Naila Kiani: Trailblazing Pakistani mountaineer sets sights on even greater heights
Naila Kiani: Trailblazing Pakistani mountaineer sets sights on even greater heights
Anadolu Agency

KARACHI: Naila Kiani exudes confidence, the kind that only comes at the dizzying heights of success she has – quite literally – reached.

She is the only woman in Pakistan to have summited 11 of the world’s 14 mountains higher than 8,000 meters (over 26,240 feet), and only the third Pakistani who has managed to do it.

Kiani is also the fastest among both men and women to achieve the feat, as her mountaineering career began just three years ago, and she has no plans to slow down.

In an interview with Anadolu, she explained how this record-studded journey “began with an adventure.”

That adventure was Kiani’s wedding photo shoot at the K2 base camp in 2018, which went viral and shot her to social media prominence.

The local mountaineers and porters, who helped arrange the entire thing, became her inspiration to enter the world of mountaineering.

“I had no idea growing up that I would be a climber one day … It all began with an adventure, which later turned into a passion,” she said.

Three years later, Kiani had scaled her first peak above 8,000 meters, Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters or 26,361 feet) in the northern Gilgit-Baltistan region.

On that expedition she met Ali Raza Sadpara, an icon in the mountaineering community, whom she considers a mentor.

Sadpara, who ascended all five peaks in Pakistan that are above 8,000 meters a record 17 times, died in May 2022 at the age of 56 during preparations for a climb at K2.

“It was Ali Raza Sadpara who turned me into a professional climber,” she said.

Kiani also credits her husband for her success.

“This was not possible without his support. He was the one who supported and encouraged me when I decided to make my first climb,” she said.

“We both thought it (Gasherbrum II ascent) would be the first and the last attempt … but it simply turned out to be a beginning.”

‘So many challenges’

Many professional climbers start off their careers with relatively easier targets and at a much younger age than Kiani.

She, however, took a different path in both respects, going for the daunting Gasherbrum II when she was on maternity leave after having her second daughter.

Born in Pakistan’s northeastern garrison city of Rawalpindi, Kiani studied aerospace engineering at Queen Mary University London, but later drifted toward the banking sector.

She was a senior vice-president of an international bank in Dubai before ditching the corporate world to become a professional mountaineer.

In sports, boxing was her first love.

“I was an amateur boxer and I used to compete,” she said, explaining that the spirit of competition gave her a pivotal push in mountaineering as well.

“That, combined with meeting the climbers on my first trek to the K2 base camp in 2018 and seeing their commitment, inspired me to experience it for myself.”

When she started off, Kiani said her only aim was to “experience climbing a mountain with elite mountaineers.”

“I wanted to feel what the body and mind goes through when you are climbing these high mountains,” she said.

“It’s really hard, especially for women. When people look at me, they see I’m small and I’m quite petite, so if I can do it, that means it’s easy. That’s not the case.”

The entire excursion, from beginning to end, is full of obstacles, she said.

“I would say mountaineering can be about life and death sometimes. We overcome so many challenges before going on the expedition and during the expedition,” said Kiani.

Kiani and Samina Baig are the only two Pakistani women to summit the world’s tallest peaks – Mt. Everest and K2.

For women climbers, there is another particular set of challenges, she said.

“Climbing as a woman is even harder because there are not many women who climb, and it’s not easy to learn how to prepare yourself or about whatever challenges we may face as a woman,” she said.

“Lastly, we go through our monthly cycles and it’s even harder going through those hormonal changes while climbing.”

From 2021 until now, Kiani has conquered 11 towering peaks: Mt. Everest (8,849 meters or 29,029 feet), K2 (8,611 meters or 28,251 feet), Lhotse (8,516 meters or 27,939 feet), Makalu (8,485 meters or 27,838 feet), Cho Oyu (8,201 meters or 26,906 feet), Manaslu (8,156 meters or 26,758 feet), Nanga Parbat (8,125 meters or 26,656 feet), Annapurna (8,091 meters or 26,545 feet), Gasherbrum I (8,068 meters or 26,469 feet), Broad Peak (8,047 meters or 26,400 feet), and Gasherbrum II (8,035 meters or 26,361 feet).

Kiani is now only behind fellow Pakistanis Sirbaz Khan and Shehroze Kashif, who have ascended 13 of the world’s 14 highest mountains.

The only peaks she is yet to scale are Kanchenjunga, the third-tallest mountain at 8,586 meters or 28,169 feet; Dhaulagiri, the seventh-highest at 8,167 meters or 26,795 feet; and Shishapangma, the 14th-highest at 8,027 meters or 26,335 feet.

“My aim is to complete all 14 peaks, and I’m planning to do it by next year,” said Kiani, the only female athlete to receive Pakistan’s highest civilian honor, Sitara-i-Imtiaz.

What Kiani has achieved in the field of mountaineering goes beyond the personal, according to Karrar Haidri, secretary of the Alpine Club of Pakistan, the country’s official mountaineering association.

“Her phenomenal achievements make her an inspiration to the younger generation … and will also be instrumental in bringing more women into the field of mountaineering,” he told Anadolu.