In early May, Namal Siddiqui will be one of a team of mountaineers attempting to be the first to reach the summit of Zoui Sar in Pakistan. At 6,100 metres, it may not be among the highest mountains in the world, but it is extremely challenging, which is why it remains unclimbed while more than 4,000 people have scaled Mount Everest.
“In mountaineering, it’s never about how high a mountain is,” says Namal. “What matters is the terrain. Smaller mountains can be harder.”
Zoui Sar, which is situated on the Malangudi glacier, is a case in point. On her first attempt in March with her climbing team-mate Qudrat Ali, Namal made it to 4,100 meters before being beaten back by treacherously bad weather.
“The weather was against us all the way,” she recalls. “One day it snowed for 12 hours straight, from 3am to 3pm. There were high winds, the snow was waist-deep and the sky wasn’t clear so there was no sun and no chance for the snow to melt away. The terrain was loose rocks with fresh snow on top, so when you took a step you didn’t even know what you were putting your foot on.
“It was quite intense, but it was amazing and we did good work. There was no planned route all the way to the summit, but we were creating one. The mountain remains unclimbed and this was an opportunity to get to know it first, because every mountain is different. Every mountain has its own personality.”
It is a little ironic that someone who loves mountains grew up in the relative flatlands of the UAE. Namal was born in Dubai 33 years ago to Pakistani parents, and over the next 20 years the family also lived in Ajman and Sharjah. Life followed a conventional pattern: school, then university in Dubai (with a degree in business administration) followed by 14 years in the corporate world, moving from banking to marketing to PR to advertising.
And then in 2016, as she was approaching 30, something shifted.
“I started feeling restless,” she says. “Even though I liked my work, I was questioning myself, asking what else can I do?”
As an initial challenge, she started performing her poetry at Spoken Word events. At the time she was setting up an agency for influencers and came across an Egyptian mountaineer named Omar Samra, who also ran an adventure travel company. He was the first Egyptian to both climb Mount Everest and complete the Seven Summits challenge – climbing the highest peaks in all seven continents – and his late wife had also taken up mountaineering while doing a nine to five job.
“It seemed like an answer to the questions I had,” says Namal. “I booked myself on to his next tour.”
The destination turned out to be the Russian Caucasus. Her first experience of mountaineering was going to be Mount Elbrus, the highest peak in Europe.
“I felt inspired by Omar and just wanted to dive right in,” she says.
Though she insists she has “never been athletic”, Namal surprised herself by reaching the summit. The experience had a profound effect on her and she returned to Dubai and her job at the global advertising agency, J Walter Thompson, a changed woman.
“I felt rejuvenated and I couldn’t stop daydreaming and thinking about the mountains. I just wanted to do more,” she says. “It wasn’t just the climbing, it was the great connections I had made on the trip. Nobody else understands why you’re drawn to the mountains except another person who is drawn to the mountains. Only they understand why you get so excited.”
In 2018 she took a leap of faith and quit her job to go freelance and in late December 2020, she moved to Pakistan, “to be closer to the mountains” in the north of the country, which is beginning to open up to tourists.
“I still had the feeling that I need to make changes in my life. I’m Pakistani, I have connections to the country, but had never lived there. And it has three mountain ranges and many unclimbed mountains.” Though her family is originally from Karachi, she chose to base herself in the capital, Islamabad. “It’s the gateway to the mountains,” she says.
Her parents were initially bemused by her new obsession but are fully supportive.
“I’m from a Muslim Pakistani family and there’s a certain perception of how things are going to be, but I was a stubborn child and my family understand that I make unconventional choices. My mum would love to see me married but no one is prouder of me than she is. My extended family here in Pakistan are quite proud, too.”
Pakistan can be perceived as a conservative country where someone like Namal – a female mountaineer – might be considered an oddball.
“Actually, people think it’s cool. A man stopped me once when I was running in the park in Islamabad and asked if I was an athlete. When I replied that I’m a mountaineer he said, ‘That’s amazing – will you come meet my children?’
“The fact is that mountaineering isn’t a conventional thing for either men or women. It has generally been male-dominated but the challenges are the same whether you’re a man or woman and now that there’s such a focus on adventure tourism, I would love to see more girls coming forward.”
It seems they are beginning to. Another woman will also be in the team attempting the ascent of Zoui Sar next month.
Through climbing Zoui Sar, Namal hopes to present Pakistan as both tourist-friendly and inclusive. With Mount Elbrus in Europe and Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa, she has two of the Seven summits under her belt. Climbing mountains has also given her the bonus of exploring other countries and experiencing other cultures.
“I would never have gone to Russia if I hadn’t gone on that trip to Elbrus. I would not have learned about a different culture I knew nothing about and I would have missed so much. Now when I explore a mountain, I explore the country too. “
So when she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, she made sure she spent time in Arusha, the gateway city to the country’s mountaineering and wildlife safari scene, and in Zanzibar. Climbing in the mountains of Morocco made her fall in love with the country.
One imagines mountaineers need to be beefy types with lots of muscle, but Namal is a slim 5 feet 5 inches (1.65m).
“There is no ideal build for a mountaineer. I do cardio and HIIT and as long as you’re fit, you’ll be fine on the mountain. It’s more important to have a positive mindset because even though you prepare physically as much as you can, the brain can play with you up there. The only time I got scared on Elbrus was after I summited. I was surrounded by white, I thought I was alone, I had no idea where I was going and I wondered if I was going to die there. But as long as you’re in a positive state of mind, that’s your best weapon. It also helps to have good, positive people around you.
“Mountain people are different. They have strong bodies and big hearts and they are the keepers of the mountain. When I sat on that glacier, I was aware that there’s a system at work. The ice was moving, rocks were falling and there was a hum in the air. The mountain is a fully functioning being. Nothing could be more spiritual than that.”
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.