Mt Dhaulagiri (8167m), the seventh highest peak in the world was my seventh eight thousanders after Everest, Lohtse, Makalu, Kanchenjungha, Annapurna and Manaslu.
Mt Dhaulagiri (8167m), the seventh highest peak in the world was my seventh eight thousanders after Everest, Lohtse, Makalu, Kanchenjungha, Annapurna and Manaslu. However, this should not be thought of as my reason to pick the peak. I had already many other emotions attached with the name. The long stretch between the summit camp and the summit had put many of my acquaintants in dire peril earlier. Only last year the peak had snatched away my beloved friend and co-climber Rajib Bhattacharyya. Interestingly all these thoughts were pushed back into the last row when I got myself busy in my preparation for the expedition.
Eventually, on 5th of April I reached Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal where my Sherpa friend Bir Kaji Tamang joined me. I had to do some final shopping and flew to Pokhra on 9th – the beautiful tourist destination with Phewa Lake being the cynosure. But, Pokhra held more surprises for me. I met my old friend Santiago from Equador. I also met Iniego from Spain.
From Pokhra it was a dusty, rattling drive to Beni (800m). Next day we reached Takam and spent the night there. We reached the Italian base camp (3700m) on the very next day by chopper. The expensive helicopter journey surely helped us to save our energy and time but left us slightly less acclimatized. We decided to stay there a couple of days and get accustomed to the thin air. I was standing in the Italian base camp when someone gave me a hug from the back. It was Marco, grinning from ear to ear, my co-climber in Kanchenjungha expedition. It felt nice to meet old friends. Marco was accompanied by Mario, the ski-instructor. On 14th we crossed the Japanese base camp and reached the Dhaulagiri base camp (4750m). That ended our approach march.
At Dhaulagiri base camp I found Karlos. The seventy-eight years old had already twelve eight thousanders under his belt. I had first met him during my Kanchenjunga expedition. Waves of memories engulfed me with every old face I met.
On 17th, the base camp Puja was performed. We, people of all religions gathered in front of the common shrine. Next day, a team of Sherpa started off for Camp-I. I had more friends to turn up. The Lady climber from Iran, Parman Kazemi whom I had met in the Lohtse expedition joined us in the base camp.
On 21st we had a mishap. Sherpa Dawa Sherring met with an accident. He is popular in the field as Dhaulagiri Dawa being the first Sherpa to have scaled the massif. He had lost his footings and slipped down few hundreds of feet. He was bleeding profusely when Mingma brought him to the base camp. Immediate medical treatment put him out of danger.
On 22nd, we started off for Camp-I. It was a long and treacherous stretch of climbing. At the beginning, it was a long march on the glacier. The first hurdle was a rock and ice mixed wall with an overhang at one portion. After negotiating the rock-wall we moved up with huge exposure on our left. On the right, the rock-wall continued. It was a rock-fall zone and we had to be very watchful. Finally, we crossed a high gradient ice-field to reach Camp-I. The Camp-I was established at an altitude of 5650m – which meant we had climbed more than thousand metres in one go. The Sun was setting and we crawled inside our sleeping bags.
Early morning we set off for Camp-II. The route was comparatively easier. The gradient was low and ice condition was good for climbing. Only at the farthest end the gradient increased to meet the North-East ridge. The Camp-II was established on the top of the ridge. We had planned to spent one night there. However, the weather condition seemed ominous and we returned to Camp-I. Next day, that is on 24th, we returned to base camp.
Next few days we were stuck to the base camp. The weather condition was not conducive for any movement upwards. We cheered ourselves by throwing parties. The husband and wife team from Chile mesmerized us with their Spanish guitar. In the mean time, the twelve member team of Indian Airforce had reached the base camp. Among them I discovered Debidutta Ponda whom I knew from my Everest expedition. To keep ourselves fit, we went up and down nearby elevations regularly.
On 30th, our Sherpas started for Camp-II. We got a good news that day. A two member Chinese team had reached the summit despite the bad weather. On 1st of May, they returned to the base camp. We congratulated them before they departed on the same day by a Chopper.
We had the forecast of a good weather window on 8th. On the basis of that it was decided that our Sherpas would start on 3rd and reach Camp-III on 5th. After that they would return to Camp-I while we would start from the base camp.
As per schedule, we reached Camp-I on 5th of May. However, we were informed that it would be difficult to proceed any further. Huge powder snow had deposited on the route and the fixed rope had gone beneath a few feet of snow. We could assess the situation from Camp-I itself. The tents had to be dug out and re-pitched. Nonetheless, we moved on the Camp-II next day. From there, any further movement upwards seemed preposterous and we returned to base camp on 7th.
On the 10th, we had a full moon and we could not confine ourselves inside the tent. The whole base camp was flooded by moonlight. The night appeared like day and I realized why birds mistake a full moon night as the dawn and begin chirping. We really enjoyed that night, moon-bathing ourselves while happily clicking away photographs.
The next fair window was on 13th and 14th of the month. We planned accordingly. However, as the time approached we were disheartened to find that the forecast had failed us miserably. Instead of blue sky, we could see spindrift near the top. Had we started, we could have been in jeopardy. So, we had to wait more. Slowly, we were getting fidgety – signs of impatience here and there but we were rational enough to not take any wrong step.
The weather forecast predicted good weather window on 19th and 20th. Immediately, we were on the planning desk. It was decided that on 16th we would start from base camp along with our Sherpas. From Camp-I, the Sherpas would go ahead and ferry load to Camp-III. The summit bid was fixed on 18th of May.
However, the plan had to be changed slightly. We came to know that 20th of May offered better weather condition than 19th. As a result, we decided to spend one more night in Camp-I. that night, I shared tent with Biman Biswas of ITBP.
Next day, we reached Camp-II. From Camp-II, the route was a bit tricky. The gradient was high, in fact a “wall” in mountaineering terminology. To make matter worse, it was covered with hard ice. At some places, we floundered in knee deep snow that had accumulated in the last few days. The movement was slow. We had the Sun almost disappearing in the horizon when we reached the Summit camp(Camp-III).
My idea was not to spend the night in the summit camp. I had planned to start the summit bid on the same night. I needed few hours of rest and took the liberty of entering Parman’s tent. When Parman returned from the summit she was surprised. I congratulated her on her success. She stopped me when I began to apologise for trespassing and said, “Be comfortable. You’ve the hard task ahead. My hard time is over”. I could hear the siffleting cooker from the next tent trespassed by my Sherpa Bir Kaji.
I started exactly at 22:19. The ITBP team had already started. The Air Force team were about to start. The camp-site was spread across a stretch of three hundred meters. My Sherpa Bir asked me to move on – promising me to catch up later. The rope had been fixed and I slowly commenced my journey. Shortly afterwards, I found two ITBP members going down – murmuring something about not feeling well. As I moved up further I met Biman Biswas. Together we reached the farthest end of the camp-site where my friend Santiago and Marco had pitched their tent.
The wind velocity was quite high, Santiago asked me to get in. I overcame the temptation and moved on. This time Biman was not on my side but Bir Kaji had joined me.
We moved up in silence. After an hour or so I realized that we two were alone in the this impenetrable darkness. There were no other climbers in the vicinity. I was worried whether others had postponed their climb for the night. Could be they had a last minute forecast of bad weather. Suddenly, I spotted a single speck of light below. As the owner of the head torch came closer I found him to be Michel from Slovakia. A hard core mountaineer making his second attempt in this expedition. Earlier, he had turned back due to a back pain. Ah! Was I happy to see him. Later, I could see a chain of bobbing head torches coming in our direction. From a distance, they looked like the mountains had been decorated for Deepawali. It was such a relief.
We reached a rock section. The light of day was not yet out. We could see dozens of ropes dangling in front of us. Only one of these ropes is fresh and fixed by our Sherpas. It was difficult to identify the proper one. We began our search. In the meantime, the Air Force team and their Sherpa Ningma had arrived. They also joined the search. The first ray of dawn struck us. The east sky had become red and the colour spread across the whole horizon and beyond. It was a view no words could describe.
The wind velocity had not abetted. We all looked for a shelter at the nooks and corners of the boulders. Ultimately Michel dug up the rope which had got buried under two feet of snow deposition. The climbing recommenced.
After a four and half hour of laborious climb along the slope prodding knee deep in powder snow I ultimately reached a point where I had to make a traverse. On the right, the exposure was breathtaking, a sheer drop of four thousand feet. On the left we were barricaded by a wall intercepted by couloirs. It was a tough job to identify the right couloir. If the wrong one was chosen one could end on a wrong summit altogether. Due to the proximity of the high wall we could not see the summit of Dhaulagiri from there. Fortunately, Michel was carrying a GPS tracker and was in constant touch with the base camp. We continued our climb and cut across the summit ice-field diagonally. Eventually, we reached at the foot of the right couloir that joined the summit. The ice gully was hidden from our sight until we actually tumbled on it.
We began our climb along the couloir. The trench was packed with powder-snow. A single long rope was fixed from the top. This made climbing more difficult through the powdery snow. We had been jummering yet the elasticity of the rope could not check us from sliding down as the powder-snow collapsed under our feet. We were being continuously sprayed with snow dislodged by climbers above us. Soon, we were covered with a thick coat of powdery snow making it difficult to distinguish each other. Michel was at the fore front followed by Mario and his Sherpa. Kaji and I were at their heels. After fourteen thirty hours clouds, strong winds and thin white-out made our climb increasingly difficult. The moisture in the air caused static electricity to discharge St Elmo’s fire - a well known but rare phenomenon on the mountains. We knew we were almost there and it was just a matter of time. True to our belief, the couloir ended and we reached a rocky ridge. A sad view awaited us at the end of the couloir. A climber lay there with his face facing the sky. His dresses were tattered and the diseased still had his shoes and crampons on.
At last, the good time came when I was at the summit of Mt Dhaulagiri, it was exactly 16:12 by my watch. On the summit the gust of wind that blew from Tibetan plateau chilled us to the very bones. The summit ridge had flattened out here and I walked towards the rocky hump approximately 60m away to my left. It was the summit point and colourful prayer flags kept there. I bowed before the shrine and prayed to the Almighty.
Later I took some photographs. It was almost a white-out condition on the top. Michel, Mario, Santiago, Kaji and Air Force team were also on the summit.
I started my long climb downwards little realizing that it would turn into a longer descent than I expected. Kaji and I began to climb down through the gully with the others. After finishing the traverse I changed my oxygen cylinder. It was the when I found the ITBP member Biman Biswas. It was around dusk and we were at an altitude of 8000m or so. Biman was suffering from snow-blindness, hallucinations and disorientation. He was alone without any Sherpas or ITBP teammates. Not only that, he was without oxygen at a very dangerous location and was not anchored.
I came to his aid, encouraged him, provided him with technical support and started a slow, laborious and dangerous descent with him. My Sherpa, being too exhausted, left us and went ahead.
After 5-6 hours, I saw some tent lights down below. But due to the darkness, I was not sure of the route any more. Having no other option, I paused. Biman became even more disoriented and tried to climb up in the opposite direction. I tried to dissuade him. By then, both of us were exhausted at the freezing temperature without any oxygen. Near dawn, I again tried to track the route downwards and at around 12 noon, finally started descent afresh. By this time Biman had recovered a little from snow-blindness. On the way I met my Sherpa who was coming up to see what had happened to us and we managed to reach my summit camp in the evening. Kaji gave us some refreshments there and spent the night there.
In the next morning, we started for Camp 2. The Sherpa Sirdar of the ITBP team, Lamaji met us at ITBP summit camp and took custody of Biman. Kaji and I came down to camp-II that day and later Lamaji and Biman also reached camp-II on the same day.
I would have never dreamt of doing a benightment in the death zone. The experience had already begun to take toll on my health. On several occasions I had to remove my gloves in order to assist Biman. All the ten fingers were frost bitten. Even two of my toes were badly affected. In fact, we had nothing solid to bite upon during the stay and practically out of water. I realized that more I delayed less I could do to save my fingers. On 23 rd of May many climbers were airlifted in between camp-I and camp-III. I also reached base camp by Copter and on the same day I reached Kathmandu by Copter.