by Maira Asaad
On the 21st of January, 2020, following ten days of being locked in, 21 LUMS students were heli-lifted out of Rattu.
As one of LUMS Adventure Society’s (LAS) annual winter skiing trips, the group originally expected to stay at Rattu for five nights before returning home. However, when temperatures dropped to as low as –15°C, and unprecedented levels of snowfall prompted several avalanches to block all exits leading out from Rattu, things took a different turn. In addition, the S-COM (network providers) towers had been buried under the heavy snowfall, and for two days, communication from the affected areas came to a halt.
For the duration of the stay, the group remained at Army High Altitude School. During the communication blackout, the only way of gleaning information was either through the workers in the canteen, or through the group’s supervisor, Captain Talal, who also behaved as a spokesperson for the group.
“They [the canteen workers] gave us the impression that what was happening wasn’t normal,” Mahnoor Saeed ’20 said.
Contact was established after two days of silence, through a man in the Gilgit base who communicated to the students’ parents. “Communication was one-sided – we could hear what our parents were saying, but couldn’t talk directly to them. Our main priority was to reassure them that we were safe,” Rabia Tufail ‘20 said.
Surrounded by knee-deep layers of snow, and extreme cold that restricted mobility mainly to the mess, and without Internet, the students entertained themselves with what was available: table tennis, Bollywood screenings on Zing! TV, Captain Talal’s collection of seasons (which included Modern Family, Two Broke Girls and House of Cards), and card games, amidst other activities.
There came a point where, on a night when Laraib Hur ‘20 played two episodes of FRIENDS that she had saved, the sound of the audio echoed throughout the mess. “We just sat and listened to the audio for two full episodes. At that point I felt like we’d really hit rock bottom,” Momin Dar ‘20 recalls with a laugh.
Nights were filled with, among other things, games like “Never Have I Ever”, and sharing revealing secrets with friends. After a while, however, even that lost its charm.
“There’s only so many things you can share,” Saeed ‘20 told The Post, with a resigned smile.
The prolonged stay, however, brought with it additional time on the slopes. “There were three skiing slopes and we originally only had time for the beginner slope, but because of the extra time and practice we got, we got promoted to the Tatanka* slope,” said Seemal Chattha ‘20.
Captain Talal, and Mouaz Naeem ‘21, who was the designated leader of the group and is a member of LAS, kept the group’s spirits raised by arranging a range activities, which involved two treks: a forest trek and a snow trek.
The destination for the snow trek was Mohsin Base*, and along the way, they passed what was allegedly the last Ranjit Singh hut in the area.
The snow trek was attended by eight of the male students on the trip, and they were taught how to pave the path in knee-deep snow.
The forest trek had a similar learning experience for the students that opted to go on it, and had a more rudimentary skillset to offer: a lesson on the various kinds of ropes used by trekkers and climbers – the knowledge available, in part, because of how Rattu operated as a training base for Siachen soldiers.
Given that the group was able to manage the time easily, not everyone was convinced that the situation was dire enough to warrant a helicopter.
“The whole situation was blown out of proportion,” Momin Dar ‘20 said.
Naeem‘21 talked about his role in the situation. “There was pressure from some of the students, and their parents’, and my role was to keep them informed about the situation.” Naeem ‘21 explained that he was responsible for conveying messages from the students to the man at the Gilgit exchange, who would forward them to the students’ parents.
While some students on the trip expressed concerns that they might have to stay in Rattu for another few weeks due to heavy snowfall, both Mouaz Naeem ‘21 and Humayun Naeem ‘20 were confident that they wouldn’t be staying back more than a few days. “We didn’t feel the need for a helicopter, to be honest. We might have stayed back two days at most.” They went on to add, “We weren’t stranded. We had three meals a day and plenty to eat.”
In fact, the initial itinerary of foods looked something like this: dodo soup, yak meat, Prince biscuits*, jalebi, spaghetti, parathas, fried eggs, biryani, aloo chawal. As the days went by and supplies ran short, several varieties of daal, pulled out from storage, became a prominent feature of their meals – that, and one disputed bottle of achaar.
Akhtar ‘20 also echoed similar sentiments, “We had it good, we had our heaters; and the army reassured us that even if we were stuck there for two months, we had everything we needed. There was no urgency.” She went on to add, however, in a different vein than some, “Yes, we needed it [the helicopter]. The day we returned, the snowfall was heavy. I felt like we would have been stuck there till the end of February.”
Despite the army’s hospitality, many students could not escape feelings of dread and uncertainty. Akhtar ‘20 reflected on how spirits dampened in the coming days.
“It was all white, and we were waking up to the same people. It felt like Big Boss chal raha hai.”
At the same time, there were others who were feeling the press of time.
“A lot of us were worried about missing our enrolment, but even more pressing than that were the college and job application deadlines that were fast approaching,” said Chattha ‘20.
Following these concerns, on Sunday, 19th January, a day before the start of Spring Semester ‘20, Saeed ‘20 contacted the Student Council, herself being a council member. Faiza Shibli’20 was chosen to take over the situation and stay in contact with the administration to ensure that prompt action was taken.
Efforts were made on all ends to reach out to contacts in the military. Colonel Amer was also involved. Shibli ‘20 told The Post that he contacted the DG ISPR who then managed to track the exact location of the students. “After that, we just waited for the helicopter to reach them and bring them to a safe point,’ said Shibli ‘20.
On the morning the group was expecting the helicopter, further delays aggravated the group’s anxiety about returning to their homes. When the helicopter did arrive, several hours later, expressions of joy and relief abounded. From there, they were flown to the base in Gilgit, and met by the General Officer Commanding Gilgit, from where they were transported to Rawalpindi, and then to their homes.
“The people who were at the mess took such good care of us. The way the media said that we ‘rescued’ these students made it seem like we were pressed beneath the avalanche and had to be pulled out of it. The credit didn’t go to the people who took care of us, even though it wasn’t their job to look after us for more than three days,” Mahnoor Saeed ’20 said.
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