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Up above the world so high

April 17, 2016


“When I summited, the wind was very strong,” recounts Sadpara, “I went down and waited for them. I saw Alex [Txikon] come first followed by Simone (Moro). When they came they told me they had to leave Tamara behind.”

It was 3.37pm on Feb 26. After nine and a half hours of climbing, history had finally been made — after 27 years since the first attempt, the Nanga Parbat had finally been conquered in winter. Both mountaineers and enthusiasts around the world followed their progress with bated breaths — technology had enabled them to observe a live stream of the movements of their GPS trackers beamed out from the base camp.

There was a small storm when Sadpara reached the summit, the kind of weather the climbers faced on and off in the harsh winter over their three month ordeal in preparing to summit. It’s hard enough to climb 8,000 metres in the summer, in winter it’s almost unthinkable — temperatures dip to minus 40 degrees Celsius to -50°C and the wind is even more unforgiving. Both last year and this year, Sadpara suffered minor frostbite on his toes. Simone had to seek treatment for frostbite as well.

Mohammad Ali Sadpara, Alex Txikon and Simone Moro talk about making history: the first winter summit of one of the only two last remaining 8,000m peaks, Nanga Parbat. They reflect on Pakistan’s mountaineering potential and why two of them would not consider attempting a first winter summit of the K2

Sadpara had chosen a different route towards the end from which to summit. “Sadpara has already summited Nanga Parbat twice before,” said fellow mountaineer and his long-time friend, Alex Txikon, mentioning that this was the route Ali took to summit in summer. “For me it was the right thing to do. This way we had more possibilities to go to the summit. Maybe we were wrong again. We were in contact with the base camp.”

Alex and Simone chose a different path. “I called by radio the base camp where many people were following us through their binocular and they suggested that we keep going along the snow couloir,” says Simone, “It was evident that was right and logical.” It was a path at Ali followed with the other two mountaineers on the way back to Camp 4.

On top of the world

Considering that both Simone, Alex and Sadpara have tried to summit Nanga Parbat before — Simone in 2014 with David Göttler and Alex and Sadpara in 2015 — what did it feel like to finally make the summit? “It was a magical moment that will remain forever in history. For me, it was the fourth time that I realised a dream, something considered impossible,” says Simone (54 expeditions with 15 of them in winter), who now holds the record for being the first and only mountaineer with four winter summits under his belt. Other than Nanga Parbat, that includes Shisha Pangma (2005), Makalu (2009) and Gasherbrum II (2011).

“I felt lots of happiness, of course, but not like what people think. The real summit is when you reach base camp safely, says Alex emphasising on the need for caution, “It was very risky. There were no fixed ropes — you don’t feel good when you go down. You have to listen to your intuition. This was the hardest summit of the winter. Once we were at base camp, we felt nothing but joy.”

The Nanga Parbat is one of the notoriously difficult 8,000m mountains in the world. “For me Nanga Parbat is very special, even if didn´t reach the summit on our winter expedition in 2014!” says David Göttler adding that “I experienced a feeling of being more remote, more fragile and at the same time more into nature than on any other expedition.”

Although he was invited to attempt the summit this year as well, David politely declined as he had already made other plans. How did he receive the news that a first winter summit finally happened? “I was really happy for them and I think everybody who waited so long deserved that kind of success!” He says, “If you are at the right time at the right place you are the lucky one!”

All for one, one for all

Unfortunately the fourth member of their climbing party, Tamara Lunger, stopped a short distance from the summit. “She vomited all her breakfast and twice more after that,” related Simone. “She was dehydrated and without energy so she used all her power to climb as high as she could. But very close to the summit she realised she was crossing the red line and close to the top she had to give the priority to her survival.”

Sadpara, who didn’t know Tamara had stopped until after he’d descended to meet the other two after summiting waved back at her from the top. “For me it was like she was with us,” said Alex voicing his support, “She is a part of the summit.”

Raw and unexplored

Pakistan is home to five of the world’s 14 8,000m peaks and has over a 100 7,000m and 6,000m mountains — many of which have never been climbed before. Where other countries, such as Nepal, have fully exploited their mountaineering potential and developed an industry out of catering to mountaineers — both amateur and experienced — in Pakistan the mountaineering industry remains somewhat like its mountains: unexplored.

The team: (from left) Alex, Sadpara, Tamara and Simone
The team: (from left) Alex, Sadpara, Tamara and Simone

Only the most ardent of mountaineers venture here but organising an expedition and even getting to the mountains is difficult. “Pakistan is doing nothing. Zero,” points out Alex who did his first 8,000m summit (Broad Peak) in 2003 and has been coming to the country ever since. “They don’t believe in their potential,” he continued. “Nepal does this job (of developing the mountaineering industry) really well. Pakistanis are 300 years behind Nepal. I’m sorry, but this is my honest opinion. I’m not happy to say this.”

“There are difficulties in getting a visa, a lot of bureaucracy is involved and it takes a long time to get climbing permits,” says Simone, “The airport in Islamabad is the least organised and slowest. There are no proper lodges; there are bad roads and always problem with porters.”

But all isn’t lost. “At the same time you have good trekking agencies and huge climbing potential,” he adds encouragingly. “There are wild valleys and unclimbed peaks. So the possibilities are huge.”

It is odd that despite being home to some of the largest mountains in the world, mountaineering isn’t considered a national sport. Sadpara to date is the only mountaineer to make a first summit of any kind as a Pakistani on a major mountain. All of the other mountaineering achievements belong to foreigners that travelled here.

Security is also a concern that visiting mountaineers are acutely aware of especially considering that the Nanga Parbat terrorist attack in 2013 in which militants killed 10 climbers and one local guide, a cook. “To be honest I was a bit worried, because it was just a half year after the terrorist attack on the Diamir side,” said David about his first visit in 2014. “But like so many times, as we have arrived in Pakistan this feeling was immediately gone! I like the people so much. I always say that it is worth visiting Pakistan!”

Alex echoes David’s sentiments, “For me Pakistan is a lovely country. I’ve been here four times. I feel very safe here. The security escort we were provided at base camp made us very comfortable. Believe me there is no problem coming here.”

How can Pakistan develop its mountaineering industry? “Pakistan should promote alpinism as a national sport, like cricket or football,” responds Simone. “You have the biggest potential in the world with thousands of mountains, many of them unclimbed and untouched. It is necessary to make a big effort, also a political effort. This could be your industry, your tourist’s main activity. Money and courses should be given and organised to the climbing association and tour operators to promote climbing activities.”

“Sadpara could be a clear symbol of what you can achieve if you do… ”

The K2 winter summit is not for Simone or Alex Mount Godwin Austin — Choghori in the local language or K2 as it’s popularly known — now remains as the only 8,000m mountain left without a winter summit. It’s notoriously difficult — one in four mountaineers die attempting a K2 summit. Does this group of mountaineers plan to attempt doing the first winter summit of the K2? Alex immediately responded that he had currently not made any plans of going ahead with an attempt to climb it in the winter, but that he is interested in bringing people from the Basque country in Spain to do a small trek around the area with him and Sadpara as guides.

“Not at all,” responds Simone along the same lines as Alex. “Now I don’t need K2 in winter and I promised my wife NOT to go. She had a dream where I die during the K2 winter attempt. She asked me not to go and I will not. I have other projects. I leave K2 to the others!”

“K2 is a very special mountain to me,” responds David. “And I would love to climb it but at the moment the feeling is not right for that. I know that sounds a bit strange but over the years ... you start to develop a feeling towards it or a kind of relationship. And K2 in winter is something I think is Nanga multiplied by 10 to be successful. So maybe I will choose the summer season.”

Twitter: @madeehasyed

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