Survival Guide: Facing a Glacier

Image of a snow leopard and a glacier
Art by Istvan Banyai

Facing a Glacier

Picture of Shafqat Hussain

Shafqat Hussain

National Geographic Emerging Explorer
Expertise: Snow leopard conservationist
Location: Banak La, Pakistan

Photograph by Rebecca Hale

We were on the scent of snow leopards. But first my team and I had to cross a glacier. On the other side was a 16,000-foot Karakoram pass, and beyond that, we suspected, a snow leopard trail. Before setting out, we had asked the locals if we needed crampons or other climbing gear. They assured us we didn’t, so we took only a rope for this walk across the side of a mountain covered in ice. There were also chunks of ice in a crevasse lake below—the air temperature was hovering around 14°F.

The three of us looped the rope around our stomachs to bind ourselves to each other—if one slipped, the others could stop his fall. Our local guide followed, gripping the rope in his hands. If we’d had a longer rope, we could have sent one man across, and the other three could have stabilized him. But our rope was 60 feet, and the ice field was three times that. Midway across, one of us slipped. He could have taken all of us down into the lake but jammed his walking stick in the ice and arrested about ten feet down. We pulled him up and walked on. Already halfway, it was useless to go back. Somehow we made it across.

I later thought how stupid it was to have tied ourselves together. If one had gone all the way down, we all would have. This is one of the most popular mountaineering regions in the world, and trained climbers have suffered worse on the five 8,000-meter peaks that surrounded us. Villagers underestimate these risks, because they don’t have access to equipment anyway. Our guide had figured a way around our recklessness. When I asked why he’d led us up under such treacherous conditions, he said, “That’s why I didn’t tie myself in. I just held on to the rope.” What would he have done if we fell? He replied: “I would have let go.”

Related: Snow Leopards Need to Be Protected ... But How?

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