The place where Osama bin Laden last walked, the hill station of Abbottabad, is also the Gateway to the Silk Route, the ancient trade path to China through the Karakoram Mountains, the deadliest chain of peaks in the world. Due north of Abbottabad runs the deadliest river in the world, running through a cave-pocked canyon: the Indus River.
The Indus rises from a holy peak called Kailas, a symmetrical mountain of quartz and ice in the high plateau of western Tibet. It is cited as the source of wisdom, and as it spills from the jaws of its glacier, it is called the Lion River.
As it leaves Tibet and the rarefied realm where belief overpowers fact, the Indus slices like the blade of a sickle between the Himalayas and the Karakorams, passing into India in the region known as Little Tibet, Ladakh. There it is joined by tributaries from the top of the world, gathering force as it drops 12,000 feet in 350 miles, crossing the northern provinces of India into Pakistan and joining with the Gilgit from the north. The redoubled flow twists through deep canyons to the base of Nanga Parbat, the world's eighth-highest peak; then the Lion finally breaks free of its mountain domain and winds and wanders across the plains of Pakistan, across the Sindh desert, finally depositing its load of silt and glacial dust into the Arabian Sea from its broad delta near Karachi.
Cutting through Tibet, India and Pakistan, slaking the thirst of three major religions -- Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam -- the Lion River has also tempted the explorer's hunger with its promised feast of firsts. Several score have died on the slopes of Nanga Parbat, the 26,660-foot peak that marks the Indus's midpoint. The peak is draped like a coffin with the sobriquet, The Killer Mountain. And the currents of the Indus itself have carried many to the farthest shore.
Early in July 1956 a strange crew converged on the banks of the Indus some 30 miles north of Skardu in the contested Baltistan region, claimed by both India and Pakistan since partition in 1947. One was Lowell Thomas, the journalist and broadcaster; he was with several of his skiing buddies -- two actors and television director Otto Lang. Their reason for being there was a new film technology called Cinerama, which they hoped to boost with a full-length drama, showcasing its best qualities. A short Cinerama production, a roller-coaster ride, had already created quite a stir among audiences who viewed its huge, wrap-around screen and lifelike resolution made possible by its three-lens camera system. Thomas's planned film, Search for Paradise, was to be about two newly retired air force pilots who search the top of the world for a personal Shangri-La, only to return to the States when they discover at last "there's no place like home." The thin plot was an excuse to film some of the most extraordinary scenery on the planet, including a rousing finish with the first-ever raft trip down the Indus.
To run the two inflatable boats for the film, Thomas enlisted the father-son team of Bus and Don Hatch, experts in the whitewater rivers of the western United States. Bus, at 56, was something of a pioneer in river running, having taken commercial passengers floating as far back as 1929, and having made a number of historic first descents in Utah, Colorado and Idaho. His 27-year- old son was brought up in the family tradition, and it was said he could row before he could walk. They were probably the best river rats around at the time; even so, nothing had prepared them for the power and the treachery of the Indus.
They brought with them two rafts: a 27-foot pontoon bridge of the type used on the Colorado, controlled by two Johnson outboard motors mounted on a rear transom, complemented by three sets of oars; and a small assault raft, 16-feet long, manned by a single oarsman. Their first run was a trial, without cameras. Otto Lang, the Hatches, and a crew of four put on the Indus some 30 miles above Skardu and immediately were swept away by the overwhelming current. The Indus was running close to its peak, nearly 100,000 cubic feet per second (by comparison, the Colorado through the Grand Canyon runs about 10,000 cfs). Haystack waves towered as high as the pontoon raft was long. After covering 30 miles in four hours, including an enormous rapid squeezed deep between the walls of the gorge where a portage was impossible, the crew drifted into Skardu, the first to raft any portion of the Lion River.
The thrills notwithstanding, Lang and his crew decided that this stretch was too violent to risk the project's expensive cameras for extended shooting. The operation was moved to the Gilgit River, a major tributary from the north, about 100 miles downstream of Skardu. A comparatively gentle run, with just a fraction of the volume of the Indus, the Gilgit also afforded views of Nanga Parbat wheeling in the background of river shots.
For several days the crew negotiated the Gilgit without mishap, encountering heavy but runnable (and filmable) rapids. The only problems were from the monsoon's clouds, squalls, sandstorms and flash floods. The Gilgit met with the Indus, and the filming drew to a close on July 20. On the final run, before wrapping the production, Jimmy Parker -- one of Lowell Thomas's friends, playing a pilot in the picture -- decided to try the raft for the first time. There were only seven life jackets on the expedition; Jimmy was the eighth person on the water that day.
They pushed off and almost at once came to the first rapid. Don Hatch led the way in the small assault boat, sliding down the tongue and riding into the standing waves of the turbulence below. As the pontoon followed, one of its outboard motors died. Bus couldn't get it started again and lost control as the huge raft slid sideways into a hole. The craft was tossed up and over, capsizing 90 seconds after leaving shore.
Six swimmers struggled to shore through the mad glacial waters. Don Hatch rowed to an outcrop in the smaller raft, having barely taken in any water. The eighth man was missing. The soaked crew ran along the edge of the surging river yelling, searching, looking. A reward of 1,000 rupees was posted for any trace of the lost rafter. It was never collected. Jimmy Parker's body was lost forever in a region some have called paradise.
At the foot of Nanga Parbat, the Rakhiot Bridge crosses the Indus. Carved into one of its stone columns are names of climbers who lost lives trying to conquer The Killer Mountain. Now the traveler crossing the bridge finds not only the names of climbers, but that of Jimmy Parker, first rafting victim of the Indus.
I began working for Hatch River Expeditions as a river guide on the Colorado. I was nineteen. Bus Hatch had died a couple years earlier, and now Don and Ted, his two sons, ran the business. Sometimes late at night, with campfire shadows dancing on the canyon wall, talk would turn to Don's Indus expedition. None of the guides knew the full story, just tidbits dropped by Don at the office, the bar or the put-in. He didn't talk much about it, but enough for the stuff of a legend. "I'd give my right oar to row the Indus," a guide once told me. And whenever I'd screw up a rapid, break a frame, wash a passenger overboard or simply scare myself with a close call, I'd think of the Indus. This is nothing, I'd say to myself. Don ran the Indus -- ten times the size of the Colorado, three times the speed and cold as winter.
This is the first part in a four-part series. Read the second part here.