He went higher and higher
On May 17, mountaineer Ali Raza Sadpara suffered a debilitating injury after falling off a cliff during a training climb for K2. He severed his spinal cord and fractured several ribs. He remained in a coma for a few days before passing away on May 27.
I had met him a few days before. This is how I remember meeting the legend himself.
Traveling to a region that is home to the largest mountain ranges in the world, you can only hope to meet those who aren’t afraid to climb them. We are at the beginning of May and my hope, the secret wish of my heart, has come true. We are just outside Skardu, in Ghanche district, Gilgit-Baltistan, when we meet Ali Raza Sadpara at a roadside restaurant serving biryani, or their version – plain rice with a curry of very tender beef. Looking at the somewhat short and slender physique of Ali Raza, it is hard to imagine that this unassuming man is one of Pakistan’s best mountaineers.
His eyes squint when he smiles and his face tells a thousand stories — he’s well past 56 from decades spent in the glare of the sun reflecting off the snow. He is excited about the next mountaineering season which is due to start very soon. When I take out my camera, he appears a bit shy and avoids looking at it.
“Last year, I gave very strict instructions that if anyone came back from the mountain without a peak…” he told our guide, whom he knew well. “It just won’t be good.” It refers to how Pakistani High Altitude Porters (HAPs), much like Nepalese Porters or Sherpas, do most of the work of “preparing” the mountains for their foreign clientele. They often repair ropes, haul gear and set up high camps, only to be denied a summit attempt themselves after personally bringing their clients almost to the top. It hurts to be so close, with a pinnacle glory at hand, and then being told to stay back.
This is one of the greatest injustices suffered by Pakistani porters and guides in decades and Ali Raza no longer suffers from it. As one of Pakistan’s most active mountaineers, he has a lot of influence within the local mountaineering community.
Most other young climbers I meet call it their ustaad [teacher]. He regularly leads mountaineering workshops, trying to pass on essential skills to the younger generation. Ali Raza believes that this lack of skills and the very few opportunities to develop them is what keeps Pakistani guides and porters one step behind the Nepalese, even though they are just as strong and perhaps because of their familiarity with the local mountains. , better equipped to guide mountaineers.
UNTIL NEXT TIME
The next time I meet him, only a few days before his fateful accident, Ali Raza reproaches me for not having given him the opportunity to host us at his place. Next time, promise.
“I started climbing in 1986,” he told me. “I attempted to climb K2 the same year. I didn’t know anything at the time, [like] what was the proper way to wear boots or cleats.
A local hero and HAP pioneer from the Chunda Valley, Mohammed Ali Chunda, widely considered the first person to summit an 8,000m mountain from Baltistan, showed Ali Raza the ropes – literally. “He taught me how to fasten the seat belt, fix the ropes, wear boots and crampons correctly,” Ali Raza tells me.
He took up mountaineering like a fish to water. On his very first attempt, he reached an altitude of around 8,000 m. “At that time, Pakistanis were not allowed to go to the top,” he says, his otherwise smiling face suddenly turning very serious. “I was with a Korean group and I put a lot of pressure on them to get to the top,” he continues. “They said to me, ‘We brought you here. If the Pakistani government finds out, it will be a problem for us. You are not allowed to go past C2. That’s why I couldn’t reach the top.
Was there really a restriction in place preventing Pakistanis from accessing the summit? “Who knows!” he said, adding that at the time, some foreign mountaineering groups did not want to share the glory of the summit. They paid for it, not the HAPs. Not one to dwell on the negative, Ali Raza smiles and continues his mountaineering story. “The second mountain I went to was Broad Peak and summited it,” he says, beaming with pride. “And since then, by the grace of Allah, I have climbed four of our 8,000m peaks more than 17 times.”
These four mountains are Broad Peak, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum I and Gasherbrum II. It is four of the five 8,000m mountains of Pakistan. The only mountain that Ali Raza could not climb is the one that escaped him from his very first ascent: K2.
He almost reached the summit in 2009. “I climbed to 8,400 m, he says. K2 rises to 8,611m, the summit is only 211m, just within reach. “During this expedition, a German foreigner slipped and died,” says Ali Raza. Once that happened, his client who was at Camp 4, the last camp before the summit push, banned him from going to the summit. “Otherwise I would have reached the top”, the frustration is audible in Ali Raza’s voice.
“I tried three times to climb to the top of K2 and failed,” he says. “Inshallah this year I’m planning to go with Naila Kiani, so it’s the year Inshallah. It’s my last wish!” he laughs.
His “last wish” is never granted. A few days after this conversation, Ali Raza would be no more. It’s hard to think of him in the past tense. His friends, family, students and admirers always feel his presence.
The mountaineering community has lost a mentor and a friend in the loss of Ali Raza. Legendary Pakistani mountaineer, Mohammed Ali Sadpara, who died last year, was among Ali Raza’s students.
One of his longtime climbing partners, friends and former students, Sirbaz Khan, was climbing Makalu in Nepal at the time of Ali Raza’s death. His expedition crew decided to withhold news of Ali Raza’s death until Sirbaz was safely back at base camp.
“I came down from the mountain very happy and overjoyed to learn that one of my dearest mountaineering friends has left this world,” he wrote on Instagram.
“He was my ustaad, my friend, my partner. This summit is dedicated to my favorite laugh in the world that I will never hear again. Ali Raza, my friend, thank you for teaching me to climb and above all for teaching me to live…”, he added.
Naila Kiani, the first Pakistani climber to summit Gasherbrum II, could barely speak of grief. Ali Raza was his climbing partner on this expedition and he was a great source of support and encouragement.
She remembers that there were many Pakistani crews with different teams stationed at the base camp for Gasherbrum I and II. “He was the oldest, she said, I’m not kidding but he and Sirbaz were the fastest. They would carry a lot of weight and run forward. [While] Sirbaz is still young, Chacha [how Naila refers to Ali Sadpara] was twice his age and yet he would be right in front.
“Whenever the Pakistani climbers backed down or seemed unmotivated, he encouraged and guided them,” she adds. “He was an incredibly humble man and he always taught others. Finally, what I loved about him was that he was always in a good mood. There was always a smile on his face. During some of our toughest times on the mountain, he would crack a joke and we would all end up laughing. Foreign climbers would look at us like we were crazy. But it was the qualities that made him unique.
For Sirbaz, the last two years have been particularly bittersweet. While he reached new heights and broke records on some of the tallest mountains in the world, he also suffered devastating losses. He lost his two closest friends and mentors year after year – Ali Sadpara on K2 in 2021 and Ali Raza Sadpara while training for K2 this year.
“A mountaineer’s life has huge rewards and huge losses,” he says. “If you don’t die soon, you see a lot of your friends leaving you.”
He teams up with Naila Kiani and they will climb K2 together. They dedicated their expedition to Ali Raza Sadpara. The only mountain that never called Ali Raza Sadpara is the one they will climb in his memory.