The headlines that dominated the Everest climbing season, which lasts between April to end of May, this year were very worrying. “Covid cases at Everest base camp raise fears of serious outbreak,” read one. Another went, “Covid-19 reaches Mount Everest as Nepal deals with record infections.”
For Sirbaz Khan, who had only just returned to Pakistan — first Islamabad and then to his native city, Hunza, in the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan — getting back into Nepal and then to Everest was going to be a race against time. The six-time 8,000m summiteer (Annapurna, K2, Broad Peak, Nanga Parbat, Lhotse and Manaslu) had a very short window in which to make it back to Nepal before the country enforced a strict lockdown.
“I could only meet my family for five hours before I had to leave,” he told me over the phone from his hotel in Kathmandu, Nepal, where he was stuck waiting for a flight back home.
“I barely spent one night at home and left the house at 5am in the morning. I came to Kathmandu on April 29 and flew out straight to Lukla and then from there took a helicopter straight to base camp. Nepal enforced their lockdown from the evening of the 29th.”
While Sirbaz was moving towards Everest, there were some climbers who had abandoned their expeditions and were leaving. “I met a climber at the helipad whom I’d met at Annapurna,” relates Sirbaz. “She had come for Lhotse [8,516m] but she was leaving. She said, ‘Sirbaz, eight members of the company I came with have tested positive for Covid. How can I stay like this? It’s better that I go abroad and then to Pakistan’.”
But how did the situation at base camp get so bad, considering the climbers are technically cut off from the rest of the world?
Two Pakistani mountaineers share their experience of summiting Mount Everest as they overcame their fears and the challenges that fell in their way
“Because [at first] people moved around freely,” says Sirbaz. “They later became very strict and created boundaries with ropes and wrote that please don’t move without observing precautions. That’s how it was controlled.”
According to Sirbaz, he didn’t stay at base camp for long. His body was already acclimatised to the altitude from his only weeks-earlier summit at Annapurna and his travels up to his own high-altitude home town. He was going to make his way up Everest, and fast.
But not before taking the time out to meet with the only other Pakistani present at base camp — the young Shehroze Kashif. Shehroze has dubbed himself ‘The Broad Boy’ because he is currently the youngest person in the world to have summitted Broad Peak (8,051m) — the 12th tallest mountain in the world and his first 8,000m peak.
Even though he is just 19 years old, making him the youngest Pakistani (surpassing Samina Baig, who was 21 at the time of her summit) to stand on top of Mount Everest, he has had quite an impressive mountain climbing career — topping various 3,000-6,000m peaks in Pakistan. His last major peak (other than Broad Peak) was Khosar Gang (6,400m), which he climbed in the alpine style — no fixed ropes and carrying what he needed with him.
Shehroze had been at the Everest base camp for about a month before Sirbaz showed up. He had heard about Sirbaz’s Annapurna summit while still camped out here. “I made a lot of friends at base camp, but it’s something more beautiful when you meet someone from your own country,” he says.
Their paths (sort of) crossed again on the mountain. Shehroze reached the summit on May 11 and Sirbaz on the 12th. As a very experienced climber, Sirbaz climbed Everest (8,849m) mostly without supplemental oxygen. But at 8,410m he started feeling a familiar pain — his left toe that had got frostbitten during his summit at Lhotse in 2019, was acting up again. He decided not to take the risk and turned on his oxygen. At daybreak on May 12, he was standing on the summit, watching the sun begin to rise. Sirbaz plans to return to Everest and summit it again without oxygen.
No matter how ‘comfortable’ an Everest expedition is made by teams of Sherpas fixing ropes in advance and providing as much assistance and little luxuries on the mountain as possible, due to its altitude and terrain, Everest is still a very difficult climb and claims several lives every year.
Did Shehroze, at any point, feel afraid?
“I was not afraid of the climb, but I was afraid of the mountain. They say a brave climber is a dead climber,” he says. “The hardest thing for me was when I saw a dead body at the Hillary Step.”
How did it feel?
“I didn’t give a damn at that time,” says Shehroze with brutal honesty. “I just moved on because I was very tired at that point. When I was on the top, I ran out of my oxygen. I had to come back within five minutes. It was so hard — to be at that altitude and out of oxygen. You can’t even fill your lungs completely with air. There were two people with me who died during the descent. One of them was American and the other was a Pakistani-Swiss.”
The first two fatalities at Everest in 2021, Puwei Liu, 55, and Abdul Warraich, 41, died at the first camp and at the south summit, near the actual summit during their descent. Both men were experienced mountaineers who lost consciousness around Mount Everest’s ‘death zone’ — where the air is too thin to sustain life.
Shehroze only found out about his expedition members’ death once he was back at base camp. “I have frostbite on both of my feet,” he relates almost nonchalantly. “On my toes. I can’t even feel my fingers. The doctor says just wait and watch.”
At the time I spoke to him, he’d been holed up in his hotel room in Kathmandu for 20 days as one flight after another kept getting cancelled. Finally, the Pakistani diplomatic mission in Nepal arranged for a special flight to take Pakistanis stranded in Nepal back home via a direct flight to Lahore. Sirbaz and Shehroze were both taking that flight back.
What’s in store for you next? I ask Shehroze.
“I just want to go to Pakistan!” he says sounding exasperated. “And then I’ll think about it.”
Sirbaz has now officially climbed seven out of the fourteen 8,000m peaks in the world. Does he ever plan to take a break? “No! Abhi tau party shuru hui hai [the party has just begun],” he chuckles. “I’m only getting started.”
Although he kept tight-lipped, he did hint that this summer he has his eyes set on Gasherbrum I (8,080m) and Gasherbrum II (8,034m) in Pakistan.
The writer is a member of staff She tweets @madeehasyed
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 6th, 2021