Using escalation to tackle gender inequality in Pakistan

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Acclimatized en route to K2 base camp in January 2021, famed Chilean mountaineer and humanitarian JP Mohr Prieto trekked Pakistan’s Shigar Valley in search of two things: undeveloped cliffs and a local community that could empower his children to pursue a new activity: rock climbing.

He found the two in the mountain village of Daskoor and, while still on K2, began planning his return to the village with his friends Luis Birkner and Mateo Barrenengoa, co-founders of the non-profit association. nonprofit “Climbing for a Reason”, which strives to bring rock climbing to disadvantaged communities around the world.

Mohr on top of Manaslu (Photo: Courtesy of Federico Scheuch)

But when Mohr, who was attempting K2 without oxygen in the winter, died above the bottleneck on February 5, Birkner vowed to go to Pakistan and complete the project Mohr had envisioned.

“The fact that Juan Pablo has not physically returned is no excuse for not achieving one of his many dreams,” Birkner wrote in an email to Escalation.

On behalf of JP Mohr

In August 2021, Birkner and Barrenengoa traveled to Daskoor. They were joined by the famous Italian mountaineer Tamara Lunger (who had climbed with JP Mohr on K2); Italian-Egyptian athlete La Sportiva Wafaa Bitter; a number of JP Mohr’s family members, including his mother, two sisters, aunts and a cousin; and a slew of other volunteers.

Climbing For a Reason volunteers and local children in front of their new wall
Birkner, with members of JP Mohr’s family, friends and the girls and boys of Daskoor, in front of the new public wall. (Photo: Courtesy of Climbing for a Reason)

In three weeks, the team succeeded in setting up the first climbing site in the region, with 19 new sports courses up to 5.11c; built a public climbing wall with over 500 holds and volumes; taught climbing safety practices; donated enough climbing gear to last the community for about seven years; and helped the local community establish their own sport climbing club, the first in the Shigar Valley.

More importantly, however, they approached the Daskoor project with the specific goal of connecting with and empowering girls in the community, who previously had limited access to recreational sports. Working closely with the Daskoor community to ensure girls and boys have the opportunity to climb, Birkner said the result was transformative.

In an early press release about the project, he wrote, “Watching these girls climb for the first time in their lives, watching them play with each other…on their new climbing wall and on their own rocks, and see feel as if they were [fighting against] a story of repressed women—[it] was invaluable.

A Pakistani girl takes a new road near her home in the Shigar Valley
Climb for a Reason developed 19 routes, all moderated, and introduced the community to basic rope skills and climbing techniques. (Photo: Courtesy of Climbing for a Reason)

As a Muslim woman, Wafaa Amer found the focus of the project particularly moving and personally relevant. Write on Instagram (translated here), she writes: “As a child, I had a hard time practicing this sport: climbing. I had to do it secretly for years because of my culture. I was not allowed to go where I wanted, when I wanted, because I am a woman. I was able to [climb] only thanks to many people who helped me… Now I too managed to give… to the children of Shigar.

Tamara Lunger celebrated the girls, writing “Watching these shy girls gain confidence hour after hour and freely express their enthusiasm is an indescribable thrill!” But she also noted that the team’s visit was just the start of a long and potentially uphill struggle for the Daskoor girls: they may be armed with a new climbing wall, bolted cliffs and the confidence to scale them, but they still face centuries of accumulated cultural barriers that will limit not only their full participation in outdoor sports, but also their engagement in political life, their educational opportunities and their ability to work outside the home.

Climb for a reason

Founded by Chilean mountaineer Luis Birkner and documentary filmmaker Mateo Barrenengoa, Climb for a reason is an international non-profit project that aims to teach low-income communities to climb their local rocks while stimulating rock-climbing-specific tourism and empowering local children. Bircher explained that his goal was “to try to transform [each] local community into climbers of their own rocks and give them the necessary tools so that they can, in one way or another, later develop tourism.

Each year, Birkner and his team identify an underprivileged community in which rock climbing is largely unpractised, even though there are plenty of outdoor rock climbing resources. They then build climbing walls in public places (usually schools or parks), landscape local cliffs, and offer climbing and safety workshops to interested participants. The association also donates climbing equipment (walls, holds, shoes, chalk, harnesses, ropes, belay devices) so that the community can continue to climb after the instructors have left.

Lucho Birkner and the daughters of Daskoor, Pakistan.
(Photo: Courtesy of Climbing for a Reason)

Climbing for a Reason complements their work with high quality film projects, which aim to showcase each location’s climbing resources to foster climbing tourism, or simply tell the stories they have found in the communities they visited. (See their excellent film Cortometraje: Todos Somos Migranteswhich highlight Climbing for a Reason’s work with migrant children at Gabriela Mistral Experimental High School in Santiago, for example.)

To date, Climbing for a Reason, in partnership with a variety of organisations, climbers and filmmakers, has carried out projects in India, Chile, Suriname, NepalPakistan and the Aysén region in Patagonia.

Virginia F. Goins