The triumvirate – Everest, Lohtse and Makalu stood athwart the azure sky of Nepal like the three great Gods of Hindus. I had already paid my homage at the feet of first two and on 12th of April, 2013 I started off from Kolkata on my pilgrimage to the third Mecca of Mountaineers – Makalu.
The triumvirate – Everest, Lohtse and Makalu stood athwart the azure sky of Nepal like the three great Gods of Hindus – Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar. I had already paid my homage at the feet of first two and on 12th of April, 2013 I started off from Kolkata on my pilgrimage to the third Mecca of Mountaineers – Makalu. Though the three great peaks stood side by side – hand in hand yet the approach route of Makalu was different as were many other things which made this eight thousander perhaps more challenging. I was all set for a dream climb. Expedition organized Angan Chaariye, Serampore and Bally Bhagirathi.
On reaching Kathmandu, I had to spend a couple of days completing customary paperwork both with my agent and Government of Nepal and in between getting some time out for visiting the Bodhanath Monastery. After that, I flew to Biratnagar and from there I took a jeep to Tumlingtar. From Tumlingtar I had a bumpy ride on another jeep that dropped me at Num village on 17th of April. As I disembarked from the vehicle, all dusty and fighting to straighten my back I fell in an immediate love with the serene beauty of the village.
Next day, my Sherpa Migma and I marched along the village path bordered by pines and cutting shortcuts between the stone-houses from where the little children looked at us with gaping mouth and quizzical eyes. The march went on for seven long days and as we slowly gained height the trees decreased in number eventually vanishing altogether, patches of snow appeared and the terrain put on a rough and tough profile dissuading the pedestrian from further encroachment.
We reached Base Camp located at an altitude of 4900 mtr on 24th of April. On the way we spend the night at Sedua, Tashigaon, Khongma, Dobato, Yanle and tadasha. On 26th, we moved on to the Advanced Base Camp, some nine hundred metres higher. It was actually from this place where the expedition was controlled and conducted and served as our base camp in its proper term.
We were greeted at the ABC by other fellow climbers who had flocked there from different parts of the World. Colourful tents were set up by the Sherpas but the spirit was dampened by an overcast sky. We had our acclimatization schedule ready at hand but we had to remain tent bound. It was during this period, a chain of events occurred that had a profound effect on the later stage of our expedition. A Chinese team returned to the ABC, who had purportedly reached the summit of Makalu and one of their members was missing. The only other member of the team feared the worst and the sherpas went up on a rescue mission. They returned after a couple of days – the member could not be traced. On their return, the sherpas claimed that they had anchored ropes all the way up to the summit. Though we felt sorry for the ill-struck climber, the news that the route to the summit has been opened delighted us.
Makalu (8463 mtr) is the fifth highest peak in the World and has not been summited too many times. Everest, on the other hand, has so many aspirants applying every year to have a go that there is a separate agency to open a common route for all. Here, on Makalu, we had to open our own route and carried our own ropes and paraphernalia. The handful of teams who gathered at the base camp could also do it jointly, if they wanted.
The Chinese team, along with their Sherpas left the ABC. What I didn’t know at that time that they also took all our extra ropes with them. My Sherpa Migma had parted with the ropes without bringing the fact to my knowledge - an act which not only amounted to sheer indiscipline and foolhardiness on his part but severe loss to the expedition which we would see later.
The weather improved and on 1st of May, we established our Camp-I at a height of 6300m above the sea level. Next day, we started climb in the morning and established camp- II at an altitude of 6600 mtr. On 3rd May we returned to ABC. It was part of the process of acclimatization – preparing our body to the thin air and low pressure of the mountains.
From May 4 to 14, we were confined to our tents. The bad weather deterred any further progress. It was a period of anguish which I had now become accustomed in my career of Mountaineering.
On 15th of May, Migma and I with the slightest improvement in weather set off for Camp-II. However, our effort was thwarted by a blizzard that blew at 60 miles per hour at and above Camp-II. We had to abandon our ascent and returned to ABC. Like everything, this attempt had also its brighter side. It helped us to acclimatize better.
On the 19th of May, we resumed our climb at the break of the dawn accompanied by two climbers; one from Japan and the other from Finland. We were greeted by a very cold, dull and insipid mountain bodies which slowly turned into volcanoes that erupted gold. We put our sun goggles on. The melting ice-cream like snow glazed and I wished I could have a mouthful of it. The peaks with their golden crown surrounded us as if we were in the land of McKenna’s gold. When we reached the Camp-I region, we yearned to give a rest to our tired feet but on the second thought bypassed the camp site by a few distance and moved up towards Camp – II. On reaching Camp-II we were glad to crawl inside the tent and stretch our back.
The next morning we started off for Camp-III. The gradient was neck-breaking and we had to negotiate hard rock and ice-walls. At places, the slope exceeded seventy degrees and we had to kick our crampons hard to get a footing. We had anchored ourselves with the fixed rope and slowly jummered our way up. It was a tedious job. Eventually, we reached a height of 7400mtr and Camp-III was established. The place was called Makalu La.
On 21st of May, we established Camp-IV at an altitude of 7900mtr. At the far end of this path we noticed something that started to become a huge concern for us. To our dismay we found that the fixed ropes were missing where they should have been. After reaching Camp – IV we send some sherpas to reconnoiter the route ahead and when they returned we were at a loss to hear that no rope had been fixed in the entire path following from summit camp to the summit. We were 19 climbers and the sherpas present and we put our heads together to decide on the course of action. Luckily, we had few ropes left with us. The only option left was to open our own route and go ahead. The weather was fine and we planned to start our summit bid on the same night. Generally, on Makalu the summit bid starts at 2 or 3 AM in the night but we had to start early as we had no idea how long it would take to open the route. Accordingly, at 8:45 PM we stepped out of our tents.
The sherpas went few paces ahead of us; opening the route as they moved up. But, it was easier said than done. At an altitude of 8000m, in the death zone, it was a terrible ordeal and took infinitely long time to fix ropes and inch ahead. Sherpas had hard time fixing the ropes on the blue hard ice and we stood motionless for hours knee-deep in snow and at minus thirty degree Celsius temperature till the ropes were fixed. Still, we faced our problems as a challenge and persevered on. When we reached 8300m, our stock of ropes got exhausted.
We were just 163m short of the summit. It was just a rock face and a ridge that stood between us and the summit. So near, yet so far. I proposed to go forward with my Sherpa Migma but others jumped on me. We abandoned the expedition. We turned back. It’s all in a game but it took me some time to digest the fact. I just could not submit to the fate that I had to return from just 163m from the peak(8463 m). All the preparations, the labour, the money, all my dreams were lost.
I returned brokenhearted. But, more I thought, more I found myself cheated. Who are to be blamed for our failure? It was neither bad weather nor that we were crippled that we failed. We failed because a group of sherpas told us a blatant lie and created a shortage of equipments. It’s the sherpas whom we rely most on the mountains. They are our friend and guide. In Himalaya, one rarely climb in the Alpine style – the sherpas and porters are part and parcel of an expedition.
The mountaineers book the expedition through the agencies and pay for the sherpas, the ropes, the taxes and it is a full package contract. I think it is now the duties of these agencies to step in. When they have taken the money, they should compensate for the loss. Though I doubt whether failure of an expedition of such magnitude can ever be compensated. But, still a policy of compensation can surely help to curb the repetition of such incidents.
And, if the agencies can’t put rein on the unruly sherpas, very soon everything will be out of their hands. One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel. The century old reputation of the sherpas will be lost in no time. The climber-sherpa relation would deteriorate. It would not take much time for the visitors round the world to turn their faces away from Nepal. Then the onus will be on the Nepal Government to ensure that their guests are not cheated – and the pure whiteness of the mountains remains unblemished.