In 2018, a video went viral on social media showing a woman in a wedding jorra in front of the mighty K2, deep in the mountains of Gilgit Baltistan, surrounded by porters singing wedding songs. This woman was Naila Kiani. And it was his first big trek.
Fast forward three years, and Naila is now the first Pakistani woman to reach a peak of 8,000m in Pakistan – Gasherbrum II (8,035m). She peaked with Sirbaz Khan, for whom it was her eighth 8,000m peak, and Ali Raza Sadpara, a local legend who has now officially climbed 8,000m peaks 16 times, more than n any Pakistani living or deceased.
“A year after that [K2 base camp trek], I started to think seriously about climbing, ”she told me over the phone. Naila is looking forward to a return flight to Dubai, where she is currently based.
Naila is an avid sportswoman – she is a trained boxer, a climber and she runs for fun. But her transition to a great mountaineer was done fairly quickly and against all odds.
“I did research for two years,” she says of her obsession with the mountains and mountaineering. “I was training but… then I got pregnant. It was okay, it was the year of Covid-19. Not much has happened. I rested for two months after giving birth, then I trained for four months. And then it was time to go. Just like that.
Naila Kiani became the first Pakistani woman to climb an 8,000m mountain in Pakistan. Incredibly, this was the first great mountain she climbed. She shares her experience with Eos
Right after having a baby, I ask incredulously. “Yes,” Naila laughs. “My daughter was six months old when I left for base camp and 7.5 months old when I reached the top of Gasherbrum II.”
But the shocks don’t stop there. Most climbers spend their time conquering smaller peaks before attempting larger ones, but, according to Naila, “this is the first mountain I have ever climbed.”
What made her so confident that she could climb an 8,000m on her first mountaineering attempt? “I did the Gondogoro La Pass [en route the return from the K2 base camp trek] which was at an altitude of 5850 m. I can feel how my body is doing and my body has worked well at close to 6000m.
So, naturally, she first decided to aim for a summit of 7,000m. But the time it took to reach a peak of 7,000m was the same as a peak of 8,000m, or four to six weeks. In addition, it was only 1000 m more. But that’s a thousand yards from the death zone (when the air has so much less oxygen, your cells literally start to die), I remind him. “This is the biggest challenge I can take on! ” she laughs.
Although she was training for an 8,000m summit, Naila didn’t really believe she would make it to the top. “I was just thinking about pushing myself as far as I could go,” she says. “Mentally, I knew I wouldn’t give up quickly because in boxing, I wouldn’t give up. I lost badly in one of the fights, but I didn’t give up and kept going until the last lap. I knew it myself. I would give everything to the end. So I knew I was mentally strong at boxing. I was conditioning myself physically.
Normally, when trying to pick an “easy” (still incredibly difficult) 8,000m peak in Pakistan, climbers go for Broak Peak (8,047m). Why did she choose Gasherbrum II (G2)?
“[Because] Sirbaz [Khan] was doing G2, ”she says. “I’m not a professional mountaineer and I didn’t know what the other teams would look like. So, I decided to go with someone I knew. Sirbaz had a great team with him.
Having the right team helped; Sirbaz would have more than its share of work to do on Gasherbrum II. “The ropes had not been attached to G2,” says Naila. “Normally, Nepalese sherpas [along with local guides] attach the ropes to the mountains for expeditions. But we didn’t have one on G2. So Sirbaz Khan and Ali Raza Sadpara were also fixing the ropes. ”
Smiling photos from the summit hide the insurmountable effort it takes just to reach the top and return safely. You are pushed to your limits – physically and emotionally – and onto hostile ground, where you are constantly at risk of dying. “The longest day was summit day,” says Naila. “[We climbed for] 17 hours.
At very high altitudes, due to thin air and lack of oxygen, it is difficult to eat and it is even more difficult to sleep. When the time came for their push to the top, Naila and the team hadn’t slept or ate properly for three days.
“We only had three hours to sleep, but we couldn’t,” she says. “We left at 2 am and it took us 17 hours to get from Camp 3 to the top and back. The next day, getting off Camp 3 was also very exhausting. We were almost dead when we got to base camp.
As a novice mountaineer, Naila observed firsthand how the altitude affected other mountaineers. “After about 8000m the death zone begins,” she said, “There was not much distance. [35m] left. But I saw the other climbers. Some were crawling. Others abandoned 100m before the summit. I couldn’t understand it, they were so close.
Their summit also carried an additional risk: there were no fixed ropes after about 7,536 m. “It was my first summit, so I had no idea it wasn’t normal,” says Naila. “We had to use safety ropes attached to each other and we had to move really fast. It was very risky. If one fell, the others would fall too… it wasn’t easy.
“A lot of other climbers were shocked. It never happened in Nepal [where the ropes are fixed all the way to the summit]. Our team repaired most of the ropes. And the foreigners didn’t help much. Sirbaz said he thinks it is more difficult than Everest. Because [in addition to climbing] he had to fix the ropes for everyone.
At the top, Naila was faced with incredible views that only a select few can see – above the clouds, in one of the 14 highest points on Earth, being able to see both China and India. “I was very dizzy,” says Naila. “How did it happen? I’m the least experienced person here. I couldn’t believe I could have made it to the top. It was like a dream.”
This level was not pure, however. “I was so exhausted. I didn’t really appreciate it. In addition, it was too windy. The team was very uncomfortable. We wanted to go down very quickly.
As she climbed to the top of the G2, there were at least five other women from Pakistan attempting other 8,000m peaks at the same time. They did not succeed. When Naila finally arrived at base camp, she discovered that she had set a record: she had become the first Pakistani woman to climb an 8,000m mountain in Pakistan.
“I never even thought about making a record or anything,” she says. “I don’t really care about that. I just wanted to test my body.
And what does she plan for the future? “When I left for this expedition, I thought about trying to climb an 8000m then dekha jaey ga [we’ll see], says Naïla. “I certainly didn’t think I would go to another peak, but now I am! “
Here is wishing him good luck in conquering more heights and beyond.
The writer is a staff member She tweets @madeehasyed
Posted in Dawn, EOS, August 22, 2021