Kounsernag lake: A return from death


Five trekkers, on 30 June, 2013, slipped into Kounsernag lake at the height of 12,800 ft in south Kashmir’s Kulgam district and floated on a sheet of ice for three hours. Mohib Khan, Aadil Shah, Aamir Ali, Salman Riyaz and Fahad Hafeez, were rescued from a glacier that split from the land and slid into the waters of the lake. In his own words, Mohib Khan gives us a firsthand account of the events of that day.

“Nai jao, mera dil nai maan raha hai” (Don’t go, my heart is not willing to let you go).  These words echoed in my ears for four and a half hours when I was trapped on a chunk of ice in the middle of Kounsernag Lake.  While I was having tea with my parents at morning of 29 June, 2013, my father said these words to me in his deep, low voice.  I scoffed, and said, “Aap ko toh hamesha yehi kehna hota hai”  (You always have to say these words).

We started our expedition from Aharbal at around 12:30 pm and reached our base camp at 4.45 pm.  It was an easy trek when compared to other trekking expeditions we had been on. We pitched our tents, drank tea, clicked a few pictures, had dinner and slept – oblivious to what was waiting for us the very next day.

We woke up at 7 am, had tea and Lawaas (Kashmiri bread).  Then we headed to the Lake at around 8 am.  During our trek, my friend Aadil Shah and I discussed how easy this route was as compared to the steep slopes we treaded while going to Gangbal and Tarsar Lake.  Aadil kept on saying, “Yaar yeh trek yaad he nai rahega, itna aasaan!”  (There’s nothing memorable about this trek, it’s so easy) and I nodded and another friend, Aamir Ali, seconded it.  And we kept on walking.

Finally at 11:15 am, we were there – the largest alpine lake in Kashmir, surrounded by snow clad mountains and absolutely beautiful.  Magnificient!  There we met Salman Riyaz and Fahad Hafeez, trekkers from a different group.  Fahad was Aadil’s acquaintance, and as they spoke, I found myself engrossed in the surroundings, not paying any attention or saying a word, and gave a nod to both of them… like guys do.  A symbol of hi, hello, yeah and okay.

At 11:30 am, we were on that glacier.  A large glacier in height, width and length, anchored to the lake and to a very big rock.  What could happen? What will happen? None of us thought, none of us could imagine.  We took some pictures, had something to eat and then decided, “It’s time to go back”.  But, was it our time to go back?  No. Not at all.  There was something that was going to happen that none of us in our blissful states could possibly foresee.

Salman was the first to notice that the glacier had drifted from the shore.  I couldn’t believe what was happening.  Another piece of a small glacier was moving and I could have jumped on to it and jumped back on the rock to which the big glacier was anchored.  I would have been safe.  I don’t know why I didn’t. I was looking at it as it passed and although it was drifting away slowly, I couldn’t process what was happening fast enough. I looked back at Aadil and Aamir and screamed at them to come to the edge.

The five of us were stunned to the core, looking at the almost 7-10 feet gap between the glacier and the shore. CHAOS!  We saw the Gujjars (nomads) running towards us and we kept on looking.  How did this happen? Aadil and I thought of diving and swimming back to safety.  “Pehley tu ja” (You, go first), I told Aadil and he said the same to me, “nai tu ja pehley, mai tere peche aunga” (No, you go first, I’ll be right after you).  If it was some other situation, I would have argued.  But this wasn’t any other situation.  This was life or death.  I took off my shoes, pulled off my socks and stocked them in my pockets.  This was easy, I thought.  Seven feet!  I can dive, I can swim.  I can do it.

Seconds passed, minutes passed, and I kept on looking at the freezing waters of the lake, feeling the chill in my numbed feet.  I can still do it.  JUMP! JUMP! JUMP!  My heart or my brain cried, I couldn’t make out which.  But I didn’t, I couldn’t.  When I think of it now, I  still don’t have an answer for why I didn’t jump.  “Mei chuk kalas gasaaan dum aabhe seath” (I suffocate whenever I go in the water), Fahad said.  He wouldn’t jump to the shore.  “Kuch bhe ho, mai jump nai maroonga, mai isi glacier pey rahoonga” (Whatever happens, I will not jump in the water, I’ll stay on the glacier), Salman said.  Maybe I was scared or maybe I was thinking, about the others who refused to jump.  Mostly though, I was too scared.

One of the Gujjars stopped me after I had paused for far too long, assuring me he’ll get a rope.  I put on my shoes again without the socks.  The glacier was drifting away, slowly moving like the hour hand of the clock, away from the shore.  We were 20-30 feet away when the Gujjar returned with the rope.  He threw a small stick at us asking us to pitch it in the snow.  We did exactly that.  And then he threw the rope, but it was short, short by almost half of the length.  They tried to tie their turbans along with the rope, but we were moving away and it never reached us.  No saving us with the rope, we all thought. DESPAIR!

At that time Asjad, a member of Fahad and Salman’s trekking party arrived.  He was stunned just like the rest of us.  HOW did it happen?  We told him to go and contact the police and anyone and everyone who could help us.  At a point on a mountain, the phone catches an Aircel Mobile reception.  He would call whomsoever he would, from that point.  1 hour to that point we thought, 1 hour before anyone will know.  We calculated that we would have to stay on the glacier for at least 2 hours before we would be rescued.  Zaid, a member of our party arrived right after.  He didn’t know what had happened.  He thought we swam to that glacier which was afloat in the lake.  He rushed down and to his horror he realized that we needed help.  He said “Tension nai lo, mai call karunga papa ko” (Don’t worry, I’ll call dad).  And he rushed back.

We are going to die, I thought.  That’s all that I could think about.

“Nai jao, mera dil nai maan raha hai”  (Don’t go, my heart is not willing to let you go).

We had to stay strong though, if we had to survive.  Everyone reassured everyone that it’ll be alright.  We will be saved.  Don’t worry!  We were drifting farther and farther at a fast pace.  “Manz bhag rozev”  (stay in the middle of the glacier), everyone on the shore shouted at us.  The cold wind was blowing and we didn’t have warm clothes.  Just in T-shirts and tracks.  We did Tayammum (dry ablution) and prayed, and on our first prostration the sun shone and we felt warm.  Allah! Thank you Allah!  We prayed to Allah to save us.  It grew cold again and at almost 1.15 pm we prayed Zuhr.  We completed our Zuhr and the sun shone again.  It was happening.  We were praying to him and he was answering us. I hear you!!

Faisal, another member of Fahad and Salman’s party was at the shore.  Fahad and Salman shouted at him, “kahin nai jana”  (Don’t go anywhere).  And he stayed there, right there till the end.

We were talking to each other, trying to divert our minds from what was happening.  Fahad said, have you seen Cast away?  Perfect!  We joked and tried to be strong.  I asked both Fahad and Salman where they lived, where they studied.  Getting to know people on a glacier that is afloat in a lake far away from shore is a great way to make friends! Fahad kept on saying what he’ll do when he’s back and I replied “Agar hum bachey, toh” (“If we survive, then”).  That is the only pessimistic thing I said while I was there.  I told them “Mai toh upar sey akela hu, koi behen, koi bhai nai hai” (I am the only son of my parents, no sister or brother) and they smiled.  I told them what my father had said to me on Saturday morning.

Everyone knew that they had to keep strong, if anyone of us cried or lost even a bit of hope, everyone else would lose hope.  But then the unthinkable happened.  A bit of the glacier that we were on chipped off and fell into the waters with a thud.  It shook the glacier.   I could see the fear that gripped me in that moment on everyone’s face.  We were going to die!  But then it stopped shaking.  And with a long sigh, we gave each other a faint smile.  Not yet, we thought!

We were drifting away and communicating with Faisal and the others on the shore became more and more difficult.  We counted 1,2,3 and everyone shouted “Faisaaaaaal”.  And then again on the count we shouted “kya hua” (What happened), “kitna time” (How much time?).  And he replied “arahey hai, khabar pahunchi hai”  (They are coming, they know what has happened).  One hour more we thought.  One hour more!

Aamir was grim, standing a little distance away from the rest of us looking towards the shore.  I went to him and hugged him and said it’s going to be okay.  It was getting colder and the clouds were rushing in.  Visibility!, everyone thought.  What about visibility for a chopper, if there was one.  Our spirits were dampening.  We tried to keep our cool.  But what if nothing came for us? How could we survive the night?  It will be very cold, icy cold.  No warm clothes.  We will freeze to death.  My father’s words echoed in my ears again.  “Nai jao, mera dil nai maan raha hai”  (Don’t go, my heart is not willing to let you go).  Why did I?

We kept on praying, asking for help to come.  But instead, clouds.  Dark, black clouds accumulating on the far end of the lake.  It was going to rain.  It started thundering.  Fahad asked, “Glacier ko kuch nai hoga na, thunder se”  (Nothing will happen to the glacier due to thunder, will it?).  I didn’t know but I said “No, nothing will happen to it, it’s quite thick, this glacier!”  I was hoping I was right.  I said “The glacier is so thick it will stay like this for 5-6 days, don’t worry.”  Again, I hoped I was right.

Everyone was thirsty.  We were on the glacier for almost 4 hours now.  No help came.  There was pure water everywhere around us, but we didn’t dare go near the edge and drink it.  Our knee joints were almost locked and we tried to move here and there, get our blood flowing.  What will happen to us?  Suddenly, the clouds started to gather all around us.  We couldn’t see the shore.  We prayed for help.  We constantly prayed.  I hadn’t prayed that much in my twenty four and a half years as I did in those four and a half hours.  Will I see my parents and my loved ones again?  We prayed, I prayed, harder.

Then within a blink of an eye it started raining cats and dogs.  We crumbled on a little space on the glacier, right in the middle, trying to keep ourselves from getting wet.  Then it hailed.  The tiny hailstones hitting us.  Salman and me stood close preventing ourselves from the hail and the rain.  No warm clothes, no rescue.  We were going to die.  We will die tonight, I thought.  I will never see my parents and my loved ones ever again.   It will be a painful death.  O Allah save us!  Please!

It rained harder, dampening our spirits.  We will die.  I had never imagined I could possibly die this way.  Aadil asked “Hail sey kuch nai hoga na is glacier ko”  (Nothing will happen to the glacier due to the hailstones, will it?).  Once again, I said “No, nothing will happen, it’s quite thick” without thinking.  I will never see them again.  I will never see anyone again, is all what I was thinking about.  A cloud of emotions running through my mind and I couldn’t react.  It’s how death comes.  Clouds you!

But I kept on praying, asking for help from Allah, as did everyone.  They say there’s calm before a storm.  But in this case, there was calm right after.  The rain stopped, the hail stopped, the clouds passed, the sun shone brighter than ever and right there from the mountain, a chopper flew in.  Aadil shouted something and our eyes locked on to the chopper.  Oh Allah! Is it possible?  Yes it is. We all hugged each other.  I wanted to cry, but I’m a man, how can I cry?  I turned my head and everyone else was crying… Aamir, Aadil, Fahad, Salman and tears rolled down my cheeks.  We were saved!

The chopper scaled the area twice before it landed on the glacier.  We prostrated at that very moment.  Thank you Allah! There was the pilot, another person in a life jacket, and a doctor at the back.  Thumbs up!  4 seats in total. Aadil went first.  We saw the chopper flying away.  We smiled, we laughed and hugged each other over and over again.  And then it hit me, one person at a time.  Who will go last?  Aamir and me decided that Fahad will go when the chopper would come back, followed by Salman.  I told Aamir you can go after Salman but he refused.  He wanted me to go first.  I argued and he argued back and said we shall see.  The chopper returned but now with 2 empty seats.  The doctor at the back had also landed with Aadil.  Aamir and me looked at each other and smiled.  Fahad and Salman boarded the chopper and it flew again.  Aamir and me hugged each other again.  And I mustered whatever was left in me and said “Yaar, bach gaye” (dude, we are saved).  And we both laughed.  The chopper came again.  I told Aamir to go first but he refused again.  I didn’t argue this time and I crawled to the chopper and buckled myself in.  Aamir came right after.   And in a minute we landed on the ground.  I thanked the pilot, the diver and the doctor.  We prayed two rakaah of shukraana.  Everyone surrounded us, the other trekkers, Gujjars.  They took pictures, offered us food.  We were saved.

We were told later, that nobody had been saved in this lake before.  Nobody had gone that far in the lake and come back alive.  Without Allah, it wouldn’t have been possible.  Without Asjad and Zaid, it wouldn’t have been possible.  Without the help of the air force, it wouldn’t have been possible.  Without the people on the shore and their prayers, it wouldn’t have been possible.

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