Commonly known as the highest road in the world, the Khardung-la pass at 17,582 feet is dizzying and dangerous. But it is "child's play" compared to how it once was, before climate change began erasing its defining glaciers.
That's the story recounted by Showkat Ali, a longtime bus driver of the Khardung-la, told to anthropologist Karine Gagné at GlacierHub. Now is a good time for me to mention that my dad, Ben Orlove, set up and runs GlacierHub. If that volcano under a glacier in Iceland erupts and shuts down air traffic, you may hear his name more often.
When Showkat Ali began driving buses in the 1980s on the Northern India's Khardung-la, the world's reputed highest motorable road, the Khardung glacier was immense and represented a daunting obstacle for vehicle transport. One day, he saw the vehicles in front and behind him vanish in a sudden tide of snow while his bus was spared. "While driving, you have to stay focused on the road and avoid loud music, but the rest is in the hands of God," the bus driver reflected, as he sought to explain his nearly fatal event.
Higher temperatures mean more mild and less frequent snowstorms, and that glacier ice no longer covers the road itself. The lengths to which the road builders went to travel against the glaciers is hard to fathom.
When Ali started driving, the only way to build a road crossing the pass was to carve into the glacier. Later, an iron bridge was built across the glacier when the ground underneath had become too unstable. Year after year, the bridge was swept away by avalanches and built anew. But about 20 years ago, the presence of a bridge became futile as the ice progressively receded. The structure that once spanned the pass was left shattered in pieces, some of its fragments still punctuating the landscape today. Warming temperatures nullified the need for a bridge across the Khardung-la. Afterwards, although weathered and beaten by the harsh Himalayan roads, Showkat Ali's bus could traverse the mountain pass easily, trundling along a road where glacier ice had stood not long before. "Making the trip over the Khardung-la today is like child's play", Ali said.
It's so easy, in fact, that Red Bull sent an F1 car up to the top a few years back.
One Jalopnik reader has crossed the pass as well, reporting that the place can be crawling with tourists.
It is a stunning, moonlike pass, but it's also a worrying gauge of climate change. The Indian military restricts access to environmental data because the area is so geopolitically charged. Drivers like Ali become useful sources for information on how glaciers retreat, and what happens to the people living near them when they do.