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Using Climbing to Fight Gender Inequality in Pakistan

The nonprofit Climbing for a Reason heads to a remote village in Pakistan's Sigar Valley to introduce climbing to its systemically disenfranchised young girls.

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Acclimatizing on his way to K2’s basecamp in January 2021, the renowned Chilean mountaineer and humanitarian JP Mohr Prieto trekked through Pakistan’s Shigar Valley looking for two things: undeveloped cliffs and a local community that might allow its children to pursue a new activity: rock climbing.

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

JP Mohr Prieto smiling on the summit of Manaslu with the chilean flag
Mohr on the summit of Manaslu (Photo: Courtesy of Federico Scheuch)

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

“That Juan Pablo has not physically returned is not an excuse for not fulfilling one of his many dreams,” Birkner wrote in an email to Climbing.

In the name of JP Mohr

In August 2021, Birkner and Barrenengoa visited in Daskoor. They were joined by famed Italian alpinist Tamara Lunger (who’d been climbing with JP Mohr on K2); the Italo-Egyptian La Sportiva athlete Wafaa Amer; a number of JP Mohr’s family members, including his mother, two sisters, some aunts, and a cousin; and a slew of other volunteers.

Climbing For a Reason volunteers and local kids standing 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)

Over the course of three weeks, the team successfully developed the region’s first rock climbing area, with 19 new sport routes up to 5.11c; built a public climbing wall with more than 500 holds and volumes; taught climbing safety practices; donated enough climbing equipment to last the community for an estimated seven years; and helped the local community build their own sport climbing club, the first in the Shigar Valley.

Most importantly, however, they approached the Daskoor project with the specific goal of connecting with and empowering the community’s girls, who previously had limited access to athletic recreation. Working closely with Daskoor’s community to ensure that both girls and boys had 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 seeing them feel like they were [fighting against] a history of repressed women—[it] was priceless.”

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

As a Muslim woman, Wafaa Amer found the project’s goal particularly moving and personally relevant. Writing on Instagram (translated here), she wrote, “As a child, I had a hard time practicing this sport—climbing. I had to do it secretly for years due to 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 have managed to give…to the children of Shigar.”

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

Climbing for a Reason

Founded by Chilean climber Luis Birkner and documentary filmmaker Mateo Barrenengoa, Climbing for a Reason is an international non-profit project that seeks to teach low-income communities to climb on their local rocks while also jumpstarting climbing-specific tourism and empowering local kids. Bircher explained that his goal was “to try to turn [each] local community into climbers of their own rocks and give them the tools so that in some way they can later develop tourism.”

Each year, Birkner and his team identify an underprivileged community in which climbing is largely unpracticed even though ample outdoor climbing resources exist. They then build climbing walls in public places (usually schools or parks), develop local crags, and offer climbing and safety workshops to interested participants. The organization also donates climbing equipment (walls, holds, shoes, chalk, harnesses, ropes, belay devices) so that the community can continue climbing once the instructors leave.

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

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

To date, Climbing for a Reason—partnering with a variety of organizations, climbers, and filmmakers—has conducted projects in India, Chile, Surinam, Nepal, Pakistan, and the Aysén Region of Patagonia.