Year 2015 is about to end. For the trekking and climbing community in Pakistan. this year would be remembered as one of the tragic years. This year, we lost three of our great friends – Usman Tariq, Imran Junaidi and Khurram Shahzad in the high altitudes of Kashmir. Overall, all three of were very brave, talented and passionate gentlemen. All three of them were from Islamabad and I had known them for past 5-10 years. It’s indeed a great loss for their families and us – they will indeed remain in our thoughts and discussions forever.
What actually happened would probably never be known exactly. It can only be guessed from the circumstances and accounts from rescue efforts. They had all gone out to climb the Sarwali Peak in Neelum valley, Azad Kashmir. This above 6000 meters high peak had never been climbed before and thus was the attraction for three passionate souls. They had been preparing for this expedition for months and were looking for appropriate slot. Initially they had planned to do it in June, but later moved it to Aug/Sep. As part of the preparations, Usman and Khurram had been in touch with me for the arrangement of some equipment for them before I left for US.
I remember Usman started doing hiking in Margalla with us. His first ever climb was with us on the rocks near Chiniot back in 2008/09. He surprised all of us with his climbing talent on his first ever climb. He then started getting serious with this game and gradually established himself as a very proficient rock climber over the period of year. I have known Khurram more as an emotional kid. Till very late I didn’t know he does trekking too. It was when he contacted me for the Trekkers Meetup 2013 I was surprised to hear about his trekking interest in one of the meetups. In last couple of years, he had become very passionate about trekking. A few months ago, I teased him with the question about his plans to get married – his response was like with the interests and passions I have, I am not ready to ruin someone’s life yet. My meetings with Imran had been more inside than in the outdoors. We had been catching up during trekking meetups and other functions. Together with Usman, Imran had climbed one of smaller Trango towers in the Karakorums in 2014 that gave them a big boost.
As part of their Sarwali expedition, this team of three left base camp on August 26th. After a couple of days, weather got really bad and they had to spend two nights in a snow bivouac. After spending two restless nights there, they got a bit of clear weather and decided to go forward from the altitude of around 5000m. That was the last time they contacted base. After that there had been no clue had been found of them. Rescue efforts were started including heli search by Dr. Bhatti. On ground, Sadpara brothers and Zahid Rajppot climbed up and reached till the point where they had spent two nights. As per accounts of all of them, the area ahead of bivouac point was heavily crevassed and all indications point to the possibility of them falling to one of them, not to be found again.
The incident, combined with Waqas Siddique’s accident and death on Gondogoro last year brings the very important discussion into limelight again. While it is part of our aqeeda that they had not to live beyond a minute of their fixed age and this was the day for them, it is important to discuss about safety measures such groups need to take while going in the dangerous remote altitudes.
It is very important to plan not just for the best case but for the worst case scenarios as well. These guys for example didn’t have a satellite phone, avalanche prone devices and high frequency radio sets with them. Moreover, the rescue part in case something goes wrong was never really discussed with even the base camp team.
Alpine club of Pakistan is the institute responsible for all of the high altitude mountaineering in Pakistan. As with Waqas’ incident last year, there has been a discussion by them about permissions, trainings and bans etc. What they need to realize is that with the young passionate souls and more access to information over internet, there will always be people willing to take risks. With the average budget of Pakistani climbers, they can either plan for the expeditions or for the ‘luxury’ of backups and rescue plans. What needs to be done is to facilitate them and channelize their passions rather than talking about prior permissions and banks.
Below are my three suggestions which can be the starting point to initiate this effort and are practical to take up.
- Pakistani climbers need to have high altitude mountaineering trainings at subsidized rates. Currently, all the climbers get themselves trained informally and individually. It is a fact that they cannot afford high cost private mountaineering courses. Thus there is a need to offer trainings by specialists which are readily available with ACP at subsidized rates.
- With the high prices, satellite phones are out of bound for local trekkers/climbers. It is however a must have for expeditions like these to maintain timely contact in case of need. My suggestion would be for institutes like ACP to come forward, buy a few of them and make them available for local expeditions on some reasonable rent.
- Local laws don’t allow the use of good quality, high frequency radio sets. Alpine club can take the initiative and talk to the concerned authorities to formalize a process through which permissions could be granted for the legitimate use like this. Radio sets could be a great help in maintaining contact at terrains like these.
An excellent piece on the subject has been written by Hanniah Tariq here. The need of hour is to get beyond mere talking and take some practical steps. It needs to be done before something unfortunate happens again in the same circumstances initiating the same discussion again.