October Issue 2014
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
“I can’t express… I can’t explain… it was just… being the first Pakistani woman to scale Mount Everest, it was unbelievable for me. Getting to the summit, surpassing all the hurdles and challenges we were faced with, staying positive no matter what the conditions, and finally reaching the top, was just incredible. I was literally crying. Hoisting Pakistan’s flag on the summit of Mount Everest, I was very, very happy,” Samina Baig struggles for words as she describes the journey that took her to the rooftop of the world.
Samina is from the quiet village of Shimshal in Pakistan’s Hunza District. Thanks, in great measure, to an extremely supportive brother, Mirza Ali Baig, she made history in May 2013, as the first Pakistani woman to scale the world’s highest peak, at the age of just 22 years.
If you met Samina, a petite 23-year-old a little over 5 feet, you would never believe that she has not only scaled Mount Everest, but also the seven highest peaks in each of the world’s seven continents (along with her brother, with whom she undertook the ‘Seven Summits’ challenge in 2014). Ali recounts how people used to ask him in jest, how Samina, who can’t even reach up to the mike on the dais on most occassions, could possibly make it to the summit of Mount Everest. In fact, this was the kind of reaction that Ali got from most of the multinationals and government organisations he approached to fund their Everest expedition. “Some didn’t even allow me to enter their gates,” he says. They thought it was ludicrous to even entertain the idea. But Ali was determined to prove the sceptics wrong and show to the world “the brave face of the Pakistani woman.”
Samina is the youngest of six siblings – four brothers and two sisters – but it was Ali, eight years her senior, whose passion was inspirational for her. Ali had started climbing mountains at the age of 15, and would recount stories of his adventures to Samina. However, it was the tales of women mountaineers who came to Pakistan from foreign shores that caught Samina’s interest, and in 2010, she decided to follow in their footsteps and accompany her brother on his mountaineering expeditions. Samina says “it is not just for the sake of mountain climbing, but to empower women and advocate gender equality,” that she and her brother undertake joint expeditions. The brother-sister team want to show the world that if Samina can climb mountains – one of the toughest sports in the world – with the support of family and friends, then it is possible for other women to fulfill their dreams too, if they are provided the opportunity.
The first peak Samina scaled was the Chashkin Sar peak in Shimshal, in 2010. It has now been renamed ‘Samina Peak’ by the locals in her honour. Although she is not the first or only girl in her village to climb mountains, her successes are encouraging more women to take up the sport.
While the Everest expedition was undertaken in the name of ‘Gender Equality and Woman Empowerment,’ the Seven Summits project was called ‘Adventure Diplomacy: Connecting People Through Mountains,’ as the siblings represented Pakistan in each continent through their climbs.
Climbing Mount Everest together was intended to send a message about gender equality, says Samina. But additionally, it was also about the empowerment of women. So the siblings decided that Samina should scale the peak on her own. Approximately 248 metres short of the summit, Ali decided to climb down, while Samina continued her journey to the top.
A special bond exists between the two siblings. “He is not only a brother to me,” says Samina about Ali, “he is a father, mother, sister and very good friend.” Like most siblings, they have their small skirmishes, but these don’t last too long. “He is a very loving and caring brother, and is always there for me,” she says.
Samina trains alongside her brother when preparing for an expedition, and there is no difference in their regimens. Surprisingly, Samina says, “I have never been to a gym.” Instead, the siblings take advantage of the natural topography in Islamabad, where the two now reside (Samina is enrolled in a college, while Ali owns a travel agency and works for the Pakistan Youth Outreach programme). They hike up and down the Margalla Hills every day, for two to three hours.
But does their physical training prepare them for the grit and determination required in this sport? “Most sports are a game, you either win or lose,” says Ali, “but in mountain climbing, it’s about life and death.” Fortunately, the two have never had a near-death experience, nor have they ever felt like they weren’t going to make it. “While climbing Everest, my approach throughout was very positive. I kept thinking, I have to reach the summit because I am not climbing for myself, I am representing Pakistan,” says Samina. “The most important thing is to educate yourself about the different mishaps that could occur when you’re out there, and to have a counter-plan for each one of them,” says Ali. “Make a list of 10 unexpected things that could occur in the mountains – snow, rain, extreme cold etc. – and know what to do in each case,” he says. Born in the mountains and used to living in a harsh environment, Ali and Samina have a distinct “psychological edge” over others, as well as a kind of “trust” in the environment. “Every Shimshali is a born mountaineer,” says Samina, and walking and trekking is a way of life in their village. Most women spend five months away from home every year, on the pastures with their cattle.
Like any mother, Samina’s was also petrified upon learning about her daughter’s plans. “Mothers are always very worried about their daughters,” she says, and at first she did not give Samina permission to go for the expedition, fearing it was too dangerous. It took a lot of effort on her other siblings’ part to convince their mother to let Samina accompany Ali on his climb to Mount Everest. Eventually she gave in on the promise that Ali would look after Samina.
During any expedition, the one thing that keeps Samina and Ali going is prayers. “We offer our prayers daily, and it really, really helps. It gives you strength and motivates you,” she says. Moreover, whenever they leave home for an expedition, their parents see them off with prayers and a Quran held over their heads.
The Seven Summits expedition was completed successfully by Ali and Samina in July 2014, in eight months (unfortunately, Ali was unable to summit Everest in 2014 due to an avalanche on the mountain that year). They scaled the peaks of Mount Aconcagua (South America), Mount Vinson (Antarctica), Mount Kilimanjaro (Africa), Mount Puncat Jaya (Australia), Mount McKinley (North America) and finally, Mount Elbrus (Europe). They are the first Pakistanis to do so.
The siblings’ favourite destination was Antarctica, which was stunning in its beauty: “It’s just so pure and natural, untouched by the human hand,” says Samina. And they also met some wonderful people: “The Tanzanians are a lovely people, they don’t care who you are or where you are from; the Indonesians are extremely hospitable. When you arrive in Bali, they present you with flowers; and the Russians are very smart and physically fit.” However, Pakistan will always be top of the list in their hearts: In all the interviews he’s given about the Seven Summits expedition, the one thing Ali never fails to mention is that he landed in 55 airports across the seven continents wearing only one T-shirt that said, ‘I Love Pakistan.’
At an event held at the Aga Khan University (AKU), in August, Ali recounted the days when he started mountain-trekking as a guide. He wore shoes worth Rs 200 from the “lunda bazaar,” and did not have proper equipment or formal training. But despite all this, he persisted. And upon the successful conclusion of the Seven Summits challenge, he offered “a big thank you to those who never believed in me!!!” on his Facebook page. His advice to the audience at AKU was the same, “You can do it, you can do it,” he told them. This is the advice he gives to his sister, on the rare occasion that he sees her falter and begin to lose hope during an expedition.
Samina and Ali Baig’s plans for the future include establishing an Institute of Winter Sports and Natural Sciences in Pakistan. “We want to produce athletes who can compete in the Winter Olympics,” says Samina. But for now, they are looking forward to even greater climbs: the release of Ali’s book, Beyond Borders, and the documentary of Samina’s Everest expedition, Beyond the Heights, recorded by Ali himself, to be released at the upcoming Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival in Canada.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s October 2014 issue.
Hiba Mahamadi was an Editorial Assistant at Newsline