(MENAFN- Khaleej Times) Published: Thu 8 Jun 2023, 7:41 PM
Of all international mountaineers who attempted Mount Everest in 2023, Dubai-based Naila Kiani became the first to reach the summit. It is an extraordinary achievement in its own right, but even more so for someone who started high-altitude mountaineering only two years ago when she was already 35.
In 2021, when Naila became the first Pakistani woman to climb a peak above 8,000m in Pakistan, she had given birth to her second child just seven months previously. Recounting the story of her summit of Gasherbum-2, Naila reveals the initial disbelief and scepticism she encountered from the mountaineering community.“When I posted my photos from that climb, I didn't mention my age or that I had children, even then people found it hard to believe that a completely unknown female climber from Pakistan could achieve such a feat.”
So how did she get into mountaineering?“I have always loved the mountains and was quite active and adventurous, being an amateur boxer. My husband also shares my spirit of adventure, so five years ago, we decided to have our wedding photoshoot at K2 base camp in Pakistan. Trekking to base camp was enough of an adventure and I could not imagine climbing higher. In fact, when I saw mountaineering videos I wondered what was wrong with these people that they would risk their lives for adventure,” Naila laughs as she recalls the story.
Little did she realise that within a few years, she would herself join the ranks of these elite mountaineers.
Naila's wedding photoshoot in 2018 went viral on Pakistani media. As a result, she was contacted by someone who asked if she would join their expedition attempting a 7,000m climb.“I was so surprised that someone would think I'd be able to do it. I told them I was pregnant with my first baby. But what they said changed everything for me,” Naila's eyes light up as she recalls the incident.“They wrote back, 'So what? Have your baby and then join the climb later.' It was not something I thought was even possible. It got me thinking that giving birth needn't mean the end to my adventures. I started researching mountaineering and planned my first climb for 2020 after I had my baby.”
The pandemic delayed Naila's plans, but life had another adventure in store for her. During that year she gave birth to her second child. It was during her pregnancy that she decided she would embark on her postponed expedition in the summer of 2021, about six months after giving birth. The reason for this tight timeline was also a practical one.
“I was working in banking at the time and knew I would have to attempt the summit during my maternity leave otherwise it would be really difficult to take a few weeks off. That time pressure was a blessing in disguise as it made me really focused,” Naila explains.“It was the first time in my life, I did not let limiting beliefs cloud my thinking. I had a lot of support from my husband and family which really helped too.”
Having now summited six of the fourteen 8,000m plus peaks in the world - Gasherbrum-1, Gasherbrum-2 and K-2 in Pakistan, and Annapurna, Lhotse and Everest in Nepal - Naila shares that her first expedition to Gasherbrum-2 remains her favourite, as it was with her mentor the late legendary Pakistani mountaineer Ali Raza Sadpara.“I had never enjoyed myself or laughed so much during any other climb.”
As for the hardest,“it has to be Annapurna,” Naila answers without a moment's hesitation.“Annapurna is statistically the deadliest peak in the world. Whereas K2 is also extremely challenging and dangerous, Annapurna is extremely technical,” Naila explains.“It was also unbearably cold and I got a bad chest infection. The temperatures were below -40C as this was my first spring climb.”
“However, the most difficult aspect of that expedition,” she continues in a somber tone,“was finding that my colleague Noel Hanna, an experienced Irish mountaineer, died in the tent next to me after a successful summit and another two people from our group also went missing and declared dead (but thankfully rescued later). The weather conditions were bad and my two remaining colleagues and I were evacuated by helicopter as a result.”
It is evident that it is a painful episode for Naila. When asked if mountaineers are advised to seek therapy to deal with such traumas, Naila says,“There is this image of mountaineering being a tough macho sport and you just have to be strong. Perhaps in the West, it may be common but it is still not common to seek counselling in our part of the world.”
In the face of such harsh challenges, did she ever think of giving up?“There were many moments when I thought I wouldn't be able to summit, but there was never a moment when I wanted to give up. There were also times when I thought why was I here and not vacationing on a beach in the Maldives!” Naila adds with a laugh.“But as soon as I come down, I start dreaming of the next adventure.”
These are challenges that are shared by all mountaineers, but for female mountaineers, Naila shares that“the biggest challenge is being able to take care of one's hygiene and privacy, especially when menstruating. Changing and disposing of sanitary pads or tampons at extreme temperatures and altitudes adds an extra layer of complexity for female climbers and the unsanitary conditions lead to infections. This isn't something that male mountaineers have to deal with.”
She adds,“Initially I didn't speak about these issues, but now I think it is important that women openly talk about this so we can better prepare ourselves.”
While being a female mountaineer has its challenges, Naila has also made it a point of celebrating her femininity and her identity as a Pakistani woman.
Starting with her wedding photoshoot with stunning images of her wearing a red choli gharara and dupatta against the stark snow-capped backdrop of K2, Naila has gone on to do other photoshoots in festive Pakistani outfits on subsequent expeditions. These photos have received a lot of love, but unfortunately have also attracted criticism.
“When I was evacuated under extremely difficult conditions from Annapurna, I got a lot of online hate. People accused me of not being a serious mountaineer and only interested in marketing stunts in fancy outfits. I'm a sensitive person and it really took a toll on me.”
Thankfully, the trolls were silenced just a few weeks later when Naila became the first international mountaineer to summit Everest in 2023.