Climbing mountains came as naturally to Sajid Ali Sadpara as walking does to most toddlers. He was eight or nine years old when he started taking his family cattle up the mountains in his village Sadpara.
At the age of nineteen, Sajid climbed K2, the world’s second highest mountain.
Son of Pakistan’s iconic mountaineer Mohammad Ali Sadpara, Sajid’s love for mountains, his fearlessness on lofty heights, his successful summiting of some of world’s highest peaks, and his determination to reach every one of the fourteen highest peaks on earth is the splendid legacy of his father to which he adds his charming uniqueness. Ali Sadpara’s very tragic demise is Sajid’s lifelong grief but it is also his strength: his dedication to continue what his father devoted his existence to is his most heartfelt tribute to his father’s extraordinary life.
Sajid, twenty-four constantly misses his father’s presence in his life. So do his three siblings.
Living in the idyllic settings of the gorgeous Skardu and the Sadpara village situated fifteen kilometres away from Skardu, Sajid aims to conquer mountains with his head held high, his positivity limitless, his sense of humour always intact, and his view of the world untarnished of any bleakness. Mountains are his happiness. There is an endearing humility to Sajid’s celebration of his roots. The unsung hero of the glorious representation of the region he belongs to and the achievements of his incredibly talented, very courageous father.
After his father’s passing, Sajid said: “I will keep my father’s mission alive and fulfil his dream.”
For Gulf News, I asked Sajid Ali Sadpara a few questions:
Your father, Muhammad Ali Sadpara, along with Iceland's John Snorri and Chile's Juan Pablo Mohr, lost his life on K2 in 2021. Their bodies were found after more than five months they went missing. How do you remember those five months and the time when his body was found?
The three climbers going missing was one of the biggest accidents of Pakistan’s mountaineering history. It completely changed the perception about winter climbing in Pakistan. The field of mountaineering and our contributions began to be noticed. People learned more about K2, the location of the K2 Bottleneck, topography of Pakistan’s mountains, who Ali Sadpara was.
The climbing expedition began on February 3. I was part of my father’s team, but I returned unharmed. My father and his foreign colleagues did not return. As a professional climber, I could sense that something bad had happened to him, to them. The accident took place on February 5, the search mission continued until February 17. I was also part of the search team.
Following the accident, in my first media talk in Skardu, I said that if the search operation was focused on finding the bodies, it would be more effective. At approximately 7,000 meters where they went missing on K2 in winter, chances of their survival and being alive were miniscule.
My father’s disappearance affected me and my family very deeply. Personally, I faced a lot of mental difficulties. Emotionally, it was a painful struggle. I was greatly disturbed. My younger sister kept asking where Papa had gone.
I met Imran Khan, prime minister at that time. I said to him that as a son it was my obligation to bury my father as per the Islamic traditions. Khan was empathetic and said he would instruct the Gilgit-Baltistan chief minister to help me. But I did not receive any assistance from the chief minister office.
Canadian filmmaker, Elia Saikaly, and Nepalese Sherpa, Pasang Kaji, helped me in my mission to find my father’s body. Saikaly was at the K2 base camp and shared with me that he was planning to make a documentary. As a climber I thought I would go with the team [which also included mountaineer Fazal Ali and Aziz Baig] and do what I could in my personal capacity. The Canadian filmmaker wanted to make a documentary, and I wanted to search for my father.
The K2 climb was very arduous. With the help of a drone, our team found one body above the Camp 4 near the Bottleneck. It was John Snorri. A few hours later we found my father’s body above the Bottleneck. We also found the body of Juan Pablo Mohr. [The bodies were found on July 26.]
It was impossible to take the bodies back with us, so we decided to bury them on K2.
I buried my father. In the most important mission of my life, one of the people who helped me was a Bolivian mountain guide, Hugo Ayaviri.
When I saw my father’s body, I didn’t scream, I didn’t cry. I controlled my emotions. We had found his body in one of the toughest climbing sections of K2. My father was buried in snow. I made a grave of snow, offered fateha and buried him in accordance with the Islamic rules of burial, to the best of my knowledge. I buried my father in the Camp 4 of the K2, known as Shoulder, at the height of more than 7,700 meters.
You climb without O2. Why?
There are different types of climbing. The pure adventurous, alpinist one is without rope, without oxygen [cylinders], without any guide, without any human support. It’s self-climbing, solo climbing. Personally, I focus on that. That indescribable feeling that you have when you reach the top without [an] oxygen [cylinder]. We mountaineers say that when you are climbing there is hope and excitement, and without oxygen, that feeling is amazing. It also has more value. In Pakistan, the difference between climbing with oxygen or without oxygen is not common knowledge, but real climbers in other countries are aware of the difference.
Out of the four mountains I recently climbed, K2 was with oxygen. The other three were without any human support and oxygen. Twenty-seven hours of non-stop climbing without oxygen. Three days and eighteen hours, I climbed Gasherbrum 1 and Gasherbrum 2, world’s eleventh and thirteenth highest mountains, without oxygen.
We are born climbers, so we are used to climbing without oxygen. We can face the high altitudes. I prefer to climb without oxygen.
What do you love about mountaineering? What is your most important achievement so far? What do you plan to do next?
Mountaineering is a unique profession. It is also a profession that is difficult for most people to understand. Some religious clerics consider it suicidal. How I look at it personally is that you get to travel, and you explore different places. Exploration is the main purpose.
The most important thing when climbing a mountain is that you have to enjoy the moment. We, mountaineers, are particularly connected to nature. In snow, on unknown paths, there is so much excitement for us. You are never bored. If you are in good physical shape, it’s one of the best professions. It is our occupation, it is our recognition. When you climb a mountain, it is not like usual routine work that you do sitting in an office. We explore new places. We meet people from all over the world. There are wonderful experiences, constant improvement. I will always be a mountaineer.
My most important achievement, other than summiting several peaks, is climbing K2—8,200 meters without oxygen in winter in 2021. I was the youngest person in our team. It was a very tough climb. The weather was terrible. Too much bad stuff happened on the way, but I returned safely.
The most unforgettable climb was the search mission for my father’s body.
I’m the first Pakistani to conquer Manaslu. My next plan is to climb other 8000-plus meter mountains in Nepal.
K2 Clean-up Campaign is also on my agenda.
You have announced your K2 Clean Up Campaign for June-August 2023. What made you think of this initiative?
The increasingly popular expedition culture is proving to be detrimental to people in, around and beyond our mountains. Tourism is lifeline for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Almost the entire population is directly or indirectly dependent on tourism. But the new trend is risking environment and putting human lives at stake. On average, every climber in a commercial expedition generates eight-ten kilograms of waste—including tents, O2 cylinders, food canisters, equipment, ropes, and human waste—which is left on the mountain. In the fragile mountain ecosystem, these pollutants not only contaminate water but also intensify the melting process.
As a son of soil my heart is greatly pained to see our beloved K2, the iconic mountain of Pakistan, in this condition.
That is the reason why I have made the announcement to voluntarily clean up the final resting place of my beloved father and the most iconic landmark of my beloved country. I am making a team of local mountaineers who will be part of this campaign.
Everyone can contribute to this noble cause with their donation of cash or equipment, sharing the news, or simply liking my social media posts that have the hashtags #KeepK2Clean #k2cleanup2023.
How can government help the sport and profession of mountaineering in Pakistan?
As mountaineers we say that in Pakistan hum apne hissay ki shama jalate hain. I don’t focus on what government should do, but there are several things that reflect governmental negligence. We have five of the fourteen highest mountains of the world. As a professional mountaineer I have been to all the highest mountains, and I don’t think there are more beautiful mountains anywhere than the four in Pakistan.
What is needed is proper training and highlighting of aspects and expeditions of mountaineering. Forty percent of the economy of Nepal is earned through mountaineering. Our government should focus on tourism, especially in the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan. Travelling to this region is so cumbersome because of the visa issuance processes that deters so many people from visiting Pakistan’s mountains. Travelling should be made easier.
There is no climber like Muhammad Ali Sadpara in our history, and I believe there will never be anyone like him. Because of his accident, mountaineering was highlighted in mainstream media, and mountaineers also received public and governmental recognition and appreciation. But not much has changed. Even now there is no mountaineering institute of international standards. Such an institution should be made. Some real work should be done. It will be a game changer for our tourism. Tourism is sustenance for our Gilgit-Baltistan region. It is the main source of income and living conditions of people can greatly change if tourism is properly promoted here.