Born on September 19, 1990, Samina Baig grew up in the Hunza region of Pakistan. This is a unique region of the north, renowned for spectacular natural scenery but also its people. According to the region’s website, at least three quarters of the region’s people can read and write and achieve a high school education (in a country where girls are usually blocked from attending school). One of the main factors as to why Hunza encourages education traces back to Aga Khan III, who in the early 20th century persuaded Hunza rulers to educate their people. Additionally, several regional organizations encourage universal education, training, and scholarships. Many students go to larger cities to attend university, including many girls. As Janeha Hussein wrote in the Times, “Boys and girls alike approach their schooling with endearing exuberance. They can be seen walking alongside the road, lunchboxes swinging on their arms and books hugged closely to their chests.”
Additionally, women in Hunza are considered equals of men, and given many rights that women in other parts of Pakistan do not enjoy, such as strolling at night without male relatives and enjoying economic freedom to sell their famous handicrafts.
Growing up in this region, Samina trained in mountaineering from the age of 4 with her brother in the Himalayas. She became a professional climber at the age of 19, at the same time becoming a mountain guide and expedition leader in the Hindu Kush and the peaks of Karakoram.
On May 19, 2013, Samina became the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest – she was 22. She was joined by twin girls Tashi and Nungshi Malik of India, and together they placed the national flags of India and Pakistan on the summit to spread a message of Indo-Pakistani friendship and peace. The expedition took 48 days, and they reached the summit on the 60th anniversary of the first successful conquest of Everest.
Samina’s climb was captured in a documentary film, Beyond the Heights. Her brother also wrote about it on his blog, stating, “The expeditions we are launching are not to gain highest merits or only to reach the highest summits, but the aim of our mountaineering adventure is for the sake of encouraging the youth for outdoor sports, ecological awareness and empowering women in mountain adventures and related sports.”
What makes Samina’s feat even more incredible is the actual logistics of summiting Mount Everest. Starting in Kathmandu, Nepal, Samina and her teammates flew to the village of Lukla. The team then spent ten days trekking to Everest Base Camp, at 5360 meters above sea level, which passes through the main trading center of the Everest Region. At base camp, the team began acclimatization trips, which involved climbing to Camp 1, spending the night, then returning to base camp to rest. These trips repeat, each Time reaching the next higher camp, spending a night, and returning to base camp to rest. Once these trips finish, and medical professionals assess the team, they could begin the actual climb.
The routes to Everest’s summit – and between the camps – are treacherous. On the way to Camp 1, the team climbed 800 meters, passing through the infamous Khumbu Icefall, a dangerous river of ice which cascades into the valley below. Above Camp 1 is the Western Cwm (“koom”), a relatively flat, gently rising glacial valley marked by huge crevasses. With little atmosphere, the sun reflects off the snow and ice, making it a literal oven and very hard to see the crevasses. After reaching Camp 2, they ascend on fixed ropes to 7,400 meters to Camp 3, followed by another 600 meters to Camp 4. From there, they climb a series of imposing rock steps and waist-deep snow, up to the South Summit at 8,750 meters. Following a knife-edge ridge along a narrow traverse – the most exposed area of the climb, where any misstep can be fatal – they reach the infamous Hillary Step, a 12 meter high rock wall. Using fixed ropes to ascend the Step, it is then 100 meters through moderately angled snow slopes to the summit.
After Samina’s climb, the President of Pakistan congratulated her, lauding her will and determination. “Congratulating the women of the country and the entire nation on the achievement, the President expressed confidence that the young Samina Baig will be followed as a role model by women of the country and her gigantic achievement will ignite zeal in women folk of Pakistan.”
Samina wasn’t done at Everest. By 2014, she accomplished climbing the seven tallest summits in the world, tracked through a Facebook page with the help of her brother, who climbed with her.
Four years later, in 2018, she was named Pakistan’s National Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations Development Programme. The appointment means she will lead efforts to build awareness and partnerships around the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly those related to climate change, environmental protection, youth and women’s empowerment. She stated, “I am greatly honored to be part of the UNDP. From the remotest village of Pakistan and reaching the summit of the world’s tallest mountain, Mt. Everest and beyond the birds, Scaling Peak in Antarctica and the seven highest peaks of the seven continents, in some of the most harsh conditions, my entire climbing purpose was to empower women through these adventures and encourage gender equality. With my brother, I have experienced significant impact of global warming and climate change on our Mother Earth. I find this honor as the national goodwill ambassador of UNDP to spread the voice for climate change and environmental protection and advocate to empower young girls to climb the highest level within their field of profession.”
Samina also plans to use her fame to promote human rights and education for women in Pakistan, stating, “I want to tell women in developing countries that they are as powerful as their male counterparts and they can play an equal role in their respective societies. When I came to the city for the first time, I saw a completely different world, where people are less educated, poverty is widespread, and the female is a non-existent species compared to their male counterparts. But in my community, women are as important as males and they are playing an equal role in society.”
Yet in 2019, an article on The Independent out of the UK reported that Samina was unable to get funding for the past two years in order to summit her next goal, K2 – the second highest and most dangerous mountain in the world. Out of the 280 who have attempted the climb, 74 have died – making the odds of dying during the climb 1 in 4. She is also seeking funding to take Pakistan’s first-ever women’s team to Everest.
In 2020, Samina was honored with a Women Leaders Award, celebrating her courage to pursue her dreams and her tremendous achievements in adventure sports.