Somewhere around the 4,000-ft. mark, funny things start happening to your eyes. Spots seem to appear on the extreme edge of your field of vision. Loose, basketball-sized boulders on the trail seem to move as you try to step around them. But this isn't a pleasure stroll in which you can stop to admire the view and catch your breath.
This is a mercy mission. And while it may be a physical challenge for a soft, city-living correspondent, to the men and mules of the 72nd Animal Transport Battalion of the Pakistan Army, it's a day at the office. What really bothered me is that none of them even broke a sweat. And while I could hear my heart pounding in my ears, at the 5,000-ft. mark they broke into song ... and kept climbing.
There are areas in the earthquake zone that are simply inaccessible by any other means. High up in the mountains there are villages to which no roads lead — or if there were roads, those roads are gone. Even single-file tracks have been obliterated by landslides. And in those villages — or what's left of them — there are severely injured people. And hungry people. And people without shelter. And winter is coming.
Some of these places are way up there, above 5,000, 7,000, even 9,000 feet. Some cling so precariously to the steep pitched mountainsides there is no place a helicopter could land. Mule trains are the only way.
So every day at dawn the soldiers of the 72nd A.T. stack sacks of flour, sugar, tea and pile tins of cooking oil on the backs of their mules and start the climb. Several hours and several thousand vertical feet later, they off-load these supplies in the villages and head back down. Then they do it again.
Often the trail they took yesterday isn't there today, covered over with new rock slides. With their hands, the mule handlers heave boulders out of the way to clear a new path. You can hear the shifted rocks cracking for what seems like miles as they smack their way down the slopes below.
The animal transport battalions of the Pakistan Army have a long, proud history. In the decades of hostility between Pakistan and India over the disputed province of Kashmir, the mule trains were the only means of fortifying the high Himalayan passes. They'd carry heavy guns and shells into areas unreachable with normal military transport. Sometimes, if the area was considered too dangerous for humans, the mules would be sent along the trails alone.
You may have heard about stubborn mules. These aren't. The train I was with had to climb up 60-degree, loose-boulder fields, had to wade through angry, roiling, rocky streams, had to stagger through slides of shifting shale and never once did an animal refuse. And always up and up and up. The Energizer people should have picked these mules -- not some bunny.
The Pakistani government is trying to convince the quake survivors in the villages to come down to the valleys where aid is more easily distributed. But the major towns, all of them severely damaged by the quake, are already thronged with displaced people from the hills, not to mention their own surviving populations.
Many of the tent cities that have formed are little more than squalid camps with no running water or sanitation. Disease warnings are already being issued by world health authorities.
"I'd rather die up here," is a phrase I heard more than once in the mountain villages.
The problem is, in a word, winter. Sometime in the middle of next month it will set in with a vengeance. Temperatures, already freezing at night will drop and stay dropped. Blizzards will whip up snow drifts ten feet deep. The tents the mule trains are carrying seem inadequate. Yet large portions of the village populations see a winter in the hills as a lesser evil than the threat and crowding of the towns. Some are building crude lean-tos out of scavenged material from the demolished buildings. But even then, they say, they'll have to shovel snow off the roofs night and day to keep them from caving in.
In the village of Sat Bani, our destination, 60 people were killed in the quake. Not a single building is standing. Several hundred souls — some survivors from Sat Bani, some who have come from villages even higher up — wait. The mule trains arrive every few days trying to bring up enough supplies to last through the winter but everybody knows when the snows come in a few weeks, even the mules won't be able to get through.
We leave the village a while after the mule train has departed. They don't dally to talk to people. One of the villagers insists on escorting us down the tricky passage just below the settlement so we don't get lost. As we part he shakes our hands and offers some advice. "Be careful," he says. "These mountains are very dangerous."
By Mark Phillips