Climb every mountain

Published April 17, 2016
Mohammad Ali Sadpara
Mohammad Ali Sadpara

A high-altitude porter and mountaineer, Sadpara holds the distinction of being the first Pakistani to have a winter summit of an 8,000m peak —the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat.

Earlier this year, on Feb 26, when the news of Nanga Parbat’s first winter ascent was flashed briefly in the Pakistani media, Sadpara’s name was mentioned along with Spain’s Alex Txikon and Italy’s Simone Moro. Their fourth team mate, Tamara Lunger, a Spanish female climber, was unable to reach the summit.

Sadpara is not a well-known name or face in Pakistan, but from delivering rations as a porter on Siachen to achieving one of the greatest feats in modern mountaineering, he has come a long way.

“Mountains demand passion. Aap ki dillagi hone chahiyee paharoon kay saath [your heart needs to be in love with the mountains],” says a beaming Mohammad Ali Sadpara when questioned about what it takes to become a mountaineer.

For the uninitiated, the eight-thousanders are 14 mountains which are more than 8,000m above sea level, with their summits in the ‘death zone’. All the 8,000m peaks are located in the Himalayas and Karakoram regions.

At 8,126m above sea level, the Nanga Parbat is the ninth highest mountain in the world. Often referred to as the ‘killer mountain’ due to a high fatality rate —31 deaths before its first ascent —it was first climbed solo and with no supplemental oxygen by Austrian alpinist Herman Buhl on July 3, 1953.

Along with Nanga Parbat, Pakistan is home to five of the 14 8,000m peaks in the world, including the world’s second highest peak K2 (8,611m), Broad Peak (8,051m) , Gasherbrum I (8,080m) and II (8,035m ). The world’s highest mountain Everest (8,848m), Kunchanjunga (8,586m ), Lhotse (8,516m), Makalu (8,485m), Cho Oyu (8,201m), Dhaulagiri I (8,167m), Manaslu (8,163m), Annapurna (8,091m) and Shishapangma (8,027m ) are the remaining mountains in Nepal, China and India.

The Himalayas and Karakoram have long attracted Western explorers and mountaineers, with many seeking to enter the death zone —where there is barely any oxygen for humans to breathe — and coming back alive as a testament to human strength and resilience.

While Everest and K2 have their fair share of success stories and climbing tragedies, in 2013 Nanga Parbat was in the news for all the wrong reasons: Gunmen had shot dead 10 foreign climbers and a Pakistani cook at the base camp. The terror attack was ferocious and shocking, so much so that many climbing teams and trekkers visiting Pakistan cancelled their trips and stayed away in 2014 as well. This year’s winter ascent once again shoved the mountain and the country in news — this time thankfully positive.

Small steps

On the day of the interview, it was snowing heavily in Sadpara village, the conversation marred by high winds and connectivity issues.

Happy that his latest mountaineering adventure had been added to record books, Sadpara says his life revolves around mountains. “Whatever I have achieved is due to my love for the mountains,” he says.

Born on Feb 2, 1976, he hails from a village called Sadpara, near Skardu in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. The village is famous for its porters who have made countless expeditions possible by carrying loads. And yet it remains obscure to those in Pakistan and the world. As a way of honouring their birth place, almost all porters from the area add ‘Sadpara/Satpara’ to their names — an identification which sets them apart from their Hunzai, Nagri, Shigri and Shimshali counterparts.

“I started proper climbing in 2004 when I accompanied an expedition to K2. Before that I used to work as a porter, lugging supplies. One of my very first jobs was to deliver supplies to Pakistan Army posts leading to Siachen way back in the mid 1990s,” he says.

He says his family pushed him to join the police or army. “They stressed ‘the pay is good’ and that I would get free housing and a plot in future,” he laughs, adding, “I used to tell my wife and family I don’t want to work, it’s climbing that I want to do.”

“I worked on the K2 base camp cleaning expedition in 2004. I had no expeditions in 2005 to work as a high altitude porter (HAP) and focused on farming. I went back to the mountains in 2006 and from then on, there was no looking back,” he says.

“In 2006, I climbed Gasherbrum II, my first 8,000m peak. The story is interesting. I had no proper climbing gear. I didn’t have the right boots, didn’t have a down jacket, let alone a down suit to protect me from the harsh cold. I had some second-hand climbing gear which I bought from the market in Skardu and repaired. But I still managed to climb and come back safely,” says Sadpara.

But things weren’t easy. Sadpara says HAPs are expected to fix lines and carry loads to the camps but when it comes to sharing a summit, most mountaineers flinch. He goes on to explain: “In 2007, I worked with a Russain expedition. They took me onboard as a high porter but were reluctant to have me accompany them to the top, giving silly excuses. They just didn’t want to share the glory.

“But to be honest, none of these climbs were possible without Nepali Sherpas and our local HAPs. What upsets me even now is that none of the climbers ever discuss the effort I put in to help them achieve their goals.”

Sadpara has made six ascents of four 8,000m peaks, including three summits of Nanga Parbat.

“In 2008, I reached the summits of Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak and went back to Broad Peak again in 2009. In 2010, I went up Diran, one of the most difficult mountains despite being a 7,000m peak. In 2012, I again climbed Broad Peak and G II. The strangest part was having frostbitten fingers on G II,” he says.

“I took a break in 2013. After the Nanga Parbat massacre, there wasn’t work in 2014 as many international teams avoided Pakistan,” he adds.

“In 2015, I attempted Nanga Parbat again in winters, unsuccessfully. Nature was on our side and we managed to reach the top this year,” he says.

Looking at his climbing history, it’s his winter climbs that stand out. “I enjoy winter climbs more. The difficulty levels just go up and up.”

A rare breed

Sadpara does not shy away from saying that it is poverty and lack of financial stability that forces many men in his area to become porters. “Many climb for money which isn’t that much but it sustains people. However, not many of my fellow porters want to climb. If they had better opportunities, they would quit climbing.”

A regular porter barely gets Rs8,500 for lugging loads to Concordia around which four of the five 8,000m peaks are situated. On the other hand, HAPs can demand climbing fees based on their experience and negotiating skills.

“There are few who would love to climb if their financial burdens were eased. For climbing, one has to be free from restraints,” Sadpara adds.

When questioned if he wants to set up an adventure tourism company, he says: “I have no plans to set up my own company because right now I just want to focus on climbing. Honestly if you ask me, I would not want my children to work in this field. My sons are studying, one of them is in college, and has simply refused to climb. I want to be able to earn enough to provide for my family.”

He insists money comes and goes but love for the mountains is eternal. “I worked for two years with veteran Italian climber Daniel Nardi, who didn’t pay me but I enjoyed the experience of climbing with him. Not everyone can do that, nor should they do so. I don’t go for money. My interest lies in the mountains. This year, Alex and Daniel told me that they had sponsorship issues and the money won’t be great. I assured them that my services would be the same because they are my friends.

“If I had joined the army or police, I would get a regular salary and benefits but I would not be able to climb. Mountaineering is not a profession, its dillagi,” he says lightheartedly.

Availing all chances

Sadpara says he feels blessed to have done so much on his own and looks forward to more climbing. “Allah has been kind enough to give me chances and I am availing them myself.”

Sharing his plans for the future, he says he will be attempting two 8,000m peaks in Nepal this month (April). “I am hoping to summit Manaslu and Makalu. I hope my body allows me to do that,” he says, adding that these days his ultimate plan is to be in the best shape for Nepal and then come back and take his wife and children to the Nanga Parbat base camp for a family outing. “We haven’t had a family holiday for a long time and this is one trip I am looking forward to,” he says.

When questioned why he isn’t taking time off, he explains: “Alex told me I should rest. But to be honest, how many times will I get the chance to accompany a team to these peaks in Nepal? Unless an expedition hires us, we can’t go to Nepal, nor can the Nepali sherpas come here for climbing. It’s just too expensive for us. Climbing is an expensive sport. I am getting a chance, I will go.”

Most foreign climbers rely on funding which they get through sponsorships but sadly that is not the case in Pakistan.

“I have a fairly good climbing record but not once have I been sponsored by a Pakistani company or an MNC. Nor was my friend, the late Nisar Hussain Sadpara, who was one of the best young climbers in Pakistan.”

Nisar died on G I in 2012. He was one of the three Pakistanis, including Rajab Shah and Hasan Sadpara, to have climbed all the 8000m peaks in Pakistan multiple times, without using supplemental oxygen.

With the exception of ace mountaineer Nazir Sabir, the first Pakistani to climb Everest, followed by Hasan Sadpara and Samina Baig, many decent climbers have remained hidden from the public eye — mostly due to lack of self-promotion and barely any interest in promoting them by the Alpine Club of Pakistan (ACP).

“There are a handful of good HAPs but they need more exposure and money to climb independently. Climbing permits and other fees in Nepal run into over $12,000. And this doesn’t include any climbing gear. My summits were only possible because foreign teams hired me,” Sadpara stresses.

He goes on to blame the ACP for not protecting local HAPs. “Nepali Sherpas are taking over our share of work. I keep asking foreign teams why they hire high altitude porters from Nepal and not local climbers. They say the boys here work for money, that’s their sole motivation. They don’t have the passion and drive and no proper training for high altitude rescues. These boys just carry loads and fix ropes. When I hear this I find it sad. I won’t blame the local HAPs. The place where we are has no financial opportunities and becoming a porter is the only option most of the time.”

In a scathing stab, he adds: “Talent needs financial support. Every time any of our boys were successful in attempting a peak, all the ACP did was place a rose garland worth barely Rs10 around their necks. It is demotivating.”

Referring to 2014, when an all-Pakistani expedition went up to K2 on the 60th anniversary of its first ascent, he says: “It was a moment of pride and a moment of sadness. Our climbers proved that they can climb, but guess who funded the expedition? It was the Italians. The new generation needs training and opportunities to climb. No one has to live as a porter and die as one. There are many climbing dreams and they can be achieved.”

Twitter: @SumairaJajja

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, April 17th, 2016



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