“I have a less queasy feeling than when I book a seven-day hut tour in the Alps, knowing that I will meet different people every day,” Felix Berg, who I reach by phone in the small town of Karimabad in the Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan, tells me. The 39-year-old German professional mountaineer, working for the operator Summit Climb, leads the first foreign expedition team to Pakistan since the outbreak of the corona pandemic. The governments of the European Union continue to warn “against unnecessary tourist trips to Pakistan”. Berg considers this to be exaggerated and points out that Pakistan is no longer on the list of countries with an increased risk of infection in the non-EU country Switzerland.
Felix is accompanied by three German clients and the experienced Pakistani mountaineer Mirza Ali Baig. The four Germans were tested negative for the coronavirus before departure. The goal of the expedition is to scale “two mountains on the right side of the Shimshal Valley, about 6,000 meters high, which have not yet been climbed and do not yet have a name”, says Berg.
Like his sister Samina Baig, 37-year-old Mirza Ali has already scaled the Seven Summits, the highest mountains on all continents. Mirza, born in Shimshal and head of the Pakistani operator Karakorum Expeditions, organizes the porters and will also climb from the base camp.
Pakistan open for tourists again since 8 August
Actually, Felix Berg and his clients wanted to set out for the seven-thousander Khan Tengri this summer, but the corona situation in Kyrgyzstan did not allow it. Berg was looking for an alternative. “The main reason why we chose Pakistan was that it is even possible to travel here,” says Felix. “In addition, the situation on-site doesn’t look so bad. It’s a big country, and the north is very little affected by the pandemic.”
So far (as of 14 August), almost 290,000 corona infections have been recorded in Pakistan, more than 6,100 people have died from COVID-19. However, the number of new infections has recently fallen sharply – in contrast to the Himalayan state of Nepal, for example. The government of Pakistan had allowed tourists to enter the country again from 8 August.
“The local protection measures are good,” says expedition leader Berg. “At the airport in Islamabad, there was an immediate temperature scan. In restaurants, the waiter or waitress always wears a mask and has the hair covered. Most people here take things a bit more seriously than many people back home.” However, there are also some people in northern Pakistan who take the corona pandemic lightly and don’t wear masks, he says: “These people refer to any normal cough as corona and claim that everyone here has had it anyway.”
Life “in the bubble”
Word quickly got around that the first foreign mountaineers arrived in Karakoram this summer, Felix reports. But the Hunza Valley is not deserted: “Ten years ago there was hardly any local tourism here. But now richer people from Pakistan travel to the somewhat cooler north in summer and spend their holidays there. That’s why it’s not as empty here as one might imagine.”
Felix Berg and Co. have until the end of August to successfully complete their project in the Shimshal Valley. The expedition leader from Germany is not very worried about catching the coronavirus in the Karakoram. “We are five people here, living in our bubble, going to a mountain where no one else is,” says Felix. “Of course, there’s still a certain amount of risk. But I think it’s much less than the risk that many people take on their summer holidays in Europe.”
Update 20 August: According to their own account, Felix Berg and his team succeeded in the first ascent of a 5,770-meter-high, still nameless mountain in the Shimshal Valley.