In 1979 I was a Liaison Officer with Reinhold Messner’s K2 Expedition comprising of six climbers. A small expedition considering the size of the expedition usually foreign expeditions plan. Unlike Nanga Parbat where I was with Messner’s solo expedition the previous year, we had hired only 4/5 porters. On K2 in contrast to Nanga Parbat, it was big but considering other expeditions to 8000 m peaks especially to K2 the same year the French expedition came in with over 1400 porters and I noticed immense problems keeping them motivated and responsive by the expedition leader. Messner always off and on remarked on French climbing strategy. ‘This is not climbing’, he used to say, ‘the French are attacking the mountain’.
The hiring of porters was carried out by me at Skardu where we lodged ourselves in a hotel for two nights. For ease of convenience and for better command and control for distribution of daily wages, rations, porter kits, and individual load distribution I nominated ex-military local personnel who were made the respective groups in-charge. This made my task easier to administratively control them.
I will skip the details of the march to base camp. Messner had earlier selected a new route to the summit, which he called ‘The Magic Line’. This route required the Base Camp to be established on the Savoia Glacier on the west of K2. On 8 June 1979, we reached the base of K2 and camped at the junction of where Godwin Austin Glacier and Savoia Glacier met. It was not possible to move to our planned base camp on the Savoia Glacier the same evening as the sun was almost setting and time was required by the porters to set up their camp and cook their meals. The glacier from this point upwards was crammed with open and closed deep craggy and irregular crevasses and to traverse the length of that part of the glacier with load carrying porters was perilous. We decided we’ll commence early morning on 9 Jun 1979 to cover the last leg of our march. We commenced our move at 0530 hours. A bit further we realized it was difficult to find a route up. Alessandro, Robert, and Micheal had gone a bit up to fix ropes along the ridge so as to avoid the crevasses part of Savoia Glacier. There were about 50 porters who were following me. They stopped and were reluctant to use the roped route. It took me considerable effort to persuade and motivate them to follow me. Anyway, I started climbing and noticed few had started following me. As I emerged from the roped route on to the glacier I saw a few porters sitting down with their loads removed. Messner also stood beside them and asked me that I should supervise the crossing and bring rest of the column as he was going up to recce a place for base camp. He also wanted me to reach the base camp quickly to supervise the payment to the porters. I walked away from the porters about 50 feet away to see what was happening down below and there I saw two porters coming up from the direction of the crevasse-ridden area. My shouts and abuses had little effect on them. As I was doing that I saw three of the porters sitting behind me tried to come near me to check what was happening down below. I walked up to them and scolded them and told them to stay put. This I did about three times. Little I knew then that soon one of the porters will die, the one who will walk in my footsteps. The footprints to death; My footprints, it could have been me, but it was not destined to be. It will be Qasim Ali.
As I stood at the edge of the slope where I was shouting from, a few moments later behind me where the porters were sitting I heard a short noise as if the crust of the snow had broken. I turned immediately and saw one of the porters was shouting and crying. I knew that something had happened but there was no cry for help. I counted the loads with porters sitting, one load was unaccounted for. The porters at that point said it was Qasim Ali. I shouted at Messner he quickly came back. There was a lot of commotion, someone was shouting for ropes. Someone was lying on the snow crawling towards the hole and widening the mouth of the crevasse with an ice ax. I hear Friedl shouting for container number 110 which contained the ropes. It took about 10 mins and Friedl was belayed down into the crevasse. We kept on releasing the never wait to hear Friedl that he had reached the bottom seemed to be taking time. Everyone was anxious and I could see the morale of the porters sinking. Soon we heard Friedl, he shouted back saying he can see the body but there was no movement. I asked him if he could bring up the body. It was not possible to do that as he could not even touch him to check his pulse. He said though that he feared Qasim Ali was dead. I asked Robert, who was the doctor of the expedition to go down and examine. Friedl was pulled up and Robert lowered about 80 feet down. He managed to go near him. Qasim Ali was dead his head upside down in the water. We could not bring up his body. One more life was taken on K2. We all decided that Qasim should be left there to rest eternally. It was at this point that I realized that I had walked over that place and Qasim followed my footprints. The footprints to death.
After the expedition on our way back, we stopped at Shigar and went to Qasim Ali’s home where we offered our prayers and condolences. Messner gave some money to the bereaved family. It has been 40 years since that fateful day, his children must have portered many expeditions. They may have gone back to K2 many times. But alas! they would never know where their father perished. But there will be some solace that his body will always be distinguished by the crown of the Karakorams – THE MAJESTIC K2
“The past is somewhere we can walk with our memories
Never with our footsteps”