“I don’t have the words to describe what it felt like to stand on top of K2,” says Pakistani mountaineer Muhammad Ali Sadpara. “My whole life has been spent in these mountains. Due to God’s grace, I was able to fly the Pakistani flag on top of each of the five [8,000m] peaks.”

The 41-year-old mountaineer is one of the very few Pakistanis who have managed to climb all of the 8,000m peaks in Pakistan. The pride and joy are evident in his voice.

Sadpara shot to fame in Pakistan and abroad when he became one of the three climbers to do the first summit of Nanga Parbat (8,126m) in winter in 2016. It was his third expedition to K2, also known as the ‘Savage Mountain.’

This year was his fourth attempt at K2 — he tried in 2004 and 2013, and in 2014 he managed to make his way up to 8,350m before turning back. “I went with an American woman and reached 8,350m. And she had a problem with her knees at that point. She told me ‘Ali, you’re one of the climbers from Pakistan, go do the summit.’ I told her that I wasn’t going to leave her in such a dangerous spot just so I can get to the summit. Where’s the humanity in that? I will get to the summit another day.” He tried again in 2015, but there was no window to climb. But he was finally successful in 2018. According to Sadpara, he summited without using bottled oxygen.

 

Ali Sadpara on top of K2
Ali Sadpara on top of K2.

 

A NEW SUMMIT RECORD

There were over 63 summits on K2 this year, setting a whole new record. Previously, there were only two other years with a large number of successful summits — 51 in 2004 and 49 in 2014. Polish mountaineer and skier Andrzej Bargiel made history as the first person to ski down the mountain. “I have managed to ride down from the summit of K2, directly to the base camp. It’s a very technical descent, leading down the middle of the face, so I’m very happy it turned out well, because I’m here for the second time, and I’m glad I don’t have to come back,” said Bargiel in a statement afterwards.

Of the summits that were made, seven were done by women, which included Gangaamaa Badamgarav. She became the first Mongolian to stand on top of K2. Viridiana Chavez (Mexico) became the first Latin woman to summit. Others included Swiss climber Sophie Lavaud, Yuki Inavoshi (Japan), Lisa Thomspon (United States), Jianhong Li (China) and Naoko Watanabe (Japan).

The Sherpa-owned trekking company, Seven Summits, announced over 24 summits on July 21. It included Sadpara’s. This is the operator he was working with this season. On July 22, American operator Madison Mountaineering announced they put 24 people on the summit, which included four Pakistani High Altitude Porters (HAPs).

“I brought oxygen masks and regulators, so they could use them on summit day,” shares American mountaineer and guide Garrett Madison, who is credited with having introduced guided climbing to K2 back in 2014. “I planned for them to have the opportunity. I’ve heard that previous expeditions would sometimes stop them from summiting [with them] and you can’t [summit] on your own, later. You’re so tired by the time you get up to Camp 4. One of them, Moosa Ali, is just 23 years old. This was Bashir’s eighth K2 expedition and he’s only just made the summit.” This was Pakistani mountaineer Fazal Ali Shimshali’s third K2 summit and second summit for Madison, Dawa Sangay Sherpa, Ngima Dorchi Sherpa, Chhiji Norbu Sherpa and Lakpa Temba Sherpa.

A six-member Japanese team summited on the same day as well. They faced tragedy on the way down when climber Kojiro Wantanabe fell to his death in the Bottleneck — a narrow couloir overhung by 100m high ice cliffs of a hanging glacier. Climbers have to traverse about 100m of massive, exposed seracs, with a risk of the seracs breaking and falling on them, to pass through to the final summit ridge.

That was not the only tragedy this year. Canadian climber and guide Serge Dessureault fell to his death near the House Chimney — a 100-foot tall crack in a rock wall between Camp 1 and Camp 2 — as he was rappelling from Camp 2 while on an acclimatisation rotation.

With summit windows few and far between and a high number of casualties, K2 is known as one of the most dangerous mountains to climb in the world. For mountaineers and operators, safety is a major concern. “We worked really hard to find a safe route,” says Madison. “We fixed ropes … that’s something people don’t talk about much. We coordinated with another team on the mountains and fixed the ropes and opened the route. But once the route’s been opened, anyone can use those ropes.

“And because we got these lines in, a couple of other teams were able to utilise them at the summit. For example, the Japanese team used all of our lines.”

Does that become a problem or make descending unsafe? “Yes,” says Madison. “We summited and we’re coming down and since the Japanese team was coming up on our ropes, we couldn’t utilise them. We had to wait for hours. Fortunately, we had more ropes and so we used them on the way down. We made it. But having to plan for other people using your ropes [is not something we anticipated].”

For Sadpara, who was fixing ropes along the route with his team of Nepali Sherpas and Pakistani HAPs, the hardest part was fixing ropes at the Bottleneck. “It starts from 8,300m and goes till 8,450m,” he says. “There is ice, rock climbing … khudanakhwasta [God forbid] if that ice falls on you from above. It’s very risky, ghuss ke uss mein [you have to get into it to] climb karna hai.”

KING OF THE MOUNTAINS

“K2 paharon ki shehzadi hai [is the princess of all peaks]” says Sadpara. “It is very difficult to climb.”

Madison agrees with Sadpara. “It is tough,” he says. “It’s a steep mountain overall. It’s unrelenting. It’s very steep all the way to the summit. If you make a mistake, you can fall. Two climbers from other teams died this year as well. Also, because it’s so steep, there is a lot of rock fall. Thankfully, we didn’t have anything happen this year. The weather was hard to predict. There’s a lot of snow on K2 and so the opportunities to climb are few and far between.”

Does he think, with guided expeditions, climbing K2 is ever going to become as big as scaling Mount Everest? “I don’t think it’s going to become as big as Everest,” he says. “Last season we were tasked with the project of fixing the ropes. And so, we asked some of the other teams to pay for the equipment, manpower, etc — around 250 dollars per team. We can then bring in the expensive rope and get the manpower that’s needed to do this. That way, things can be done quickly and swiftly. It would probably take some time before that collective buy-in is developed on K2.”

 

Mount K2 view
Looking down at the confluence of the Godwin Austin and Baltoro glaciers. (Photo: Madison Mountaineering)

 

HAS MOUNTAINEERING BOUNCED BACK?

Compared to previous years, we’ve seen a large number of expeditions this year. One wonders whether the mountaineering industry bounced back since the Nanga Parbat base camp attack in 2013 in which 10 foreign climbers and one Pakistani guide were killed by militants. The perpetrators were apprehended a few months later, but whatever little was left of the mountaineering industry suffered a complete collapse.

“As I said in a meeting recently, in my opinion and experience, humari youth bethi hui hai aur hum tamasha dekh rahe hain [our youth is sitting idle and we’re just watching them]. From Europe we get climbers. They spend their money and contribute to local tourism/climbing businesses. But, why do the Nepali Sherpas come [to work in our mountains]?

“The Nepali Sherpas are definitely more expensive,” says Madison, whose crew was a mix of Sherpas and HAPs. “The Sherpas, I have to pay for their travel and climbing permit, their salary, etc. But it’s worth it, because they have so much experience and skill. They’ve worked on Everest and other big mountains.”

This lack of experience and training among the local HAPs is what is setting future potential mountaineers back in Pakistan, laments Sadpara. “There’s no one to train our youth here. There are maybe a few of us who’ve learned our skills in these mountains very slowly. I spent four years learning how to fix ropes, ice screws, etc. We’ve progressed where trekking is concerned, but when it comes to climbing, we haven’t done much at all.”

“Pakistanis have the intent to be able to do what the Nepal Sherpas do, they just need more training and experience,” elaborates Madison. “Nepal is more developed for mountaineering tourism and so the Nepali Sherpas are able to get all of their technical training. They’re proficient in high-altitude situations. The Pakistani HAPs are a little bit behind but they’re definitely advancing forward.

“It would be great if Pakistan could develop the trekking and mountaineering tourism more,” says Madison. “From what I’ve done here, it’s very arduous trekking. It’s very strenuous, its way harder than Nepal. If they built some lodges along some of the routes, and had more services, it would entice more people to come. Another thing that prevents them from coming is the visa process. It’s very difficult for foreigners to get tourist visas for Pakistan.

“I think there has been a recovery since the 2013 Nanga Parbat attack. Confidence has been restored. I would like to come back and do some more climbing.”

(Originally published on Dawn)