?”
“Whenever you are.”
It is moments like these in foreign lands that always prompt me to get philosophical, even existential: Why am I here? How did this happen? Why exactly am I hanging on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan this morning? I’m not in the Army, I didn’t sign up for this. I should be back home, watching TV or canoodling in bed of having a strong espresso in Brooklyn. Or just about anywhere else.
But in the end, things tend to work themselves out, I find, and the satisfaction of photographing and documenting the most important issues of our time far outweighs any temporary discomfort, or even fear. In the end, I found a way down by quickly dancing across the inclined slope like a barefoot teenager bouncing on the hot sands of a vertical beach, and continued on with the mission.