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Ain’t no mountain high enough

January 12, 2014

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Braving rugged terrains, extreme weather, and the limits of physical and mental strength is merely part of the battle for Pakistani women mountaineers. More testing are the stereotypes of “weakness” that Pakistani women negotiate. “Men judge you because you’re a woman but actions speak louder than words,” says a defiant Daniyah Seher, a young but accomplished mountaineer.

“Action speaks louder than words. Instead of explaining anything to anyone, I simply act. Of course, I have to work harder, walk the extra mile so that there’s no room to exhibit any kind of weakness,” she describes.

Seher is not alone in feeling such bias. Documentary-maker Shehrbano Saiyid found respite from the daily travails of city life in climbing peaks and capturing her exhilarating experiences through film. As far as she is concerned, all a woman has to do is “go for it” and it’s up to the men to understand that women are equal. What Saiyid lives for is “to simply climb as many of the world’s highest mountains as possible… mountains that have never been climbed before”. Saiyid would not trade places with anyone.

Both these young women belong to families where male figures patronised their passion of seeking ecstasy on the peak tops. For Seher, it was her grandfather who encouraged her. “During our university days, we used to go for treks to Fairy Meadows,” says Seher — who has Master’s degrees in English Literature and Mass Communications from Punjab University, Those expeditions, along with her grandfather’s influence, set her on the path to mountaineering. While many would consider climbing Fairy Meadows at the base camp of Nanga Parbat as the pinnacle of success, for Seher, it was just the beginning.

A blogger, a freelance writer and an amateur photographer, Seher was armed with intensive training in mountain climbing, use of ladder and survival in extreme conditions, among others — the young woman has been exploring various treks, often taking the lead. She has been a part of a number of expeditions not just in Pakistan, but in Iran, Syria and Germany as well. Her interest in conquering heights took roots early when she was inspired by her maternal grandfather, who also travelled high and low.

For Saiyid, it was her father who fostered and stood by her mountaineering passion. “My father would take our family for holidays every summer to Swat, Chitral, Naran and Nathiagali,” she recalls. “I climbed Mount Miranjani, which is the highest mountain in Nathiagali, with my parents, siblings and family friends when I was nine. I still remember my first experience on the summit of a mountain and the view everywhere around us as we sat under the afternoon sun opening our lunch boxes.”

And thus began the odyssey. With no special training in mountaineering — which she hopes to obtain properly — Saiyid learnt the ropes while ‘on the job’. From annual or biannual trekking trips with LUMS Adventure Society, and a little technical mountaineering, she went on to cover K2 basecamp and Gondogoro La trek in 2004; Biafo-Hispar in 2005 and Lupke La in 2008.

“These were all approximately 150-200km in length and took two to three weeks. Other than that I did a few short trips and rock climbing, etc, as well,” she adds.

Like her father, Saiyid never found mountain climbing difficult. On the contrary, it was invigorating and magical and at times deeply spiritual. “I knew this was a love that was passed on from earlier generations and one I would never forget.” A journey in extreme weather is never easy and when it comes to mountain climbing the hurdles multiply as one gains height. Besides physical and mental strength, strong stamina, agility and sharp motor skills are a prerequisite of such excursions. One has to shoulder one’s own baggage, both tangible and emotional, and acclimatise oneself with severe weather changes and unpredictable terrains among other challenges. The training is constant and everything from food intake to fitness has to be carefully monitored.

“It’s a vigorous adventure,” says Seher, “When climbing, we wake up really early, around 3am, in order to avoid severe heat of the day. We’ve got to reach the target destination before nightfall and cover up to 32 kilometres in a day. This may not seem a lot on ground, but when climbing a mountain, it’s quite hectic,” she laughs.

Not the one to do the tried and tested, Seher has always preferred to go off the beaten track — literally. Her chosen routes are those that have rarely been explored.

“Locals and tourists know about the usual treks, and they tread those. But I want to familiarise them with other treks as well, which is why I like exploring routes that are rarely used,” she explains. Not that these adventures into the unknown have been without their share of scary experiences.

“We were journeying on Barkut Path once, descending 1,600kms, and there were huge boulders obstructing our way,” Seher relates. “At one point, while stretching across, my knee, which had been affected during a pervious expedition, got locked. In situations like these, one has to think of one’s team mates as well, since their progress is also slowed down. And because I was the only woman in the team, I had to be stronger and move ahead.”

Another time while on Karun Pir path, Seher and her team had taken the old route, which wasn’t used very often, to enter Shimshal village in Hunza-Nagar District. Unfortunately, they lost their way and were stranded for the night at a height of 2,100kms.