Sadpara – A ‘gem’ lost in K2 snow

Report by Shumaila Andleeb

ISLAMABAD, Feb 9 (APP): The search operation for missing Pakistani mountaineer Ali Sadpara and his team members Jon Snorri of Iceland and Juan Pablo Mohr of Chile could not be resumed on Tuesday as the nation prayed for the safe return of climbers.

The messages of hopes and prayers continue to pour in on social media platforms with hopes of a miracle for the survival of mountain heroes.

Sadpara and other team members went missing on February 5 during their K2 expedition – the toughest and most difficult mountain to climb during winters.

Home Secretary Gilgit Baltistan Muhammad Ali Randhawa on Tuesday said search and rescue operation could not resume due to cloudy weather, snowfall and strong wind.

He said a request for FLIR ( forward-Looking infrared Cameras) with latest avionics package has been sent to Pakistan Air Force.

The golden words of Ali Sadpara keep the hopes of nation intact, who had once said, “My spirit soars where the air goes thin, if I ever got stuck on top of a mountain, I will dig an undermine and live there”.

Sadpara has record of climbing eight highest peaks of the world and hoisting the Pakistan flag.

Pakistan is home to five 8,000m peaks including K2, Nanga Parbat, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum I and II. The remaining are in Nepal and China.

Ali Sadpara celebrated his 45th birthday at K2 Base Camp on February 2 before he started the summit bid.

In his Jan 31 tweet, the tough yet full of life Sadpara expressed joy over working with adventurer and filmmaker Eli Saikaly – for “filming him in exchange for dance lessons”.

According to statistics of 8000ers.com, the achievements of Ali Sadpara are as follows:

  • Gasherbrum II in 2006
  • Nanga Parbat FOUR TIMES (2008, 2009, 2016 – FIRST WINTER ASCENT- and 2017)
  • GI in 2010.
  • Broad Peak Fore summit in 2012
  • Broad Peak in 2017
  • K2 in 2018
  • Lhotse Makalu and Manaslu in 2019.

Ali’s son, Sajid says he and his father were climbing without supplemental oxygen but had a bottle in their pack for emergencies. Also, when he left the three missing climbers, they had no radio or satellite phone. He believes they summited and had an accident on the descent in the Bottleneck, but he cannot be sure.

Photo of ice serac and Bottleneck high on K2, taken from a Pakistani military helicopter on February 7, 2021, during an unsuccessful search for missing climbers. Photo Chhang Dawa Sherpa.

The Everest Today shared a video by climber and skier Dave Watson where Sadpara’s son Sajid last saw his father and team at around 10 am PKT, 05 February.

In a world long dominated by western climbers, Sadpara, like the Nepalese climber Nirmal “Nimsdai” Purja, who was among the Sherpa team to make the first successful winter ascent of K2 only weeks ago, stands out for his achievements. As well as Nanga Parbat in winter, he had climbed eight of the world’s 14 mountains over 8,000m and secured sponsorship from the Pakistani government to climb the rest, the Guardian reported.

Sadpara, his son, and John Snorri – courtesy Instagram of Snorri

The UK-based newspaper mentioned that Sadpara had started his climbing career as a high-altitude porter on the Baltoro glacier on K2 in 2004, before falling in love with high-altitude climbing, ruing in an interview four years ago the lack of opportunities that Pakistani climbers had compared with foreign teams, despite having five of the world’s highest mountains on their doorstep.

The first ascent of Nanga Parbat in winter in 2016 with Simone Moro and Alex Txikon, however, catapulted him into the ranks of the world’s elite mountaineers.

Mountain hero Ali Sadpara holds Pakistan flag on snowy mountains.

As hopes get dimmer with each passing moment amidst K2’s severe weather, strong snowy winds and minus 60 degree Celsius temperature, but the flame of Sadpara’s love and passion will remain alive in the snowy mountains forever.

How did Mohammad Ali Sadpara start climbing?

Mohammad Ali Sadpara was born in 1976 in Sadpara, a village in one of the river valleys of the Himalayan Baltistan region in Pakistan’s extreme north.

Livestock farming is the main source of livelihood in the region, and the area’s youth also work as porters with Western mountaineers and adventure tourists who frequent the region each year.

Ali Sadpara playing drums on a jerry can with a Dutch group during a K2 trek in 2012 – Courtesy BBC

Sadpara finished middle school in the village and his father, a low-grade government employee, later moved the family to Skardu town, where Sadpara studied up to higher secondary school before moving onto climbing.

According to BBC, Nisar Abbas, a local journalist and relative and friend of Sadpara from their village days, describes him as being extraordinary right from his childhood.

“He had the physique and the habits of an athlete, and was also good in studies. He never failed a class. Since his elder brother never did well in school, his father was keen to get him a good education and that’s why he moved him to Skardu.”

Given the family’s financial constraints, he moved to climbing in around 2003 or 2004.

“He was an instant success with tour operators because the expeditions he led were mostly successful. He earned worldwide fame in 2016 when a three-man team he was a member of became the first to summit Nanga Parbat in winter.

Hamid Hussain, a Karachi-based tour operator from Skardu who has known Sadpara since 2012, has similar memories.

“He was brave, and pleasant and very friendly,” he says. “And he was so physically fit. We trekked together on many occasions, and while there were times when we would run out of breath and collapse, he would still jog up the steep slopes and then shout back at us, asking us to be quick.”

On one occasion in the winter of 2016, during a trek from Sadpara valley to the Alpine planes of Deosai, when freezing winds caught them in a snow-filled gorge and sent shivers down their spines, they saw him climb smoothly up the slope and start dancing over the ridge.

Ali Sadpara had been in tight spots before, and he knew the risks.

“I have lost 12 of my 14 colleagues in the mountaineering business. Two of us remain,” he said in a 2019 interview. “So my friends now often ask me, Ali, when are you going to die?”

Why summit K2 without oxygen?

One theory is that he was working as a high-altitude porter for John Snorri and had to comply with the agreement he had signed with him, BBC said in its report.

But that was just a ruse, Nisar Abbas says. Weeks earlier, Sadpara had openly expressed his keenness to make the attempt after a 10-member Nepalese team led by the famous Sherpa Nirmal Purja became the first-ever to summit K2 in winter.

Nepali team first to top K2 in winter – Al Jazeera photo

And in order to set a new record, Sadpara wanted to do it too – but without oxygen. And he also wanted his son to be there when it happened.

Sajid, his son, told the media that they had started out with some 25 to 30 climbers, local and foreign, but all of them turned back before hitting the 8,000-metre point.

Sajid’s own condition worsened when they hit the Bottleneck.

“We had carried an oxygen cylinder in our emergency gear. My father told me to take it out and use some. It will make me feel better.”

But while Sajid was setting up the cylinder, its mask regulator sprang a leak.

Meanwhile, his father and the two foreigners continued to scale the Bottleneck. His father then looked back and shouted to Sajid to keep climbing.

“I shouted that the cylinder had leaked. He said, ‘don’t worry, keep climbing, you’ll feel better’. But I couldn’t gather the strength to do it, and decided to turn back. It was around noon on Friday. That was the last I saw of them.”

When asked why Sadpara insisted that he keep going, Sajid said: “The Nepalese had done it weeks earlier, and he wanted to do it too, because K2 is our mountain.”

What could have happened?

Sajid says he saw the three men climb over the bottleneck at the top, which means that they probably did make it to the summit.

Experts say most accidents happen while descending, as even a slight loss of balance can send one crashing down into an abyss.

Left to right: Ali Sadpara, Jon Snorri and Sajid Sadpara – Courtesy BBC

Those who knew Sadpara doubt he would have made such an error.

People in his village still recall more than one occasion when a goat Sadpara was tending in the mountains got injured, and instead of slitting its throat, as others would, he’d haul it over his shoulders and walk all the way down to take it to the village vet.

They suspect that he probably failed to make it back because one or both of his partners met with an accident and he stayed on trying to find a way to save them.

We will probably never know.

People in the area have been awaiting a miracle.

But as his son says, given the hostile environment, low oxygen and winter temperatures dipping to as low as -80C, there’s little chance the men could have survived a week at over 8,000m.

“This hasn’t happened in climbing history, so we can only hope for a miracle,” Sajid Sadpara told the BBC.