KARACHI: The snowcapped peak of K2, the world’s second highest mountain and also known as the Father of All Mountains, has claimed the lives of many mountaineers while bringing glory to some but hardly ever have the indigenous porters of Gilgit-Baltistan who form the nucleus of all mountaineering expeditions been recognised.
The film K2 and the Invisible Footmen, which was screened at T2F on Wednesday evening, is a step by film director and activist Iara Lee to acknowledge the unsung heroes who deserve more than just a passing share of this recognition.
The documentary reveals how these men lead ordinary lives, under the burden of the restricted choices they must make for the sake of their family’s sustenance. Being a porter on a mountain like K2 is no mean feat, and requires agility, stamina and above all exemplary mental fortitude. To leave behind families, wives, parents, and young children, without any guarantee of ever returning requires courage and Lee has captured this very essence in her film.
The film has been produced under the banner of Bipolar Films headed by Jawad Sharif, a Pakistani filmmaker, cinematographer and editor.
One of the laments of the different porters featured in the film is how they are forced to carry much heavier equipment as the way to the summit becomes treacherous. Originally they are signed on to carry around 22-25kg of weight. Towards the top the weight they carry can increase to 40kg. These men are slight and diminutive to look at and there are various frames in the film dedicated exclusively to following the tracks of these porters. The backdrop is minimalist with snowcapped peaks, the only sound audible of the snow crunching under their feet and their heavy gasps of breath.
With the weather only permitting climbing to the top in a handful of months, these men are unemployed the rest of the year. They have no other means to survive and so must trek alongside strangers, sometimes to their deaths. If they are able to evade death, frostbite and high altitude sickness are not far behind, and the possibility of collapsing of sheer exhaustion is very high.
Lee successfully is able to portray the choices these men make at each trek, choices that result in them oscillating between life and death. The weight they carry on treks is immediate and can be relieved of once the climb is over. What remains however, is the weight on their shoulders which no individual, organisation or the state is willing to help shoulder. The refrain from these men is, if we lay down our lives for the glory of our country, where is our country when we need to survive. This is a pitiable state of affairs, and is a reflection of the apathy the government shows towards the porters of Gilgit-Baltistan in specific and tourism in general.
Apart from recognition of their services, the porters need more technical skills and better equipment so that they can enjoy a competitive edge over porters of other nationalities, such as the Nepalese.
K2 and the Invisible Footmen represents how mountaineering is a passion and obsession for some, but for the ones behind the scenes it remains a perilous profession. And this is a reminder for them each time they cross a marked or unmarked grave of a fellow porter who lost his life while earning a living.
Published in Dawn, January 7th, 2016