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.

Zahid Rajput and the other members of Khurpa Care are currently trying to start an equipment bank so that porters can borrow gear for their expeditions, instead of having to decide whether or not to use the allowance to purchase it. This year, Khurpa Care received a grant to set up courses in first aid, basic climbing, glacier travel, crevasse rescues and self-rescue for porters at Payu Camp at the foot of the Baltoro Glacier. In 2009, with the help of Italian alpinist Simone Moro, Shaheen Baig and Qudrat Ali created the Shimshal Mountaineering School as a way to offer guide training for local men and women. Another Shimshal climber, Mirza Ali, also hopes to change perceptions of Gilgit-Baltistan's mountain workers: "In Pakistan, those who work at high altitude are called 'porters,'" he notes, "but they are equal climbers. I am trying to shift this to 'high-altitude mountain guides,'" through mentoring programs that enhance the professional experience of younger expedition workers.

"Tourism would have to be carefully managed," Shafqat Hussain says. "Local people know that—they want it to be sustainable." David Butz, a Canadian geographer who has spent many years conducting fieldwork in Shimshal, has observed a sense of "optimism [among residents in that area] regarding the possibilities of bottom-up (or grassroots) improvements to portering labor relations"; concepts such as fair trade, fair labor, environmentalism are more widely spread among the new generation of local guides. And for young people who feel disenfranchised because of their region's marginalized status, the national recognition attached to famous Gilgit-Baltistan climbers can make the pursuit seem like a "way into a kind of community narrative."

Beyond expedition work, more and more Pakistani mountaineers have gone on to pursue independent climbs. The Pakistani team on Nanga Parbat this June—Karim Hayat, Sher Khan and Naseer Uddin—was attempting an unsupported ascent without supplemental oxygen. This week, Hayat reported a solo first ascent of an unclimbed 5880-meter peak in Shimshal Valley. During the past few years, Shaheen Baig and Qudrat Ali have achieved first winter ascents of 6000-meter peaks, as well as participating in several winter expeditions to 8000-meter peaks. And in 2010 Samina Baig (known today as the first Pakistani woman to climb Mt. Everest in 2013) made the probable first ascent of Chashksin Sar (ca. 6000m), now renamed "Samina Peak."

Gilgit-Baltistan has a long history of talented local mountaineers—such as Nazir Sabir, who completed the first ascent of the West Ridge of K2 with a Japanese team and alpine-style ascents of Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II with Reinhold Messner. "It is hard to predict anything about the future of Pakistani mountaineering," says Imran Junaidi, of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Alpine Institute, "due to uncertainty," but he hopes that Pakistani climbers will continue to have the opportunity to learn from interacting with the international climbing community. If more resources for funding or sponsorship were available, Pakistani climbers might have much to contribute to the future of the pursuit. "Everything has pros and cons," Shaheen Baig says about the dangers of high-altitude guiding and mountaineering, "We have no other opportunities so we rely on our skills and our experience to reduce the risks.... But I feel it is not only a source of income for which I go to the mountains.... I have become addicted to going to the mountains. I can't relax when I stay a long time without climbing. I feel the power of nature high in the mountains.... So long as I have stamina and power I will go to the mountains for my inner peace or satisfaction."


The alpine achievements of Gilgit-Baltistan's mountaineers symbolize only one part of many community members' efforts and aspirations. In his January 2013 USIP Report, Izhar Hunzai pointed out that Gilgit-Baltistan now has, overall, the "highest levels (57 percent) of women's education in Pakistan." Given the serious economic and political challenges that northern Pakistan has faced, he wrote:

Gilgit-Baltistan's development outcomes are impressive, built on the time-tempered resilience of the people.... Gilgit Baltistan's strategic location—linking China and Central, South, and West Asia—provides real opportunities for trade and commerce among neighboring countries.... The development potential...is huge in terms of its water resources for irrigation and hydropower, mineral wealth, tourism, high-value horticulture, and opportunities for trade and transit.... If the current educational trends continue, the majority of Gilgit-Baltistan's population will become a literate and skilled workforce in due course, providing a huge demographic dividend for Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan.... They have much to lose from the growing menace of extreme political ideologies and religiously motivated violence, given their hard-won transformation from a feudal past and their recent development gains. Their future trajectory is at stake.

The Future?

On July 17, Deputy Chief Muhammad Ramzah (UNM, Tamgha-Imtiaz) issued a letter to the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Secretary:

Subject: Trekking on route Baltoro—Gondogora-La, Hushe Trek

I am directed to refer to the subject noted above and to inform that trekking on route Baltoro-Gondogoro-La, Hushe has now been allowed to foreign expeditions subject to clearance from security agencies, and with the condition that Defence Liaison Officer would be detailed with each group.

The idea of attaching armed escorts to trekking groups could be a problematic solution, apart from the additional cost and lack of appeal to tourists. What kind of real protection can these guards provide in a hostile situation? What is their mandate in terms of rules of engagement?

For the foreseeable future, it now seems prudent to forgo traveling up the Karakoram Highway, which has been the location of recent violence. Foreign climbers who decide to return to the Karakoram Range could try to improve their safety, at least to some extent, by flying to Skardu or else entering Pakistan through China. Other possible recommendations might include: requesting that tour operators and the government refrain from publishing any digital information about the location of expeditions while they are still in progress; behaving and dressing discretely; avoiding taking pictures or spending prolonged amounts of time in public places; leaving a place immediately if the atmosphere seems tense or unusual; agreeing on meeting points and protocols for various scenarios, including a time frame for when to call embassies and police if someone fails to show up; having a visa to exit through China if there's a major security meltdown; and meticulously researching current events and travel advisories before making a final decision to go to Pakistan (See also: Steve Swenson's blog post).

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