Pakistan’s female mountaineering pioneer: The celebrated climber Samina Baig from the remote Hunza valley is empowering more girls to scale the heights of this male dominated sport
By: Zofeen Ebrahim
There is more to the petite-framed Samina Baig than meets the eye. The 28 year old high-altitude mountaineer wants to change the world. In fact, she has already started from her village of Shimshal, in Gilgit-Baltistan’s Hunza region of northern Pakistan. Her hometown is one of the last villages bordering China with a population of less than 2,000 and she describes it as “the most beautiful place on earth”.
When she brought honour to her village and became the youngest Muslim woman to climb Everest, her achievement had a wonderful domino effect. Since then she has encouraged many more girls to take up climbing and other sports – an unusual pursuit for women in socially conservative Pakistan.
“She is a role model and has set a trend that others can emulate,” said Ayesha Khan, head of Pakistan’s Mountain and Glacier Protection Organisation.
Incredible things are happening in the upper Hunza now, Baig said. Unlike when she was growing up, girls are now playing football,and cricket, as well as skiing, rock climbing, mountain trekking, and biking.
“In the years to come you will see many Samina Baigs from my village going into mountaineering,” she said with conviction. She has demonstrated what hard work can accomplish, despite the fact that the sport is predominantly “male-dominated”.
Baig has achieved more “firsts” in five years than most people do in a lifetime. She became the youngest Muslim woman to summit Everest in 2013 and the only Pakistani woman to have scaled seven summits in seven continents in just eight months.
Everest may have been the highest, but the most difficult climb was the Denali peak (6,194 metres) in Alaska. “We got caught in a sudden snowstorm despite the forecast being clear. We had no porters and carried our own gear and set up camp ourselves unlike when you climb Everest. We were stuck in camp 4 for five days with just three days of food supplies left. It was quite scary.”
Last year, Baig decided to further challenge the stereotypes the world has of Pakistani women. She and her brother set out to train a group of seven amateur women to climb Everest for this season (April-May 2018). As part of the training, they took these seven women to scale an “unnamed, unclimbed” 5,600 metre peak in the Karakoram which they later named Koh-e-Zamiston.
Unfortunately, the Everest expedition remains a pipedream because they failed to find sponsors. “It is very difficult for women to make inroads into sports in Pakistan and women doing mountaineering is unheard of,” she said, adding that she sees girls eager to pursue this sport but their biggest barrier is financial support.
“When I climbed the 6,000 metre Chaskin Sar [now named Samina Baig peak because she was the first person to scale the mountain near the Shimshal valley in 2010], I was wearing regular sneakers and borrowed warm clothes and [the] parka of my cousin,” said Baig of her first conquest.
No support for climbers
Pakistan is home to the world’s most famous mountain ranges, namely the Karakoram with the world’s second highest peak the K2 (8,611 metres), the Himalayas with the killer peak of Nanga Parbat (8,126 metres) and the Hindu Kush with Trich Mir (7,708 metres). Pakistan has excellent climbers but few take it up as a professional sport, Baig lamented. “These highlanders spend years schlepping huge loads up mountains for the foreign mountaineers but remain nameless,” she said. There was no patronage for this sport in Pakistan, either at the government level or from private organisations.
The name the of late Rajab Shah comes to mind, the only Pakistani to have climbed all of the five 8,000ers, but who remained known as a porter and never reached international acclaim, say climbers.
But now other girls from Shimshal are following her lead. Hafiza Bano, 16, became the youngest Pakistani girl to climb Mingligh Sar (6,050 metres) in 2011. She was among the eight Shimshali girls who made mountaineering history when they summitted the peak in January when winter temperatures dipped 38 degrees centigrade below zero. They were trained by Qudrat Ali and Shaheen Baig, who run the Shimshal Mountaineering School, encouraging active participation of women.
Shehrbano Saiyid, an independent documentary filmmaker and mountain climber admires Baig’s groundbreaking work and putting the village of Shimshal on world’s radar. But there are other “little known women of the mountaineering school there” she said. Her documentary “The Unknown Mountaineers” about these women, who she climbed with, will air in August this year.
Adventures on the world’s highest playground
Currently Baig lives in Islamabad with two of her brothers (the other two are still in Gilgit-Baltistan), after their parents passed away in 2016. Along with pursuing her passion for climbing, Baig, with the support of her brothers, is also promoting outdoor activities for Pakistani youth, since these are almost non-existent.
Since 2008, they have been organising successful sports camps for young people in basic mountaineering, skiing, ice-skating, football, rock climbing, high altitude trekking, and mountain biking. These camps are held for 5 to 7 days where kids come from all over Pakistan.
“There has been a steady jump in the number of girls and boys attending not just our camps, but getting into adventure sports organised by various tour companies as well,” said Baig.
Two years ago, the Baig family also founded the nonprofit Pakistan Youth Outreach Foundation. Since then their outreach has increased considerably. The aim is not just about giving young people a good time, said Baig, but also to develop leadership qualities among the participants and learn from each other.
The foundation has also started training young people to ski, with help from professional skiers from Austria. “I am pleased to tell you that of the 40 kids who got trained, the ratio of boys and girls has been 50-50,” said Baig, adding that she hopes that with the coaching they receive, these kids will compete internationally.
The ski resort is just a three-hour hike from Shimshal in Zarthgurben valley where they have prepared a “basic ski slope”, made a football ground, a cricket pitch and a wall for rock climbing as well.
At 4,100 metres above sea level, it is the world’s “highest sports arena” as Baig calls it, but the facilities are still “very basic” and without a toilet or an access road. She hopes a road will be built soon “so kids from afar can avail the facilities”.
The entire project has been funded by her brothers’ travel agency so far, although they are looking for other organisations to join hands with them.
The foundation has also organised annual marathons for the youth in Hunza. “In 2016, it was to spread awareness on use of drugs and in 2017 they took on the fight against pollution,” said Baig adding, “The participation of so many young girls was very encouraging.”
A liberal side of Pakistan few know
In many areas in northern Pakistan women are invisible in public spheres. This is the case in Peshawar (the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Swat, the hometown of young activist Malala Yousafzai and an area which was became a hotbed of insurgency in 2007 till the Pakistan army waged a war in 2009. But in Upper Hunza and Hunza, it’s just the opposite, said Baig. She puts it down to education. “In my village, which is so remote, every child goes to school and when they finish schooling most of them, who can afford to, will proceed to college in Hunza,” she said.
The region has also not been in the crosshairs of the Taliban or religious extremist elements. “I think when there is education, people are more enlightened and it’s difficult to change people’s mindset then,” said Baig, who belongs to Pakistan’s Ismaili Muslim community.
But even here women face big challenges. “It’s unfortunate, the women of my village, despite being talented and educated, do not have the opportunity to show their full potential,” said Baig. With no industry and therefore few jobs, people continue doing subsistence farming or rear livestock. This is causing disenchantment among the youth who have been exposed to outside culture online and want to leave in search of better opportunities.
Tourism offers a positive alternative. Only recently, women have started working in hotels. “If they get professional training in the hospitality industry and if the state can develop the infrastructure, more tourists can visit the beautiful valleys in the north and that will mean new ways to earn money,” said Baig.
Recognising her achievements, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) appointed Baig its National Goodwill Ambassador for Pakistan earlier this year to help fight climate change, poverty and inequality by engaging with the many young people who look up to her.
The article first appeared on thethirdpole.net/ on July 2, 2018