I looked at the satellite pictures of Kanchenjunga on the wall behind the colonel and realized what I was committing myself to. The southwest view showed a broad white massif of the mountain, with leviathan glaciers running down its many ridges. I saw the progression of camps marked on the mountain and traced the advanced base camp to a spot frighteningly close to the very summit! This was the point till which I had volunteered to accompany the Indian Army to record its expedition on camera and in my journal.
Would I be able to make it? Those who have climbed both Mt. Everest and Kanchenjunga say that the latter climb is much more difficult. It demands great technical expertise from the mountaineer, and unlike Everest, which has now become every backpacker’s destination, Kanchenjunga is not on the itinerary of even the most seasoned of mountaineers. The route to the summit is virtually unknown, the dangers and pitfalls on the way, undiscovered. For Everest there are avalanche experts called “ice doctors,” who go ahead to the Khumbu Ice Fall region and warn the climbers if there is danger of an avalanche. No such luxury in Kanchenjunga. Avalanches, blizzards, falling rocks, and crevasses have to be risked with the climb. There are no fixed ropes here and every expedition has to do its own hard work. One in every four climbers has died climbing this 8,586-meter (28,169-foot) peak, making it arguably the most dangerous mountain in the world.
I would accompany a team of hardened mountaineers of the Indian Army. Almost all the 22 members had been on more than half-a-dozen climbing expeditions before. Four of them had climbed Everest, besides other 8,000-meter peaks of the world. Among them, Naib Subedar Neel Chand and Naib Subedar C.N. Bodh, were regarded as the best mountaineers in India. Even Gary Lamare, the young zealous cameraman hired to make a film on the expedition was something of a precocious climber. A few years ago, he had climbed up to Camp 1—to Everest—and this time he was determined to climb to the summit of Kanchenjunga.
Even the thought of walking in such company was intimidating. I contemplated avalanches, frostbite, deep crevasses, and death. Nonetheless, I nodded my assent to the colonel. Within a week my rucksack was ready and I was raring to go. I got my first 15-second view of Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling (where we went for a day before crossing over into Nepal) before the cloud enveloped it again. It was the most tantalizing peek-a-boo one could have. The Kanchenjunga massif loomed 40 kilometers (25 miles) into the distance, looking beautiful in the orange glow of the setting sun. It was a picture–postcard image that would be savored by the Darjeeling tourist who, after a day or two of lolling in the hills, would head home. For us, Kanchenjunga was not a study in aesthetics. It was a question of how far our adrenaline could take us. To me, the peak looked so remote, so inaccessible, and so inhospitable that I could not even imagine the abominable snowman venturing there. It was a very surreal experience even though I experienced it in the comfort of a tourist sunspot in Darjeeling.
Kanchenjunga lies on the watershed between Sikkim in India and eastern Nepal. It can be climbed from either side. But the Sikkimese regard Kanchenjunga as a holy mountain and in deference to local sentiment, the Sikkim government has banned expeditions from the Indian side. Therefore, all expeditions to Kanchenjunga are organized from the Nepal side.
We crossed over into Nepal and headed on an excruciating 16-hour bus journey to Taplejung, a remote town in the eastern Nepal. Taplejung, at 1,800 meters (5,905 feet), was the last road head in our expedition. The Maoist insurgency in Nepal is the worst in eastern Nepal and the army members knew better than to have any truck with the Maoists. The Maoists were known to attack without provocation and the Indian Army was never in their good books. For the first time I felt vulnerable amidst soldiers. But the Indian Army had an extravagant budget and helicopters were used to fly us over the Maoist regions and land at Ramche, which, at 4,200 meters (13,780 feet), was out of reach of the rebels.
Ramche, with its emerald-blue lakes, dwarf rhododendron, juniper-speckled hillsides, and gurgling streams running down snow-capped mountains, is an idyllic hideout. Yaks graze and grunt in this vast sylvan valley and, if one is lucky, blue sheep can be seen hugging steep craggy hillsides. It was to be our administrative base camp and the first milestone on our mission to the Kanchenjunga summit.
However, I got a taste of what was to come when I decided to walk up a steep hillside alongside our campsite. To my astonishment I found myself out of breath after just a few steps. I felt my heart pounding hard in my rib cage. Oxygen depletes rapidly after 3,000 meters (9,842 feet), and at 4,200 meters there was just half the oxygen there is at sea level.
“How will I reach the advanced base camp (ABC) at 5,600 meters?” I wondered.
The route to ABC was through an undulating moraine full of small and big boulders that could topple on you or under you at any time. And if you slipped and fell into pools of snot-green glacier water, you would be in an advanced stage of hypothermia before anyone could drag you out. The Army climbers were already making bets on when the “bloody civilians” would crash out of the Kanchenjunga race.
However, Gary, the only other civilian besides me, was no pushover. He was my tent-mate and lounging in our tent after our early dinner, he would burn with the passion of climbing up to the Kanchenjunga summit. I asked him if he was aware of the risks involved, hinting rather directly that he could die at 25. He said, with the deadpan logic of every adrenaline junkie, that adventure without risk of injury or death was no adventure. Among all the climbers, I admired his guts the most for, unlike the Indian Army climbers, he was under no official or moral obligation to climb. He could do his filming till the lower camps. And unlike the Indian Army climbers he would get no medal, promotion, or pat on the back from a general. He was perhaps the only mountaineer in the expedition who was climbing for the sheer love of adventure.
Climbing a mountain takes a combination of mental and physical strength. How much I had of the latter, I did not know but I steeled myself mentally to carry on. “It is when you think you are too exhausted to go on that one has to make all the more effort to go on,” Gary reeled out the ultimate mountain conundrum, when I asked him if there were any tricks to climbing.
I kept that in mind when, after a week at Ramche, the climb to the ABC began. I not only exhausted quickly, but was soon alone in the moraine. The seasoned Army climbers had gone on ahead, leaving me to bring up the rear. It was a two-day trek and was to be the toughest one of my life. My legs ached and my head felt heavy. I just wanted to lie somewhere and never get up. But I remembered what Gary said about pushing the envelope of endurance, and ploughed on.
After hours of determined climbing I caught up with the Army members. It was a relief to discover that they were as exhausted as I was. But they would rather die than admit this to a “civilian.” They said they were waiting for me. But when I finally reached the ABC, they shrugged off some of the contempt and warmed up to me.
The oxygen here was almost one-third of what it is at sea level and my head felt dizzy. The mountains, all of them above 7,000 meters, hemmed in our campsite. Glaciers, the size of huge building blocks, hung on the mountainsides or lay in the valleys below with deep crevasses wide open on their surfaces. The avalanches took a lot of time getting used to. They crashed down the mountains every half-an-hour. In the initial few days, I woke at night, shuddering in my sleeping bag to every big crash of an avalanche.
With time one gets acclimatized to the lack of oxygen but it still takes a great deal of effort to do the smallest of tasks. Crawling out from my tent and walking down to the dining tent, just a few yards below, left me as breathless as a marathon runner.
Climbing beyond the ABC began. Till now we had been walking on solid ground and the moraine but now there were icefalls, snowfields, and glaciers. That’s where the Sherpas came in. The Sherpas are truly indispensable in the big mountains of Nepal. Most climbers, except a few hardened ones, have to employ their services if they want to reach the summit.
The Indian Army also relied on them heavily. The Sherpas not only established four higher camps but also fixed the ropes all the way to the summit. I was eager to capture the climbers on camera on these snowbound reaches of the mountain but I could not tell a crampon from a piton, or a jumar from a snow stake. In one grueling session, I learnt the basics from two climbers and the next day, with my heart in my mouth, I was crawling up the first steep ice wall beyond ABC. For the next one month, I climbed a bit higher each day and had a series of adventures—from losing my way in a crevasse-filled snowfield to falling down a small snow ledge.
Finally, the day for the summit attempt arrived. Pempa Ringzi Sherpa, an intrepid Sherpa, who had climbed Everest seven times, led the first party of Indian Army climbers. He was just 200 meters from the Kanchenjunga summit when the rope ran out. He was unanchored and risked a fall to death when he straddled a sharp ridge and inched up with his ice axes. But there was no way to move up without a rope.
Everyone had to fall back to the ABC to recuperate and device another strategy. It was a great disappointment for everyone in the expedition, especially Gary, for the second summit attempt would include only the tried and tested mountaineers from the Indian Army.
After a week Pempa Sherpa led the way again and this time six Army climbers and five Sherpas finally managed to reach the peak. The mission was accomplished. Within a week we were trekking down to Ramche again. Going down was easy. Now I was sufficiently acclimatized to the lack of oxygen. I did not tire easily and reached Ramche along with the others. The Indian Army climbers were in a celebratory mood and raring to return home, where accolades awaited them. They unleashed a bacchanalia of songs and dance and much drinking.
The next day a helicopter was awaited. It would fly us down to Taplejung. However, the weather was cloudy and we weren’t sure if the helicopter would show up. I secretly wished it wouldn’t. I had spent two whole months on the mountain but still had not got enough of it. I wanted to be here even if for half a day more. But the weather played spoilsport. It cleared just when I thought it had worsened. Within half an hour I heard the distinct hum of the helicopter. I took the last few shots of the mountain and climbed in last with my rucksack.
Delhi-based journalist and photographer Sanjay Austa writes about art and culture, and social and human-interest issues.