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Adventure Sports

with Stefan Nestler

Hidden heroes of mountaineering in Pakistan

Three times K2 without breathing mask: Fazal Ali

Sorry, Fazal Ali – that your extraordinary performance on K2 just slipped past me last summer! I reported on the first ski descent from the second highest mountain in the world by the Pole Andrzej Bargiel. I also noticed that Muhammad Ali “Sadpara”, the Pakistani winter first ascender of Nanga Parbat, completed his collection of the five eight-thousanders of his home country on K2 – and that it was a record season on “Chogori”, as you locals call the mountain. But I missed the news that you, Fazal, were the first mountaineer in the world to reach the 8,611-meter-high summit of the “King of the Eight-thousanders” for the third time after 2014 and 2017 without bottled oxygen. All the deeper I now take my hat off!

No appreciation


The fact that I did not realize Ali’s performance is annoying, but not by chance. We usually find out very quickly via the social networks, when for example the youngest Briton to date has scaled K2, the first woman from Switzerland, Mexico, Mongolia … However, the Pakistani companions of the eight-thousander expeditions in the Karakoram are rarely talked about. “I’m happy,” Fazal Ali recently told a reporter from the AFP news agency after his K2 triple. “But I’m also heartbroken because my feat will never be truly appreciated.” Most Pakistani high altitude porters and mountain guides in the service of commercial expeditions are likely to experience it like the 40-year-old from the Shimshal Valley: They are good enough to work, but they shouldn’t be on the summit picture. “These hidden heroes contribute to the success of many Western mountaineers and also support adventure tourism in the country,” writes Mirza Ali Baig to me. “But they are neither appreciated by the Western clients of the expeditions nor by the (Pakistani) government.”

More Sherpas, fewer jobs for locals

Mirza Ali Baig

Mirza Ali Baig is 35 years old and comes from Shimshal like Fazal Ali. His sister Samina Baig was the first Pakistani woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 2013. Mirza Ali is the head of the Pakistani tour operator “Karakorum Expeditions”. The mountaineer, filmmaker and photographer puts his finger on another wound: “Most Western companies hire Nepali Sherpas. This has been shrinking the job opportunities of the locals. Sherpas now work in Pakistan, but not a single Pakistani can work in Nepal.” For the locals, says Baig, “such adventures” are not about fun or self-realization as they are for Western mountaineers, but about “bread and butter for their families and a source of income to educate their children”.

Mountain training is lacking

Porters on the Baltoro Glacier

He admits that the Sherpas are on average more experienced and trained than the locals. “For decades, Western mountaineers have guided and trained Nepali Sherpas. However Pakistani High Altitude Porters – I would name them “local High Altitude Guides” – have never been provided the same opportunity to learn what the Westerners taught Nepali Sherpas. There is not a single institute in Pakistan to train and teach mountaineering or outdoor tourism.” Baig considers this as the Pakistani government’s duty: “They have never really taken the (tourism) industry seriously.” In Mirza Ali’s sight, there also could be a benefit from employing Nepali Sherpa, “if they work with locals and improve their skills, especially in fixing ropes and (other) high-altitude services. This would be good for both.”

Role model for young people

Perhaps one day the Pakistani mountaineers will also be given the appreciation that Sherpas in Nepal have enjoyed for decades and that has subsequently brought some of them modest prosperity. Remarkable successes such as that of Fazal Ali on K2, says Baig, are “truly inspiring and a role model for young people – not only in mountaineering, but also beyond it”. However only in case you hear about it.

P.S.: Dear friends in Pakistan, I am always looking for first hand information and I am grateful when I receive it. So please let me know when someone celebrates another amazing success in the Karakoram like Fazal Ali did!


21. November 2018 | 15:54