The Relentless Run from Khunjerab Pass to Dassu

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Undoubtedly, the greatest heights have been achieved by those who have withstood adversities and fought against all odds. Similar is the story of Lt Col Dr. Abdul Jabbar Bhatti (R), whose name needs no introduction for he has brought unrivalled laurels to Pakistan. The opening of his adventure career was celebrated with an 8000er mountain in alpine style without oxygen, on one of the world’s most dangerous routes on K-1. On May 21, 2017, he became the fourth Pakistani to have summited the highest peak in the world, the Everest. On the 22nd, as Mr. Bhatti climbed the last part and descended without oxygen bottles, that his Sherpa ‘conveniently’ forgot to carry along, his Everest-sized endurance and perseverance helped him survive the very innards of the death zone’s talons. His dedication, no less than three of the world’s fourteen highest peaks that he has successfully summited, is commendable, for he has brought yet another accolade par excellence to Pakistan. This time he undertook a unique challenge of running 500 kms at a start point altitude of 4693m, from Khunjerab Pass to Dassu, with snow covering over 200 kms of the path. While he considers it a challenge not as expansive as his mountaineering experiences, his exemplary fight against all odds allowed him to surpass the recent world record of running 50 kms on the same route.

Khunjerab Pass, located at an elevation of 15,397 ft above sea level, is the highest point on the Karakoram Highway. The high altitude and extreme weather conditions easily sky-rocket the concerns of travelers crossing the Khunjerab Pass. Although Khunjerab Pass is the highest metaled border crossing in the world, the altitude sickness and sequestered nature of the place does not curtail the disquietude that accompanies the travels to this area. While the path is seemingly flat, it hardly breathes outside the snow blanket throughout the year. Consequentially, the path is closed for road travels between November and May. Yet our mountaineer, suffused with the resilience of a mountain, chose to battle all obstacles in the toughest of weather.
Lt Col Dr. Abdul Jabbar Bhatti (R)’s adventure began on December 22, 2020, after he had overcome all major setbacks in his path by proving that there is no stopping his will. With the first setbacks laid forth by all those who could financially and logistically assist the expedition, Mr. Bhatti was repeatedly warned against the unrealistic nature of the venture. Mr. Bhatti, however, had already set his mind on the challenge ever since his recovery from the near-death experience at Mount Everest in 2018. Since he had still not fully recuperated, he knew he had to wait until his next adventures midst the mighty mountains. Compared to his experiences in mountains, the thought of running 500 kms had already gotten his adrenaline rushing to the extent that no amount of blockades could change his mind. Thus, despite being informed that cars, rooms, and food facilities will not be readily available, Mr. Bhatti could not be convinced to drop the idea. His allegiance to the idea, however, dispelled the doubts of those who had opted to partially sponsor Mr. Bhatti and his team in terms of logistics. Unfortunately, the support could not go a long way, because while Mr. Bhatti could run at an altitude of 4693m, cars could not reach that point. Lack of support is nothing for a man who has dangled between life and death amidst a death zone on Everest. Thus began the adventure of Lt Col Abdul Dr. Jabbar Bhatti (R), on December 22, 2020; his eyes so focused on his goal that the enormity of adversities appeared trivial to his peripheral vision. 
The mountaineer – now an ultra-marathon runner – started with a team of fifteen athletes, who witnessed their first challenge in the form of extreme weather at -23°C, with snow covering over 200 kms of the path. On the first day, the team deliberately covered 50kms to warm-up. That day, their running feet didn’t leave the snow for a minute. The next day, the 70 kms run provided little ground to run without having to dig in the snow. The rest of the days brought a similar discomfort of running in the snow at repeated intervals, with only four days in which the runners did not have to run on snow at all. Added to this was the wind-chill effect, exacerbating as the runners’ warm gear produced unmanageable sweat at an ungodly temperature of -23°C. The running experience made the bodies susceptible to hypothermia and frostbite. Yet, the Everest climber demonstrated his Everest-sized will, making him one of the only two athletes who reached the finishing line in eight days. 
After reaching Gilgit, the challenge grew in magnitude because the support of Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Department only reached this point. Gilgit onwards, the logistic support grew to a bare minimum, leading the group of adventurers to spend a night on the roadside. However, this did not waver the high-spiritedness of Mr. Bhatti even when coupled with a night spent in a room without any heating arrangements. There were no room arrangements in Chilas and Jaglot, causing the runners to shorten their rest time, which was already being kept at a minimum to ensure the completion of the challenge. Adamant not to take more than eight days to effectuate Mr. Bhatti’s goal, they only considered their time-out at Hunza which was inevitable owing to an ongoing event arranged by the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan. While the adventurers got a time-out, the last day of the expedition got extremely hectic, leading the runners to run for 80 kms. Even as the goal closed in, and weather conditions started improving, the challenges showed no mercy. The weather fluctuation meant that the runners had to relieve themselves of the warmer gear and wear it again as the weather changed. In other words, the discomfort that accompanied the wind chills at -23°C was not the only challenge. The two runners who made it to the finish line at Dassu, on 29th of December, 2020, were not merely people who ran, they were heroes, with Mr. Abdul Jabbar Bhatti being sixty-three years of age, who ran despite all the challenges.

When asked about his experience of running as compared to his mountaineering experience, he stated, “It was not challenging for me. In fact, it was nothing compared to the peaks I have climbed and the challenges I have endured. Mountains bring all sorts of threats and hazards. You are dangling between life and death, never sure of whether you are returning home or if this is it for you. Still, the challenging weather, scarcity of food, and lack of logistical support turned it into a challenge. No matter what, I had to do it so I carried on despite everything”. His steadfastness is to be admired, for he intends to bring more accolades to Pakistan. “In my immediate wish list” he asserted, “is my plan to do what I’d call ‘the ultra-ultra-marathon’ alone in the more challenging Northern Areas. I will plan this ultra-ultra-marathon at the highest start point and the highest endpoint”. Indeed, if he has borrowed something from the mountains, it is his perseverance, resilience and his relentless enthusiasm to do the undoable. One sees a mountain of persistence in him, which has already brought him many feathers in his cap. Yet, he is resolved to bring more, and might even do it with minimum financial and logistical support as became the case in his running expedition. Although, primarily Mr. Abdul Jabbar Bhatti had been given no hopes of financial support for his 500 kms running expedition, he expressed his gratitude to Bestway Cement and Ibex Club for reimbursing a part of his finances that went into this expedition. He was also grateful to the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan and Force Command Northern Areas (FCNA) for the logistical support that they managed to provide. However, a major part of his sport adventure was commissioned by himself. His next goal is to climb the highest mountains of every continent, out of which he has already climbed three, the last two completely reliant on his own pocket. Undoubtedly, his perseverance is to be applauded, for none could have found ways to accomplish a goal of running 500 kms with so many hurdles at the very onset of things. Yet, this is the man who has survived the no-oxygen zone at Everest, and deems the running challenge to be trivial in the face of the adversities of his last climb. 

The writer is an MPhil graduate in English Literature, currently working as a Visiting Lecturer in National University of Modern Languages (NUML) and Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto Institute of Sciences and Technology (SZABIST), Islamabad.
E-mail: [email protected]

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