KARACHI: Many a world-renowned mountaineers owe their achievements to Abdul Karim. But more importantly, they also owe him their lives.
Hailing from the little village of Hushe in the Ghangche District of north Pakistan, Karim is a veteran mountain porter whose climbing skills and incredible resolve at some of the world's highest peaks belie his slight stature.
All through the 70s and 80s, Karim, or “Little Karim” as he is famous for, would brave the north's unforgiving cold and serve as western tourists' guide on high-altitude expeditions, all the while carrying as much as 25kg of luggage on his back.
His glittering resume boasts one world record for climbing the 8,035m-high Gasherbrum 2 without supplementary oxygen. Also to his name are countless rescue feats where he would routinely risk his own life to save his fellow mountaineers.
A Swiss mountaineer who fell into the stream and a Spaniard who befell similar misfortune during their expeditions would attest to Little Karim's big bravado.
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Steep terrain of old age
At the peak of his powers, no mountain was high enough, no terrain was tricky enough and no frost was frigid enough to tame Karim. The little man was a true giant.
But at the age of 67, the years have finally caught up with him.
Battling a series of illnesses including jaundice and gallbladder stones, Karim currently occupies a hospital bed in Islamabad — a far cry from his all-conquering days on snowy beds 8,000m above sea-level.
"He has been bedridden for the last three months,” Karim's son Hanif, himself a porter, told The Express Tribune. “Seeing a man like my father go through such an ordeal is heart-breaking."
The famous iron will still remains
Karim's health could be failing, but the famous will of his hasn't. In fact, if he had his way, off he'd be to the mountaintops.
“He is here, sick and on the hospital bed, but he keeps telling me that we need to go on another expedition,” said Hanif. “And not just any nearby peak, he wants to scale the Broad Peak in Karakoram Range" — an 8000m summit he has already climbed once but wants a second crack just for the thrill of it."
For clarity, just the knowledge that his father harbours plans of putting his mountaineering boots on scares his son.
“8000m is very dangerous. I’m not sure how he even thinks about going up there. I can go up to 6000m altitude and that becomes very difficult too,” said Hanif.
This fascination with ice-covered behemoths may be unfathomable to the outside world. For Karim and the locals, he explains, it's the way of life.
“There is a relationship between us and the mountains,” said Karim from his hospital bed. “Mountains are all we have; they are beautiful, they are spiritual and they are also our bread and butter. I want to go to the mountains again, soon."
For now, the mountains will have to wait.
Dying art's dying hero
Karim has quite a following among European mountain enthusiasts — so much so that they've made a trio of documentaries on him.
But he remains an obscure figure in his own country. As it is so often the case, the local governments have failed to recognise both the porter as well as the sport of mountain climbing.
"Europeans may know my father but Pakistanis don’t," said Hanif. "No one came for our help. He wanted to impart his knowledge to younger porters and teach them about climbing the beautiful mountains that we have. For that he asked for a piece of land but got nothing from the government."
The hero who had little regard for his own well-being on the mountains doesn't want anything for his own self. It's his people, his dying art of climbing and of course the mountains he needs taken care of.
"My only request from the government is to help my people in Hushe village and have plans for educating them. They are climbers; give them facilities. Do something for them. It is not about me.”