By Rafique Ali
A jeep ride from Skardu, going east to Hushe village covering a distance of about 105 Miles takes about six hours. At the height of 10,000 feet above sea level, Hushe is the last village where the dusty road ends. Except for people of Gilgit-Baltistan and few thousand Pakistani outdoor lovers, this place is not known to most. For western hardcore trekkers and mountain lovers, Hushe Village is a destination. A starting point from where trekkers and mountaineers begin 5-7 days foot journey towards most pristine but rugged and unforgiving beauties on planet Earth, we call it Concordia Valley. A 3-mile wide and 40-mile long ice desert guarded by K2, Broadpeak, Gasherum-1&2, Trango Tower and plenty of lower peaks from 18,000 feet and above.
Residents of Hushe village are welcoming western explorers for one century now. Expedition teams give final touches to their plan and recruit high altitude porters here at Hushe. Around 75% men of able age are high altitude porters. One can also meet retire and semi-retired men in twilight age, they would love to tell you stories about their journeys with name-tag mountaineers. Some even reached summits over 23,000 feet with their clients but glory isn’t their forte; they always remain unsung heroes of those dangerous journeys.
During a recent trip to Pakistan, three months ago; I mixed business with my passion for outdoors to wonder in those terrains, an epic 10 days. I went to Hushe village as well and stayed at a non-profit guest house built by a Hungarian NGO to cater the demand of mountaineers & explorers. A guest house has 8-10 rooms and each room has an assigned name of the mountain, it was the end of season and guest was pretty much empty hence I was fortunate to get the room named K-2. At the common area, there is a plaque at the door of the dining hall which wasn’t named as any other mountain, valley or river but it was named ‘Little Karim’. Upon my inquiry, the expedition guide told me the story of ‘Little Karim’, I got intrigued so he arranged a meeting with us.
Little Karim climbed K-2 nine times, I repeat NINE TIMES.
So here is a brief introduction of the man named Abdul Karim, a five feet tall figure, high altitude porter and a mountain guide; affectionately nicknamed ‘Little Karim’ by western mountaineers. We Pakistanis never heard of him but international mountaineering community open heartedly recognized his services under extremely dangerous conditions; that’s why his name plaque is posted at the door of the dining hall.
He is little and short, but don’t be fooled by his demeanour, he is a Superman who set the world record of carrying 50 kg (110 lbs) over 8,000 meters (26,240 Ft) at his back and he did it more than once. In the technical lingo of mountaineering, height over 26,000 is called a ‘Death Zone’. Higher you go the level of oxygen in the air decrease, at 26,000 feet the percentage drops to 1/3rd of what we breathe at sea level. Lack of oxygen and its effect on the human body is called ‘altitude sickness’. Depending upon the anatomy of every individual, the altitude adjustment varies from person to person and it has nothing to do with physical fitness. Some start feeling altitude from even 10,000 feet. Now, imagine little Karim carrying the weight of 50 kgs (close to 80% of his body weight) at the height of 26,000 feet when the oxygen level is 1/3rd and the sub-zero temperature is from -30 to – 50-degree centigrade, even feels like -80 in high winds. Little Karim climbed K-2 nine times, I repeat NINE TIMES.
Little Karim started his high altitude porter career in the late 1970s; it was an era when porters did not have sufficient gears; example specialize shoe, clothing and other accessories. Though, Little Karim and hundreds like him are men of steel and their resilient DNA evolved over centuries by living in those harsh cold conditions. Going to the heights even for them was pretty new phenomena, started when first western explorer ventured into those terrains in the early 20th century.
The embedded YouTube interview of little Karim was filmed ten years ago when he was relatively younger and healthy. National Geographic Society invited him to Seattle, USA and he also had a chance to travel to Europe too. He is in his 60s now and during recent years little Karim had some health issues but he still don’t refuse if expedition teams want to recruit him. He no more carries weight, he goes up as a consultant; his knowledge of the terrain is an asset for whoever hires him.
Gilgit-Baltistan natives are most humble & hospitable people I have ever met. They are full of laughter and sense of humour. One such team and crew of awesome guides and porters took me up to the height of 17,000 feet at another distinct trek called Ganche Pass.
Gilgit-Baltistan is a gold mine of mountain tourism, with train manpower ready to guide the explorers. There is a Little Karim inside every Baltistani, and just like mountains, these souls of Baltistan are raw and pure.
Writer can be reached at his twitter handle @GoToMtns