A day with Ali – a mountaineering legend
On Friday, it all of a sudden dawned on me that I had four days to play with as our office was closed for the event of Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramandan. During this festival, people get together, exchange presents and basically eat all day. And as eating all day is not really my cup of tea, I got a small panic attack, wondering what I could do for those four days.
So I went on the website of Pakistan International Airlines and looked for a flight to Skardu, which is a village at the foothills of the Karakorum and the gateway for expeditions to K2, the Gasherbrums, Masherbrum and many other amazing 7,000 or 8,000m peaks in the area. I was lucky enough to find a flight leaving on Sunday and coming back on Tuesday, the end of the holiday. Even though I was very well aware of the fact that these flights get cancelled rather frequently as they are subject to the weather, I still took the chance and booked my ticket.
I was rather impressed when I got a phone call from PIA on Saturday night, informing me that the flight was delayed by two hours and that my new departure time was 12 noon – and on Sunday morning I received yet another call telling me that the flight was delayed by a further two hours. I was gobsmacked that Pakistan’s national airline actually went through the trouble of ringing all their passengers to inform them about the delay.
Anyway, on Sunday at 2pm I was on my way to Skardu and the flight was one of the most amazing mountain flights I had ever been on. I was actually quite surprised that they were taking a Boeing 737 to that tiny little airport but the pilots seemed unperturbed by the oncoming sandstorm and landed very smoothly.
As I had only one full day in Skardu it was very important to me to get out into the mountains and see the Karakorum. I was dying to set my eyes on K2, Nanga Parbat, the Gasherbrums, etc. etc., which you cannot see from the village. After I had gone shopping to buy a few apples (something Skardu is famous for) and endured the stares of the men (there were hardly any women in the streets and I guess a foreign woman on her own daring to buy apples must have been a sensation to them), I went back to my hotel to find out whether such a trip would be possible.
The owner sent a trekking agent around and we decided that I could go to the Deasoi Plateau and walk up a 5,000m ridge from where I could see the Karakorum. As it was Eid he said it could be difficult to find a guide but he would do his best.
And his best he did. The next day, Ali Haider, a 46-year-old mountain guide, who turned out to be a walking mountaineering history book, picked me up at 6 o’clock in the morning. I could not believe my luck when Ali, whose last name sounded like the name of a late Austrian politician, started telling me about all the expeditions he had been on, and even though he had never reached the 8,000m-mark he had been on Nanga Parbat and K2 a few times. He had climbed with legends like Julie Tullis, a British mountaineer who died in a storm on K2 in 1986 – a year that was marked the ‘Black Summer’ as four other climbers succumbed to the bad weather. He also shared expeditions with Kurt Diemberger, Reinhold Messner and Wanda Rutkiewicz, a Polish climber who was considered one of the best female mountaineers at the time. Sadly, Wanda died on Kangchenjunga in 1992.
Spending the day with Ali, who was not only very knowledgeable about mountaineering history but also very intelligent and funny, was almost as good as gazing at the amazing Karakorum Range from our little ridge. Even though I know the Himalayas quite well and I have seen the mountains there from the top of the world, the Karakorum Range seemed almost more dramatic.
During our six-hour-hike, Ali told me all about his expeditions, his fellow climbers and his girlfriends, even though he had two (!!) wives. When I asked me why he had abandoned his first wife he told me that she could not bear him any children and that he then found a younger woman, who gave him a boy and a girl. Well, I guess this is a man’s life in a Muslim country but it is pretty tough for women. When I apologised to be taking him away from his wife and children during the Eid holiday, he told me that he did not live with his current wife either but he was only visiting his family every once in a while.
I tried to give him a hard time about it but all he could do was laugh it off and tell me that he much preferred to have spent Eid in the mountains than with his family. Well, nice for me but not so nice for his family! I guess that’s what life is like here in Pakistan and even though I find it hard to adapt to the suppressed lifestyle of the women here, I have to accept it: “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”
I am very grateful though that Ali, who was great to be with, was able to spend the day with me and take me to a place where I could see snow-covered peaks. When I was standing atop of that ridge I noticed how much I missed being in the hills and how much I was looking forward to going back to my life in the mountains.