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NON-FICTION: AIN’T NO MOUNTAIN HIGH ENOUGH

November 19, 2017
In 1995, the first batch of climbers was trained at Malangutti Glacier. The trainer, Rajab Shah (at the top of the group in red jacket and dark glasses), is the first Pakistan to have climbed all five eight-thousanders located in Pakistan | Photo from the book
In 1995, the first batch of climbers was trained at Malangutti Glacier. The trainer, Rajab Shah (at the top of the group in red jacket and dark glasses), is the first Pakistan to have climbed all five eight-thousanders located in Pakistan | Photo from the book

Pakistan is home to some of the world’s largest mountains. The three biggest mountain ranges on Earth — the Himalayas, Karakoram and the Hindukush — all converge here. When it comes to mountains 8,000 metres or more above sea level (also known as eight-thousanders), five out of the world’s 14 are in Pakistan. Yet, as a sport, mountaineering has never caught the national fancy as it has in countries such as Italy, France, Germany, Poland and Russia to name a few. For decades, whether in times of peace or conflict, foreign big mountain enthusiasts and mountaineers have been making their way to the north of Pakistan. Their achievements are noted and celebrated not only in their own home countries, but around the world. Yet not much is known about the local Pakistani mountaineers or high-altitude porters (HAPs) who help them get there.

Through her book, And Death Walks with Them: Above 8,000 Metres with Pakistani Porters from Shimshal, German mountaineer and author Christiane Fladt aims to change that. This is not Fladt’s first book on the Karakoram and its people. She has previously written other books in German on the Shimshal valley, describing the area’s culture: a biography of the first lady health worker in the region and one on the perspectives of the valley’s children. Fladt first came to Pakistan in 2002 on a mountaineering expedition and has been returning ever since.

Her book is an ode to Pakistan’s unsung heroes. Like the Sherpas of Nepal, the people of Shimshal (and the village of Sadpara in Baltistan) are uniquely adapted to high altitudes. Fladt’s book examines the reasons for that: accustomed to the altitude at which the village is situated, the remoteness of the mountainous terrain, the walking and climbing that takes place every day, the extreme temperatures and in the face of all of this, the resourcefulness of the villagers.

A much-deserved documentation of the high-altitude porters and mountaineers from Pakistan who all too often do not get the recognition they deserve

Climbing a big mountain is like going to war. You don’t know whether the porter or mountaineer is going to come back alive. The chances of dying are very real and deaths do happen. The phrase “death walks with them,” is what the women who are left behind by the mountaineers say while waiting for their men to return home, Inshallah.

Written quite simply, making it a very easy book to read, Fladt traces the history of mountaineering and high-altitude portering in the Shimshal valley, the local totkas [home remedies] for various ailments, the influence that Rajab Shah — the first Pakistani to have climbed all five eight-thousanders and winner of the President’s Pride of Performance Award for his efforts — has had on mountain climbing and portering and his contribution to the sport through the mountaineering school he helped establish. The book is full of heart-warming stories of friendship between mountain climbers, tales of bravery and lessons from tragedy. Fladt describes the quirks of the different characters mentioned in her book and her descriptions are vivid enough for readers to feel as though they are sitting right next to her as she conducts her interviews. Most importantly, her book provides a written record of the much-ignored sacrifices and summits made by the mountaineers and porters of Shimshal.

One element of mountain climbing that struck me as most unfair is that it is up to the expedition leader to ‘allow’ a HAP to summit, even if the HAP — without whom the expedition wouldn’t have ascended so far — has made it all the way to Camp Four (the last stop just before the summit). Despite all his efforts, he can be, and often is, denied that final glory of summiting by some expeditions that simply do not want to share the recognition. Some of the other unfairness that stands out is the minimal government investment — financially or otherwise — in developing the mountaineering industry or providing avenues for developing mountaineering skills. Compare this to the HAP industry in Nepal and there is a world of a difference; the HAPs or mountain guides are not only physically suited for the job, but receive technical training and education and their achievements are properly documented. As a result, they also demand a substantially large income per expedition, per season compared to their counterparts in Pakistan.

There is a slow but steadily increasing interest in mountaineering in Pakistan, not only among those already situated in the north, but also among those in other parts of the country. The publication of this book is somewhat timely as it provides a primer or background of mountaineering for those interested in this life-risking, but incredibly rewarding sport.

The reviewer is a member of staff

And Death Walks With Them: Above
8,000 Metres With Pakistani Porters
From Shimshal
By Christiane Fladt
Oxford University Press, Karachi
ISBN: 978-0199407385
204pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 19th, 2017