‘And Death Walks With Them’ by Christiane Fladt, OUP, 2017, Pp202, Price Rs 950
Another thinning breed
This is the first book that records the lives and achievements of some of the High Altitude Porters (HAPs) of Pakistan. While the HAPs come from various parts of Hunza and Skardu, located in the proximity of the major mountain peaks, Shimshal has produced the largest number. The porters who make no more than a footnote in the annals of European mountaineering expeditions are the focus of the book.
A lot has been written and documentaries made about the great mountaineers who ascended the eight-thousanders, the 14 independent mountains on the globe that are more than 8,000 metres (26,247 ft) above sea level. Some of the names are widely known. Italian climber Reinhold Messner was the first to climb all the 14 eight-thousanders. New Zealander Edmund Hillary made the first official ascent of Everest in 1953, the highest peak in the world. Nanga Parbat, the Killer Mountain, was conquered on July 3, 1953 by Austrian climber Hermann Buhl. Ascent of the Savage Mountain K2, the second highest in the world, was made by Italian team members Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni on 31 July 1954. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay is the only HAP whose name is mentioned because he shared the victory of Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary.
Pakistani media has published reports about major Pakistani mountaineers. Hunza born Nazir Sabir was the first Pakistani to climb Everest. A documentary film of the climb, “50 Day Struggle” shown all over Japan, made Nazir Sabir a household name. Ashraf Aman an engineer from Hunza was the first Pakistani to climb K2 or any peak above 8,000 meters. Pakistani media has run several features about Samina Baig from Shimshal valley, the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest in 2013 on the 60th anniversary of the ascent of the world’s highest peak.
Little attention has been paid however to the faceless HAPs who make the victories of the heroes possible.
Before the creation of Pakistan portering for and guiding mountain expeditions in northern areas was the exclusive domain of the hardy sherpas of Nepal. They were soon replaced by local people from Gilgit-Baltistan. Occasionally one still hears about sherpas being brought in by foreign mountaineering teams. But this is rare. The vast majority of HAPs come from the three villages of Shimshal valley, in Gojal Tehsil of Hunza district in Gilgit-Balistan. Like Hasan Sadpara some come from Skardu also. Sadapra achieved prominence as the second Pakistani to climb all five eight-thousander Pakistani Peaks after Rajab Shah. Hassan is also the second Pakistani to summit Everest after Nazir Sabir and the first Pakistani to stand on summit of Nanga Parbat thrice.
During a summer, day temperatures in mountains rise to more than 30C in the sun. Higher up night-time temperatures fall to well below freezing point, and frost and snow are common in the mornings. The porters are required to carry heavy loads. As one of the porters interviewed by Christiane Fladt tell, between base camp and camp-1 a pack of 20kg is permitted but the limit is never maxed out. The HAPs also do the risky part of the climb by running ahead to break the trail which is the most arduous part of the expedition. Setting up the ropes and ladders for expeditions to come through, taking oxygen to higher camps, rescuing the injured, and carrying the dead are the routine work of the porter. The leader of a mountaineering team once ordered the HAPS to carry water in bulk to save the fuel needed to melt mountain snow into water. Little mention is made in the media or in the stories on the net of HAPs falling to their death in crevasses or developing permanent disabilities.
What motivates the HAPS to undergo the hardships? Living in high altitude mountainous areas, remaining cut off from the villages for months while looking after their herds of yaks, the spirit of adventure is in the Shimshalis blood. They can acclimatise with low oxygen high altitude tops better than those living in the plains. What is more the HAPS have to earn a living. Some interviewed by Fladt tell her they had to continue working as porter because they had to pay the school fees of children or a brother. There are quite a few HAPS who simply love climbing.
The HAPS are sometime not allowed to follow the climbing team to the peak thus denying them the accolade reserved for their paymasters. There are cases where they have been left behind to fend for themselves on the ice without shelter. The websites carry pictures of the expedition members but ignore the HAPs.
Fladt who has traveled a lot in the area has interviewed as many as 18 Shimshali high altitude porters.
The book contains a brief introduction of Shimshal valley which has now become accessible to the common tourists also thanks the jeepable road constructed by the Shimshalis themselves on mostly self-help basis. The valley is home to some of the well-known HAPs who later turned into guides or mountaineers like Rajab Shah, the first Pakistani to stand on the summit of all the five eight thousand meter peaks of the country that include, in the order of height, K2, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum 1, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum 2. The writer is happy over the spread of education in the valley. She notes however that the new generation of educated youth looks for high salaried jobs outside Shimshal in big cities of the country and may not be able to provide helpers and guides in days to come.