Latest news from the Himalaya and Karakoram

Saturday, 17 August 2013

K2 trek cancellations in Pakistan over Summer 2013

Photo: K2 mountain in Pakistan
Yesterday on August 16th our K2 & Gondogoro La group should have trekked up to the Base Camp of K2, the second highest mountain in the world, and visited Gilkey Memorial on the lower reaches of this mountain where there are many plaques to remember mountaineers who died while climbing on K2. Unfortunately our group never arrived to Pakistan as we had to cancel both of our treks to K2 Base Camp this summer as a result of the terrible terrorist incident at Base Camp of another 8,000m mountain called Nanga Parbat.

On June 22nd sixteen militants from the Islamic extremist organisation Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacked Nanga Parbat Base Camp then killed ten international climbers and a local Pakistan guide. Three of these climbers were from Ukraine, two from China (including one Chinese-American), two others from Slovakia, one from Lithuania and one from Nepal. Please read this article with the full story of what happened as well as description of the daring escape by a Chinese mountaineer. Ehsanullah Ehsan, a spokesman for the TTP told The Associated Press the reasoning behind the attacks was "by killing foreigners, we wanted to give a message to the world to play their role in bringing an end to the drone attacks”. Please click here if you would like to learn more about TTP.

From our side as a travel operator we had to make a decision whether to proceed with our treks or to cancel so we immediately started the process of finding out and understanding the current risks by getting in touch with a wide range of our contacts both in Pakistan and in UK. I sent an email out to our clients on June 24th explaining we were reviewing the situation and would make a decision soon whether to go or ahead or cancel.  

I have led trips in Pakistan every year since 2004 and have trekked to K2 Base Camp eight times and crossed the Gondogoro La four times (2004, 2006, 2008 and 2011). However I realised as soon as the Nanga Parbat incident happened that the risk level had increased to a far higher level than in previous years, the key change being this was the first time extremists had directly targeted westerners travelling in Pakistan. Frankly I was not surprised when the British Government changed their Foreign and Commonwealth Office (“FCO”) travel advisory to Paksitan in the afternoon of 24th to “only essential travel to Gilgit-Baltistan”. Click here to read FCO travel advisory to Pakistan.

It is worth pointing out that Nanga Parbat is located south of K2 region and a full days drive away along the Karakoram Highway ("KKH"). It is well known fact that Skardu and surrounding villages on the drive to the K2 road head at Askole village are more stable, friendly and secure than Nanga Parbat area due to a number of factors. For a start the people living in this area are mainly Shia muslims and not Sunnis like further south. These villagers have strong historical links with foreign expeditions and earn vital income from tourism. Also the overall security is much better in K2 region due to the presence of a large number of Pakistan Army stationed here along the Line of Control with India. 

We had to perform a careful appraisal of the situation in the country and determine if it was safe enough for our clients and also our leaders to visit Pakistan. In the end we had to make the tough decision to cancel our two K2 treks over the summer mainly due to FCO travel advice to Pakistan and as well as our own conclusions of the current risk levels with travelling in this country. On 25th we emailed all of our clients confirming the cancellation of our Pakistan treks and offered a full refund of any money paid to us for these treks. 

The Mountain Company has operated treks to K2 every summer since 2004 and this is the first time we have cancelled a trip in Pakistan. I feel very sorry for our K2 trekkers who were hoping to visit this amazing country however I am also glad for them that most have been able to re-book on one of our treks to Nepal and Bhutan later in the year. These cancellations will be devastating news for everyone involved in Pakistan tourism from local operators, guides and porters as many of these people rely on income from tourists as there are few other opportunities to earn money to support their families in this region.

My view is the only way for Pakistan to get tourists visiting northern areas of their country over the next few years is to make the Islamabad- Skardu - Islamabad flights operated by PIA far more reliable by using a smaller plane and upgrading radar equipment to enable reduced visibility landings at Skardu and Gilgit airports. I guess this might be unlikely to happen as the powers that be in Islamabad have less at stake although it is the people of Gilgit-Baltistan who will lose out most due to earning less revenue from tourists. Or the other option worth considering is to enter and exit Pakistan from China over Khunjerab pass and in practice more groups may decide to do this in future therefore avoiding Islamabad and the KKH.

The Mountain Company will return at some point to operate treks in Pakistan however only when it is safe to do so and unfortunately given the current situation I do not see this happening for several years. If Pakistan government is serious about promoting tourism in their country they must make changes to increase the reliability of Skardu flights as well as making it easier for foreigners to obtain a tourist visa to enter the country. The feedback we have received from well over two hundred people we have brought to Pakistan over the years has been 100% positive from the friendliness of the people to the most amazing mountain scenery in the world. Inshallah I will be trekking with my Pakistani friends up the Baltoro glacier to K2 and crossing over Gondogoro La again very soon….

Roland Hunter

The Mountain Company