Mountains to climb

February 21, 2021

A detailed look at Pakistani women in Extreme Sports

Extreme sports is a term generally applied to sports presenting unusual physical or mental challenges and those which are associated with high risks and a distinct possibility of significant physical injury, including death.

Such sports include mountaineering, skydiving, windsurfing, rock climbing, volcano surfing, cave diving, mountain biking, paragliding and whitewater kayaking, to name a few. These are not sports that are commonly followed or popular in Pakistan; indeed not much is generally known about them even to ardent sports fans in the country. What is even less commonly known is that there are truly inspirational stories of Pakistani women participating and excelling in these most demanding sporting challenges.

With International Women’s Day just round the corner, this article focuses on three outstanding women who have pioneered extreme sports in Pakistan and produced amazing achievements in them.

Samina Khayal Baig

Samina was born in the village of Shimshal in the Hunza valley of Gilgit Baltistan in 1990. Her father was a farmer and her mother a simple house wife. She grew up in a small single roomed house with no electricity or modern plumbing. Despite these harsh living conditions her parents made sure that Samina, her four brothers and a sister, all received a good education. Fond of outdoor activities from her childhood days, her introduction to mountaineering came through her brother Mirza Ali, who is an accomplished mountain climber himself. Mirza would work as a porter for many foreign mountaineers and trekkers who regularly visited these areas and would regale Samina with stories from these expeditions.

Samina’s first major climb was a peak called Chaskin Sar which has a height of approximately 6000 metres. This was in 2010 and she was the only girl in a seven person team which included her brother. The climb took twelve days and she had not had any formal training for it. Wearing normal trekking shoes and a borrowed parka, she recalls listening to Nusrat Fateh Ali’s sufi songs and music while climbing. She was the first woman to climb this peak and the locals re-named it Samina Baig peak in her honor.

The following year she was part of an expedition to climb a 6008 meter high unconquered peak close to her village. The successful expedition was led by her brother Mirza Ali and the peak was named ‘Koh e Brobar’ or the Equality Peak symbolizing gender equality of the climbers.

Samina was now eager for bigger goals. After months of suitable training and preparation she took on the ultimate challenge in mountaineering, namely climbing Mount Everest itself. At 7.30am, on 19th May 2013, on the sixtieth anniversary of Sir Edmund Hilary’s initial conquest of the Everest, Samina reached the 8849 metre high summit of the tallest mountain on earth. It was the 48th day of climbing for the expedition and the final ascent had been made through nine hours of arduous climbing in the night, wearing headlamps.

Samina became the first Pakistani woman to scale Everest, and also the first Muslim woman to achieve this landmark. What was even more remarkable was that she had done it without any supplemental oxygen. She was only 22 years old.

Samina’s appetite for climbing was still not sated. She now took on the challenge called The Seven Summits, which requires climbing the tallest peak in each of the seven continents. She completed her ascent of all seven summits in 2014, within the short space of 8 months, at only 23 years of age. The peaks conquered in addition to Everest, which is in Asia, were Mount McKinley, (now called Mount Denali) in North America, Mount Aconcagua in South America, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, Mount Elbrus in Europe, Mount Puncak Jaya in Oceania and Mount Vinson in Antarctica.

Samina is now the United Nation’s Development Program’s National Goodwill Ambassador for Pakistan. She presently lives in Islamabad with two of her four brothers and is actively involved in training young people in sports like mountaineering, rock climbing, high altitude trekking, mountain bicycling, and ice skiing.

Samar Khan

Samar Khan hails from the small village of Khas Dir in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Born in 1990, she lost her father at the age of just five and was raised by her mother. She was a good student and gained admission to the Federal Urdu University where she obtained a Masters degree in Physics and still retains an interest in Astrophysics.

She was always fond of outdoor sports and was able to develop this interest further while at University. She enlisted in a paragliding course at the Army School of Physical Training at Kakul in 2014, and became a certified paraglider. She also started trekking and cycling to explore the beautiful terrain and mountains in the region and realized that mountain cycling was something that she wished to pursue seriously. It wasn’t easy to convince her mother but she eventually prevailed, to gain her permission to take this up as a career.

Her first major cycling venture was a road trip from Islamabad to Khunjerab near the Pak-China border. The return journey took ten days and she cycled 1000 kilometers to a height of 4693 metres, setting national records in the process. Though the temperature around the pass was a forbidding -5 C, but neither this, nor the low oxygen tension, could deter Samar, who recalls that it fulfilled her dream of cycling on the Karakoram Highway all the way to the border, viewing the huge expanse of beautiful snow covered valleys on the route.

The next challenge that Samar took up was to attempt to ride atop the Biafo Glacier. This is the 3rd longest non-polar glacier in the world and has a height of 4500 metres. The route to Biafo required an initial bike ride of 800 kilometres from Islamabad to Shigar in Skardu. Once close to the glacier she had to disassemble the bike, and with the help of porters, carry the parts, hiking on foot through ice and snow for 4-5 days to finally reach the glacier. She then re-assembled the bike and cycled on the glacier which was divided into four parts. During her ride she encountered many landslides as well as cracks in the ice which made cycling dangerous and risky.

She stayed on the glacier for two weeks becoming the first woman ever to cycle atop it. She described the experience as similar to living for two weeks inside a refrigerator.

In May 2017 Samar rode her bicycle on the summit of a 6240 metre virgin peak in Arandu, near Skardu, in Gilgit Baltistan, and named the peak Samar Peak.

Later that year, in December 2017, Samar became the first Pakistani woman to cycle on top of Mount Kilimanjaro which is Africa’s highest mountain. She recalls that to get to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, she had to ride through tropical forest, cycling both during the day and night, through moorlands and alpine deserts, before reaching the snow and cloud clad mountain peak. Kilimanjaro is also a dormant volcano and that added to the excitement of this venture.

As a pioneer in her field, Samar has experienced both opposition and adversities, including a broken engagement. Her resilience and courage have helped her to overcome these challenges and she continues to espouse the cause of actively promoting gender equality and participation of women in sports in Pakistan.

Nazia Parveen

Born in 1988, in the Bajaur Agency of FATA, Nazia has been another trend setter for women in extreme sports in Pakistan. Nazia is a rock climber whose introduction to the sport came during a University trip to the Margalla Hills in March 2010, where there was a co-ed rock climbing competition which she entered for fun. It proved be love at first sight, she was fascinated by the sport and enjoyed it immensely, gaining 4th position in the event. She soon started practicing seriously and in October that year entered a tournament where she won the first prize which was followed by another victory two months later on International Mountain Day.

After her first tournament victory Nazia never looked back, winning 32 consecutive competitions over the next six years, which included two National championships. She also set a new record by beating men in four of these victories.

To pursue rock climbing seriously she joined the Adventure Club of Pakistan and became it’s Vice President, as well as the Vice President of the Pakistan Alpine Institute. She also became the first woman to represent Pakistan in an international rock climbing competition, an event which is considered the third most dangerous sport for women in the world.

Nazia did not neglect her academics either, graduating with a BA Hons from Fatima Jinnah Women’s University and then earning an MPhil degree in International Relations from the National Defence University. Her wish was to follow her father’s footsteps and join the Pakistan army.

She is also a licensed paraglider and has been a versatile participant in many other uncommon sports, like archery, trekking and horseback riding. She wants to promote sports in FATA, where she feels there is an abundance of natural talent that is in need of more opportunities for growth.

This is a brief narrative about three young ladies who have challenged the stereotyped image of Pakistani women in their home areas and shown to the world that given adequate opportunities and facilities Pakistan women can excel even in the most demanding and taxing sports on the planet. As a nation we should all be proud of them.

Dr Salman Faridi is a senior surgeon, poet, sports aficionado and an avid reader with a private collection of over 7000 books. [email protected]

Mountains to climb