In Review

The untold stories of Shimshali porters

Published 17 Dec, 2017 01:48am
Porters lead climbers along the treacherous paths of Kuch, Shimshal | Rocio Otero
Porters lead climbers along the treacherous paths of Kuch, Shimshal | Rocio Otero

"They deserve recognition,” Christiane Fladt begins her book, the first in-depth attempt to highlight the lives of high-altitude porters from the Shimshal region of Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan. The volume aims to present a “complete picture of Shimshali ambitions and achievements” and, as her narrative suggests, these porters and their accomplishments have received little recognition or reward. These men live a life of constant peril.

The book – bold, necessary and informative – opens with a crisp introduction which gets straight to the point. No funny anecdotes, no whimsical descriptions of the subjects and no flowery quotes on mountain climbing. In a nod to its author’s place of origin, it is written in a true matter-of-fact German manner.

For someone whose lived experience is far removed from that of the porters, in terms of gender, language, nationality, religion and probably much more, Fladt has written a remarkably well-informed book. The information has been painstakingly gathered through extensive interviews over the course of several years, making her work a unique addition to the minimal literature available on Pakistani high-altitude to date.

The book taps into the mountain tourism narrative of Pakistan through untold stories and paints a vivid portrait of several legendary Shimshali porters in its individual chapters. These include Rajab Shah, Meherban Shah, Aziz Baig and a number of other notable climbers. Each chapter differs in tone as Fladt lets the protagonists lead the readers through detailed accounts of both their successes and their losses. She also explains at length the method of selecting the porters for inclusion in the book: only those who have climbed above 8,000 metres have been covered in detail. The author, however, has made mention of a few others as well, like Tafat Shah, one of the pioneers of the profession in the Shimshal region.

Guided by a writing style that is straightforward yet engaging, Fladt relates the tales of each porter, tying the narrative together using various themes related to mountain tourism in Pakistan. Most of those interviewed do not climb for glory or a sense of adventure, but out of necessity. Lack of economic opportunities in their remote valley offers few other livelihood options. Many continue climbing well into old age, in order to provide for their families.

One critical problem common among older porters is memory loss, the author finds. Mohammad Ullah’s climb of Gasherbrum-1, one of the most difficult mountains to climb in Pakistan, has “faded in his memory”. Nor can Qurban Mohammad recall the precise years of his various rescue missions to Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak. Many other porters have similar gaps in their memory. This loss is made especially poignant for Rajab Shah and Meherban Shah, who both lost sons to traumatic deaths on the mountains. It is, indeed, problematic that the history of local mountaineering is being slowly erased with their fading memories. Fladt’s account ensures that at least some of it is saved from permanent loss.

The book’s most exciting parts present the almost conflicting perspectives of different porters on the same climbs. “It is intriguing to compare how one and the same event is recorded by two different characters,” says Fladt, while commenting on some of the noteworthy differences. It is interesting how she reconciles these differences, even taking up the monumental task of putting together the story of Pakistan’s first-ever bid to climb the world’s tallest mountain, Everest, a failure recalled differently by the different people involved in the adventure. But such is the nature of oral history and memory — they are moulded by the life and time of each narrator.

To her credit, the author has painstakingly provided cross references while handling conflicting accounts. Her own critical voice is audible throughout the book. Some of the stories that appear improbable are followed up and contextualised. Not much is accepted at face value — something that is thoroughly refreshing. She pulls no punches while making comments, yet she leaves it up to readers to decide which story they deem probable and which they do not.

Weaving in her own perspective as a foreign woman also allows the author to provide critical insight into how foreigners perceive Pakistani mountaineers. Her self-reflections enable the readers to see how she went about dealing with the porters and their stories. If someone does not turn up for an interview at the appointed time and place, she does not bother recording their story. If they are not interested in having a chapter written on them, then neither is she.

Her narrative is also peppered with interesting observations the porters make about their experiences climbing with mountaineers of different nationalities. Often, they bluntly state their opinions without political correctness. When Meherban Shah is asked about his experience working with the Japanese, he remarks, “too much rice, only rice”. Another porter, Amin Ullah Baig, similarly finds French food to be “something really strange”. The porters describe the Russians as having “superior climbing potential” and view the Japanese as hard, exacting employers. The Germans are seen as “emotional” (which could mean angry, according to Fladt) but are appreciated due to their strong climbing skills.

The porters are also shown to have little say in their inclusion for a summit bid — the attempt to scale the actual peak, as opposed to only carrying loads to higher camps. Farhad Khan, for instance, was prohibited from going past a certain point in 2005 by a Japanese team, and Hazil Shah was not allowed to summit Gasherbrum-II in 1997 by an Iranian group.

Although the author does not address the issue of competition between Balti and Shimshali porters in detail, she touches upon it in an interview that includes the mention of a rescue mission on Nanga Parbat where the Baltis apparently declined to touch the body of a deceased climber, leaving a Shimshali porter to handle it alone. It would have been interesting to read more about the incident, since all the Balti porters I have known have been nothing but extremely respectful towards human life and death.

Overall, Fladt has produced a comprehensive and engaging book on the personal and collective histories of local porters as well as the social and economic issues they face. She also offers a broad picture of the area they come from — its people, culture, way of life, history and geography. It even includes an account of the day-to-day lives of those herding yaks in the high pastures of northern Pakistan.

Exciting and well-researched, And Death Walks with Them presents a compelling narrative. As the writer herself puts it in the introduction, “To read or not to read is the reader’s prerogative; however, writing the book was worth the effort.” I am certain her efforts will be highly appreciated by the mountain tourism community of Pakistan.

This article was published in the Herald's December 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.