Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Abdul Karim

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It sounded a right peculiar name as it slipped off the tongue of a French mountaineer: Little Cream. The girl pronounced it ‘Cream’ and at first it seemed it was a segue from the tale of a past ascent to some food item. But soon it became clear that Little Cream was a Balti High Altitude Porter (HAP) of good standing.

The year was 1988 and the place in Gilgit was a hotel where tourists and mountaineers congregated at a communal table for meals. I had met the girl earlier at a store stocking mountaineering equipment and was invited to join her for dinner. I forget her name, but she had great things to say about this man, making this creamy little fellow seem almost a superman.

Thereafter, every time I was up in Baltistan, I would ask for the man who, I had meanwhile learned, was actually Little Karim. But always he was a step ahead and I just missed him so many times — until last summer in his native village of Hushe, north of Khaplu. By now I had also learned that unlike Little John of Robin Hood fame whose name was an antithesis (he being a giant), this man was actually famous for his diminutive size: he stands at barely five feet (1.5 metres).

And so in a small doss house, in Hushe with the clouds dripping rain outside, we sat over endless cups of tea as Abdul Karim alias Little talked of days gone by; days of glory, hard toil and high adventure.

He was barely seven when he first went to the high pastures with his family herd. Now, in Baltistan as everywhere else in such a situation, each family group has a communally designated pasture to which they must keep. Karim’s family was assigned a high brook (stream) in the Gondogoro area of the Karakoram Mountains.

Up there at a height of 4000 metres, the child, small for his age, would scramble about among the rocks. Back in the mid-1960s, there were no mountaineers routinely passing through remote Hushe and this child, who could hardly have known of climbing as a sport, engaged in a dangerous game. He upset his parents and was routinely reprimanded for his madness. But nothing stopped him for, he says, the game brought a sense of extreme pleasure and freedom.

The now popular route over the Gondogoro La was not known at that time. One summer, as he played his childish games among the rocks, Karim was surprised by a group of laden mountaineers descending the glacier spilling down the La. In living memory no one ever came down this way and an excited Karim ran up to them to warmly greet them; despite his ignorance of any language but Balti.

The sight of a grubby little child who from his size seemed just four or five years old, took the climbers. They gave him, says Karim, a whole handful of candy and biscuits. That was his first encounter with this unique breed of sportspersons called mountaineers.

More than a decade was to pass before Karim would actually become part of a group. In 1976, in his teens but still looking like a 10 year-old, he betook himself to Skardu where a number of mountaineering teams were hiring porters. But no one took him on: he was repeatedly rejected. They told him he was too small and did not trust him to be able to carry the prescribed 25 kilogrammes.

Just when he was about to give up, a Swiss team having run out of more useful men took him on. “Even when they did, they were doubtful of my ability to carry,” says Karim. As for himself, he was thrilled to have got a chance to earn real money for the first time in his life.

In 1976, expeditions went up to Yuno in Shigar valley by tractor trolley and then footed it all the way. Karim says he was so overjoyed at having got work that even with his full load he skipped on ahead of everyone else. On the second day, pausing near Chongo village for a drink, Karim noticed that a wooden beam spanned the stream. Having straddled it like a horse and pulled himself across, he waited to warn the others.

The Swiss were the first to turn up. While everyone understood his sign language and did as he instructed, a girl member thought she could do it standing up and walking across. No surprise that she fell into the stream. Karim says he was ready for just such an occurrence. He immediately jumped in to pull the woman out.

That night as he relaxed in the porters’ billet, Karim was summoned by the liaison officer who commended for his good work to avert a disaster. The Swiss, especially the girl he had rescued, were all over him and insisted he dine with them. The next day, his load was distributed among the other porters and Karim only had to carry the gear of the girl he had rescued.

At Khoburtse, the minor peak in the Braldu Glacier they were climbing, Karim was retained as a member of the climbing party on the girl’s insistence. That year, 1976, the first time he had ever been with a climbing team, Karim summited a 7000-metre peak.

The pace was set; the money was good; Karim had proved he was as good as the next man and so he was in Skardu every summer after that. Masherbrum base camp was where the next summer found him. But in 1978, once again, his short stature became a hurdle. A British team headed by the now famous Chris Bonington was on its way to K-2 and Karim had visions of making it to a high camp. When Bonington refused to take him on, Karim sneaked around his behind, swiftly stuck his head through the big man’s legs and hoisting the two-metre tall Brit on his shoulder ran around the open ground. The laughter of the assembled porters cracked the sky as Bonington, beside himself with amusement, got a measure of the man’s strength.

But it was a disaster. Up beyond Camp 3, the outstanding alpinist Nick Estcourt was swept away by an avalanche. This was a great loss to British mountaineering and understandably, the expedition aborted. Meanwhile, Karim was on his way to becoming ‘Little’.

A French team attempting K-2 in 1979 took him on. But there were two other men of the same name and every time Karim was called out, the three responded. To get around this problem, the leader named them, Big, Medium and Little. Over the years, it was only the Little that survived to earn worldwide recognition in the mountaineering world.

Having been up to 6600 metres with the British team, Karim was acknowledged as an outstanding HAP. Without a break, the man continued his work until in 1985, once again, a French team. Mountaineer Jean-Marc Boivin was to hang glide down from the summit of Gasherbrum 2 as he was filmed by a television crew. Little Karim was to tote the 25-kilogramme glider to the 8035-metre top.

Though he was by now known fairly well in the European climbing circles, the success of this endeavour lifted Karim to fame, especially among the French. But if G-2 had brought a high, it also brought a low that same year. Caught in a blizzard at Camp 3, the Japanese climber he was with became restless. Even as gale force winds tore around their tent with visibility near zero, the man insisted on attempting a retreat. Little Karim advised restraint. But the man left nonetheless.

Ten minutes later, above the howl of the storm Karim heard the drone of an avalanche. A little later, when a small window appeared in the darkness, he went out and found the Japanese climber head down in the powdery snow of the avalanche. The man was dead. Little Karim hauled the body back to the tent and radioed base camp for help. But the storm raged on for three more days in which time our man slept with a corpse by his side.

His reputation for being a superman was not without reason. There was the time when a climber, a young woman, fell ill at Camp 3 on Broad Peak. Karim was at base from where he was sent up with medication for the climber. He says without a load, he did the ascent in less than three hours!

And then there was the time in 1986 on the descent from Broad Peak when the Spanish climber gave up. They were at 7700 metres and the man sat down to die. Enervated and unable to walk, he tearfully instructed Karim to leave him and carry on. And, says our man, he did leave the Spaniard and descended some seven hundred metres. “But then I thought I was doing a great criminal act. He could not survive at that height and it was as if I was committing murder,” he recalls.

He went back up and with the harness and pieces of high altitude clothing fashioned a sort of toboggan. Placing the man on it, Karim hauled him down to Camp 3. There the man collapsed in the tent. But overnight rest and food brought him back to the world of the living. Karim says when he was fully revived; the Spaniard hugged him and would not stop weeping.

So many of the men he climbed with have died in mountaineering accidents. But Karim has been fortunate to have been spared. The nearest he was to death was on the three occasions he fell into crevasses. The deepest he went was 35-metres, but always he was hauled out in good time. Below him, he recalls, was a dark and frightful world from which he heard the eerie sounds of glacial movement as if the demons of an unknown netherworld were calling out.

On his trip to Canada in 1999-2000 to be part of a film on K-2 (probably Vertical Limit), Little Karim went down with jaundice. When he returned home, he was advised by the doctor to avoid going higher than 7000 metres. That was the end of his days as a HAP. But it did not mean he was never going up the Karakoram giants. He restricts himself below the prescribed height and continues with his work.

After a lifetime of mountaineering, Little Karim, now in his early 50s, runs a little provisions store in his native Hushe. It is impossible to get him to gripe about the injustice of it all: the climbers he assisted to the top are famous around the world; he is unknown even in his own country. He simply says he is thankful for the opportunity fortune gave him to enjoy the most sublime form of adventure on the highest places on earth; places where only a select few can ever be.

That, he says with unmistakable satisfaction, is the prize of being a mountaineer.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 2 October 2016 at 14:36, Blogger Umer Jamshed said...

Wow. What a read.
Hats off to Abdul Karim. Would love to meet him someday and listen to the stories of his adventures in the Karakoram outbacks.
What a great tribute to Little Cream, this.

At 2 October 2016 at 18:38, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Thank you, Umer Jamshed. Now that Karim has retired you will find him mostly in his village, Hushe.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

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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