It would not be wrong to refer to the women of Shimshal as fighters. Their battle, however, is not one of gender empowerment but of conquering geography.
With the onslaught of terrorism, the high-altitude village in upper Hunza district – once a Mecca for adventure-hungry tourists – saw its tourism industry peter out. However, its population’s commitment to mountaineering has still paved the way for many expeditions. Most recently, eight female climbers made a record by conquering three peaks – Walyo Sar (6,035m), Minglig Sar (6,050m) and Quz Sar (5,950m) in the Karakoram – in winter in a week. Normally it takes a month for professional climbers to summit a peak.
Tied together on a single rope, the eight mountaineers relied on their instincts and the knowledge of different routes gained during previous climbs with their male counterparts, to reach Quz Sar’s summit.
For 19-year-old Hamida Bibi the experience was “the summit of our wishes.” As Wakhi songs echoed from walkie-talkies inside the tents at the base camp, the climbers’ excitement resonated with that of their male peers.
“We were happy to leave them behind,” joked 31-year-old filmmaker Sherhbano Sayyid, adding, that even though physical support from male climbers lends assurance, their absence calls for greater buoyancy and in a way, a greater sense of achievement.
Shimshal’s female mountaineers are not new to this sturdiness. They spend half the year without electricity and walk several days in search of grassland for their yaks and livestock. In winter, they brave frostbite to find water from glaciers and lakes.
Even though Hunza district boasts a 98 % literacy rate, a number of women from Shimshal are unable to pursue higher education. Resigned to the breathtaking, yet limiting landscape, mountaineering has provided the young women of Shimshal an opportunity to earn a livelihood through professional climbing and to popularise the sport.
The burden of keeping the tradition of mountaineering alive has fallen heavily on the shoulders of its people. Under the patronage of Italian climbers, the Shimshal Mountaineering School was built in 2007 and has since trained hundreds of locals, including women, seven of whom were part of the Pakistan Women’s Expedition this year and in 2011.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 8th, 2013.
Correction: An earlier version of the article incorrectly stated that the women conquered the Quz Sar peak in Himalayas. The error has been rectified.