Pakistan Taliban Kill Mountain Climbers in Himalayas

07/25/2013 04:44 pm ET | Updated Sep 24, 2013

When the Taliban killed 10 mountain climbers in northern Pakistan June 22, it was a special source of pain and tragedy.

For a journalist to get something wrong is always a source of discomfort and humiliation.

But to predict that death would stalk the epic heights of northern Pakistan's Himalayan peaks, and then see it come true, gives me no satisfaction.

I would rather have been wrong.

On that Saturday about a dozen Taliban killers dressed in police uniforms, entered the tents where the climbers slept at about 14,000 feet altitude, preparing to climb the 27,000 foot Nanga Parbat in Gilgit-Baltistan.

They forced climbers from the United States, Ukraine, China, Slovakia, Lithuania, Nepal and Pakistan to kneel before shooting each one in the head. A Taliban spokesman said it was the start of revenge killings for the U.S.-drone attack that killed their deputy leader Waliur Rehman in May.

Many months earlier I had predicted that the Taliban would begin targeting hikers, climbers and tourists. I wrote that the snowy peaks 25,000 to 27,000 feet tall of Pakistan -- Trich Mir, K2 and Nanga Parbat -- no longer are safe to outsiders.

Since I covered the Soviet-Afghan War in the 1980s, I had seen the red tide of blood spread across Peshawar's dusty ancient markets and the Tribal Areas along the Afghan border.

Death then rode deeper into the mountains to the gentle Swat Valley where I had found in the 1970s fruit, flowers, babbling brooks and the dignified Wali, hereditary ruler before the Islamabad government installed federal rule. About four years ago the valley was convulsed with bloodshed as the Pakistan Army had to tackle the extremists chopping hands and heads for their idea of God.

Back in 1972, before the terror spread, I'd ridden the tiny propeller plane from Peshawar north through the mountain passes to Chitral. From Chitral I'd walked more than 150 miles along the Trich Valley onto the mighty glacier inching its way down from a 25,000 foot peak.

In every village and shepherd hut along the way we were greeted with hospitable people ready to share their bread and meat stew, and to let us sleep on a carpet inside their homes.
On the mountain trails, danger came not from armed fanatics but from slipping on a tongue of ice or loose gravel as we skirted the steep ledges ending in a 3,000 foot drop into the boiling Trich River.

But all that is now passing out of reach.

A few months ago I met a Pakistani military officer attached to his embassy in Washington. We shared (as old trekkers and climbers are wont to do) tales of our adventures in the Pakistani Himalayas and Hindu Kush.

And we both agreed it is no longer safe for either of us to go to these places any more. The Taliban will as soon kill a Pakistani military officer as a foreign tourist.

Why is it that these dissatisfied religious zealots, insisting everyone toe their line or be killed, lay claim to some of the most iconic places on this planet?

  • In Bamian, Afghanistan, they blew up two giant stone Buddhas some 1,500 years old.
  • In Iraq they blew up ancient Shiite mosques.
  • In Timbuktu, Mali they smashed 500-year-old tombs of Sufi Muslim saints.
  • And along with despoiling the man made treasures of the world, they have put out of reach the natural icons of the planet such as the Sahara Desert and the Himalayas.

They kill all who would oppose or even try to reason with them.

Reporters, aid workers, diplomats and others still visit their newly forbidden zones, often accompanied by security guards and armored vehicles.

But for those of us without such protection and unable to afford it, much of the natural wonders of the world are becoming off limits.

Recently, I was able to return to visit the Himalayas, walking once more without fear from village to village. But it was in Nepal, on the path leading to the Mt. Everest Base Camp.

Just like the 1970s when I first trekked in Nepal and Pakistan, Nepalese and foreigners share the trails with the Yaks and there is no hostility or danger other than the rigors of the hike and the step terrain. Even when Maoist rebels stalked Nepal in recent years, they left the tourists and climbers alone, realizing that we had nothing to do with their domestic political problems.

It was a breath of humanism in an otherwise ever more brutal world.