His name was Qambar Ali. An avalanche thundered down Broad Peak, the world’s 12th highest mountain, on July 20, perhaps triggered by unseasonal summer snowfall.

It was followed days later by the news that a ‘Pakistani High Altitude Porter’ was missing, now presumed dead.

Among international climbers who suffered injuries ranging from mild to serious whose names were easy to find, Qambar Ali remained a relatively anonymous figure in the tragedy.

But he had a name ─ and was regarded by those who knew him as one of the most capable as well as kindest of the 6,000 or so auxiliary staff who make trekking possible in the Gilgit-Baltistan region, home to some of the most majestic peaks on the planet that attract the world’s best climbers every year.

“He made an impression on everyone at our camp,” said New Zealand climber Chris Burke to “Outside” magazine when speaking about the tragedy.

“Qambar was a great porter and a great human being who will be dearly missed by the community,” added Zahid Rajput, a high altitude guide and President of Khurpa Care Pakistan (KCP), a local NGO working for porter welfare.

While Qambar may have been lost to the mountains where he had earned his bread and supported his family for almost 10 years, the tourism industry cannot afford to overlook him or his colleagues who are the backbone of expeditions in the north.

Gentle giant

Porters, or ‘Khurpas’, as they are referred to in the local Balti language, make the celebrated achievements of renowned climbers possible by following an unimaginably strenuous way of life. However, they are at manifest disadvantage from lack of resources for suitable training and equipment.

Khurpas and their families suffer gravely in the absence of regular work, retirement cover, lack of health insurance and insufficient accidental death insurance.

They also find themselves unable to continue the demanding work (their only source of livelihood) when they enter in their forties. The result is devastating for the families.

Hailing from the village of Khanne, Qambar, 37, had helped countless teams reach Broad Peak and others, bearing their loads of up to 25kg along with his own for over a decade. But had never attempted himself due to lack of specialist equipment.

A gentle giant of a man, his unusual foot size of 12.5 inches (32 cm) meant special ‘summit shoes’ -- ultra-sturdy footwear that can cost hundreds of dollars -- were difficult to obtain.

The shoes had been arranged for this climbing season by High Altitude Sustainability Pakistan (HASP) through their porter welfare fund with support from KCP, allowing Qambar to attempt his first summit this year, a long-held goal.

While Qambar was ever diligent in his duties, he was also a humble and dignified man, whose humanity and kindness shone through everything he did.

Our paths last crossed weeks ago on the Baltoro glacier’s Urducas camp, where I was part of a clean-up crew bringing down the carcasses of pack animals.

Qambar, holding an umbrella and curiously dressed in a Western style shirt while a shalwar flapped around his enormous legs, spotted me from a mile away and we greeted each other as old friends.

When he noticed my sunburnt and peeling nose he offered to accompany me down with his umbrella to the next camp -- an arduous half-day’s trek away from his own crew, and another half-day back.

I insisted he go on with his mission, and as we parted ways, with our left hands placed on our hearts and our right hands shaking in the traditional Balti manner, he said he would pray for our safe return.

Qambar, however, never reached the summit he had dreamed of.

Disadvantaged community

“Death while on the job is an ever-present reality for Khurpas and incidents like these remind you that portering is a dangerous profession where causalities are a way of life,” said Rajput, the guide.

Hailing from the village of Khanne, Qambar, 37, had helped countless teams reach Broad Peak and others, bearing their loads of up to 25kg along with his own for over a decade. But had never attempted himself due to lack of specialist equipment.

In spite of this, communities in villages traditionally associated with climbing (like Askoli, Hushe and Shimshal) continue to depend on portering for their livelihood.

Men like Qambar have not only been making technical tourism in Pakistan possible for decades, they are also often the sole breadwinners for families mostly engaged in subsistence farming.

In case of accidental death while performing their duties they are covered for a meager amount of about Rs200,000 which often takes months or in some cases years to reach the dependents of the deceased.

Qambar leaves behind his wife, his six-year-old daughter and an elderly mother who will require assistance following this tragedy.

It is imperative to recognise the heart and sacrifice it takes from men like Qambar to keep this tradition alive, as it faces increasing competition from Nepalese porters brought in to assist Western climbers.

Many local and international organisations are currently engaged in supporting mountain communities in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Khurpa Care Pakistan has been providing training and equipment to the porter community since 2005.

Private funds like High Altitude Sustainability are engaged in developing solutions for income support and sustainable tourism.

Issues are also being discussed on an international scale by organisations like The International Porter Protection Group (IPPG) and Porter-Progress UK (PPUK), including the dire need for collective bargaining so Khurpas can receive a livable wage from the few summer months that make up climbing season.

But without a more coordinated effort to provide the training, equipment and support needed by this unique community in Pakistan, more and more residents will opt out of this line of work and, instead, seek other avenues for livelihood, according to dozens of residents spoken to on the topic over two years of field work in the region.

Porters have toiled anonymously in the background, carrying the loads of fabled foreign climbers from the golden age of climbing in the fifties till today. Now it is time to carry theirs.

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2015

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