[This Climbing Life story first appeared in Alpinist 62, which is now available on newsstands and in our online store. Muhammad Ali Sadpara recently assisted with a search and rescue effort on Nanga Parbat (8125m) last March when Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi were found dead above Camp III at around 5900 meters. They were attempting to climb the Mummery Rib in winter. This story profiled Ali after he completed the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat with Simone Moro (Italy) and Alex Txikon (Spain) in February 2016.–Ed.]
IN FEBRUARY 2016, Pakistani mountaineer Muhammad Ali, weathering minus 62 degrees Celsius wind-chill, completed the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat–an objective that was among the great remaining challenges on 8000-meter peaks. But this climb is only his latest feat of survival. His first was surviving childhood.
Eight of his eleven siblings didn’t. The deaths of children at birth or from disease were once a common occurrence in Sadpara, his village in northern Pakistan. The loss haunted his mother, Fiza. When Ali, her last child, was born in 1976, she was determined to keep him alive and close, and she breastfed him until the age of six. By then, she hoped he’d be out of danger.
Ali says she succeeded, up to a point: “My mother’s milk made me strong enough to climb mountains.” And soon he was doing just that, though no one in Sadpara called the effort “mountaineering.” For Ali, it was simply work. As a boy, he followed a weaving path to the alpine pastures, racing up steep moraine faster than the goats under his care. Far below, the village of Sadpara blended into the pulverized rock with only swatches of millet to suggest the presence of a settlement beside a murky turquoise lake. Above, the lush grazing lands of Deosai sprawled, a massive plateau blanketed in wildflowers. Ali cut winter fodder there, bundling the grass into 40-kilo loads, and he hauled it down to the village. Over the summer, he repeated this 4000-meter loop dozens of times.
The mountains felt like a second pulse to him, but he never underestimated their violence. As a child, Ali witnessed all they could do. Above the rooftops of Sadpara, a thick rim of ice and rubble restrained the snowmelt. When Ali was nine, this dam burst. The lower lake rose in an instant, and floodwaters swept through the village, swatting walls, uprooting poplars, and drowning all the cattle. When the water receded, Ali’s parents replanted and rebuilt as best they could. Sadpara resumed its cyclic rhythms, with time divided into intervals of prayer and seasons of freezing and thaw.
At nineteen, Ali felt ready for marriage. Prevented by custom from approaching the young woman, Fatima, he couldn’t ask her himself. His uncle delivered the proposal, and Fatima’s parents accepted it. Marriage brought Ali an anxious happiness along with pressure to provide for his wife–and soon, also, for their newborn son, Sajid. He turned again to the mountains. Portering for foreign mountaineering expeditions was the best-paying job available. By hauling 25 kilos to base camps in the Karakoram Range, he could earn the equivalent of $3 a day. K2, Broad Peak and the Gasherbrums became familiar contours, though he wasn’t fantasizing about their summits yet. Ali merely dreamed of a load to carry on the way back, a chance to double his earnings. Only a lucky few got those extra days of work.
It took time for him to gain recognition for competence, weeks to decode what seemed obvious to others. Gradually, Ali learned to distinguish between good loads and bad ones. He’d wondered, as expedition leaders distributed supplies, why no one wanted to carry kerosene. Maybe some men needed to smoke and feared setting their loads on fire. To Ali, the neglected tins appeared to be a fine, compact load, so he checked for dents and leaks, and finding none, he added the weight to his basket. Only later, after hours of liquid sloshing in containers and disrupting his balance, did he realize why experienced porters avoid taking fuel.
Like most porters, Ali traversed the rugged Baltoro Glacier in flip-flops and castoff gear. On his second day of work, he dropped his sunglasses. His uncle Hassan, also a porter, saw the shades clatter to the ground, and he pocketed them. The teenager didn’t notice what was missing until they reached a blazing expanse of snow. As the glare seared his eyes, Ali rifled through his pack. Hassan stood by, watching him. Finally, when Ali looked frantic enough, Hassan produced the lost sunglasses with a warning: “Small mistakes become big in the mountains. This one might have cost you your sight.”
From then on, Ali routinely checked and rechecked his meager gear, leaving nothing to chance in a landscape where every step felt precarious. “Inshaa’Allah,” Ali would say, expressing a conviction that whatever happened, God willed it. He wondered, though, if divine protection extended to mortal carelessness or recklessness. The spectacle of otherwise sane people in pursuit of summits–the idea of climbing as a symbolic act or a form of passion–still concerned him. For Ali, a mountaintop was merely a place to reach in order to pass to the opposite side. Even so, he was maturing into a technical climber, adept at gauging a glacier’s moods and intentions. He needed to go higher to earn more, so he started taking more risks.
When a Pakistani army truck pulled into Sadpara to recruit porters, Ali couldn’t resist the opportunity. At the time, Pakistan and India were locked in a longstanding conflict over the Siachen Glacier, a strategic corridor to China. Ali was headed into the world’s highest battleground. At night, he scaled walls of ice, ferrying supplies to soldiers in remote mountain passes, praying darkness would shelter him from shell-fire that seemed, he recalls, “as relentless as firecrackers at a wedding.” Again, he saw how small mistakes grow big. Once, some porters lit cigarettes. Even this faint glow betrayed their position. Within minutes, mortar rounds pummeled the camp, scattering the smokers and flattening a tent with two men inside. Ali, just yards away, heard them thrash and die.
Commercial mountaineering, though not without casualties, seemed to offer a somewhat safer world. “After the Siachen, I wasn’t afraid anymore,” Ali remembers. “In climbing, there are two outcomes–life or death–and you must find the courage to accept either possibility.”
Fiza tried to convince Ali to stay home and farm potatoes instead.
“But there are enchanting mountains to explore,” he said. “If foreigners want to spend money to climb them, why shouldn’t I help?”
From 2006 to 2015, as an expedition staff member, Ali made summer ascents of Nanga Parbat and Gasherbrum I and II. Ali reached 8350 meters on K2, climbing above the Bottleneck, but his ambitions were tethered to the needs of clients for whom he pitched camps, fixed lines, hauled loads, and then guided as far as they could manage.
Preoccupied with their safety, he seldom considered his own.
Then, in 2012, a high-altitude worker from Sadpara disappeared on Gasherbrum I during a winter ascent. Nisar Hussain had been Ali’s friend since childhood, and his death devastated the community. Nisar left behind a wife, a son, and two daughters. Now the father of three children himself, Ali understood his life belonged to others. He listened to his wife, Fatima, quietly express her fears. “Ali!” his mother said in a louder voice. “This work is too dangerous.”
But he didn’t want to stop climbing. Mountaineering provided an exhilaration he couldn’t find with farming. And he excelled at the pursuit, especially in winter. “Europeans don’t let you freeze,” he assured Fiza. “We are given good tents, gloves, and down suits.”
“Winter is winter,” she replied.
In January 2015, Ali invented an excuse for being away, and he left to attempt the first winter ascent of Nanga Parbat. The deception bothered him, but Ali hated to worry his mother, whose health was failing.
As it turned out, there was plenty to worry about. The temperatures hovered around minus 47C. Around 300 meters below the summit, buffeted by strong winds, he lost all sense of orientation. “My mental map just vanished,” Ali recalls. “Although I had summited Nanga Parbat twice during summer and thought I knew the terrain, I couldn’t reconcile my memory with what I was seeing in winter.”
Ali descended, accompanied by two foreign alpinists, Alex Txikon and Daniele Nardi, who feared his confusion might be the onset of cerebral edema. A week later, Ali headed home, intending to explain his absence to his family. But when he arrived in Sadpara, he found his mother struggling to breathe. If Fiza suspected where he’d been, she never let on. Ali nursed her through her final months, and he confessed nothing.
He might have abandoned winter ascents altogether if Txikon and Nardi hadn’t wanted to make another attempt. When Ali’s memory lapsed near the summit, he felt as though he’d let them down. What did Ali owe these men? Their employment relationship was ambiguous. For professional mountaineers climbing by some variation of “fair means,” it’s compromising to hire a high-altitude worker. Ali’s role was that of an unpaid “equal partner.” In practice, though, he often led the way; he earned the use of his gear through labor; and if the others quit, he was expected to quit, too.
As in many high-stakes expeditions, tensions developed on Nanga Parbat during the historic winter ascent of 2016. Txikon and Nardi had joined up with two independent climbers, Tamara Lunger and Simone Moro. But Nardi’s relationship with them soon deteriorated, and he decided to go home. The problem was, Ali’s down suit belonged to Nardi.
The winds had died down to 45 km/hr, and the air temperature hovered at minus 34C: Conditions were right for a summit bid, yet Ali had nothing warm enough to wear. Impressed by Ali’s strength, Moro told him that he could borrow some of his own clothes; Moro had brought a glut of his sponsor’s signature gear, including a spare down suit, black and yellow to match his own. It fitted Ali.
On summit day, February 26, Ali waited below the summit in his borrowed suit until Moro reached him and they climbed the final three meters together, posing for pictures like twin bumblebees. Moro felt joy at witnessing a Pakistani mountaineer make history on a Pakistani mountain. “Ali is to Nanga Parbat what Tenzing was to Everest,” he said. Ali describes the moment in a matter-of-fact way. At first light, he left his tent at 7100 meters near the Bazhin Basin, and then navigated a maze of rocks toward the summit trapezoid until he ran out of earth and hit the sky. “The warmth of the rising sun gave me courage,” he says.
In the brief surge of celebrity that followed, Ali flew to Spain and Poland to be feted alongside the other summiters. Sponsorship never materialized for Ali, however, as it did for his European companions. He doesn’t question why, not out loud. Back in Sadpara, he says he has too much to occupy him: wheat to thresh, potatoes to dig, cattle to feed, walls to mend, roofs to patch and children to educate.
This other life is good, he says: it reminds him of who he’s supposed to be. When asked about his dreams, Ali confides two. For his wife, he wants a sewing machine. For himself, a winter ascent of K2.
–Amanda Padoan, with translations from Urdu and Shina by Rehmat Ali and Ghulam Muhammad.