Excerpt from Headlong: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China, a travel memoir in which I remind my old husband of our crazy adventure in Central Asia. Depending on the kindness of strangers hadn’t been our plan, but it turned into our idea of romance.
When we returned home, a friend gave us a 1954 book called Nanga Parbat: The Killer Mountain. The cover blurb says, “The gripping story of more than fifty years of heroism and tragedy… on the most murderous mountain in the world.” It’s one of those things we should have read before our trip to Pakistan, before we set off that Sunday morning to “have a look.”
Nanga Parbat is 26,660 feet high and anchors the western end of the Himalayas. The ninth highest mountain in the world, it soars higher than the surrounding mountains and presents a seductive challenge. In the early twentieth century, conquering its peak was less a sport than an imperialist frenzy, as Germany set out to prove its national superiority to Britain. Those climbers were arrogant adventurers.
On August 23, 1992, we were not arrogant adventurers; we were merely ill informed. In fact, we had never heard of Nanga Parbat before Mr. Sayad [one of our drivers] pointed it out on our drive north from Rawalpindi.
Najeeb [a friend we made along the way] had been casual about “an overnight at the Fairy Meadows tent camp.” A glance at one of our guidebooks gave an equally bland impression. My brain conjured up the image of a paved parking lot, where luxury coaches stopped to give tourists a picturesque photo op and an evening under the stars.
But remember Najeeb’s first love? His passion? Mountaineering! His father climbed with Reinhold Messner, the first climber to summit Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen, and the first climber to ascend all fourteen peaks over 26,000 feet. While we were thinking “scenic,” Najeeb wanted to treat us to the “sublime,” nature at its most powerful and mysterious.
It hadn’t dawned on us that Najeeb would give us more than we could handle. We were just happy to have a plan.
When we arrived at the Park Hotel in Gilgit, the “base camp” for our Nanga Parbat outing, we were greeted by our new driver Ali and his interpreter (that is, a man who knew ten more words of English than he did). They walked us next door to a kiosk, where we rented sleeping bags…
On Sunday morning, after enjoying our hotel’s delicious meals and hot showers, Ali picked us up. Heading south from Gilgit, I was reminded that Pakistan was not a land of handicap-accessible parks and luxury coach tours. We were back in Indus Kohistan with its bandits and police checkpoints, this time not in an air-conditioned Toyota, but in an open Jeep. Even at an elevation of 4,000 feet, the heat was stifling. Despite the canvas roof, we baked.
After a couple hours we reached the Raikot Bridge over the Indus River and turned east onto the Nanga Parbat road. As I write this, twenty-five years later, I can consult Google maps for distances and names. That morning in 1992, we knew nothing. We had trusted Najeeb and flung ourselves into the unknown.
Where the highway met the mountain road, Ali picked up a hitchhiker — an ancient man whose blue eyes were lined with kohl.
The “fairy meadows” of my mind did not prepare me for this road. To our right and ahead was the mountain, soaring at a breathtaking angle from 4,000 to 26,660 feet. To our left, the roadside dropped into a bottomless canyon, ground out over the eons by the Raikot glacier.
The fact that there was a road at all was a tribute to human ingenuity and patience. An ancient single-file footpath had been gradually widened by stacking stones along the precipice edge and tamping sandy dirt across the surface. Over the centuries, it grew to accommodate herds of sheep and pack animals and now it was exactly the width of the Jeep’s axle.
With the driver on the right, you and I sat on the downhill, chasm side, you in the front (with no door), me in the back with the old man. We couldn’t see any road beneath us, only instant death.
Was our driver worried? Not a bit. He careened happily along, chatting with the old man, lighting cigarettes, turning around to offer the old man a drag. This isn’t a bit safe, I was thinking to myself. What happens if a car comes from the opposite direction? A saner couple might have stopped this daredevil madness, and yet… how could we get past the fact that Ali was so casual? He had such an all-in-a-day’s-work air about him — no white-knuckled look of terror, no suicidal glint in his eyes. So you and I just sat there, eyes darting between the abyss and the road ahead, wishing Ali would stop fiddling with his pack of cigarettes.
Seven miles and forty eternal minutes later, now at an altitude of 7,200 feet by your pocket altimeter, the landscape flattened out a bit. We’d reached the village of Tato. The old man got out and trundled off. Ali consulted with a group of men and boys. Was this our destination?
After some conversation, Ali turned to us. “No more Jeep. We walk. Two hour. Inshallah.”
What?? A two-hour walk… uphill? In this heat? I balked. NOT what I had in mind. Where were the damn Fairy Meadows?
You caught the alarm in my eyes, but only shrugged your shoulders and pretended like you understood what the hell was going on.
Ali gave the men some cash to watch over the jeep, then a boy took my pack and sleeping bag, and we set off up the slope. What else could we do?
After fifteen minutes or so, the boy stopped and handed me back my stuff. More conversation with Ali. Apparently we had a choice: continue on the washed out road or take “the way.” The boy pointed up into the scrubby pine woods. A short-cut, great. But a short-cut to what? Why hadn’t we asked Najeeb more questions?
Ali kindly took my sleeping bag, and clambered up the steep path with you close behind. The boy headed back to the village.
You, with your mountain-goat legs, set an energetic pace. I was strong enough, but my brain kept saying wait a minute, wait a minute. This was supposed to be a sight-seeing thing, not an athletic thing. We were unprepared. I was hot.
Or was I just being a ninny? Fairy Meadows was probably just over the ridge, wasn’t it?
No. It wasn’t. Nor was it over the next ridge or the next ridge or the next ridge.
I began to feel delirious. Why were we here, climbing on the ninth-highest mountain in the world, marching mindlessly upward from 7,200 feet, without knowing where we were going? We tramped through alpine forest, looked over the edge of cliffs, and got a rush of hope every time the path opened into a flowery meadow. Is this it? This must be it!
After about an hour and a half, Ali turned to me, gestured uphill, and said, “I never… this way.”
So I wasn’t crazy. We might actually be lost.
The pace slowed. Our legs were the least of our problems. Blood-oxygen depletion kept our hearts wildly pounding. We needed to stop more and more often just to slow the beating in our chests.
We had each brought a single canteen of water and suffered for it, as we quickly dehydrated in the bright, thin air. Looking at you terrified me because I could see the saliva turning into a foamy white paste on your lips. Flies clustered around our faces.
I had to wonder: Are we going to die? Is this how people get themselves killed — they just keep marching upward till they keel over and die? When do we turn back? When will it be too late to turn back?
Every once in a while we’d come to a cool stand of pine trees and I’d be overwhelmed with the rich aroma of Christmas. Why can’t we stop here?, I’d whisper to no one. I wouldn’t mind spreading out my sleeping bag right here. Right here. No more walking. No more. There is no Fairy Meadow, can’t you see that?
But you stoically marched onward.
Two hours turned into three. As we approached 10,000 feet, my body thought it had run a marathon and hit the wall. We came to a stream — sweet with bubbling clear water. I knew I would drink from it, despite a lifetime of warnings about raw creek water. What the hell could possibly be upstream to pollute it?
“I’m staying here,” I announced to you. “You do what you want.”
You spread your arms, in a gesture of frustration and puzzlement, your eyes full of worry. “Well… you rest here… I’ll see what’s ahead.”
No, I couldn’t rest and let you go on without me, so I forced my feet to move. But now we had lost Ali, who had kept walking during my moment of despair. As we trudged forward, the trail opened into a sunny field that slanted up to another ridge. There were signs of civilization: cows, donkeys… A breeze cooled us. We stood there stupidly… just stood there.
Suddenly, Ali appeared on top of the ridge, followed by a man in a puffy red parka. We shambled up the hill toward them. They held out drinks to us and we slurped the most delicious gulps of orange nectar that the planet had to offer that day. We had arrived at the Fairy Meadows tent camp and the owner had greeted us with cups of Tang.
Beyond the ridge was a small plateau with the view we’d been chasing all day. Nanga Parbat. The details of the snow-covered peak filled our vision. As the crow flies, it was only about a mile away but, by foot, it was a treacherous, avalanche-prone climb only world-class mountaineers could attempt. Its glacier, in summer spate, fed a thunderous river.
We were suddenly cold. Nabi, our host in the red parka, refilled our cups with hot chicken broth and set up our tent, a spunky little dome. Our exhaustion turned to shivers and we dug the windbreakers and insulated vests out of our packs.
The misery of the climb evaporated. If this wasn’t paradise, what was?
We met the other guests, two Austrian men who’d just made a climb on one of the smaller peaks. Meanwhile Nabi killed a chicken, cooked it up in a spicy sauce, and served it with rice and fresh white radish. We dined in Nabi’s kitchen, a makeshift café of pine logs stacked against a house-sized boulder. Afterward, Nabi built a fire outside and we four foreigners sat on benches around it, facing the peak. We watched the glow of the mountain’s sunset and listened to the roar of its melting glaciers.
When the campfire burned out, we saw the stars. Billions of stars enchanted us in the black night, as the air grew icy and our eyelids finally grew heavy. We crawled into our tent, managed to zip our sleeping bags together in the light of our tiny flashlights, and snuggled — two warm souls in a frigid universe. The “killer mountain” nearly got us that day, but here we were, more alive than any other moment in our lives. We didn’t climb its deadly peak but, clearly, we were on top of the world.
At daybreak, we huddled outside our tent, binoculars up, eyes glued to the snow-covered ridge of peaks, as avalanches sprung from nowhere and tumbled down for hundreds of feet, their white-on-white made visible in the slanted morning sun.
Avalanches, falls from ice ledges, slips into crevasses, and just plain freezing to death were the main reasons people died on expeditions here. Prior to our visit, fifty-five climbers had lost their lives pursuing the sport of mountaineering. The first three — Albert Mummery, Ragobir Thapa Ghurka, and Goman Singh Ghurka — had been swept away by an avalanche right where we were watching, on the Raikot Face — on August 24, 1895. Without knowing, we sat staring at avalanches on the ninety-third anniversary of their deaths.
We were walking in the footsteps of strong-willed super-achievers, willing to risk their lives for a view of the world from 26,000 feet. When the Austrian Hermann Buhl summited in 1953, he had gone on alone after his companions had returned to base camp. Fueled by a concoction of stimulant drugs, he made the peak too late to get back and had to bivouac standing upright on a ledge all night long, while holding on for dear life with one hand. Had he shown courage or only an absurd kind of say-yes bravado?
Maybe we were drinking from the same cup of crazy.
In Kashgar, we fancied ourselves on the path of ancient traders, pulled along by the eternal hunt for precious goods. Here on Nanga Parbat, we were still walking the path of desire, of course, but now that desire was inflamed beyond all prudence, beyond the realm of reason.
We knew none of these details at the time, yet understood we were in the presence of something gargantuan. Nature had put up forbidding barriers against trespassing into the high virgin wilderness, but humans insisted on transgressing and paid with their lives.
Observing such forces of nature — and being safe from them — put us in a solemn yet serene mood that morning.
Now, decades later, I checked Google to look at the map of Nanga Parbat and research its mountain-climbing history. It looked like there was more lodging available around Fairy Meadows, so maybe the road has improved. Since the summer of 1992, another fourteen mountaineers have died as a result of their passion for the sport. But in 2013, an international climbing party, camped about 3000 feet uphill from where we stayed, was attacked by a band of self-proclaimed Taliban. Ten were killed and two suffered non-fatal injuries. The murderers claimed loyalty to Osama bin Ladin and were avenging U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan.
My first thought: the world was now a more dangerous place. But that’s an illusion, isn’t it? The world was never “more innocent” and the times were never “simpler.” The wicked complexities just spill out in different locales, at different times, in different forms.
Traveling with you that summer, being able to grab your calmer hand, and follow your bolder footsteps, I began to understand that, to experience the world first-hand, I had to be out there. To have a sublime experience akin to the passion of mountaineers, to sleep in thin air under a canopy of a billion stars, I had to walk on their trails till my heart pounded for oxygen. I had to drink crazy from their canteen, till it was dry and I was willing to fling myself face-first into a wild creek to gulp more. I had to be willing to admit I didn’t have a clue what was over the next ridge, but climb it anyway.