by Matt Benoit
At 28, 251 feet, K2 is the world’s second tallest mountain, jutting upward into the sky like a snowy diamond in the Karakorum Range of northeastern Pakistan. While many people will never venture to this desolate and rugged place to see K2 with their own eyes, Whatcom Community College student Sami Ullah has witnessed its beauty in-person numerous times.
“K2 is the most dangerous peak to climb but, on the other hand, the most magnificent and the most beautiful mountain to see,” says Ullah, 30, who hails from Hunza, Pakistan. “You can’t stop looking at it when you go near it.”
Staying in the United States since last August and working on a hospitality and tourism degree at Whatcom via a Community College Initiative Grant from the U.S. Department of State, Ullah is familiar with K2 because of his past experiences as a tour guide, taking groups of both trekking tourists and daring climbers to the K2 base camp over 30 times.
“Hunza is one of the places where tourists [are] very much attracted,” says Ullah of the valley located in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan, which is famous for its lively culture and being at the junction point of three of the greatest mountain ranges in the world—the Karakorum, Hindu-Kush, and Himalaya ranges.
“I live in Pakistan’s Bellingham,” Ullah says, drawing a comparison to Bellingham’s close proximity to the Canadian border. His interest in a tourism career began when he was still in school, seeing many tourists—especially European and American ones—coming to his home region.
“I used to say, ‘oh, well, this is the field to go in,’” he says of tourism, adding that it was a field in which both respect and good pay were available. After graduating from college, Ullah became an assistant tour guide in 1998 and after a year of learning the basics of dealing with tour groups, he obtained his guide license.
The next step was adventure tourism.
Over the years, Ullah has done many things, leading wild treks into some of the most well-known parts of Pakistan, as well as visiting all of the major historical sites in the country.
“It’s an interesting country,” he says, “having a variety of tourist attractions, right from history to mountains, deserts to sea.”
And then there’s K2.
Ullah says the journey to get to the K2 base camp and back is a long one, and in total can take up to 25 days and involve planes, jeep rides, and finally, hikes that take up to nine days.
Between the two types of groups he would take to the K2 base camp—leisurely tourist trekkers and expeditionary climbers attempting to summit the mountain, he enjoyed the tourist groups more because they take their time, and also tend to be more normal and well-educated. He says he’s had very few people he’s considered bad tourists.
“You enjoy talking to them,” he says. “You enjoy sitting with them, sharing your ideas, learning from them, telling something about your country. In trekking—lot more leisure. In expedition—lot more work.”
Whichever the group, Ullah says their reactions to seeing K2 can be quite dramatic.
“I’ve seen hundreds of people weeping…when they get to K2,” he says. “I’ve seen so many emotions up there.”
After being a guide for a number of years, Ullah took an office job in 2006, dealing with many international travelling agents. As a tourism professional, he says, one needs to understand all aspects of the business—not just how to handle tour groups, but how to attract them into coming to visit that country.
When Ullah goes back to Pakistan with his new degree, he says he hopes to start his own business.
But even when working in an office, Ullah would still do occasional guide trips. And he enjoys it.
“You’re the boss,” he says of being a guide. “You control more than 200 people at the same time. That’s the most risky job I have ever enjoyed. I almost like, and love, taking risks. Once you go out in the mountains—in the wild mountains—where you do not have any, any, any contact with rest of the world, you really enjoy it. No cell phones, no satellite phones, or no Internet.”
And being a guide, Ullah says, is not just about being a tour guide. It is also about being a cultural ambassador for one’s country.
“When you come to my country—if I’m your guide—you’ll definitely be trusting me, what I tell you.” As a tourist, he adds, you won’t be asking questions of government officials, but rather him.
“So, I tend to be professional, I tend to be loyal, I tend to be knowledgeable…so that I could answer your questions, right? I could treat you well. I could tell you about my country, I could tell you about my culture.”
In addition to studying in the U.S., Ullah also enjoys traveling, and spent the winter break on the East Coast, visiting seven states and several cities, including New York and Washington D.C. He says the differences between the west and east coasts are “totally different.”
“This is more calm, cool, green, easy-going,” he says of Washington State. “But [on the East Coast] you see the real cosmopolitan [culture], especially in New York.”
When Ullah does return to Pakistan, he will be reunited with his family—his wife of three years, and his nine-month-old son. Although he has only been able to see them via Skype in the months he’s been abroad, he says it’s not that big a deal because both sides of his family are able to take care of them.
“I’m a strong guy,” he says of not being with his family. “When I think that ‘I have to do this,’ then I don’t look back.”