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  • Writer's pictureBarry Hampshire

Karakorum Escapades

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

In 1979, I waited for a flight from Rawalpindi in central Pakistan to Gilgit in the Northwestern Territories with a small tour group. Our guide told us this flight was one of the most frequently canceled flights in the world. Our turboprop plane had to cross a Himalayan pass. The narrow pass was at 22,000 feet and the plane's ceiling was 23,000 feet. Often violent storms hit the pass, which led to the cancellation of about two-thirds of the daily scheduled flights.

Our flight crossed the pass with some fascinating views of icy cliffs and snowfields, which I felt I could lean over and touch.

A week later, we were scheduled for the return flight. However, the weather had deteriorated, so we were not surprised our flight was canceled. When the following day's flight was also canceled, our guide became concerned as the first flights when they resumed might be overbooked. We had a party of a dozen trying to get on a plane that held only 36 seats.

Our guide decided to commandeer the daily bus to Rawalpindi. Being a government official, he told all the locals he needed the bus, and they were sent home to await the following day's bus.

As we drove out of the bus terminal, rain poured down and thunder claps echoed off the valley walls. We were told the bus ride may take between 20 and 24 hours.

We joined the Karakorum Highway, an engineering feat that had reached Gilgit in the late 1960s. We realized our driver intended making the trip to Rawalpindi in record time as he sent the rear of the bus sliding around hairpin bends on the saturated and muddy road. We passengers tried to not look down the incredible drops as our driver struggled to control the bus. Pleas to slow down by some in the group were met with a derisive glare.

After about three hours, we stopped at the end of a line of cars on the road. Our guide walked down the road and returned about 10 minutes later. "Looks like the storm has caused a rock and mud slide, which has closed the road. We should wait to see if the army can send out a bulldozer to clear the slide."

We grabbed our day packs that we had with us and walked down to the front of the line of cars. Mud and small rocks covered about a hundred yards of the road. A couple of larger boulders lay scattered among the chaos. As the rain had stopped, a group of local truck drivers gathered nearby, they sat on their haunches, smoking and talking.

A couple of our group ventured out on the slide. When they returned, they said, "We reckon we can clear a pathway along the edge of the road for traffic. There may be a couple of boulders that will take some persuasion. Let's give it a try."

Our guide was not too encouraging but watched as we headed out and started lobbing rocks and branches over the cliff. We found a level of satisfaction watching small boulders bouncing down a thousand-foot drop to a river, meandering its way through a line of trees.

One of our group suggested, "Let's cheer when any of our rocks reaches the trees." We did so and realized the truck drivers then stood and watched intently. A small group of us leveraged a boulder to the edge. We gave it a final push and that rock had a final and spectacular drop, which caused us and the truckers to cheer. They rushed out onto the rock debris on the road. Their enthusiasm to hurl the rocks was equaled by their utter disregard for the direction of their throw or if anyone was in the way. Thankfully, 20 minutes later, nobody had been injured, and we had cleared a path. The flow of traffic resumed.

We noticed after another hour the country was not quite as mountainous and the rain had lessened to sporadic showers. We hoped the possibilities for more rock slides was behind us. But luck was not with us. We found a second slide had closed the road again, and we found no way to clear it.

Our guide told our driver to turn around and take us back to Gilgit. We would wait until we managed to get on a flight. The bus driver won our admiration with his maneuvering the bus as he turned it around on a road, which was as wide as the bus was long. After another hour, we drove back through the cleared pathway alongside the first slide. We were on the home stretch, heading back to our hotel and a good night's sleep.

After several more hours, we followed three cars up the winding highway. Unexpectedly, they stopped and we did too. A lake, about 50 yards long occupied the entire road behind a dam of mud and rock. The water by the dam had to be over three feet deep. With the camber of the road and a stream feeding the lake, we knew we were stuck. A slide in front of us and one a number of miles behind us.

We looked despondently at the problem as light began to fade. We had been on the road for well over eight hours, and we were far closer to Gilgit than Rawalpindi. All of us had brought a few snacks for the trip and those supplies had been consumed. We would not be eating dinner that evening. When dusk fell, our guide stood at the front of the bus and said, "As it will soon be dark outside, I think you all should take a few moments to find a rock nearby to relieve yourselves. If anyone needs to relieve themselves after it's dark, they need to take three others with them to keep an eye out."

One of the group asked, "Why? What's to be afraid of? We're in the middle of nowhere."

"Yes. It may appear that way. But, I can assure you there are eyes keeping a close watch on this bus, waiting for someone to get off, on their own."

"Who's out there?"

"This area is thick with brigands and thieves. They have knives and a few carry guns."

A surreal night ensued. The iron framed seats with a lack of padding made sleeping near impossible, which left us hours trying to ignore the pressure building in our bladders. I have never been so pleased to see the first light of a new day. In spite of the light, we all stayed very close to the bus while we released the pressure.

We sat, wondering how we could entertain ourselves for the day. Meanwhile, our driver took a walk up to the dam. He returned several minutes later with a smile on his face. He talked to our guide who was alarmed by what he heard. Apparently, the driver reckoned he would be able to get the bus over the dam and through the lake. He pulled out of the line of cars and prepared to back down the road.

When the guide told our group, we stopped the driver and rushed up onto the bus's roof to retrieve all of our luggage from under a tarpaulin on the luggage rack. Our driver backed his bus about fifty yards down the grade. Our group scattered around the dam, hoping to take a photograph of the triumphant charge across the obstacles or witness the disastrous result of some rash thinking.

The driver gunned his engine and hurtled up the road. He went over the dam with the front wheels, but as soon as they disappeared into the lake, the show was over. There, the bus sat with its rear wheels dry on top of the dam and its front fender, grill and engine compartment submerged underwater. It would take a long time and several bulldozers to clear the resulting mess off the road.

After some discussion, I and another from the group started walking up the road, guessing Gilgit may be about 20 miles away. We hoped to meet that day's bus and to make sure it came all the way to the lake to pick up everyone. We covered a couple of miles before the road swung around to the right, giving us a view, which had been hidden behind a ridge. About ten miles away stood a solitary mountain. I was blown away. Nanga Parbat was one of the most spectacular peaks in the world. I checked my camera, I had two shots on my last roll of film.

After a couple of more miles, we met the bus. But the driver ignored our waving at him to stop. He carried on, I hoped he continued to the lake and met our guide and the group. An hour later, they all pulled up alongside us and welcomed us to a packed bus, our group as well as the locals who had failed for the second day to reach Rawalpindi on the bus.

We arrived back at the hotel in time for lunch. Our guide did some legwork during the afternoon. When the next morning came, the weather was spectacular and bright, and we were on the next flight back to Rawalpindi.


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