With limited opportunities, the men of Askole have found some sustenance in working as porters., Unlike their peers, the Sherpas from Nepal or close to home the high altitude porters from the Sadpara town, Skardu, who are more urbane and better able to market their services and negotiate good deals, the porters of Askole get the short end.
As evening sets in, the porters begin setting up their makeshift shelters on the fringes of campsites. Their meals are cooked separately and often consist of thick roti and some sweet tea and if they are ‘lucky’, some leftovers from the expedition dinner. With just a plastic sheet on their heads incase rain comes, they huddle together for warmth, sharing tales while passing around dope and naswaar. For them, each expedition means ‘some sustenance’.
Most porters begin young, in their teens, with their ability to adapt to higher altitudes better making them a viable part of any expedition. The saddest are the older ones, who despite their advanced age are competing with younger men to get the attention of the porter sardar, so that they have enough money to pass through the cruel winters.
Sadly, with the Nanga Parbat massacre in June this year, things don’t look too well for this little town and its porters. In their carefully worded chatter, they lay the blame on the Kohistanis and Chilasis while venting their frustrations about the lack of financial options for them. ‘Sleeping hungry, unable to get warm clothes and medicine for their children’ is their nightmarish reality and there seems to be no way out.
With a wage that is barely around 100 dollars per trip and requires them to carry loads weighing around 25kg (plus personal stuff), the porters of Askole risk their lives to make the dreams of hundreds of adventurers true each summer, with barely any acknowledgment or a word of thanks.
“It begins with small steps and small loads. The first time its maybe 10kg on your back. You take a break every few hundred feet, lungs burning, calves aching, but in a day or so you get used to it. Then eventually a 30kg load on your back doesn’t matter. All you care about is getting the cash and some good tips and hopefully a job during winter at a fast food joint in Karachi,” summed up a porter.
Long after a climb is done, Askole becomes a bittersweet memory and rarely features in the annals of self glorification that many an adventurer pens down. Despite not getting its due share, Askole will always be the gateway to glory, with its fair share of fallen heroes and broken dreams.