Sadpara: What can we learn about int’l diplomacy from mountaineers like him?

By: Behzad Taimur      Published: 09:35 PM, 10 Feb, 2021
Sadpara: What can we learn about int’l diplomacy from mountaineers like him?

Since at least the fifth of this month, Pakistani nation has been captivated by the story of three missing mountaineers, not least of whom is the well-known local climber, Mr. Muhammad Ali Sadpara, who were attempting to scale K-2, the world’s second highest peak, during winter. Here, climbing a mountain during winter is considered a rare feat worthy of especial appreciation because of harsh conditions, including forbidding weather, excessive snow and extremely low temperatures that can fall below minus fifty degrees Celsius at times. 

In this context, dozens of mountaineers had gathered at K-2 Basecamp this winter to attempt the summit. Then, on January 15th, ten Nepali climbers scaled the peak and K-2 was at last conquered during winter. Amidst a flurry of global applause and celebration, four more mountaineers stepped forward. They were not to be left behind. They were going to do this too and share the glory. These were: Jon Snorri of Iceland, Juan Pablo Mohr of Chile, our hero Mr. Sadpara from Pakistan and his son, Sajid Sadpara. More especially, Mr. Sadpara wanted to put Pakistan’s flag on the peak. He is well-known for his belief that since Pakistanis live in, and own, the mountain ranges such as Karakorams, Himalayas and Hindu Kush, they ought to be amongst the first, if not the first, to summit the region’s high peaks. 

Anyway, soon enough three of the four, including Mr. Sadpara, disappeared and never returned, prompting Pakistan Army, international mountaineers in the area as well as local volunteers to launch attempts, both heroic and at times desperate, to find them. At this moment, we find ourselves at this juncture of this story of ambition, courage and - now gloom. 

Recently, a journalist friend of mine asked me if I thought the whole expedition was foolhardly and, in fact, a story of under-preparedness. He seemed to believe that someone at the state level had pushed for a rushed ascent to claim a stake in the K-2 winter summiting glory by having Pakistan’s sabz-hilali parchem hoisted atop the mountain. If this is at all so, then we may yet see some proof of it. But for so long as some proof does not surface, this is a mere conspiracy theory at best. Note, for example, that there were four climbers and two of them were not Pakistani. If, indeed, someone wanted to claim glory for Pakistan, they would have done better by ensuring an all-Pakistani mountaineering expedition.

Yet, there is something in that question that I would like to talk about: Political interest in mountaineering and something that can be called ‘Mountain Diplomacy’ or ‘Mountaineering Diplomacy’. That is to say that if we were to leaf through history, we would come to realize that mountains have oft been viewed with political interest. This is so because mountains, in their grand spread and towering heights, have seemed to represent insurmountable odds or great challenges. Likewise, their conquests have been viewed as feats of human prowess, endurance and strength. By extension, national governments have consciously cultivated associations with such conquests to reflect the prowess and excellence of their nations. In doing this, governments have sought to project “soft power” and undertake “public-” or “cultural diplomacy”. That is, fostering people-to-people contacts, allowing mountaineers to act as diplomatic “agents” that communicate a ‘human image’ of their countries, nations and political systems and spur cultural exchanges. Similarly, on a different, but somewhat linked, tangent, governments have also seen mountaineering in the context of tourism. Here, tourism brings in foreigners, some foreign exchange and helps boosts local economies. Thus, mountaineering has also been seen as a component of nations’ economic interests.

We may note that this is also true for sports in general and, surprise, surprise, the so-called ‘space race’. Countries invest in their athletes and work to make sure that they bring home international glory by, for example, winning gold medals at the Olympic games. Similarly, the US and the erstwhile USSR engaged in a ‘space race’ during the Cold War era to, initially, put the first satellite, animal and human in space and, then, to put the firsts of the same on the Moon. The ‘space race’ was seen as a matter of national prestige and one that could highlight to the world the comparative advantages of the politico-economic systems that either championed (i.e. capitalism vs communism and state-control vs democracy). 

Anyway, coming back, the most notable example of this is of the British Empire. During the colonial era, the British colonists learnt about Mt. Everest in Nepal and recognized it as the highest peak in the world. They began to push to put a British national on the Everest peak and fly the Union Jack. As far back as 1906, the then-Viceroy of British India, George Curzon, wrote that he was very worried about ‘alien hands snatching the prize (of summiting Everest) from Britain’. Later, by 1921, British officials in London and elsewhere, in their official communications had begun to refer to the matter of summiting Everest as one of “national importance” and Britain had begun to devote real resources, including finance, to make sure they took the peak. 

By the time the Second World War came to an end, the British Empire was in serious decline. The world was de-colonizing rapidly and the US and the USSR had become the new global superpowers. In this context, Britain quickly began to view conquest of the Everest as a soft power tool that would highlight to the world that Britain was a forward-looking and technologically advanced nation that could still play a confident role in global affairs. It is, then, perhaps no coincidence that Mt. Everest was indeed scaled for the first time by Sir Edmund Hillary, a citizen of the British Empire, and his companion Sherpa, Mr. Tenzing Norgay, on May 29th, 1953. Even more interestingly, the news of Sir Hillary’s ascent arrived in Britain just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the current British monarch, that took place at Westminster Abbey on June 2nd, 1953! 

Similarly, the above was not entirely lost on the two rivals of the era, the US and the USSR. While the diplomacy that went around mountains, mountaineering and hiking is long and requires separate writing, it reached a most spectacular zenith in 1990, when twenty mountaineers from the US, USSR and communist China scaled Mount Everest together as part of an ‘International Peace Climb’. While at the mountain, they hauled off a large amount of trash left by previous expeditions to highlight possibilities for international cooperation.

Similarly, between 2011 and 2012, mountain diplomat, Mr. Roger Shepherd, traversed the Baekdu-Daegan mountain range that cuts across the Korean peninsula. Beginning at Cheonwang-bong, the highest peak in South Korea, Mr. Shepherd made his way north, scaling all the tallest peaks in this mountain range, and ended by scaling North Korea’s highest mountain, Mt. Baekdu, a 2,744 meter peak at the border of North Korea and its northern neighbor, China. Here, Mt. Baekdu is considered sacred by the Korean people who believe that their origins can be traced back to this mountain and to its crater lake, called Cheonji or “Heaven Lake”, that sits astride the mountain near its peak. Through his adventures, Mr. Shepherd prepared a photo-book. In doing so, he partook in “citizen diplomacy”, allowing people of North and South Korea to connect indirectly through images of the commonly shared Baekdu-Daegan mountain range, even as they could not meet in person. 

Another notable instance is of 20 French and Iranian climbers teaming up to scale Iran’s highest mountain, the 5,671 meter high Mt. Damavad near Tehran, in 2016. This was a time when Iran had just struck its famous ‘nuclear deal’ with the west and decades of stifling sanctions were finally giving way to the country’s opening up. This expedition was intended to welcome Iran back to the international arena through citizen diplomacy. Then, in 2018, a former US navy officer, Mr. Fred Ptucha, led three other American climbers atop the same mountain. While there, the Americans reportedly interacted with at least a hundred local Iranians to strength bonds of friendship between the American and Iranian peoples. This included an interaction with former Iranian army personnel in which the Americans and Iranians bonded over stories of their experiences with war (Iran-Iraq War for the Iranians and Vietnam War for the Americans – of which, they were veterans). 

Anyway, there are also pitfalls to ‘mountain diplomacy’ and we ourselves are examples of it. You will perhaps recall that in early 1984 Pakistani government had issued permissions to a Japanese mountaineering expedition to visit and explore the Siachen Glacier area. This was seen by India as Pakistan laying claim to the disputed territory. As a result, the Indian army launched Operation Meghdoot in April 1984, thus triggering the still-simmering Siachen Conflict – and that, by the way, also spawned the 1999 Kargil War later. At this point, history brings us back to Mr. Muhammad Ali Sadpara. Reportedly, Mr. Sadpara was involved with Pakistan Army defensive operations at Siachen and helped port much needed supplies to critical Pakistan Army positions at Siachen. 

So then, we can see that Mr. Muhammad Ali Sadpara and other mountaineers like him are at the center of a very interesting facet of global diplomacy that is not widely discussed or known. Yet, it exists and has a very fascinating history. Then, my journalist friend in asking me his conspiracy theory-like question inadvertently touched upon a unique aspect of diplomacy and helped us learn about it. Going forward, as we continue to hope that Mr. Sadpara and his companions will be recovered, we can also begin to view the situation; such persons; and, their ambition, adventure and efforts in a larger geo-political context of which they have remained and, will remain, an unassuming, unwitting part.