Pakistan is home to world’s five peaks above 8000 metres and more than 100 peaks above 7000 metres. Climbing any mountain requires skill, stamina, patience, and acceptance of the possibility that one may not return home.
Although each climber carries their own unique and spectacular stories, their problems on the ground are quite similar. Many of the climbers are not given funding and adequate financial backing to continue their life’s work. And now that the tourist industry has increased, especially adventure tourism, it is important to learn about these mountaineers, and their opinions on how best to move forward. Although once considered a male-dominated sport, the number of female participants has been steadily increasing. This week You! talks to a few brave women who have helped instigate that change…
“I have loved the mountains since I was a child and I wanted to see K2 when I was very young,” shares Naila Kiani, who grew up in Rawalpindi and then moved to UK to study Aerospace Engineering from University of London. “I finally managed to see K2 when I did the K2 Base Camp Trek in 2018. This trek inspired me to start mountaineering,”
“My biggest achievement no doubt is becoming the first woman to climb an 8000er in Pakistan. I didn’t intend to break any record when I planned this expedition as there were other woman attempting 8000m peaks at the same time in Pakistan, I did it for my passion,” enthuses Naila.
Sharing her experience during one of her treks, she tells, “There was not a single moment when I was scared while I was climbing. I was, however, very nervous about the uncertainty on how far up will I manage to go.”
There being only a handful of female mountaineers in Pakistan, Naila didn’t have many examples to learn from. “As no female managed to climb an 8000er before me so I had to face criticism and negative comments from people on my ability to climb. Some people didn’t understand why a married woman with young kids wants to climb and trek. I look up to men and women who are breaking stereotypes to be the best they can.”
Sharing how aspiring mountaineers can go forward, she states, “Try doing small treks for 2 to 3 days and experience living in tents. This will help you decide whether mountaineering is for you or not. If it is, then you can start hiking, trekking, rock climbing and ice climbing. Find clubs for these activities and then plan to climb a small peak first just to see how your body will cope with high altitude.” Talking about her future plans Naila shares, “I plan to climb more peaks in North Pakistan. K2 is a dream mountain and hoping to summit it soon.” Naila works as an Associate Vice President for HSBC bank in Dubai.
Paras made her first ascent to the mountains with her parents as a child and has been unstoppable since. “Travelling is in my blood. After kids, me and my husband did the same. We used to go on a family vacation every year. Starting with small hikes in valleys forests and lakes,” shares Paras, mother of 4 young kids. Telling the scribe about her first expedition, she imparts, “I went on a trek of Rush Lake in Nagar. It was a 6 days’ trek and I was 33 at the time.”
Juggling between her role of a housewife and her passion, it gets tiring for her sometimes but as a woman working in this field she feels comfortable when people are really helpful when they see it’s a ladies group. “I feel more accomplished when I see my fellow female trekkers go with me on a trek. Recently, we did a ladies group trek to Concordia K2. It was a one of its kind adventure,” enthuses Paras. Shedding light on an incident when she felt really scared as a trekker, Paras shares, “In 2018 we were on a trek to Lupghar Pir Pass, on the last day of our trek I somehow got separated from the remaining team, and reached campsite at 12:30 AM in the night after trekking around 15 hours. It was terrible.” Paras says she gets to learn something each and every minute during her trips and professional life. “I can’t say I have someone as my inspiration. My competitor is me and myself,” she adds.
She believes that mental fitness is as important as physical fitness when it comes to being a mountaineer. “I want to see Pakistan as world’s top tourist destination. I am constantly working to show positive image of our country by travelling with all girls team to different parts of Pakistan,” says an excited Paras.
Meet Saba Haleem, the first ever Pakistani woman in the world to summit Gondgoro Peak 9 6008m ASL). Saba, a senior at LUMS, who is currently doing her bachelor’s in economics. “Although I am studying economics, I have always been an adventure enthusiastic, but it actually really started when I became part of LUMS Adventure Society (LAS),” shares Saba. LAS is Pakistan’s premier student run adventure society at LUMS which is dedicated to treading paths untrodden and scaling new heights each year. “Every summer LAS plans a summer trek which consists of an expedition either of attempting a mountain pass or a mountain peak. Like each year, this year we planned to summit Gondogoro Peak. This is my fourth year in LAS and I give full credit to it to have given me this opportunity and motivating me to challenge my limits. This entire society is like my family who have also supported and encouraged me,” enthuses Saba.
At the age of 20, Saba went for her first expedition, to Lupghar Pir Pass (5210m). Before this she has been on a lot of 3 to 4 days long treks which includes Haramosh Basecamp. When asked what was the hardest challenge she had to face, she said, “Climbing was a huge challenge for me especially when I was 100m away from the top. Even though I did train for climbing, this was my first experience of actually climbing a peak. During the climb it was very hard to push yourself up as I was slipping again and again due to bad weather.”
For Saba, her inspiration is her belief in pushing and defying yourself as much as you can. Life is too short to not do something challenging and exciting. As a woman, Saba feels despite there being extra hurdles to cross, nothing is impossible. “I understand that it is hard for girls to get permission and support for such expeditions but what they need to do is keep trying and remain committed. And if it helps, every young girl who aspires to be a mountaineer has my support. In this regard tough, my parents as well as other LAS members have always supported and encouraged me. My parents know how passionate and dedicated I am and therefore they always let me go,” enthuses Saba. Sharing her plans for the future Saba revealed, “As of now, my team and I plan onto climbing an unclimbed peak and name it after our society – LAS, Saba is also really into graphic designing and runs a small business by the name of ‘mynotebook’ on Instagram.
Hailing from Rahim Yar Khan, sister duo Rabia Maqbool and Sadia Maqbool are the proud owners of a travel company named ‘Travel Girls’. The company organises different trekking expeditions in Northern Pakistan, especially for the female adventurers of Pakistan. “After completing my degree I started lectureship in Physics but after marriage I left it because I wanted to pursue my dreams and passion. I was always good in sports and took part in many sports on university level but at that point I never thought one day I will climb mountains or will do any adventure sport,” elucidates Rabia. On the other hand, Sadia holding a master’s degree in Telecom Engineering made her first expedition in 2019 - an all-girls 6 days’ expedition to Banak La (4964m) with a team of 4 girls. The pass connects Astore valley to Skardu valley. “Our team was the first female team to cross this pass. It gave me so much confidence, and after that I led so many treks and expeditions,” raves Sadia.
When the sisters started travelling and exploring northern Pakistan, they were introduced to a whole new world, a world full of possibilities and full of amazing people. “We got to know Ali Sadpara, Qudrat Ali, Shaheen Baig, Abdul Joshi, Sirbaz Khan, Samina Baig. These people are real heroes and role models. We wanted to follow in their footsteps and wanted to test our limits and that is how our passion for climbing grew stronger,” enthuses Rabia and Sadia.
They believe that you are never too old to start following your dreams. “Over the course of past 4 years, we have taken our tours to extremely remote, tiring and super tough treks and those women proved they are not less than anyone else. We have been to K2, Nanga Parbat, Rakaposhi and Tirch Mir Basecamps, Banak La, Shimshal Pass to name a few. We have been to the toughest treks in extreme weather conditions,” reveals the sisters.
It is never all sunshine and rainbows in mountaineering, though. Having had their fair share of challenges during their mountaineering career, both Sadia and Rabia never felt afraid at any point. “Playing safe in mountains is very important but you can't defeat nature. We believe in training and preparing for the task beforehand. This is the most important piece of advice; Train,” emphasises the duo.
“Being a female mountaineer isn't easy. I had to face the barriers based of societal norms just like everyone else. My family wasn't supportive at the beginning either. But in Jim Rohn's words: ‘If you really want to do something, you'll find a way. If you don't, you'll find an excuse.’ I'd also like to mention the flip side of the coin. Our brothers have always been there for us to support; emotionally, mentally and logistically. We could never even imagine achieving all what we have without the support of the men at all stages,” explains Sadia.
The sisters both look up to Muhamad Ali Sadpara as their inspiration. “He was not only because he was an extremely accomplished mountaineer, and was also a great human being above all,” reminisce Rabia and Sadia.
The first trek is always memorable for a trekker. “In 2014, when I was 29 years old I went for my 1st ever trek to Nanga Parbat basecamp. After that I got married, had a baby and again started trekking in 2018 when my daughter was only 22 months old. My daughter was with me and throughout the trekking I carried her on my own all the way to basecamp,” adds Rabia.
Talking about their greatest accomplishments Rabia and Sadia expresses, “Breaking the custom that females specially mothers and girls after marriage can't travel alone and they can’t do difficult and challenging mountain sports. We aim to continue working for female travellers and encourage more girls to come in this field,” concludes Rabia and Sadia.