When the petite five-foot frame first strolled into our agreed-upon interview venue, I did not realize that I was in the presence of greatness. This may sound like a hyperbole, but bear with me dear reader, I shall fight my case and maintain that this woman is worthy of no description less than that.
Samina Baig is from, what she describes, a tiny and remote village in Shimshal valley, close to the Pakistan-China border. “Memories of my childhood are those of a simple village girl,” she tells me, “And mostly consist of shepherding animals and assisting my mother with chores at home.
My father was a farmer and my mother was a housewife.” She is the youngest of six siblings, four brothers and two sisters.
When I was carrying my flag on the top of Everest, it was Pakistani women whom I was representing
When asked what exposed her to mountaineering, she explains that Shimshal is known as the Land of Mountaineers. “A lot of my cousins worked as high-altitude guides and porters,” she explains, “But what really inspired me was the stories of my uncles who used to climb as representatives of Pakistan Army.” Her parents, however, had different plans. “My parents didn’t get the opportunity to be educated so their foremost priority was for all their children to go to school.”
School did nothing to dampen her spirit. When her older brother Mirza Ali began to pursue mountaineering, he fired up her imagination and told her he would take her along with him when she was a little older. “We had no idea how precisely we would put this plan into action. What we did know though, was that mountaineering is a very expensive sport. Despite that, I knew I would be a mountaineer no matter what,” she goes on to say.
She left school after studying till the twelfth grade and decided to dedicate all her time and energy to the sport. “Mountaineering is a very demanding sport, there are months-long trainings involved, as well as a lot of travelling,” she tells me. I am curious though, as a Pakistani woman, if there was any pushback from her family or community. “I have been so blessed,” she says, “Number one, because I belong to a society as open-minded as Hunza’s. Number two, my family has been extremely supportive. Not a single person dissuaded me. There was one persistent doubt being expressed though. Everyone kept wondering how a ‘little girl’ such as myself would be physically capable of achieving the goals I had set. Nobody discouraged me on moral grounds,” she says, surprisingly. Her family was concerned on the grounds of safety though. “My mother was constantly worried because she was fully aware of how dangerous this sport is and bidding farewell to two children for each expedition was very hard for her.”
Samina started mountaineering at the age of nineteen. “I had no technical training,” she shocks me once again, “I borrowed my cousin’s climbing gear although we have a considerable height difference. I had normal trekking shoes, and this is how I set off for my first expedition.” Her first expedition was no joke. It’s a 6000 metre peak in Shimshal Pass named Chiskinsaar, which was unclimbed and Samina and her team were the first people to summit it. “My team members were very appreciative of my efforts and thus, had the mountain officially renamed as Samina Peak,” she elaborates. “The fact that I was the only girl on the team, was a little isolating at times but I was so focused on my goal that I didn’t let that get to me. I would just constantly look at the landscape around me and continuously think about my goal. I cannot even begin to explain my feelings when I got to the base camp. We had a two day stay there but for the sake of acclimatization I would ascend halfway and then all the way up the mountain on my own, listening to music along the way.” She tells me that the daunting task in front of her didn’t scare her at all. “When I finally reached the top I was so exhilarated, I first prostrated and then just cried, overwhelmed, knowing that I had achieved this despite the many hurdles, mostly financial.”
After that Samina and her brother organized training camps through a foundation they set up, called the Pakistan Youth Outreach Foundation. They lead expeditions every year. In 2011 they summited another unclimbed peak in the same region which was then named Mt. Equity. “We never climbed for the sake of it, but to create awareness regarding the sport in Pakistan. Our focus is mostly on encouraging women to enter adventure sports.”
Mountaineering is a sport, which requires relentless persistence. In 2011, she attempted two winter expeditions but returned 100m from the summit because the equipment failed. In 2012, she attempted Golden Peak but was forced to return due to bad weather. None of these setbacks dampened her fire and she entered 2013 with Everest in mind and no budget to finance the plan. She knocked on every door she could for sponsorship — the government sector, the corporate sector — but received no support.
She finally did receive funding from some generous New Zealanders who had accompanied them on their Golden Peak attempt of 2012, and so in 2013 she attempted Everest. “I felt a lot of pressure every single day,” she said. “People were continuously amazed that I was from Pakistan and it was a pleasure to break stereotypes. The fact that I’m from Shimshal, really helped with the acclimatization. I, thankfully, never get altitude sickness.”
After that she attempted the Seven Summits, i.e., the seven highest mountains of each continent. Samina is the first Pakistani to hoist the Pakistani flag on each continent. These include Mt. Elbrus (5,642 m) in Russia, Mt. Kilimanjaro (5,895 m) in Tanzania, Mt. Puncak Jaya (4,884 m) in Indonesia, Mt. Denali (6,194 m), Alaska, USA, Mt. Vinson (4,892 m) in Antarctica, Mt. Aconcagua (6,961 m) in Argentina and then Mt. Everest (8,848 m).
“I left Shimshal in borrowed gear and did my first summit in regular trekking shoes I got from the landa and went from there to professional climbing boots worth a lakh and a half,” she summarises. “I called a press conference before Everest and a journalist questioned how a little girl like myself, who most likely can barely go up a flight of stairs, could even attempt such a feat, no less achieve it,” she tells me. “I remembered those words throughout my expedition, so when I was carrying my flag on the top of Everest, it was Pakistani women whom I was representing. My achievements are also a source of pride because they allow other women to think that these things are possible.”
On being asked how she felt about her On being asked how she felt about her accomplishments, she said, “Women are constantly surrounded by a chorus of ‘women cannot do this or that, or that women should not do this or that,” she says, “We do not get permission or family support. Women don’t need to be strong, they are already strong – what they need is support.”
The only message Samina wants to convey is, “Women know they’re powerful, all women have dreams and ambitions, I have nothing to say to women, it’s their parents I want to address, to tell them to stop inhibiting their daughters.”
In 2018 she planned, through her foundation, to take an all-women team to summit Everest. Although the team had to turn back from the advance space camp due to health challenges, this is an achievement in itself. In 2019 she intends on summiting K2.
“I want to give to Pakistan,” she says, “not ask anything of it.”
At 28 years old, she has now been climbing for ten years and looks nowhere close to stopping. Lack of funds, however, remains a major concern. But, she maintains such optimism about the people of our country, that it made me realize that the patriotism of people who have truly served the country is not a false show but stems from a well of love of the land and faith in the people. Her positivity was truly inspiring. “I want to give to Pakistan,” she says, “not ask anything of it.”
I have never in my life experienced palpability of ambition so understated but so sure. There are few people whose mere presence exudes a resolve so unshakeable, a faith in what life has to offer so positive, that makes you believe anything is possible. If this is not greatness, I don’t know what is.HH
This Column was read 102 times