The Night Climbers Of Islamabad

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Every night during Ramadan, about a dozen boys meet up in a parking lot that sits near Islamabad’s network of hiking trails to play cricket under the streetlights. You’re likely to see the same scene play out in any well-lit parking lot across the predominantly Muslim city. But if you look up at the Himalayan foothills above this group of kids, you’ll notice narrow beams of light passing over the sheer rock faces above.

During Ramadan, many people sleep through the daytime—the hours in which they are required to fast—and wake up a few hours before sundown, when they are free to break their fast. They’ll stay up all night, stuffing themselves with as much food as possible before the sun rises. Then it’s off to bed, repeating that cycle for a month.

People can’t spend all night eating, though, and that leaves them with plenty of time to kill during the hours they normally spend slumbering. Lots of people sit around in roadside cafes and drink tea, or eat sweets at night markets. Groups of boys and young men play cricket, shouting through the night at every big play.

Others choose to go climbing.

Qasim Ali, a local resident and climber, is one of those people. As many as four nights a week, he passes by those cricket players in the parking lot and makes the 20-minute hike to a rock face in the Margalla Hills, a national park perched above Islamabad with panoramic views of the sprawling capital. His only source of light is a small headlamp strapped around his forehead. Sometimes there are over a dozen others joining him. Other times just one or two.

“It’s actually the best time to climb regularly,” says Ali, because there are no other pressing life matters to worry about at 1:00 a.m. It’s also a bit easier to motivate yourself to climb during the cool, breezy nights, as opposed to brutally hot days.

Climbing at night isn’t entirely unheard of. In bouldering (the rope-less version of the sport with incredibly difficult, low-to-the-ground routes) some professional climbers tackle their projects at night, when colder air means they can get more friction and less sweat on tiny handholds. But it’s much easier to set up lights that illuminate an entire bouldering route than for sport climbing, where routes often extend as high as 30 or 40 meters into the air.

For professional-level climbers like Sajjid Aslam, who has represented Pakistan in international competitions, taking a month-long break for Ramadan isn’t an option. Consistent training is vital to keep tendons and finger muscles strong enough to perform some of the hardest moves.

Aslam says he’s been night climbing during Ramadan for three years now. “It was an amazing experience,” he says of his first session. “It’s a bit more difficult… you can’t see everything to your right or your left. You have to use more energy searching for the holds, you’re looking around where to put your hands and feet.”

Aslam says that climbing in the dark can make routes a full grade harder than they are in the daytime. That’s useful, because Islamabad’s network of climbing routes is relatively small, meaning regular climbers have done the same routes over and over again.

It was sort of strange to hear two experienced climbers talking up the benefits of what seems like an objectively crazy endeavor. There’s always a fear factor in climbing, and climbing at night could only add to that. But I figured that learning to climb confidently at night could make me a better climber overall. So I got my gear together and set out to join them for my first night climb.

On the night of my first foray into night climbing, I was filled with more questions than usual. How much can you really see up there with a headlamp? Does it matter that my peripheral vision is non-existent? Are there going to be more bugs crawling all over the rock at night?

I was with Ali, making the short hike up to the crag in the Margalla Hills. By the time we arrived, Aslam was already there with three other friends. Everything took a little bit longer than usual to set up, and I fumbled to put on all my gear in the dark. It felt unnatural.

When I stand at the start of a route, I try to take a mental note of the holds I can see. Usually, I can scope out as many as possible and visualize the start of my route in my head. Executing that first sequence always helps me get into the flow of the climb. In the dark, however, I couldn’t see more than the first four points of contact on the route. My view of everything else was compromised by shadows and reflections. I struggled my way through the start of the climb, taking lots of moments to rest on the rope. I’ve been climbing for over two years now, and falling hasn’t felt like a scary prospect in a long time. But being up there in the middle of the night, with a narrow field of vision and my arms feeling pumped out, was more than a little unsettling.

The beam of light from my headlamp only illuminated a small patch of rock. I had to pan my head around to find small handholds and tiny bumps in the rock where I could safely place my feet. Sometimes, the narrow beam was more of a perk than a hindrance. I found myself zeroing in on one particular spot, looking more closely than usual for opportunities for a foothold. Other times, I’d find myself at an angle where I couldn’t get any light down to my feet, and instead of picking out the next foothold I just had to kick at the rock face until something stuck. Everything takes just a little bit longer, and all that extra time left me running out of energy on the wall.

The most hair-raising moment came when I realized that I had veered quite a bit to the left of my route, meaning that if I were to lose my grip I’d end up falling back into my harness and swinging way back to the right, like a pendulum on a clock. This isn’t such a scary thing to experience in the daylight, but the dark meant I wouldn’t be able to see exactly what I was swinging toward.

That was the moment when the precariousness of the situation really set in. I could hear the faint sounds of the kids playing cricket in the lot below, and their distance reminded me of just how high I had climbed. It was disconcerting, and I asked to come down. I felt totally separated from my belayer, and my brain had trouble reconciling the absurdity of hanging off a cliff in the darkness.

I ended up going back for another session later in the week, and achieved better results. Once I had the gist of the route committed to memory, I was able to zone in on the right spots and focus on doing the moves properly without distraction. During that second session, with my head more in the game, I ran through that route just fine.

Climbing hasn’t really caught on as a sport yet in Pakistan. Ali tells me a story about the time he got pulled over by a cop who noticed his unusually large backpack and asked to see what was in it. At first, the police officer was suspicious because didn’t understand what climbing and mountaineering was, so he asked a couple of questions.

“But he just kept asking more and more questions,” Ali says with a laugh. So he stayed there on the side of the road while the cop eagerly learned about a sport he’d never heard of

“Climbing is still seen as just for kids,” says Ali. “People think of it more as an amusement park ride.”

Ali works at an artificial climbing wall in one of Islamabad’s wealthy housing developments, and almost everyone he watches go up the wall is a child or pre-teen who has convinced his or her parent to shell out a few cents for a one-time climb. There are a few other climbing walls in Islamabad, but no full-on climbing gyms like are prevalent in the Western world. There’s only enough real estate on the walls to allow for one or two “hard” routes, which leaves people who want to get serious about climbing competitively little opportunity to sharpen their skills.

The lack of infrastructure and training opportunities within Islamabad is unfortunate given how well suited the surrounding landscape is to outdoor sport climbing. Mountains are easily accessible—the trailhead that leads to the Margalla Hills is near the center of the city, and after 20 minutes of hiking, you’re already at the cliff—and Pakistan is home to some of the tallest mountains in the world.

Historically, the people who have taken advantage of these conditions are foreigners and expats. In fact, most of the sport routes in Islamabad were established and bolted by expat climbers who noticed how much potential the city holds. Though many Pakistani sport climbers are just as skilled as their western counterparts, few if any have the technical skills to find new routes on the rock and bolt them up.

Ali’s dream is to work abroad in Europe’s climbing industry, where he can acquire the know-how to come back and further develop the outdoor route system himself.

Despite the historic roadblocks, Aslam foresees a bright future for sport climbing in Pakistan. He’s noticed increased participation in training sessions that he holds as a member of the Alpine Club of Pakistan. “It’s my perception that within 5-10 years, climbing will be on a much higher level in Pakistan,” he says. “It’s getting familiar to people. Social media is also playing an important role—people can see pictures, events, training sessions.”

There’s space in the sport for women as well, which is not always the case in a country like Pakistan. It was only last month that Shahid Afridi, former captain of the country’s national cricket team, said he doesn’t allow his daughters to play public sports. In a country where cricket is by far the most popular sport, his statement was as harmful as it would have been if David Beckham had come out and said that soccer is a man’s sport.

But the nature of climbing, and the flexibility and weight-to-power ratio required to be a top-level performer, means that women can often climb at the same level as men. One of Pakistan’s most famous mountaineers is Samina Baig, who was one of the youngest Muslim women to climb the tallest peak in every continent at the age of just 21.

Back in Islamabad, most regular climbers are focussed on developing the sport. There are regular intro sessions throughout the year, and climbers hope that a larger community will lead to more outdoor routes and an eventual gym. Most newcomers still just come once or twice for the novelty of the sport, but every now and then a new climber sticks around within the community.

If there’s one thing that gives people like Ali and Aslam hope that sport climbing can find a place in the city’s culture, it’s the strength of that burgeoning community. When people spend enough time hiking and climbing in the dark together, breaking and starting fast together, and chatting until sunrise, night climbing starts to feel like much more than just a way to exercise or keep one’s skills sharp.

After one particularly productive night at the crag, Ali and I went to a roadside restaurant along with a friend who joined us. Cars are expensive in Islamabad, so the three of us crammed onto Ali’s motorcycle. Over our 3:00 a.m. meal, we talked about Ali’s first time attempting a particularly hard route at night. His friend elicited tips on an intro to rock climbing course he’s planning on starting. I was glowing because I had just managed to conquer the route that had freaked me out during my first night on the mountain.

As the call to prayer marked the start of our fast, we finally parted ways. By that point, we had spent over five hours together—organizing, climbing, willing each other past scary sections on the rock face, and just generally getting to know each other. All together, the night was an ordeal—climbing always is—but it ended with us making plans for the next session.

Salmaan Farooqui is a Canadian journalist based in Islamabad, Pakistan. Follow him on Twitter @salmaanfarooqui.

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