Monday, July 8, 2013

Behind Enemy Lines




Life can be strange.  Two weeks ago a Pakistani Taliban group attacked the Diamer base camp on the western side of Nanga Parbat, one of the worlds largest peaks on the edges of the Karakoram Range in Pakistan.  I have spent the last 5 months planning and preparing a trip to the Great Trango Tower, about 120 miles from there.  I was in the middle of a huge hike, trying to pound my legs into stronger and better shape for this trip when I received a text message from my brother with a link to the news story.
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The TTP attacked the base camp in the middle of the night, pulling the 10 or 11 climbers and mountaineers from their tents, shaking them down, robbing them, and then they were lined up, questioned about their religion and shot, each then received a bullet in the head as well. Until this attack the Taliban had never attacked mountaineers, we negligently considered ourselves to be relatively 'safe' in the mountains.

The last two weeks I have spent posted in front of my computer, emailing and talking on the phone with some of the most traveled people I could think of to that region.  I was filled in on the details and the harsh realities of how the region where this attack happened has long held supporters of the Taliban and has not been a 'safe' place for quite some time.  I was told how the region on and around the Baltoro Glacier, near the Great Trango, is very different, a different culture, religion, people, and attitude from the region this attack happened.  I was told how I would. be. safe. once in the mountains.

My partners, two of Poland's best expedition climbers, guys with impressive resumes on many of the largest big walls in the world, appeared to be relatively unfazed by the news, disturbed, but unfazed.  They understood the dangers of traveling to Pakistan going into this, they understood the details of the region and the complexities of the political situations.  I informed them of all the information that I was getting and the many positive responses and encouragements to stay the course and go through with the trip.  That is what they planned to do, I wanted to so badly.

However, for me, the situation was different perhaps, maybe it was because I am American, maybe it is because I am younger than them.  Despite the fact that only one of the ten westerners killed was an American, the group had committed the attack in response to American drone strikes and they explicitly stated they were trying to get the Americans on the mountain.  They also stated that they would continue to target foreigners and planned to increase the violence and frequency of future attacks.  These lines from the news stories stuck in my head, engrained in my mind, the harsh realities of the situation.

It is hard to explain the thought processes I went through, for several days my stomach was upset and uncomfortable, I couldn't figure out why.  Towards the end of the week I randomly tweaked my neck while sitting at the computer, it instantly went stiff and hurt like hell, I think from the stress and tension I had been carrying around.  Rarely a moment went by that I was not thinking about the future of my trip and the situation in Pakistan.  Every day ended in the same horrible indecision, yes, no, yes, no.  I felt bi-polar, swinging between confidence in my choice to continue with the trip and then the depressing feeling that there was no way I could go.

I knew of four or five other American Parties, groups who had encouraged me and been motivating beacons of how it is possible to go to Pakistan and climb on the largest mountains in the world, some of the best and most traveled american alpinists.  Slowly, one by one these groups cancelled their trips until I was the last to choose.

Finally, after a phone conversation with another climber who was slated to leave the first week in August, I realized that I could not make a decision until I talked to my parents.  I am close with my parents, they are supportive and encouraging, although truly scared by my motivation and passion for climbing in the mountains and traveling to other countries. I knew in my heart what my mother was going to say, it was the only thing a mother can say, I couldn't expect her to encourage me off to a country where, for the first time ever, mountaineers (and Americans) were now the direct target of terrorism.  So I called my Mom and we talked, I listened.

She told me she would not tell me I could not go, I am an adult, the final decision was mine.  She told me that she understood if I felt the need to go, she didn't like it, but she understood, these opportunities don't come every day.  But she also told me she did not want me to go, more than anything she did not want me to go, but that decision had to be mine.

I sat on the couch staring out the window, waiting for Carmen to get home and I brought it up with her.  She had been supportive of this trip from Day 1, encouraging me, staying positive despite being scared by the realities of climbing in the largest mountains on earth, and finally she told me what I already knew, she did not want me to go.  She, also, would not tell me I couldn't, she wouldn't tell me not to go, but she did tell me that she did not want me to go.

So Carmen and I stepped onto a plane bound for Portland, Oregon to celebrate the 4th of July with my family.  It seemed a little Ironic to celebrate our nations freedom at the same time that I chose to cancel a trip due to terrorism, but the 4th of July has always just been a celebration of family for me.  My grandfather was not doing well, he had spent the last month in a nursing home and was moved to the hospital the day we arrived.  I got to visit him in the morning while he was awake and alert, he didn't seem great, but his crotchety spark was still there.  I was the last of the family to show up and see him.  That afternoon his condition got worse, two days later with my mom at his side he passed away.  A strange but beautiful happening.  I think he was waiting for everyone to get to Portland, he knew how much fun the 4th of July always was with all the family together.

My decision not to go to Pakistan feels like the right one.  After a weekend with my family I just justify the stress that this trip would have put them through, not a day would have passed that they would not have worried.  For me, the stress of traveling to and from the mountains would have been horrible, perhaps in the end it would have been worth it, but it would have changed the trip from fun to an 'experience'.  Regan and Marcin are going to continue with the plan, I wish them the best of luck, I know they will be safe and I hope for great success, I hope that one day I can go to the Great Trango and climb the route that they will establish.

In the meantime I turn my sites to other objectives, the mountains won't go anywhere and one day I will get to climb them.  Several friends have offered me excellent backup plans, which I appreciate, again I have to make choices, but this choice seems so much easier and so much less stressful.



I have to thank all of the people and companies that helped to make this project happen, there was so much support from the climbing community.  Special thanks to Zamberlan, CAMP, Rab, Metolious, Mountain Boot Company, Raw Revolution, Totem Cams.  I am sorry to change courses, but everyone has been very understanding and I greatly appreciate that.

1 comment:

  1. Really good post. Sorry to hear you couldn't go this year, but as you say mountains will be there. Hope the political situation in the world will change for the better. There is much unexplored in Pakistan...

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