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First Pakistani woman to summit Everest encourages women to 'climb their own mountains'

Tired, cold, hungry and roughly 800 feet from Mt. Everest's summit, Samina Baig had only one thought in mind:

“I have to reach the top,” Baig said. “I was very clear about that.”

As it is for every serious mountaineering aficionado, reaching the summit of Everest, the world's highest mountain at 29,029 feet, was a dream. But for Baig, 25, who hails from remote Shimshal village in Pakistan's Upper Hunza Valley, there was something more.

As the first Pakistani female to reach the top of Everest, she would be sending a message to fellow citizens in a country sometimes criticized for its subjugation of women and where, in the most commonly known example, a teenager named Malala Yousafzai was shot by Taliban extremists in 2012 for demanding that girls be allowed to receive an education.

“On Mt. Everest, I was not Samina Baig,” said the mountaineer whose home region is known for its high literacy rate, tolerance and gender equality. “I was representing Pakistani women. I was thinking that if I don't make it, how am I going to encourage other women? I had to do it.”

On May 19, 2013, at 7:40 a.m., Baig stood on top of the world, one of fewer than 400 women from across the globe – of various ages, nationalities and socioeconomic backgrounds - to  reach Everest’s summit.

Since then she has climbed to the top of the highest mountains on the five other continents: Denali in Alaska, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia, Aconcagua in Argentina and Vinson in Antarctica, as well as Carstensz Pyramid in Oceania.

Her expeditions were funded through private donations and by mountaineering friends in New Zealand, according to Baig’s older brother, Mirza Ali Baig, a professional mountain guide. It took years to save for the Everest climb, Baig said.

Today, Samina Baig travels throughout Pakistan spreading a simple but poignant message.

“I want to tell the women in Pakistan that if I am from Pakistan and I can climb mountains, they can climb their own mountains, because everyone has their own mountains in their lives,” Baig said during a recent visit to California. “They can work hard, they can overcome their challenges and they can reach their goals.”

That is a strong testament coming from a woman who grew up in a one-room house with no electricity, indoor plumbing or telephone. The family used firewood for cooking and heating. But Baig's parents, a farmer and a homemaker, ensured that all their children -- four sons and two daughters -- went to school.

As a girl, Baig loved the outdoors and developed a close connection with the mountains surrounding her village, where she would herd animals, fetch firewood and play.

“I respect the mountains. They were like a friend of mine,” said Baig, who belongs to Pakistan's Ismaili Muslim community, a minority group that in recent times has been targeted by Islamist extremists.

Groups of foreigners, including many women, would visit Shimshal to climb the surrounding peaks. But Baig never saw any Pakistani women among them. Mirza Ali Baig would tell his sister stories about his adventures in the peaks near their village. When he suggested in 2010 that she take up climbing, she readily agreed.

“It [was] not just for pleasure,” Mirza Ali Baig, 32, said. “Behind our story is a story of equality, a relationship between brother and sister, and a relationship between men and women on equal grounds.”

Baig's first conquest was Chashkin Sar, a nearly 21,000-foot mountain near her village. The community was so proud of her success that she said they renamed the mountain “Samina's Peak.”

But the ultimate quest was always Everest, Baig said. She and her brother spent months climbing mountains, camping in glaciers and running in the hills of the Pakistani capital of Islamabad in preparation for the Everest expedition that would last two months. They practiced lifesaving techniques, such as what to do in the event of an avalanche or if one of them fell into a crevasse.

At Everest's famous Yellow Band, a geological feature of sedimentary rock that is light yellow, Baig slipped and got quite a scare. But she was harnessed and able to recover.

“It was not easy,” she acknowledged. “I used to feel very tired, very cold and hungry but … I never felt I'm going to quit. My focus was, I have to reach the top of Mt. Everest.”

With just 800 feet or so to go, Mirza Ali Baig said he intentionally turned back so that his sister could conquer the peak alone to prove that “if you give opportunity to your sisters, daughters, wives, they can achieve their goals.” (His subsequent attempts to summit Everest were foiled after a huge avalanche killed 16 ethnic Sherpa guides in April 2014, leading to the closure of the mountain for that season, and again this spring when an earthquake killed almost 9,000 people, including 19 Everest climbers. The mountain reopened in August and Mirza Ali Baig plans to try again next year).

He described his 4-foot-9 inch sister as “a small powerhouse” for having achieved the feat.

“I was feeling happy, I was feeling proud. I cried,” Baig said, describing her emotions on reaching the peak. “It was something really amazing.”

Members of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, at first skeptical about Baig's quest to scale Everest given that she had not been climbing that long, were impressed.

“It seems it was impossible that she would be climbing this peak because of its height and her experience,” Abu Zafar Sadiq, the club's secretary said by phone from Islamabad. “We thought she was not capable enough to climb this peak. We were surprised.”

At home Baig has become quite a sensation, and on trips around the world, she and her brother have embarked on a mission to dispel certain stereotypes about Pakistani women.

“For those who think that women in Pakistan are always oppressed, that they don't have opportunity … [Samina] is just one example,” Mirza Ali Baig said.

The Alpine Club recommended Samina Baig for this year's Pride of Performance award, one of the highest accolades the government of Pakistan confers on civilians in recognition of distinguished and commendable work in the fields of literature, arts, sports, medicine and science. In June 2013, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif awarded Baig about $24,000 to acknowledge her Everest accomplishment, according to a news release issued by the Pakistani government.

In his emailed comments, Hamid Asghar Khan, the consul general of Pakistan in Los Angeles, lauded Baig as a role model who was proof that Pakistani women “have equal opportunities to excel in the field of their choice.” 

“Her achievements are a beacon of light, encouraging the young women of Pakistan to reach out and fulfill their dreams and aspirations.”

Pakistan's ambassador to United Nations, Maleeha Lodhi, echoed the sentiment, noting that Baig epitomized the confidence and determination exhibited by many Pakistani women who have “broken the glass ceiling” that often holds women back.

Since Baig's Everest climb, the Alpine Club has seen a jump in the number of girls and boys choosing to participate more vigorously in outdoor activities, according to Sadiq.

Baig said she hopes the fervor will continue to spread until her message fully resonates that “you can achieve anything. Just believe in yourself and just work hard."

@AMSimmons1 on Twitter

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