Ali Sadpara has gone missing on the world's second tallest mountain, K2, along with two other climbers John Snorri of Iceland and Chilean Juan Pablo Mohr. This is a friend's tribute to Sadpara.
“His arm was outstretched, hand gripping the serac ice wall in K2’s notorious Bottleneck. That’s my last image of my father. That’s how I want to remember him,” says Sajid, who was accompanying his father Ali Sadpara in his quest to climb the 'Savage Mountain' in winters. Sajid was forced to return due to a malfunctioning oxygen mask.
A winter summit of K2 is considered the ultimate challenge in mountaineering and previously thought impossible until an expedition of Nepali climbers made history by achieving the feat in January of 2021.
Ali Sadpara is missing, now presumed dead, along with two other climbers, John Snorri Sigurjonsson of Iceland, and Chilean Juan Pablo Mohr. They were last seen by Sajid around noon on Friday last week, on the most dangerous stretch of K2, the ‘Bottleneck’, a steep, narrow gully called a couloir, just 300 meters from the summit. Its located inside what mountaineers call the ‘death zone’, referring to altitudes over 8,000 meters where there isn’t enough oxygen for humans to breathe and the body's cells start to die.
Climbers have to race against the clock to summit and exit the death zone before the body and mind deteriorate completely.
When I last met Ali Sadpara, I invited him to my city, Karachi. “I was miserable there,” he told me. “This is my place. I belong to the mountains.”
We both were in Gilgit for a much publicised gathering on the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) attended by the country’s top military and civilian leadership. Surrounded by others in suits and ties or uniforms, Ali was comfortable in the traditional shalwar kameez.
Ali’s close friend, local judge and amateur climber Abbas Chopa offered a wry smile. “He makes complex knots on ropes while dangling near the sky when climbing, but he can’t make a knot on a necktie. I’ve tried to teach him.”
Sadpara laughed. “What is the sense of making knots in a noose around your own neck?” he asked.
We spent the evening together, talking late into the night. He was excited at his world record, having recently returned from a successful winter summit of Nanga Parbat, known as 'Killer Mountain', in the winter of 2016.
I didn’t know anything about the world of mountaineering and have a degree of a phobia of heights, so I steered the conversation towards his life. Ali Sadpara spoke of his childhood, harsh realities, losing friends in climbs, and his dreams.
His birth led to festivities in the Sadpara village of mountain porters in Skardu on the Pakistan-China border. His parents had lost eight children before he was born. He was taken to a saint for blessings and protection, and his mother breast fed him until an older age than normal,“she made me strong enough to climb mountains,” he said.
He grew up seeing foreigners gearing up for expeditions, watching villagers line up to carry their luggage as porters. He too wanted to climb, but as an expedition member, not a porter. “But I had no choice,” he explained, “there were financial constraints. We didn’t have any training or top gear.”
His father didn’t want him to get into mountaineering, and insisted he set up a small business or do a government job rather than risk his life.
He tried. Ali Sadpara did odd jobs in the port city of Karachi, worked in marble mines in the hills of Balochistan. He couldn’t function in the heat and humidity, so he fled back home. In a town near his village, he set up a shop to sell old imported leather and sports shoes. He couldn’t make it work out even for few months.
“The mountains called to me,” he said.
So he queued up as a porter. During his initial trips, he earned between $12 to $20 a day and free meals, for carrying 30 kilos of luggage, on average, up the mountains for foreign climbers.
“I learned skills by observing them. We have no formal training. From foreign mountaineers, I learned to set up camp and prepare routes and the use of gadgets. I later went for climbing classes in France and Spain. But instinctively, I knew the mood of the mountains. I understood them.”
Sadpara and his community also served Pakistan’s armed forces as porters, scaling the Siachin Glacier, including in treacherous conditions at night to ferry supplies to troops in the conflict with India. He said every household in his village had natural climbers, like the famed Sherpas of Nepal, yet did so without any support. He spoke of wanting to set up a training academy for climbers in his region.
He wasn’t content being a porter. He wanted to carry his country's flag - and eventually, he did. Sadpara climbed eight of the world’s 14 mountains over 8,000 meters and the Pakistan government recently announced that they would sponsor the remaining expeditions.
I asked if he wrote or maintained diaries. He held out his hands. The fingers had burn marks, dark patches, serrated scars. “My expeditions are mapped on my hands. The avalanches, rock falls, ice column collapses, its all recorded here.”
A smile lit up his weather-creased eyes.
“See this one here?” he said, pointing to one such mark, “I made an ice cave with an ice pick and spent the night in it.”
Over continuing cups of chai, I asked him if anything else excited him apart from mountains. “Soccer,” he said. “The match between Real Madrid and Barcelona with Messi and Ronaldo in action was as exciting as a mountain. I called my children, I phoned my friends, relayed every move to them. I used to play soccer myself long ago.”
When I left Gilgit, we both promised to meet again but soon after I was diagnosed with cancer. During my chemotherapy, I received a pack of apricot kernel almonds from him, the local curative supplement from the mountains. I finished them off. “Help comes from different places,” he said to me on the phone.
His wife used to tie a taveez amulet for luck on his climbs. “She is the daughter of a climber and the wife of a climber. She knows it’s a journey of life and death, the mountains don’t give second chances,” he narrated.
Ali Sadpara’s legacy lives on through his son Sajid. His mother, Fatima, knows it is a miracle that he was able to make it back from the mountain alive, even as she mourns Ali being lost on K2.
“Sadpara is different on the mountains. He sings, he dances. He even talks to the mountains,” his friend Abbas Chopa had said.
“I don’t talk to mountains, I listen to them,” Sadpara had said. Then he paused. “Sometimes, maybe I whisper back.”