This article was originally published on February 8.
“Mountains demand passion. Aap ki dillagi hone chahiyee paharoon kay saath [your heart needs to be in love with the mountains],” a beaming Muhammad Ali Sadpara had said in 2016 when I asked what it takes to become a mountaineer.
A “jolly, good fellow”, Sadpara is often described by his peers as a tough as nails climber with a good-humoured nature. The only Pakistani to have climbed eight of the 14 8,000 metre peaks, Sadpara came to prominence in local media when he, along with Spain’s Alex Txikon and Italy’s Simone Moro, made a world record with the first winter summit of Nanga Parbat in 2016. The Spaniard and the Italian said their summit would not have been possible without Sadpara, a rousing endorsement for a man largely hidden from the public eye in Pakistan.
Pakistan is home to five 8,000m peaks including K2, Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I and II. The remaining are in Nepal and China.
Born on February 2, 1976, the naturally talented and humble climber hails from a village called Sadpara, near Skardu in the Gilgit-Baltistan region.
‘Sadpara' or 'Satpara’ is famous for its porters who have helped countless summit seekers achieve their dreams as they carry backbreaking loads on Baltoro glacier — the gateway to the mighty K2 and other peaks.
Over the years, the country has seen few mountaineers rise up. Nazir Sabir, the first Pakistani to climb Everest; Ashraf Aman, the first Pakistani to climb K2 along with the now deceased Nisar Hussain Sadpara and Hasan Sadpara; and Samina Baig, the first Pakistani woman on Everest are just a few more names. In this backdrop, Muhammad Ali’s Sadpara’s rise has been, in his own words, “due to hard work and sheer luck”.
Staring out as a porter, he found his first proper climbing gig in 2004 when he accompanied an expedition to K2.
“One of my very first jobs was to deliver supplies to Pakistan Army posts leading to Siachen way back in the mid-1990s,” he said in an interview published in Dawn.
According to his profile in Alpinist magazine, when a Pakistani army truck pulled into Sadpara to recruit porters, Ali couldn't resist the opportunity. At the time, Pakistan and India were locked in a longstanding conflict over the Siachen Glacier, a strategic corridor to China. Ali was headed into the world's highest battleground. At night, he scaled walls of ice, ferrying supplies to soldiers in remote mountain passes, praying darkness would shelter him from shell-fire that seemed, he recalls, 'as relentless as firecrackers at a wedding'.
"'After the Siachen, I wasn't afraid anymore,' Ali remembers. 'In climbing, there are two outcomes—life or death—and you must find the courage to accept either possibility.'"
Not listening to his family’s advice to join the police force or the army — which offered good pay and free housing or a plot — he stuck with his heart’s calling.
“I used to tell my wife and family I don’t want to work, it’s climbing that I want to do.”
No looking back
When work was short, Sadpara would go back to farming. In 2006, he climbed Gasherbrum II, his first 8,000m peak, without 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."
And since then there was no looking back. He went on to climb Spantik Peak (Pakistan) in 2006, Nanga Parbat (Pakistan) in 2008, Muztagh Ata (China) in 2008, Nanga Parbat (Pakistan) in 2009, Gasherbrum I (Pakistan) in 2010, Nanga Parbat First Winter Ascent (Pakistan) in 2016, Broad Peak (Pakistan) in 2017, Nanga Parbat First Autumn Ascent (Pakistan) in 2017, Pumori Peak First Winter Ascent (Nepal) in 2017, K2 (Pakistan) in 2018, Lhotse (Nepal) in 2019, Makalu (Nepal) in 2019 and Manaslu (Nepal) in 2019.
In 2018, veteran French climber Marc Batard roped in Sadpara along with Pasang Nuru Sherpa of Nepal to undertake a five-year mountaineering programme named 'Beyond Mount Everest.'
The trio planned to scale Nanga Parbat in 2019, K-2 in 2021 and Mount Everest in 2022 to mark Batard’s 70th birthday. Batard hoped that Sadpara’s inclusion in the team would help in building a positive image of Pakistan.
On January 25 this year, the government announced that Sadpara will be sponsored to climb the remaining 8,000m peaks.
As a husband and a father, Sadpara came across as a person who would do anything to put food on the table. Money motivated him, mountaineering motivated him even more.
Not one to shy away from saying that it was poverty that propelled youngsters in Sadpara to become porters, he said: “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.”
In the Alpinist interview, Sadpara said he wanted a sewing machine for his wife and for himself a winter ascent of K2. All these pursuits required money. Money that was made by carrying backbreaking loads on rugged, cruel terrain that showed no mercy.
“There are few who would love to climb if their financial burdens were eased. For climbing, one has to be free from restraints,” Sadpara added.
Back in 2016, he said he wouldn’t want his children to follow his profession.
“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."
'Gem of a person'
Sadpara was in the search team that had been looking for a British climber Tom Ballard and Italian climber Daniele Nardi who were reported missing on Nanga Parbat. Their bodies were later found on the mountain.
“The man who was always ready for the rescue operation to save lives, today I’m remembering your picture of 27 February 2019 when you were ready for the rescue operation of Nardi and Tom on Nanga Parbat. Today we lost you and your [sic] resting high on K2,” said Karim Shah Naziri, a skier and climber, in a tweet.
“Muhammad Ali Sadpara is a very nice guy. Soft, clean and genuine soul. In short, gem of a person,” said Nazir Sabir. He is very funny and would start dancing, he added.
“He is a genuine person inside out, as a mountaineer and in daily life.”
“Sadpara is such a jolly fellow,” said Mingma G Sherpa, a Nepalese climber who was part of the 10-member team that successfully completed the first ever winter summit of K2 last month.
“He works hard and has a good attitude. He has what it takes to reach the top,” he had said last week when Dawn reached out for comments on the teams at the K2 base camp.
After reports that Sadpara, along with John Snorri from Iceland and JP Mohr Prieto from Chile, successfully summited K2, news emerged that the three had gone missing. The three lost contact with base camp late on Friday and were reported missing on Saturday after their support team stopped receiving reports from them during their ascent of the 8,611m-high K2.
Search and rescue operations have been underway since then, but with zero luck.
“Waiting for the good news of this jolly man. Praying for Ali, John and Pablo to return safely," Mingma said in a Facebook post on Friday. "Their walkie talkie was not working well as they had a low frequency walkie talkie. I hope they are already back. Muhammad Ali is world class climber from Pakistan and we climbed Nanga Parbat together in 2017 and we are good friend since 2014 from my first visit in Pakistan."
Talking to media in Skardu yesterday, Ali's 21-year-old son Sajid Sadpara, who was also part of the expedition but had to abandon due to equipment issues, said the three climbers probably met an accident while on their way back after summiting the K2. He said the trio had already climbed 8,200m and were moving into the bottleneck – the most technical part of the mountain – when he broke away from them.
Sajid said chances of surviving the extremely cold weather after remaining missing for three days and without proper gear were "very low", adding that an operation could be conducted to retrieve the bodies.
A rescue operation involving army helicopters and climbing experts continues on Monday for a third consecutive day with no success.
A shell shocked Sajid recalled his father’s bid towards the summit. Maybe Muhammad Ali saw the danger that lay ahead and the malfunctioning equipment gave him the opportunity to send his son back into a safe zone — a final fatherly act that protected Sajid from the cold abyss on the Savage Mountain.