Its early July, and the snows arrived in the South Island. Daylight hours are short and its cold!Everyone with an outdoor bent is happily gearing up for an early ski season- everyone bar a small bunch of Kiwi mountaineers. These lucky few are about to exchange the sub zero temperatures of the south for the gruelling mid-summer heat of Pakistan.Sport and Recreation New Zealand (SPARC) is responsible for much of this exodus. Two groups of climbers have received major SPARC grants from the Sir Edmund Hilary Expedition Fund, initiated a number of years ago to inspire and encourage New Zealanders to take on exciting, world-class physical challenges in the great outdoors.Wanaka rock climber Bruce Dowrick is leading a team of four climbers on Naffees Spire in the north-eastern region of the Karakoram Range, while alpinist Guy McKinnon will attempt at a new route on Gasherbrum 3 (8000m) with some international hot-shots. Paul Hersey and I will try a first ascent of Karim Sar (6140m), a beautiful peak in the far north near the Afghan border.
Fast forward to late September, and winter is on its last legs. The climbers have returned, with varying degrees of success. McKinnon didnt climb Gasherbrum 3, and Dowrick didnt make his summit either, but two of his team mates did. I summited my mountain alone, after my climbing partner, affected by the altitude, ground to a halt.This has been my third mountaineering expedition to the Karakoram Range in as many years. The previous two were singularly unsuccessful! I failed twice on the same mountain, in 2007 with Lydia Bradey, internationally renown as the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen, and then again last year with British climber Malcolm Bass. The latter expedition in particular, was a torrid physical and emotional ordeal.
But there is something about Pakistan that draws me back.
This Islamic republic, mish-mash of federally administered states and tribal areas, is without a doubt one of the most dangerous places on earth to travel. No one can help but be aware of the situation the country finds itself in, with the Taliban encroaching on Islamabad, Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda friends supposedly holed up in the north-west, and the government in strife. At the time of our departure there were daily media reports of fighting in the Swat Valley, a mere 100km from the capital of Islamabad, and house to house combat between the military and the Taliban in the Swat capital of Mingora. Two million people were displaced by the fighting, swarming into the cities and refugee camps around the frontier town of Peshawar. The fear was the countrys nuclear arms would fall into the hands of the insurgents, and the recommendation of every embassy and consulate world-wide was to avoid all but the most essential travel.
It wasnt always like this.
I travelled and climbed in Pakistan back in the eighties when visitors poured into the country in the thousands, by plane, overland from India, even via 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 a western enthusiasm for exploring every arid corner of Pakistan. I?d spent several months wandering around the northern areas, lugging a large pack over mountain passes in true Kiwi style, and trying to climb some of the smaller peaks with varying degrees of success. We (I was with my ex-husband) took a very self-sufficient? (read, cash-strapped) approach to our mountaineering.
But things have changed?
When Lydia and I arrived in Islamabad in 2007, Nazir Sabir, president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, took us to dinner at the celebrated Marriot Hotel. The restaurant did a fine, western-style buffet. Nazir is a world-renowned mountaineer in his own right. In his early 50s, he exudes vitality, is charming and liberal in his thinking and a great raconteur. He is dedicated to attracting overseas tourists and climbers back to Pakistan and 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.
Nazir explained how the aftermath of 9/11 had decimated the country?s once thriving tourist industry and how tourist operators and expedition outfitters alike were struggling to make a living from the few westerners who, like us, still came.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism is everywhere since 9/11, he said.
Up until then Islamabad had remained largely free of strife, he added, but he thought it only a matter of time before the Taliban made its presence felt in the capital.
In the two years since, Nazir has been proved right many times over. During our 2007 expedition, the army shot 300 fundamentalists in Islamabads Red Mosque. There have since been numerous suicide bombings, the largest of which targeted and destroyed the Marriot Hotel in 2008, killing 65 people. An Italian restaurant Lydia and I frequented was blown up. The day I returned to Pakistan in 2008, 19 people were killed in a bombing outside the Danish Embassy, only minutes from my hotel. Even a Harry Potter book launch was targeted.
Regardless, the country remains enthralling and the mountains of the Karakoram unsurpassed. Why?
In a recent public presentation in Karachi, Nazir Sabir said,”Once climbers have been to Pakistan, they don?t go back to Nepal. Nepalese mountains are more feminine. Our mountains are men.”
Hes is right. You dont go to the Karakoram if you are looking for another Nepal – tea houses, yaks, numerous small villages, forests and fellow tourists. An arid grandeur puts the Karakoram in clear contrast. The range receives little rain and, as many of the valleys are virtually high altitude deserts, remains largely uninhabited. It is also the most heavily glaciated part of the world outside of the Polar Regions, with five of its glaciers over 60km in length. The range is bound on the northeast by the Tibetan Plateau, and the north by the Wakhan Corridor (Afghanistan). Just to the west of the western end lies the Hindu Raj range, beyond this, the Hindu Kush of Eric Newby and Alexander the Great fame. The southern boundary is formed by the massive Indus Rivers, which separate the Karakoram from the north-western end of the Himalaya range proper. There is a spot on the Karakoram Highway thats the junction of the Karakoram, Himalaya and Hindu Kush Ranges the three highest mountain ranges in the world! The overall impression is one of colossal scale.
This year I came under a barrage of inquiry from friends and family as to why I was willing to travel to this beleaguered country.I answered that despite the turmoil, the Alpine Club of Pakistan and various expedition companies were insistent visiting climbers would not be in danger. The Karakoram Highway and the mountain areas in the north arent affected by the conflict, they said. This is largely limited to the North West Frontier.
Nazir Sabir is critical of sections of the media that link the relatively peaceful Northern Areas of Pakistan with the insurgency-hit tribal belt.Amir Ghulum, director of trekking company Hunza Guides, Islmabad, also insists the image projected by western media is worse than the actual situation in Pakistan. Fifty-two climbing expeditions made it to Pakistan this season, he said, admittedly down on last year but most of those were returning climbers who knew the country, were aware the mountains remained a safe haven, and were happy to visit Pakistan again!
Without a doubt, I?m one of those happy ones!