The little red light had been flashing for five minutes before Bhangoo paid it any attention. “The fuel gages on these old aircraft are notoriously unreliable,” Brigadier General Bhangoo, one of Pakistan’s most experienced high-altitude helicopter pilots, said, tapping it. I wasn’t sure if that was meant to make me feel better.
I rode next to Bhangoo, looking down past my feet through the Vietnam-era Alouette’s bubble windshield. Two thousand feet below us a river twisted, hemmed in by rocky crags jutting out from both sides of the Hunza Valley. At eye level, we soared past hanging green glaciers, splintering under a tropical sun. Bhangoo flew on unperturbed, flicking the ash of his cigarette out a vent, next to a sticker that said “No smoking.”
From the rear of the aircraft Greg Mortenson reached his long arm out to tap Bhangoo on the shoulder of his flight suit. “General, sir,” Mortenson shouted, “I think we’re heading the wrong way.”
Brigadier Bhangoo had been President Musharraf’s personal pilot before retiring from the military to join a civil aviation company. He was in his late sixties, with salt-and-pepper hair and a mustache as clipped and cultivated as the vowels he’d inherited from the private British colonial school he’d attended as boy with Musharraf and many of Pakistan’s other future leaders.
The general tossed his cigarette through the vent and blew out his breath. Then he bent to compare the store-bought GPS unit he balanced on his knee with a military-grade map Mortenson folded to highlight what he thought was our position.
“I’ve been flying in northern Pakistan for forty years,” he said, waggling his head, the subcontinent’s most distinctive gesture. “How is it you know the terrain better than me?” Bhangoo banked the Alouette steeply to port, flying back the way we’d come.
The red light that had worried me before began to flash faster. The bobbing needle on the gauge showed that we had less than one hundred liters of fuel. This part of northern Pakistan was so remote and inhospitable that we’d had to have friends preposition barrels of aviation fuel at strategic sites by jeep. If we couldn’t make it to our drop zone we were in a tight spot, literally, since the craggy canyon we flew through had no level areas suitable for setting the Alouette down.
Bhangoo climbed high, so he’d have the option of auto-rotating toward a more distant landing zone if we ran out of fuel, and jammed his stick forward, speeding up to ninety knots. Just as the needle hit E and the red warning light began to beep, Bhangoo settled the skids at the center of a large H, for helipad, written out in white rocks, next to our barrels of jet fuel.
“That was a lovely sortie,” Bhangoo said, lighting another cigarette. “But it might not have been without Mr. Mortenson.”
Later, after refueling by inserting a handpump into a rusting barrel of aviation fuel, we flew up the Braldu Valley to the village of Korphe, the last human habitation before the Baltoro Glacier begins its march up to K2 and the world’s greatest concentration of twenty-thousand-foot-plus peaks. After a failed 1993 attempt to climb K2, Mortenson arrived in Korphe, emaciated and exhausted. In this impoverished community of mud and stone huts, both Mortenson’s life and the lives of northern Pakistan’s children changed course. One evening, he went to bed by a yak dung fire a mountaineer who’d lost his way, and one morning, by the time he’d shared a pot of butter tea with his hosts and laced up his boots, he’d become a humanitarian who’d found a meaningful path to follow for the rest of his life.
Arriving in Korphe with Dr. Greg, Bhangoo and I were welcomed with open arms, the head of a freshly killed ibex, and endless cups of tea. And as we listened to the Shia children of Korphe, one of the world’s most impoverished communities, talk about how their hopes and dreams for the future had grown exponentially since a big American arrived a decade ago to build them the first school their village had ever known, the general and I were done for.
“You know,” Bhangoo said, as we were enveloped in a scrum of 120 students tugging us by the hands on a tour of their school, “flying with President Musharraf, I’ve become acquainted with many world leaders, many outstanding gentlemen and ladies. But I think Greg Mortenson is the most remarkable person I’ve ever met.”