The great mountaineers of the world stand on the summits of the highest places on the planet and win laurels. Their respective countries laud and sing them, shower them with awards, flash them around the world on television and cherish them as national heroes.

On that long upward grind over five-six days from base camp for a typical 8000-metre peak there struggles with the renown bound mountaineer a lonely figure shoulder to shoulder and in step, never lagging, sometimes leading and always there to lend a hand when needed. Unknown and unsung, this is the High Altitude Porter (HAP) whose labour, always harder than the mountaineer’s for he ferries heavy loads, remains forever unrequited.

Hasan Jan of Hushe, forty km north of Khaplu in Baltistan, is one such man.

One of four siblings, Hasan was born in 1974 to a father who was a small farmer. That was a time when Hushe still worked on a no-cash economy. The farmer grew his food enough for the family for the year and kept his herds in good fettle for dairy needs. He and his family wore the traditional home spun wool; what little extra was needed was procured on barter against his agricultural or dairy produce at the village store.

Hasan Jan remembers there was never much money in the house. Consequently, even through the local government school charged only one rupee per month, neither he nor his siblings were enrolled. Growing up illiterate, he became his father’s farm help at a young age. When he was eleven, he took the family’s livestock to the summer pasture for the first time. For the next eight years that was his life: helping his father with ploughing and planting and then spending three months up in the high pastures.

At 19, he was wedded and soon a child was on the way. Also, the way of life was swiftly changing in Hushe, replacing the old with a cash economy. Since money was now an essential, Hasan betook himself to Skardu to work as a porter for outward bound expeditions. That was the summer of 1993. It was a wait of twelve days before he was hired by a Korean expedition attempting Gasherbrum II.

At the end of his stint, he walked away with Rs 1,800. The smell and sight of money felt good and Hasan knew what he was going to do for the rest of his youthful life.

For the next three years, he was porter, one among the countless young men of Baltistan, carrying up to 25 kg from Askole up the Baltoro Glacier to the great glacial junction of Concordia. After three years of portering, Hasan was hired as a member of the kitchen staff. That beat being an ordinary porter: the load he got to carry was less than the stipulated 25 kg and the food in the expedition kitchen was much better than the thick dry bread Balti porters make on the way.

After a couple of years of working as kitchen staff, Hasan and three other men from Hushe hit upon a novel idea. The closing years of the last century saw the perilous route over the Gondogoro La connecting Baltoro Glacier with Hushe become increasingly popular. However, the difficulties of the snow and ice conditions at over 5000 metres on the steep pass made the use of fixed ropes essential. Borrowing the necessary pitons, ropes and other material from an experienced Hushe porter, Hasan and his mates prepared the Gondogoro route on both sides of the divide.

Two members of this team then went down to Concordia to broadcast the news of the route being properly roped. Now while Hassan and his mates hoped to be paid for their work, the advantage tow adventurers on the pass was that, preparing such a treacherous route being time consuming, they saved precious time for a few thousand rupees.

From the summer of 1999 to 2002, the gambit worked perfectly for Hasan’s team. But, says Hasan, folks do not like others making a good life. Every year, the number of men who wanted to station themselves on the pass increased until there were sixteen men sharing what the original team of four made in 1999. At the end of the summer of 2002, as Hasan and his friend undid the rope on the pass and divided up their profit. They decided work on Gondogoro was no longer financially viable. They therefore reverted to portering.

About this time word came of a Spanish winter expedition to Broad Peak. One lesson that the much experienced and by then almost world famous HAP Little Karim passed on to Hasan was to do one’s best, never filch and never lie. At the end of the climb, it was evident that Sebastian Alvaro, the leader, was completely taken in by the soft-spoken and diligent Hasan Jan.

The winter expedition of 2003 was followed by a double-summit bid on Gasherbrum I and II. And so, Hasan Jan bagged his first two 8000-metre peaks. He was still basking in the pride of this feat when the following summer he found himself with Alvaro’s team on the Abruzzi Ridge of K-2 for the summit bid. This was the golden jubilee of the first ascent and the mountain was crowded with climbers.

Only a few hundred metres below the summit sits the dreadful obstacle called The Bottleneck, a steep sided pit filled with ice and powder snow with plenty of bare rock to make it one of the more hazardous pitches on K2: it took the team over three hours to fix rope across this treacherous 35metre gap. In this process, one of Hasan Jan’s crampons came loose. Undoing his heavy outer gloves, the man retied the crampon. But at nearly 8800 metres, the keen wind dropped chill factor to minus 40 degrees Celsius and in those couple of minutes Hasan felt that burning sensation that marks the onset of frostbite.

Across the Bottleneck, as he wielded his ice axe, Hasan felt a peculiar stiffness in his hand. Removing his gloves, he saw the first three fingers of his hand beginning to blacken. He had been frost-bitten; the effected flesh was beginning to die. Despite the encouragement of his team leader and the nearness to the summit, Hasan decided to descend. The mountain is not running away, he thought to himself, but any more exposure to the freezing temperature and high winds could only aggravate his condition. He aborted when he was just a hundred metres short of the summit.

Walking back to Hushe via Gondogoro, Hasan Jan eventually reached medical help and lost some flesh from the tips of three fingers on his right hand.

That was how I first knew him in 2006.

In 2005 and 2007, Hasan Jan climbed with Alvaro’s teams to summit Nanga Parbat and Broad Peak respectively with the intervening year going without an eight-thousander bid.

In 2009, the Korean team he was climbing with summited Nanga Parbat at four in the afternoon. As it goes, this was way too late in the day to be on a peak notorious as a life-taker. Leaving the climbers behind, Hasan hurried back. But this was not him. He felt he had done wrong. And so, a couple of hundred metres below the summit he sat down in the lee of a rock to await the others. Sleep overcame him. He was roused by the burning sensation he now knew so well.

Falling asleep with his hands tucked in his armpits, he had somehow managed to pull the right hand out, somehow yanking off the glove. The inevitable had happened and even as he waited for the Koreans to catch up, he knew he had frostbite. This time surgery took off the top segment of the fingers that had suffered earlier.

That is how I saw him in June 2012.

Hasan Jan says Sebastian Alvaro is a generous tipper: a bonus of €300 for the HAP summiting with the team is indeed a liberal addition to the porter’s wages. But the men who risk their lives to get the climbers within striking distance of their summits, lose out to the tour operators who indenture them out to climbing parties. Half of what the expeditioners pay for the porters ends up in the operator’s pocket. And so while the middleman grows richer and fatter, men like Hasan Jan continue to live on a pittance.

But it was from this small amount that Hasan judiciously saved some little money every year to be able to raise a four-room hotel in Hushe village. A budget establishment, his hotel is in the first year of operation and already doing reasonably. With the ever-increasing traffic over Gondogoro La, Hasan looks forward to his business growing.

At thirty-eight, he knows his days as HAP are already behind him. But his meeting those many years ago with Alvaro proved lucky for Hasan continues to work with him. He is aware that Alvaro values him as a totally reliable and dedicated worker. Climbers from far off countries have acknowledged his hard work — the Koreans contributed US$1,000 to his frostbite operation in 2009 (the total cost was Rs 337,000 all inclusive) — but Hasan does not exist for the government of Pakistan.

In this invisibility, he is not alone. There are thousands like him sprinkled in the great mountain country from Chitral through Gojal and Shimshal to Baltistan. These are men who again and again, year after year, bring glory to Pakistan by assisting climbing expeditions in their endeavours. While the climbers return home to laurels and recognition in their countries, the Hasan Jans of Pakistan live on in poverty and obscurity. They are never lauded as heroes for we as a nation of exhibitionists only worship uneducated louts who gamble away the country’s name on cricket grounds.

The greatest scam the HAP faces is the so-called insurance he gets before going on an expedition. A requirement by law for the hiring company, it is in reality only an eyewash. On both occasions that he was frostbitten and needed medical attention, the insurance company told Hasan that frost bite was not covered by the policy. Hasan says that he knows of cases where the next of kin of porters who had died in high altitude mishaps were told that death by accident was also not covered!

When he tried to make good his medical bill in 2009 and was turned down, in a fit of anger he tore up the insurance policy right there in the office of the insuring company. Hasan has since never bothered with the formality. “Why waste the hiring company’s money?” he asked ruefully.

Hasan Jan has learned the lessons of life well, however. Save his eldest daughter who missed school owing to poverty, his children are being educated. He says he does not wish a porter’s life for them. In fact, he does not even want them to walk the livestock to the summer pasture.

Only one who has humped a heavy backpack in high places appreciates the hard work of a professional porter. For everyone else men like Hasan Jan are only common labourers. They are not recognised as the heroes they are in reality; they do not even receive the wages they deserve, leave alone recognition.

Even as you read these lines, porters (at least in Baltistan) are talking of forming a union to press for more equitable conditions. But its realisation may be years in the coming.






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