13 THE SHARP END

Posted on: October 7, 2013


A Pakistani soldier guards Base Camp, Nanga Parbat, June 24. [Photo] Saulius Damulevicius

THERE WAS A MOMENT WHEN ANYTHING STILL seemed possible: the snow slopes and hanging glaciers of Nanga Parbat glowed like a wall of clouds. A line of tents stretched, bright as prayer flags, across a meadow in northern Pakistan. Since mid-June, rockfall had strafed a camp. An avalanche had fallen in a burst of smoky white. A blizzard covered the valley with cold, grey drifts. One evening, a group of Russians embraced and sang of friends lost on other peaks: This is all that's left when I'm gone.... A handful of warmth after a long winter.... This is all that I take with me. Memory joins us at the table with a candle flame in hand. You were so good. Look at me. Say something. A seagull's cries on the white wall ringed by the black moon.

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Then the snow stopped falling. The grass turned golden green. Under a dazzling sun, a few Sherpas held a puja ceremony, chanting ritual prayers for a safe ascent, placing ash-grey flour on the faces of climbers and each other—in hopes that they might all live to be old. Small yellow flowers sparkled like stars. Some people moved higher up the Kinshofer Route; others rested below.

Near daybreak, on June 23, the Pakistani mountaineer Karim Hayat sat in Camp II, listening to his teammate Sher Khan weep over the radio: during the night, terrorists had entered Base Camp and shot eleven people. At first, Karim didn't believe him. Over the years, outbreaks of sectarian violence had occurred in the area around Chilas, a few days' trek away. But there had never been a terror attack on foreign climbers in the Gilgit-Baltistan region before. Karim asked Sher about Ernestas, a Lithuanian man who was studying Urdu. After meeting on Nanga Parbat, they'd become close friends, and they'd made plans for a joint ascent of K2. Sher told him Ernestas had died.

Slowly, Karim descended a long, white couloir toward the foot of the mountain. Base Camp was still. Survivors stared back at him with bleak eyes. "Some were crying," Karim says, "Some were telling stories about the night. It was unbearable."

THE LIST OF THE ELEVEN DEAD INCLUDED a Pakistani, Ali Hussain; a Nepali, Sona Sherpa; two Chinese, Yang Chungfeng and Rao Jiangfeng; a Chinese American, Honglu Chen; two Slovakians, Peter Sperka and Anton Dobes; three Ukrainians, Igor Svergun, Badavi Kashaev and Dmitry Konyaev; and the Lithuanian Ernestas Marksaitis. They ranged in age from twenty-eight to fifty-seven. Although they'd each spent years on high peaks and crags, their individuality can't be summed up in mere statistics of summits climbed or grades attained. Behind their names lie infinite worlds of memories and desires, of realized and unrealized dreams. All of them had found struggle and joy in existence. All of them had sought meaning and beauty in the mountains. All of them were loved.

Pieced together, fragments of their stories create a mosaic of humanity, flickering with reflections of who they were—and who we are. To pause and remember each of them, one by one, is to see glimpses of the infinite and singular value of every human life.

Ali Hussain [Photo] Dave Watson collection

Ali Hussain had lived in a small house made of clay and stone, near the great peaks of Gilgit-Baltistan's Charakusa Valley. Unable to afford a formal education, he'd helped his father grow wheat and tend cattle. By his late twenties, as a porter and a cook, he'd earned enough money to contribute to a local school. He hoped to start a guiding company and offer a more comfortable life to his extended family, his wife and their three children. An American friend, Dave Watson, who had attempted K2 with him in 2009, recalls how naturally Ali flowed up the steep Black Chimney, on his first time above 6000 meters, and how he would start to dance whenever anyone played music. During the icy Karakoram winters, in rare moments of free time, Ali loved to ski across the glittering hillsides above Hushe village. The terrorists might have decided to kill him because he was a Shia Muslim practicing another form of Islam than they did. "He worked as a human being for his society," his cousin Ali Khan says.

Born in Nepal's Solu Khumbu, Sona Sherpa had also labored in the mountains to support his family, climbing Everest three times, as well as several other 8000-meter peaks. A quiet, nurturing man, he strove to take care of everyone from his clients to his aging parents. "Since his elder brother passed away," his brother says, "all the responsibilities came on Sona Sherpa's shoulders." His wife, Doma Sherpa, asked the Nepali journalist Kamal Pariyar, "How can I fulfill his wish to provide [our sons] a better education?" His mother said, "It's like a bad dream.... I heard that some terrorists killed my son, but he was not a political man. He was just a good man, helping mountain climbers" (MyRepublica.com).

Sona Sherpa [Photo] courtesy Ang Tshering

Thirteen years ago, in China's Xinjiang Province, Yang Chungfeng had kicked steps up the sheer white slopes of Bogda Peak, completing one of the early Chinese ascents of that mountain in alpine-style—with homemade crampons and ice tools. His Chengdu neighbor Yong Liu recalls how Yang longed to "feel the heart of nature." As an expedition leader, Yang struggled to cover his bills, but he paid an annual pension to the children of teammates who died on Dhaulagiri. In Himalayan camps, between summit pushes, he'd sit for hours smoking a pipe and explaining the art of Pu'er, a dark, fermented tea. "Yang was born for the snow-covered mountains," his longtime climbing partner Wang Tienan wrote, "and his soul should go back to them" (Xjdiscovery.blog.sohu.com). Yang left behind a teenage son.

Rao Jiangfeng had a gentle sense of humor. "[His jokes] always started with something lost in translation," recounts his friend Fabrice Imparato, "and we would all laugh loudly at the end." Rao worked in a real-estate company in Shenzhen—a rainy, skyscraper city by the South China Sea. "Snow-capped mountains didn't just mean 'climbing and challenges,'" his daughter Rao Zijun explained. "They represented the Pure Land for his self-cultivation and the Holy Land for his self-discovery." His spirit, she wrote, will remain within his loved ones: "He has ceased to exist; therefore, he is everywhere" (8624.com).

Honglu Chen [Photo] courtesy Xiao Yuan

Intellectual curiosity drove Honglu Chen's migrations. After graduating with an electrical engineering degree from Tsinghua University, one of China's top schools, he worked for a while in California; then he returned to Shanghai. Between climbing trips, he played piano and read science journals, dreaming of studying physics in America when he retired. He told his friend Xiao Yuan that whenever he imagined dying on a snowy mountain, he thought such an ending might be "pure and clean." He had four sons. His wife hopes he will be remembered as "a perfect husband and father."

When Peter Sperka was a boy, his parents brought him to Saris Castle near Presov, Slovakia, and while the rest of the family took the trail up the hillside, he scrambled over golden rocks to reach the grassy ruins. "He was a lively child," his parents told Cas.sk. "Always climbing something." His life partner, Zosia Bachleda, says that he'd yearned to become a mountain rescuer and a guide since he was nine. Both longings came true. For three decades, he'd gone on expeditions around the world, teaching his clients a sense of responsibility and a keener appreciation of nature. He came home, each time, with new spices for his kitchen. He had five daughters, the youngest ten years old.

Peter Sperka [Photo] Zosia Bachleda collection

"Be in the right place at the right time," Anton Dobes used to say to his wife, Daniela, when he talked about climbing. He always seemed to know when to retreat before conditions got too dangerous; he was always willing to forgo a summit to help a stranger or a friend. He liked to sing a folk song, "Mountaineer, mountaineer, aren't you sad?" He'd tell his two daughters, "Things happen in the way they are set in your mind." In their village of Uhrovec, amid the craggy Strazov hills, his children still listen for the sound of the front gate opening, the patter of his dogs' hurrying feet. His collections fill the house; he'd bought books faster than he could read them. "But he believed time would come," Daniela says, "for him to read them all."

In August after Igor Svergun's death, his family stood on the summit of Mt. Elbrus, gazing out on the wind-silvered meadows where they'd traveled together for the last six summers. One of Ukraine's strongest mountaineers, Igor had climbed many of the world's high peaks, including an alpine-style ascent of Manaslu, but he loved to organize smaller adventures for his son and other children. In the evenings, he played guitar, smiling in the dark. He felt protective toward everything, even plants. "We are nature's guests," he told his wife, Tamara. "If someone like that is gone," his climbing partner Sergey Bershov wrote, "his absence forms such a gap, leaves so much emptiness" (4sport.ua). Tamara says, "We remember Igor. He is always with us."

Igor Svergun [Photo] Tamara Svergun collection

"I want to climb mountains," Badavi Kashaev told Sergey when they first met at the State Academy of Physical Culture in Kharkov, Ukraine. Badavi was already middle-aged, then, and he had a grown son. Yet he took a methodical approach to everything, and he trained hard until he could accompany Sergey to Island Peak and Ama Dablam. As alpine landscapes became a source of passionate inner life, Badavi walked the pilgrimage route around Mt. Kailash, past the turquoise lakes and stony valleys, beneath its bright half-orb of snow (4sport.ua).

Dmitry Konyaev's smile seemed to make the air around him quiver. The father of two young children, he had a PhD in chemistry (4sport.ua). In addition to winter ascents of Mt. Elbrus, he and Alexander Zakolodny had established a new route in the Crimea, up a long, arching buttress of grey and rust-colored stone. In a photo near the summit, Dmitry leans forward at the belay, as if seized by some vision. A wisp of cloud streams behind his head. Beyond the silhouetted coastline, the Black Sea blends into a pale sky. Dmitry didn't want to be a professional climber, Alexander says; he just liked to run around the woods and climb.

Ernestas Marksaitis grew up amid Lithuania's green plains and low hills, far from any big peaks. Seeking to spend as much time in the heights as possible, he quit his customs job to become an industrial rope-access worker. On vacations, he ventured to ever-greater elevations until he soloed Broad Peak in 2012. Friends recall his kind, teasing words, his endless stream of advice and jokes. Gennady Kirievesky remembers his "young eyes" (Mountain.ru). The day before his death, Ernestas helped the Pakistani staff clean the Base Camp kitchen. When survivors collected his belongings, they found his Urdu textbooks in his tent.

One by one, the dead were identified, placed in pine coffins and returned to their countries. On June 29, expedition member Saulius Damulevicius drove with Ernestas' coffin for thirty hours from the Kharkov airport to Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ernestas' two daughters waited. "There, on a small hill in the cemetery, Ernestas finally found his peace," Saulius says, "I could have chosen another means of travel, but I believe that climbers always have to come back from the mountains together."

IN THE DAYS AFTER THE ATTACKS, thousands of Pakistani guides, porters, climbers and activists demonstrated in Chilas, Gilgit, Skardu and Islamabad, demanding that their government take action against terrorism. Many viewed the murders as an assault on Gilgit-Baltistan's tourism-dependent economy—and on a vision of the region as part of an international community. Mountaineer Nazir Sabir declared: "They have not only killed eleven unarmed and innocent people, but have actually killed us all, the peace-loving people across Pakistan.... We will stand together against this barbarism and terror." The Pakistani Army and police have continued searching for the attackers, even after three investigators were also murdered. As we go to press, some suspects have been arrested.

"Terror implies the imagination," wrote the anthropologists Andrew Strathern and Pamela J. Stewart; it forms a nightmarish cosmology, in which individuals are reduced to empty allegories, and sharp, opaque boundaries are carved between us and them (Terror and Violence, 2006). In the past, mountaineering has sometimes created its own, less-violent, divisions between climbers and porters, Westerners and non-Westerners. Yet at its best moments, climbing can symbolize a deeper reality: a human solidarity that recognizes the worth of each person, and at the same time, that transcends all such categories—that rare, pure unity that climbers call "the brotherhood of the rope." During the earlier part of June, Canadian survivor Gabriel Filippi recounts, the members of separate Nanga Parbat expeditions had increasingly merged into one group: "Nationality, race, religion didn't matter." Polish climber Aleksandra Dzik recalls, an "atmosphere of cooperation... Our common work was a sort of team building." And Pakistani Karim Hayat says, "We'd all felt as partners for one climb."

ON THE NIGHT OF JUNE 22, Sher Khan recalls, the terrorists forced everyone out of the tents and into the cold meadow. As he knelt, expecting to die, he looked up at the Diamir Face. Moonlight blazed, silver, across the snows. "It's crazy," he later told The Daily Beast writer Amanda Padoan, "but the mountain still seemed beautiful. I must have felt that way because I didn't want to die." While the gunshots cracked, he prayed for each climber's life. Only one of the foreigners in Base Camp survived: a Chinese man, Zhang Jingchuan, leaped off a small cliff and hid in the dark. As an Ismaili, Sher also belongs to a Shia branch of Islam, and he doesn't know why the terrorists didn't shoot him as they did Ali Hussain. At times, he still feels almost as if he's one of the dead. He suffers from "horrific flashbacks" and searches for a way to heal. "I have seen death very nearby," he writes, "and the value of life and living."

Since June 22, many of us have struggled to find a language in which to mourn. And in the gaps between our faltering, unaccustomed phrases, shadows seem to pass. There was no meaning in the murders of these men. There is no sense that can justify the deaths of other innocent civilians that continue to happen throughout the world. There is no coherent message that can be conveyed by terror: the act itself shatters the possibility of reasons.

Yet there are other images, silent and unchanging, beyond the reach of violence, past the threshold of words: the pale sun shining on a boy's hair as he climbs the same mountain his father once loved; a daughter sensing her father's shape in the whorl of her thoughts. A man praying for his friends in the darkness. The distant fullness of the moon. Memory joins us at the table with a candle flame in hand. Look at me. Say something. And what we see are the faces: Ali smiling gently, his forehead lit by the snow. Sona Sherpa touching bunches of yellow flowers with his open palms. Igor clapping hands with children amid the thin blue haze of a dry autumn field. Rao and Yang laughing, side by side, in a Himalayan base camp. Honglu looking up during a marathon with an intense, inward gaze. Badavi and Dmitry squinting through the alpine light. Anton, leaning forward, transfixed by some quiet idea. Peter waiting outside a mountain lodge, hands in the pockets of a black down vest. Ernestas tilting his head at a camera, glancing back with his bemused young eyes. They have ceased to exist. Therefore, they are everywhere.

[Community Action Nepal has set up a memorial fund for the family of Sona Sherpa. Learn more about the fund and donate here. For short obituary of Peter Sperka by his life partner, Zosia Bachleda, click here. With reporting and translation from Hussn Bibi, Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn, Raheel Adnan, Eberhard Jurgalski, Xiao Yuan, Karen Freund, Lhakpa Doma Sherpa, Amanda Padoan and Diana Simova; Jeremy Collins, Ed Hannam, David Falt, Ian Wattie, Tamara Svergun, Lhakpa Doma Sherpa, Yong Liu, Xiao Yuan, Zosia Bachleda, Saulius Damulevicius, Gabriel Filippi, Aleksandra Dzik, Dave Watson, Shafqat Hussain, Hussn Bibi, Ali Khan, Diana Simova, Allen Frame Hill, Karen Freund, Bob A. Schelfhout Aubertijn, Raheel Adnan, Eberhard Jurgalski, Fabrice Imparato, Amanda Padoan, Tunc Findik, Martin Soekefeld, Mirza Ali, Shaheen Baig, Naiknam Karim, Sultan Khan, Daniela Dobes, Ivan Adame, Stanislav Mikus, Jozef Havala, Vladimir Lanko, Sher Khan, Karim Hayat, Nina Adjanin, Basio Gubjabidze, Arnold Coster, Sumaira Jajja, David Butz, Ken MacDonald, Ang Tshering Sherpa, Roland Hunter, Zahid Rajput, Alexander Zakolodny, 4sport.ua, Mountain.ru, Cas.sk, MyRepublica.com, 8624.com, Xjdiscovery.blog.sohu.com, Kathy Ives and Sarah Ives all provided information, fact-checking resources or advice for The Sharp End.—Ed.]

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Comments
Anna B

Thank you so much for this beautiful article, and great to see the link to the fund for Sona Sherpa's family. I really hope people donate what they can.

2013-10-07 19:35:23
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