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By Karen Kefauver
April 10, 2015
Link to Sentinel Article

Karim Hayat stood on Broad Peak, which at 26,414 feet is the 12th highest peak in the world and third highest in Karakorum, Pakistan, without supplemental oxygen last July.
Karim Hayat stood on Broad Peak, which at 26,414 feet is the 12th highest peak in the world and third highest in Karakorum, Pakistan, without supplemental oxygen last July.

Karim Hayat was 12 years old, sitting in a classroom in his native Pakistan, when he first glimpsed the thrilling world of mountaineering.

“We learned about a trek on K2,” Hayat said of the second highest mountain in the world at 28,251 feet, “and the teacher said how dangerous it was to go there. It made a big impression on me at the time. I’ve always liked to do adventurous things.”

Hayat grew up in the Hunza Valley, in northern Pakistan, near the Chinese border. The region, renowned for its stunning mountain views, was reportedly the inspiration for the paradise of “Shangri La” in James Hilton’s book, “Lost Horizons.” So it’s no wonder that Hayat, with his adventurous spirit, was drawn to tackle the towering peaks.

Karim Hayat descending after summit of Duost Sar, which was untouched and unexplored.

Karim Hayat descending after summit of Duost Sar, which was untouched and unexplored. 

Hayat knew that death was ever-present in the mountains. Mistakes at high altitude, even minor missteps, can be fatal. Plaques, prayer flags and memorials honor the deceased in a constant reminder of the sport’s many perils, including storms, altitude sickness, frostbite, falls and crevasses.

“When you get exhausted, it’s better to stop and don’t climb,” said Hayat, 37. “Go back to base camp, rest, then try again.”

What Hayat never imagined is that man, not nature, could also be the killer on the mountain.

In 2013, camped out at Base Camp 2 on Nanga Parbat, Pakistan’s second-highest peak, Hayat received a stunning call from a climbing friend.

“He called me on the walkie-talkie from base camp. He was crying,” Hayat recalled. “He told me 11 climbers from all over the world were killed by terrorists. The Taliban. It was unbelievable. I just couldn’t believe it.”

It was the first time climbers had been targeted by terrorists in Pakistan in that way.

A spokesman for an Islamist militant group later claimed responsibility for the killings.

“For a while, I wanted to run away from my country,” Hayat said.

On Wednesday, Hayat will speak at Pacific Edge Climbing Gym about that harrowing incident, the multitude of things that ultimately kept him in Pakistan and his worldwide climbing adventures.

He is the owner of Mountains Expert, a tourism company that was launched in 2006 and organizes trekking and mountaineering expeditions in Pakistan, Nepal, China, India and Bhutan, among other destinations.

His three-week U.S. tour was preceded by a trip to Poland, where he was a guest speaker at a major mountain film festival.

This is his first visit to the United States and staying in Santa Cruz was a priority. In 2011, Hayat met local resident Diane Bloch at a guesthouse when she was trekking 55 miles of the Annapurna circuit in Nepal to celebrate her 50th birthday.

They have stayed in touch the past four years.

“He’s been a faithful friend,” said Bloch, a bilingual teacher at Pajaro Middle School. “Before I met Karim, I didn’t know anyone who lived in Pakistan. It was a country that had a lot of negative press, about the Taliban, women’s oppression. Knowing Karim has personalized the whole situation in Pakistan. I have a much deeper understanding.”

Hayat, along with his two sisters and two brothers, grew up and attended school in a village perched at about 8,800 feet. As a boy, he played soccer and some cricket, but he became captivated by the beauty of the surrounding peaks, several of them more than 20,000 feet.

During college, while pursuing a geography degree, Hayat got his first taste of the mountain tourism industry. He joined a travel agency that organized treks and expeditions and eventually became an assistant guide at K2 base camp.

Although Hayat’s heart was set on the mountains, his career started at sea.

“My father was retired from the army and he had a vision of my becoming an officer … But I preferred freedom.

“It was an adventurous job going into the sea with warships and performing duties there. But sitting in the sea, you don’t see nature, mountains. I realized this is not the place for me to be.”

In 2000, after two months of intensive training in Nepal to receive mountaineering credentials, Hayat was on his path. It was one of patience and perseverance, especially when it came to summiting Broad Peak, also known as K3, the fourth-highest peak in Pakistan and the 12th highest in the world at 26,414 feet.

K3 is part of the Karakoram range, which borders Pakistan, India and China and is home to the densest collection of the world’s highest peaks. Hayat attempted to summit Broad Peak in 2011 but snowfall stopped the ascent. In 2013, he joined a Polish national expedition and made it farther up the mountain. But, upon receiving a message that two Polish climbers in the party were in distress on their summit descent, he attempted to find them. He could not locate them and later learned both had died. It was a crushing blow. (Later, one body was found and the other was presumed buried in a crevasse).

“Tears came down. It was a hard moment,” he said solemnly. “At one moment, I think yes, it’s better to stop. But then you do something more and you just want to keep going. You say, ‘Let’s climb more peaks!’”

In 2014, Hayat had a chance to return to Broad Peak. This time, it was a good experience.

“My team of partners really supported me. We were in the leading team in the first day of the summit push. We reached the summit around 3 p.m. At the top, I bowed down my head and thanked God for reaching the summit in good health. Of course, we took a picture.”

Hayat wants to bring more tourism to Pakistan. He even envisions expanding his company’s offerings to include mountain biking.

“It’s more wild, less developed than Nepal,” he said of Pakistan. “There are fewer crowds and more nature. You carry tents and camp, there are fewer guest houses.”

Hayat acknowledges the barriers to Pakistani tourism are significant; “People are afraid.”

Despite the tragedy on the mountain in 2013, he stayed in Pakistan and strives to change things for the better. It seems that, one step at a time, Hayat and his fellow mountain guides are building international diplomacy by bringing people together to tackle enormous challenges.


‘LIFE AT 8,000 meters’

What: Talk and slideshow with Karim Hayat, Pakistani mountain guide

When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Where: Pacific Edge Climbing Gym, 104 Bronson St., No. 12, Santa Cruz

Cost: Free. Donations welcome.

Website: mountainsexpert.com.pk

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