K2 Celebrations Continue a History of Neglect

(this article was published in Dawn, the largest circulation English language paper in Pakistan. A short version has been published in Karakoram Weekly)

Dr. Kenneth Iain MacDonald (IPPG rep Pakistan)

The writer is Professor of Geography and International Development Studies at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada,

For the past few weeks the papers of Pakistan have heralded the “conquerors” of K2. “Golden Jubilee” celebrations have been held. “Dignitaries”, most of whom have likely never set foot on the glaciers leading up to K2, were treated to a fine couple of days in Skardu. Mountaineers and trekkers were honoured in Skardu and Islamabad. The tourism authorities have, yet again, promised significant investment for tourism promotion and infrastructure development in the Northern Areas. Through all of this, the most important component of mountain travel in Pakistan – porters – have been ignored: their voice unheard; their achievements unrecognized; their concerns unheeded.

I kept waiting, thinking that certainly some Pakistani journalist would see a potential story waiting to be told. But my wait was in vain. There is a story to be told. It is the story of the Balti men, still alive, who travelled to K2 with Ardito Desio’s expedition in 1954. The fact that, according to my sources, there are only two left, of the hundreds who carried khansamah up the Baltoro glacier, says much about life expectancy in Baltistan. But my more immediate concern is that neither of these men was invited to participate in the K2 golden jubilee celebrations. This was not simply an organizational oversight. It’s reflective of a consistent pattern of neglect that characterizes the condition of men who work as mountaineering and trekking porters.

We don’t have to look far for more striking examples of this lack of consideration. In July of this year an unprecedented number of trekkers and climbers have landed at K2 basecamp, spurred on by the Italian Alpine Club, the Government of Pakistan and local travel companies desperate for business after the wholly unwarranted decline in tourism over the past 3 years. There’s a general agreement in the town of Skardu that this is all for the good. Hotel walas are happy, transporters are happy, shopkeepers are happy. Even the maulvis seem happy. No doubt, porters are happy. Because of the number of foreigners up on the ice, there is work galore. In fact, there is so much work that there have been periods when porters have been in short supply. This has forced local travel companies, responsible for logistics, to scour local villages for men willing to take on porter work and reports have come in of companies offering men double wages in an effort to secure enough porters to maintain the service and schedule they have promised to their foreign clients.

On the surface this sounds like a good deal. Who’s going to turn down double wages? But of course there are drawbacks. Men are pulled away from domestic and agricultural responsibilities, increasing the labour burden on women and the elderly, or forcing children out of school to shoulder the labour burdens of their absent fathers. But the benefits are clear. The opportunity to earn some quick cash, even if the work is physically draining, is particularly attractive and useful for households that find themselves in marginal economic circumstances. Unless of course, you don’t come back. So far this year six men, that we know of, have not come back. Most of them had not worked as porters before and were inexperienced in the techniques of mountain travel. Five of them drowned while trying to take a short cut across a fast flowing and freezing glacial stream. The other, a teacher eager to earn some extra money during the summer, fell, unroped, through a snow bridge and into a crevasse. He was surrounded by people without the knowledge or capacity to rescue him. Not only was the porter inexperienced but so too were the guides and the clients. To add insult to their death, two of the bodies of the drowned porters lay snagged on a rock in the middle of the Braldu river with no one making an effort or taking responsibility for their recovery. Presumably it would cut into profit margins.

These deaths, as with most of the deaths of porters that I know of, were avoidable. With some advance co-ordination it would have been relatively easy to calculate the number of trekkers and climbers visiting the Karakoram this summer and to estimate the amount of labour needed to carry their loads, and to arrange for experienced porters or to provide sufficient training to meet the demand for experienced labour. Yet no one seems to have done this. Not the Italians promoting the 50th anniversary, not the government of Pakistan, keen to attract more tourists and promote the image of a safe Pakistan, not the local travel companies, keen to make some money after a couple of dry years. In a way, this reminds me of the conclusion of the recent Butler report. No individual is culpable, it’s the system that’s to blame.

And I agree. It is the system that’s to blame. “The system” has been to blame since Europeans first started travelling to the central Karakoram in the mid-19th century, and found that it was impossible to travel in these mountains without using human labour. They took advantage of a system of forced labour recruitment implemented by the Dogras. Yet systems exist to benefit the interests of particular individuals. Systems have to be designed, maintained and reproduced. And that requires the concerted, though not necessarily co-ordinated, efforts of individuals.

Let me explain the nature of the system that maintains the oppressive conditions that trekking and mountaineering porters

continue to work under. I have been conducting research and travelling through the central Karakoram for almost 20 years now. For some of those years I lived in villages close to the major peaks of the central Karakoram and with men who continued their forefathers work as porters. As I talked to men, listened to their stories of travelling with expeditions, travelled with them and saw how they were treated by company owners, guides and some of the foreigners they served, it became clear that I was witnessing what was essentially an outdoor sweatshop, devoid of any notions of labour equity, and worse, seemingly devoid of any conception of human rights. When some of the men I worked with asked me to help them communicate their problems to the foreigners who employ them, I decided to look into the situation in more detail and set about tracing the reproduction of labour conditions from the emergence of the British/Dogra era to the present day. The porters were of the opinion that if only foreigners came to know of their problems, they would take corrective steps. I was not so hopeful. My research was telling me that the problem lay much deeper. Certainly there was a structure of plain economic exploitation in play, familiar to any student of capitalist labour relations, but this was underlain by a more troubling structure of knowledge that has deep colonial roots.

But let me start by laying out the immediate problems as they’re recognized by porters. Their work is arduous. Men carry loads of 25 to 35 kg. over rock slopes and glaciers, walking for up to eight hours a day. Loads are often carried on crude wooden frames lashed to the back with thin rope. Temperatures can be extremely hot during the day even when travelling over ice, while night time temperatures can dip below freezing. The diet of porters consists of little more than tea and chappati for the duration of the trek. While on the trek, men sleep under tarpaulins often on bare ice with little more than a blanket and the bodies of their fellow porters for warmth. Their dress is what they would wear at home, a cotton shalwar kameez, supplemented by a sweater and a used jacket purchased from the discard pile in the Skardu bazaar, and a piece of plastic sheeting, given by the company employing them that is supposed to serve as protection from the elements in high altitude glacial basins. On their feet are cheap plastic boots that often don’t last the duration of the trek and cheap woollen socks that disintegrate as they rub against the plastic boots.

Compare this with the condition of trekkers, climbers and guides who carry little, if any, load, enjoy the luxury of hi-tech outdoor clothing, comfortable trekking boots, warm sleeping bags and four season mountain tents.

Let me be clear on this. While many men who work as porters see the work as undignified and would take other wage labour if it were available, they do not want the adventure tourism economy to stop. They simply want to retain more of the benefits of the tourism economy. And increasingly those benefits are being siphoned out of local villages as more and more brokers enter the system. These brokers include large international adventure tourism firms who assemble packages for foreign tourists and the local adventure travel firms who are subcontracted to arrange logistics including labour. Increasingly, porters say, this structure is depriving them of what they see as their rights. As more and more local firms have emerged, competition has become tight, and, as with many businesses, the route to reducing input costs and increasing profit margins is to extract more surplus value from labour. In the case of porters this is done by increasing loads, despite government regulations restricting load size; it is done by cutting back on the amount or quality of equipment and food; it is done by guides commandeering a portion of porter wages to supplement their own salaries. The list goes on, and while I might have once thought that porters were exaggerating as they told me these tales of exploitation, I heard them too often, from too many sources, to doubt them. These accounts of exploitation have also been independently confirmed by young men who once worked for me as research assistants and have gone on to work as guides and to witness the very practices they heard porters speak of when we were investigating these labour relations.

Unfortunately this mistreatment along with the absence of any kind of training in mountain rescue or first aid exercises a form of violence on the bodies of men who work as porters. In my years of working in the central Karakoram I have met men whose bodies have been ravaged by the effects of portering. Men with corneal ulcers, chronic lacerations, hernia, high altitude pulmonary and cerebral edema, hypothermia, frost bite, respiratory ailments. And, of course, there are the deaths. While porters are supposed to be insured by the companies they work for, I have spoken with families who have actually had to struggle for years to collect the meagre insurance money that is supposed to take the place of a husband and father.

What bothers me most about this situation is that it’s so openly visible to those doing the travelling. While we may turn a blind eye to those who work in the sweatshops that produce much of our clothes, they are invisible to us. It is easier to deny their reality. This is impossible on the trail, walking beside a man who is carrying the equipment that allows you to trek or climb in the central Karakoram. So what allows these conditions to persist? Certainly part of the fault here lies in very vague government regulations regarding the nature of the equipment that should be given to porters. But the biggest fault must lie with the labour contractors – those companies arranging logistics, who can choose to treat porters well or poorly, and the people doing the travelling, who can advocate for improved conditions for porters. This is happening to some extent. Organizations like the International Porter Protection Group (www.ippg.net) and Tourism Concern in Britain have undertaken education campaigns to encourage trekkers and climbers to use firms that treat porters well and adhere to the agreements they make with porters. Porters themselves say they would be satisfied to some extent if travellers would pay closer attention to the distribution of loads and equipment and take direct responsibility for overseeing the payment of wages.

I’m not convinced that the porters are right. My conversations with trekkers and climbers have revealed a disturbing tendency on the part of travellers to try and justify the reproduction of oppressive labour relations. On the one had some treat human rights as subordinate to economic concerns. As one climber told me, “if things get too expensive here, we’ll just go somewhere else.” This, of course, is the base vulgarity of global capitalism – the ‘race to the bottom’ for us all. Other excuses, however, are more subtle and rely on the acceptance of a naturalised difference: “well, they’re just born to it [portering] aren’t they. I mean it comes naturally to them”, or “I think it’s fair to say that they are different, that they are better able for whatever reason – physically or mentally to handle pain than we are…” are typical of comments that I have heard from trekkers and climbers. The disturbing part of these remarks is that if we accept the difference between human beings as natural, it becomes easier to justify differential treatment: ‘they don’t need good equipment because this is what they’re used to’ or ‘because they’re more natural, closer to the environment’. Such justifications obscure the conditions of poverty that adventure tourism is able to take advantage of in a place like the central Karakoram. Even more disturbing is that these attitudes are the remnants of colonial ideologies of difference that were also used to maintain oppressive and inequitable social relations. Read back into the colonial record and you will find the same sentiments in the texts of colonial travellers or political agents.

Of course, this story of porters is not unique. It is the tale of so many who toil to serve the rich and to make others richer. But in a world that claims to respect human rights; in a circle of travellers who claim to promote social justice, it is a story that needs to be addressed. The occasion of the 50th anniversary of K2 would have been an apt time to begin to address this, by thinking in advance about the demands that would be placed on labour and trying to reduce the risk, by extracting the bodies of two dead men from the Braldu river and showing them the dignity that we all deserve, by recognizing old men who, 50 years ago, helped an Italian ascend to fame while they languished in obscurity.

All hail the conquerors! … All forget the footmen.

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