MOUNTAINEERING: DANCING WITH DEATH ON ANNAPURNA

Published May 2, 2021
Sirbaz Khan and Abdul Joshi on the summit of Annapurna
Sirbaz Khan and Abdul Joshi on the summit of Annapurna

It sounded like thunder. A loud crash shook the ground beneath Sirbaz Khan and Abdul Joshi on the first day of their expedition on Nepal’s Mount Annapurna (8,091m), the world’s tenth highest peak. They had just worn their crampons — a jagged, traction device that attaches to the boots, allowing them to climb on snow and ice — and were about to start climbing when it happened.

Their team of Sherpas had left a couple of hours prior, to fix the ropes up the mountain. Sirbaz and Abdul looked up in the direction the sound came from. “It was from where our team of Sherpas were crossing the mountain under some seracs,” says Sirbaz.

Seracs are large blocks of glacial ice that usually form on the edges of some of the largest mountains in the world — like Mt Annapurna. They’re usually the size of a house and are extremely dangerous for mountaineers, as they are often perched quite precariously and topple with little to no warning.

Sirbaz Khan raising his arms in victory on top of Annapurna
Sirbaz Khan raising his arms in victory on top of Annapurna

The crash had been caused by a falling serac. “We couldn’t see the Sherpas anymore,” says Sirbaz. “It was as if they were covered in a white blanket. We couldn’t spot any movement there for a whole minute.”

They frantically reached for the radio and called their team. “I yelled ‘Mama Sherpa! Mama Sherpa!’ on the radio,” says Sirbaz. “I eventually got the response that they are okay and that we should proceed with the climb.

“This happened on our very first day,” laughs Sirbaz incredulously. “We hadn’t even started and avalanches and seracs had started to fall. Of course, we felt a little afraid.”

Sirbaz Khan and Abdul Joshi are the first Pakistanis to stand on the summit of the world’s tenth highest mountain, Mount Annapurna in Nepal. Eos caught up with Sirbaz on his return, and he describes the harrowing climb on a mountain considered even more dangerous than K2

This wasn’t going to be the end of the danger they would face on a mountain notorious for being — in Sirbaz’s own words — “khoonkhaar” [bloodthirsty]. It’s deadlier than K2 (8,611m), which has a fatality rate of 29 per cent — Annapurna’s is 32 per cent. That means that for every three people that reach the summit, one person dies.

Celebrations at the basecamp
Celebrations at the basecamp

What makes Annapurna so deadly is that the whole mountain is avalanche-prone. Hundreds of avalanches take place on the mountain every year. It’s not just snow masses that climbers need to watch out for, they have to be aware of rapidly falling blocks of rock and ice as well.

Climbing Annapurna is a dance with death that happens from the moment you set foot on the mountain.

Because of its inherent dangers, for most mountaineers, climbing Annapurna is limited to being a dream only. A dream that is so hard to translate into real life, it’s best left alone.

As if to hammer in the unpredictability and precariousness of the mountain, Sirbaz relates an incident told to him by Mingma Gylaje Sherpa, one of the finest mountaineers on the planet. He was one in the group that did the historic first winter summit of K2. By the time Mingma and two of his friends — Finn Samuli Mansikka (whom Sirbaz had also worked with) and Nepalese Pemba Sherpa — were returning from the summit, it was nightfall.

Annapurna at night | Photos by Kamran Ali
Annapurna at night | Photos by Kamran Ali

An experienced mountaineer with multiple 8,000-er summits under his belt, Mingma advised the others that they should spend the night where they were, as there was blue ice ahead of them. “But they insisted and said they would rather cross it and reach Camp Four,” says Sirbaz. “Although both of them were safely clipped on to the rope, they both slipped on the blue ice and fell to their deaths.

“That’s why it’s only the ones who’re on Mission 14 attempt this summit,” says Sirbaz. Mission 14 is a global big mountain climbing challenge — to get to the summit of all of the world’s 14 8,000 metre-plus mountains.

The dangers on the mountain for both Sirbaz and Abdul had only just begun. It was as if the serac crashing in front of them as they started their climb were a sign of things to come.

Sirbaz Khan
Sirbaz Khan

They were joined by other teams as they climbed further up the mountain. Teams of Sherpas were busy fixing ropes ahead and, at a dizzying height of 4,750m, they decided to have lunch — standing on an incline, clipped on to the rope.

And then Sirbaz heard a terrifyingly familiar rumbling sound, which quickly turned into a roar. “It was an avalanche!” says Sirbaz. The climbers quickly clipped all of their gear and equipment to the ropes with them, lest they be blown away by the icy cold wind that was gushing down before the wall of the snow, almost as if it were heralding its arrival.

“It felt like a storm had hit us,” relates Sirbaz. “The wind that comes as a result of the avalanche is very strong. It throws large objects from one place to another. We started noticing that our bodies started to shiver and shake because of how cold that wind was. Our bodies were covered by around half an inch of snow.”

Abdul Joshi
Abdul Joshi

The avalanche came from the left side and for a moment it seemed like it would envelope them. Thankfully, the avalanche spared the climbers. “Two incidents in one day,” says Sirbaz. “Going up, we were even more scared than before.”

At that point, the team of Sherpas turned back. There was no more rope left and around 2,500m of rope was still needed to complete the route to Camp One. The overall unpredictability of the mountain with avalanches, fresh snowfall and rockfall, among other factors make it very difficult to assess exactly how much rope would be used. Sirbaz and Abdul decided to climb their way forward without the rope — very risky indeed — using just their equipment, skill and experience to guide them, and spent their first night on the mountain at Camp One.

The lack of ropes on the mountain would be a recurring problem for the teams. Sirbaz and Abdul first tried to push for the summit on April 13, but the ropes couldn’t be fixed. The team then ran out of rope at Camp Four (6,900m) on April 14. The ropes had to be helicoptered to them. Finally, on April 16, they became the first Pakistanis to stand on the summit of Annapura.

Praying before starting to climb
Praying before starting to climb

For Sirbaz, who hails from Hunza, this was his sixth 8,000m mountain. His previous summits include Lhotse (8,516m) and Manaslu (8,163m) in Nepal and K2, Nanga Parbat (8,126m) and Broad Peak (8,051m) in Pakistan.

Annapurna was Abdul Joshi’s first 8,000m summit. He’s from Shimshaal and has worked as a professional climber, high-altitude porter (HAP) and has been a part of several 8,000m expeditions in Pakistan. He’s also known as the go-to person for conducting big mountain rescues.

“For me personally, after K2 and Nanga Parbat, Annapurna was the most important peak to summit in my Mission 14,” says Sirbaz. He later posted a video of him and Abdul Joshi on his Instagram, on the summit of Annapurna. They dedicated their summit to their friend and mentor, the late Ali Sadpara.

One of the most well-known mountaineers in the world, for his skill, tenaciousness and experience in the mountains, Ali Sadpara was officially presumed dead on February 18 this year during a winter summit push on the mountain he loved the most — K2. He was last spotted by his son at a section below the summit called the bottleneck, before his group lost contact and were never seen or heard from again.

Ali Sadpara was the first person to summit Nanga Parbat in the winter, in 2016, and is the only Pakistani to have stood on the summit of eight 8,000 metre-plus mountains — Nanga Parbat, K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum 1 and 2, Lhotse, Makalu and Manaslu.

“All of the other [previous] peaks that I’ve done, I’ve done with Ali bhai,” says Sirbaz. The loss he felt of his previous climbing partner was immense. “We had known each other for a very long time. I’ve been at climbing camps since 2001-2002. Back then, I used to work as a mountain guide and as a part of the kitchen crew. I became a professional mountaineer much later. Ali Bhai is considered to be a very great man. Not just in Pakistan, but all over the world.”

The Annapurna basecamp with the Pakistan tent
The Annapurna basecamp with the Pakistan tent

Dedicating the Annapurna summit was important for Sirbaz, Abdul Joshi and their team. They each knew Ali Sadpara well. “Before his accident, we had worked on a documentary with Mooroo [Taimoor Salahuddin] called Unsung Heroes, on the ‘Value of Life’ expedition in Chitral,” says Sirbaz. The documentary is available to view on YouTube. “It was shot in Chitral. It was called that because, up until then, climbers from Pakistan who would die… their insurance — the value of their lives — was only 200,000 rupees.

“We were working on trying to change that and make things better for the HAP community. It was incredibly unfortunate that his accident happened on K2. We will do our best to carry Ali Bhai’s work for the climbing community, his vision, forward.”

For now, Sirbaz does not plan to stop climbing anytime soon. He recently announced the next 8,000m mountain he’ll be attempting to summit. Sirbaz Khan has his eyes set on Everest.

The writer is a member of staff She tweets @madeehasyed

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 2nd, 2021

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