What originally began as a documentary expedition turned into a labour of love for Sheherbano Saiyid who recently climbed three mountains with eight girls, capturing the moments through the camera. The girls aged 18-24 belong to the Shimshal village of upper Hunza, at the base of the Karakoram Range. This women’s expedition created a record in the history of Pakistan’s mountaineering when non-professional Pakistani climbers and trekkers reached the summit of three 6,000 metre peaks in six days.

It all began when Shehrbano Saiyid, who is an independent documentary film-maker and an amateur mountain climber herself, approached the guides from Shimshal Mountaineering School to help recruit climbers. Discovering that there were women climbers who worked there as well, she decided to recruit them for the expedition. Unlike in most villages, the girls here are encouraged by their elders to acquire education and work. That is why Saiyid found so many girls at the Shimshal mountaineering school. The expedition required money which took some time to collect, and in 2012 after getting the funds privately, it was decided that the group would climb three mountains.

The eight girls named Hafiza Bano, Mehra Jabeen, Bibi Hameeda, Nadeema Sehar, Shakila Numa, Takhtbika, Shehrbano Saiyid and two others, climbed the first mountain Julio Sar (6,035 metres) on Sept 26, 2012, the second (6,050 metres) on Sept 29 and the third, Quz Sar (5,950 metres), on Oct 1, 2012. The guides Sajjad and Mehdi and instructor Mohammad Abdul who were with them, also belong to the mountain club and live in the same village. These girls were encouraged to work in the school, as Shimshal is a base near the mountains of Karakoram Range where tourist women climbers come regularly. Simone Moro, a famous German climber who had come on an expedition a few years earlier, had given funds to set up the school, which also receives funds from two sports companies on a yearly basis.

The girls had had some previous experience as they had climbed a 6,000 ft mountain on January 3, 2011. “We felt very happy getting to the top of these mountains and want to climb a higher mountain the next time,” said Nadeema Sehar, a student of BSc at the Karakoram University. Hafiza Bano the youngest of the group, also a student, found it very difficult because of the extreme cold but as she has been trained well she was able to overcome the difficult weather. The girls were trained to use the right equipment and that helped them a lot.

Incidents are bound to happen on such ventures and they did in this expedition too. For instance, when having reached the first peak they were being photographed at the summit suddenly the ice nearby broke, but miraculously no one was hurt as they were a few feet away. Hameeda, another climber, citing another incident told that in the early morning when they started climbing she did not put on her gloves as she didn’t feel cold. But as she went up her hands started to freeze; she quickly put on her gloves but then it didn’t make a difference. Extremely worried, she told the other girls as she was scared to tell the guides because she had by passed the rules. Her hands were warmed at once to ward of frostbite and she was given the warm gloves of one of the guides to wear. All the girls learnt an important lesson from this incident — that is, it is imperative to follow the rules as it could become a major problem and cost lives.

After their success all the eight girls are fired up to become either guides or mountain climbers on a permanent basis. Rehmat Rahim, a former guide, said that the government does not encourage mountaineering here, though Pakistan has five of the highest peaks in the world. Nadeema has high aspirations; along with her education, she wants to climb Nanga Parbat and K2 with the girls if they are sponsored by the government, as otherwise the gear is very expensive for them to buy.

Shehrbano, who is a city girl, found climbing very difficult as she had very little practice. She had been in the area for two months before the expedition and was somewhat acclimatised, but says that it was only with the help of other girls that she was able to make it. She plans to go again with the group this summer on a 7,000 peak and would like to climb Mt. Everest in 2015. The group is inspired by Nazeer Sabir, the first Pakistani to climb Mt Everest at the age of 55, and Rajab Shah who has climbed the highest five mountains of Pakistan.

Pakistan is lucky to have three ranges, Karakoram, Hundu Kush and Himalayas. Saiyid says there is so much beauty in the area and it is a very safe and secure, and thus a beautiful tourist place as there is no crime. She believes she will make a better documentary next time as she is more experienced now.

Niamat Karim, one of the guides and a climber himself, explained that the Shimshal village consist mainly of porters and guides who make a living out of mountaineering and after the avalanche that took place two years ago which created a lake on their agricultural lands, going across to other parts of the country to earn a living has become very difficult. At the same time terrorism and the situation in the country has lessened the flow of climbers, local and foreign, in the area, so life has become tough these days. “The government doesn’t pay heed to our situation and also doesn’t promote climbing in the world through exhibitions as other countries do. Our mountaineering school plans to include skiing in the near future and PTDC which is doing neither, should be revived by the government to bring in tourists,” says Karim.

Shehrbano says that the main reason for climbing and filming the project was to promote the cause of women in sports and their right to pursue their goals. The other major factor was to promote tourism in Pakistan and how to overcome its problems.