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Beating the odds to raise the Pakistani flag on the highest of places

Saad Munawar, a world record holder and author of two books on mountaineering, discusses the evolution of this sport in the country over the last 75 years. He reflects upon the challenges faced by local mountaineers and how they have made their country proud while pursuing their passion.

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The sport of mountaineering has come a long way in Pakistan in the last 75 years. If we go back 75 years, mountaineering was totally a foreigner’s game. Pakistani people did not even understand the game, let alone play it. From 1930 to 1960, there was a battle going on between the western countries like the UK, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, etc., to become the first country to summit an 8,000-meter peak, especially Mt Everest, Mt K2, Mt Kanchenjunga, and Nanga Parbat.

Since 5 out of the 14 highest peaks (8,000-meter +) are located in Pakistan, the big expeditions came for these mountains and that is how Pakistanis got to climb the high mountains, for a start. Eventually, Nanga Parbat (9th highest peak in the world and second highest peak in Pakistan) was the first 8,000-meter peak summited in Pakistan. It was summited by an Austrian Climber, Hermann Buhl, who was part of a German-Austrian Expedition. Four years later, Buhl died while climbing (on Chogolisa) in Pakistan. Buhl also did the first ascent of Broad peak (12th highest peak in the world and 4th highest peak in Pakistan) in 1957.

Read more: Naila Kiani becomes first Pakistani female to summit three 8000m peaks

The role of Pakistani mountaineers kept changing with the passage of time. In the 1950s and 1960s, Pakistani climbers were used as low and high-altitude porters. They were not allowed to summit any of the 8,000-meter peaks (by the foreign expeditions) even when they had the capacity to summit. The local Pakistanis who used to climb with these foreign expeditions were not technically skilled climbers, but they were born and raised in these mountain regions and, therefore, had the strength and stamina to climb the high mountains.

The sport of mountaineering kept evolving and the next five decades, from 1960 to 2010, saw a lot of strong Pakistani mountaineers come through. Climbers such as Nazir Sabir, Col. Sher Khan, Ashraf Aman, Rajab Shah, Meharban Shah, Little Karim, Ali Raza Sadpara, Nisar Sadpara, M Ali Sadpara, Hassan Sadpara, Qudrat Ali, Shaheen Baig, Aminullah Baig and Hassan Jan, came through and broke many national and international records. On a large scale, Pakistani mountaineers were still working as high-altitude porters (HAPs). However, some Pakistani mountaineers achieved great success and earned respect for the country in the international mountaineering community.

The majority of the top Pakistani mountaineers (90 percent +) come from Gilgit Baltistan province, especially Hunza District, Ganche District, Skardu District and Shigar District. One village alone has given Pakistan more than 35 8,000 meter summiteers. This village, Shimshal, is located in Gojal Tehsil of Hunza District. It is known as the “Valley of Mountaineers.”

It would not be wrong to say that the sport of mountaineering is seeing its “Golden Period” in Pakistan right now. Although even our golden period is not as good as the normal periods in many other countries but considering our own history, the speed of recent progress has been far better than the older times. In the last 10 to 12 years, two great things have happened for mountaineering and (Pakistani) mountaineers. First, Pakistani mountaineers achieved huge individual success and brought honor and respect for Pakistan and the Pakistani mountaineering community. Fazal Ali became the first and only person in the world to summit K2 thrice, that too without oxygen. Muhammad Ali Sadpara became the first person to summit Nanga Parbat in winter. Muhammad Ali Sadpara also became the first and only person to summit Nanga Parbat 4 times. Samina Baig became the first Muslim woman to summit Mt Everest. Shehroze Kashif became the youngest climber in the world to summit K2, Kanchenjunga, etc.

Read more: Record 1400 mountaineers from world to summit peaks in Pakistan

Apart from these individual achievements, the second good thing that has happened is that Pakistani mountaineers have started leading their own projects rather than working as a helper on foreign expeditions. Climbers like Sirbaz Khan, Abdul Joshi, and Shehroze Kashif have been organizing and leading their own expeditions inside and outside Pakistan and this is something that was missing before. This has become possible now as Pakistani brands and companies have started to support/sponsor Pakistani mountaineers. Mountain climbing is an expensive sport and without sponsorships, it is very hard for any athlete (mountain climber) to take on a big project.

Looking at the progress of Pakistani mountaineers, one can hope that the sport of mountaineering will flourish in the coming years. However, we must know that we are still far away from where we should be. There are a lot of areas that need improvement. With the right intentions and hard work, these areas can be improved and Pakistan can take great benefit from the development of adventure tourism.

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