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


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.

During the months ahead, however, the question remains what further actions the Pakistani government will actually take—and whether those measures will really be enough to protect local civilians and future foreign visitors. In 2009, the Pakistani state showed that it's capable of clearing territories infested with militants such as Rah-e-Rast (Swat) and Rah-e-Nijat (South Waziristan), but it has not yet been able to provide complete security, post-liberation, on the ground. At the same time, it's currently almost impossible for any government in the world, no matter how many resources it has at its disposal, to prevent terrorist acts entirely. And the instability in the other parts of South Asia and the Middle East could well affect how the future of Pakistan is shaped. The US departure from Afghanistan, scheduled for 2014, may have unpredictable results. In an August 28 Telegraph article, journalist Rob Crilly reported that jihadi leader Syed Salahudeen claimed thousands of militants would leave Afghanistan and redirect their attacks against Indian forces in Kashmir. While Salahudeen's statement may simply represent a form of propaganda from attention-seeking and possibly fundraising extremists, such a surge could also disrupt ongoing peace talks between India and Pakistan. Some of the highly disputed areas between India and Pakistan, around Goma, Ghyari, Naran village and Chumik Peak are only a few hours' drive from the village of Hushe, the gateway for mountaineering expeditions into the Charakusa Valley.

Porters carrying loads on the Baltoro Glacier, in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan. For decades, mountaineering and trekking expeditions have provided seasonal jobs for thousands of Gilgit-Baltistan residents. [Photo] David Falt

"Peace is the number one priority for Gilgit-Baltistan," says the Pakistani anthropologist Shafqat Hussain, who founded a snow-leopard conservation project in the region in 1999. "With that, would come more economic opportunity. With a healthy, prosperous society, people will not turn to violence. But how do you get there? That's the million-dollar question.... It's hard to get the concerns of Gilgit-Baltistan into the national scene." One step could be for the government of Pakistan to initiate more-thorough outreach programs with affected communities—as well as with stakeholders and NGOs—to try to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying issues of the region and to look for more-effective and lasting means to provide sustainable economic development, conflict resolution and justice.


While areas in Chilas and the Diamir District have gained a reputation as a base for extremists, human rights activist Aisha J. Khan, who grew up there, argued in a Pamir Times editorial that not every resident supports the militants: "The tragic incident of tourist killing has been an eye-opener to the people of Chilas.... [The] whole community cannot be condemned.... The region must be uplifted and brought into [a] national or regional realm to diminish the radical ideas flourishing there." Until the Nanga Parbat attack, around 400 to 500 people in the Diamir District were seasonally employed as low-altitude porters, and the rippling impact of their job losses might, over time, lead to even-greater volatility—if nothing is done to make it possible for visitors to return someday or else to provide residents with other income opportunities. "After this incident," a Diamir man told Zaeem Zia, "our children's future has become dark."

From Porters to Mountain Guides and Climbers

Each year, thousands of men from Gilgit-Baltistan have trekked into the Karakoram Range to carry loads, to cook for climbing teams or to guide clients. This September, Shaheen Baig, one of Pakistan's top alpinists and mountain guides, told Alpinist, "The local people who are directly or indirectly connected to tourism now are confused and worried about the situation. Most are looking for other sources of income, but they have no other options as the area is far from industrial and financial centers.... Tourism is the main source of income to support their children's education."

Shimshal, where Baig lives, is a mountain village surrounded by barley fields and apricot trees beneath the snowy arc of the 6306-meter Shimshal Whitehorn, in the Hunza-Nagar District of Gilgit-Baltistan, far from Nanga Parbat. This area is sometimes referred to as "The Valley of Mountaineers," because so many of Pakistan's climbers have grown up there. "Climbing was essential part of our life," Baig says of his youth. "Most of the youngsters used to go to our pasturelands in Pamir and Loopgar with our livestock and yaks.... Climbing 16,000-foot high mountains was a common practice for us since our childhood." By the time Baig got his first expedition job, as a high-altitude porter for a Korean team in 1995, he and his friends Qudrat Ali and Ali Musa had already made an ascent of a nearby 5300-meter peak.

Although the numbers of foreign visitors have sharply declined in Pakistan since 9/11, adventure tourism still remains an important (albeit unpredictable) source of seasonal cash for thousands of residents of remote farming villages. The mountaineering and trekking industry in the Karakoram has evolved significantly since the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when villagers carried loads for feudal rulers, colonial administrators and foreign explorers as part of a once-compulsory labor system. In recent years, government regulations of wages and working conditions have mitigated some of the problems of the past. But many low-altitude Balti porters still carry out their hazardous jobs without adequate insurance, and they often choose to spend their small allotted gear allowances on necessities for their families rather than on sunglasses to prevent snow-blindness or equipment for safe glacier travel (See "Who Carries the Load," Campbell MacDiarmid, Alpinist 42).

This summer, as the Pakistani journalist Sumaira Jajja trekked to K2 base camp, she saw low-altitude porters sleeping under plastic sheets and hiking in cheap sandals. She told Alpinist that she noted a sense of "hopelessness" among those who worried that, at best, their children would spend their lives performing the same hard physical labor—or that, at worst, if tourists didn't return, they might find no employment opportunities at all. Without the income from portering, several Askole residents informed her, they didn't think they could earn enough for adequate food, warm clothing and medicine for their families.

On the other hand—at least until this year—some individuals who have secured higher-paying jobs as cooks or guides have been able to put aside money to create small businesses or support grassroots development projects in their region. Ali Hussain, the cook who was killed at Nanga Parbat's Base Camp, had served as a member of the Hushe Welfare and Development Organization, which helped found a school for children in his village. And a number of Pakistani guides have created organizations to try to address the ongoing needs of mountaineering and trekking workers, such as better insurance for accidents and illnesses in the mountains, rescue evacuations in case of an injury and improved safety practices for low-altitude porters when crossing high passes.

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