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. That woman was Naila Kiani. And this was her first major trek.
Fast forward three years, and Naila is now the first Pakistani woman to summit an 8,000m peak in Pakistan — Gasherbrum II (8,035m). She did her summit along with Sirbaz Khan, for whom it was his eighth 8,000m peak, and Ali Raza Sadpara, a local legend who has now officially climbed 8,000m peaks a whopping 16 times — more than any Pakistani living or deceased.
“A year after that [K2 base camp trek], I started thinking seriously about climbing,” she says to me over the phone. Naila has been anxiously hoping to get a successful flight back to Dubai, where she is currently based.
Naila is an avid sportsperson — she is a trained boxer, rock climber and runs for fun. But her transition into a big mountain climber happened rather quickly and against all expectations.
“I researched for two years,” she says about her obsession with mountains and mountaineering. “I was training but … then I got pregnant. It was okay, it was the Covid-19 year. Nothing much happened. I rested for two months after my delivery and then trained for four months.” And then it was time to go. Just like that.
Naila Kiani has become the first Pakistani woman to summit an 8,000m mountain in Pakistan. Incredibly, this was the first big mountain she’s ever climbed. She shares her experience with Eos
Right after having a baby, I ask incredulously. “Yes,” laughs Naila. “My daughter was six months old when I left for base camp and 7.5 months old when I summited Gasherbrum II.”
But the shocks don’t end there. Most mountaineers spend their time conquering smaller peaks before attempting the biggest ones but, according to Naila, “This is the first mountain I ever climbed.”
What made her so confident she could summit an 8,000er in her first attempt at mountaineering? “I did the Gondogoro La Pass [en route the return from the K2 base camp trek] which was at an altitude of 5,850m. I can sense how my body is doing and my body worked well near 6,000m.”
So, understandably, she first decided to aim for a 7,000m peak. But the time it took to summit a 7,000m peak was the same as an 8,000m one — four to six weeks. Plus, it was only 1,000m more. But that’s a thousand metres into the death zone (when the air has such less oxygen your cells literally start dying) I remind her. “That’s the biggest challenge I can give myself!” she laughs.
Although she was training for an 8,000m peak, Naila didn’t really believe she would summit. “I was only thinking of 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 round. I knew that about myself. I would give it my all until the end. So, I knew I’m mentally strong from boxing. I was conditioning myself physically.”
Normally, when trying to pick an ‘easy’ (still incredibly difficult to do) 8,000m peak in Pakistan, mountaineers opt for Broak Peak (8,047m). Why did she go for 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 be 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 his share of work cut out for him on Gasherbrum II. “The ropes hadn’t been fixed on G2,” relates Naila. “Normally Nepali Sherpas [along with local guides] fix the ropes on the mountains for expeditions. But we didn’t have any on G2. So, Sirbaz Khan and Ali Raza Sadpara were fixing the ropes as well.”
Smiling summit photos hide the insurmountable effort it takes just to reach the top and return safely. You’re pushed to your very limits — physically and emotionally — and on a hostile terrain, where you’re constantly at risk of dying. “The longest day was the summit day,” relates Naila. “[We climbed for] 17 hours.”
At very high altitudes, because of the thin air and low oxygen, it’s hard to eat and it’s even harder to sleep. When the time came for their summit push, Naila and the team hadn’t slept or eaten properly for three days.
“We only had three hours to sleep, but couldn’t,” she says. “We left at 2am and it took us 17 hours to go from Camp 3 to the summit and back. The next day, getting down from Camp 3 was also very exhausting. We were almost dead when we got to the base camp.”
As a first-time mountaineer, Naila observed first-hand how the altitude affected other climbers. “After around 8,000m, the death zone starts,” she says, “There wasn’t much distance [35m] left. But I saw the other climbers. Some were crawling. Others gave up 100m before the summit. I couldn’t understand that, they were so close.”
Their summit was also with added risk: there were no fixed ropes after approximately 7,536m. “It was my first summit, so I didn’t know this was not normal,” says Naila. “We had to use safety ropes strapped to each other, and we had to move very fast. This was very risky. If one fell, the others would too… it wasn’t easy.
“A lot of other climbers were shocked. This never happened in Nepal [where the ropes are fixed all the way to the summit]. Our team fixed most of the ropes. And the foreigners didn’t help much. Sirbaz said he felt this was harder than Everest. Because [in addition to climbing] he had to fix the ropes for everyone else.”
At the summit, Naila was faced with incredible views only a chosen few get to see — high above the clouds, in one of the 14 highest spots on Earth, being able to see both China and India. “I was very light-headed,” Naila says. “How did this happen? I’m the most inexperienced person here. I couldn’t believe that I could’ve reached the top. It felt like a dream.”
That high was not unadulterated, however. “I was so exhausted. I didn’t actually enjoy it. Plus, it was too windy. The team was very uncomfortable. We wanted to get down very quickly.”
While she was summiting G2, there were at least five other women from Pakistan attempting other 8,000m peaks at the same time. They were not successful. When Naila finally got to base camp, she found out that she’d set a record: she had become the first Pakistani woman to summit an 8,000m mountain in Pakistan.
“I never even thought of 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 have planned for the future? “When I left for this expedition, I thought I’d try to climb one 8,000m and then dekha jaey ga [we’ll see],” says Naila. “I definitely wasn’t thinking I would go for another peak, but now I am!”
Here’s wishing her luck in conquering more peaks and beyond.
The writer is a member of staff She tweets @madeehasyed
Originally published in Dawn, EOS, August 22nd, 2021