Not many in Pakistan know of Rajab Shah other than those who are connected to the mountains.
He is the first Pakistani to summit all five 8,000metre peaks in the country and is the winner of the President’s Pride of Performance Award for mountaineering. But, there is so much more to him that we do not know about him.
A high altitude porter
The mountains were Shah’s bread and butter — he accomplished the amazing feat of all five summits within nine years as a high altitude porter.
Carrying loads of up to 20kgs to the first camps and clearing the way for expeditions after camp 4, he literally earned his way to the top.
He hadn’t had the chance to try for any 6,000 or 7,000ers before working with an army expedition on Nanga Parbat, the juggernaut standing 8,126metres (26,660 ft) high, which had defeated countless seasoned mountaineers before him.
Incidentally (another testament to his character) after accomplishing this he only had the chance to arrive back at camp 4 to rest for the night before rushing back out again to rescue a team member who had attempted the summit after him but had failed to return to camp.
Giving back to his village
Rajab was a truly generous man. After accomplishing what the worldwide mountaineering community regarded as extraordinary, this family and community-oriented man chose to go back home to his small village in Shimshal (3,100m high) in the very north of Pakistan.
To genuinely give back rather than chase fame, he trained the next generation of climbers from Shimshal voluntarily, at first by donating his own hard-earned equipment before he got some help setting up a mountaineering school in Shimshal.
This school has produced the next generation of celebrated climbers, including Mirza Ali, Samina Baig, Qudrat Ali and Shaheen Baig. Till his passing away in April last year, he continued his mission to promote indigenous climbing and skills.
Promoter of sustainable mountain tourism
He was aware that the extremism spreading in Pakistan had caused a lot of problems for tourism in his area and the whole country in general. He trained the youth in Shimshal because he had once been very hopeful that more foreign expeditions would arrive to discover the beautiful mountains of his region.
But due to the conflict and the “narrow mindedness” of some people (as he gently put it) everything took a step back. He felt that mountain tourism was crucial to showing the world that not everyone in Pakistan was an extremist.
To that end he said that the Pakistani youth were extremely lucky to be born in an area where the peaks are like “the roofs of our houses” with extraordinary passes and glaciers that people will always come to see.
He was eager to see local mountain tourism preserved and constantly urged young climbers to take interest, to come forward, and was hopeful that gradually this time of conflict would also pass.
Champion for women
Shah encouraged the women of Shimshal to step out of their assigned gender roles in a very unusual way — by literally climbing mountains.
He said that he started to focus on training the women of Shimshal to be better climbers because he was keen to show the world that Pakistan was not filled with extremists, and in the north there were places where women climb shoulder to shoulder with the men.
His legacy can be seen in the success of Samina Baig, the first Pakistani woman to summit Everest, and many other female students of his now emerging in the field.
“Samina is my student. After her there will be a 1,000 more Saminas; his is our answer to the narrow mindset,” he often used to say.
Shimshali women are some of the strongest and most dedicated mountaineers in Pakistan today.
He cared deeply not just about community but about nature, too. He was very vocal about Pakistan’s fresh water reserves in the north, something that he spoke passionately about throughout his life.
Indeed, his first foray into the climbing world was assisting on an expedition for glacier research in 1986.
In a rare chance to meet with President Laghari he voiced his concern for the glaciers and the accumulation of trash that was damaging them.
In his last interview with me in November of 2014, he voiced the same concern saying that the last time he was on the Baltoro Glacier in 2007 it broke his heart seeing dead transport animals and mounds of waste.
“If it looked like that then, what does it look like now?” he asked with concern on his kind face.
He keenly added that Pakistanis need to care more about these issues. “Nothing is difficult,” he said. “It will only take a bit of time, money and effort.”
He got the bigger picture
Shah knew that the traditional way of life in Shimshal was intimately connected with the provision of better education in the area. He was of the opinion that nature had blessed them with everything they needed up there except education for their next generation.
And that is why he felt their way of life was being lost. If there was education of a better standard available in their village, they wouldn’t have to be parted from their children who are moving south for education and work. His own son went to Gulmit, then Islamabad and after his Masters moved to Kazakhstan.
“This is our heritage, these beautiful mountains that come with freedom,” he would say.
“Why would he leave that and go sit in a room in the city?” He said he didn’t find that thought comfortable. But he was tied to both. He loved his children but also the life he knew. He was wistful of the era in which they made their own clothes in the village with the raw material they got from their own livestock.
Now he felt everything was coming from the south: the clothes he wore, so much of the food, electronics and TV shows. If all of it came from the south he felt they could not stop their youth from following it down. He said he felt great sadness on all of these opposing forces he saw threatening their way of life.
Let down by his country
He was aware that there was not enough “qadar” (value) for mountaineering in the country. He looked saddened when he spoke about this, saying that he served the country for 20 years on the mountains but now he was old and at home with no regular income or pension.
“Aab koi dekhnay wala nahin hai, koee puchnay wala nahin hai. Khuda na khasta main bemar ho jayoon tu koee puchnay wala he nahi hai. Is mulk mai koee qadar nahi hai, koi keemat nahi hai. Is hi se thora sa dukh hota hai”
(Now there is no one to look after me or ask about me. God forbid if I fall ill there is no one to ask about me. There is no value in this country. This makes me a little sad) said this quiet, dignified man the last time we spoke, a few months before his passing away.
And so, while the south looked for role models in politicians, celebrities, in all the wrong places; one of the most accomplished, humble and generous Pakistanis passed away quietly and without ceremony in the north.
No public outpouring of grief, no coverage by local TV channels, no “qadar” at all.
All we can do to honour him now is pray that his last ascent, the one back to his creator, was the most fulfilling of them all. He is climbing with angels now, higher than any of us.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 5th, 2016