Lying in a bed at the Cruces hospital in Biscay, Pakistani Murtaza Sapdara looks at his hands and cries. The first two phalanges of almost all of his fingers appear blackened, necrotic, missing. As he awaits his amputation, he wonders what future awaits him and his family. He will never again work as a high altitude porter in any of the five ochomiles of his country. And he doesn’t know what to feel: anger? impotence? gratitude? hopelessness? His case occupies the local press, as well as online mountain magazines.
For now, this is the verdict: two Mexican mountaineers crucified and a martyr, Sapdara, who does not speak a word of English and who has at his side, Ishaq, a compatriot who has lived in Bilbao for a decade. He is the one who acts as translator. “I just hope that this serves to change our reality, so that no one has to go through this again, or have to die,” sighs, almost, Sapdara, 24 years old, wife and two children.
The facts are confusing because there are two voices, two different stories. On July 14, Mexicans Sebastian Arizpe and Max Álvarez reached field three of Broad Peak (8,053 m), located at 7,100 meters. They were accompanied by two porters, one of them Murtaza Sapdara, whose last name is well known: his uncle Ali was the first to conquer Nanga Parbat in winter, along with Alex Txikón and Simone Moro. His fame brought him clients and money, but he died in February 2021 on K2 when he was guiding the Icelandic John Snorri. The recent accelerating savage commercialization of the highest mountains on the planet has come as a hurricane of possibilities for young Pakistanis residing in the foothills. Peak fever is not only affecting Western mountaineers, but it is encouraging high-altitude porters to take a risk to properly decorate their CV, become guides and earn much more money.
Among all those young people like Sapdara, very few love mountaineering: they only see it as the (only) opportunity to escape endemic poverty. The role of high altitude porters is to carry weight up the mountain with which to set up high altitude camps and ensure that there is no shortage of what is necessary for the client’s attack to the summit: tents, kitchen utensils, bottled oxygen, gas… once Having reached the last camp, the usual thing is that they return to the base camp or wait at said last camp to assist those returning from the summit, collect everything and go back down loaded like mules. To the surprise of the Mexican couple, Sapdara declared that he would try to reach the top.
After a radio discussion in which the liaison officer translated the intentions of his two porters to Sebastian and Max, both parties reached an agreement: since the porters were determined to search for the summit, they could carry at least a couple of bottles of oxygen in exchange for about 400 dollars. Max Alvarez is a high mountain guide, and Sebastián is not only his friend but also his client. The bottled oxygen was for the latter. Álvarez usually guides for the company of the renowned Mexican Himalayan traveler Héctor Ponce de León, who, as he acknowledged in a telephone interview, subcontracted the services of the Pakistani company Blue Sky Travel: “he had worked with them at least eight times and although it is a modest company, I find it trustworthy and it is much cheaper than the agencies in Nepal. “They also deserve the opportunity to work.”
In a telephone conversation, Sebastián explains: “the HAP (High Altitude Porters) were not technically prepared, nor were their clothing appropriate to search for the summit, but they told us that they would go up. with or without our approval.”
Murtaza Sapdara corroborates the Mexicans’ explanation: he had an oxygen bottle in his backpack, his partner another, and the orders were to leave them at 7,900 meters, on a hill that leads to the summit ridge. The Pakistani porters left at 8:30 p.m. at the wheel of a powerful team of Nepalese Sherpas. An hour and a half later, the Mexican couple did it. “At seven in the morning, we met with our two porters and another one and they gave us oxygen. There, one of the porters told us in English that Murtaza was not feeling well, that he had a headache. We insisted that the three of them descend together. The time was bad. The porters repeated ‘bad weather, bad weather’ and stood talking to each other. “Max and I continue towards the top,” explains Sebastián.
After reaching the top, returning along the ridge, the Mexican couple crossed paths with one of their porters and the third in dispute. Murtaza was missing. They said that he had decided not to go to the top and that he was going down at his own expense. In reality, Murtaza was alone, lying in the snow. This is how the Austrian mountaineer Lukas Woerle found him: “I saw him at 8,000 meters, spitting blood, unable to speak and without even knowing his name. I decided to abort my attempt, asked for help on the radio and began to lower him to save his life. It was very difficult for me to do it. I think that half an hour or forty-five minutes later, I would have found him dead. So I pulled him, took him down with the help of the rope, dragged him to the hill until I met an American mountaineer who medicated him and gave him bottled oxygen. Thus we reached camp three, where he improved significantly thanks to the loss of altitude. I wish everyone would choose to save a life instead of reaching a summit,” he explained to a Pakistani television journalist.
His testimony implied the idea of Murtaza’s abandonment by his clients… and by his two Pakistani professional colleagues. How could it be that a man was helpless and lying in the snow? Murtaza Sapdara claims that he continued towards the summit until he collapsed. “We were his slaves. They had asked us to accompany them and that is what we did. But I’m not angry, I just hope that this changes the reality of things in the Karakoram Mountains,” he says.
Crowdfunding to cover finger operations
The son of Ali Sapdara, Murtaza’s cousin, asked for help from several Spanish Himalayans, including Alex Txikón from Biscay, who paid out of his own pocket for the transfer of the injured man to Cruces. He now he has created a crowdfunding to cover the operations on the fingers that he must undergo, and to achieve an economic cushion that allows Murtaza to start from scratch with some basic business in his country. Max and Sebastián have already contributed 3,500 euros. The amount raised currently amounts to 12,000 euros, but it is estimated that 30,000 will be necessary to reach the desired goal.
The future looks much more difficult for Pakistan’s deep-sea porters and companies low cost for those who work. Murtaza’s salary for his expedition to Broad Peak was barely close to 180 euros. “But I went down the mountain as much as I went up for my clients, I came down with a 35 kilo backpack,” he insists. He doesn’t want to be accused of being a bad worker. Western clients who hire these types of services should no longer ignore how porters work: without decent medical insurance, without accident insurance, without adequate clothing, without technical training, without bottled oxygen… and without the empathy of the Westerners who provide them. They are reduced to PAHs, that is, mere acronyms. “My self-criticism is that I really regret not having been close to Murtaza to help him get down,” Sebastián Arizpe is sincere.
Murtaza can be grateful because he saved his life, something that Muhammad Hassan will never be able to say, who died on July 27 due to the indifference of the majority of summit aspirants at the K2 bottleneck. He was just a HAP. The Pakistani government must take action, professionalize its guided service companies, raise prices and ensure that mountain workers are qualified and protected. This seems much simpler than appealing to the generosity and humanity of many of those who circulate through those mountains.
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