Achieving Proper Solitude in Kurdistan

The Secret Compass team making their way up to the summit. Martin Hefti/Secret Compass photos.
The Secret Compass team making their way up to the summit. Martin Hefti/Secret Compass photos.

Expedition Company Treks Through Kurdistan's Mount Halgurd

By Jill Webb

Matt Bennett took a break from his day job of being chairman of the DRB group to trek through the mountains of Kurdistan with Secret Compass.

Secret Compass brings adventure-seekers together to go on epic expeditions all over the world. The UK-based company doesn’t focus on typical sight-seeing tourism but instead specializing in taking their thrill-seeking team members on challenging experiences. That was definitely the case when Bennett joined the Secret Compass team in Kurdistan in April 2017.

A seasoned adventurer, Bennett was trekking in the Swedish arctic when a journalist recommended Secret Compass to him. Bennett later Googled their website and saw the upcoming Kurdistan trip.

He asked some of his special forces friends about their time in Kurdistan, and they said it was amazing, prompting him to book the trip.

Not a Country

Map of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
Map of Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

Kurdistan isn’t a country, but instead an ethnic enclave in the Middle East spanning over parts of various countries where Kurds reside. Kurdish people make up an ethnic group of approximately 30 million people. The Kurdish region spreads of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Secret Compass’s trip took place in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Bennett, with a background in mountaineering and backpacking, was well-prepared for the ten-day trip to Kurdistan. His team included around eight people, with two guides, and an additional local guide.

Bennett was “super impressed” with Secret Compass, especially the team’s leaders. “They do a lot of recruitment with ex-military so you know you’re in good hands,” Bennett said.

Arriving a day early to the capital Erbil, Bennett and a few other early birds had some time to explore. It was an interesting experience flying in because Bennett noticed that the majority of passengers on the plane were private military.

Kurdish Kebabs

The city of Erbil was described by Bennett as hot, noisy, and “pretty standard Middle East.” Wandering around the capital, Bennett was also enticed by the local food.

“Big fan of Kurdistan because the only food they seem to have is kebabs,” Bennett said.

Though the area is not massively pro-western, Bennett felt welcomed by the locals since his home-country troops have teamed up with the Afghan Northern Alliance.

“If you’re American or Brit rather than being hated, they like us very much,” Bennett said.

Snowy conditions in Kurdistan. Photo by Martin Hefti/Secret Compass.
Snowy conditions in Kurdistan.

Once the whole group had arrived, they met up and the team’s leader had an orientation-type meeting, where the checked the skill level of all the team members.

“I think there’s an issue with a number of these trips where you never really know what you’re getting in terms of client-base,” Bennett said.

He said with any trip that has a heavy emphasis on physical fitness, people think they can handle more than they can. While Secret Compass’ trips are open to all skill levels, Bennett’s advice to people attending expeditions like Secret Compass’ trips is, to be honest with yourself and your team.

“Be honest about your experience, and go with an open mind,” Bennett said.

Zagros' highest peak

Making way up the mountain. Photo by Martin Hefti/Secret Compass.
Making way up the mountain.

After orientation, the team was off to Mount Halgurd.

Mount Halgurd is the second highest mountain in Iraq and the highest peak within the Zagros mountains. Halgurd’s summit is at 3,607 meters.

After a days drive into a small Kurdish village in Choman, the Secret Compass team met up with a local guide to start the trek by foot. Where the team was climbing was right on the Iranian border, near an area where the Turkish military is fond of bombing.

Bennett wasn’t scared though because he trusted the local guide.

“I wouldn’t necessarily recommend independent travel out there. I think you would be a bit naive, a bit stupid to go wandering about if you didn’t know where you were and you got yourself into a minefield,” Bennett said. “That is less than ideal.”

Going up the mountain, Bennett described the terrain as a pretty warm alpine condition with wet, slimy snow that can sometimes be tricky walking on with a heavy backpack.

When wild camping in the journey up the mountain, the team pitched tents, cooked food, and then packed up everything after getting some rest.

His favorite part by far, according to Bennett, was summit day.

“You’ve got that beautiful mix of nerves and excitement the night before, it doesn’t matter how many you’ve done,” said Bennett. “You’re never sure what you’re gonna get weather-wise, and we were treated to the perfect conditions.”

Proper solitude

Dawn on Mount Halgurd. Photo by Martin Hefti/Secret Compass.
Dawn on Mount Halgurd.

Bennett really enjoyed the remoteness of Mount Halgurd. “It’s beautiful, beautiful alpine environment with the beauty being it is so quiet.”

Unlike the Swiss Alps, or the Rockies, where there’s people a huge volume of people trekking up and down the mountains, Bennett enjoyed being out in the open with just his team.

“You’ve got proper solitude,” Bennett said. “There are no footprints anywhere and some pristine snow all the time.”

At nighttime, the sights were beautiful because the only light was coming from the Iran-Iraq border. During that time, Bennett said the night sky was “just breathtaking.”

“That’s very rare in this modern world, that you can get somewhere that’s so quiet,” Bennett said.

And after all that peaceful solitude, intense mountaineering, and beautiful solitude, Bennett and the team headed out of the mountains and back to civilization to get a well-earned beer and another kebab.

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