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Pakistani Porters Move Mountains

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Porters are the backbone of most climbing expeditions, trekking, and adventurous exploration into the mountains all over the world. The agile, tireless, hardworking people, primarily from local communities, ferry massive loads of gear on their backs.

Like the more familiar Sherpa people of the Himalaya, the Pakistani porters are respected among the fraternity of mountain lovers as some of the best porters in the world.

They are dedicated and know where the crevasses and icefalls are, how to acclimatize, how much food and fuel to haul up the hill, when to push on, and when to rest. They are unsung heroes of high-altitude mountaineering. Without their labour, many a base camps would never have been established and many a summit would never have been conquered.

As a coordinator, I have lived some of my life in the base camps of majestic mountains in Northern Pakistan with mountaineers, explorers, and adventurers from all over the world and porters from Pakistan. During my to-ing and fro-ing in mountain areas, I have befriended many local porters. Some are still on my contact list, but I have had the fortune to know Pinion Shah, best in his trade, a little better.

Pinion Shah is sturdy and knows the mountains inside out. His forefathers migrated to Baltistan over six hundred years ago. Originally Buddhist, they, along with other Balti people, converted to Islam during the Moghul period in the sixteenth century. While some of the Baltis adapted to a trading economy, many are still largely pastoralists.

I first met Pinion Shah during my assignment as a facilitator with a multinational climbing expedition to Nanga Parbat from Rupal side in 1993. That is when our friendship started by chance. I was to accompany the expedition only up to the forward base camp. The hike to base camp and the extended stay there brought every kind of weather imaginable — scorching sun, blinding sandstorms, and white-out blizzards.

Although I was not one of the climbers, the weather in the base camp left me physically emaciated and emotionally wasted. With great fortune on the way back, Pinion Shah invited me to his village, situated at the edge of the Rupal Valley, to recuperate. There I was nursed back to health with a combination of goat's milk, apricots, and warm hospitality. Pinion Shah and I have been in contact ever since.

While in the village, my eyes were opened to the realities of the Balti way of life. Life there is hard, graceful, and independent. Living conditions are harsh and devoid of modern day civic amenities we in urban centres take for granted. The Baltis live in isolated, remote valleys subsisting on pastoral grazing and marginal crops of barley and wheat.

The climate is severe due to the high altitude. Villagers rely on their ingenuity to bring glacier melt water to their fields and homes. Medical care is almost nonexistent. Broken bones and burns often go untreated. Diseases due to malnutrition are a common fact of village life. Chronic infections often lead to blindness and deafness. The Infant mortality rate is alarmingly high, caused primarily by diarrhea-induced dehydration. In winter, villagers crawl into tiny basement dugouts and spend months huddled together, barely kept warm by smoky fires.

Despite this abject poverty, I saw that the Baltis not only accept their destiny, but embrace the hardship as well as the beauty of their lives, keeping their humanity undimmed and even enhancing it. Facing an existence of privation and adversity, Pinion Shah and his family generously took me in and cared for me like their own.

The traditional Balti way of life is no doubt about to change. Centuries old self-sustainable methodologies are being lost in the pursuit of the cash that expedition and trekking jobs bring. The inflow of money, material goods, and growing numbers of foreign travelers are impacting the Balti culture.

In return for sharing their spectacular mountain surroundings with outsiders and for providing the strong back on which many expeditions reached their goals and many westerners realized their adventures, these Balti people deserve a decent future in which they have a voice.

Pinion Shah had nine years of schooling. He is familiar with oral English and is qualified in mountain hygiene and sanitation, first aid, and crevasse rescue. Pinion Shah says, “I leave villages for months at a time to seek elusive jobs as porters. I remain busy for the trekking season and earn enough to sustain our family through winters.”

“Serious mountaineering starts in the forward base camps,” narrated Pinion Shah, “I have seen climbers going back from the base camps even without attempting and team leader failing to pursue them to go ahead.” Though travel to Pakistan has declined, adventure travel has boomed in last few years. This year is being celebrated as a Golden Jubilee of conquering K 2 by an Italian expedition. “I am expecting more business in the areas this year,” Pinion Shah wrote me.

Pinion Shah is aging now. He was known to carry a maximum load when he was young, literally moving the mountains of luggage and equipment on the most difficult hikes. As a person, Pinion Shah always inspires me. He remains proud, happy and ready to share despite all the hardships. There is no fast lane in his life. He has no worries, alienation, or fears. He is very contented with life and whatever comes his way.

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About Shirazi

  • The Year of K2 and this year 2006 both did not bring enough to even cover 4 months of the porters. \the war on terrorism seems to be a war on tourism in Pakistan.

    Year 2007 is the visit Pakistan yet no signs of visitors. The porters have found refuge in metropolis like Islamabad and Karachi and do construction work now.


  • I am pleased to tell you this article is being featured in the Culture Focus today, August 15.

    Diana Hartman
    Culture Editor

  • Mark

    Yes, that is true, I can tell by my own expeience.

  • Diana Hartman: Thanks.