Home Story Swat Valley Ski School
Feature type Story
Read time 15 mins
Published Feb 23, 2023
Author Tom Grant
Photographer Aaron Rolph
Encased in the mountains of northwest Pakistan, cut-off from technological and social advances due to its geographical isolation, the Swat Valley has always been a conservative region. In 2007 more than 2000 people were killed as the Taliban swept in to take violent control over the region. There were public executions for men who shaved and for women dancing as their interpretation of Sharia law was enforced. The military fought for more than two years in the Swat Valley, which saw an estimated 1.5 million residents flee, before eventually regaining control in 2009. While peace returned to Swat and a far more progressive culture followed, violence in the former Taliban stronghold never feels too far away. In 2012, educational activist Malala Yousafzai was shot on a public bus by Taliban gunmen and even as recently as late 2022, as the region struggled back to its feet after devastating flooding, the return of Taliban fighters in the region serve as reminder that life here remains cruel and unpredictable.
In June 2022, a pioneering expedition team set out to make the first ski descent of Falak Sar, the tallest peak in the district at almost 6000m. Here, Tom Grant recounts the friendships formed spending a day on skis with the local expedition support crew.
The day started off frustratingly similar to those that came before it. Standing on a moraine wall a couple hundred metres above our base camp, I looked up towards the towering hulk of Falak Sar, our ski objective, nearly 2,000m above us. High winds whipped across its north ridge, blowing plumes of snow into the air. Fast moving clouds raced in and out, one moment clear and sunny and minutes later whirling with snow. Another morning and evening would be spent glued to the inReach while the schizophrenic weather patterns had us waiting and second guessing its plans.
Today would be different though. I took my gaze off Falak Sar and watched while our team of Pakistanis donned our ski boots and ski mountaineering skis. There was Ahmad, our local guide, Sattar, our amiable police escort, Zaheer our talismanic head cook and his assistant Nazir. Ahmad had been involved in a successful Pakistani mountaineering expedition to the summit of Falak Sar in 2020. Sattar was an old friend of his and he took it upon himself to hike up to base camp carrying barely anything save his trusty kalashnikov rifle, which was practically an extension of his own being anyway. Clearly, the local police weren’t completely relaxed about our security.
Our ski expedition team of five had decided it would be an enjoyable experience for everyone to introduce skiing to our Pakistani team members. Our Chamonix-based team consisted of Bine, an ex-professional Slovenian freestyle skier turned ski mountaineer, Aaron Rolph, a British photographer and skier with a real appetite for adventure, Juliette Willmann, a young French freeride star, and Beth Healey, a British expat doctor with multiple Arctic expeditions under her belt.
We were in the most extreme upper reaches of the Swat Valley, Pakistan, an area which, to the best of our knowledge, had never seen a ski mountaineering expedition. The landscape here is rugged but lush, branded as the ‘Switzerland of Pakistan’. These mountains are part of the vast Hindu Kush, where although not as high as the Karakorum or the Greater Himalaya, the range hosts endless virgin peaks. During the takeover of the region by the Pakistani Taliban and the fighting that ensued as the authorities sought to regain control, refugees sheltered at the end of this valley; the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) tents still stand but are now used as cafes for Pakistani tourists.
Ahmad and Sattar were ethnic Pashtuns from the local area, Nazir and Zaheer were Shia Baltis from Baltistan and professional expedition cooks. Sattar and Ahmad were Wahhabi Sunnis, meaning that on paper they aligned with the least tolerant form of Islam, yet they were open-minded and accepting of all of us, the two women in our group, Beth and Juliette, included. Both the Shia and Sunni contingent of our group seemed to share a jovial time in basecamp. If only it was that easy everywhere.
While not famous for its skiing, in 2007 the Swat Valley did gain international notoriety following the takeover of the Pakistani Taliban
Although women in this part of rural Pakistan have a completely different role in society and are treated very differently than in the West, Beth and Juliette were shown respect, even if at times they weren’t spoken to directly or eye contact was avoided. We all had a good bond and mutual respect between our eclectic team of nine.
Bine and Juliette, both ski instructors in the Alps, took the lead in getting the three Pakistani men to find their balance and start sliding around on the skis they’d borrowed from us. The slope above the moraine was as forgiving as any we could find, the snow firm but slightly softened on top. None of them had tried skiing in any form and Ahmad and Sattar had neither held nor seen skis in their lives. They were more than game for it though. As Juliette guided Ahmad through making his first snow plough turns, I considered the fact that having a French woman teaching him to ski must have been an entirely alien experience.
Nonetheless, Ahmad and the others loved it and quickly found their balance. Sattar clipped into my bindings with the modified touring boots and was soon, with a determined glint in his eye, managing to haphazardly zig-zag between rocks. Veterans of fighting the Taliban a few years previously, Ahmad and Sattar were whooping with joy. After a few awkward crashes, any concerns that one of them would snap an ACL were soon ameliorated. They were natural athletes, impressively agile and flexible; getting to grips with the basics faster than we could have imagined. Being able to witness their enthusiasm and natural curiosity for skiing bonded us as a team.
He took it upon himself to hike up carrying barely anything but his trusty kalashnikov rifle, which was practically an extension of his own being
We had travelled to the end of the Swat Valley looking for adventure and new experiences. The north face of Falak Sar was our main goal, an enticing 1000m steep ski line on the highest peak in the region which had only been submitted twice from what we could tell. While not famous for its skiing, in 2007 the Swat Valley did gain international notoriety. This is where Pakistan’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head in 2012, when as a schoolgirl she defied the Taliban. Although the security situation in Swat is now stable, the region has seen virtually no foreign tourists of any kind for years.
After waiting out more uncertain days at basecamp, we finally got a solid two-day weather window. Bine, Aaron, and I set off with heavily laden packs on our summit push. Pitching our tent at 5,000m, we still hadn’t even laid eyes on our prize ski line. Getting Aaron’s drone airborne, we were able to scout the north side without having to climb higher ourselves. It looked incredible. In the bitterly cold predawn air, we began our ascent of the north ridge the following morning, breaking trail up beautiful and exposed 45-degree slopes until we hit black ice. Still, progressing steadily, we pushed through the altitude-induced pain to the final slopes guarding the summit.
It soon became clear though, that our plan wasn’t going to pan out as we’d hoped. Our aim had been to drop into the north face via a traverse of the summit ridge, therefore bypassing the monstrous cornices that guarded the very top of the north face. But now, as we stood on the top of the peak, we could see that more cornices also guarded our passage around the back of the summit. Having surveyed Google Earth months before, our expectations of the terrain didn’t match the reality now we were faced with the facts.
We tagged the summit, and clipped into our skis. Our objective now shifted from a dream of shredding the north face to ensuring we all could get down safely via the only other way we could: our line of ascent. The first section involved putting in turns on 50-degree plus slopes above big exposure. The snow was grippy which was reassuring but it kept us on our toes. Multiple v-threads were needed to get over the icy portion of the ridge.
Finally, we were treated to some spectacular turns on the NW facing ridge. As the sun descended through the sky, the entire Hindu Kush range lay before us, stretching to the horizon. Our team was soon happily reunited on the same moraine above camp, and Sattar fired his gun into the air in celebration.
We didn’t get another weather window for the north face of Falak Sar. And while the region sheds the dark past of the Taliban from its skin, arms open to the prospect of tourism and the much needed injection of revenue it would bring, sadly it’ll be some time before this region of northern Pakistan welcomes visitors.
Since our return, the Swat Valley has been devastated by the worst floods the region has endured in living memory – roads, houses, hotels along the Swat River, all swept away. Despite contributing to less than 1% of global greenhouse emissions, Pakistan is paying a heavy price for climate change and the Swat Valley in particular is increasingly susceptible to such catastrophes. Insha’Allah, this amazing region will get back on its feet.
For the most up to date advice for travelling in Pakistan, head to the FCO where you’ll find all the latest information.
This story first appeared in issue 09 of BASE magazine. To make sure you’re the first to read every story – you can subscribe for FREE here.
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