Gilgit-Baltistan: The Vertical Future of Shimshal Women

Posted on Updated on

GB Bulletin, November 30,2010: 150 years ago, villages in the Alps patiently waited out winters, hoping to work as porters during the summer. After a first trip to Shimshal as Simone Moro climbing mate in summer 2008, fellow Italian Hervé Barmasse launched the “Pakistan Winter Sport” project last year.

The goal was to attempt some new routes but, most of all, to provide Shimshal locals with future opportunities as local mountain guides — for both men and women alike.

In an article submitted to ExplorersWeb, Hervé describes the long, dark winters in Gilgit-Baltistan and the hopes placed on the village’s mountaineering school — six of whose female pupils are currently preparing for a winterly 6000er double-header.

About Pakistan Winter Sport project
“When The North Face decided to finance “Pakistan Winter Sport”, I felt happy and motivated but, at the same time, I felt a great responsibility put upon me; I was the brains behind this winter project which, beyond alpinistic objectives that are very dear to me, also sought to embrace humanistic and social motivations,” Hervé reflected.

“Beyond the opening of new ice routes and long descents on skis in unexplored mountains, the goal of this expedition (which took place in January 2010) was to provide my knowledge as an instructor to mountain guides and as a rescue specialist to the Shimshal Climbing School. The intention was to help a community of porters to progress, both in terms of safety and technique. Furthermore, thanks to the collaboration of Dr. Marco Cavana, we were to organize a clinic to deal with problems linked to the medical and sanitational aspects of the area.”

Long winters in a high land of porters
Accompanied by Dr. Cabana and a small climbing team, Hervé Barmasse reached Shimshal village, in Gilgit-Baltistan region, in full winter season in January this year.

“Unlike the summer, when fields of grain, trees and green pastures contrast with the brown color of the rock and dry land, now everything is gray,” Hervé described. “It seems to us like a black and white film. It is even cold at low altitudes and above 1,600 meters everything is completely frozen.”

“We crept along in our Jeep on a bumpy, disjointed road similar to our mule’s paths. The access road to the town of Shimshal was literally ripped into the mountain, thanks to the will power of its inhabitants. It was constructed without mechanical means over 23 years of hard work with a pick and shovel. This spectacular off-road adventure alone justifies a trip to Pakistan.”

“Shimshal is a village of 2,000 people, which has remained nearly completely isolated from the rest of Pakistan for 600 years. Although maintaining the Islamic-Ismaelite roots, these people seem less rigid and more open than other inhabitants of the Pakistani mountains. Even the women allow this feeling to hold true: they do not hide and respond to our waves [greetings] with a smile.”

Living in isolation
“In the village there is no running water, no telephones or televisions. Only a few families have installed small solar panels that guarantee them light for three hours at a time during the long winter nights.”

“There are three mosques and a school where students go after having gathered wood, which, here in Pakistan, is quite rare. All the students learn English and those who can afford it, at the age of 17, will continue their studies in Gilgit. There are no doctors and the nearest hospital (now you can get there in an hour, before the construction of the road it took six days) is in Gulmit, where a general practitioner oversees all the emergencies without the use of ‘sophisticated’ medical equipment.”

“The community is very united and the inhabitants help each other as in a big family. Any problem is a problem for Shimshal and not for one single person.
Potatoes, rice, chapatti, dal, peas and beans are preciously rationed to make sure that we aren’t left without supplies before the next replenishment. Once in a while we get to eat goat or yak meat. No chickens are farmed in the winter because they wouldn’t survive the harsh temperatures. Yaks are typical of Shimshal. It is rare to encounter these animals in Pakistan but in the Shimshal valley, along the border with China, thousands of them grace in the wild”.

“The ‘malida’ (chapatti, cheese, butter and salt), the ‘graal’ (chapatti, spices, butter and salt) or the ‘chalpindook’ (chapatti and cheese) are dishes of the poor and are typical of this region. They are eaten nearly everyday.”

Daily life in “waiting” season
“The temperature during the five winter months is consistently below zero (from -12 to -20) and at home near the woodstove it rarely gets above 5 degrees. The impression is that during the winter this country patiently awaits for the summer in the same way in which our ancestors in the Alps did, 150 years ago.”

“Even the houses have a particular structure. A single room with a woodstove in the center and an opening in the roof welcomes the entire family: grandparents, parents and children. In the same room they cook, sleep and live their daily lives.”

“For the inhabitants of Shimshal the winter days always pass by in the same manner: in the morning the women prepare breakfast with tea and milk with chapatti dipped in melted butter. Before going to school the daughters go and collect wood or water. A [trickling] spring, the only one that is not frozen, guarantees drinking water to the entire village. All day long, women patiently wait their turn to fill their water jugs. The men build and maintain the houses, cut wood, put up the walls and await the summer to work as porters and high-altitude porters. In the village of Shimshal more than 40 people have climbed a mountain of 8,000 meters and Rajab Shan, the only Pakistani to have climbed all of the 8,000-meter peaks of the Karakorum was born here. He is considered a real hero in all of Pakistan.”

Shimshal Climbing School: a school of hope for women.

“Throughout the history of Himalayan alpinism one constant thing links all of the expeditions: the work of the porters,” Hervé explained. “With great professionalism and commitment, adopting different means based on the situation, the porters help realize the dreams of many passionate alpinists.”

“As it took place in the Alps in the 1700’s, here in the Himalaya this population of highlanders, experts with vast knowledge about their land, will become the future professionals of the mountains, the future mountain guides. It is a history which repeats itself, to which we can contribute, seeking to hasten this process a bit by allowing some Himalayan families to live off mountain tourism.”

“It’s the second time I have come to Shimshal. The first was with Simone Moro in the summer of 2008. It was he who got me involved in the Shimshal Climbing School.”

“Shimshal Climbing School is something quite rare, if not non-existent in other parts of Pakistan, since it allows the active participation of women.”

“We dedicated a number of days to this school with theoretical and practical lessons on knots, tying in, anchors, and climbing on ice. New technical equipment supplied by Kong was presented, we watched films on mountains and, thanks to the collaboration of Dr. Marco Cavana, there were lessons on how to intervene in cases of altitude sickness.”

“Forty students took part in the lessons. Twelve of these were smiling young women, with curious gazes, rosy complexions and hands ruined by work in the fields and from the bad weather. They were seated before me and I couldn’t help but look curiously at their expressions as they tried to understand the use of cams. I was moved by a feeling of tenderness. Perhaps in the near future one of them will climb K2 and, as such, will write a new chapter in the history of Pakistani alpinism.”

Winds of change
“The process for emancipating women in Pakistan started long ago, but the reality is still far from what can be defined as equality. The majority of women in Pakistani society are deprived of fundamental rights. For now, equality between men and women remains an illusion.”

“Only in the last few years have we caught a glimpse of some concrete changes: women study, go to university and, thanks to the Aga Khan Foundation, primarily in the Baltistan Gilgit region, women can assume defining roles in changing this country.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s