Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

A world beyond the Mountains

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Treading on the borders of China and Wakhan to its north, Chapursan is as remote as a valley can get in Pakistan. A mere forty years ago, before the Karakoram Highway was pushed through, it was among the hardest locations to reach within the boundaries of Pakistan. With a narrow river taking up the valley floor, bounding and frothing in high summer and a sedate blue from autumn until spring, most horizontal spaces in Chapursan are under the plough. All around rise rock walls, sombre gray or brilliantly coloured, as if to exclude the valley from the outside world.

The village of Raminji sits on a shelf high above the right bank of the Chapursan River 3100 metres above the sea, barely fifteen kilometres from the entrance to the valley at Sost. Here a boy was born on the tenth day of December in 1955, the fifth of eight children. His earliest memories are of the claustrophobia induced by the sombre rock walls that enclosed his village and these go back to the time before he started school at the age of four and a half. The mountains like prison walls enclosing him in a little world that was mostly vertical with a huge slash of sky above. That was when the child felt the urge to surmount these confining hills and look upon the wider world beyond.

Around the hearth, when the day was done, the elders spoke of the world outside Chapursan. There was Hunza on ‘the other side’ of the mountains to the south and Tashkurgan to the north in China. And there were other places like Rawalpindi and Karachi. By the time he had finished the fourth grade in the village school, this child knew the names of several other cities: Delhi, Tokyo, Teheran and those of distant America as well. All of them lay on the ‘other side’ of his mountains. The boy thought if he were to climb the peaks of Chapursan, he would see the rest of the world spread out at his feet.

Little did the boy, named Nazir Sabir by his parents, know then that he was destined to climb the great peaks of the Karakoram-Himalayan mountain system and that one day he would stand upon the highest spot on the globe. But years later when he did start climbing, it was not from his native Chapursan. His first ascent was of Paiju peak in the Baltoro Glacier of Baltistan. Over the years he was to make his name in that great knot of K-2 and its satellites.. But by then he knew enough geography to understand that the cities of the distant world would not be visible from whichever peak he may climb.

Inhabitants of high altitude regions naturally have higher haemoglobin content in their blood in order to transport more oxygen to their lungs out of the thin air. This gave Sabir the advantage that any mountaineer could wish for. But his training began early. Situated as it is on a high shelf, the few springs around Raminji froze when winter set in. The only flowing water then would be the river under its thick coating of surface ice on the valley floor. Chunks of this were hewn off with axes and carried up to the village to be thawed and used. This work was normally assigned to the boys and Sabir remembers winter childhoods braving the frigid water hacking off slabs of ice to tote them home in a basket on his own back. He was fortunate when the family’s horse or donkey were free to be used to carry the burden.

When he was nine, he moved from Raminji to Aliabad (near Karimabad, the capital of Hunza) in order to continue his education. If the daily exercise of hauling ice from the valley floor to his hilltop home had helped his stamina, the twelve-kilometre to and fro walk to school and back kept him in good fettle. Other than that, little changed because as in Chapursan so too in Hunza he was confined by the skirt of high peaks. It was in the Hunza of the 1960s that Sabir first heard tales of adventure in the highest places on earth.

Until partition, portering for and guiding mountain expeditions had been the exclusive domain of the hardy Sherpas of Nepal the last of whom were seen in Pakistan’s Northern Areas in 1950. New tensions between the newly independent Pakistan and India curbed the Sherpas’ entry into Pakistan. But mountaineers from around the world were still converging on the region necessitating the need for local expertise which was quickly filled in by local men.

When these men returned at the end of the summer, they had stories to tell of their exploits and those of the Europeans. These tales tickled the young Nazir Sabir, but he never asked the story-tellers if they could see the cities that lay beyond the mountains. The horror of the yawning crevasses whose dark, unseen innards sent up eerie groans, cracks and thuds and the cracking avalanches that he had seen sweeping down distant snow slopes now became almost first hand knowledge.

Only a few years before he had witnessed a laden horse slipping on an ice-coated mountain path and falling nearly a thousand metres to its death. He now found himself wondering if men too slipped on the snow and ice and ended up dead. And if they did, why would those people from distant lands want to risk their lives on these mountains. He wondered too what it was that drove these men, to some of whom he was distantly related, into the mouth of obvious peril.

It was listening to these tales from the likes of Hidayat Beg and Arab Khan, both Aliabad natives, who had been on climbing expeditions that the boy thought in his childish mind that climbing the high mountains was perhaps the only way to break free of the overpowering claustrophobia he had always felt. Were the white men climbing these mountains to seek a similar escape?

The Gilgit high school to which he graduated in the late 1960s used a book titled Modern Adventures. Among others, it contained a couple of chapters on mountaineering. These the teenaged Sabir read and re-read relishing every moment described in those pages. Then he meticulously copied them down in a notebook for future reference.

Moving to college in Rawalpindi, Sabir came in contact with a certain Professor Beg from Lahore who annually took groups of students to Kaghan to introduce them to the mountains. It was with the professor’s teams that Sabir first went climbing. But other than further toughening him up for the future, these climbs did little to develop his mountaineering skill. Being mere mountain walks, these adventures did not employ the use of technical mountaineering gear. The only implement that he learned to use at that time was the ice axe.

The summer of 1973 brought Nazir Sabir his first big break. On the bus home from Rawalpindi he got talking to a bunch of Japanese. They were coming up to reconnoitre Passu peak for a possible attempt the following year. Seeing his enthusiasm for high places, the leader agreed to take him on as a local guide. That year for the first time in his life Sabir walked up a glacier. But if he had dreamed of being part of the summit team, that was not to be. The leader denied Sabir a place because he had no climbing experience. Neither was there room for him, nor too had they brought the necessary gear. As a mail runner Sabir went back and forth between base camp and the higher camps. His spare time at base camp was employed to graduate beyond the ice axe: he learned the use of the various items used by mountaineers on snow, ice and rock.

The following year, 1974, a German Nanga Parbat expedition asked for fifteen young Hunza men. Sabir volunteered, once again in the hope of somehow getting up the mountain. Once again fortune did not smile upon him and he was not permitted beyond base camp. He was slowly learning the competitiveness of the mountaineering world. While it was full of stories of the largesse of the spirit and camaraderie among its fraternity, there was a good deal of strong feeling about not letting just about anyone climb on an expedition: it had to be climbing members only.

The break came in 1976 when a team of young army officers was attempting the virgin Paiju peak (6756 metres). While still at base camp before the summit attempt, these young men were to be trained by Alan Stack, a famous American mountaineer and pioneer of a number of new routes up El Capitan in the Bitter Root Range of Idaho-Montana. Once again it was the young Sabir’s passion that won him a place on the team as one of two civilians on an army expedition. Up on the mountain it was this same drive that got Sabir the privilege of leading some difficult mixed pitches of ice, snow and rock – a novice’s acid test.

Learning on the job, the team continued until one evening, just before sunset, they found themselves a mere 120 metres below the summit. With no tent, a snow hole was dug and the four of them crawled in for the night. While the others went in, as the youngest Sabir was expected to make the door of the hole. That is what he did occasionally leaving his post to stamp about on the two-metre snow plateau to keep the circulation going in his limbs. The shock came in the morning when Stack announced that they were returning to base camp.

Sabir was aghast: it had been hard work getting up as far as this; now with the prize of the virgin summit a mere hundred metres off, the team was being denied the honour of being the first men since the dawn of time to stand on the icy, wind-scoured apex of Paiju. Stack insisted that the team was in no position to climb. They had not slept well, none of them had eaten anything since lunch the day before and the going to the summit was treacherous.

One of the army officers had been in poor shape, but even the other seemed in tacit agreement with Stack. Sabir argued, and with such vehemence too that the instructor agreed to let him and the soldiers try their luck. That summer Paiju was conquered and only because one man did not submit to the leader to forego the peak. If Alan Stack were to be asked he would surely have something to say for the single-minded tenacity of his twenty year-old student. He would surely have marked him as a climber of great promise.

His first encounter with K-2 as a climbing member with a Japanese team left Sabir in tears. At Camp 5, just when the summit seemed within reach, the weather broke forcing the summit team to abort and descend to Camp 3. When weather cleared a second attempt was made with K-2 looming above them in pristine white against a clear blue sky. But the mountain seemed to be taunting the climbers for when they were poised to make the summit bid from Camp 5, a white-out reduced visibility to zero. The expedition was called off. When the summit teams were re-united with those at base camp, they all wept.

K-2 now obsessed Nazir Sabir and when he was invited by the Japanese to join the 1981 expedition, he did not have to think twice. This time the mountain deigned to submit to Sabir and the thirteen Japanese. Two years earlier his older brother Inayat, a commando with the elite SSG, had disappeared on Diran peak in Hunza and the past summer Sabir had spent scouring the snow slopes of Diran in a vain attempt to recover the body. With the tragedy still fresh in their minds, he knew his parents would not permit him to attempt K-2. So he lied to them about going only as far as base camp.

At 106 metres below the summit, the leader told Sabir and his Japanese partner that they had only one hour to make the summit. If they were even a metre below the summit at the end of their hour, they were to return in order to permit the other summit teams to make their bids. With a vengeance bordering on madness, the two slogged up the snow and ice and as they neared the summit Sabir made one of those rare and magnanimous gestures not unheard of in climbing circles: he called upon the trailing Japanese to lead and take the glory of the summit. In the end the two walked up arm in arm.

In June 1931 a team led by Frank Smythe climbed the virgin Kamet in Nepal. Comprising of two other British members (including the legendary Eric Shipton) and two Sherpas, the team neared the summit. In view of the extremely good performance of the Sherpas in getting the team up, Smythe pushed Sherpa Lewa, the sirdar of the porters, ahead to become the first man to stand on Kamet. Though Sabir had not heard of this event, he possessed that largess of the spirit to emoolate this most generous of gestures.

The pace was now set. With his technical mountaineering skills honed to the fullest, and his physical strength at its peak, Sabir raced from mountain to mountain. The year 1982 saw him and Colonel Sher Khan doing a magnificent double summit of Gasherbrun 2 and Broad Peak in company with the Tyrolean Reinhold Messner. The following summer had him falling four hundred metres in an avalanche on the southwest ridge on Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat. He survived to tell the tale, but for him Nanga Parbat was to forever remain unclimbed.

The ultimate prize for any mountaineer is Everest, the highest spot upon the globe. Sabir had hoped to bag this grand prize for Pakistan’s fiftieth anniversary of independence. The route they took was through Tibet. Three times they made high camps for the summit bid and three times they were denied success by high winds and bad weather. Gale force winds swept off nine hapless climbers off the mountain that year while Sabir brought his team home unsuccessful but intact.

At the press conference one ignorant journalist asked him if he wasn’t ashamed to have come back alive. Sabir could only respond by asking if this man had ever hiked in the Margallas leave alone slogged up a snow and ice slope at 8650 metres (the height they aborted at) above the sea where the air is a mere fraction of what we normally breath.

But Everest obsessed him now. And when he was invited by Peter Habler and Christine Boskoff for their 2000 summit bid Sabir did not demur. He knew his stint in Northern Areas politics over the past years had kept him a little out of form, but the lure of Everest was far too much for such minor concerns. At base camp in Nepal, he trained by climbing Kala Pathar; eight times in all. The first back and forth having cost eight hours and the last a mere two and half hours.

That year he made the summit and also became the first foreigner to return from the summit to the base camp in a single marathon. As he slogged up the last few metres of snow and ice, he was trampling underfoot the challenge of that ignorant journalist who had wanted him to die on Everest.

The reception upon returning was way beyond his wildest dreams. Especially so when his ascent of K-2 nine years before had been greeted by a mere single paragraph report on the sports pages of a Rawalpindi paper.

The conquest of Everest however was sobering. Back in 1996 he had been invited to it by his long-time friend Scott Fisher. Sabir had to decline because of his political commitments as member of the NA Council. Fisher’s entire team perished on Everest that year. Now as he descended from the summit, his partner Sherpa pointed out Fisher’s body given up by the melting glacier.

This was not the only death of a close friend that Nazir Sabir was to experience. He had climbed with other men and women who were lost either on Pakistani peaks or elsewhere. He had seen some go over the edge and into the abyss never to be found again. If anything, this had a sobering effect. It instilled a deep-rooted sense of appreciation of all forms of life. At the same time, it has given Sabir a sense of the fragility of life.

There are two species of mountaineers. The one who risk their lives on the world’s high peaks because of the thrill of the sport and the joy of being alone to test one’s mettle against that of Nature. And there are those who do it for the glory, the fame and the money. Nazir Sabir thinks he is fortunate to belong to the former class. The latter, he feels, do not last long in the sport.

Up there when one is alone with the mountain, the mountain beats the hell out of the lowly human challenging it. But there is no one to see the sweat, the tears, and the raw courage or feel the consuming fear that goes into the enterprise. In those high places, it is puny man pitted against all-powerful Nature. When one makes it back alive, one does not swagger. One is cowed down; sobered by the reality one has seen, a reality unknown to the huge majority of the human race. Mountaineering is not a spectator sport and so mountaineers never become household heroes.

Today while he contemplates climbing the peaks in his native Chapursan Valley and neighbouring Shimshal, Nazir Sabir juggles his responsibilities as President of the Alpine Club with several environmental initiatives. The nearest to his heart being the degradation of Shandur with the annual orgy of polo, the juniper forests of Balochistan and the much abused Siachin Glacier. Looking ahead to his years past his sixtieth birthday due in a few years, he knows that the mountaineer will never die. He will continue to live with lecture tours. For if there is anyone that does not die but fade away, it is a mountaineer.

‘Mountaineering is more than a sport. It is a whole experience, a pilgrimage. Of that whole, the summit is just one little bit.’ Nazir Sabir.

Official Page: Nazir Sabir Expeditions

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 21 May 2013 at 14:46, Blogger Nayyar Julian said...

Nazir Sabir is a real hero. How many other Pakistanis have surmounted Everest?

At 21 May 2013 at 16:14, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Nazir Sabir is our Everest pioneer. He was followed by Hasan Sadpara (Skardu) and now we have the siblings from Shimshal, Samina Baig and Mirza Ali.

At 22 May 2013 at 14:42, Anonymous Rehman said...

I keep wondering what is the view like from the top of the world?

At 24 May 2013 at 13:39, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It’s great to read about people who impacted me as a teen and may impact me as an adult through their work. Andrew McCarthy

At 12 January 2014 at 18:27, Anonymous Sumaira Jajja said...

This has got to be the best ever profile of NS. absolutely brilliant. now waiting for my pilgrimage to the higher heaven ;)

At 15 January 2014 at 16:12, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sumaira, Nazir is a dear friend and a person I deeply admire. This came from the heart therefore. So glad you liked it. And Godspeed to you, young adventurer!


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

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Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

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