One can see them everyday, most commonly at the railway stations and around markets where goods in bulk are bought and sold. At these places, their actions (and inactions at times) don’t have a direct impact on us or on our lives, and therefore, we don’t understand their importance. On a trek or an expedition, however, these are the guys who are the backbone of a successful mission – the porters.
It was very common to see porters during the years I grew up in Shimla – carrying cylinders, wooden logs, drums of charcoal, gunny sacks containing coal, refrigerators even! Basically, they carried any form of load regular human beings wouldn’t think of carrying. I remember my father (the late Dr. Shaikh Abdul Jabbar) stopping on a walk through the Lower Bazaar, or on the road to Mall, to talk to many porters when they stopped to take a breather. In those days, many of the porters used to be of Afghan ancestry, with a few from Kashmir and Nepal. My father, who was an accomplished photographer apart from being the Academic Resource Officer at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), had built quite a portfolio of images, some of which we have published here.
In the past two years, I have been on two high-altitude treks myself, and heard and read about expeditions undertaken by Abhishek and Swarjit. Such up-close-personal times spent with the porters made me observe and respect these people even more.
The porters I met during both the treks I did were natives of Nepal, who were working on daily jobs of load-carrying in various towns of Himachal Pradesh. Some of them had been on high-altitude treks earlier, while it was the first time for others. The experienced ones would be at ease, enjoying the journey as best they could. The novices however, would have a roller-coaster ride – the first few days would be full of enthusiasm and risks, but as we would approach the high and cold regions, they literally feared for their lives.
There were quite a few such incidents during the Bhabha Pass trek that we did in late September 2016. At the first campsite, the four porters had slept in a poorly ventilated room and by the time we reached the second day’s campsite, one of the porters was feeling very ill. He asked me to give him some medicines, to which I replied that I didn’t have any but maybe some cloves I had could help him. I was glad to know the next day that he was feeling much better but he was still concerned about surviving at high altitudes over the next few days. As a means of keeping himself safe in the next few days of the trek, he was meticilous in adding a stone to every cairn that we passed, praying fervently for safe completion of the trek.
On Day 3 of the Bhabha Pass trek from Kara to Phustrang, I was having a hard day walking and my mental state was not too good. Two of the porters of our team who were walking in front of me had stopped and as I reached them, they looked at me and told me that I seemed unwell. At that moment, I thought that since I haven’t seen myself in a mirror for the past few days, there was a possibility that I was suffering from some ailment that was not physically troubling me but was apparent on my face. Later in the day, sitting in the kitchen tent, I checked with the cook cum head porter about how I looked, to which he simply replied that I had just tanned. The whole incident on one hand showed the naivity of the porters as they misinterpreted my tanned skin as a sign of an ailment, while on the other hand there also was the possibilty of worsening my mental strength. It all turned out well in the end though, as we successfully completed the trek in a couple of days.
Such incidents helped me forge a nice personal bond with the porters and get to know them a little better. All of the porters fondly remembered their families – parents, siblings, spouses, children; and how they get to go back home only once a year, during Diwali festivities. These small conversations were still fresh in my mind when I undertook the Pin Parvati trek in September 2017. This time round, there were eight porters and there was the regular mix of old experienced men and the young lot. A big group meant that I had lesser amount of time to interact individually with the porters but I still had the time to experience a few more instances of the camaraderie of these mountain folk.
Irrespective of the number or types of porters, one common trait I observed on both treks was their amazing sense of hospitality irrespective of the place or circumstances. Even after carrying heavy loads most of the day, the porters would immediately get on to pitching tents on reaching the campsite. Subsequently they would move on to helping with preparations of lunch or dinner or snacks, and then serving the hot food. Irrespective of the weather outside, one or more of them would keep coming to our tent, checking if we needed anything.
I’m not sure about the exact numbers but I believe these porters get a paltry wage per day when they come for the treks. It is very easy for trek participants to ignore these guys, for they must be under the impression that they have already paid their trekking charges and there are other important things to worry about than the porters. Contrary to this assumption, porters are a crucial part of the climbing team, for if they don’t carry all the essential equipment etc, the trekker wouldn’t have a tent to sleep in, or food to eat.
Another aspect that I noticed (and worried about at quite a few instances) was the type of footwear and clothes that the porters wore during the treks. Although our guides on both occasions had ensured that the porters were wearing proper shoes and had enough warm clothes, I met other trekking parties enroute and was alarmed to see the porters of a well-known trekking organisation wearing slippers on a trek that was known to require walking in snow for at least one day. Such callous attitude on the part of the guide and organisers made me cringe and despair, but there was hardly anything I could do at the time, for I myself was travelling light on the trek.
Our own team had some misfortune in September 2017 as the porters reached Pin Parvati Pass much earlier than the rest of the team, and while they sat at the top amidst heavy winds, watching a crisp sun shining on the abundant snow, a lot of them developed mild irritation in their eyes. On the last day, as we trudged 30 odd kms to Mudh, one of the elder porters was struggling to walk as his eyes were watering every few hundred metres. Under such circumstances, I kept walking at the end, continuously assuring him that he wouldn’t be the last one to reach the end of the trek. I stuck to my promise till we were almost at Mudh, for he was happily relieved of his misery as he got onto the support vehicle that had come to pick us up.
I think that the least that trek participants can do is to give a tip to the porters at the end of the trek. Organisers can start their bit by informing the porters about the dangers and risks during the trek and ensuring that they have proper footwear and clothes. An extended aid to the porters would be to try means of providing them with proper shoes, warm clothes and protective eye-gear.
No matter how little or how much more we do for the porters in our capacity as individuals, an organisation, a community, or society at large, I don’t think we would be able to thank them enough – for they are the ones who carry the weight of our aspirations of climbing the high passes and peaks, by ensuring that all essentials are at place and given to us walkers and climbers and trekkers at the time that it matters most. In general, Himalayan porters are inconspicously carrying the weight of the world, while we are too busy with our own trivialities of life to even notice them. I hope it’s time we paid more attention to these unsung heroes of the mountains.