Kamal looks at me and simply says “ we need to leave now”. He’s our expedition support car driver and about as good as it gets in the business. He’s a stoic figure and regularly leads overlanding trips through this harsh and remote landscape. Kamal speaks with a slow and deliberate tone. Though we’ve just met, I completely trust his judgment. If we don’t get over the high passes before the snows come, our expedition’s stopped before it’s even started. We’ve been watching the snowline…it’s dropping like a rock. Time to get the hell of out Leh…
72 HOURS EARLIER. Things are finally starting to return to normal – planes are landing again, the highway’s re-opened, power is back, and telephone landlines are operational. People are on the move again. Given that internet cables run through Srinagar, no wifi’s been restored yet and I’m betting it’ll be awhile given the chaos there. It’s been tense watching the epic natural disaster unfold just to the west. Kashmir/Jammu have been hit by the most extreme weather seen in over 50 years. After five steady days of monsoon rain, Kashmir and large areas of Pakistan are submerged – with Srinagar reporting 18-foot high water levels in the city. Roads and bridges were washed away and entire villages erased from the map. Sadly, hundreds are dead and tens of thousands are being haphazardly evacuated by the Army….it’s devastating. Its going to be a huge rebuilding effort to restore the lives and livelihoods of everyone there.
Luckily for us, flights are back on track after a week of no-landings in Leh. Our cameraman, Par, was stuck cooling his heels in Delhi for 5 days. Pia and I decided to roll the dice and buy him a new ticket (your hope of getting rescheduled on a standby flight out of Delhi is about as good as winning the lottery). The expedition gods smiled on us and Par arrived in Leh on the second day flights were resumed. Kamal arrived 24 hours later after driving three days up the re-opened highway to Leh from Manali. I’m surprised to feel my mood take a distinct upswing, knowing I’ve got a team with me now.
Despite itching to get on the road after the delay, I enforce team discipline and hold Par to an acclimatization schedule. I know that working at high altitude without acclimatizing his body would jeopardize Par’s health and our whole mission. Filming on the north side of Everest in ’07, I watched acute mountain sickness take down 4/5 of our crew in a short period of time. That said, worry is quietly creeping into my mind about the unpredictable weather, the passes, and timing. I’m secretly losing confidence in my original schedule planning.
After a few days, Par seems reasonably adjusted. We do our best to shoot establishing shots of Leh, grab some pick-up footage of me on the lower Zanskar, and make preparations for the overland journey.
I’m not sad to leave, though I don’t know if or when I’ll be back. Leh – this ancient stop on the Old Silk Road – is being rapidly propelled into the limelight of mass tourism. With 1.3 billion mouths to feed in India, tourism revenue is valuable and conservation does not appear to be a high priority. We’ve met many passionate Indians traveling in Ladakh who are genuinely concerned about the state of their nation, but none have confidence in their government’s ability to support or implement a sustainable development plan for the region. It seems to me that we need to find solutions quickly or Mother Nature will just take the whole bloody choice out of our hands…she’s certainly teaching some harsh lessons as of late.
I pack the last of my gear onto the bike. The clouds lift as i’m driving into town with Kamal to pick up final supplies. The snow line has dropped significantly in the last few days and I feel pissed…which usually means I’m nervous. Kamal wants me to consider buying chains for the motorcycle to get over the 17,500-foot high TagLang La pass. The conversation doesn’t ease my mind. Regardless…ready or not..we’re leaving at dawn…