Climbing K2 is somewhat akin to a fatal attraction that many mountaineers cannot resist. The world’s second-highest peak, feared as the ‘Savage Mountain,’ was first conquered on July 31, 1954, by Italian mountaineers Achille Compagnoni and Lino Lacedelli with the help of their porter, Amir Mahdi, from Hunza.
Sixty years later, on June 14, 2014, history repeated itself with a little help from good fate. Eight high-altitude porters from Gilgit-Baltistan, hoping to take their career to the next level, set off on the first all-Pakistani expedition to the K2 summit — this time as mountaineers.
The team of mountaineers at K2 basecamp on July 23, 2014. PHOTO: DWIRE (PAKISTAN)
“I saw undeterred courage and a determination on their faces,” said Agostino Da Polenza, world-famed Italian mountaineer and president of the Everest-K2-Committee for Natural Resources (Ev-K2-CNR), while addressing a press conference in Islamabad. When the men of burden, Muhammad Taqi, Hassan Jan, Muhammad Sadiq, Ghulam Mehdi, Ali Durani, Ali Rozi, Muhammad Hassan and Rehmat Ullah Baig, first shook hands with the Italian last year at the Broad Peak basecamp and expressed their desire to climb the K2 as mountaineers and not porters, “Their aspiration came as a surprise” to him. Be he immediately sensed a blazing trail of passion and purpose, “And I promised to find [them] funds and technical assistance, if they [would agree] to go through intensive training to prepare themselves to put their feet on the peak of K2 where I had been in 1983.”
Mountaineers stuck in their tents at the K2 basecamp during the heavy snowfall and windstorm. PHOTO COURTESY: DWIRE/EV-K2-CNR
The Italians have had an everlasting love for the K2. They have been associated with the mountain and the Karakoram since 1909, sharing an equal responsibility for its conservation and facilitating mainstream climbing. Polenza first scaled the K2 from the north side in 1983 and has since been the team leader of three successful expeditions to the K2, reportedly his ‘charmed’ mountain.
Although lucky himself, Ploenza is wary of the perennial dangers of the sport and ensured that the porters went through extensive training before taking on the notorious K2. Just last year, the Pakistan Army recovered the bodies of mountaineers who were swallowed by a snow storm during their climb and the bodies of the three other climbers who were caught by an avalanche have yet to be found. At a height of over 8,000 metres, it is foolish to leave anything to chance.
A clipping of the 1954 Italian expedition to the K2 in Domenica del Corriere, the Italian weekly newspaper which ran from 1899 to 1989. PHOTO: DWIRE (PAKISTAN)
Although K2 has been thankfully kind to these mountaineers so far, except for a few delays in their journey caused by a snowfall, the climbers departed preparing for the worst. They set off in 11 jeeps loaded with equipment and essential climbing gear. Two Italian experts, alpine guide Michele Cucchi and record setter for world speed skiing, Simone Origone have also been providing the climbers with technical support and guidance. “They [the climbers] are firm, they are determined, and I believe they would do it,” remarked Cucchi, encouragingly optimistic about the outcome of the expedition from the very beginning.
The Pakistani mountaineers and the Italian mountaineering experts hoisting their respective flags at the K2 basecamp on June 22, 2014. PHOTO: DWIRE (PAKISTAN)
Sharing Cucchi’s sentiment, Maurizio Gallo, Italian mountaineer and head of technical operations for the expedition, who has been stationed in the Karakoram for the past 25 years and has been part of several expeditions organised by the Ev-K2-CNR, added, “We [have learnt] a little bit about the K2 in the last 25 years. Its behaviour changes every next minute. We have to hope for the best, and pray to nature to be kind and [to be] on our side.”
To support the team, Polenza has also been at basecamp to closely monitor the mission along with Muhammad Taqi, the team leader for the expedition. “I wish the Gilgit-Baltistan government or the federal government [would have sponsored this expedition] with their own funds,” said Taqi. “Mountaineering is not only a risky sport, but resource intensive as well. What could we, the poor porters-turned mountaineers, expect from the governments that could not even fund the national games,” he added, extending his gratitude to Polenza and other Italian organisations for funding the expedition.
Other members of the team were also grateful for the opportunity. “Climbing mountains is my bread and butter like many [others] in Gilgit-Baltitsan,” shared Hassan Jan, the leader of the climbers before setting off for the expedition. “We wait for summers to earn our livelihood as porters... This summer we are lucky enough to climb the K2 as mountaineers,” he said proudly, adding that another 120 of his colleagues will be their porters this time, carrying their luggage to the first basecamp and some will continue on to the second basecamp as well. “Let’s see what nature [holds] for us, and how K2 [treats] us.”
Italian mountaineers who participated in the 1954 expedition to K2. PHOTO: DWIRE (PAKISTAN)
If all goes well, however, and according to plan, the climbers should emerge at the top. With the weight off their shoulders, they will finally experience a long overdue high.
Munir Ahmed is a freelance journalist and communication consultant with the Ev-K2-CNR and Media Focal Person for the Pakistan K2 Expedition.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 3rd, 2014.