Canadian women execute Czech start with a Canadian 'pinish'

Submitted Photo

Canmore climbers Jen Olson, left, and Lilla Molnar share smiles atop their new route on the mountain Brak Zang in Pakistan's remote Nangmah Valley.

By Lynn Martel

As soon as their plane landed in Islamabad, Pakistan on Sept. 12, Lilla Molnar and Jen Olson prepared themselves for an adventure.

Ever since winning the prestigious 2006 John Lauchlan Award a year ago, the two had planned their dream trip - climbing a new route in Pakistan's Karakoram mountains on a 6,000-metre granite spire called Bublimating, or Ladyfinger.

Disembarking with their passports - both carrying Association of Canadian Mountains Guides certification and with years of climbing experience earned in Alaska, Peru, the French Alps and the big walls of Utah's Zion National Park - they carefully wrapped scarves around their blond heads and joined the designated "Women and Children" line.

Aware of the region's troubled political situation, Molnar said they felt relatively secure when they were met at the airport by Ghulam, owner of Blue Sky Tours, which came highly recommend by friends who had climbed in the region. The following day they flew by small plane to Gilgit, then boarded a "decent" Toyota mini-bus with their good-humoured guide/cook Imran for a five-hour stomach-churning ride to Karimabad along the notorious Karakoram Highway.

"Before we left, we were definitely concerned about politics and the overall state of the country," Molnar said. "But knowing we'd have a local looking out for us was a huge help, and a huge benefit for our safety. We specifically asked for Imran, everyone said he'd been very helpful on their trips. He took care of hotel and travel logistics, and he arranged the porters for us."

Trekking through the Ultar Meadows in the Batura Muztagh range, they stopped to set up a base camp from which to launch their Ladyfinger climb. Hiking higher, they had a good look at the glacier beneath Ladyfinger and quickly abandoned their objective.

"We had a pretty good look at the approach, and we decided not to follow through with our route," Molnar said. "We were definitely worried about rockfall, and also because we would have to shuttle our own gear, which meant too many trips with too much exposure."

Following Imran's local knowledge, they backtracked to Gilghit and followed the raging Indus River by mini bus to Skardu, their sights set on the Husche Valley, starting point for the Nangmah Valley. Their knees scrunched around their ears, they bounced and rattled up the Husche Valley and stopped in the village of Khane, where to their complete surprise, Imran hosted the women in his home - constructed of mud and plaster with a squat toilet, small garden and grass roof.

"He had six kids and another 80 members of his extended family in Khane village," Molnar recalled. "It was a really neat experience. His family greeted us and treated us to wonderful meals and tours of the village with amazing views of Masherbrum."

Stopping in the last village before the Nangmah Valley, at the "K6 Hotel" guesthouse, they found an informal sign-in book in which Czech climbers had drawn information about a route they had started on a mountain named Brak Zang. Unable to finish it, they encouraged others to try. Coupled with information gleaned through a 20-minute Internet session in Karimabad, the climbers had a new objective.

With 20 porters carrying their five 15-kilogram duffle bags loaded with a catalogue's worth of gear, they made their way up the Nangmah Valley, lush with deciduous trees showing fall colours of reds oranges and yellows.

"We had everything we needed for aid, for rock, for ice," Molnar laughed. "We were really going for a rock climb, but we still had two pairs of crampons each."

Unable to find any detailed topo maps, they set up a base camp at 4,100 metres and scouted the area.

"With a hand-drawn map, we tried to piece together where we were," Molnar said. "It's difficult in Pakistan to get good, detailed topo maps. There were steep granite walls everywhere. It was really hard to get a grasp of how big things were, until you were standing on something you thought was really high, and looking around at other things that were twice as high.

"The Czechs described their route to be on a rock face with a huge hole in it. We set up our base camp and looked up, and oh, that looks like the hole the Czechs mentioned."

On their first day of climbing, the women reached the Czech's high point and carried on for three more pitches. Two days later, they climbed another three pitches, reaching the ridge at 4,800 metres in snow and descending via a route they'd scouted earlier.

"We topped out in about two inches of snow in rock shoes," Molnar said. "It was pretty much a whiteout at the ridge top. It was definitely more involved than we had anticipated because of the snow. Our day ended up being 17 hours."

By the time they returned to camp at 10 p.m., Imran had hiked down valley to hire porters for the trek out. The camp helper, Hussein, was sound asleep.

"He jumped out of his sleeping bag, and although he didn't speak much English, based on his body language he was relieved," Molnar said. "He seemed pretty happy. We were pretty happy too, we felt good that we'd finished it."

Thinking of Imran, they christened their route Czech Start Canadian Pinish.

"Imran would look at us after dinner and say, 'pinished?'" Molnar recalled. "We loved it, and we wanted to incorporate it into our route."

While it was an unusual scenario for two women to be climbing mountains on their own in remote Pakistan, Molnar said the locals were friendly and receptive.

"Several times we got asked how many were in our party, and we'd say just Jen and I," Molnar said. "We wore head scarves the whole time. In Islamabad we were told we'd be fine without headscarves, but we just felt more comfortable with it on."

Noticing the ring on her finger, people asked Molnar if hers was a love marriage or an arranged marriage. When Molnar asked Imran if his daughter would have a job outside of the home, his answer was definite - no. When asked if she had a husband yet he replied no, but announced he was looking.

"Overall, I thought people in Pakistan were very generous and very helpful," Molnar said. "In Khane, we really experienced the warm generosity of the Balti people."

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