Porters are the backbone of most climbing expeditions, trekking and adventurous exploration into the mountains all over the world. The agile, tireless, hardworking people, primarily from local communities, ferry massive loads of gear on their backs. Like the more familiar Sherpa people of the Himalaya, the Pakistani porters are respected among fraternity of mountain lovers as some of the best porters in the world. They are dedicated and know where the crevasses and icefalls are, how to acclimatize, how much food and fuel to haul up the hill, when to push on, when to rest. They are unsung heroes of high-altitude mountaineering. Without their labour, many a base camps would never have been established; many a summit would never have been conquered.
As a coordinator, I had lived some of my life in the base camps of majestic mountains in Northern Pakistan; with mountaineers, explorers and adventurers from all over the world and porters from Pakistan. During my to-ing and fro-ing in mountain areas, I have befriended many local porters. Some are still on my contact list but I have had the fortune to know Pinion Shah, best in his trade a little better.
Pinion Shah is sturdy and knows the mountains inside out. His forefathers migrated to Baltistan over six hundred years ago. Originally Buddhist, they along with other Balti people converted to Islam during the Moghul period in the sixteenth century. While some of the Baltis adapted to a trading economy, many are still largely pastoralists.
I first met Pinion Shah during my assignment as a facilitator with multinational climbing expedition to Nanga Parbat from Rupal side in 1993. That is when our friendship started by chance. I was to accompany the expedition only up to forward base camp. The hike to base camp and extended stay there brought every kind of weather imaginable — scorching sun, blinding sandstorms, white-out blizzards.
Although I was not one of the climbers, the weather in the base camp left me physically emaciated and emotionally wasted. With great good fortune, on the way back, I was invited by Pinion Shah to his village, situated at the edge of the Rupal Valley, to recuperate. There I was nursed back to health with a combination of goat’s milk, apricots and warm hospitality. I and Pinion Shah have always been in contact ever since.
While in the village, my eyes opened to the realities of the Balti way of life. Life there is hard, graceful and independent. Living conditions are harsh and devoid of modern day civic amenities we in urban centres take for granted. The Baltis live in isolated, remote valleys subsisting on pastoral grazing and marginal crops of barley and wheat. The climate is severe due to the high altitude. Villagers rely on their ingenuity to bring glacier melt water to their fields and homes. Medical care is almost nonexistent. Broken bones and burns often go untreated, and diseases due to malnutrition are a common fact of village life. Chronic infections often lead to blindness and deafness. Infant mortality rate under age one caused primarily by diarrhea-induced dehydration is alarmingly high. In winter, villagers crawl into tiny basement dugouts and spend months huddled together, barely kept warm by smoky fires.
Despite this abject poverty, I saw that the Baltis not only accept their destiny, but embrace the hardship as well as the beauty of their lives, keeping their humanity undimmed and even enhancing it. Facing an existence of privation and adversity, Pinion Shah and his family generously took in me and cared for like their own.
The traditional Balti ways of life are no doubt is about to change. Centuries old self-sustainable methodologies are being lost in the pursuit of the cash that expedition and trekking jobs bring. The inflow of money, material goods, and growing numbers of foreign travellers are impacting the Balti culture. In return for sharing their spectacular mountain surroundings with outsiders and for providing the strong back on which many expeditions reached their goals and many westerners realized their adventures, these Balti people deserve a decent future in which they have a voice.
Pinion Shah had nine years of schooling. He is familiar with oral English and is qualified in mountain hygiene and sanitation, first aid, and crevasse rescue. Pinion Shah told, “I leave villages for months at a time to seek elusive jobs as porters. I remain busy for the trekking season and earn enough to sustain our family through winters.”
“Serious mountaineering starts in the forward base camps,” narrated Pinion Shah, “I have seen climbers going back from the base camps even without attempting and team leader failing to pursue them to go ahead.” Though the travel to Pakistan has declined, but adventure travel has boomed in last few years.
Pinion Shah is aging now. He was known to carry maximum load when he was young literally moving the mountains of luggage and equipment on the most difficult hikes. As a person, Pinion Shah always inspires me. He remains proud, happy and ready to share despite all their hardships. There is no fast lane in his life. He has no worries, alienation or fears. He is very contended with life and what ever comes his way.