Thursday, June 27, 2013

Attack on Climbers in Pakistan

I've been on eleven climbing expeditions to Pakistan.  Although the Country has been destabilized by the war in neighboring Afghanistan, sectarian violence, and a growing insurgency, I have always told my family and friends that the areas where we go climbing are safe.  The Karakoram and Himalayan mountains in northeastern Pakistan are stunningly beautiful, and contain a significant number of the world's greatest mountains including K2, the world's second highest.  They attract mountaineers and trekkers from all over the world, and.were a safe haven from the terrorist violence that has afflicted other parts of Pakistan.  All that changed on June 22nd, when Pakistani militants killed ten mountain climbers at the Nanga Parbat base camp.  I will try to summarize the events that led to these killings and how this might affect mountaineering and trekking groups in the future. 

The victims of this attack were climbing Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world which is located in the Province of Gilgit Baltistan in northeast Pakistan.  Gilgit Baltistan is well to the north and east of the Afghan border areas in Balochistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), or Kyber Pakhtunkwa (KPK) where most of the militant violence has occurred.  Much of this violence is associated with the war in Afghanistan and a very porous border between the two countries. 

Pakistan and Kashmir

Gilgit Baltistan is part of a larger historical region called Kashmir that is currently divided between the nations of China, India, and Pakistan.  Kashmir is comprised of the brown shaded areas in the above map.  The light brown areas, including Gilgit Baltistan, are the areas of Kashmir controlled by Pakistan.  Several wars have been fought between India and Pakistan, and one between India and China over ownership of Kashmir.  This 66 year old dispute is one of the leading causes of political instability in South Asia.

Besides Kashmir, the other more familiar and major source of political instability is the conflict over control of Afghanistan after the Soviets were expelled in 1989.  The Afghan Taliban (Pashtun Sunni Muslims from the south) took control of most of the country in 1996 from warlords who had been fighting each other since the Soviets had left.  The Taliban implemented a very strict form of Sharia Law and also harbored jihadist groups like Al Qaeda (Sunni Arabs) run by Osama bin Laden who planned the 9/11 attack on the US.  After 9/11, the Afghan Taliban would not eliminate this safe haven for Al Qaeda so the US allied itself with several northern tribes that had not been conquered.  This Northern Alliance, with support from the US, defeated the Taliban, forcing them to flee Afghanistan.  Pakistan had been an early supporter of the Afghan Taliban as a way to gain influence and power in Afghanistan so they allowed them to escape across their border into FATA and KPK.  The Afghan Taliban were heavily armed and experienced fighters and created their own semi-autonomous areas within FATA and KPK by eliminating the traditional Pakistan Government run tribal rule and replacing it with Sharia Law similar to how they governed Afghanistan in 1996-2001.  With most of these areas no longer under government control, disaffected fundamentalist Pakistanis allied themselves with the Afghan Taliban and formed their own extremist groups known as the Pakistan Taliban.

The Afghan and Pakistan Taliban groups were influenced by the Arab Al Qaeda members who were also pushed into Pakistan after 9/11.  The Al Qaeda influence caused the Taliban to became more interested in the Global Islamic Jihad, and their goals began to diverge from those of their Pakistani benefactors who had been using them as proxies in Afghanistan and Kashmir. The Taliban killed tribal leaders and government agents when they took control and radicalized these areas within FATA and PKP.  These groups had now became a threat and the Pakistan Government engaged in several military campaigns to regain control of areas within FATA and PKP.  This resulted in thousands of civilian, militant, and security personnel deaths. 
Kyber Pakhtunkwa and FATA
The Army invaded the Swat District in KPK twice in 2009 to regain control.  In what has been called the First and Second Battles of Swat, the Pakistan Army defeated the Taliban, but the fighting caused over 2.2 million refugees to flee the District.  Many Taliban fighters escaped from the Army disguised as refugees.

A number of Taliban that fled the Swat Valley went to the Diamir district in Gilgit Baltistan close to Nanga Parbat.  The Capital of this district in GB is Chilas which sits on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) connecting Pakistan to China.  Trekkers and climbers regularly travel the KKH to get to the towns of Gilgit and Skardu.  These towns are the jumping off point for expeditions into the heart of the Karakoram Mountains further to the north and east. 

Districts in Gilgit Baltistan - The Diamir District is the peach colored area on the bottom

After the Taliban had infiltrated the Diamir District, the KKH became more dangerous so climbers and trekkers opted to fly from Islamabad to Gilgit and Skardu which were still relatively safe towns for foreigners.  The destination for these trekkers and climbers was the Karakoram Mountains which are located north and east of Gilgit and Skardu along the boundary with China.  These mountains are far away from any militant activity and adventure travelers who went there felt completely safe.

K2 from high on Broad Peak in 1987

But Nanga Parbat is dirrerent.  It is not technically part of the Karakoram Mountains since it is located to the south on the other side of the Indus River in the Astore District immediately east of Chilas.  The normal route on Nanga Parbat is up the Diamir Valley which, as I have mentioned, has been subject to Taliban infiltration since the 2001 American invasion in Afghanistan and the 2009 battles in Swat. 

Before the recent attacks, the Taliban in the Diamir District had left the foreigners pretty much alone.  In 2004 I was on an expedition in the Karakoram near the Chinese border where I ran into some German climbers who had recently been trekking in the Diamir Valley near Nanga Parbat.  They told me a story about sitting around a campfire with some of the locals and the conversation turned to whether there were Taliban in the area.  On of the locals turned to them and said nonchalantly, "we are the Taliban".  These valleys are so steep and rugged that the situation in an adjacent valley can be completely different.  On that same trip we went to climb Nanga Parbat, but from the Rupal Valley on the opposite side of the peak.  From what we could tell, there were no Taliban there.

Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat - Doug Chabot and I did the first ascent of the long Mazeno Ridge on the left - D.Scott
Tensions in the region have been heightened recently as the US and NATO are about to pull most of their forces from Afghanistan.  This pending power vacuum incites the various militant groups to gain control of as much territory as they can, thinking it will give them an advantage in any subsequent power grab.

The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have inflamed sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia across the entire region.  The Taliban are ethnic Pashtuns who are Sunni Muslims.  Although the majority of the people in Pakistan are Sunni, the people in Gilgit Baltistan are Shia.  Some think that the Taliban group which claimed responsibility for the attack on the Nanga Parbat climbers is the same as the one responsible for murdering about 30 Shias who were pulled off a bus going over the Babusar pass to Gilgit last year.  As far as I know, no actions have been taken against this group as a result of the bus attack.  

The PML-N Party won the recent Parlimentary elections returning Nawaz Sharif to a third term as Prime Minister.  It remains to be seen if the new Sharif administration is both willing and able to depart from the policies of the past.  Any significant police or military action against the Taliban would require the cooperation and full support of the Army that continues to retain control of national security and foreign policy.  The last time Sharif' was Prime Minister in 1999, he was kicked out in an Army coup. 
The economic impact on Gilgit Baltistan of these attacks on the climbers will be severe.  Already extremely poor, the local people in the mountains are subsistence farmers who have come to rely on income from work as porters, cooks, and guides for their only cash.  Security concerns have already badly hurt the tourism industry and this attack will likely cause it to collapse.  This happened right after 9/11 and these people who could least afford this loss of income suffered terribly.  Unfortunately this is likely to happen again.

So what does this mean for climbers and trekkers who are interested in going to Gilgit Baltistan?  These are very personal decisions that need to balance the desire to; go to a spectacular mountain place, support our local friends there, minimize security risk, and not subject our family and friends to excessive worry.  I can provide the following information on minimizing security risk based on my experience there and information obtained from people who are there now:
  • Hire a good agent who can arrange safe places to stay and do a lot of your local shopping so you can stay in your hotel.
  • Do not travel by road from Islamabad to Gilgit or Skardu.  These flights are dependent on weather and are often cancelled.  You need to allow an extra week both coming and going to wait for a flight.
  • Keep a low profile and don't advertise that you are an American
  • Avoid any places where there are militant groups as they have now decided to attack foreigners.  This would put Nanga Parbat off limits unless the Government provides adequate security personnel to guard the valley 24/7.
  • Gilgit has seen periodic bouts of sectarian violence so extra travel precautions are warranted.  Consider staying in Karimabad instead. 
I sincerely hope that we will soon see the kind of courageous leadership in the region that is needed to break the current political deadlocks so these people can live in peace and security.  With peace and security, tourism can help drive the economic development needed to provide resources for education, health care, housing, food, infrastructure, and jobs in Gilgit Baltistan.  I am hopeful that these issues will get resolved so we can continue to visit this spectacular part of the world and support our friends who have done such a wonderful job taking care of us over the years.


  1. Super-interesting context, Steve. Thanks for doing this.

  2. Thanks for your comments on this situation, Steve. Based on our previous conversations regarding US funding of Pakistani border operations and South Asian nationalism, I'd love to hear your deeper analysis on the climate in the region as events unfold.

  3. Excellent article, Steve. I learned a lot from reading it. I, too, am very sad for the many wonderful people who live in the area and need tourism to make ends meet.

  4. I hope Rafal Slawinski's read your article. Sounds like he's over in that part of the world -

  5. Great overview of what's happening there Steve. We had planned to go in November to climb a mountain near Gilgit, but the hardest part to deal with is our family's worry and our team has decided to put off our trip.

  6. Very well maintained and thoroughly written article by you. You defined the exact siatuation and yes there are militant/ some local groups in diamir region, kohistan ad malakand division who are influenced by TTP and other Taliban groups and considered to be hardliners. If you follow path from Lulusar Lake to Babusar Top to Chilas and then crossing KKH to other side of Kohistan and further going deep to Shangla, Swat of Malakand division you can find those people and its complete strip of danger area. I crossed Babusar Top in 2011 and I can say same due to difference of look and feel, religious thoughts there and other factors. One of the reason that this area can go in hands of militants is due to poor economic conditions in Chilas and Kohistan area. People have less opportunities as compared to their people in adjacent areas. As this incident happened in Diamir region and Base camp of Nanga Parbar accessible by Bunair Nala. So it was soft target by militants and as you know Fairy Meadows is more rushy and secured area towards beyal camp of Nanga parbat, but those climbers/mountaineers expedition was from other side which is not as such secured by locals.

    It was really terrible event and Pakistan's tourism can't absorb it as such and there is very deep impact of it on their economy. Now the situation is Military forces are in hunt to identify those people and also contacting locals to give them help on it. Now more and more people are going for Fairy Meadows, about 200 KMs away from that incident area.

  7. Steve, Any views on the theory that the attacks were carried out by a Pakistani Sunni terrorist group (Lashkar-e-Jhangvi)aimed primarily at undermining the local Shia economy (rather than an out and out attack on westerns...granted it's a two fer).

    1. David I don't know if these attacks were carried out by this group or not. From what I've been able to find out, the perpetrators were local Sunni Pashtuns who have been radicalized and got some training in FATA

  8. Very well explained!
    I returned on 28th June from a trip to the Northern Areas with my University in Karachi. We had planned to visit the Fairy Meadows and were on our way when we heard about the unfortunate incident and eventually had to cancel the trip to FM.
    As pointed out by Nauman Malik, i noticed the same thing, the entire strip from Lulusar Lake to Babusar Top to Chilas is extremely dangerous. I belong to the Shia sect and i was very scared to see graffiti and flags of the Wahabi Militant Group, Sipah-e-Sahaba. Everytime there was a Police Check Post I hoped it wasnt the Taliban dressed in Police uniforms and even thought of a 'Sunni' name in case we are approached by 'them'.
    We were in a total of 9 jeeps, traveling together, and all of the jeep drivers told us how dangerous Babusar Top is specifically the Babusar Village. I even saw children of the ages of merely 8-10 years pointing towards us making sounds of gunshots. The way people looked at us was equally scary. I could not look back in their eyes. Once when we were returning from Chilas we had to stop at the Village because one jeep broke down and this happened after the Nanga Parbat incident. There were 4 jeeps that were there for more than an hour including mine. I saw two men at 300 metres distance carrying guns and all that time I appeared to be having a good laugh with my friends but was frightened to see those two men so close!
    As Nauman has rightly said that due to the poor conditions of the people, there are very high chances that they might get tangled in terrorist activities more often. T

  9. one of the best analyses of the situation in the region i've ever read

    thank you so much - helped me understand this complicated and historically rich albeit remote part of the world (for me)

    i hope one day to trek the himalaya, but i will probably start in nepal or india...

  10. Steve,

    I was in and around the Hunza Valley for a couple of weeks in October 2008 with the the HotRock expedition. We found wonderfully hospitable conditions from Karimibad north along the KKH to the Khunerjab Pass, especially in Passu. The people there are ethnically Wahki, of the progressive Ismaili branch of Islam, and wanted to distance themselves as much as possible from the extremism taking hold in the rest of the country. My brief account is here. Re-reading it makes me nostalgic.

    Since my visit, many people have asked me how to best balance safety concerns with a desire to climb in the Karakoram. I've always said, "If you have the time, go in from China." What are your thoughts on that strategy and on the security situation along the northern KKH since 2008?

    Cheers for a great article! Hope for peace in Pakistan!

    1. Transivity,

      Coming into Pakistan from China may pose fewer security concerns, but there has also been ethnic violence in Xinjiang Province north of Pakistan. There have been reports that this violence has flared up again recently. The local Ugyur population has been clamoring for greater job opportunities as the area develops and is upset at the heavy handed policing by the Chinese. If you planned to enter Pakistan from China there would be minimal risk that you would get caught in any unrest. But there is a risk that the area would get closed to foreigners and your trip would get canceled if there was any kind of disturbance (similar to what happens in Tibet). It would also be expensive to come in from China as it is costly to fly to Kashgar from Beijing through Urumchi and then by road to the border.

  11. is nice and life opportunity jobs, this one is really awesome i got such a nice experience to visit here and also share my experience to my other friends and FB friends

  12. Hopefully the speedy development of the KKH and the "economic corridor" provides the area with economic relief and should also enable security personnel to to secure the area without the problems associated with accessibility etc.

  13. Thanks for this. Am part of a team planning a major K2 expedition next summer. The problem for us is that this will be heavily publicised, as it's a fairly significant climb. We'll have TV, the web, sponsors...the works. So it'll be hard for us to achieve our goals and stay under the radar. Just wondered if you had any thoughts or comments? Maybe we should consider coming in from the Chinese side?! Cheers.

    1. Russell,
      I just got back from climbing Tajikistan so sorry for the late reply. I think there is merit to looking at coming in from China. You should check it out, but I hear that you can fly to Kashgar from Dubai now. You would have logistical issues getting across the big lake that formed from the landslide in Hunza, but there are boats ferrying people across where the KKH was blocked. It would likely be more expensive because of the China travel part, but you would have more certainty to your schedule since the flights to Kashgar would be reliable whereas the Skardu flights from Islamabad are not. If you flew from ISB to Skardu you would need to allow for an extra week both coming and going to account for the chance you will have to wait for the flight. I think it would be very risky to go by road now from ISB to Skardu so don't do that. I have a friend who is travelling from Kashgar to Skardu as we speak. Remind me to let you know what he experienced on that

    2. How was this friend's trip from Kashgar to Skardu?

    3. The trip from Kashgar for my friend was fine. You need to have a multiple entry visa for China if you want to go back out via kashgar. I did a quick check and I think I was wrong in a previous response about flying to Kashgar from Dubai - I don't think you can do that. The flights to Kashgar go out of either Guangzhou or Beijing to Urumchi then to Kashgar. The good thing is if you fly this way the schedule is reliable. The bad thing is I heard that if you have any excess baggage it can get expensive. Also if they lose your bags you will probably need to wait in Kashgar for it. I heard there is a company in Gilgit that runs an airporter like small bus from Kashgar to Gilgit for $1000. Your other option to get to Skardu is to fly to ISB and then wait for the PIA flight SKD. But there is no guarantee as to when it goes. You could wait up to a week or more. I think going by road is dangerous enough that I wouldn't do that. Some tour agencies might try and convince you it is OK but I wouldn't trust that. With all the checkpoints where you have to show your passport, everyone knows that the vehicle you are in is occupied by Americans. It is very easy for someone to call ahead to tell someone and then your vehicle gets hijacked in a secluded spot. No one can guarantee your security along a road like that and there are plenty of bad guys around.

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  15. The article is very enlightening though it’s very sad to hear about the death of nine people at the hands of violence and militancy. These days there are many web portals providing cheap flights to Pakistan, I hope in near future more climbers can visit the majestic mountains when the country is at peace.

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  19. Steve,
    I am not sure if this thread is still live but I wonder what kind of insurance one needs. I am planning to travel to areas around Gilgit and Skardu in April. This is not a large scale expedition as I want to do a good proportion of it on my own with a single backpack. I would very much appreciate your advice. The plan is to visit Gilgit and obtain specific itineraries that are possible for me. Cheers and GOD BLESS

  20. Very nice post.Gilgit balutstan was once a part of india or rather it is still a part of india. With stong leadership of modi in india now and local balochistani ppl openly protesting to part ways from pakistan, the day is not far when it will again become a part of india and then peace will prevail and the tourists will again start coming.jai hind jai akhand bharat

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  29. Its a sad incident. Peace is must in this richly adventure country. we should encourage more foreigners to come. backpacks in pakistan