On the morning of 17 May, Nazir Sabir became the first Pakistani to stand on top of the world. In the bargain, the Hunza native also clinched for himself a lifetime of complimentary cuisine at Rum Doodle Restaurant and Bar, the unofficial hangout of the international climbing community in Kathmandu. Back in the Nepali capital after the climb, a sun- and snow-burned Nazirsaab, as his Sherpa friends also call him, is enjoying his conquest and his Rum Doodle Everest Summitter’s ID.ra
“The highest point on earth and I think the highest moment in my life, too, for which I have been planning for many years,” he is recorded speaking into the camera, breathing heavily in summit footage captured on a digital videocam. He then does what most mountaineers do up there on top of Everest/Chomolongma/Sagarmatha — poses with his country’s flag. There’s a sparkling suspicion of tears. After the frustration of a failed attempt at Everest from the north side in 1997 and the barrage of press flak that followed in the Pakistani press, success for Sabir, a former advisor on sports and tourism to the Pakistani government, couldn’t have tasted better.
In a country where the growth of the mountaineering sport has been slow, owing to a lack of patronage unlike the case in neighbouring India, Sabir’s conquest has aroused unexpected enthusiasm. Even before arriving back in Kathmandu from the mountain, he had been feted by Pakistan’s president, hailed by the local press, and a hero’s welcome awaited him at home. The response and the flood of congratulatory emails arriving at the Everest Base Camp in Upper Khumbu had left the climber happily bemused. “Surprisingly enough, it has become much bigger news than I ever imagined.”
Wary of criticism that accompanied the Pakistani 1997 Golden Jubilee Everest Expedition, when Sabir and five colleagues had made three attempts before abandoning their climb at 8560m due to unmanageable blizzards, this time the climber came quietly: “No press, no sponsors, no fanfare.” It was more of a personal pilgrimage. Says Sabir, “After my emotional attachment with Everest since a very close Japanese friend died in 1980, I’ve been thinking about this mountain, to come and pay my homage and offer prayers for all those souls who are sleeping here, nearly a dozen…”
High above the South Summit of Everest, he came across one of them —Scott Fischer —the New Zealand guide who perished in the great Everest tragedy of 1996. “Seeing his boots — the body was buried in snow —I was so shocked, but then you recover. In 26 years, I’ve come across so many accidents, so many close calls. Once I fell down 400 metres in an avalanche on Nanga Parbat and stopped 20m from the edge. One Japanese fell 2000 m never to be found. I prayed, God if you forgive me this time I will never come back to mountains again.”
He has failed to keep the promise. Sabir has climbed four of Pakistan’s five 8000m peaks-K2 (8616m), Gasherbrum I (8068m), Gasherbrum II (8035m) and Broad ‘ Peak (8047m). A recipient of Pakistan’s prestigious President’s Award for Pride of Performance, he is making his fourth attempt on the final 8000er, Nanga Parbat (8125m), in late June. There, he hopes to catch up with his old friend Reinhold Messner in whose company he and compatriot Sher Khan climbed Gasherbrum II and Broad Peak in pure alpine style. That was in 1982, and this autumn the Italian climber is attempting a new route on the mountain.
“Mountains are the purest and most innocent part of nature. I go to the mountains as my Mecca, my pilgrimage,” says Sabir. But once he crosses 7000 metres into the socalled ‘death zone’ on Everest, exposed to natural hazards, high altitude problems of all kinds, and the psychological pressure of being so far from safety, the video records everything as Sabir’s romantic vision dissipates into the rarefied air —he swears, prays and curses his way to the top.
“I have a new respect for Everest. I was always given the impression of the normal route being an easy one. But I disagree. Everest came up much more difficult than my expectations, technically speaking.” So far out in the wilderness once above the (Khumbu) Icefall, up the Lhotse face you’re exposed to three-four hours of avalanche dangers.” He has yet to explain to his six-year-old son Tahir that avalanches don’t come from miles away but happen all of a sudden. “If you see an avalanche coming, you run, as if you fly, so you will be safe. You remember, like I ran once in the park,” Tahir had advised his father at Base Camp over satellite phone.
Whenever he goes up a mountain, a will is left at base camp to take care of his affairs. There is guilt in making his family suffer every time he heads up the valley. “But I can’t help myself. I’m a religious person. I strongly believe in the spiritual business of mountains. It is more than just putting on crampons and going up and down. You and I come to this world as small particles of nature, then the world changes you in its own ways. But when you come to the mountains, you find yourself that the same small particle fits in.”
The year 1994 saw Sabir being easily elected to Pakistan’s Northern Area Legislative Council, representing Hunza. During his five-year term, Sabir took on the conservatives for misusing religion, struggled against corruption, and made ample noise about the traditional and sectarian problems in Pakistan’s troubled north. “I think I achieved a lot, was very happy about my five years. But I think I was a misfit.”
Today, the entrepreneur-turned-mountaineer is back where he belongs, running Nazir Sabir Expeditions (“Culture Tours and Adventure Outings to the Wilderness”).
” Trekking started about 20 years after Nepal, so it’s new, and slowly expanding. Pakistan as a destination has always enjoyed bad publicity so it doesn’t help the tourism industry. But people who are especially interested in the Karakoram, in Pakistan and its culture, are coming. However, we do not want mass tourism…”About 70 expeditions visit Pakistan every year. As the number increases, so does the sums being made by government from climbing royalty. But Sabir is not for royalty. “Countries like Nepal, Pakistan in the Himalaya should go for zero royalty like anywhere else in the world. It will encourage more expeditions to come, and it is the mountain communities which will benefit.”
Through international contacts, established over years of climbing, Sabir is keen to set up welfare organisations to help the people of the high Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Karakoram. That will be an expedition of a different kind, for a member of that very rare breed, the South Asian mountaineer.