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Adventure: The incredible tales of Little Karim

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Little Karim
Little Karim

Adventure: The incredible tales of Little Karim

By Obaid ur Rehman Abbasi

About 200 porters were to be selected by famed British mountaineer Chris Bonington in 1978 for his team attempting to scale the K2. Hounding him for a place on the team was a short man with a big smile, Mohammad Karim from Skardu, but Bonington repeatedly told him: “You are too little and cannot become our team member.”

Disheartened but determined to still get selected, Karim sneaked around Bonington, swiftly snuck his head between the big man’s legs, hoisted the two-metre-tall Brit on his shoulders and ran the length of an open ground. The assembled porters broke into fits of laughter, but Bonington was impressed by the audition. Karim was granted his wish, he would be part of the expedition to K2.

This is the story of renowned high-altitude porter from Skardu, Mohammad Karim, popularly known as Little Karim. Despite assisting celebrated climbers to scale the peaks of the Karakorum, 65-year-old Karim is a somewhat elusive yet humble character, thankful for the adventure opportunities life threw his way.

I tried to set up a meeting with him multiple times, but he was always one step ahead and I would always narrowly miss him. A few weeks ago, I was informed by a mutual friend that Little Karim was in Skardu city and was about to leave for his village, Hushe. Luckily we managed to contact him and invited him for lunch. After about half-an-hour, Little Karim and his young son were on our lunch table.

Ringing in the cracks and crevices of the Karakoram Range are stories of valour, virtue, loss and desperation. One man knows these accounts better than anyone else — he is after all the protagonist in many of them
Why is he “Little” Karim and not some other kind of Karim, I ask bluntly.

Little Karim returns his characteristic high-pitched laughter.

“The story behind ‘Little Karim’ goes back to 1979, when a French team was attempting to scale the K-2. They took me as part of their team, but there were two other men by the same name. Every time the name ‘Karim’ was called out, all three responded,” he smiles. “To get around this problem, the leader of the expedition named us Big, Medium and Little. Over the years, it was only ‘Little’ that survived the tests of time to earn worldwide recognition in the mountaineering world.”

Little Karim was born in the remote village of Hushe in the lush green valley of Skardu. Surrounding the village is the majestic Karakoram Range, whose magic Little Karim had been exploring since childhood.

“In Baltistan, each family group has a communally designated pasture, to which they must keep to and tend. My family was assigned a high brook (stream) in the Gondogoro area. My parents were both shepherds of the valley, and so, I was barely six years old when I first went to the high pastures of Gondogoro,” says Little Karim.

Growing up in the mid-1960s, Karim recalls no mountaineers passing through Hushe. Those were the days when young Karim and his friends from the village would play a game of climbing hills and going on long hikes around the village — much to the displeasure of their parents.

“I was routinely reprimanded for my ‘madness’. But nothing stopped me — the game brought a sense of ecstasy and freedom to me. I loved it and could not leave it. Even back then, I knew that I wanted to become a great guide and high-altitude porter,” he says.

One day, the usually-deserted trail leading to the village had new visitors.

“The now-popular route over Gondogoro La was not known at that time. One summer, we were playing our games, when a group of mountaineers descended the glacier. I had never seen anyone coming down our way from that side and, excitedly, ran up to them to warmly greet them,” says Karim.

“I didn’t know any other language but Balti. But the very sight of a little boy rushing to welcome them had endeared me to the climbers. They gave me a whole handful of candy and biscuits, maybe because I looked like a five-year-old boy. That was my first encounter with this unique breed of sportspersons called mountaineers.”

It took more than a decade for Karim to actually become part of an expedition. In 1976, along with a friend, Karim headed to Skardu city, where a number of mountaineering teams were hiring porters.

“I was in my teens but I still looked like a 10-year-old,” says Little Karim as he sips on his traditional green tea. “But no one took me on, everyone rejected me for being ‘a small boy’. They did not trust me to be able to carry the required 25 kilos,” he says with a hearty laugh.

”I was disturbed, dejected at not being chosen by any mountaineering group. Just when I was about to give up, a Swiss team ran out of more useful men, They took me, but they were doubtful of my ability to carry heavy loads.”

Thrilled both at being selected as a high-altitude porter as well as having the chance to earn money for the first time in his life, little did Karim know that this tour would be career-making for him.

“I didn’t know any other language but Balti. But the very sight of a little boy rushing to welcome them had endeared me to the climbers. They gave me a whole handful of candy and biscuits, maybe because I looked like a five-year-old boy. That was my first encounter with this unique breed of sportspersons called mountaineers.”
The expeditions went up to Yuno in Skardu’s Shigar valley by tractor trolley and then onwards on foot. “On the second day, we had paused for a drink near the Chongo village. We had to cross a stream and go to the other side. I noticed that a beam of wood straddled the stream and understood that the only way to cross the stream was across that beam,” says Karim.

“I straddled the beam and pulled myself across and then waited for the others. Everyone understood my sign language and did as I instructed. There was a young woman with blonde hair who tried to cross the beam and fell into the stream,” says Little Kareem.

By now, some others — including restaurant staff — had joined us. Little Kareem had us spell-bound in his tales of valour and virtue. The waiters had pulled over their chairs. Everyone wasgiving their undivided attention to our storyteller.

“The young woman started frantically crying for help. It was a horrible scene: her drowning screams and the haunting noise of the stream. Everyone was stunned, but I was ready for such a mishap. I did not waste a single second and jumped in to pull the woman out. To my surprise, no one from the Swiss team attempted to help her,” continues Karim.

“That night, the liaison officer commended me for my work and invited me to dinner. The Swiss, especially the young woman I had rescued, hugged me and kept thanking me for saving her life. Because of the incident, my load the next day was distributed among other porters and I only had to carry the gear of the girl whom I had rescued. I enjoyed this concession and their love throughout the trip.”

Because of his heroics, Karim on his first ever trip with a climbing team managed to scale a 7,000 metre peak.

The challenges ever since have been plenty, as he acknowledges, in large part because of his stature. Despite proving himself to many mountaineering teams, there were always times when expeditions would initially be apprehensive of taking Karim along, preferring tall and well-built high-altitude porters instead. But every time, Little Karim would manage to prove his detractors wrong.

“We didn’t reach the top with Mr Bonington, we had to stop at 6,600 metres because one of the mountaineers was killed en route. But the climb with the British was like a good luck sign; soon after, all doors to my success were opened,” says Little Karim, as he picked his cup and took another sip of green tea.

The French, in particular, managed to strike up a great relationship with Mohammad Karim Balti.

In 1985, French documentary film maker Laurent Chevallier directed a film named Little Karim — a movie that won many accolades in France and elsewhere in Europe. The same director returned to film Karim a second time in 1997, this time for a film named Mr Karim and then again, for a third time for a film on the same subject. Little Karim was later selected as president of the jury committee of a French film award, which is an honour for Pakistan and especially for Gilgit-Baltistan.

Then there was the mountaineering team of Frenchman Jean-Marc Boivin, also in 1985, who had arrived for Boivin’s hang glide from the summit of Gasherbrum 2. Little Karim was selected to take the 25-kilo glider to the 8,035-metre top. “I was carrying the heavy glider on my shoulders when a French cameraman started filming my actions, just for fun. When he went home, he telecast the film and everyone in France was stunned by my skill,” he says proudly.

By now, Little Karim was fairly well-known in European climbing circles, but success with the Boivin team shot him to fame. “The French began treating me as a superman, they bestow me with great respect and honour, and even today, they continue to do so,” he says.

Of course, Little Karim’s reputation for being a superman is not without reason.

There was a time when a climber, a young woman, fell ill at Camp 3 on Broad Peak. Karim was at the base camp, from where he was dispatched with medication for the climber. Without a load, he says, he climbed the ascent in less than three hours; that helped save her life.

And then there was the time in 1986, on the descent from Broad Peak, when a Spanish climber gave up. At 7,700 metres, the Spaniard ran out of stamina, sat down, and announced to the rest of the party that he was unable to walk. In a fit of tears, he almost begged Little Karim to leave him behind and carry on.

“Everyone did leave the Spaniard behind and descended some 700 metres. He too was prepared to die. But then I thought I was committing murder, he could not survive at that height,” recalls Little Karim.

Back went Little Karim to rescue the Spaniard. With a harness and some pieces of high-altitude clothing, Karim fashioned a makeshift sled and hauled the climber back to Camp 3. The climber collapsed in his tent, but with some overnight rest and a hearty meal, he returned to the world of the living. “When he had fully recovered, the Spaniard could neither stop himself from hugging me nor would he stop weeping. I remember that moment till today,” Karim reminisces.

Many women and men Little Karim climbed with have also perished in mountaineering accidents, but he remains fortunate enough to have survived. His nearest trysts with death were on three occasions, when he fell into crevasses. The deepest he fell was 35 metres, but he was always hauled back up in good time. Below him, he says, was a dark and frightful world, from which he could hear the eerie sounds of glacial movement as if demons from an unknown netherworld were bellowing forth.

After a lifetime of mountaineering, Little Karim, now in his early 60s, runs a little provisions store in his native village, Hushe. He has been restricted from scaling peaks — but only above 7,000 metres, after he contracted jaundice in 1999-2000 while touring Canada to be part of a film on K-2. “When I returned home, doctor advised me to avoid going higher than 7,000 metres. But that did not mean I was never going up the Karakorum, only that I couldn’t go higher than a particular altitude,” he says.

Little Karim tried his bit at helping his village by building a school for local children, educating them and training them to become mountaineers. But his idea got little support from the community. “I still have the same dream of developing my area. There should be a good road, a school for girls and boys, a training school for youth, and job opportunities for locals,” he argues.

Meanwhile, various tour operators around Skardu use Little Karim’s name and pictures on their websites to attract tourists and mountaineers — but Little Karim knows nothing of this nor does he get royalties for the use of his name and picture. All he cares about is breathing in the mountain air.

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