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God on a mountain

January 12, 2014

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Walk the line: mountaineers and porters trekking across a glacier. - Photo by Nadir Toosy
Walk the line: mountaineers and porters trekking across a glacier. - Photo by Nadir Toosy
Snow-clad peaks in the starry, starry night. - Photo by Nadir Toosy
Snow-clad peaks in the starry, starry night. - Photo by Nadir Toosy
Ties to his comrades, a mountaineer stabs the ice with his pick. - Photo by Nadir Toosy
Ties to his comrades, a mountaineer stabs the ice with his pick. - Photo by Nadir Toosy

Nazir Sabir, Pakistan’s foremost mountaineer and the first Pakistani Everest summiteer, says as a young man he was driven by the desire to climb peaks to see what lay on the far side. Shahid Zaidi, first-class rock climber, mountaineer and unmatchable mountainscape photographer climbed for the joy of it, for the feeling of freedom on a rock face or atop a summit. Elsewhere, someone is believed to have said they climbed the mountain ‘because it was there’.

High, snow-draped peaks are the ultimate wilderness of the world. To enter their realm is to know the true anxiety-making adventure. On those pristine white slopes where the climber is alone against the elements, he is a hair’s breadth from life-threatening perils. There a false step that can send him plummeting thousands of metres is not the only danger; the piles of avalanche-ready snow and ice are an equal and endless dread. The unseen crevasse, deceitfully lying in wait under its thin cover is the killer; and the unpredictable and sudden wind, sleet and snow, a very real threat.

To experience that gnawing uncertainty that lasts and lasts is to live life as few can. To experience that dark dread that eats into your soul is to live even as one learns of one’s own place in the grand scheme of things; and this discovery of self comes in double quick time. It is however not a realisation of one’s grandness, of being the centre of the universe; it is recognition of being an insignificant speck in the magnificent canvas of Nature.

I suspect that women and men who set out into the great wilds do not do so to unravel their own selves. That is merely a by-product of the great exercise. They set out to seek a god they believe in as an instinct. In our own subcontinental culture we know that the seeker of God, no matter which faith he adheres to, roams the wilderness in his quest. He climbs mountains and there on the summits he hopes to discover his creator. He treks also barren deserts and near the rare spring he builds a home for his deity.

In Pakistan there are at least four peaks that have long been revered as the abode of the god/dess of fertility. Musa ka Musalla (4,055 metres) in Kaghan, Sikaram (4,761m) in Parachinar, Preghal (3,515m) in South Waziristan and Takht-i-Suleman (3,447m) also in South Waziristan, were in a very distant past, all sacred to the Mother Goddess where Muslims still go with their animal offerings to pray for sons. The deities they worship take the name of mostly fictitious saints as we see Dharti Ma metamorphosing into Channan Pir in Cholistan Desert, near Bahawalpur.

These were holy sites before the speakers of Aryan tongues came, when the aboriginal people of this land worshipped the Mother Goddess who gave their fields and their women the power to bring forth produce and offspring. The Aryans, themselves believers of similar deities, embraced the ancient gods and the high peaks and remote desert oases remained favoured resorts. They do to this day, though now the believers have given the worshipful icon Arabic names. In a word, the mountaineer seeks the fulfilment of primordial pietas of discovering a personal god.

That was one aspect of the ‘Outward Bound’ traveller. That was the past. In the post-Industrial Revolution period with European gods discovered and dissected, wilderness travels were personal journeys of geographical knowledge hitherto unknown to be passed on to the educated world. As well as that, they were journeys of self-discovery and realisation. The work brought renown to the traveller and writer.

Men and women — for who can forget Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839) and Isabella Bird (1831-1904), to name only two — ranged far and wide and the more perilous and intellectually rewarding the journey, the more worthwhile they deemed it. Adventurers became obsessed, driven. The journey was as much for renown as it was to discover and learn.

In Pakistan there are two categories of adventurers. The first, the dilettante, is the ‘been there, done that’ breed. They travel to be able to say they have ‘done’ so many hard adventures. Unfortunately, this kind is spurred on by Urdu travel writing that paints the writer as the archetypal hero who is always the ‘first Pakistani’ to get anywhere, even if it is Lahore’s Simla Hill. The aim of these people is not to learn: they come unread and they leave without gaining anything in terms of knowledge of any kind. Their only triumph is the ‘done that’ claim.

There is the other that reads before travelling. He is driven by the desire to see what others saw before him; he undertakes the hardest journeys to discover himself as much as his world. But such a traveller is an oddity in Pakistan. In fact, there cannot be more than a handful of such persons.

Whatever the case, whether it is the dilettante for whom the journey is another chip on the shoulder, or the serious traveller duplicating Ibn Batuta, travellers are all driven. Each driven by a different motive. Only their obsessive madness, difficult to fathom and explain, is similar.