For the love of the mountains

February 14, 2021

How great it is that some people, mere mortals, choose to live life on their own terms and sometimes also get to choose how they die...

In January 2021, a Napalese team ended up becoming the first set of mountaineers to ever claim the K2 in winter. The world rejoiced and breathed deep from behind their masks. The Nepalese team flew back from the basecamp, but Ali Sadpara, John Snorri and JP Mohr still had their grind ahead. Ali Sadpara is one of the most celebrated climbers of Pakistan. He has previously climbed Nanga Parbat in winter, leaving everyone awestruck. John Snorri, an accomplished climber and a family man, also had many firsts to his credit. JP Mohr, who always had a kind smile on his face, was one of the strongest climbers out there. They were not climbing merely to be the first to do so and were therefore not going to quit if someone beat them to the summit. So, they stayed at the camp, waiting for a weather window to appear.

The K2 base camp consists of yellow, low lying tents in a desolate corner of the world. Winds blow at an astonishingly high speed from the slopes of the world’s highest mountains and sting the bare skin. For thirty years, mountaineers trying to scale the K2 in winters have found it impossible. Before turning away, some have described it in absolute horror equating it to a live monster. Some have been afraid even of turning their backs on it, lest it should attack them. Only the best of the best contemplate setting foot on this mountain in summer. In winter, when the conditions are infinitely worse, the number of contenders drops down to less than two dozen. No wonder people have called the three missing climbers Bravehearts. No doubt, they are.

Mountain climbing is a sport that does not permit arrogance. No climber, amateur or veteran, will say that they can defeat a mountain. Nearly all of them agree that the mountain and only the mountain decides who gets to reach its top - it swivels and churns, pushes without moving and has many aces up its sleeve. Avalanches trigger at the slightest shift and weather deteriorates without a clue. This is the bare bone reality of this passion. And for a man in contempt of routine, it is the ultimate personification of a challenge.

In the early twentieth century, the adventurous spirit of men backed by Royal Geographical Society had turned to explore the planet. When every nook and corner of the world had come out of its nameless existence where it had been since the beginning of time, men turned to the heights. The first triumph came within a decade of World War II when two French climbers summited Annapurna, the deadliest of the eight-thousanders. The British conquered Everest, which reminded them of the empire’s past glory. Italians then scaled K2 to claim par with other Europeans.

The proud mountains allowed men and women one by one and the climbers kept pushing the difficulty level. They started discarding supplemental oxygen that had been standard. After a couple of decades later, when that too, had been done, the elite climbers wondered about the next challenge. Some wondered if it was possible to climb the mountains in winter. This too was achieved within a few decades except that K2 remained unscaled. This was dubbed as the last great challenge of high altitude climbing. It is the northern most amongst the eight thousand-feet mountains, making its weather highly capricious. Every couple of years, several teams would arrive at the K2 base camp, hoping to get a lucky break in weather conditions and get their names written in history.

Early in February this year, John Snorri, Ali Sadpara and Juan Pablo, men who did not speak the same language, rose from the obscure flat ground of the K-2 base camp and headed towards a dark pyramid reaching into the sky. They were men of simple words, but people have described them in the grandest of stories. We have all tried to trace their footsteps on the mountain from the comfort of our homes, experiencing mixed emotions of hope and uncertainty. I am no expert on the reach of people’s imagination, and I don’t intend to speculate. But somehow, everyone understood it.

What makes them do what they do? This is a tough thing to know. It’s like finding an itching spot on your back. When you ask them about why they climb, they will sometimes say “because it’s there”. Is it really that simple? Maybe it just is.

I have seen the mountain from a distance, and at that time, a shudder went through my spine. I asked myself, “Why isn’t it a god in some religion? Who could envisage climbing such a mountain? Was there a lack of otherwise rolling hills?” I asked all the questions that people are asking on the internet. They often come with good intentions. But they are asking the wrong questions. Is poetry something that can be studied? If not, then how can we ask questions that cannot be answered using logic alone?

Years ago, I was stuck on a mountain and had lost my wits. It wasn’t a very high mountain by Himalayan standards, but I narrowly missed a six thousand feet fall. In utter desperation, I called my mother. She sensed the impending doom for her son and asked me, “What is it on God’s green earth that you want, which you can only find on that mountain?” I had no answer then, and I’m still far from having one.

I write this with a heavy heart. I have been staying up late, just to get an update from the K2 expedition. It’s been more than a week since anyone saw them and it’s unlikely by the moment that anyone will ever again see them alive. They are known to have crossed a point in the Death Zone called Bottleneck - the most dangerous section of the climb. A projection to the right shoots ice blocks ranging in size from a shoebox to a car at the climbers to knock them off from the face of K2 into a hazy abyss. Who will not tremble in its shadow? But these men dared to cross it.

I have never met these men before. However, I have been losing sleep over their difficulties up on the mountain, in a frozen hell, a place where your hands will fall off if kept out in the open for a few minutes, like a wood chopped off of a dry trunk. And it’s not only the cold, think about the fiercest winds when you can only hold on to the few inches deep grip of an ice axe and there is no flat ground to hug. People are presumably safer in the outer space. And the incredible loneliness? To sit there in the noise of sweeping hurricanes and losing their body slowly? Seeing limbs turning black, life getting sucked out slowly, and then resigning themselves to their fate? What makes men venture out in this strangely hostile environment? Is it for glory? Or for appreciation? Their actions are so extreme that most people will immediately disapprove of their choices, even without meeting them. What makes them do what they do? It is a tough thing to know. It’s like finding an itching spot on your back. When you ask them about why they climb, they will sometimes say “because it’s there”. Is it really that simple? Maybe it just is. We can come up with philosophical justifications and psychological basis; it still does not make up for this near-suicide ideation. They are the kind of men you cannot imagine dying in old age in their sickbeds. In fact, it would be a great injustice to them if they lingered out of this existence slowly and painfully into the next with a burden of chronic illness. How great it is that some people, mere mortals, choose to live life on their own terms and sometimes get also to choose how they die.

The writer, a medical doctor by profession, is an occasional mountaineer. He can be reached at [email protected]

For the love of the mountains: Ali Sadpara, John Snorri and JP Mohr