Of late, there had been an upsurge in the passion of climbing eight thousanders among the civilian mountaineers of the country. Whatever might be the cause but I was pondering on some of its effects lately.
Of late, there had been an upsurge in the passion of climbing eight thousanders among the civilian mountaineers of the country. Whatever might be the cause but I was pondering on some of its effects lately. The climbers are always ready to tread new boundaries – some selecting a difficult face to climb – some setting out in the winter – some opting for Alpine style of climbing – some eyeing upon more than one peaks in a season and again some attempting to climb two peaks on a single expedition. But, these ingenious and tailor made expeditions have also increased the number of accidents as one of its many consequences. We have lost many a good and adroit climbers in such daredevil attempts.
To prolong the prologue I must at the same time admit that I have a propensity of falling in love with other peaks while still on one peak. I went to a crush at Lohtse while descending from Everest. The same happened with Makalu from the summit of Lohtse. Again, it was en-route Makalu that Kangchenjunga stole my heart. Thus, on 31st March of this year  I started out from Kolkata in the quest of Kangchenjunga Main (8586m). I had arranged a tie-up with a three member Korean team headed by Kim. On 2nd of April, I accompanied with my Sherpa friends Pasang, Sanu, Pema, Chinjung reached the village Khamdime of Nepal – the road head of our journey.
After distributing our loads amongst a whopping number of sixty-six porters we set off on our approach march on third of the month. We crossed Kheoang, Yamfudin, Ramche, Oktang and reached the base camp on 12th of April. The base camp was located at an altitude of 5,500m from sea-level. On the same day, we were joined by a three member Russian team and their sherpas. Shortly, the base camp turned into a hive of activity as an Italian and a Spanish team pulled in. To tidy up the camp and also for better acclimatization we stayed for few days at the base camp before making any further movements.
On 17th morning, we had our base camp puja and on the same day we started off for load-ferry to camp-I. Our Sherpa sardar Sanu was supervising the process of route opening and rope fixing. As we returned contented with the first day’s work, 600m of rope had been already fixed. We returned next day on the same spot and resumed our job. We had to negotiate a couloirs that day and an ice-wall inside it gave us some stiff resistance. Pasang, who had come last year, recalled that it took couple of days to open the route across the hard blue ice of this ice-wall. We stood at the foot of the ice-wall as we watched the sherpas laboured on. As the sherpas were deciding to call it a day after a not too disappointing progress, Kim stepped forward. It was not an ostentatious display from him but we watched a master at work as Kim effortlessly pulled himself up on the ice-wall. After fixing rope all the way up to camp-I, we returned to the base.
On 19th, the route from camp – I to camp – II was opened under the leadership of Derek – the Sherpa of the Russian team. In the evening, we welcomed Tusi Das at the base camp. By this time a few more climbers had also joined us. On 21st, Chhanda Gayen and Rajib Bhattacharyya occupied the base camp. I noted with pride that their inclusion increased the count of Indians taking part in a Kangchenjunga expedition this year to four.
On 22nd we climbed up to camp-I for better acclimatization and carried some load with us as well. We enjoyed the climb through the couloirs which was fun as well as challenging. At places we had to pull ourselves entirely on the strength of the jaws of the jummer. It took us approximately four and half hours of climbing to reach camp-I at 6,185m. Pasang and I pitched a tent and spent the night. Sanu returned to base camp in the evening after he had successfully opened the route up to camp-III.
Next morning we set off for camp-II. We traversed a steep ice-wall and reached atop a ridge and climbed down the other side traversing again a steep ice slope. We set up our pied-a-terre on a vast ice-field [camp-II]. We had not gained much height and it was hardly two hours climbing from camp-I. A towering icefall stood in front of us. One had to cross the icefall to reach camp-III.
At night, high wind threatened us. We could feel its force from inside the tent. Next morning from the speed of fleeting cloud we could gauge the strength of the wind. Nonetheless, we decided to move up towards camp- III. In this bad weather the only solace was the pleasant company of Russian mountaineer Aksana.
The gradient at some places on the icefall was quite appalling. We went around numerous ice-blocks as we made our way up. We noticed that wind velocity increased as we went up higher. At 6,700m we reached a huge icy overhang and decided to stop and return from there. It was really getting very difficult in this wind to push through. We dumped our load and retired to camp–II. Next day, we descended to base camp. While going down we met Tusi, Chhanda and Rajib.
I had completed my acclimatization routine and it was rest for few days. We waited expectantly for good weather window. Sanu went on with his good work and opened route up to camp-IV. As soon as the route was opened, Kim went up to camp-IV and even beyond it to look for the body of 'Park Num – Su'. Five climbers had died last year on Kangchenjunga expedition and ‘Park Num – Su’ was one of them. But, despite Kim’s best effort the body of the unfortunate climber could not be located.
Summit approach was planned on 6th, 10th and 13th of May and had to be postponed due to unfavourable weather condition. It was a long and torturous period of waiting for us in the base camp. At last on the prognosis that 17th and 18th of May the weather would be fine we set off after a long gap of 19 days. We directly climbed up to camp – II on the first day – that was on the 14th and most of the climbers did the same.
Next day, we moved towards camp –III where we had dumped our load on previous trip. We had to negotiate quite a number of ice-walls as we slowly crawled our way up the long and strenuous path of camp – III. At 6,985m altitude, inside the icefall, we established camp – III on an apparently flat surface. It took us more or less six hours of climbing to reach camp – III. While we were making our journey to camp – III, Sanu had fixed thousand meters of rope ahead of camp – IV on the summit route and deposited another coil of 600m for future use. In the afternoon, the weather condition deteriorated. The weather report predicted strong wind on the following day and we decided to spend one more night at camp – III.
On 17th of May, we commenced our journey towards camp – IV. We had started using supplementary oxygen. At the very onset we had to negotiate a hard ice-slope. It was quite long. We got an opportunity to rest our tired feet only after reaching a big ice-field. The ice-field ended on an icefall. We inched our way up towards Kangchenjunga Main. After a climb of four hours, at about 7,400m we pitched our tent on a gradual ice-slope. The summit camp was established.
It was a wonderful sight all around. The five peaks of Kangchenjunga – the Main, the West, the Central, the South and Kangbachen stood hand in hand on the same ridge forming a typical watershed line. On the west horizon, one could see Everest, Lohtse and Makalu. On the south, Talung and Kabru group of peaks were visible but slightly at a lower height. As one shifted his gaze towards the east and north-east it was a vast sea of cloud fuming and spouting from its bottomless depth.
At 5 pm, a group of climbers, both Indian and foreign, with their hearts full of anticipation and eyes full of dreams started the summit bid. Sanu had taken the onus to open the remaining stretch of the route. I commenced at 6.45 pm. Chhanda started at the same time too. The sky was red with the last light of the setting sun. At the beginning, we moved up along a small gradient slope towards our goal. Gradually the gradient increased and we anchored ourselves with the fixed rope. There was not much nip in the air but the thermometer was displaying a temperature of thirty two degree Celsius below the freezing point. Some slopes had a deposition of soft snow but otherwise it was a favourable weather condition for climbing.
I had mentioned earlier that Sanu had fixed a rope of 1,000m on the summit route. When we reached the end of that rope length we had to wait till further rope was fixed. It was a rock and ice mixed zone and we had reached above 8,000m. Exactly at midnight, I had a jolt to discover a corpse of a climber that lay on the path. Pasang informed me that this Hungarian climber died last year. I saluted him and prayed to the Almighty to rest his soul in peace and resumed my climbing.
In the dark of the night – to open route in a rock and ice mixed zone was tricky and time consuming. Quite a number of the rock faces had a sharp gradient. At the break of the dawn, 600m of ropes were used up. Our stock of ropes was exhausted. We were climbing the south-West face. At some places we got the help of the old ropes. Yet, it was dangerous to climb such a high gradient slope with so much exposure in an Alpine style. We even had to negotiate overhang rock faces – albeit their low stature they were risky no doubt. If Pasang and I had roped up it would have meant we had to belay each other on rotation. It would have depleted our oxygen tank fast and thereby we were compelled to the task of free climbing.
At length we reached the eastern ridge of Kangchenjunga. From there a small ice slope took us to the summit. It was exactly 10 o’clock by my watch. It was a moment of joy. Pasang and I embraced each other. The sky was clear – only the lower region on the eastern side was clouded. Everest, Lohtse, Makalu, Talung, Kabru group of peaks, other peaks of Kangchenjunga, the Tibetan plateau, Yalung glacier all stood majestically across the azure sky. My chest heaved with emotions as I held the Indian Tri-colour on the summit of Kangchenjunga. We took photographs with the flags of WBMASF, Angan Chariyye, Bhadrakali Padatik in our hands. While we celebrated the Indian victory, George Igochega of Spain reached the summit. This was his 14th 8,000m peak. A lucky guy, indeed. Next, Tusi Das reached the top. Chhanda Gayen reached at about eleven followed by Rajib. It was a great feeling to think that four Indians stood on the summit of Kangchenjunga. We were proud that Indian woman mountaineers had again shown their mettles.
Pasang and I took leave of others, roped ourselves up and started descending cautiously. Going down appeared more risky. I intended to do the documentation of the path which we had climbed in the dark of the night. This further slowed down our descent. Slowly we neared the summit camp. We were all whacked out and at the fag end of the day I extended my arm towards my compatriot Chhanda and held hers on a firm grip.
Next day, we descended directly to the base camp. Tusi descended too but Chhanda and Rajib stayed back at the summit camp. I came to know that on 19th, the day after we reached the summit, Chhanda had set off for Kangchenjunga West (Yalung Kang). On hearing the news, my first feeling was a recapitulation of my own wearied state of health when I had returned from the summit. At least I was dog tired. We were from plains and we had our limitations. My strength would not have permitted to plan Yalung Kang after returning from an arduous twenty-four hours climb of Kangchenjunga Main. Yalung Kang (8505m) was a climb of another eleven hundred metres from the summit camp. In our drive to Kangchenjunga Main, the combined efforts of all the sherpas and a strong infrastructure had backed us whereas in case of Chhanda’s attempt it was just the other way round. A long climb in the death zone was bound to drain off one’s energy. Further, I doubted whether we had any forecast of favourable weather on 19th and 20th – the two crucial days which Chhanda had picked up for her attempt. I was worried but I pacified myself by saying that Chhanda had done this before. She had climbed Everest and Lohtse back to back on a single expedition and I hoped that she knew what she was doing.
20th May. We packed up as I kept a watch over the weather. As the day progressed I noted a degradation in weather condition. At the top, there was white out and the wind velocity was disturbing. The Sherpas of Chhanda present at base camp repeatedly tried to contact Tashi over walkie-talkie but failed. We spend anxious time and mollified ourselves by saying that there could be hundred reasons to not get a contact.
On 21st of May, early in the morning, we started descending from base camp. Most of the climbers and sherpas had started their return journey on that day. On 23rd of May, when we were nearing Selabhanjan, we came to know from the Spanish sherpas that –“Indian lady with two sherpas missing during descend from Yalung Kang”. That was the message verbatim and I looked blankly at the messengers as the meaning slowly sunk in. Tasi Sherpa had descended to base camp and informed that his co-climbers Chhanda, Daoa Sherpa and Temba Sherpa had met with an accident and were missing.
I calculated that already three days had passed and it would take another couple of days for me to reach the base camp. What help could I possibly offer? Broken hearted, I continued my journey downwards.
Later, I had accompanied the rescue party organized by Department of Youth Service, West Bengal and came to know from Tashi that at about 10 pm of 19th, four of them had started their summit approach. While climbing through the couloirs of Yalung Kang, their stock of ropes got exhausted. Tashi untied fixed rope from below and used them to open the route above. In the afternoon of 20th, they had climbed quite high but due to deterioration of weather condition they had to abandon the expedition and started descending. There were places where there were no fixed ropes and thereby Chhanda, Daoa and Temba had roped themselves up. At one such unsecured place Chhanda had a fall. The gradient was sheer and others could not arrest the fall. They all fell.
Tasi was free climbing in Alpine style and from the top watched helplessly as the others disappeared in a swirl of snow. Shaken by the tragic mishap he did his best to find his comrades as he descended but as if the great mountain had swallowed them up there was not a single trace of them to be found.