Experts discuss mountaineering challenges in Pakistan
Late mountaineer Ali Sadpara didn’t get what he needed in his life and his death should be a spark for all to recognise other unsung heroes.
This was said at a webinar titled After Ali Sadpara: Pakistan’s Mountaineering Challenges, organised by LUMS on Monday. It was moderated by Mehreen Zahra-Malik, who is Pakistan editor for Arab News, and featured Asghar Ali Porik and Karrar Haidri on the panel, who are all associated with mountaineering. Sadpara’s manager and friend Rao Ahmad was also on the panel.
Mehreen said that 2021 has been a historical year for Pakistan and its mountaineering community as K2, the world’s second highest peak, was summited by Nepali climbers in the winter for the first time. Hundreds of climbers visit Pakistan every year to take on K2 and Nanga Parbat, the former being an ultimate challenge for most of them. But mountaineers Ali Sadpara, John Snorri and JP Mohr’s death on K2 is an opportunity to self-reflect.
“People now have an idea about what mountaineering is after Sadpara’s death,” said Rao. “A day before the mountaineers went missing, they had set out at different times.”
Sadpara had left his camp at 12 in the night, while John has already set off at 11:30 pm. Sadpara’s son Sajid, who was also a part of the expedition, returned because his oxygen tank regulator was malfunctioning. His father and fellow mountaineers were fit the last time Sajid saw them.
“We can assume that they fell ill…were blown away by the wind,” said Rao. “My calculations infer that they had reached the summit, by which time their satellite phones were dead.”
He believes that the mountaineers had died the very morning. “When you cross the Bottleneck, you have to make a traverse, which I think could have flushed them down. These are the possibilities we can think of.”
Karrar Haidri, General Secretary of Alpine Club (a national forum which provides training to adventurists) said the mountaineers, including Sadapara, were highly experienced.
“Ali had summited Nanga Parbat in the winter of 2016,” he said. “There was a bad weather forecast for February 5. They might have been engulfed by a storm or blown away by the wind. Even Sajid said the weather was bad when he returned to camp three.”
Asghar Ali Porik, Vice President Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan Association of Tour Operators, said whatever happened to the climbers happened on the way down. “I have had Russian, Polish and Spanish national teams and been doing winters for the last five years.” His assessment is that the camp in which the mountaineers were staying was visited by three uninvited people who Ali couldn’t say no to. Sadpara, along with the other two, couldn’t take proper sleep, which is important before taking on such a big mission.
“They might have been drowsy on their way down and the wind would have blown them away,” he said.
In response to Mehreen’s question about examining the incident objectively, Karrar said John had visited Pakistan in 2020 and he and Sadpara were highly experienced. “But the weather is in no one’s control,” he remarked. “You can’t take they would have taken a wrong discussion.”
Rao said a decision is always made by the entire team. “Their past behavior was examined but they have never shown “greediness”. I have been with Ali, his past is clear. He has returned twice from near the summit because his clients were feeling ill and he had to bring them down to the base camp.”
Rao said he spoke to him on February 2 about his plan and how he was feeling. Sadpara said he was okay. “I am ruling out any emotional decision in this regard.”
“No commercial expedition should be allowed on K2 in winter,” said Asghar. “It should only be allowed for as long as there are no complaints from the clients. The government should look into the matter but there is no one to look after the Nepalese. Europeans have their own services and laws. But nobody controls and provides services to the Nepalese.”
He said K2 in winter is not for inexperienced climbers. “I am not in favour of K2 being a tourist destination in Pakistan because this incident has shown Pakistan in a bad light to the world. K2 winter has been a privilege for the world’s best climbers to summit. But its weather is very unpredictable.”
“In 1974, the Alpine Club was set up with an objective was to train mountaineers. Youngsters have a passion for mountaineering and they are very strong. But there has been an issue related to funding, which we have not been provided for three years.”
He said after the Nepalese climbed K2, there has been an inflow of funding from all over the world for Nepal for professional mountaineering institutions there.
Asghar complained there is is no government-supported mountaineering institution in Pakistan. “There has to be a fully funded institution. I want to suggest 80% of the fee charged by Central Karakoram National Park (which has been increased to $200 from $65) be invested in the locals.”
The mountaineering degrees from Nepal are recognised all over the world, but Pakistan has no institutions. He also suggested the climbers keep a trail gun and tracking devices that work with the help of an app.
“John had a drone but he wasn’t allowed to use it,” he said. The circumstances would have been different if he had used it for emergency purposes.
“Foreign mountaineers want to come in and train people here but they have accommodation issues,” said Karrar, adding that the government should provide funding for them. “There is a law in Nepal that only those who have climbed 7,000 metres can climb 8,000 metres. Bureaucrats can’t make policies on mountaineering but only people who are associated with it.”
When Asghar was contacted by John for a winter expedition, he was looking for a partner. “John already had experience with Nepali climbers so I recommended Sadpara.”
Sadpara agreed when he heard about the deal (a $10,000 contract), but requested his son to be by his side on the expedition.
“Everybody works for the money,” said Asghar. “The government had made several promises to Sadpara but they were never fulfilled. “ He added that the only support for Sadpara he remembers was from a French climber for a show in Spain.
“There’s no particular rescue team, even at Alpine Club,” Rao revealed. “Three to four mountains are along the borders. No one is operating there but the army. When such incident occurs, Askari Aviation (which charges $3000 per hour for their helicopter) has to work with the army. So it adds up to $20,000 per flight, and you have to to pay the fee in advance.”
“PARTU members pay Rs700,000 per climber in advance,” said Asghar. “There should be a private institution. In addition to this, the insurance amount which is only Rs200,000 be increased to Rs1 million.”
“I can’t tell you how I feel,” said Rao in his closing remarks. “We had been struggling to get Sadpara recognition. He struggled all his life, and in 2016 made a world record by summiting Nanga Parbat in winter. He didn’t get what he needed while he was alive. I can’t explain how heart-breaking it is for me.”