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Fear or Aspiration: The Future of Climbing in the Karakoram?

In the aftermath of the Nanga Parbat attack, Swedish alpinist and conflict dynamics analyst David Falt looks at some of the potential risks and possibilities for the future of Karakoram mountaineering and peace in northern Pakistan.

The peak in my mind was a wild, crenellated spire with a huge North Face, bigger than anything I’d ever tried on my home turf in the Alps. It was 1989, I was eighteen years old, and I was one week out of high school, when I first embarked on a mountaineering expedition to Pakistan. My friend and I were planning a pure alpine-style attempt on the North Face of Shani, a little-known Karakoram peak, around 5800 meters. But we knew virtually nothing about the mountain and even less about the country itself. When we finally arrived in Karimabad to sort out the porter loads, before our trek to base camp, I watched the negotiations among the members of different local ethnic groups, and I realized that the dynamics that surrounded our climb were far more complex than I’d imagined. Even small and lightweight expeditions, here and elsewhere in the world, take place in a context mixed with the legacy of conflicted histories and a blend of personal and communal desires. We didn’t climb the North Face of Shani, but my experiences sparked a lifelong interest in the region, the mountains and the people.

Base Camp on the Diamir side of Nanga Parbat (8125m), Pakistan, after a snowstorm briefly covered the ground, a few days before the June 22, 2013 terror attack. [The views expressed in this article are those of the writer and not necessarily those of the staff or owners of the magazine.–Ed.] [Photo] Saulius Damulevicius

For decades, alpinists have been captivated with the region of Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Pakistan, because of its seemingly endless number of beautiful and challenging mountains–from steep and snowy 8000-meter peaks to the shining West Face of Gasherbrum IV, the legendary rock spires of the Trango group and the oft-attempted, still-unclimbed North Ridge of Latok I. And for decades, residents of some local communities have relied on international trekkers and climbers as a means to provide jobs for thousands of expedition workers. Many of Pakistan’s most well-known mountaineers have come from the region, from places like Shimshal, Hushe and Saparda, starting as porters and progressing to become guides, professional climbers and tour-company owners.

Then on the night of June 22, 2013, a group of armed militants entered the base camp on the Diamir side of Nanga Parbat and shot ten foreign climbers and one Pakistani. It was the first time that terrorists had targeted international tourists in Gilgit-Baltistan [For a memorial to the victims, see the Alpinist 44 editor’s note–Ed.]. Within days of the murders, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, declared the attack to be a national security threat, and the Pakistan Army and police began looking for the perpetrators. On August 6, three government investigators–Police Superintendent Hilal Ahmed, Colonel Ghulam Mustafa and Captain Ashfaq Aziz–were gunned down in Chilas, the capital of the Diamir District, some 47 kilometers from the mountain. By September 5, the government had reported arrests of more than 20 suspects, including the alleged leaders. Diamir District Police Superintendent Muhammad Navid told the Pakistani newspaper Dawn that these suspects might also be linked to the killings of Shia bus passengers on the Karakoram Highway in 2012. On October 7, The Express Tribune reported that 16 of the men arrested during new raids in Chilas had been released as “not behind the attack,” and that police believe there are two suspects at large who may be planning another possible strike nearby. Other suspects, however, remain in custody.

A Pakistan Army helicopter arriving to evacuate the survivors of the Nanga Parbat Base Camp attack. [Photo] Saulius Damulevicius

The government’s ongoing statements have projected an image of committed action, yet the long-term security and stability of the region remain unclear. The possibility of future attacks could not only threaten the areas where the economy is now dependent on both foreign and domestic tourism, but could also imperil other development projects–as well as the ability of Pakistani residents to travel safely between the lowland cities where they work or attend school and their home villages in the northern areas.

There is never a simplistic trigger for these incidents, which are driven by groups and individuals with complex motivations and histories. The people who have the capabilities to carry out such operations often describe themselves as members of the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) or other major insurgent groups such as Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Some are Afghan and Kashmir militants who have migrated to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), a semi-autonomous region on the border with Afghanistan. The TTP, a Sunni extremist organization that claimed responsibility for the Nanga Parbat murders, is itself part of a network of diversified groups with varied domestic goals, which in the past have included attempts to weaken the authority of Pakistan’s national government, to fight the Pakistani military and police, to prevent the education of women and to strike against Muslims belonging to non-Sunni minorities, such as Shias.

Although international climbers hadn’t come under attack in Gilgit-Baltistan before this year, militants had targeted foreign athletes in other parts of the country: in 2009, an insurgent group fired at a bus transporting a Sri Lankan cricket team to a stadium in Lahore, resulting in the deaths of six Pakistani policemen and two civilians. Six of the Sri Lankans were wounded. After getting the cricket team to safety, the bus driver, Maher Khalil, became a national hero. Yet by the end of that same year, the total number of Pakistani civilians killed in militant attacks would surpass 3,000 (Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 2012). That toll has continued to rise. Since Pakistan’s new government was elected in June 2013, hundreds of Pakistani civilians have died or suffered injuries as a result of incidents of militant violence–such as bombings at a policeman’s funeral in Quetta, at a Shia mosque in Peshawar and, more recently, at a Christian church in that same city.

In the aftermath of the Nanga Parbat attack, Swedish alpinist and conflict dynamics analyst David Falt looks at some of the potential risks and possibilities for the future of Karakoram mountaineering and peace in northern Pakistan.

A spokesperson for the TTP told the AFP news agency that the killings at Nanga Parbat were revenge for the death of one of their leaders, Maulvi Wali ur-Rehman, in an American drone strike. He added that the TTP had set up a new branch to attack foreigners. According to survivors’ accounts, some of the attackers stated, instead, that they were avenging Osama bin Laden. When trying to understand what kind of specific group is behind such attacks, it’s important not to attribute too much credibility to publicly made claims, which sometimes contradict reality, while solid on-the-ground intelligence often goes unpublished. The US drone strikes in the FATA region have killed a number of notable anti-state militants, disrupted supply lines and reduced the militant groups’ operational capabilities. They have also resulted in the deaths of Pakistani civilians, and they have increased anti-American sentiment in parts of the country. Because the Pakistani government has been perceived as complicit in the strikes, they have helped insurgents recruit new members. Looked at as a whole, however, the roots of broader conflicts go beyond the drone strikes, becoming entangled with issues of domestic power balances, as well as modern shifts in geopolitical tensions, international trade and relations.

The Ghosts of History

The modern history of Pakistan is marked by years of interweaving conflicts and changing alliances. In 1947, after the end of British colonial rule, the Partition of India left unresolved border disputes between the newly independent and separate countries of Pakistan and India. Battles flared up in the mountain areas of Kashmir, such as the Siachen Glacier region, where soldiers fought at elevations as high as 6700 meters, struggling not only against each other, but also against the cold, the altitude, high winds, avalanches and crevasses. And over the next decades, the Pakistani military often relied on insurgent groups to support its geopolitical aims. During the last stages of the Cold War in the 1980s, the CIA ran a huge operation out of Pakistan from the northern border with China all the way south along the edge of Afghanistan. Together, the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) provided insurgents with vast amounts of arms, cash and training to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan, paying little attention to the rising extremism of their temporary mujahedeen allies. After the Soviet withdrawal and the dissolution of various proxy fighting groups, little was done to control the arms that had been given to these militants–weapons that they still possess today (See Ghost Wars, Steve Coll, 2004).

During the post-9/11 war in Afghanistan, other proxy fighters arrived from many parts of the Arabian Peninsula to support the Afghan Taliban against the Northern Alliance and the West. Some of the jihadist groups later migrated across the border to Pakistan, where they joined various militants regrouping for future attacks. As several organizations turned violently against the Pakistani state, the government shifted to a multifaceted policy that has included attempts to drive the anti-state insurgents, such as the TTP (formed in 2007), from certain parts of Pakistan, fighting against them in places like FATA and the Swat Valley, while continuing to spare some of the other militant groups (Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 2012; see also Stephen Tankel, “Domestic Barriers to Dismantling the Militant Infrastructure in Pakistan,” Peaceworks 89, United States Institute of Peace, September 2013). Now, in the past few weeks, announcements by members of the current Pakistani government have indicated a desire to try to open cease-fire talks with the TTP–a move that has resulted in much uncertainty and debate after the suicide and car bombings that killed dozens of people in Peshawar this autumn.

A village in Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. Many of Pakistan’s top climbers have come from this area, which includes Shimshal, known as “the Valley of Mountaineers.” [Photo] Kate Brooks

Some commentators have argued that the militants are operating on the margins of their comfort zone when they strike in Gilgit-Baltistan. It’s also possible that we may be seeing a more-significant migration of fighters from the Swat Valley and other conflicted parts of the country [See Steve Swenson’s blog–Ed.]. Gilgit-Baltistan is a huge region, including 72,971 square kilometers of land. Its ca. 1.2 million people belong to diverse cultures and ethnic groups, and the majority still live in rural areas. Many of its residents have a long tradition of hospitality to visitors, and much of the region has appeared relatively peaceful. Yet security issues can vary greatly in different parts of Gilgit-Baltistan. And as the mountaineering writer Amanda Padoan, author of Buried in the Sky, points out in an email to Alpinist, “A distinction has to be made between Nanga Parbat’s region and the Baltoro, the region of K2, GI, GII and Broad Peak. The Baltoro is a region of military bases, patrolled by the Pakistan Army due to the nearby Siachen conflict. Nanga Parbat is comparatively isolated and poses higher risks and a different security analysis, particularly for the mountain’s western flank.”

Because of the border conflicts between India and Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan itself is a disputed area under international law. Its residents are still unable to vote in Pakistan’s national elections, and some feel marginalized from the rest of the country. In a USIP Special Report on “Conflict Dynamics in Gilgit-Baltistan,” published in January 2013, Izhar Hunzai, former CEO of the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral, pointed out:

Gilgit-Baltistan is ideally situated for trade and commerce…[yet] its geography also makes it vulnerable to spillover of conflicts from active militant movements in the surrounding areas…. The disputed status of Gilgit-Baltistan and prolonged direct rule from [the national capital of] Islamabad has not only resulted in limited space for political participation and blunted institutional development, but also prevented development of local resources, such as hydropower and minerals…. Lack of employment opportunities also appear to be contributing to sectarian violence and crime. Among the external factors are…spillover effects of extremism [from other areas]…. While unlocking Gilgit-Baltistan from its physical isolation and ushering in economic opportunity, the [Karakoram] highway has also increased Gilgit-Baltistan’s vulnerability to new threats.

For a long time, Sunni and Shia residents had mostly lived in peace in this predominately Shia region. Then in 1975 gunmen fired shots at a Shia Muharrum procession in Gilgit, resulting in the first deaths from modern sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan. Since the mid-1980s, scattered outbreaks of sectarian attacks have escalated around the towns of Gilgit and Chilas. In February 2012, in the Kohistan District, to the southwest of Gilgit-Baltistan, Sunni extremist militants halted buses that were headed to Gilgit on the Karakoram Highway. After checking the identity cards of the travelers, they killed eighteen Shias. Two months later, a similar incident took place: gunmen pulled Shia passengers from buses on the Babusar road near Chilas and killed them. The TTP claimed responsibility, but no perpetrators were convicted, and many Gilgit-Baltistan residents criticized the Pakistani government for failing to deliver justice. (At the time that this article is posted, it remains to be proven definitively whether any of the suspects of the Nanga Parbat murderers were also directly involved in the bus attacks.) “According to one estimate,” writes Stephen Tankel, a professor at American University who specializes in terrorism and insurgency studies, “the highest conviction rate between 2005 and 2011 for terrorism cases was 28 percent, with an annual average for those cases of barely more than 18 percent” (Tankel, USIP, citing “Anti-terrorism Law in Pakistan,” Zulfiqar Hameed, Social Science and Policy Bulletin, Winter/Spring 2012).

The Million-Dollar Question

American researcher Brian Jenkins once famously declared that “terrorism is theater,” the act a means to try to convey an agenda through violent images that are often spread by the media that records them. But as the anthropologists Ingo W. Schroder and Bettina E. Schmidt argue, “the symbolic dimension of violence, on the other hand, may also backfire against its perpetrators”; groups targeted by terrorists can respond with their own, more-powerful interpretations of the event, and their stories can subvert and overwhelm those of the terrorists (Anthropology of Violence and Conflict, 2001).

Carrying signs with slogans such as We want justice, We want peace, We’re sorry we couldn’t save them and We condemn the brutal killings, thousands of Pakistanis participated in candlelight vigils and protests across Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as in Islamabad, Karachi and other cities, expressing their solidarity with the families of the Nanga Parbat victims and demanding that the Pakistani government crack down on terrorist groups. Manzoor Hussain, President of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, wrote open letters to climbing organizations around the world: “We still suffer through shock and grief, and are traumatized on the brutal massacre of ten guest mountaineers and one local support staff by these enemies of humanity.” Zahid Rajput, a mountain guide who runs Khurpa Care, a training and advocacy NGO for low-altitude porters, explains, “This is not just the killing of climbers, but the economic killing of the people of the region.” Gilgit-Baltistan activist Zaeem Zia declared in an Express Tribune editorial:

How these innocent travelers [killed on Nanga Parbat] are related to drone strikes is beyond me…. These [crimes] are not reflective of the people we are. If this incident is ignored like the incidents in the past…[such as the killings of the Shia bus passengers] then the locals have every reason to doubt the sincerity of the security agencies within the region….

Since then, writers and journalists across the country have referred to foreign climbers as “the ambassadors of Pakistan” and denounced the attack as an assault on a particular vision of the nation. “Mountaineering expeditions,” declared the political commentator Moeed Pirzada who works for the government-run PTV news channel, “provided the oxygen of positive publicity to this country,” a means to be part of “an international narrative.” While in the past, the national government had largely ignored mountaineering, after Nanga Parbat the pursuit now appeared increasingly tied to larger concerns of domestic security and geopolitical relations.

In the aftermath of the Nanga Parbat attack, Swedish alpinist and conflict dynamics analyst David Falt looks at some of the potential risks and possibilities for the future of Karakoram mountaineering and peace in northern Pakistan.

During the months ahead, however, the question remains what further actions the Pakistani government will actually take–and whether those measures will really be enough to protect local civilians and future foreign visitors. In 2009, the Pakistani state showed that it’s capable of clearing territories infested with militants such as Rah-e-Rast (Swat) and Rah-e-Nijat (South Waziristan), but it has not yet been able to provide complete security, post-liberation, on the ground. At the same time, it’s currently almost impossible for any government in the world, no matter how many resources it has at its disposal, to prevent terrorist acts entirely. And the instability in the other parts of South Asia and the Middle East could well affect how the future of Pakistan is shaped. The US departure from Afghanistan, scheduled for 2014, may have unpredictable results. In an August 28 Telegraph article, journalist Rob Crilly reported that jihadi leader Syed Salahudeen claimed thousands of militants would leave Afghanistan and redirect their attacks against Indian forces in Kashmir. While Salahudeen’s statement may simply represent a form of propaganda from attention-seeking and possibly fundraising extremists, such a surge could also disrupt ongoing peace talks between India and Pakistan. Some of the highly disputed areas between India and Pakistan, around Goma, Ghyari, Naran village and Chumik Peak are only a few hours’ drive from the village of Hushe, the gateway for mountaineering expeditions into the Charakusa Valley.

Porters carrying loads on the Baltoro Glacier, in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan. For decades, mountaineering and trekking expeditions have provided seasonal jobs for thousands of Gilgit-Baltistan residents. [Photo] David Falt

“Peace is the number one priority for Gilgit-Baltistan,” says the Pakistani anthropologist Shafqat Hussain, who founded a snow-leopard conservation project in the region in 1999. “With that, would come more economic opportunity. With a healthy, prosperous society, people will not turn to violence. But how do you get there? That’s the million-dollar question…. It’s hard to get the concerns of Gilgit-Baltistan into the national scene.” One step could be for the government of Pakistan to initiate more-thorough outreach programs with affected communities–as well as with stakeholders and NGOs–to try to gain a deeper understanding of the underlying issues of the region and to look for more-effective and lasting means to provide sustainable economic development, conflict resolution and justice.

While areas in Chilas and the Diamir District have gained a reputation as a base for extremists, human rights activist Aisha J. Khan, who grew up there, argued in a Pamir Times editorial that not every resident supports the militants: “The tragic incident of tourist killing has been an eye-opener to the people of Chilas…. [The] whole community cannot be condemned…. The region must be uplifted and brought into [a] national or regional realm to diminish the radical ideas flourishing there.” Until the Nanga Parbat attack, around 400 to 500 people in the Diamir District were seasonally employed as low-altitude porters, and the rippling impact of their job losses might, over time, lead to even-greater volatility–if nothing is done to make it possible for visitors to return someday or else to provide residents with other income opportunities. “After this incident,” a Diamir man told Zaeem Zia, “our children’s future has become dark.”

From Porters to Mountain Guides and Climbers

Each year, thousands of men from Gilgit-Baltistan have trekked into the Karakoram Range to carry loads, to cook for climbing teams or to guide clients. This September, Shaheen Baig, one of Pakistan’s top alpinists and mountain guides, told Alpinist, “The local people who are directly or indirectly connected to tourism now are confused and worried about the situation. Most are looking for other sources of income, but they have no other options as the area is far from industrial and financial centers…. Tourism is the main source of income to support their children’s education.”

Shimshal, where Baig lives, is a mountain village surrounded by barley fields and apricot trees beneath the snowy arc of the 6306-meter Shimshal Whitehorn, in the Hunza-Nagar District of Gilgit-Baltistan, far from Nanga Parbat. This area is sometimes referred to as “The Valley of Mountaineers,” because so many of Pakistan’s climbers have grown up there. “Climbing was essential part of our life,” Baig says of his youth. “Most of the youngsters used to go to our pasturelands in Pamir and Loopgar with our livestock and yaks…. Climbing 16,000-foot high mountains was a common practice for us since our childhood.” By the time Baig got his first expedition job, as a high-altitude porter for a Korean team in 1995, he and his friends Qudrat Ali and Ali Musa had already made an ascent of a nearby 5300-meter peak.

Although the numbers of foreign visitors have sharply declined in Pakistan since 9/11, adventure tourism still remains an important (albeit unpredictable) source of seasonal cash for thousands of residents of remote farming villages. The mountaineering and trekking industry in the Karakoram has evolved significantly since the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when villagers carried loads for feudal rulers, colonial administrators and foreign explorers as part of a once-compulsory labor system. In recent years, government regulations of wages and working conditions have mitigated some of the problems of the past. But many low-altitude Balti porters still carry out their hazardous jobs without adequate insurance, and they often choose to spend their small allotted gear allowances on necessities for their families rather than on sunglasses to prevent snow-blindness or equipment for safe glacier travel (See “Who Carries the Load,” Campbell MacDiarmid, Alpinist 42).

This summer, as the Pakistani journalist Sumaira Jajja trekked to K2 base camp, she saw low-altitude porters sleeping under plastic sheets and hiking in cheap sandals. She told Alpinist that she noted a sense of “hopelessness” among those who worried that, at best, their children would spend their lives performing the same hard physical labor–or that, at worst, if tourists didn’t return, they might find no employment opportunities at all. Without the income from portering, several Askole residents informed her, they didn’t think they could earn enough for adequate food, warm clothing and medicine for their families.

On the other hand–at least until this year–some individuals who have secured higher-paying jobs as cooks or guides have been able to put aside money to create small businesses or support grassroots development projects in their region. Ali Hussain, the cook who was killed at Nanga Parbat’s Base Camp, had served as a member of the Hushe Welfare and Development Organization, which helped found a school for children in his village. And a number of Pakistani guides have created organizations to try to address the ongoing needs of mountaineering and trekking workers, such as better insurance for accidents and illnesses in the mountains, rescue evacuations in case of an injury and improved safety practices for low-altitude porters when crossing high passes.

In the aftermath of the Nanga Parbat attack, Swedish alpinist and conflict dynamics analyst David Falt looks at some of the potential risks and possibilities for the future of Karakoram mountaineering and peace in northern Pakistan.

Zahid Rajput and the other members of Khurpa Care are currently trying to start an equipment bank so that porters can borrow gear for their expeditions, instead of having to decide whether or not to use the allowance to purchase it. This year, Khurpa Care received a grant to set up courses in first aid, basic climbing, glacier travel, crevasse rescues and self-rescue for porters at Payu Camp at the foot of the Baltoro Glacier. In 2009, with the help of Italian alpinist Simone Moro, Shaheen Baig and Qudrat Ali created the Shimshal Mountaineering School as a way to offer guide training for local men and women. Another Shimshal climber, Mirza Ali, also hopes to change perceptions of Gilgit-Baltistan’s mountain workers: “In Pakistan, those who work at high altitude are called ‘porters,'” he notes, “but they are equal climbers. I am trying to shift this to ‘high-altitude mountain guides,'” through mentoring programs that enhance the professional experience of younger expedition workers.

“Tourism would have to be carefully managed,” Shafqat Hussain says. “Local people know that–they want it to be sustainable.” David Butz, a Canadian geographer who has spent many years conducting fieldwork in Shimshal, has observed a sense of “optimism [among residents in that area] regarding the possibilities of bottom-up (or grassroots) improvements to portering labor relations”; concepts such as fair trade, fair labor, environmentalism are more widely spread among the new generation of local guides. And for young people who feel disenfranchised because of their region’s marginalized status, the national recognition attached to famous Gilgit-Baltistan climbers can make the pursuit seem like a “way into a kind of community narrative.”

Beyond expedition work, more and more Pakistani mountaineers have gone on to pursue independent climbs. The Pakistani team on Nanga Parbat this June–Karim Hayat, Sher Khan and Naseer Uddin–was attempting an unsupported ascent without supplemental oxygen. This week, Hayat reported a solo first ascent of an unclimbed 5880-meter peak in Shimshal Valley. During the past few years, Shaheen Baig and Qudrat Ali have achieved first winter ascents of 6000-meter peaks, as well as participating in several winter expeditions to 8000-meter peaks. And in 2010 Samina Baig (known today as the first Pakistani woman to climb Mt. Everest in 2013) made the probable first ascent of Chashksin Sar (ca. 6000m), now renamed “Samina Peak.”

Gilgit-Baltistan has a long history of talented local mountaineers–such as Nazir Sabir, who completed the first ascent of the West Ridge of K2 with a Japanese team and alpine-style ascents of Broad Peak and Gasherbrum II with Reinhold Messner. “It is hard to predict anything about the future of Pakistani mountaineering,” says Imran Junaidi, of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Alpine Institute, “due to uncertainty,” but he hopes that Pakistani climbers will continue to have the opportunity to learn from interacting with the international climbing community. If more resources for funding or sponsorship were available, Pakistani climbers might have much to contribute to the future of the pursuit. “Everything has pros and cons,” Shaheen Baig says about the dangers of high-altitude guiding and mountaineering, “We have no other opportunities so we rely on our skills and our experience to reduce the risks…. But I feel it is not only a source of income for which I go to the mountains…. I have become addicted to going to the mountains. I can’t relax when I stay a long time without climbing. I feel the power of nature high in the mountains…. So long as I have stamina and power I will go to the mountains for my inner peace or satisfaction.”

The alpine achievements of Gilgit-Baltistan’s mountaineers symbolize only one part of many community members’ efforts and aspirations. In his January 2013 USIP Report, Izhar Hunzai pointed out that Gilgit-Baltistan now has, overall, the “highest levels (57 percent) of women’s education in Pakistan.” Given the serious economic and political challenges that northern Pakistan has faced, he wrote:

Gilgit-Baltistan’s development outcomes are impressive, built on the time-tempered resilience of the people…. Gilgit Baltistan’s strategic location–linking China and Central, South, and West Asia–provides real opportunities for trade and commerce among neighboring countries…. The development potential…is huge in terms of its water resources for irrigation and hydropower, mineral wealth, tourism, high-value horticulture, and opportunities for trade and transit…. If the current educational trends continue, the majority of Gilgit-Baltistan’s population will become a literate and skilled workforce in due course, providing a huge demographic dividend for Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan…. They have much to lose from the growing menace of extreme political ideologies and religiously motivated violence, given their hard-won transformation from a feudal past and their recent development gains. Their future trajectory is at stake.

The Future?

On July 17, Deputy Chief Muhammad Ramzah (UNM, Tamgha-Imtiaz) issued a letter to the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Secretary:

Subject: Trekking on route Baltoro–Gondogora-La, Hushe Trek

I am directed to refer to the subject noted above and to inform that trekking on route Baltoro-Gondogoro-La, Hushe has now been allowed to foreign expeditions subject to clearance from security agencies, and with the condition that Defence Liaison Officer would be detailed with each group.

The idea of attaching armed escorts to trekking groups could be a problematic solution, apart from the additional cost and lack of appeal to tourists. What kind of real protection can these guards provide in a hostile situation? What is their mandate in terms of rules of engagement?

For the foreseeable future, it now seems prudent to forgo traveling up the Karakoram Highway, which has been the location of recent violence. Foreign climbers who decide to return to the Karakoram Range could try to improve their safety, at least to some extent, by flying to Skardu or else entering Pakistan through China. Other possible recommendations might include: requesting that tour operators and the government refrain from publishing any digital information about the location of expeditions while they are still in progress; behaving and dressing discretely; avoiding taking pictures or spending prolonged amounts of time in public places; leaving a place immediately if the atmosphere seems tense or unusual; agreeing on meeting points and protocols for various scenarios, including a time frame for when to call embassies and police if someone fails to show up; having a visa to exit through China if there’s a major security meltdown; and meticulously researching current events and travel advisories before making a final decision to go to Pakistan (See also: Steve Swenson’s blog post).

In the aftermath of the Nanga Parbat attack, Swedish alpinist and conflict dynamics analyst David Falt looks at some of the potential risks and possibilities for the future of Karakoram mountaineering and peace in northern Pakistan.

Nanga Parbat in the sunset. First climbed by Hermann Buhl in 1953 as part of a German-Austrian expedition, the mountain has been the location of some of the most legendary climbs in mountaineering history. Will its climbing story continue in the future? [Photo] Saulius Damulevicius

At the end of the day, however, it’s essential to remember that no predictable rules apply to the operations of jihadist groups, and any of these recommendations could fail. One must always expect the unexpected. The terrorist organization that carried out the Nanga Parbat attack–which required navigating difficult and isolated high-altitude terrain–could possibly have the capability to be roving and to strike in other areas normally deemed safe. The government’s demand for trekking expeditions on the Baltoro-Gondogora-La Hushe trek to be accompanied by armed guards could be simply a haphazard effort to prove that they are doing something to address security–or it could be a response to some new element of concern by Pakistani intelligence agencies.

At the meeting of the General Assembly of Union of the Asian Alpine Associations (UAAA), held in Islamabad in early October, Fritz Vrijlandt, president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), expressed his solidarity with “the Pakistani mountaineering community and with all mountaineers involved,” he told Alpinist. He declared at the opening session, “Mountaineers are a symbol of peace, it is a risk already that they undertake while climbing the mountain. I urge the government of Pakistan to please make sure that this remains a one-time incident only.”

The ultimate choices about which risks are acceptable should always be individual ones. Mountaineers in the Greater Ranges are used to assessing dangers: How exposed is that line up that unclimbed face? How avalanche prone is the descent? What will that serac have to throw at us? What hazards are too much for us (and for our loved ones)? Climbers must always answer those questions in their own minds, according to their own personal research, experience, instinct and judgment. There are no guarantees of absolute safety, in the mountains or on the approaches to them.

Gilgit-Baltistan should be able to overcome the traumatic events at Nanga Parbat eventually, if a civil leadership can set a clear path for security through justice, accountability and community outreach. There is only hope if there is justice. Mountain tourism can’t solve the larger problems of the region by itself. But if it can be conducted in reasonable security and if it’s developed in a way that aims to conserve the environment and to provide a more-sustainable living for residents, it could continue to help support their own striving for a better future. The luminous mountains and granite towers of Gilgit-Baltistan will always be a lure, and some international mountaineers may keep trying to reach them. Others, who decide the risks have become too great to visit Pakistan, might still support the efforts of local mountaineers, NGO and development workers in other ways, maintaining the ties between Gilgit-Baltistan’s mountain communities and the larger climbing world–in bonds of friendship that might help lead, incrementally, to increased mutual understanding and greater peace across all borders.

–With some additional reporting from Katie Ives.

About David Falt

Born in 1970, David Falt is a Swedish alpinist based in the Alps. For two years, Falt has advised governments and NGOs on the conflict dynamics in Syria. From 2005 to 2011, he ran a private consulting firm focusing on conflict resolution and foreign policy advice for businesses, governments and NGOs. His consulting and mediation experience includes jihadist dynamics, transitional justice, hostage situations, wrongful detentions, seized assets, as well as political and policy assessments and crisis management in high-stakes situations. He has worked in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Russia and the former Soviet Republics. In addition to extensive climbing in the Alps and the Dolomites, Falt has made several mountaineering expeditions to Pakistan, including attempts on Shani Peak in 1989, Hunza Peak in 1991 and Gasherbrum IV in 2009.

Selected Bibliography:

Izhar Hunzai USIP Special Report on “Conflict Dynamics in Gilgit-Baltistan,” January 2013;; Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, 2004; Rob Crilly, “Pakistani militants promise surge in attacks on Indian forces in Kashmir,” The Telegraph, August 28, 2013; Stephen Tankel, phone interview, August 29, 2013; Stephen Tankel, “Barriers to Dismantling the Militant Infrastructure in Pakistan,” USIP Peace Works Report no. 89, September 2013; Stephen Tankel, “Terrorism out of Pakistan,” May 27, 2010; Martin Soekefeld, “From Colonialism to Postcolonial Colonialism: Changing Modes of Domination in the Northern Areas,” The Journal of Asian Studies 64, no. 4 (November 2005); “Principles for good international engagement in fragile states & situations,” Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); Oscar Guardiola-Rivera, “Law in Other Contexts: Stand by Bravely Brothers! A Report from the Law Wars,” International Journal of Law in Context, Vol. 4, No. 2, June 2008; Gregory Johnsen, The Last Refuge: Yemen, Al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, 2013; Farooq Ahmed Khan, “Men Behind Nanga Parbat Massacre Arrested,” Dawn, August 19, 2013; Ahmed Rashid, Pakistan on the Brink, 2012; Amanda Padoan, “Death on Killer Mountain,” The Daily Beast, July 6, 2013; Amanda Padoan, Buried in the Sky, 2012; Steve Swenson, “Attack on Climbers in Pakistan,” July 2013,; Zazeem Zia, “Gilgit-Baltistan: You Have Taken Away Our Livelihood,” The Express Tribune Blogs, June 24, 2013; Bettina Schmidt and Ingo Schroeder, Anthropology of Violence and Conflict, 2001; Terror and Violence: Imagination and the Unimaginable, Ed. Andrew Strathern, Pamela J. Stewart and Neil Whitehead, 2005; Aisha J. Khan, “We Shall Cherish Chilas!,” Pamir Times, October 6, 2013; Campbell MacDiarmid, “Who Carries the Load,” Alpinist 42 (Spring 2013); Sumaira Jajja, “Dreaming Big in Askole,” Dawn, September 29, 2013; Caylee Hong, “Liminality and Resistance in Gilgit-Baltistan,” Legal Working Paper Series on Legal Empowerment for Sustainable Development, Center for International Sustainable Development Law, 2012; Kenneth Ian MacDonald, “Push and Shove: Spatial History and the Construction of a Portering Economy in Northern Pakistan,” Society for Comparative Study of Society and History, 1998; David Butz, “Resistance, Representation and Third Space in Shimshal Village, Northern Pakistan,” ACME: An International Journal of Critical Geographies, 2002; Anatol Lieven, Pakistan: A Hard Country, 2011; Afshan S. Khan, “Opening Session of Asian Mountaineering General Assembly Held,” The News, October 1, 2013.