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.

Nanga Parbat in the sunset. First climbed by Hermann Buhl in 1953 as part of a German-Austrian expedition, the mountain has been the location of some of the most legendary climbs in mountaineering history. Will its climbing story continue in the future? [Photo] Saulius Damulevicius

At the end of the day, however, it's essential to remember that no predictable rules apply to the operations of jihadist groups, and any of these recommendations could fail. One must always expect the unexpected. The terrorist organization that carried out the Nanga Parbat attack—which required navigating difficult and isolated high-altitude terrain—could possibly have the capability to be roving and to strike in other areas normally deemed safe. The government's demand for trekking expeditions on the Baltoro-Gondogora-La Hushe trek to be accompanied by armed guards could be simply a haphazard effort to prove that they are doing something to address security—or it could be a response to some new element of concern by Pakistani intelligence agencies.

At the meeting of the General Assembly of Union of the Asian Alpine Associations (UAAA), held in Islamabad in early October, Fritz Vrijlandt, president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), expressed his solidarity with "the Pakistani mountaineering community and with all mountaineers involved," he told Alpinist. He declared at the opening session, "Mountaineers are a symbol of peace, it is a risk already that they undertake while climbing the mountain. I urge the government of Pakistan to please make sure that this remains a one-time incident only."


The ultimate choices about which risks are acceptable should always be individual ones. Mountaineers in the Greater Ranges are used to assessing dangers: How exposed is that line up that unclimbed face? How avalanche prone is the descent? What will that serac have to throw at us? What hazards are too much for us (and for our loved ones)? Climbers must always answer those questions in their own minds, according to their own personal research, experience, instinct and judgment. There are no guarantees of absolute safety, in the mountains or on the approaches to them.

Gilgit-Baltistan should be able to overcome the traumatic events at Nanga Parbat eventually, if a civil leadership can set a clear path for security through justice, accountability and community outreach. There is only hope if there is justice. Mountain tourism can't solve the larger problems of the region by itself. But if it can be conducted in reasonable security and if it's developed in a way that aims to conserve the environment and to provide a more-sustainable living for residents, it could continue to help support their own striving for a better future. The luminous mountains and granite towers of Gilgit-Baltistan will always be a lure, and some international mountaineers may keep trying to reach them. Others, who decide the risks have become too great to visit Pakistan, might still support the efforts of local mountaineers, NGO and development workers in other ways, maintaining the ties between Gilgit-Baltistan's mountain communities and the larger climbing world—in bonds of friendship that might help lead, incrementally, to increased mutual understanding and greater peace across all borders.

—With some additional reporting from Katie Ives.

About David Falt

Born in 1970, David Falt is a Swedish alpinist based in the Alps. For two years, Falt has advised governments and NGOs on the conflict dynamics in Syria. From 2005 to 2011, he ran a private consulting firm focusing on conflict resolution and foreign policy advice for businesses, governments and NGOs. His consulting and mediation experience includes jihadist dynamics, transitional justice, hostage situations, wrongful detentions, seized assets, as well as political and policy assessments and crisis management in high-stakes situations. He has worked in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Russia and the former Soviet Republics. In addition to extensive climbing in the Alps and the Dolomites, Falt has made several mountaineering expeditions to Pakistan, including attempts on Shani Peak in 1989, Hunza Peak in 1991 and Gasherbrum IV in 2009.

Selected Bibliography:

Izhar Hunzai USIP Special Report on "Conflict Dynamics in Gilgit-Baltistan," January 2013; lubpak.com; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, 2004; Rob Crilly, "Pakistani militants promise surge in attacks on Indian forces in Kashmir," The Telegraph, August 28, 2013; Stephen Tankel, phone interview, August 29, 2013; Stephen Tankel, "Barriers to Dismantling the Militant Infrastructure in Pakistan," USIP Peace Works Report no. 89, September 2013; Stephen Tankel, "Terrorism out of Pakistan," May 27, 2010; Martin Soekefeld, "From Colonialism to Postcolonial Colonialism: Changing Modes of Domination in the Northern Areas," The Journal of Asian Studies 64, no. 4 (November 2005); "Principles for good international engagement in fragile states & situations," Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, "Law in Other Contexts: Stand by Bravely Brothers! A Report from the Law Wars," International Journal of Law in Context, Vol. 4, No. 2, June 2008; Gregory Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America's War in Arabia, 2013; Farooq Ahmed Khan, "Men Behind Nanga Parbat Massacre Arrested," Dawn, August 19, 2013; Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 2012; Amanda Padoan, "Death on Killer Mountain," The Daily Beast, July 6, 2013; Amanda Padoan, Buried in the Sky, 2012; Steve Swenson, "Attack on Climbers in Pakistan," July 2013, steveswensonsblog.blogspot.com; Zazeem Zia, "Gilgit-Baltistan: You Have Taken Away Our Livelihood," The Express Tribune Blogs, June 24, 2013; Bettina Schmidt and Ingo Schroeder, Anthropology of Violence and Conflict, 2001; Terror and Violence: Imagination and the Unimaginable, Ed. Andrew Strathern, Pamela J. Stewart and Neil Whitehead, 2005; Aisha J. Khan, "We Shall Cherish Chilas!," Pamir Times, October 6, 2013; Campbell MacDiarmid, "Who Carries the Load," Alpinist 42 (Spring 2013); Sumaira Jajja, "Dreaming Big in Askole," Dawn, September 29, 2013; Caylee Hong, "Liminality and Resistance in Gilgit-Baltistan," Legal Working Paper Series on Legal Empowerment for Sustainable Development, Center for International Sustainable Development Law, 2012; Kenneth Ian MacDonald, "Push and Shove: Spatial History and the Construction of a Portering Economy in Northern Pakistan," Society for Comparative Study of Society and History, 1998; David Butz, "Resistance, Representation and Third Space in Shimshal Village, Northern Pakistan," ACME: An International Journal of Critical Geographies, 2002; Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country, 2011; Afshan S. Khan, "Opening Session of Asian Mountaineering General Assembly Held," The News, October 1, 2013.

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