Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Life after a two day death

We were to meet at the Police Station at Yuksum. Sada's uncle was at the station. He was in tears.
It must have abeen a bad shock for him, as he saw me alive. This only confirmed Sada's death.
I tried to comfort him as he begged for a last look at his nephew.
He mentioned that he was completely confused. He had recieved confirmation message that had declared Sada alive. My family must have recieved the opposite news i.e. a confirmation of my death.

I asked him to believe in us as we were present in person.
A rumor can be so destructive.
He had travelled all the way to confirm the death.

It struck me that my existence could have pained another bereaved.
It is a situation, where I am a pawn unable to do much; other than confirm a rumor as wrong.

We had also written to the police of the high level of co-operation, we had recieved from Rinzing.He was cleared.
After the lunch, Rajesh asked us to leave for the Bagdogra airport. He would stay for a day or two to clear the formalities.
I made a call to PTC office and confirmed the news.
Had a call from Prasad that went on for a long time.It was good to talk to the friend I had started my adventures with.
He must have been worried. Not to mention my other batchmates in Austraila.
On our way back, Shantanu struck an interesting conversation that set me thinking.
This had been going on now and then in my mind. The collage of my thought formed the portrait of Explorer.
People who continue to climb are different from the rest. We need challenges outside our regular job.
We are passionate about nature. We tend to try to outperform. We take calculated risks.
What may seem logical to us might be illogical to others. We want to be super human.

I wondered the stress the rumors might have put on my family, my friends and my team.
Though I had not stepped beyond my limit, this would perhaps never be understood by those, who think unlike me.
If I care about them, does the climber have to die?

There is excess energy that needs to be channelised. I could deep dive into art and develop my creativity. Buy a nice mountain bike and hit the road. Perhaps run the marathon.

The "rebirth" was well celebrated as old friends poured in. I was energised as  I felt the expanse of my friend circle. Why should someone die for me to realise it?

I feel that no one should go through the same pain as me to realise his or her importance.

As the climber dies in me, I recollect an old episode.
I was on my way back from Mt Satopanth and the expedition had not gone well with me.On my way back I fell on my face as I tripped on a slope. This had never happened to me before and it was a shock.
How could I fall? I had often stayed in balance in past. I knew I crossed my limit and thought of retiring.

I recall the words a foreign tourist had said to me, then.

She said, "Give up climbing? You must be kidding. A climber never retires."

Monday, October 11, 2010


The walk to Tshokha took 4 hours. Anju cast a last look at Tinchinkhang, through the clouds.
She was covering the distance, a lot better than me. The pain in my right knee was worse and I limped using my ski poles.
The route from Kokchurang to Tshokha was through dense vegetation, mostly Rhododendron bushes and it was nice to be back at the tree line. I munched on the Apple that Daman had given me for the short trek. There were other trek groups at Bakhim where the track merged into our old route to Thansing.

The sunburn gave us away as the members of Tinchinkhang expedition and there were more questions from the porters. We had enough on our plate and were getting more impatient, as people dug into details that we wanted to erase from our mind.

A Mountaineer from Siliguri mentioned of a massive avalanche from Tinchinkhang when he was doing some research on the mountain. We agreed that this was not a easy trekking peak as mentioned by the Sikkim Government. There was no way to know till one gets closer to the crux of the climb and there is need to increase awareness.

My knee was giving me bad time as the descent steepened. I could see the monastery where the four of us had splendid time.My spirit was low. I was anxious to learn from Shantanu on further communication, including Ang's fate.

The clang of the Yak bells could be heard. We were close to civilization. We stepped inside the chalet where we were supposed to meet Shantanu.
My immediate thought was to buy a sprain liniment. We sat outside, sipping tea. There were too many questions inside the chalet. The atmosphere was too stuffy.

Shantanu approached me with a serious face. He mentioned that Ang and Mingma were put on the helicopter and shifted to Siliguri hospital, placed in I.C.U.
He also mentioned that Our L.O. was airlifted with some serious charges of mishandling the expedition. I was agitated and felt that we would do everything we could to clear him. Considering his age, he had been good at his duties and supportive.

Then Shantanu said,"There is a gochi.(Problem!) I want you to listen carefully and patiently. Somehow, your name was conveyed in the list of the deceased in place of Sada"

Hell broke loose as I thought of the consequences of this miscommunication. I wept. What would Ila have gone through for last two days.My kids, Family.

When I mourned for Mangesh and Sada, I had never realized consequences to my family.

Shantanu: The news is about an avalanche that hit us. There is a different story in every newspaper and on websites.
Though none spell your name, it is obvious that Mangesh and you would have gone for summit attempt. Your family was reached.

During our call the static and wind has changed "Sadaa" to read as "Parag". This had confused Rinzing.
I recovered slowly as I understood the means of the confusion and the logical fallouts well. I asked for a phone to call my wife.

We discussed and we thought it was better that we reach ground zero, before making any communication to outer world.

We were still in the mountains and the rumors were aplenty. We needed to get to Tshokha as fast as we could and prove that we were "phyisically intact".

Shantanu: Are you ok to walk? We may reach Tshokha by 9PM.

Without this extra piece of news, I had planned a good rest to relax my knee. I knew that the only choice was to climb down without further delay. It was near sunset.

Roger Payne (Switzerland) was on an expedition to Mt. Jopuno. He had heard of the tragedy, and he having made a successful ascent on Tinchinkhang, was better aware of the situation. As we talked we found common acquaintances like Paul Prichard and Johnny Dawes. I mentioned of the Meru Shark fin Expedition.

With my expedition sack on a Dzo, I carried my light sack with some food. My Head torch was with Mingma. Anju and I walked back with few Policemen, who were sent to "rescue" us. Shantanu was following our pack.

Shantanu had mentioned that few people from Chakram were already at Yuksom, including my old friend Rajesh Gadgil.
I remembered the night at Meade's col on Kamet.It was almost 16 years that we had met last on 19 Oct 1994, the day of my marriage.

I was overwhelmed by the quick reaction from Chakram Hikers. Most of the members had left in the midst of the Diwali. I limped like Long John Silver in the night trying to catch pace with others. I forgot about the accident, more keen to meet the people from Mumbai and to talk with Ila.

The lights of Yuksom could be seen. They seemed so bright. There were flashes of torch on the way below..perhaps people expecting us.

We decided among ourselves that we would not say anything to the press. Our Club would send a response.

As we approached the village the spotlights dazzled us. We were back on a tar road after weeks. A lady police escorted Aju and me to a Jeep.
We sat waiting for Shantanu to join.

A guy started talking to Anju. I guessed, he was from the club. As I looked into his eyes, there was a flicker of recognition and lo! It was none other than Rajesh Gadgil in person.

Both of us were not the same old lanky climbers anymore. We embraced and I wept again.
I mentioned our night at Meade's col @ 23000 feet in the storm. We had shared a very rough patch. We talked of Prasad.
Rajesh mentioned that Prasad had kept calling in from Australia, trying to get abreast with the situation.

I thought of Moreshwar, Girish, Milind and almost, all buddies I had climbed with.
Neelam, my sister in law was on line (early morning in USA). There were too many people who wanted me to be safe.
Rajesh was handling the situation magnificently. He must have faced numerous calls. A friend that I could count on.

I made the only call I wanted to. I talked to Ila and told her that I was intact. That she should not worry any more. I would be back only after the necessary police work was through.

The police wanted to do some medical examination from the party they had rescued.
Anju wanted to get through it  fast ; she had a hell of a day.
I got my Blood pressure checked. The result was normal.

The three of us joined Bhau Padhye (a veteran Climberfrom Mumbai) and Rajesh for dinner.

Although I was tired from the long march, a two day descent that we managed in a day, the anxiety kept me awake.
We were to meet with the police officials. The Superintendent of police was at Yuksom to meet us.

Our thought was focused on clearing Rinzing.
I dreamed of an explorer making way back to his home.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


We woke up just as Daman was getting the morning tea. I realized the huge task that lay ahead of us.

Shantanu went to check Ang. No response. Same chant.Ang had probably used all the strength to get back to Advance Base camp.

Mingma felt better. He could walk on his own.

The team of Sherpas came up. They consoled me for the loss. I was moved.

I went back to out tent to pack up. Anju was feeling low. Shantanu was trying to steer the conversation to other subjects.

Ang was carried down by the Sherpas. I took a last look at Mt Tinchinkhang.

Tears welled in my eyes and I broke down. I cursed myself for being objective at all times. I felt inhuman.

I cried out loud, not at the mountain, but at my own behavior.

"The Ghosts" were returning. (See Blog 'Point of no return' for my definition of Ghost.)

It must have been a shock to others who had only seen the impassive side of me for the two days.

I gave in only after we were out of the critical situation.

They tried to comfort me with words.

I was back in control as my reasoning returned.
It could not have been done differently. If I were fit, I would have gone up in the summit team.
Not in the rescue team... perhaps, we could even have arrested the fall together.

Or perhaps I would have been lost too.
Ifs and buts do not mean much. I had not climbed for few reasons, which I should reveal...
The reason for which I climb would be lost, if I was too dependent on the Sherpas. I was sure that at some point I would be weak and I did not want to be a burden.

Heights made me uneasy. I was not as comfortable or carefree in mountains as before. There was a confidence that I had had in my past expeditions. A feeling that nothing will go wrong with me in the mountains.

I did not have that feeling during Tinchinkhang.
The most important reason was 19 Oct, my marriage anniversary.
I did not want to betray the trust Ila had in me, when she permitted me to go on the expedition.

I withdrew when I felt that the risks indeed exceeded my expectation.

Success or failure did not seem important. Mountaineering for me is about testing the limit, to enjoy the adventure and ensure safe return.

As a mountaineer, after finding my limit, I did not budge from my decision. The limit is dictated by a person's fitness level.

The walk to base was easy. Rinzing had made arrangements to help us for a rapid withdrawal from the mountain.

The Helicopter had not shown up. It meant that Ang had to be carried upto Thansing. Easier to land the helicopter.

We walked to Thansing. There were trekking teams who looked at us strangely. Perhaps the news had spread.
The chief of the Thansing site was polite and softspoken.
He understood our feelings well.
The Heli did not arrive till late afternoon. Ang's immediate evacuation was necessary.

The lead sherpa was using different methods to secure Ang. He was huge and in one attempt he put Ang in a basket and lifted on his own.

Finally they decided that a stretcher carried by four would be the easiest. These four could be replaced. Shantanu decided to go down with the porters the same night. He would then be within the cell range and could call Yuksom and the club. Anju and I were to descend, the next morning.

An hour after the team left, I heard the copter. It was so late. So useless!
I laughed at the situation, as we saw the copter shoot ahead of Tinchinkhang, well beyond Mt. Pandim. I hoped it would land at Tshokha on its return.
I had another sleepless night. It was extremely cold. An ordeal lay ahead of us.

Would the police understand? Would they ask for proof? Insurance claim....
The news must have traveled to the family, colleagues and friends. They would know about Mangesh.
My thoughts returned to his family.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Dark Diwali

Post Tinchinkhang acident:

It was 4pm and at Camp1 (18000 ft) we started debating about the condition below the summit. What was Mangesh's condition? Perhaps, he would wake up.
He had a strong will and it will help him to get back to camp with assistance of the sherpas.
But they had said he was unconscious. I wished that it wasnt so and it may be the fright of the fall that made him dumb. Then Mingma spoke of the details..
All of them slipped into a crevasse.
For 15 mins they all were Unconcious.
Ang was the first to recover.

He pulled out Mingma then Mangesh and Poor Sada was already dead and stuck inside.
Then he called us on the walkie talkie at 3PM (prescheduled call.)
He tried hard to wake up Mangesh but he could not. (Mangesh was breathing).

He held the mouthpiece and all we heard was rasped breathing.
We pleaded to Mangesh to say something but he was completely blank.

There was no moaning. No sign of pain. No whisper.

Mingma mentioned; they were descending the slope and someone slipped pulling them off the face. Mingma tried to arrest twice but slipped each time. The ice must be very hard. They slipped into a Crevasse (probably the bergschrund that seperates the face from the top basin.).

We had an hourly call with Ang and Mingma, The last call made at around 5PM, but there was no responce from Mangesh. he had passed into a state where he could not feel anything.
Shantanu and Anju thought of going up the fixed rope.I debated that the snow gets softer adding to more risk If it took them more than 12 hours to climb the summit, it would take us, the weaker team, a lot more time.

(Means climb through the night and reach the accident spot next morning.)

I debated that if we were strong enough to climb up the slope, we would have been in the attempt team and
would not have stayed back. What if one of the rescuers themself met a casuality by a falling rock? We would end up with more casuality.

Rinzing had asked us to stay at camp. He must have been very thoughtful. He would not like to pose more risk to the team.

The three of us agreed that we could not do anything other than reducing risk.

Shantanu searched for a number in Mumbai where we could send the message of the accident.

At the 5PM call, he asked Rinzing to go to the village of Tshokha which was in mobile range. Convey the news of accident. Get Heli rescue immediately. Rinzing left base immediately after the call.

My immediate response was ; if Mangesh was still unconscious, the Sherpa's should try to get down to the camp. This would at least save 2 people in 4. My mind was focused on reducing casuality. It was only people numbers. Faces did not matter.

The handset battery was getting low. With no battery, we were at a bigger risk.

The set rang again. "Saab! Kuch to karo Saab! (Sir! Do something!)" Followed by sobbing. He wanted Mangesh to speak into the handset. We could hear his breath.

How cruel could I be! Perhaps God was testing us. I asked Shantanu to switch off the set.
We could do nothing. If we listened to the cries, we might set false hope.

Eventually the battery would die.
I hoped ; the Sherpas would try to take care of themselves at the right moment and descend.
I preyed to god as never before, to give the Sherpas the power to decide,what was appropriate.

The night was haunting. We had to eat to stay warm. The upma was unpalatable. The boiled water tasted of upma and I nearly puked.

It must be 8pm and we noticed a torch shine behind our tent. A figure collapsed outside the tent.
It was Mingma. 1 saved. I was elated to see him back, alive.

Shantanu helped him with his boots and Anju opened up a sleeping bag.  Mingma was mumbling about going up with a sleeping bag.

Ang was with Mangesh at the accident spot. Mangesh was alive, but unconscious when Mingma left. He must have climbed down since we did not reply on the radio set.
Ang's arm had taken a beating and he was unable to move it.

Shantanu inspected Mingma for broken bones/ribs.
There was a bad swell on his leg, perhaps caused by rope burn, when he tried to stop the fall.
Mingma was back only to go up again. Certain that a heli will come for rescue.

Shantanu gave him a sedative to ease the pain, which he swallowed reluctantly.
We did not ask him anything about the fall. He had come a long way and we did not want him to remember anything unpleasant. We jollied him into a sleeping bag and asked him to rest for an hour.
I was relieved that we got back one person at least. Would Ang make it through?

From the talk with Mingma we could gather, that Mangesh was in a state where he could not feel pain.
Where would be Rinzing? The poor guy must be heading to Tshoka. Would we get a Heli rescue?

I felt that a rescue will take a very long time. Perhaps too late. At least for sake of Ang? Perhaps Mingma
was right in taking the sleeping bags up.
Mingma woke up late. We assured him that he should not feel pressurized to go up again.

But he was thinking of poor Ang, his nephew. He packed the sleeping bags, wore his boots and gaiters.Strapped the crampons on the boots and hung the haversack.

He took few steps and collapsed in the snow.

We brought him inside the tent. I was stern and said, we did not want to lose more. This was no time to take risks. He was back in his sleeping bag.

It is almost impossible to convey to the reader what we had gone through that night. I thought of Mangesh's wife and daughter. If this had happened to me what would be my family reaction. After all I had told them we were going for a easy peak.

I can just say this should never happen to any person who loves an adventure.
The pressure was tremendous. We were thinking of numerous tasks that would follow. We could not afford negativity of any kind. Personal feelings have no place when we attempt to manage a disaster.

The mishap had brought the three of us  close. I was fortunate to have exceptional people around me. It only made me very strong.

My cough was getting bad. The torch cell was dying. We were wide awake apart from Mingma.

Suddenly in the middle of the night, must have been around 2AM we saw another torch light. Mingma?

I did not hide my pleasure when I saw him walk to the door and fall down into the snow.

Again we asked no questions. I remember taking his head on my lap. He was such a kid. I tried to warm him up and he groaned. I apologised, as I had forgotten his injured arm.

Again, we asked no questions. We wanted him to focus on recovery.

I tried to make him drink water, but he kept coughing. Shantanu did his check.
Shantanu was worried that there might be rib damage. Ang was in a very bad state.

Would we need a stretcher to rescue him? We had no rope.
With the sherpas asleep, we held a council of war in our tent. We had less food. We were running out of battery.

If we could somehow talk them into a slow descend back to Advance base, they could be moved further down by a rescue team. Entirely depended on their morale.

As the sun rose, the gloom at our camp reduced.
We went into the sherpa tent to check. Ang was talkable. He told us that Mangesh stopped breathing at 1AM. He then started his long descent.These sherpas had been on few expeditions with Mangesh and the risk they took was commendable.
I could gauge the respect they had for Mangesh.

Though they knew of the fatality , they stuck with him to the last breath.
I gently opened the subject of going down.Could they walk?

Mingma: 'Lets wait for helicopter.'
Parag: 'What if there is no helicopter. What if its is delayed by 2 days?'
I turned to Ang and said, "You have a Wife and a Kid.You want to return for their sake."

I left the matter with them for discussion.

It worked. In an hour both were ready to go down.
We hurriedly packed one of the tents. Collapsed the other and buried it in the snow.

Shantanu attached the slings and rope pieces to make a moving rope and the 3 of us attached ourselves to it.

We were on a very short leash of around 10 feet between climbers.The Sherpas did not want to rope up.

The sherpas followed us closely at the start of the crevasse zone started.
I had become overly cautious for each step I took. No more accident.
The clouds moved up the valley. Visibility was reduced to 20 ft. The descent seemed very long to me.

We could see the massive rock around which we had set camp. There was no one at camp. Where was Daman?

The Sherpas got into one tent and immediately fell asleep. We occupied the other tent, put our carrymats and stuff for the night.

Daman was back in the camp. He was carrying some food from base. He expressed his condolence politely.

He mentioned that he had seen a small avalanche on the peak but it was much away from the climbing route.

Ang was sinking into delirium. He was chanting.Not responsive. Mingma was better.

With Daman around, we were at home. A pack of 10 Sherpas was coming to Advance base to evacuate our injured.

This was a big relief. I slept well that night.