Dated 2018-12-15
23
Sep
2017

He Comes, He Sees, He Conquers

Mountains and alpine lakes are his real world. For the Downtown-born lean and bony-faced Aarif, life begins with trekking and ends at it. In his own words, Kashmir’s star trekker is possessed by the magnanimity of mountains. Over to Jamsheed Rasool.  

Photos: Aarif

As you try to keep pace with Aarif on a muggy summer day, he is untiringly found exchanging pleasantries with his countless acquaintances, flashing a radiant smile and totally unaffected by the humidity. With the July sun beaming on his face, the grimaced smile does not elude him even for a moment, all ten kilometers of brisk walk from Lal Chowk to his office, Kashmir Climbs, on 90-feet Road Soura on the outskirts of Srinagar.

“Buses and cars are not for mountaineers, way too girlish things,” chimes Aarif, as he marches on.

In his dandy office at Soura, there is a labyrinth of cobwebs under the tables left unattended for almost a fortnight.

“That is what can happen to a mountaineer’s office. We are like sea-faring sailors, hardly ashore,” says Aarif as he muffles his face with a handkerchief and, with a dash of the broom, pushes away the cobwebs.

He mops the floor and responds to my inquisitive gaze.

“All your daily chores by yourself, we are our own errand boys,” says Aarif.

On Facebook, he is Aarif Mountaineer, giving away at first glance his maverick passion for trekking. It was during a family picnic to the Meadow of Gold, Sonamarg, in 2001, that the stubble-sporting boy in him was smitten by the love of mountains.

“Had my parents allowed me, I would have climbed those glittering peaks that day. I was simply possessed by the magnanimity of the mountains,” he says.

Two years ago in the summer of 2015, Aarif, with a sun-burnt, tanned face, fighting strong gusts of windstorm, raised his hands to thank the Almighty for being able to summit the Survey Peak of Harmukh Mountain (4355 meters) in northern Kashmir. His group achieved the daunting feat after scores of attempts by trekkers all over the world to the treacherous, almost vertical summit had met with little success in the last two decades.

“It was the proudest moment of my life. We even saw a snow leopard on the advanced base camp. It roared at us. To know that we were the only ones in two decades to achieve the feat pumped the adrenaline. It is the moment every mountaineer would die to see,” says Aarif as he clutches the handle of the photo-frame in his creased, hardened hands and holds out the souvenir to me.

In the photograph, he along with his chums is perched on a bridle path, his shoulders slung over his pals’ and in the foggy background one catches a faint sight of the azure Gangbal Lake in the bosom of Harmukh Mountain.

It was not a beginner’s luck and certainly he was not a greenhorn. From scores of prospective candidates, all with certain summits under their belt, only an elite list of seven, including Aarif, were selected to attempt a climb on Harmukh, the technically most-challenging mountain summit of Kashmir.

The blizzard that Arif and co. encountered at the advance camp of Harmukh grew in ferocity as the team members began to descend. They often huddled at feasible footholds, chanting prayers, waiting for the gales to subside. In the milieu of the storm, one team member nearly slipped to death. Gauging the difficulty of the climb, Aarif’s Facebook friends had wished him good luck, and in a tongue-in-cheek forewarning that all mountaineers tease each other with prior to climb, had advised him to be careful while descending. One among them was Khuram Rajput of Pakistan.

“Please pray for our brothers in Kashmir for their safe journey back to the base camp of Mount Harmukh.  They scaled this technical peak today,” Rajput wrote on his Facebook wall.

As ill-luck would have it, Khuram himself disappeared in September while attempting to climb equally steep Torche-2 (Mount Saravali) peak of the Karokaram range in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

In the sarcasm for the rasping, grinding city life of Srinagar, Aarif manages to hide the dripping philosophical touch to his newly-acquired world-view, probably a gift of the mountains to their conqueror.

“It changes you. Mountains in Kashmir are magical. Descending a mountain, you are a different person. The mountain gifts you with certain things. You retain them forever,” he says.

At a halting point on a certain trekking trip in Kashmir, he found a profusely wheezing German septuagenarian humming, ‘Mountains are calling and I must go’. The event seems to have changed Aarif’s outlook towards life.

“It was if he were saying his rosary. It had a profound effect on me,” says Aarif.

Aarif sold his electronic gadgetry and personal branded apparels to buy a few fly-tents, a snow-axe, a few trekking shoes, skies, Tyrolean traverse equipment and a sleeping bag. From that day, there has been no stopping for this son of a lower-middle class auto-rickshaw driver.

He indulged himself in perennial Alpine treks and hiked to almost every alpine high altitude lake in Kashmir division. He hiked to Chuharnag (four lakes) in the range separating Kashmir valley from the highland town of Kishtawar. In Margan valley—The Valley of Death—on whose periphery the four lakes are situated, his team encountered a severe storm but weathered it unflinchingly.

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He later went on trekking almost all the famous high-altitude alpine lakes including Shoksar Lake, Khushar Lake, Hoksar Lake, Ganagbal, Gadsar Lake etc. What began as a hobby soon turned into a full-fledged profession.

“There are more than 1000 high-altitude alpine lakes in Kashmir region. My dream is to hike up to each one and do a threadbare survey,” says Aarif with a resolve.

The Government sponsored Harmukh survey followed by the successful expedition was a “rough affair”, and had it not been for the courage of the team members who at one place even had to haul down a fainted companion downhill for about a mile, it would have led to many casualties.

“Since it was the first expedition after three decades, the government was clueless about the efficacy of the outdated equipments. But we had a single-minded focus. It was a risky affair,” says the trekker, delving into the memories of the snow storms that swept off their tents at the summit camp of Harmukh.

Aarif got in touch with Parvez Ahanger, who provided him the necessary orchestration in the technicalities of snow-climbing. They formed a group called Kolahoi Mountaineers which provides free training about high-altitude climbing. It is the adventure-sports promoting unit of Kashmir Climbs.

The two veterans trained a group of young mountaineers to survey and scale all the known peaks of Kolahoi Valley including Mount Valehead, Mount Innominate, Mount Burdlau, Mount Buttress, Mount Umbrella, Greater Thajiwas, Crystal Peak, Mount Vishu, Mount Safcornith, Aeroblade Peak, Kazim Ridge, Gadsar Peak, Brahmsar Peak, Suicidal Rock and Station Peak. Out of these, only Mount Buttress and Mount Burdlaw are yet unconquered by them.

In September 2015, the two enthusiastic climbers of Kolahaoi Mountaineers, Junaid Dar and Muhammad Shafqat with the able orchestration from Aarif at the summit camp managed to climb Mount Kolahoi (5425 meters), the highest peak of Kashmir which the British lovingly call Matterhorn of Kashmir. It was almost after three decades that a non-army unit had scaled the mountain. On 7 September 2016, Aarif-led team scaled Mount Valehead successfully at exactly, as Arif emphasizes, at 11:40 a.m.

The glorious moment of Aarif’s mountaineering career came when in May 2015 he was selected as consultant for the hiking trip of the former German Ambassador to India Micheal Steiner and his wife. In this trip, they scaled the alpine valleys of Dhumail and Marchoi in the Wangath region of Kangan belt. Without any security, and dodging some terse travel advisories, Steiner along with his wife trekked the pristine valleys for three days. The German ambassador went on to write a strong letter of recommendation for the Aarif-led Kashmir Climbs.

The glorious moment of Aarif’s mountaineering career came when in May 2015 he was selected as consultant for the hiking trip of the former German Ambassador to India Micheal Steiner and his wife. In this trip, they scaled the alpine valleys of Dhumail and Marchoi in the Wangath region of Kangan belt. Without any security, and dodging some terse travel advisories, Steiner along with his wife trekked the pristine valleys for three days. The German ambassador went on to write a strong letter of recommendation for the Aarif-led Kashmir Climbs.

Former German Ambassador to India Micheal Steiner and his wife trekked the pristine valleys for three days under Aarif's supervision, which earned him a letter of endorsement from the ambassador.

 

Aarif sold his electronic gadgetry and branded apparels to buy a few fly-tents, a snow-axe, a few trekking shoes, skies, Tyrolean traverse equipment and a sleeping bag. From that day, there has been no stopping for this son of a lower-middle class auto-rickshaw driver.

The two veterans trained a group of young mountaineers to survey and scale all the known peaks of Kolahoi Valley including Mount Valehead, Mount Innominate, Mount Burdlau, Mount Buttress, Mount Umbrella, Greater Thajiwas, Crystal Peak, Mount Vishu, Mount Safcornith, Aeroblade Peak, Kazim Ridge, Gadsar Peak, Brahmsar Peak, Suicidal Rock and Station Peak. Out of these, only Mount Buttress and Mount Burdlaw are yet unconquered by them.

In September 2015, the two enthusiastic climbers of Kolahaoi Mountaineers, Junaid Dar and Muhammad Shafqat with the able orchestration from Aarif at the summit camp managed to climb Mount Kolahoi (5425 meters), the highest peak of Kashmir which the British lovingly call Matterhorn of Kashmir. It was almost after three decades that a non-army unit had scaled the mountain. On 7 September 2016, Aarif-led team scaled Mount Valehead successfully at exactly, as Arif emphasizes, at 11:40 a.m.

The glorious moment of Aarif’s mountaineering career came when in May 2015 he was selected as consultant for the hiking trip of the former German Ambassador to India Micheal Steiner and his wife. In this trip, they scaled the alpine valleys of Dhumail and Marchoi in the Wangath region of Kangan belt. Without any security, and dodging some terse travel advisories, Steiner along with his wife trekked the pristine valleys for three days. The German ambassador went on to write a strong letter of recommendation for the Aarif-led Kashmir Climbs.

Steiner wrote in the letter of recommendation: “In May 2015, along with my wife Eliese, I travelled to Kashmir. After some official meetings, we left Srinagar to spend some time hiking. Aarif is clearly a very experienced mountaineer and we enjoyed his professional attitude and services throughout.”

Aarif is also an adventure consultant for many government institutions. Recently a prominent Indian television channel contacted him for the inputs about the feasibility of shooting a historical documentary series on Aryan history in the highland pastures of the valley. A prominent university of the state is in final stages of hiring him as an adventure consultant.

Braving everything the nature has to throw at him. Aarif is singularly committed to his passion.

He also organizes free training camps for local schools and colleges, besides training the locals in supplementary mountaineering activities like fording a gushing rivulet, mountain biking, mountain run etc.

On some occasions, just to kill boredom, Aarif makes a brazen display of his eccentric passion for adventure. In the summer of 2015, he was at the gigantic Aharbal waterfall-with some hundreds of male spectators egging him on and an equal number of female spectators watching with bated breath when he battled the wind force of the bosom of the waterfall and Tyrolean traversed the gushing river spawning from the falls.

“They all clapped once I was through. Some of them were eager to do it themselves. With an initial hesitation, a few brave hearts managed to perform it,” giggles the daredevil.

For a man who braved the sinew-intruding snowstorms with ease on the mountain summits of the valley, the dream of 8000 meter conquest does not ring many bells. He remains modest in his dreams and wants to focus on surveying the mountains of Kashmir.

Kashmir Climbs clientele spans across many continents but Spanish adventure-lovers are just in love with him. Besides, he gets clients from many Indian states too.

On Facebook, Aarif motivates the Kashmiri youth to take to trekking. Every day he posts a status to this end.

“Mountains give solace and are the gateways to new thinking,” a Facebook post of his reads. His canvassing, it seems, has given rise to hundreds of 90’s born backpackers in the valley who follow his footsteps and want to keep hiking on top of their priority lists.

It is very hard to meet Aarif without a prior appointment. On an average he spends 200 days of the year on mountains, making him the undisputed mountain man of Kashmir. In the strife-torn valley, many mountains were no-go areas for mountaineers during the 90’s, but with improvement in the situation, government threw open almost all the important trekking destinations, including the ones in frontier districts of Kupwara and Bandipora.

Aarif is an avid philanthropist who volunteers his services readily. In 2014, when the vicious floods devastated Srinagar, he went to the worst-affected Rajbagh area, got in contact with the relief organisation Red Cross and provided substantial logistic support to it.

Aarif became the first recipient of the Professor Hameed Award given to him by Jammu and Kashmir Mountaineering and Hiking Club in 2014. On the occasion of The World Mountain Day on December 11, 2015, his documentary ‘Mountain Diary’ was screened at Sher-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC); it bagged the best documentary award.

Aarif uses state-of-the-art equipment for hiking and never compromises on it.

“Equipment is the lifeline. I want my clientele to feel safe, so they use the same brand that the Mount Everest climbers use,” informs Aarif.

What if Mountaineering had not knocked at Aarif’s doors? What would have he been if he were not a mountaineer?

“A football player – definitely – maneuvering moves for my forward line. I’d have been a football player if not a mountaineer,” goes Aarif with a pleasant smile.

His father, Ghulam Muhammad Langoo, played as a goalkeeper for Jahangir Sports in the 80’s, back then an A-division football team of the state, while as Aarif also played for the same club as a midfielder. The light-footed Aarif has also represented state in U-14 National Football Championship.

Aarif is fascinated by cats. His furry companion Gul Makaey now has a male offspring who he has, out of his love for the sturdy highland Pathans, named Pakhtuun, and a female offspring whom he calls Meethi (sweet). In his spare time, Aarif can be found squatted on the porch of his home, caressing Pakhtuun and pouting at it with an equally inimitable kittenish grace. Imagine the same tender looking feline lover fording furious rivulets and scaling vertical peaks.

His neighbors complain Aarif is losing a bit of fun in his personal life. He went  missing a few days before his own marriage. No prizes for guessing where he was: a trekking expedition that got prolonged due to a “couch potato” of a novice team member. He later compensated it by catering at the banquet of his marriage, making his entry into another rare club.

“That is one more occupational hazard. But with the passage of time, you learn to cope up and balance your personal life with your professional one.”

I bump into Arif three days later on the banks of Jhelum in Srinagar. Donning a grayish deer-stalker hat with a camera slung over his shoulder and a life-size backpack harnessed to his belly, he fires a friendly warning at me, “You got anything else to ask? Make sure it (the feature on him) runs in the next issue.”

From the Lambert Lane culvert, a group of similarly attired lean, young men appear and greet him. Another mountain is beckoning to Aarif and his indomitable gang of mountaineers.

 

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