As Hanniah Tariq delivers her speech at the April 2016 Piolets d’Or opening ceremony, her level voice holds the audience’s attention. Addressing the value of the search for adventure, she points out, “It is only by understanding each other through mutual experiences that we can open up new routes, both in the mountains and in our societies.”
Tariq grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan. When she was a child, her family went hiking in the surrounding mountains every weekend. “The mountains allowed me to discover more about nature, but also more about human nature and myself,” she recalls. “You go up burdened, you come down with that burden taken care of.”
After completing her master’s degree in gender and international development in the UK, Tariq worked on humanitarian missions in the Philippines and Uganda. Back home, while trekking in the Baltoro Glacier area, she became aware of the impacts that could come from irresponsible mountain tourism. Parts of the glacier were strewn with garbage. Carcasses of pack animals polluted the water supply to the villages below. The lead guide on her trip happened to be Zahid Rajput, the president of Khurpa Care Pakistan, an NGO focused on Khurpa welfare that had also begun environmental cleanup projects in the area. Motivated by his dedication, Tariq volunteered to help.
Khurpa literally translates to “the person who carries the burden.” Not only essential to commercially guided trips, Khurpas also ferry supplies to base camps for independent, alpine-style expeditions. Their job exposes them to a wide range of dangers associated with mountain travel–from swift-water crossings to rockfall and crevasses. Many of their families rely on subsistence farming most of the year, and the three-month season of portering provides their only significant cash income.
In 2013 a terrorist group killed eleven climbers at a Nanga Parbat base camp, including one Pakistani expedition worker. Mountain tourism sharply declined in the aftermath. Families who depended on portering for income struggled to afford basic necessities, including health care. Through Khurpa Care, workers now have access to a fund dedicated to subsidizing their medical costs, as well as to aiding their dependents in the event of accidental death. But the money is not sufficient to support porters’ families in the long term, and the employment opportunities for their wives, mothers and daughters remain limited.
In April 2015, Tariq established High Altitude Sustainability Pakistan, a largely volunteer-based organization. This year, HASP began a maternal health initiative, training traditional birth attendants in remote villages where doctors are unavailable. The trust also plans to encourage microenterprises to empower women in their communities and to ease some of Khurpa families’ dependence on the ebbs and flows of the fragile mountain tourism industry.
HASP’s first major environmental action was to launch a large-scale cleanup program, called Sustain Baltoro, in partnership with Khurpa Care. Initially, they aimed to bring back two-and-a-half tons of solid waste and animal carcasses. All told, thirty-five Balti Khurpas collected more than four tons. They cleared a stretch of seventy-six kilometers from Askole–a small town known as the gateway to K2–to Concordia, the confluence point of Baltoro and Godwin-Austen glaciers (also one of the largest freshwater resources in the world). Over time, HASP aims to increase both local and global awareness of the issues that abandoned garbage creates on the glacier by carrying out at least one such project every year.
Alpinist Rajab Shah, who passed away last year, was the first Pakistani to summit all five 8000-meter peaks in his country. Tariq recalls that he once said that qadar, or respect, in the mountains was one of the greatest strongholds against the kinds of extremism that could tear the country apart. As Tariq reminds the audience during her Piolet d’Or address, “The peace that we all seek when we venture into the wilderness would not be so foreign if more people came to understand better their neighbors in this global village.”