Inside the Nanga Parbat Murders

One of the worst massacres in mountaineering history happened this summer in Pakistan. Will it happen again?

Pakistan's Nanga Parbat, as seen from Fairy Meadows Camp     Photo: Ahmed Sajjad Zaidi/Flickr

Nanga Parbat, earth's ninth tallest mountain.

“I am not American! I am not American!,” the climbers pleaded. But the assassin proclaimed, “Today, these people are revenge for Osama bin Laden.”

On the evening of June 22, some 16 to 20 local villagers disguised as Gilgit paramilitary officers hiked into base camp on the Diamir side of Pakistan’s 26,660-foot Nanga Parbat, the ninth-tallest mountain on earth, shouting in English: “Taliban! Al Quaeda! Surrender! Some fifty climbers from many different countries were on the mountain at the time, and more than a dozen were hanging out at base, waiting for better weather and acclimatizing before heading up to higher camps. The intruders roused these mountaineers from their tents, tied them up, and forced them onto their knees at gunpoint.

The attackers first demanded money. Interviewed by Peter Miller for National Geographic, Sehr Khan, a Pakistani climber in camp at the time, recalled one of the men saying, “We know you can speak English. Ask them who has money in their tents.” Khan continued: “Everybody was scared. We all said, ‘Yes, we have money.’ The foreigners said, ‘Yes, we have Euros. Yes, we have dollars.’ And, one by one, they took climbers to their different tents and collected the money.”

The intruders next destroyed all the cell phones, satellite phones, and two-way radios they could find. “[S]uddenly, I heard the sound of shooting,” Kahn recounted. “I looked a little up and what I saw was this poor Ukrainian guy, who had been tied with me, I saw him sitting down. Then after that moment, the shooting started in bursts. Brrrr. Brrrr. Brrrr. Three times like that. Then the leader, this stupid ugly man, said, ‘Now stop firing. Don’t fire anybody.’ Then that son of a bitch came in between the dead bodies and he personally shot them one by one. Dun. Dun. Dun. Afterward we heard slogans, like ‘Allahu Akbar,’ ‘Salam Zindabad,’ ‘Osama bin Laden Zindabad.’”

Several of the climbers pleaded, “I am not American! I am not American!,” to no avail. In the midst of the carnage, one of the few survivors heard an assassin proclaim, “Today, these people are revenge for Osama bin Laden.” Yet only one of the victims was an American citizen, and he was Chinese-born. Two others were Chinese, three were Ukrainians, two Slovaks, one Lithuanian, and one a Sherpa from Nepal. The cook was a Pakistani. In all, 11 people were killed.

Within days of the massacre, the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), a Sunni Muslim branch unaffiliated with the Afghan Taliban, claimed responsibility for the deed. A spokesman said that the motive was revenge for the death, by an American drone strike, of the group’s second-in-command, and that the action had been carried out by a splinter faction of the TTP called the Jundul Hafsa. The Pakistani cook was apparently shot because the attackers assumed he was Shia. Sher Kahn believes he survived only because his name sounded to the killers like a Sunni cognomen, even though Khan is actually an Ismaili Shia.

In the more than two-century-long history of mountaineering, the murder of more than two or three climbers under any circumstances was utterly unprecedented. In fact, the killing of backcountry adventurers is so rare an event that the isolated examples resonate long afterward. In 1998, mountaineer and explorer Ned Gillette was shot and killed in his tent while trekking in Kashmir. But what was originally thought to be a terrorist act turned out to be a simple robbery gone wrong. Others were reminded of the four young American climbers who were shot out of their bivouac on a big wall in Kyrgyzstan in 2000, then taken captive, as chronicled by Greg Child in Outside and his book, Over the Edge. But in that case, the climbers were useful to the Kyrgyz insurgents who seized them only as hostages to be used as bargaining chips with the government—not as victims in a Muslim vendetta against the United States.

The Nanga Parbat massacre, however, bore spooky similarities to the 1995 kidnapping of six foreign tourists in Kashmir by a militant Islamic group called Al-Faran. In that case, one American managed to escape. The beheaded body of a Norwegian hostage was later discovered, but the other four victims were never seen again. A captured rebel not involved in the Al-Faran kidnapping later reported that he had heard that the four were shot to death after the kidnappers’ demands fell on deaf ears.

Nonetheless, the Nanga Parbat tragedy struck many observers as heralding a new and darker order of threat to adventurers afoot in Muslim countries. “It’s a game-changer, for sure,” claims one savvy observer of Central Asia.

“I found myself more disturbed by this tragedy than anything that’s come down in quite a while,” says Seattle-based climber Steve Swenson. “It’s the first time I’ve told myself, ‘Whoa, I’ve gotta pay attention now.’”

“I was deeply shocked and surprised,” adds Doug Chabot. “This came out of left field. But once I thought about it, I realized that this was a logical place for this sort of thing to happen.”

Swenson is a veteran of 11 mountaineering expeditions to Pakistan and is writing a memoir interweaving his climbs with the geopolitics of the region. Chabot, Swenson’s frequent partner, has gone on nine climbing expeditions to Pakistan himself; in addition, he is the co-founder of the Iqra Fund, an organization dedicated to furthering girls’ education in that country.

The impact on the Pakistan’ s tourism business, on which thousands of merchants and porters depend for their livelihood, promises to be both profound and long-lasting. “This is a great tragedy for Pakistan,” says Nazir Sabir, one of his country’s leading climbers and the head of Pakistan’s top trekking company. “I have talked to most of the operators,” reports Sabir, three weeks after the massacre. “Ninety percent of their trips are canceled.” For Sabir, it was a personal tragedy as well, for he knew the three Chinese climbers and the Sherpa well.

But many questions remain unanswered. If the Jundul Hafsa had struck to avenge the killing of Osama Bin Laden and American drone strikes on Sunni targets, why did they so readily kill non-Americans, even Chinese? Some observers speculate that the killers intended to disrupt the political bond between Pakistan and China, jointly planning a major dam project in the Diamir region. And there are strong indications that the Jundul Hafsa (or allied factions of the TTP) were responsible for a pair of attacks on buses in the Gilgit region in 2012, in which a total of almost sixty Shia were systematically identified and executed.

Others speculate that the poorly educated and mostly illiterate villagers who carried out the killings may have viewed all non-Muslims as “Westerners,” making little distinction between a Lithuanian or a Slovak and the Americans who launch drones against Taliban targets. As of July 22, the Pakistan government, under its new prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, appears to be making a concerted effort to round up the murderers. Sixteen have been identified by name, and four arrested.

Doug Chabot believes that the Nanga Parbat incident has little to do with Sunni-Shia enmity. Both he and Steve Swenson cite the numerous IED and suicide attacks in which innocent Pakistanis—many of them Sunni women and children—are killed along with the targeted victims. Voicing his outrage in an open letter to the the American Alpine Club, Manzoor Hussain, the president of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, wrote, “It appears that the mission of these enemies of humanity is to kill everyone living, including themselves, for reasons beyond our comprehension.”

Did the climbers at Nanga Parbat base camp just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Does the massacre mean that the several dozen expeditions now ensconced on the Baltoro Glacier in quest of the summits of the four other 8,000-meter peaks in Pakistan are equally vulnerable? The Diamir base camp lies at an altitude of 13,000 feet, only a three-day hike up the valley. To reach Concordia on the Baltoro at 15,000 feet, near which climbers establish their base camps, requires a rugged six-day trek through dangerously glaciated terrain. That inaccessibility in and of itself may impose a margin of safety for the climbers on the Baltoro. In addition, as Swenson and Chabot point out, there are very few terrorists in that part of Pakistan, and their arrival there would not go unnoticed by the strong military presence in the region.

In the aftermath of the massacre, nearly all the climbers on Nanga Parbat were immediately evacuated, leaving only a Romanian team on the opposite Rupal side of the peak—safer ground and harder to get to. Proceeding with their attempt, the Romanians placed four members on the summit on July 19.

Meanwhile, it was business as usual on the Baltoro. As of July 22, a handful of climbers had reached the summits of Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I, and Gasherbrum II, but others had perished in the attempt, including the great Polish pioneer Artur Hajzer. Hope is giving out for three Iranians stranded without food, water, or tents at 25,600 feet on Broad Peak.

On the formidable K2, some climbers had reached Camp III at 23,600 feet, but all the expedition members are now biding their time as they hope for a good-weather window to make their summit bids. Among their number is Mike Horn, the accomplished polar explorer, who with his fellow Swiss partner Fred Roux hopes not only to climb the world’s second-highest mountain but to paraglide from the summit down to base camp.  

Whether or not the Baltoro climbers are ignoring a new form of terrorism in Pakistan remains to be seen. Doug Chabot is not optimistic. “I’m worried that climbers are the new easy target,” he says. “We’re unarmed, we have lots of money, and we’re high-profile.”

According to Chabot, “The Jundul Hafsa are essentially a gang—like the Bloods and the Crips. There’s no overall leadership of the Taliban, and once the U. S. pulls out of Afghanistan in 2014, all these small gangs will be fighting for power and territory across both countries. It’s going to be a free-for-all. With the Nanga Parbat killings, the Jundul were saying, ‘We own this place.’”


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