Cowper logo


By Richard Cowper

EVEN before the tragedy Doug Scott's box had, like its owner, acquired a reputation among the hardy but diminutive inhabitants of Baltistan in the Pakistani Himalaya. A large, beautifully-made wooden trunk bound with metal straps, it stood out in Victorian splendour against the multitude of dirty brown kitbags and plastic drums that are the standard among expeditions to the region.  

At the beginning of June word of the famous British mountaineer's arrival had spread like wildfire along the precipitous dusty brown tracks of the Karakoram. Many of Baltistan's 2,500 or so porters had met Scott before on one of his seven previous expeditions but this was the first time they had seen him travelling with his own personal box.  

On the gruelling six day walk-in to Latok 1 base camp at 15,000 feet on the Choktoi glacier porters from Hushe and Kapulo vied to carry the expedition leader's personal effects. It was not so much that the box contained enormous riches, which it did; nor that it was easier to carry than the party's kitbags, which it most certainly was not; it was more a question of status for here was a container worthy of a man for whom the fiercely independent Baltis had considerable respect and admiration. In 1977 eight of them had carried Scott to the safety of an army helicopter after a fearsome eight-day ordeal on the Oga when he battled for his life in a storm with two broken legs. Named affectionately the 'Dustcart's box' (simply the Balti way of pronouncing Doug Scott) at the end of each day's march it would be placed carefully outside his spacious 'Himalayan Hotel' tent. From it would be pulled, as if from a magic hat, seemingly never-ending supplies of herbal sweets and remedies, chocolate bars, cameras and medicine.  

The following morning the lid of the box would be closed and the whole contraption tied on to a porter's back. The journey to base camp took Scott's party, 60 porters, his box and five climbers under towering moraines of unconsolidated mud soaring hundreds of feet into the air, over precarious snow and ice bridges spanning hidden crevasses and across icy streams and rivers in full spate.  

But for the porters, whose livelihood involves clambering over ground the non-climbing mortal would consider impossibly dangerous, the most fearful part of the trip was a night spent on the flat in an oasis of green known as 'The Place Where Qurban Died.' There, buried under a great block lies the body of Qurban, a young porter from the village of Askole who died of hypothermia about a decade ago. It is said that his wife was so overcome that she killed herself and her only child.  

Either because it reminds them of the dangers of their job, for which they are paid about Pounds 5 a day, or because of a fear of Qurban's ghost, most porters will try hard to avoid spending the night there.  

It was four weeks later on a return journey less than a day's walk from Qurban that we looked down the 200 ft cliff into the raging Braldu River to see Scott's box swirling gracefully by.  

First, disbelief. Then fury, as we remembered that all the expeditions cash reserves plus Pounds 6,000 of camera equipment were about to disappear forever. Finally, despair as we realised that tied to the box, but hidden by a raging brown mass of glacier water, was Sher Mohammed son of Abdul Rachman, a porter from Shigar whose face none of us could remember as he had been hired just two hours before at Jola Bridge.  

We searched in vain for the body over the following days but as we did so the legend of Dustcart's Box and the 'unimaginable' riches it contained grew out of all proportion. Scores scanned the river bank in vain for a sight of it. No-one asked after the dead porter.  

In Skardu the charming highly placed official helping us to deal with the affair said the porter's pretty young wife would use the insurance to find a new husband before the summer was out.  

Richard Cowper is a member of the British Latok expedition which is sponsored by Inspectorate OIS, part of the Brompton Group of Companies.

July 14 1990