Amir Mehdi was born in 1913 in the Hunza Valley high in the Karakoram Range of Pakistan. Starting as a humble porter, he became the preeminent Pakistani climber of his generation and played critical roles in two of the most significant climbs of the era, the first ascents of Nanga Parbat in 1953 and K2 the following year.
Mehdi was Hunza, a member of a group of people renowned for their high-altitude prowess. He naturally draws a comparison with his contemporary Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa climber who appeared alongside mountaineering’s European elite at critical junctures in the history of Himalayan climbing, most notably the 1953 first ascent of Everest with New Zealander Edmund Hillary. But while Norgay was celebrated at the time as a critical, if not fully equal, partner in the conquest of Everest, Mehdi was denied a summit chance during the 1954 Italian K2 expedition, betrayed and left to die by members of his own expedition.
Mehdi, also known as Hunza Mehdi (sometimes spelled Mahdi), distinguished himself carrying loads for the big European expeditions that besieged the high peaks of the Karakoram in the early 1950s. In 1953 he joined a German-Austrian expedition to Nanga Parbat as a high-altitude porter. The ninth-highest mountain in the world had already earned the sobriquet the “Killer Mountain” for the unusually steep toll it had exacted on earlier expeditions—31 dead, including 10 and 16, respectively, in the German expeditions of 1934 and 1937. That 15 of those 26 were high-altitude porters is a grim testament to the dangers those men shared with the Europeans they climbed with and supported.
The climb is best remembered for Austrian Hermann Buhl’s legendary summit push, which he accomplished alone and without supplementary oxygen in a 41-hour period over July 3 and 4, 1953. Buhl had left the tent early, breaking trail and expecting his climbing partner Otto Kempter to catch up. When he didn’t, Buhl climbed the final 1,300 meters alone, reaching the summit at the perilously late hour of 7 p.m. Buhl had taken two methamphetamine tablets—recently developed to help Luftwaffe pilots maintain their edge—during the ascent, and left his ice axe at the summit with a Pakistani flag affixed to it. Down-climbing in the dark, he lost one of his crampons and survived a bivouac of sorts on an icy ledge too small to lie down on, or even to sit.
Fortunately, the night was unusually calm and Buhl survived, leaning against the icy slope and dozing intermittently. In the morning he continued down the mountain, popped three more methamphetamine tablets and staggered into Camp Vwell after sunset. Though in remarkably good condition given his ordeal, Buhl could barely move under his own power. Mehdi and another porter, Haji Baig, took turns carrying the Austrian on their backs. It was a long way down.
The expedition had chosen to approach from the north, which required an extended supply train on an extremely long and complex route, covering a distance of some 11 miles and an elevation gain of more than 15,000 feet. The official expedition report is full of references to “shortages” of porters, many of whom turned up sick. Reading between the lines, it must have been a hard expedition for the Hunza load-carriers, short-handed and ill on a difficult trail. Mehdi climbed as high as Camp IV, but didn’t cross the Rakhiot Face with the advance team of four Europeans and three porters because there were no crampons large enough to fit his boots. It wouldn’t be the last time Mehdi’s big feet brought him grief.
The next year, 1954, Mehdi joined a large Italian team determined to claim the first ascent of K2. The expedition was big news in Italy, which nine years after the end of World War II remained an impoverished, bombed-out shell of a country. The expedition took a military-style brute-force approach to the world’s second-highest mountain and arguably its most formidable. Writing in the Independent, Stephen Goodwin described it as “a grossly nationalistic affair.”
The expedition included 13 of Italy’s best climbers and employed 600 porters to move 65 tons of supplies up-valley. The entire operation fell under the autocratic rule of Ardito Desio, who sent daily orders up the mountain on neatly typed squares of paper. The climbers called him Il Ducetto, Little Mussolini.
Desio assigned the summit to his protégé Achille Compagnoni, together with Lino Lacedelli. They were good climbers, but not the strongest on the mountain that season. The strongest were 26-year-old Walter Bonatti and Mehdi. Desio assigned them the task of carrying oxygen canisters to the summit team. According to Mehdi’s son Sultan Ali, the Italians offered a tantalizing prize in exchange for his labor—a chance to join the summit team.
“Other high altitude porters refused. My father agreed to the mission because he was offered a chance to get to the top,” Ali told the BBC’s Shahzeb Jillani in a 2014 interview. Fetching the oxygen was an arduous task, involving a descent from Camp VIII at 7,627 meters—where all four men had spent the night of July 30—down to Camp VII to get the bottles, then carry them all the way up to Camp IX, a single tent that Compagnoni and Lacedelli were to pitch on a snowy shoulder at about 7,950 meters.
All told, Mehdi and Bonatti would down-climb more than 200 meters, then turn around and climb 700 meters, while carrying 42 pounds of bottled oxygen. The pair climbed all day, approaching the agreed site of Camp IX as darkness fell. But the tent was not there. They climbed higher, Bonatti shouting into the night for Compagnoni and Lacedelli, again and again.
“Achille! Lino! Why don’t you answer?”
Finally they saw a flash of light a hundred or more meters up the mountain, and an answering voice.
“Do you have the oxygen with you?”
“Good. Leave it there and go down!”
“I can’t. Mehdi can’t do it.”
At this juncture, Bonatti was in better shape than Mehdi, but neither man was in a condition to descend in the dark. Besides their physical exhaustion, Mehdi had no flashlight and Bonatti’s batteries were spent. The tricky traverse to the tent was also out of the question.
“Achille! Lino! Help us, damn you!”
Now Mehdi began to shout “like a madman,” Bonatti would later write.
“Not good, Compagnoni sahib! Not good Lacedelli sahib!”
Mehdi was a hired man, constrained by the norms of the time to show deference to the European climbers. But here on the mountain he was the equal of the Italians in all that mattered. He must have been furious at their betrayal, the incomprehensible depth of their venality and cowardice, which went against everything it means to be a climber, whether in the Alps or the Karakoram.
As Mehdi shouted, Bonatti quietly began to level out a patch of snow. No one had ever attempted a bivouac at 8,100 meters before. Given their lack of gear and their physical condition, it was tantamount to a death sentence, but they had no choice. Bonatti and Mehdi huddled together, sucking on caramels and waiting for death or morning, whichever came first.
The night was cold but windless, as it had been for Hermann Buhl a year earlier on Nanga Parbat. Both Mehdi and Bonatti survived the ordeal, though Mehdi, who lacked proper mountaineering boots, would lose all of his toes and some fingers to frostbite. According to some sources, his Army boots were two sizes too small.
At first light, Bonatti and Mehdi left the cache of oxygen bottles and started down the mountain. Mehdi would spend eight months in the hospital. He never climbed again and according to his son struggled to find work and support his family.
Compagnoni and Lacedelli retrieved the oxygen bottles and reached the summit late that afternoon. They were hailed as heroes in Italy and in alpine circles. In the battle of competing narratives, Bonatti was outgunned and Mehdi completely unarmed. Desio and Compagnoni, with the silent complicity of Lacedelli, spun a web of lies that held together for 50 years. They claimed that Bonatti had tried to steal the summit, that he and Mehdi had used most of the oxygen during their bivouac, and other slanders, large and small. The house of cards finally came down in 2004, when Lacedelli published a book admitting he and Compagnoni had moved the camp for the simplest reason—to avoid sharing the glory of the summit.