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Nazir Sabir - The Mountaineer and A Fighter

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An Inside of our Everest Man and his Achievements

By Lt Col (Retd) Manzoor Hussain,
TBt Secretary, Alpine Club of Pakistan
Jun 26 - Jul 02, 2000

The First Success

Our Camp II, perched at the end of a ridge at an elevation of 5670 metres, offered a magnificent panorama of the upper Boltoro glacier. But we were more absorbed in deliberating our future plans; rarefied oxygen adversely affecting decision making at high altitudes. It was a bright sunny day of July 17, 1976 and I, as the expedition leader had a decision to make; abandon our first Alpine Club Expedition to 6600 metre high, difficult, challenging and still unclimbed peak — Mt Paiyu, or launch another summit bid. A frost bitten and capitulated Capt Saeed, helped by Allen Steck — our American advisor, had just returned from Camp III (6000 m), after their failed summit bid. The two, strongest of our team, had boldly attempted to ascend the 1000 metre high, difficult and steep ice wall leading to the Paiyu summit, above Camp III. They were forced to abandon their climb after exhaustion and frost bite to Saeed's foot. Their failure dampened our team's spirit as they feared fatalities on any further summit bid. But could I let go this opportunity? Mounting mountaineering expeditions is no small task; it needs large finances, plenty of time and efforts to muster good climbing team and gear. I opined that difficulty of the ice wall warranted a fair attempt by a stronger team comprising three to four climbers, before we decide to abandon. After a chilling silence, our quite but strong member, Nazir Sabir, raised his hand and declared coolly that he agreed with me and wanted to be part, of the summit attempt. Nazir's strong support strengthened my decision to embark on our final summit bid.

On 20 July 1976, at 12:30 AM, we started our final ascent on the ice wall blocked by rock walls on both sides, above Camp III. Nazir, Allen Steck and Major Bashir took turns to work on difficult pitches of the near vertical ice wall, whereas I carried team's gear and food and tried to shoot the climb with my antique 16 mm, Bell and Howell movie camera. The lead team front pointed on the hard ice and fixed ice screws for our ropes. We continued climbing throughout the day without any signs of the summit in view as darkness descended and the temperatures plummeted. At 8 pm, finding a soft patch at about 6500 metres we decided to dig a snow cave and tried to spend the night; crunched and bundled together in our parka suits sans the comfort of sleeping bags and solid food. Moving our hands and toes for fear of frostbite, we nervously waited for the dawn, and for the temperature to rise. On the first light of 21 July we were still alive and safe, as strong winds blew cirrus clouds above us, a forewarning of approaching bad weather. Totally exhausted and dehydrated I was confronted with yet another decision making in view of our depleted condition; climb the last patch of ice wall to the summit or otherwise. Nazir once again rose to the challenge and both of us roped up and started our final ascent of 150 metre high ice summit above us. With our energy levels dangerously low we managed to reach the steep summit in the afternoon and took turns to unfurl Pakistan and Alpine Club flags on the virgin Paiyu summit. Later Major Bashir helped by a fixed rope also joined us on the summit while Allen Steck chose to sit back and watch us. This was our first major mountaineering success which I attributed to Nazir's determination and his great reservoir of strength.

The gentle, amicable and humble manners of this young bearded man from Hunza, which impressed me while selecting him for our first Alpine Club Services Expedition to Paiyu early 1976, belied his courage and ego to fight back and struggle. He carried a compact and rugged body with appearance resembling that of Germans or Poles; making his physical robustness explicit, but still failing to reveal his dogged determination and his true reservoir of strength. Prior to Paiyu, while I tried my luck on K-2 in the company of Americans in the 1974 and 75; enjoying a break from construction of Karakoram Highway in the upper Hunza valley, Nazir accompanied a Japanese expedition to 7284 metre high Passu peak in Hunza in 1974 and later attempted Nanga Parbat (8125 m) in 1975 with a German Expedition.

In the years to come, Nazir was to prove his mettle as a mountaineer, entrepreneur and a politician, but above all, as a determined fighter who was never to surrender. He remained undaunted by the difficult grades and steep slopes of the mountains, as well as, that of life, and was never to be deterred by defeat. Nazir's life has been a continuous struggle. Hailing from Raminji village in the remotest Chapurson Valley of Gojal, Northern Hunza, which till seventies did not enjoy the facility of even a primary school, he struggled to educate himself, rising to become the Advisor on Education and Tourism for the Northern Areas.

The failure and climbing feat on K-2

In 1977 a great opportunity came Nazir's way when he and another good climber from Hunza, Ashraf Aman teamed up for the first Pak Japanese expedition to K-2, attempting the traditional South East Abruzzi ridge. The 8611 m high rocky pyramid — the K-2, second highest on earth, with its steeper slopes is considered to be the most difficult of the highest mountains. Till then only two mountaineers of the 1954 successful Italian expedition had stepped on the K-2 Summit. Nazir put in his best to measure up to the challenge and earned his place in the first, whereas Ashraf Aman formed part of the third summit assault team. As Nazir's team departed their high camp on the shoulder for the difficult ascent to K-2 summit, bad weather struck, forcing them to abandon the attempt. The third team, launched after the weather improved, pushed to summit. Ashraf Aman became the first Pakistani to stand high on the K-2 summit. Nazir Sabir returned dejected, but not deterred. He tried to soothe himself by climbing solo on Khosar Gung, a 6400 metre high peak near Skardu, from all its sides for two consecutive years ie, 1978 and 79. In 1980, tragic death of his elder brother, who was buried under an ice avalanche while attempting Diran peak with an Army expedition, only exacerbated Nazir's personal trauma.

Nazir, at last, got his breakthrough in 1981 when he chose to accompany Japanese Waseda University Expedition to K-2 attempting the West and South South West ridge rather than the usual Abruzzi ridge. Duke of Abruzzi from Italy, in 1909, surveyed K-2 from all its sides and declared that K-2 can only be assailed from the South West ridge, later to become popular as Abruzzi ridge. The route to the West and North West ridges of K-2 is through Savoia glacier, North of Godwin Austen glacier and the traditional K-2 Base Camp. I had trekked on Savoia glacier in the company of an American trekking expedition in 1974 and climbed on the Savoia pass with the 1975 American K-2 Expedition while attempting North West ridge of K-2. Western side of K-2, with near vertical slopes and less of snow patches, is the most difficult of its ridges. It involved difficult grade ice and rock climb at higher elevations with wind roaring around the upper portions of K-2; its speed exceeding 100 kms an hour. In 1978 famous British climber Chris Bonington made his first attempt on this route, tragically loosing a team member Nick Estcourt, who was swept by a slab avalanche above their Camp I. I could only wish Nazir and the Japanese mountaineers good luck on this most difficult route on K-2.

Nazir led the Japanese on this most difficult and hazardous ascent; no human step had ever seton the frozen rocks and ice gulleys of the West ridge. Nazir, winding through myriad of rock towers and pinnacles and fighting the effects of high altitude and the howling wind, tried to stay on course. There were many anxious moments during the climb and near the summit they had to pull down and traverse to South ridge for the final summit assault. Nazir followed by Otani reached the K-2 summit on 7 August 1981. Nazir had not only fought back but created history by successfully climbing K-2's West ridge, no one had done it earlier. Without any doubt this was Nazir's greatest mountaineering feat. He was the second Pakistani to stand on K-2 summit. A documentary film of the climb, which was screened all over Japan, made Nazir Sabir a famous and house hold name in Japan. In due course Nazir had also picked up Japanese language and could speak it fluently.

Challenqes and achievements

Nazir achieved another historical milestone in 1982 when he, along with Sher Khan joined the famous Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner in his attempt to scale Broad Peak (8047 m) and Gasherbrum II (8035 m) in one attempt. Reinhold Messner is the first human to scale all 14 peaks above eight thousand metres of height that exist on our planet; climbing in his company was an honour in itself. The expedition made ascents of both Gasherbrum II and Broad Peak in Alpine style in a period of just one week! A tremendous mountaineering achievement. For his outstanding achievements, he was honoured with President's Medal for Pride of Performance in the sports of Mountaineering in 1982.

Now Nazir was to try to bag in all the five Pakistani eight thousanders. From 1983 to 1985 he attempted the killer mountain Nanga Parbat in the company of Japanese mountaineers. In one of these attempts he suffered a nasty fall plunging him 400 metres on the steep slope. He was very lucky to get away with minor injuries. In 1984 he also attempted Broad peak in Alpine style. In 1985 he climbed Diran (7327 m) — where he had lost his elder brother. Same year he attempted Rakaposhi (7788 m) peak and tried his luck on Nanga Parbat in the company of famous British climber Doug Scott.

In 1976 the Alpine Club of Pakistan offered him to become an Assistant Secretary, but Nazir, an outdoor adventurer, had no affinity for the files and desk. He found refuge in a reputed tour and travel agency as a mountain guide, bringing him closer to his obsession ie mountaineering. After climbing K-2 in 1982 he was all set to venture into his own tours operation business, but lack of business know how forced him to join hands with another businessman, establishing a tours operation agency in Islamabad in 1983. The Japanese mountaineering and tour market was all set for Nazir to exploit. However, Nazir's dislike for files and office work took it's toll. As he pursued his mountaineering career rigorously, his partner dealt his accounts with equal zeal. One day in 1985, to Nazir's utter shock he learnt that he was broke, as his partner offered many stories for the default. Nazir found himself left high and dry and involved in legal suits. All his friends could advise him for the future only. He survived, his fight back instinct overtook the gentle part of him and he learnt to run the business, the hard way. He overcame this business and financial setback and in 1987 was able to lay the foundation of his now well famous business concern Nazir Sabir Expeditions.

Marriage, mountaineering and politics

Nazir continued to venture into the high altitude, his parents never learning the exact nature of his profession and insisting on his marriage. But he had a passion for the outdoor and had no propensity for a settled life. However, how long could he remain a lonely person? Departing from the local traditions he ventured boldly by marrying a Japanese lady in 1986. Of course language was no barrier. But his marriage and business commitments failed to rein his wild spirit.

His climbing ventures frequently took him abroad. In 1986 and 87 he climbed the Swiss and French Alps extensively and in 1990 he was selected as technical and mountaineering advisor during the production of the Hollywood feature film "K-2". The film was shot in Vancouver, Canada as the producers, with their cast of actors, could not dare filming actual climb on K-2. He often travelled across the continents in connection with his business, to participate in the international tourism and mountaineering meets and to deliver lectures at various international fora.

He attempted Ultar I (7388 m) peak, sitting above the main Hunza valley, twice in the company of Mr Hasegawa of Japan in 1990 and 1991. Later Mr Hasegawa lost his life in attempting this peak in 1994. Nazir Sabir achieved yet another mountaineering milestone in 1992 when he climbed 8068 m high Hidden peak (Gasherbrum I), becoming the first Pakistani to climb four of the five peaks above eight thousand metres.

By now his business was well established and his name had become synonymous with mountaineering and tour operation in Pakistan. He had become a social worker and a philanthropist, helping the needy natives from Hunza. On the insistence of Hunzakuts and Gojalis, he boldly ventured into yet another uncharted arena — Politics. In Hunza, no body had ever challenged the established authority of the centuries old Mir family. He won the Hunza seat in the 1994 elections for the Northern Area Council, for a five years term, by defeating his opponent from Mir family with a wide margin. He was elated as Advisor on Education and Tourism for the Northern Area, a post equivalent to a provincial minister. This was a befitting reward for a humble Raminji background boy who had struggled all his life with mountains and humans, to earn himself fame and the high position. But politics, cross to his grains, consumed most of his time, adversely affecting his mountaineering business and the family life. He was desperate and remained perturbed as he tried to do justice to all the four.

The failure and epic success on Everest

Mt Everest (8848 m) — the highest point on earth had been surmounted by all countries of the region ie, Chinese, Indians and Nepalese, but Pakistanis had yet to step on it. The Alpine Club decided to launch first Pakistani expedition to Mt Everest on the occasion of Golden Jubilee of Pakistan's independence celebrated in 1997. I started working on this biggest of our ventures from early 1995. On expeditions leadership there was no consensus in the Club's Executive Council. After rounds of lengthy discussions, I proposed Nazir's name as expedition's leader, against the annoyance of few. Considering his meritorious mountaineering career he was the rightful choice and was, therefore, selected. He spent his time and money on his trips to Nepal, England, Poland and Italy to purchase the mountaineering gear for the expedition. We were to attempt Everest, with the co-operation of our Chinese friends, from North Col in Tibet, People's Republic of China. This route is considered more difficult than the South Col from the Nepalese side.

Nazir was under tremendous psychological pressure when he reached the Everest Advance Base Camp, as nine climbers had perished on Everest in a single day in mid May 1997 due to strong and high winds. As we conversed daily on the satellite telephone provided by The President of Pakistan, I tried to help Nazir to evolve his climb plan. He put three brave attempts on the summit, two of which included him, but lacked good luck. During these attempts the team of six climbers including Col Sher Khan and Rajab Shah reached the Second Step, 250 metres short of the summit. On 30 May, he had to abandon the first attempt due to high winds, but during his last attempt on 13 June, one of the teammates was struck by oxygen cylinder problem and Nazir abandoned his summit attempt to rescue the sick comrade. The monsoons had caught on, forbidding further climb on Everest, and a very dejected and demoralised Nazir returned home to a hostile reception, specially from the press. He had to tolerate criticism from all and sundry, including the Club's Executive Council. I also told him things of not his liking.

Everest failure became a serious challenge to the very ego of the fighter Nazir. He once again was desperate, nervous and frustrated. We listened to all criticism in silence, and slowly, but discreetly, prepared himself to regain his honour. Politics consumed most of his time and as he tried to disassociate from it, he found himself deeply embroiled in every issue that cropped up in the Northern Areas. Finally he chose to withdraw and did not participate in the fresh Northern Areas Council elections held in November 1999. He had to concentrate on his business and regain his physical fitness. He visited Japan to revive his links and fetch back his adventure tourism market, which was lost while he remained involved in politics. Inspite of Alpine Club's best efforts we could not muster sponsorship for launching another Pakistani expedition to Mt Everest and Nazir saw no hope for the same in the near future. His age was catching up and could impair his fight back capabilities.

By now Malaysians, Indonesians and Iranians had successfully scaled Mt Everest. He had to act soon so he started consulting his friends abroad to plan his fight back.

As the new millennium set in, Nazir planned to join an international expedition in the company of Canadians, American and respected Austrian climber Peter Hebeler, led by an American lady. I was happy to learn and wished him good luck and success this time. This expedition, to some extent was sponsored by Mountain Madness, whereas he had to self sponsor his participation. We had no direct link with him except for the news update maintained at the Mountain Madness web site and the e-mails received at his office in Islamabad. On 30 April we learnt that he is climbing to Camp II and plans to make his summit bid on 5 May. This attempt was, however, thwarted by bad weather, as well as, due to shortage of climbing ropes.

On 15 May when his teammates decided to descend to the safety of the Everest base camp due to continued bad weather and sickness, Nazir Sabir, propelled by his obsession to fly Pakistan's flag on Everest summit, decided to stay back at their 7881 metre high South Col Camp IV. On 16 May, after finding improved weather conditions, he along with accompanying Sherpas and one Canadian teammate started their final summit bid at 9:30 PM. In spite of the perils of climbing at night, Nazir Sabir, to avoid the strong winds, decided to continue his ascent utilising the moon light; pushing himself to the limits. As 17 May 2000 dawned, Nazir Sabir reached the first summit and at 0731 hours, the same day, Nazir Sabir reached the Everest main summit and unfurled Pakistan's flag on this highest point on earth — for the first time. Nazir had fought back successfully and claimed Everest.

It has taken 53 years to put Pakistan's flag on top of the highest point on earth and Nazir Sabir is the lucky Pakistani to accomplish this unique feat. His epic success on Everest is a befitting tribute to his life long struggle with the high mountains and with his own life. His Everest success has not only brought laurels to Pakistan but also has upheld Pakistan's honour at the international mountaineering fora; Pakistan being the custodian of the largest collection of high mountains on earth. Nazir Sabir would remain a beacon of hard work, struggle and courage for all those who venture into the domains of rugged high altitude and put themselves to the hazardous and perilous occupation of mountaineering. Allah is kind to those who toil. Nazir Sabir is, no doubt, a great mountaineer, but is even a greater Pakistani.