It sounded like thunder. A loud crash shook the ground beneath Sirbaz Khan and Abdul Joshi on the first day of their expedition to Mount Annapurna in Nepal (8,091m), the tenth highest peak in the world. They had just worn their crampons – a serrated traction device that attaches to boots, allowing them to climb over snow and ice – and were about to start climbing when that happened.

Their team from Sherpas had left a few hours before, to repair the ropes at the top of the mountain. Sirbaz and Abdul looked up in the direction the sound was coming from. “This was where our Sherpa team was crossing the mountain under some seracs,” says Sirbaz.

Seracs are large blocks of glacial ice that typically form on the edges of some of the world’s largest mountains, such as Mount Annapurna. They are usually the size of a house and are extremely dangerous for mountaineers, as they are often perched quite precariously and collapse with little to no warning.

Sirbaz Khan raising his arms in victory at the top of Annapurna

The accident was caused by the fall of a serac. “We couldn’t see the Sherpas anymore,” Sirbaz said. “It was as if they were covered with a white blanket. We couldn’t spot any movement for a full minute.

They desperately reached the radio and called their team. “I shouted ‘Mama Sherpa! Mom Sherpa! ‘ on the radio, ”says Sirbaz. “I finally got the answer that they were okay and that we had to keep going up.

“It happened on day one,” laughs Sirbaz incredulously. “We hadn’t even started and avalanches and seracs had started to fall. Of course, we were a little scared.

Sirbaz Khan and Abdul Joshi are the first Pakistanis to stand on top of the tenth highest mountain in the world, Mount Annapurna in Nepal. Eos caught up with Sirbaz on his return, and he describes the grueling climb up a mountain considered even more dangerous than K2

This was not going to be the end of the danger they would face on a mountain known to be – in Sirbaz’s own words – “khoonkhaar” [bloodthirsty]. It is more lethal than K2 (8,611 m), which has a death rate of 29% – that of Annapurna is 32%. This means that for every three people who reach the top, one person dies.

Base camp celebrations

What makes Annapurna so deadly is that the entire mountain is avalanche prone. Hundreds of avalanches take place on the mountain every year. Climbers should not only watch out for snow masses, they should also be aware of rapidly falling boulders and ice.

Climbing Annapurna is a dance with death that occurs from the moment you set foot on the mountain.

Due to its inherent dangers, for most climbers climbing Annapurna is no more than a dream. Such a difficult dream to translate into real life, it is better to leave it alone.

As if to hammer home the unpredictability and precariousness of the mountain, Sirbaz recounts an incident told to him by Mingma Gylaje Sherpa, one of the best mountaineers on the planet. He was part of the group that took part in the first historic winter summit of K2. By the time Mingma and two of his friends – Finn Samuli Mansikka (with whom Sirbaz had also worked) and Nepalese Pemba Sherpa – returned from the summit, night had fallen.

Annapurna at night | Kamran Ali Pictures

A seasoned climber with several 8,000-meter peaks to his credit, Mingma advised others to spend the night where they were, as there was blue ice in front of them. “But they insisted and said they preferred to cross it and reach Camp Four,” Sirbaz explains. “Although both were securely tied to the rope, they both slipped on the blue ice and died.

“That’s why only those who participate in Mission 14 attempt this summit,” Sirbaz explains. Mission 14 is a global mountaineering challenge to reach the top of all 14 mountains in the world over 8,000 meters.

The dangers on the mountain for Sirbaz and Abdul were just beginning. It was as if the serac crashing in front of them as they began their ascent was a sign of things to come.

Sirbaz khan

They were joined by other teams as they climbed higher up the mountain. Teams of sherpas were busy securing the ropes in front of them, and at a dizzying height of 4,750 m, they decided to have lunch – standing on a slope, hanging from the rope.

And then Sirbaz heard a terrifying and familiar growl, which quickly turned into a roar. “It was an avalanche!” Sirbaz said. The climbers quickly tied all of their gear and gear to the ropes with them, lest they be blown away by the icy wind blowing past the wall of snow, almost as if announcing its arrival.

“It was as if a storm had hit us,” Sirbaz says. “The wind that comes after the avalanche is very strong. He throws large objects from one place to another. We started to notice that our bodies started to shake and shake from the coldness of the wind. Our bodies were covered with about half an inch of snow.

Abdul Joshi

The avalanche came from the left side and for a moment it looked like it was going to envelop them. Fortunately, the avalanche spared the climbers. “Two incidents in one day,” Sirbaz says. “On the way up, we were even more scared than before.”

At that point, the Sherpas team turned around. There was no more rope and about 2,500m of rope was still needed to complete the route to Camp One. The mountain’s overall unpredictability with avalanches, fresh snowfall, and rockfall, among other factors, makes it very difficult to accurately assess how much rope would be used. Sirbaz and Abdul decided to climb without the rope – very risky indeed – using only their equipment, skills and experience to guide them, and spent their first night on the mountain at Camp One.

The lack of ropes on the mountain would be a recurring problem for the teams. Sirbaz and Abdul first attempted to push for the summit on April 13, but the ropes could not be mended. The team then ran out of rope at Camp Four (6,900m) on April 14. The ropes must have been helicoptered to them. Finally, on April 16, they became the first Pakistanis to climb to the top of Annapura.

Pray before you start to climb

For Sirbaz, a native of Hunza, it was his sixth 8,000m mountain. Its previous peaks include Lhotse (8,516m) and Manaslu (8,163m) in Nepal and K2, Nanga Parbat (8,126m) and Broad Peak (8,051m) in Pakistan.

Annapurna was Abdul Joshi’s first 8,000m peak. He comes from Shimshaal and has worked as a professional climber, high altitude porter (HAP) and has participated in several 8000m expeditions in Pakistan. He is also known as the go-to person for leading mountain rescues.

“For me personally, after K2 and Nanga Parbat, Annapurna was the most important peak of my Mission 14,” says Sirbaz. He then posted a video of him and Abdul Joshi on his Instagram, atop Annapurna. They dedicated their summit to their friend and mentor, the late Ali Sadpara.

One of the world’s best known mountaineers, for his skill, tenacity and experience in the mountains, Ali Sadpara was officially presumed dead on February 18 this year during a winter summit on the mountain he loved. the most – K2. He was last seen by his son in a section below the summit called the bottleneck, before his group lost contact and was never seen or heard again.

Ali Sadpara was the first person to climb Nanga Parbat in winter, in 2016, and is the only Pakistani to have stood on top of eight mountains over 8,000 meters – Nanga Parbat, K2, Broad Peak, Gasherbrum 1 and 2, Lhotse, Makalu and Manaslu.

” All the others [previous] pics i did, i did with ali bhai, ”says Sirbaz. The loss he felt from his former climbing partner was immense. “We have known each other for a very long time. I have been participating in climbing camps since 2001-2002. At the time, I was working as a mountain guide and as a member of the kitchen team. I became a professional mountaineer much later. Ali Bhai is considered a very great man. Not just in Pakistan, but all over the world.

The Annapurna base camp with the Pakistan tent

The dedication of the Annapurna summit was important to Sirbaz, Abdul Joshi and their team. They each knew Ali Sadpara well. “Before his accident, we worked on a documentary with Mooroo [Taimoor Salahuddin] called Unsung Heroes, during the ‘Value of Life’ expedition to Chitral, ”says Sirbaz. The documentary is available for viewing on YouTube. “It was shot in Chitral. It was called that because, until then, Pakistani mountaineers who died… their insurance – the value of their lives – was only 200,000 rupees.

“We were working to try to change that and make things better for the HAP community. He was incredibly unhappy that his accident happened on K2. We will do our best to advance Ali Bhai’s work for the climbing community, his vision.

For now, Sirbaz doesn’t plan to stop climbing anytime soon. He recently announced the next 8,000m mountain he will attempt to climb. Sirbaz Khan has his eyes on Everest.

The writer is a staff member She tweets @madeehasyed

Posted in Dawn, EOS, May 2, 2021