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					    T h e i n d u S a n d i T S h u n z a a n d g i l g i T T r i B u Ta r i e S , n o r T h e r n Pa k i S Ta n

                               riVers oF sUrprise
                                              Te x t b y Jo hn yo st
                                       P hot og r a phy b y mik e Sp ea k s

           “Beautiful basalt gorges, dripping green moss waterfalls, serene stretches
           of relaxing water, hot springs, and lots of fascinating people made real the
           visions of Shangri-la that had brought earlier explorers to this region.”
                                                                                          —John Yost

R    akaposhi. Hunza. Karakoram. Nanga
     Parbat. Gilgit. Indus. Ultar. Hopar, His-
                                                                 first Indus attempt, several other rivers pro-
                                                                 posed themselves as candidates for exploration.
par and Batura . . .                                             Their names did not have the awesome ring
   These are magic names for trekkers and                        of the Indus though. A return bout was what
climbers, magnets that year after year draw                      we really wanted, so our attentions focused on
the best from around the world to meet their                     using the Hunza and Gilgit rivers as avenues
challenges. For river runners though, northern                   to the main event. One year later I was back as
Pakistan remained untested. The challenges                       leader of another Sobek-sponsored explorato-
had not been met.                                                ry, tackling a 250-mile stretch of whitewater
   I first felt the pull of the Indus and its tribu-             from Baltit on the Hunza River to Thakot on
taries several years ago, but not until the fall                 the Indus.
of 1979 was the last barrier hurdled and the                        With the benefit of experience and plenty
Indus River reached. I was a participant on                      of stateside prep time, the last-minute details
an expedition organized by Sobek Expeditions                     in Rawalpindi fell neatly into place. Permits,
[now Mountain Travel Sobek]. We had decided                      food, equipment, road transport, flights, pass-
to meet the Indus head-on, to attempt to navi-                   port registration, and schedules presented few
gate the toughest section of the river that we                   problems. Then I was on board a flight to Gilgit
knew of. The effort was noble, but the river was                 with the group, glad to be on the way, and won-
king. The Indus whipped us, intimidating and                     dering why I should be happy to return after
overwhelming us into portages, lining, cap-                      the intimidation of the previous year.
sizes, general defeat. And it whetted our ap-                       My boarding card said 7B, but 7A was the
petites for more.                                                window, so I slid over one seat. A flight through
   In our travels around Pakistan after the                      the Himalayas and Karakorams deserves that.

From the air, the hunza looked eminently runnable, but the group quickly learned to reevaluate size
and distance on the strong, cold, glacial river in the vastness of this ancient land.

We skimmed north from Rawalpindi over farm-                            thought that the dangers I would face in Paki-
checkered plains and into the mountains. As                            stan would be from the river! I cursed to my-
we rose, the vanguard of the lowland monsoon                           self and questioned both my destination and
clouds pinched us down into the peaks. Freshly                         the frightening vehicle taking me there. Some
powdered jagged rock promontories stretched                            ironic god chose that moment to answer both
toward our small plane. I began to regret the                          queries. The plane crested a high ridge and
window: cloud-obscured vistas clearing sudden-                         dropped into a valley, and a tormented white-
ly to reveal rock walls a few feet from the wings                      striped snake held captive by steep rock walls
tend to make me nervous.                                               appeared far below. The Indus was breaking
   The plane vibrated and twisted, seeking                             free of the montane plateau, unleashing its full
a clear path through the clouds. The talk on                           fury, raging and boiling for a hundred miles
the plane was of accidents in similar condi-                           through a deep canyon. The river’s call was
tions, and of the possibility of having to turn                        clear in my ears.
around if the weather became worse. And I had                              Fortunately the section of river I glimpsed

          T h e i n d u S a n d i T S h u n z a a n d g i l g i T T r i B u Ta r i e S , n o r T h e r n Pa k i S Ta n
from my window was not to be our adversary.               avoiding the river’s pratfalls. Mistakes could
We had tried it the year before, and knew that            have led to severe problems, but because we
it was beyond the pale. Our brief scouting of the         were proceeding with caution and rowing well,
stretches of the Hunza, Gilgit, and Indus that            the trip was uneventful.
we were planning to raft this time was compara-              Waking to the sight of Rakaposhi’s 25,500
tively reassuring, revealing a difficult but sane         feet glistening in the early morning sun just
river run. This time we expected to handle the            miles away can the make the uneventful spe-
rivers instead of being manipulated by them.              cial. To be working our way downstream, deal-
   The Hunza was first on the agenda. We ex-              ing with another river not so different from so
pected a small, fast-dropping river, rocky but            many others, and to round a bend and stare
runnable. First views of the river on the way             into the throat of a glacier or up a peak some
to our put-in confirmed this, and even as we              four vertical miles overhead, or to startle an
unloaded our equipment and began organizing               idling local, or to float by a mountain hamlet—
and rigging, the river next to us looked small.           Surprise! This is Pakistan! We had not come
The scale of the landscape held some surprises            thousands of miles just for whitewater.
though, and when a 70-foot safety line I was                 The third day brought a portage and some
testing went only a quarter of the way across             excitement. The time on the river was a little
the river, some quick reevaluation followed.              tougher, with boats filling with water and a
Crystal-clear air and 20,000-foot peaks had               near flip. We portaged to avoid a double rapid,
tricked our senses into a scaling-down of ev-             which was conceivably runnable in two sepa-
erything we saw. It required effort to put the            rate sections, but which held enormous, per-
river in its proper perspective. After we made            manent penalties that dissuaded us from the
the effort, holes, waves, and current grew. The           water route. We covered all of three kilometers
Hunza looked a whole lot more exciting.                   that day. Things were bogging down.
   The focus on the river grew even clearer                  The Hunza itself is cold and glacial, dingy
when we launched our three Avon Profession-               gray and deceptively strong. The landscapes are
als and headed downstream. The current was                stark earth tones, brown, gray, black, streaked
swift, the rapids difficult, and the penalties            with ocher and alabaster. Looming snow-dap-
high. Potential wrap rocks, flip holes, and tight         pled peaks and refreshing oases of green save
maneuvers were everywhere. The Hunza was                  the views from grandiose sameness. The banks
a time-consuming river, the rapids demanding              are embellished with fruit trees, willows, pop-
more scouting than actual river time. Although            lars, maize, and vegetable fields wherever water
for the oarsmen the rowing was exciting, for ev-          seeps down from the snowfields. The area is a
eryone else in the boats things were a bit dull.          high-altitude desert, receiving only four inches
For two days we cheated everything, skimming              of rain a year, so the land is dry and bleak where
along the shore, catching little bridges between          there is no seepage. Chilly mornings give way to
holes, ducking behind rocks, and generally                warm days. In the afternoon the high peaks of-

                                           riverS oF SurPriSe
ten gather a cloud cover, the winds come up and                             On the Gilgit, a tributary to the Indus and
it is shiveringly cold on the river.                                    milder than the Hunza, we sight-ran, did some
   Short river days, monotonous scenery, and                            short scouts, and had fun. There was big stuff
careful river running were beginning to lull us.                        out there, but we handled it with no more than
The runs got a little sloppier, a little more dar-                      some minor problems hardly worth counting.
ing. The Hunza lay back and waited to surprise                          After lunch we scouted a one-obstacle rapid
us. Instead we surprised ourselves. The miles                           with a turbulent entry, a huge pour-over rock
began to flow by. By the end of the fifth day                           covering virtually all of the river. We tried to
we were camped at the confluence of the Gilgit                          sneak left around the rock, a delicate move
and the Hunza, ready to tackle leg two of the                           down a five-foot-wide channel and in behind a
journey.                                                                rock by the shore. I volunteered to go first, and
                                                                        as I drifted into the rapid I realized that my

                        p                                               scouting had been a bit perfunctory. The ap-
                                                                        proach moves down the far left did not look so
   The turquoise Gilgit was enfolded by the                             simple now. After taking a couple of small drops
gray swirls of the Hunza, the sun sank behind                           I was forced to make a quick decision, whether
distant peaks in a fiery display of its glory, al-                      to run through a hole just above the pour-over
penglow turned the mountain snows phospho-                              or to take its right corner then cut back to the
rescent, and the sand cushioned and warmed                              left of the rock. I settled on the latter, mistak-
us. A perfect evening. When a glowing, undu-                            enly. Unable to get back left, I caught the edge
lating caterpillar of enormous dimensions ap-                           of the pour-over, dropped five feet into a keeper
peared in the darkening a mile back up the                              hydraulic, and stayed there.
Hunza, it hardly seemed out of place. When                                  The boat had not flipped, but was being
the caterpillar metamorphosed into a vast                               sucked down, thrashed and roundly abused.
torchlight procession winding its way into the                          We high-sided, shifted our weight, pulled at the
hills, we began to wonder. And when, well af-                           oars. On shore a safety throw line was hurled
ter dark, the pinpoints of light showered down                          toward us, but missed. Then, as we appeared
the hillsides in a meteoric display, our surprise                       to pull free, the water decided to finish with
and enjoyment gave way to curiosity. The ex-                            us. The upstream tube sank from sight, and we
planation of the pyrotechnic fantasy was wor-                           were over. The usual postflip adrenaline was
thy of the awe it had evoked in us: this was a                          increased by the sight of the upside-down boat
celebration of the Aga Khan’s birthday!                                 still sloshing around in the hydraulic. We began
   The Aga Khan? Yes, the people of the Hunza                           to formulate wild ideas on how we could attach
Valley regard the Aga Khan as their spiritual                           something to the boat to pull it out. Fortunate-
leader, maintaining their own separate sect of                          ly, the river saved us that trouble by deciding
Islam. October 20 is one of their principal festival                    to spit the poor Pro back out. These Pakistani
days, with a traditional torchlight procession.                         rivers never seemed to do the expected.

           T h e i n d u S a n d i T S h u n z a a n d g i l g i T T r i B u Ta r i e S , n o r T h e r n Pa k i S Ta n
arriving at the confluence of the Gilgit and indus rivers marks a rite of passage for this expedition and
for all paddlers who have witnessed the majestic panorama.

   The Gilgit did not molest us any further,              of days below the Gilgit-Indus confluence. We
and soon we were on the Indus itself. A couple            knew enough to lend us some assurance, but
of hours of easy river led up to our first taste          too much to allow for confidence. Just below
of the Indus’s power. This river is in scale with         the point at which we had taken out the pre-
the huge landscape around it; it is propor-               vious year was the Raikhot Gorge, a fearsome
tioned to accommodate 4-mile differences in               narrowing of the 40,000 cubic feet per second of
elevation. When its power is demonstrated by              the Indus into a 50-foot-wide space with a drop
a drop, it is intimidating. Ten-foot-deep waves           of many feet over a distance of only a couple
and holes are the rule, and much larger and               of hundred yards. Awesome! We camped at the
totally unforgiving drops are not unusual. Our            old take-out and walked down to the gorge to
boats were completely dwarfed, and any hints              get a glimpse of the water before inalterably
of casualness vanished.                                   committing ourselves to running it.
   We had seen this stretch of river the previ-               What we saw was as expected, except for
ous year when we had ended our trip a couple              one important detail. It looked runnable! We

                                           riverS oF SurPriSe
used a bridge spanning the gorge to scout the                              Once out of the cold water, my leg looked
mess from both sides, and what was there                               bad and felt worse. A murky bruise was al-
looked surprisingly possible.                                          ready appearing all along the shin, and my calf
   Three drops, the first sweeping right to left                       muscle was charley-horsing violently and pain-
in a long series of gargantuan waves, the second                       fully. As soon as I was ready to get back on the
just a set of mammoth wave-holes which no boat                         boat, someone else rowed me across to our pre-
we knew of could survive, and the third a V-wave                       gorge pull-in. In the clear light of day, with the
on the left of the river leading to a madhouse                         reality of rowing the gorge imminent, the run
of turbulence which we all preferred to avoid.                         through Number One looked tougher, the pen-
The possible run involved making a messy, fast,                        alties less thinkable. We looked and thought,
dangerous sneak through some rocks on the left                         thought and looked, finally deciding to por-
of the first drop, negotiating some small holes on                     tage my boat since I was in no kind of rowing
the left side of the second thrasher, then using                       shape anyway. The other two could then think
a downstream ferry right to bust through the                           about the Raikhot Gorge with a safety boat in
side of the V-wave just before its apex and pull                       mind—not much consolation since the recovery
away from the maelstrom. The penalties were                            times between One, Two, and Three were mini-
nightmarish. Number Three was not so bad,                              mal. Eventually we all portaged Number One.
but if on flushing out of the rocks on the left of                     Enough time and activity had allowed my leg
Number One we were unable to make the very                             to return to life, so I rowed.
dicey move to the far left, it was goodbye and off                         There was no way to portage Two and Three.
to the middle of Number Two, a sure and surely                         Sheer gorge walls pinched down to river level. I
unpleasant flip.                                                       started left, and the horrible sensation of being
   After a not-so-sound night’s sleep, we did a                        pushed out into the central disaster area was
quick scout of a large rapid down by our camp                          overwhelming. My boat and both of the others
and headed off to our chosen pull-in above the                         were able to fight the force of the holes push-
gorge, a half mile away. Thirty seconds later I                        ing us off the side of the maw and stay out of
was upside-down underneath my boat, my leg                             trouble. Trying to bail between Two and Three
caught between two rather unyielding objects.                          was an experience unmatched in my then-ten
I wrenched it loose, leaving my shoe behind,                           years of worldwide boating. The force of cur-
pulled myself from under the boat, and managed                         rents underneath the boat was immense, and
to get myself and it to shore. The passengers                          swells, boils, eddies, current lines, and basic
also got quickly ashore. Once again, surprise!                         crazy water bobbed the boat like the proverbial
Having cut behind a hole a split-second sooner                         cork. I fought to keep off the wall, sure that the
than the boat in front of me, I had been swept                         boat would be driven up against it and flipped
right into a rock wall. I couldn’t recover from                        (again). This power in the gentlest water of the
the rebound before the next set of holes, and I                        gorge put the turmoil down the middle on a
was over before even getting to the gorge.                             level beyond comprehension.

          T h e i n d u S a n d i T S h u n z a a n d g i l g i T T r i B u Ta r i e S , n o r T h e r n Pa k i S Ta n
   Number Three went smoothly, as planned.                   One thing he told us did stick however, and
The Indus was not going to get us with the ob-            that was his specific warning about three trouble
vious. We kept on downriver, managing at least            spots. We jokingly labeled his warnings Baig’s
to foul off whatever curves the river threw us,           Book of Biggies, or BBB, our waterproof guide
staying out of trouble. The river was magnifi-            to the Indus. BBB One was the Raikhot Gorge,
cent, everything we had hoped. The whitewa-               thankfully behind us. BBB Two and Three were
ter was huge, heart-stoppingly so, but manage-            somewhere ahead, and the thought of them cap-
able. Nanga Parbat (at 26,660 feet, the world’s           sizing and wrapping a pontoon schooner like the
ninth-highest mountain) stayed in view for a              one he described was discomfiting.
day and a half, its summit four and a half verti-            At least it gave us something to talk about.
cal miles above us.                                       The Book, that is, Mr. Baig’s comments as
   Beautiful basalt gorges, dripping green                translated from his native Urdu into a mixture
moss waterfalls, serene stretches of relax-               of French, German, and English, was a good
ing water, hot springs, and lots of fascinating           source of creative inspiration. Doubts about or
people made real the visions of Shangri-la that           belief in the previous expedition, and specu-
had brought earlier explorers to this region.             lation about BBB Two and Three provided us
Along the way, we met everyone from the local             with a focus other than the Indus itself. When
children to village administrators. We shared             we ran a particularly sticky spot down the left
food, communicated in English and in sign lan-            of an island, requiring hours of scouting and a
guage, and generally appreciated the absurdity            few tricky moves, it seemed as though we had
of our presence on this river in the middle of            found BBB Two and conquered it. Yay, team!
Pakistan.                                                 The location seemed about right from the BBB
   Although we had thought that we would be               description. The problem was trying to look at
the first to attempt this stretch of the Indus,           the rapid from the perspective of a different
just before the trip we had met a gentleman in            water level and a 37-foot boat to decide wheth-
Gilgit, a Mr. Baig, who claimed to have been              er there could really have been a flip there.
with a Czechoslovak expedition a few years                We concluded that the big boat could not have
previously. He described to us something re-              made the same tight cuts we did, would have
sembling a huge 37-foot pontoon raft with                 been forced to the center of the island drop, and
wooden decking, powered by both motor and                 might have flipped. QED., this rapid must be
oars, which would dwarf our puny 15-footers.              BBB Two.
His story was laced with potential problems                  So the real BBB Two caught us by surprise.
that we could face, including a flip and a wrap,          It was ridiculous, impossible, the whole river
and possibly needing a month to do a section              plunging steeply through a series of boat-de-
for which we had allotted ten days. There was             stroying holes before shooting over and around
enough in it to make us believe, and enough               Hotel Rock, an obstruction the size of a two-
strange loose connections to make us doubt.               story townhouse. We portaged, and regained

                                           riverS oF SurPriSe
a measure of humility. After the portage, the                              He pulled on his full wetsuit, double-tied
river calmed down, and we drifted and enjoyed                          everything on his boat, cautioned his pas-
ourselves. We encountered a ferryboat made                             sengers and pushed off. The spot at which he
of sticks lashed to tied-and-inflated cow skins,                       wanted to enter was center-left, a bridge be-
and spent some time rowing these rickety                               tween two long, steep holes. Once on the water
crafts while the local oarsmen experienced the                         he could not find it. A good ten feet right of the
pleasure of paddling with our modern, well-                            slot, he hit the first wave and tipped right over.
designed equipment. A couple of pleasant days                          The benevolent river swept him left around
went by before BBB Three.                                              the rather frightening large waves at the bot-
   This obstacle had been given a place name.                          tom right of the rapid. We recovered the boat
With that information we could talk to the                             and the people cast from the boat, rowed a few
men along the shore to narrow down exactly                             minutes downstream, and our Indus encounter
where this rapid might appear. It was widely                           was over.
compared to Raikhot and other such horrors,                                The fight was a fairer one this time, and we
so we expected the worse. What we got was a                            might even have scored enough to win a round
fairly easy cheat down the left, complete with                         or two, but the judges unanimously agreed that
a choice of possible routes. The middle looked                         the Indus had won the match, but on points
messy, but temptingly runnable. With our                               rather than in a knockout. If I can get a re-
take-out only a mile below in flat-water, the big                      match, I’d be glad to accept it. Not so much for
stuff in the center—our last shot at the power                         the action on the water, but for the magic of the
of the Indus—drew more interest than it nor-                           Pakistani panorama: the Karakoram, Raka-
mally would have. I snuck my boat safely down                          poshi, and Nanga Parbat mountains; the Hopar
the left to allow another boatman in our party                         and Hispar glaciers; and, of course, the rivers
to try the middle with me below to pick up the                         themselves—the Hunza, the Gilgit, the Indus—
pieces in case he got into trouble.                                    now magnets for river runners after all. .

                                            a B o Ut t he C oNt ri B U t or

       John Yost cofounded Sobek Expeditions (now Mountain Travel Sobek), the company that pio-
    neered rafting outside the United States. He has spent almost 40 years exploring rivers around
    the world, and has led or participated in more than 30 first descents of major international rivers,
    including a first descent in Panama in 2008. Continuing his search for firsts, he is currently plan-
    ning a six-continent round-the-world whitewater extravaganza.

          T h e i n d u S a n d i T S h u n z a a n d g i l g i T T r i B u Ta r i e S , n o r T h e r n Pa k i S Ta n

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