Pak­istani porters: the un­rec­og­nized he­roes

Shanghai Daily - - SPORTS FEATURE - Go­har Ab­bas

He is the only man ever to have scaled K2 three times, but Fazal Ali’s achieve­ments have gone largely un­rec­og­nized, like those of many of his fel­low porters who risk life and limb on Pak­istan’s high­est peaks.

As one of the few elite porters in the coun­try spe­cial­iz­ing in high-al­ti­tude ex­pe­di­tions, the 40-year-old has spent nearly two decades on Pak­istan’s dead­li­est slopes — plot­ting routes, lug­ging kit and cook­ing for pay­ing clients.

At 8,611 me­ters, K2 is not quite as high as Mount Ever­est, which stands at 8,848 me­ters.

But its tech­ni­cal chal­lenges have earned it the nick­name “the Sav­age Moun­tain,” and dozens have lost their lives on its treach­er­ous, icy flanks.

Ali con­quered K2 in 2014, 2017 and 2018 — all with­out ad­di­tional oxy­gen.

“He is the only climber with this achieve­ment,” said Eber­hard Jur­gal­ski from Guin­ness World Records.

While for­eign climbers have won plau­dits for their feats, Ali and his col­leagues are over­looked, even among the moun­taineer­ing com­mu­nity.

“I am happy,” Ali said. “But I am also heart­bro­ken be­cause my feat will never be truly ap­pre­ci­ated.”

He is one of many high-al­ti­tude porters who work on for­eign ex­pe­di­tions to north­ern Pak­istan, a re­mote re­gion that is home to three of the high­est moun­tain ranges in the world, the Hi­malayas, the Karako­ram and the Hindu Kush.

Cho­sen for their en­durance and knowl­edge of the ex­tremely dif­fi­cult ter­rain, the porters trace the route for climbers and fix ropes for their as­cent.

They also carry food and sup­plies on their backs and pitch their clients’ tents.

How­ever, once the moun­taineers re­turn home, the porters — in­dis­pens­able dur­ing ex­pe­di­tions — of­ten feel for­got­ten.

“When they ar­rive, they are full of good­will, they make many prom­ises,” Ali said. “But once they’ve achieved their goals, they for­get ev­ery­thing.”

One in­ci­dent in par­tic­u­lar left Ali with a bit­ter taste in his mouth: He ar­rived at the sum­mit of K2 with a West­ern moun­taineer, but in­stead of tak­ing a pic­ture to­gether, she posed alone with a flag in her hand. “She or­dered us to take a pic­ture and stay at a dis­tance,” he said, adding the episode led to a dis­pute be­tween the climber and a Nepali porter who was also there.

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Ali, like many Pak­istani high-al­ti­tude porters, was born in the re­mote Shimshal Val­ley in the coun­try’s north, near the Chi­nese bor­der.

Home to just 140 fam­i­lies, Ali’s vil­lage has pro­duced many of the coun­try’s great­est moun­taineers, in­clud­ing Ra­jab Shah, the first Pak­istani to scale all five 8,000-me­ter peaks in the coun­try.

Rehmat­ul­lah Baig, who con­quered K2 in 2014 while tak­ing vi­tal ge­o­graph­i­cal mea­sure­ments and in­stalling a weather sta­tion, also hails from Shimshal and shares Ali’s re­sent­ment.

“I should be happy, but I’m not,” he said. “If I were rec­og­nized, if the moun­taineers from... Pak­istan were rec­og­nized, or if they en­joyed a bit of recog­ni­tion or fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance, they would climb all the 8,000-me­ter peaks of the world.”

Baig’s fa­ther was the first from Shimshal to pur­sue the deadly pur­suit of moun­taineer­ing, but he now tells his chil­dren not to fol­low in his foot­steps.

A ma­jor source of re­sent­ment among Ali and his col­leagues is their be­lief that they are treated worse than their Nepali coun­ter­parts.

In the event of an ac­ci­dent, Pak­istani porters are rarely en­ti­tled to he­li­copter res­cues by their em­ploy­ers.

In Nepal, lo­cal guides are el­i­gi­ble for ap­prox­i­mately US$12,700 in life in­surance from the gov­ern­ment, af­ter moun­tain work­ers suc­cess­fully lob­bied for an in­crease fol­low­ing an avalanche in 2014 that killed 16 Sher­pas on Mount Ever­est.

High-al­ti­tude porters in Pak­istan mean­while are lucky to get life in­surance policies worth US$1,500, ac­cord­ing to the Alpine Club of Pak­istan.

Moun­taineer­ing ex­perts agree there is a dis­par­ity and be­lieve the Pak­istani work­ers should be bet­ter trained and sup­ported by the gov­ern­ment.

Ger­man moun­taineer Chris­tiane Fladt, who wrote a book on Shimshal, says the Pak­istani porters “should or­ga­nize them­selves in a union in or­der to put stress on their fi­nan­cial de­mands.”

In 2008, two Shimshal porters were among 11 peo­ple who died on the same day in the worst dis­as­ter to hit K2.

One of them, Fazal Karim,

fell along­side the French moun­taineer Hugues d’Aubarede as they de­scended from the sum­mit. Karim’s body was never found.

His widow, Haji Parveen, said she tried her best to dis­suade him from go­ing on an ex­pe­di­tion.

“I told him, ‘We have a good life here and we have enough to live,’ but he did not lis­ten to me,” she said softly.

Karim was a skilled worker, owner of a sawmill in the vil­lage, where he had also opened a shop for his wife. Af­ter his dis­ap­pear­ance, his widow had to sell the mill to fi­nance the ed­u­ca­tion of their chil­dren.

Ac­cord­ing to Parveen, nei­ther the ex­pe­di­tion com­pany nor the for­eign moun­taineers on the trip gave her any as­sis­tance. Now her el­dest, who is study­ing in Karachi, wants to be­come a porter like his fa­ther. “He talks about it every time he comes home and says he wants to be like his fa­ther. But we scold him be­cause we hate the moun­tain: It’s use­less, noth­ing at all.”

A Pak­istani vil­lager car­ries grass for an­i­mals in Shimshal vil­lage, also known as Pak­istan’s val­ley of moun­taineers, in Pak­istan’s north­ern Hunza Val­ley. — AFP

Rehmat Ul­lah Baig, a Pak­istani moun­taineer who climbed and mea­sured K2 in 2014, shows a photo al­bum at his home in Shimshal vil­lage of Hunza Val­ley. — AFP

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