MOUNTAINEERING: ‘A HEART AS BIG AS K2’

Published February 14, 2021
The proud Pakistani at the K2 summit in 2018
The proud Pakistani at the K2 summit in 2018

When his son died fighting in World War I, former US President Theodore Roosevelt wrote that “only those are fit to live who do not fear to die and none are fit to die who have shrunk from the joy of life and the duty of life.”

For the people of Pakistan, the tragic news of the disappearance of one of its proudest sons, mountaineer Muhammad Ali Sadpara, is a difficult and heartbreaking blow. Sadpara disappeared, along with his companions John Snorri from Iceland and Juan Pablo Mohr from

Chile, attempting to become the first Pakistani to climb K2 during winter.

Sadpara, Snorri and Mohr could not be contacted since they made their push for the summit from Camp 3 at midnight between February 4 and 5. Sadpara’s son Sajid had accompanied his father on the expedition but had been forced to return from the ‘bottleneck’ — the most challenging part of the climb — a mere 300m from the top, after a leak in his oxygen tank.

The ‘Savage Mountain’, as K2 is often called, had recently been conquered by a Nepali expedition during winter in what was a landmark achievement in mountaineering history. Fortune, physical endurance and good weather had managed to smile upon the Nepali team during their endeavour. But sadly this was not the case with Sadpara’s team. Though rescue operations continue at the time of this writing, the chances of the team’s survival in extreme sub-zero temperatures are very low, and a sense of inevitability now surrounds the recovery process.

As a high altitude porter and mountaineer, Sadpara had already made the country proud in 2016 by becoming part of the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat, another equally dangerous mountain, along with Simone Moro of Italy and Alex Txikon of Spain. Along with Nanga Parbat, Pakistan is home to five of the 14 8,000m peaks in the world.

Fellow climbers pay tribute to Muhammad Ali Sadpara, the mountaineer who disappeared attempting to become the first Pakistani to scale the ‘Killer Mountain’ in winter, and who left a lasting impression on all whose lives he touched

Ali Sadpara was born February 2, 1976 in a village called Sadpara, near Skardu in Gilgit-Baltistan, famous for its porters who have made numerous expeditions. The life of a porter is as relentless and unforgiving as it is unrewarding. To carry many kilos of weight over jagged topography is a challenge in itself, even more so when it is the only means of livelihood for a person.

The key element here was survival, which Sadpara learned at a young age. His mother had breastfed him till the age of six, determined to make him survive, a fate that eight of his 11 siblings did not share. Like the Scots of the Highlands or the Druze of the Chouf Mountains of Lebanon, the rugged terrain of Pakistan’s northern areas have bred an air of toughness among the villagers who live there. The people there are able to endure physical hardships that would break most people, yet still adhere to a humility and sense of optimism about a better life.

Having gotten married at the age of 19, his determination to provide for his family, drew him towards becoming a porter for foreign mountaineers, which was the best paid job available. With an iron will, he carried loads for climbers back and forth in the Karakoram mountain range, often for wages amounting to a mere three US dollars a day.

However, Sadpara’s real baptism by fire as a porter came about during the mid-1990s when Pakistan and India locked horns over the strategically vital Siachin Glacier — he was recruited by the army to carry heavy supplies for soldiers while under fire. The lessons of his childhood of being physically and mentally tough served him well to survive in such an unforgiving environment.

Muhammad Ali Sadpara | Photo by Elia Saikaly
Muhammad Ali Sadpara | Photo by Elia Saikaly

As spiritually strong as he was physically tough, Sadpara had always been passionate about the mountains. During an interview with Dawn Images on Sunday in 2016, he had said that “Whatever I have achieved is due to my love for the mountains.” He loved the mountainous outdoors and the challenge that they exemplified. As natural monuments of a rugged and brutal terrain that balances with an ethereal beauty, the mountains have always symbolised a majestic spectacle that challenges climbers to conquer them.

Though he came from a humble background, he had great drive and ambition to achieve greatness in mountaineering.

Climber and CEO of Alpine Adventure Guides Pakistan Ali Muhammad Saltoro says it was widely acknowledged among climbers that Muhammad Ali Sadpara was a truly unique person in the world of mountaineering. Saltoro and Sadpara had attempted Nanga Parbat together in 2008 — with Sadpara reaching the summit — and had been friends for many years.

“Yesterday I spoke to Denis Urubko [famous Russian-Polish mountaineer] and his wife Maria and she was crying,” Saltoro tells me on the fourth day of the search. “A person like him comes along very rarely in the field of mountaineering. In 2018-19, when there was an accident on Nanga Parbat, I called him and he arrived there that very day in Skardu,” he says, recalling how Sadpara helped retrieve the bodies of British mountaineer Tom Ballard and Spanish mountaineer Daniele Nardi.

“People like that are very rare. There are many climbers in Pakistan and if I praise them it would be embarrassing but, not in his case — you won’t find a person like him. There was no malintent about him. There was only one Sadpara.”

Mountaineer Alex Txikon first met Ali Sadpara 20 years ago. “In almost two decades, you have time to know each other very well,” he says. “Today many people know his career, but above all he was a kind, warm man, always taking care of his family.” Txikon says that though financial benefits were never the main motivation for Sadpara, the past year had been particularly difficult for him. “Work

had become so scarce that he needed the money to support his family.”

Sadpara had expressed his dream to Txikon to climb all 14 of the world’s 8,000m peaks, a target all great mountaineers seek to achieve. “These last few months and weeks we had talked a lot. I think I remember him telling me he would not try K2 in winter, but necessity led him to do so,” he says. “It’s a shame and a great loss, more than as a mountaineer, as a person.”

Txikon’s manager Ignacio Zuloaga remembers Ali Sadpara as a man with a great heart who always loved to dance and sing the traditional songs from Pakistan’s mountain regions. Zuloaga recalls him as a patriot who was very proud of his heritage and of being from Sadpara. “He wanted to invite me to discover his family and that magical mountain region. He wanted to show to Pakistan’s young people that they can also be climbers and was an example for everybody,”says Zuloaga.

Romanian climber Alex Gvan remembers Sadpara for “a heart as large as K2 ... His everlasting smile and positive mindset were inspirational and contagious. Generous and altruist, always putting others first. He was a high altitude extraordinaire and one of the very greats. I was blessed to have met him,” said Gvan.

Mountaineering has always been regarded as a merciless endeavour and a supreme example of man versus nature. Its triumphs are as sweet as its defeats are bitter. In an interview with the Alpinist, Sadpara had once said that, “In climbing, there are two outcomes — life or death — and you must find the courage to accept either possibility.”

With his apparent death, Pakistan has lost a hero and a true braveheart.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 14th, 2021

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