The KPK Rescue

Situated in northwestern Pakistan, the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa contains some gorgeous scenery. Often abbreviated KP or KPK, the province borders Afghanistan and is bisected by the mighty Indus River as it comes down from the Himalayas.

The region is home to one of the most famous mountain passages on the globe, the eponymous Khyber Pass.  The course was part of the Silk Road, winding through the Spīn Ghar, or White Mountains. This strategic land put KPK in the crosshairs of many historical events, as empires coveted the pass to control access and trade to two continents.

River Swat near Fizaghat, KPK - photo by Kashif Ghazi
Beautiful KPK scenery - photo by Muhammad Akram Attari
A road through the Khyber Pass - photo by James Mollison

Unfortunately, for the people who inhabit KPK today, the comely landscape can provide logistical problems. The populace is far from wealthy and the region’s infrastructure is significantly underdeveloped. For many in the mountains, roads connecting one village to another remain a dream.

People in KPK and other surrounding provinces have turned to cheap, low-tech solutions to combat this transportation issue. Crisscrossing the crags, one will discover a system of cable cars. Metallic lines stretch upward from valleys to the peaks, allowing residents to traverse the difficult terrain in a fraction of the time it would take to ambulate.

For example, a car, nicknamed Dolly by locals, connected the village of Pashto to a local school. Taking Dolly turned a two- or three-hour trek into one that lasted four minutes. Dolly might have been crafted out of the skeleton of a rickshaw, but, for the people of Pashto, she might as well have been a robot of God.

An improvised cable car in Pakistan (not Dolly) - photo by Obaid Hassan Qureshi

Of course, the downside is one must travel over great heights in unregulated containers made of old rickshaws or repurposed sheds on unregulated cables.

In 2017, 10 people perished when a cable car fell near a mountain resort.

On the morning of 22 August 2023, Dolly made four trips to the Battangi-Pashto Government High School without incident. During the fifth journey across the valley, however, nightmare fuel erupted into a living torment. One of the cables snapped. The other remained intact, so the car dangled 900 feet above a ravine. Inside were eight humans, six of whom were children.

A graphic showing the cable car by BBC

Word of the malfunction quickly spread.

How could the community save these people? The military brought a rescue helicopter to the scene, hoping to snag the occupants. This solution posed a problem, though. Hovering above a car connected to just one wire would subject it to rigorous air currents from the rotors.

Eventually, authorities learned one of the children on board had a heart condition and had spent some of the time unconscious. How long would the car hold on? How long would the people hold on? By the time the helicopters arrived, six hours had already passed.

As rescuers raced against darkness, they sent a drone to survey the situation. Imagine enduring six hours like this:

On a list of incredible footage, this piece must rank near the top.

After several failed attempts, the helicopters managed to snag two children via rope. They were shuffled to safety.

Six others remained in the car when the sun dipped below the horizon, rendering any further helicopter action untenable.

Unwilling to wait until daybreak, locals began to take matters into their own hands. A “cable crossing expert” attached a charpai – a traditional, woven bed of South Asia – to a zip line and scurried out to the car. Through the darkness, the remaining humans slowly returned from the car to solid ground.

The method of their rescue is outlandish but wonderful.

As the final people reached the end of the wire, the crowd erupted with joy.

Thanks to a massive group effort – both military and private – everyone onboard Dolly managed to survive.

Calls to improve and regulate the modes of transportation throughout KPK and Pakistan have rightfully resounded. However, without a significant influx in spending, these reforms are highly unlikely. Fortunately, this story had a happy ending. Will the next incident?

Several salient points arise from this tale:

1. Our world is beautiful, but its beauty can be rugged and dangerous. We don’t often view beauty as perilous, but survival stories often illustrate this duality well.

2. Human ingenuity and tenacity can be generative fonts of goodness. When we put our minds and bodies to positive tasks, we can achieve wonderful things.

3. I count myself blessed to live in an area where I do not need to brave these sorts of infrastructures on a daily basis. I’ll gladly take the roads, fire departments, and regulations in my publicly funded nation. I can only imagine having to send my child to schooling every morning on a cable car run by a private citizen. The next time I catch myself pondering how much we pay for these things, I’ll remember Pakistan.

I would love to see firsthand the White Mountains of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, but, if that desire ever becomes a reality, I think I’ll avoid the cable car tour.

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