Meherban Shah: The Unsung Hero

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Meherban Shah: The Unsung Hero

During my teenage years I very well remember the time when I first visited Shimshal village in Hunza. It was a rainy afternoon when we left for the dangerous Shimshal road in an orange jeep. We had to get off at the infamous Purkjherekh, so that our jeep could easily cross the glacial stream. Before Shimshal became completely accessible by road, the local population used to cross the Shimshal river twenty-one times, to reach the nearest village of Pasu. The people of Shimshal are tough people who have lived throughout the centuries in the harsh mountainous terrain. Although agro-pastoralism has decreased over the years, but the villagers still practice it in Shimshal. Travelling on foot between Shimshal village and the pastures in the Pamirs, enables the locals to gain physical strength and endurance for high altitude climbing.

Shimshal (originally Shingshal) has been mentioned in travelogues, journals, books and accounts of colonial officers. In their works Colonel Francis Younghusband, Brigade General G. K. Cockerill and Colonel R.C.F Schomberg also mention about Shimshal, but they do not name the people who helped them traverse treacherous mountain passes and routes. Shimshal has produced some of the finest mountain climbers of the country. Among them is Meherban Shah, the unsung hero from Shimshal who is now in his late 60s.

Recently, while browsing through my notes I found out an interview of Meherban Shah which I had recorded on 3 September 2005 in Islamabad. I found out in my notes that Meherban Shah climbed Gashebrum-II twice, first in 1998 and then in 1999. During one of these summits he climbed with a husband and wife. He remembered one of them named as Ugo Maghas. Before that Shah had climbed Pasu Peak in 1976 with the support of the Alpine Club of Pakistan.

During the K-2 Golden Jubilee celebrations in 2004, Meherban Shah went again with a team to G-II reaching 7000 meters. Next year in 2005, he went to K-2 with a polish expedition. This time the team went to 8200 meters twice. Unfortunately, they could not summit K-2 because of bad weather conditions.

It was in Kathmandu in the year 1997 when I first met Meherban Shah and Rajab Shah on their return from Mount Everest, when our family invited the expedition team for dinner at our residence. Later Rajab made a record of being the first Pakistani to climb all the five peaks above 8000 meters in Pakistan. Both Rajab and Meherban were part of the Pakistani expedition to Mount Everest in 1997. The team returned without a summit because the team leader Nazir Sabir had called off the summit. Meherban Shah said that they had climbed till 8400 meters and only a few hundred meters were left. He acknowledged that the summit was possible. In her book Christiane Fladt mentions Meherban Shah, who says that Nazir Sabir was exhausted upon his arrival at the highest camp before the summit bid, otherwise the first summit of Mount Everest would have been possible in 1997.  Later, in 2000 Nazir Sabir summited Mount Everest as a team member of the expedition led by an American climber, and became the first Pakistani to conquer the peak.

Meherban Shah and Rajab Shah from Shimshal climbed K-2 together in 1995 with a Dutch expedition. When I asked Meherban Shah for a comparison between Mount Everest and K-2, he narrated an incident. According to Meherban Shah in the Pakistani Mount Everest expedition of 1997, along with the team there were two brothers from Nepal. One of them was named Jampo. Jampo had climbed Mount Everest nine times and his brother had climbed it seven times. In 2003, Jampo and his bother joined Meherban

Shah for the K-2 expedition. An unfortunate incident happened. While climbing the peak an avalanche hit one of the team members. This person was Sher Aman of Chilas. Jampo and his brother were terrified. They quit the idea of climbing K-2 and flew back to Nepal. Meherban Shah believed that climbing Mount Everest was technically much easier than climbing K-2.

Today many youngsters in Shimshal both men and women are following the footsteps of Rajab Shah and Meherban Shah. And Death Walks with Them: Above Eight Thousand Metres with Pakistani Porters from Shimshal is a commendable book by Christiane Fladt who covers many stories of climbers from Shimshal, but she does not others such as Abdul Joshi, Mirza Ali, Samina Baig, Fazal Ali, Wahab Ali Shah, Sajjad Karim and other young climbers.

It is very important to recognize and appreciate the talent of the young mountaineers as it requires a lot of physical ability, endurance and mental strength. There are many mountaineers in Gilgit-Baltistan whose life stories and struggles remain undocumented. Appreciation during their lifetime is better than a posthumous award.

The author is a researcher based in Islamabad.

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