Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Little Karim: What makes a climbing hero for me

This article was a finalist in the Banff Mountain Book Festival in the Mountaineering Article category.  Gave me a good excuse to hang out in Banff for a few days.  It was great to see Jon Griffith for the first time since Pakistan.  Congrats on picking up the Mountain Image award.

It was also a great opportunity to chat with Bruce Kirkby as he described his trek with his family and 85 various film people on his way to a three month stay in a Buddhist monastery.  Had a chance to ask John Vaillant a few questions, saw Cory Richards for the first time since our Ice Porn bivi, congratulated Ed Douglas on taking the award that was meant for me,  and just generally partook of way too much Tasty Talking.

Thanks to Brandon Pullan and Raphael Slawinski for the help with editing, and to Joanna Croston and Christine Thel for the encouragement.

To get the article in its original form, check out  Gripped Magazine, Aug/Sept 2015, or

Being entertained by incredible climbing tales in basecamp.
Meeting Little Karim of Hushe was magical, like being a tourist in Iceland and actually seeing a fairy. In previous trips to the Karakoram I had brief glimpses of the abilities of the locals. Humble and diminuitive at 5'2”, Karim's tales of unrecognized high altitude exploits put me in my place. My climb of K6 West that summer received considerable attention. In contrast, Karim's many achievements are barely known. Karim's happiness and warm welcoming aura drew me to him, to find out more. I came away with an appreciation of what makes a true climbing hero for me. It made me feel that in Canada we are missing out on the story.

Little Karim was guiding a Spanish trekking group. A journalist in the group was surprised that we didn't know Karim's reputation and encouraged us to speak with him. Karim grabbed my hand. Within minutes of sitting down for tea with Karim it was clear his climbing career included many highlights. Karim has a humorous story for almost every year spent with westerners in his local mountains.

Karim, and his favorite mountain.

1978: 1800 Balti were at the polo field in central Skardu to apply for portering jobs with Chris Bonnington and Doug Scott's K2 expedition. Little Karim was dismissed as too small, at which point he hoisted a rather larger Bonnington onto his shoulders and paraded him around the field. He got the job.

1981: Karim was head high altitude porter for the Japanese West Ridge expedition. He was above base camp for three weeks when he heard that the summit duo of Nazir Sabir and a Japanese were out of oxygen and gas at their high camp at 8100 meters. They would not summit. Karim hiked up these supplies from 7100 meters. The next day Sabir said Allah had brought them supplies and they summited. Karim says, “not Allah, Little Karim.”. Nazir Sabir went on to become Pakistan's most famous climber.

1985: Karim carried a hang-glider to the summit of 8035 meter Gasherbrum 2. Jean Marc Boivin had promised him an extra $50 to carry the load so that he could become the first person to fly off an 8000er. Karim was not paid. Laurent Chevallier, a French filmmaker accompanying Boivin made a film, Little Karim, and later Apo Karim. As a result Karim visited France as the chairman of the jury of the Autrans Mountain Film Festival.

1987: Karim climbed to within 100 meters of summitting K2 on a Spanish expedition.

1988: Karim carried a monoski to the summit of Gasherbrum 2 for Henri Albet. Albet was suffering altitude sickness. Karim tried to convince him not to ski. Albet mentioned he had to as he had to please his many sponsors. The monoskier slid to his death. As Karim put it“You like the money or you like to die.”

The stories went on and on, too many to list. It was surreal sitting with a 60 year old teddy bear Balti and hearing this record of ascents which put him near the top of the list of world mountaineers. Such is the world of high altitude climbing as seen by westerners. Too often Asians do the majority of work, and yet receive no recognition, and are deprived the chance to summit. In journals, Karim's ascents are usually listed only as “accompanied by high altitude porter”, the euphamism for paid Asian climbers. I left our conversation feeling like the wool had been pulled from my eyes.

There is not a hint of bitterness on Karim's part at his lack of fame or fortune through climbing. He only laughs when talking about being underpaid by foreigners. He was all smiles and congratulations for our successful climb. He was happy to be accompanying visitors and showing them the beauty of the mountains in his back yard. Proudly standing in front of a poster of K2, he enthusiastically traced his many trips in incredible times up his favorite mountain.

Raphael, Iqbal, Karim, and the lodge owner, in Hushe.

I felt like I had met authentic climbing royalty. But that is what makes climbing special. We get to climb and hang out with the heroes of our sport. I was reminded of this upon the death of Dean Potter. A friend of mine, Nick, had moved to Yosemite to climb full time when Dean had just done the first solo one day link up of The Nose and Half Dome. Dean was the ruling king of North American climbing. Within a year, Nick was roping up with Dean upon his first visit to Squamish. I met Nick around this time and it was this lesson that partly drew me to climbing. In other sports there are athletes and an audience. Climbing is different. Armchair climbing is boring.

What does Dean Potter have to do with Little Karim? By a few degrees of seperation they both show that the magic of climbing is in the doing and not the perception. Dean become a well known name. Little Karim is known only to a small clique of high altitude climbers. But they both reached high levels of climbing success by doing what they loved most in the mountains. Dean spent years in obscurity climbing full time in Yosemite. Little Karim continues to live a simple life in a small pastoral mountain town. His climbing hasn't taken him anywhere other than up and down a lot of tall mountains.

I hope this aspect of climbing never changes. Superstar climbers are more prominent now than ever. Some climbs heralded as groundbreaking are nothing but carefully staged advertising events. I wonder, am I a target market here? Would that climber really be doing that if all the cameras were not there? Is this climb really interesting?

Advertising is designed to make us feel inadequate. Make the audience feel unfulfilled, offer them a more desirable outcome, and associate a product with that desire. Then, offer the product as a substitute for the desired outcome. Climbing is meant to make us feel good. So, more and more I try to ignore the climbing stories which are only designed to sell an overpriced nylon shell or sports drink. Instead, I go climbing and pay attention to the people around me. Who knows what might happen, I might get to climb with the next Dean or share tea with another unheralded Karim.

It's kind of obvious, but it has to be said.  Without the locals, visiting climbers would have...

1 comment:

  1. now he (little karimis on a bed of hospital in islamabad