2007: First ascent of Beka Brakkai Chokk (unsuccessful) and first ascent of Wahine,Baltar Glacier, Karakoram Ranges, Northern Pakistan.

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Pakistan – Islamic republic, hotchpotch of federally administered states and tribal areas, land of vast physical contrast. Its an intriguing? place to visit post 9/11.

My friend Lydia ?and I discovered this on a trip in July 2007, the original focus of which? was to be the first to climb a 7000m peak in the northern region of Hunza as a team of two of New Zealand?s best female mountaineers. We had strong financial backing and having generated some unexpected media interest, were driven singlemindedly towards our task. So it was with some surprise we found on arrival our interests piqued by the implications of being in a Muslim country in 2007.

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Both of us travelled in Pakistan in the mid eighties when the Karakoram highway was in its ?infancy and adventurers flocked there in the thousands to make the journey across the mountains to China. We had memories of the gritty northern towns of Gilgit, Skardu and Karimabad brimming with sunburnt back packers and climbers, swapping stories of their expeditions to the Baltoro glacier, treks circumnavigating Nanga Parbat or journeys to and from the far outreaches of western China.

Lyd BC for web

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I?d spent several months wandering ?around the northern areas(rather impecuniously courtesy of a US$5/day budget) with my then-husband, lugging enormous packs over trans alpine passes and trying to climb some of the smaller ?peaks with varying degrees of success. Permits, liaison officers, base-camp cooks, porters- in short the trappings I?ve since learned are usual of a mountaineering expedition to the Greater Ranges – ?were foreign concepts, not just because of our cash limitations, but because our Kiwi do-it-yourself ethic put pay to such considerations. Carrying a 30kg pack for three weeks while we toiled up and down glaciers, climbing a peak or two along the way, was what the New Zealand mountains had prepared us for. So that?s what we did. Plus, we were young!

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Lydia?s past experience was rather more sophisticated. She climbed Gasherbrum 2 (8035m) in 1987 and made a spirited attempt on K2 as a precursor to her famously debated first female ascent of Everest without oxygen in 1988. After Everest she largely put her own mountaineering interests on hold to pursue a career in physiotherapy, and more recently marriage and guiding. But,like me, feeling her serious climbing days limited by the onset of her mid forties, she was keen to leap once again into the breach, so to speak, and give ?expedition climbing another go.

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For both of us heading back to Pakistan after two decades was tremendously exciting but as early as the flight into Islamabad we had a sense things werent as they had been.? We recalled the 80?s when westerners poured into Pakistan by plane, overland from India, even from Iran. The assassination of Indira Ghandi, the Sikh uprising in the Punjab, the Afghani- Russian war, even the troubles in Kashmir ? these events failed to dampen the western enthusiasm for? exploring every arid corner of this wild and beautiful country.

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But Lydia and I were the only tourists on the flight from Bangkok to Islambad. Our fellow passengers were Islamic men, mainly bearded, many wearing white skull caps and Punjabi suits. The man across the aisle was similarly clothed, had a fervent stare and a hooked nose and we immediately pegged him as an Al Qaeda leader and tried not to catch his eye.

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Our first night in Islamabad we were taken to dinner by Nazir Sabir, founder of the famous Nazir Sabir Expeditions, the company organising the logistics and support for our trip. Nazir is a world renowned mountaineer in his own right; in his early 50?s, he exudes vitality, is charming and liberal in his thinking and a great raconteur. He?s the current president of the Pakistan Alpine Club which sets the fees and authorises permits for foreign climbing expeditions and is dedicated to attracting overseas climbers back to the Karakoram. He was in the throes of organising a group of female alpinists from the USA to run a mountaineering course for young Pakistani women. We immediately related to him as a fellow climber.

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Nazir explained how post 9/11 shockwaves have decimated Pakistan?s once thriving tourist industry and how tourist operators, carpet sellers and trekking guides alike were? struggling to make a living from the few who like us, were still ?happy to come.

?The rise of fundamentalism is all too obvious here since 9/11,? he told us, ?especially in the NW Frontier Provinces and in the south.??

Islamabad had remained largely free of strife to date, he added, but he thought it was only a matter of time before extremists made their presence felt in the capital?s pleasant tree lined streets.

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Driving north along the Karakoram highway the next day, clad in the headscarf, long sleeved shirt and trousers obligatory for women in Pakistan, we found Nazir was right. The small towns were heavy on men with ?mullah? beards and fanatical glares. Women, confined to their homes, were conspicuous in their absence. Walking in the market of the small town of Besham which I remembered 20 years ago ?as a rather cheerful village on the banks of the Indus, we clutched our head scarves tight under our chins as we suffered the glares of men with shaven heads and henna?d beards, before scuttling back to our hotel.It was only when we reached the outskirts of the Hunza Valley two days (and 600km) later that we began to see women, unscarved, brightly clothed, walking in the streets, either with their husbands or in happy gossiping groups.

We puzzled over the contrast until Shukur Ullah Baig, our ?guide,?? explained the Hunza region is predominantly populated by Ismailie Muslims, the most moderate form of Islam.

?I am Ismailie myself,? he told us, with a big grin. ?We Ismailies are very liberal, and we are used to tourists.?

The Ismaelie constitution is based on an allegiance to Imam Prince Karim Aga Khan IV, he told us. ?The Aga Khan is particularly interested in eliminating poverty and advancing the status of women. His values have given rise to a tolerance of western ideals amongst the Hunza people that?s remained steady despite the fundamentalist resurgence in many other rural areas.

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As it turned out, Lydia and I didn?t climb Beka Brakkai Chhok but we had a great time giving it our very best try.? We came to a halt at 6000m, after two weeks acclimatising to altitude and load carrying and a seven day push towards the summit which saw us below the crux of the climb with one vital days gas supply and an estimated five more days to summit and get down.

?But somehow we weren?t disappointed. The climbing was exciting and varied and the position of our top camp perched on an overhanging ice ?blob? was nothing short of spectacular. We both agreed we?d seldom climbed technical ground for so long with such heavy packs nor coped with such difficult mixed terrain at high altitude. We felt we?d done the best we could.

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We also had a wonderful basecamp at the junction of two glaciers, with a small lake to splash around in on our rest days. The scenery was breathtaking. Baig and Javed (our cook), were wonderful companions and looked after us like queens. We had a sheep (our protein source) which we became very fond of? and were aghast when it ended up as a form of local sausage we were expected to eat! We shared the camp with two Italian climbers (brothers Giampi and Lorenzo) and laughed hilariously at their English. The weather was fantastic and as a consolation before we left ?we joined forces with the Italians and made the first ascent of a smaller ?mountain we aptly named ?Wahine.During this time Baig waited patiently for us at Basecamp, organised the local porters to collect us when it was time to leave, and accompanied us back to Islamabad.

Ours was the first all-female expedition he?d been in charge of and he admitted to being nervous at first. For men and women who aren?t directly related ?to be in each others company is frowned upon, or worse,? in Pakistan. ?But as we became firm friends, he gave Lydia and I a glimpse of an Islamic culture at odds with the current western perception. Not only does Baig follow Aga Khan in heralding the education and social liberation of women, he detests the influence of the mullahs (religious leaders) in Pakistan?s politics and felt the (then) current government?s alignment with the USA was, sadly, the only way the Taliban could be resisted.

Baig?s primary goal in life is to give his six children, including his three girls, the best education possible. Despite his income halving since 9/11 his three oldest are studying masters degrees at southern universities. ?Three more to go,? he says, ?education will mean they have a better life.?

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During our month in the mountains, Nazir?s prediction for Islamabad came true. President Musharaff?s troops stormed the capitals Red Mosque killing 300 people and as we drove back into the city, a suicide bomber killed another 20 outside the High Court. The populace was in shock. This sort of thing happened regularly in the huge southern port of ?Karachi, but not in Islamabad!

Back in the city Lydia and I were urged to stay away from large hotels and shopping centres- areas that could be targeted by bombers. Strangers in the street approached us and apologised for the ?situation?, hoping we would return to Islamabad in happier times.

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Taxiing down the runway on the day we left, it wasn?t our failure to climb our mountain we were thinking of, nor getting home, seeing friends and family, getting back to normality. We thought of Baig and Nazir and all the other people we?d met who had together made for our fantastic trip but who we were leaving behind to deal with the escalating effects of Al Quaeda on a daily basis.

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No one can have remained unaware of the political upheaval in Pakistan ?since we returned home in the end of July: the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the national elections, the continuing encroachment on the southern and western borders by the Taliban.

But what Lydia and I now acknowledge is the huge part of the population who deplore what?s going on in their country and the consequential reputation Pakistan has ended up with. People whose aim for nothing more than to give the next generation of Pakistanis a better start in life.

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LB cp 1 for web

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