Fear or Aspiration: The Future of Climbing in the Karakoram?

Posted on: October 11, 2013

In the aftermath of the Nanga Parbat attack, Swedish alpinist and conflict dynamics analyst David Falt looks at some of the potential risks and possibilities for the future of Karakoram mountaineering and peace in northern Pakistan.

The peak in my mind was a wild, crenellated spire with a huge North Face, bigger than anything I'd ever tried on my home turf in the Alps. It was 1989, I was eighteen years old, and I was one week out of high school, when I first embarked on a mountaineering expedition to Pakistan. My friend and I were planning a pure alpine-style attempt on the North Face of Shani, a little-known Karakoram peak, around 5800 meters. But we knew virtually nothing about the mountain and even less about the country itself. When we finally arrived in Karimabad to sort out the porter loads, before our trek to base camp, I watched the negotiations among the members of different local ethnic groups, and I realized that the dynamics that surrounded our climb were far more complex than I'd imagined. Even small and lightweight expeditions, here and elsewhere in the world, take place in a context mixed with the legacy of conflicted histories and a blend of personal and communal desires. We didn't climb the North Face of Shani, but my experiences sparked a lifelong interest in the region, the mountains and the people.

Base Camp on the Diamir side of Nanga Parbat (8125m), Pakistan, after a snowstorm briefly covered the ground, a few days before the June 22, 2013 terror attack. [The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the staff or owners of the magazine.—Ed.] [Photo] Saulius Damulevicius

For decades, alpinists have been captivated with the region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, because of its seemingly endless number of beautiful and challenging mountains—from steep and snowy 8000-meter peaks to the shining West Face of Gasherbrum IV, the legendary rock spires of the Trango group and the oft-attempted, still-unclimbed North Ridge of Latok I. And for decades, residents of some local communities have relied on international trekkers and climbers as a means to provide jobs for thousands of expedition workers. Many of Pakistan's most well-known mountaineers have come from the region, from places like Shimshal, Hushe and Saparda, starting as porters and progressing to become guides, professional climbers and tour-company owners.


Then on the night of June 22, 2013, a group of armed militants entered the base camp on the Diamir side of Nanga Parbat and shot ten foreign climbers and one Pakistani. It was the first time that terrorists had targeted international tourists in Gilgit-Baltistan [For a memorial to the victims, see the Alpinist 44 editor's note—Ed.]. Within days of the murders, Pakistan's Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, declared the attack to be a national security threat, and the Pakistan Army and police began looking for the perpetrators. On August 6, three government investigators—Police Superintendent Hilal Ahmed, Colonel Ghulam Mustafa and Captain Ashfaq Aziz—were gunned down in Chilas, the capital of the Diamir District, some 47 kilometers from the mountain. By September 5, the government had reported arrests of more than 20 suspects, including the alleged leaders. Diamir District Police Superintendent Muhammad Navid told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn that these suspects might also be linked to the killings of Shia bus passengers on the Karakoram Highway in 2012. On October 7, The Express Tribune reported that 16 of the men arrested during new raids in Chilas had been released as "not behind the attack," and that police believe there are two suspects at large who may be planning another possible strike nearby. Other suspects, however, remain in custody.

A Pakistan Army helicopter arriving to evacuate the survivors of the Nanga Parbat Base Camp attack. [Photo] Saulius Damulevicius

The government's ongoing statements have projected an image of committed action, yet the long-term security and stability of the region remain unclear. The possibility of future attacks could not only threaten the areas where the economy is now dependent on both foreign and domestic tourism, but could also imperil other development projects—as well as the ability of Pakistani residents to travel safely between the lowland cities where they work or attend school and their home villages in the northern areas.

There is never a simplistic trigger for these incidents, which are driven by groups and individuals with complex motivations and histories. The people who have the capabilities to carry out such operations often describe themselves as members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) or other major insurgent groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Some are Afghan and Kashmir militants who have migrated to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous region on the border with Afghanistan. The TTP, a Sunni extremist organization that claimed responsibility for the Nanga Parbat murders, is itself part of a network of diversified groups with varied domestic goals, which in the past have included attempts to weaken the authority of Pakistan's national government, to fight the Pakistani military and police, to prevent the education of women and to strike against Muslims belonging to non-Sunni minorities, such as Shias.

Although international climbers hadn't come under attack in Gilgit-Baltistan before this year, militants had targeted foreign athletes in other parts of the country: in 2009, an insurgent group fired at a bus transporting a Sri Lankan cricket team to a stadium in Lahore, resulting in the deaths of six Pakistani policemen and two civilians. Six of the Sri Lankans were wounded. After getting the cricket team to safety, the bus driver, Maher Khalil, became a national hero. Yet by the end of that same year, the total number of Pakistani civilians killed in militant attacks would surpass 3,000 (Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 2012). That toll has continued to rise. Since Pakistan's new government was elected in June 2013, hundreds of Pakistani civilians have died or suffered injuries as a result of incidents of militant violence—such as bombings at a policeman's funeral in Quetta, at a Shia mosque in Peshawar and, more recently, at a Christian church in that same city.

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