Summer reminds one of sunny days and perfect blue skies. When the trees sway in the balmy breeze and leaves rustle as the wind blows. For some, the cool mountain air beckons and the restless soul yearns for adventure … especially when that restless, adventurous soul is based in Islamabad, and also happens to be called by a name that is pronounced the same way as ‘summer’.
Meet adventure athlete Samar Khan, also known as the ‘Pride of Pakistan’ and ‘Goodwill Ambassador’ for the World Wildlife Fund.
Her own adventure began several years ago, when her parents bought a brand new, bright red BMX bicycle for their four kids. “It was one bicycle meant to be shared by all of us. At the time, none of us could ride a bike. I was the first one to learn how to,” Samar, now an accomplished mountain biker, hiker, trekker, snowboarder and everything else that has to do with adventure sports in between, tells Eos.
Meet Pakistani adventure athlete Samar Khan. She bikes, hikes, treks, snowboards and everything in between …
“I along with my brothers and sister took the bike out. All of us wanted to ride it. We all took turns but then, after several tries, my siblings got bored. Still, I was all for learning how to balance it. I got on it again and again. I fell so many times and bruised myself in the process, but I was determined. And then after two to three hours of continuous attempts, I got my reward — balance. The bright red bicycle became mine, since it was only I who could ride it,” she beams. Later, Samar also taught one of her younger brothers how to ride it.
Originally from Lower Dir, the family was in Rawalpindi because Samar’s father was posted there. “I also did my schooling from Pindi. Our parents were very focused on all of us getting a good education. Still, no college or university could keep me away from my bicycle,” she says.
It was sometime in 2016 when she, along with a friend, decided to head towards the hills. “We thought of going to the Khunjerab Pass from Islamabad. The road distance is about 750 to 800km. We were just two girls riding on our bicycles. We divided the distance that we wanted to travel into how much we could cover in a day, and where we wanted to reach by evening to stay the night.
“We packed snacks, mostly dried fruit, we studied maps, stopped to eat at roadside dhabas, filled our water bottles from there as well before getting back on our bikes. Like this, we travelled for some 15 days. Wherever we could find the internet, we also uploaded our pictures or video clips on social media,” she says.
“The Hunza Valley is a safe place for women. The literacy rate there is over 90 per cent. There is no crime there, and no concept of harassment,” she adds, reading my mind.
“Upon our return, we realised that those pictures and clips that we used to share on social media had created hype. We had gone viral. Our achievements over the couple of weeks had also got noticed by the mainstream media. No one had heard of two girls pedalling up to the China border all alone. Realising what we had achieved made us feel happy also. It definitely helped me feel more confident,” she smiles.
But Samar was alone after that first trip, as her friend got busy with her job and other family responsibilities. So she planned her next expedition, the very next year, alone. “It was a two-week solo expedition to the Biafo Glacier, the third largest glacier in Pakistan, which made my mother very nervous and worried for me, but no one dared stop me! It also got me more recognition than before,” she laughs.
“Still, I was not entirely alone the entire time. I needed to enter the mountains and the glaciers so I needed to hire a local team of three, including porters and climbers, for the 67km climb. I had researched well ahead of the trip, studied the environment, the expected drop in temperatures, etc., and was careful to pack all necessary equipment for it.
“I had also dismantled my bicycle to carry it to the glacier. Once there, we camped. I put my bike back together. The expedition involved climbing, trekking and cycling, because there are huge crevices in the glacier that you needed to jump over,” she narrates.
Like the first expedition had given Samar confidence, her second expedition gave her mother confidence. “My father had been gone for a few years by then and she used to be concerned about her crazy, adventure-hungry daughter but, then, she too realised that I could take care of myself. She is my biggest support now,” she shares.
Further confidence gave way to Samar’s third expedition. The same year, Samar received sponsorship from the Pakistan Army to head to East Africa. She summited the highest peak of Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro. “It is a broad peak, so I also rode my mountain bicycle there,” she says.
There was no stopping Samar after that. Next she got selected in a sports programme by espnW, the sports channel’s global mentorship and training programme for sportswomen from different continents and countries. Samar was selected from Pakistan.
“I stayed for almost two months in the United States during the programme. We travelled to four states — Washington DC, New York, California and Vermont. They connected different athletes to different organisations according to their interest in sports. Since I was involved in adventure sports, they connected me to Burton Snowboards, a snowboard manufacturer, who also taught me snowboarding. By the end of the programme, I was also given a snowboarding kit by them to launch snowboarding in Pakistan,” she says.
After mastering snowboarding here during the next few winters — she’d go to the mountains when it snowed — she has started teaching it too. “I launched my own sports club, where I now teach mountain biking and snowboarding in Pakistan to girls,” she says.
Samar’s recent achievement, just last month, saw her bagging the silver medal in snowboarding in the Sadia Khan Championship held in Naltar.
And what’s next on her agenda? “I want to summit Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe, situated on the border of Georgia and Russia,” she says.
“When I started snowboarding here, not many in Pakistan knew it as a sport. Snowboards or boots are not even available here. When you talk about action sports or adventure sports, you don’t see any platform for it in Pakistan, despite us having three big mountain ranges with ideal destinations for adventure sports. There is no infrastructure, no coaching and no mentors. After my initial snowboarding classes in the US, I trained myself further on my own through YouTube videos,” says Samar.
“Now I am the only one here to provide training to girls through my organisation, which I named Summer Camp. I do paid projects also. I arrange my own sponsors,” she adds.
Asked if she trains just girls in adventure sports, Samar says yes, she does. “With so many restrictions imposed on them, girls in our country don’t get many opportunities. I would like to see them pursue sports. If not professionally, then recreationally. Sadly, our country doesn’t have a culture of sports. The majority of the population here is youth but, despite so many young people, we can’t even send over 20 athletes to international sports events,” she sighs.
The writer is a member of staff
She tweets @HasanShazia
Published in Dawn, EOS, April 24th, 2022