The Unprecedented Pilgrimage to Mt Everest
Why do humans climb mountains, I have often questioned myself and have always struggled to find a reason for why one would romanticize mountains, why climb again and again and why have one on one with ‘Death Gods’?
It’s because the mountains never question or beg for answers.
You don’t need to prove yourself nor do you need any validation.
They are always there, standing mighty! Breathing, protecting and killing, accepting and what not!
And in ways, most of us can’t comprehend…
Some would say passion takes you there, some say it’s their dream, some take it as an adventure sport.
Any reason is a reason valid enough for you to want to climb the tallest mountain in the world. I get asked the same question when I tell people about my journey. I still think I don’t have an answer to that. Everything just happened so fast that I still haven’t figured it out.
So let’s start from the very beginning!
A normal doctor, working in a private hospital in Delhi.
What made her climb a mountain?
It all started with my love for mountains when I got work in Shimla. Having survived blood cancer and chemotherapy for one year, I was completely lagging behind in my career. I had it all planned to go and work in the US and then cancer struck.
It was the worst phase of my life, bedridden for months, total loss of control and of course the brunt of treatment.
I survived it because my family was there. It’s was our fight.
And today I say it proudly, I survived what would have killed others.
I was an avid biker. Classic 350cc, the love of my life, independent brat, a rebellious kid I was all through, but soon after cancer treatment I met with a near-death accident due to my bones being weak. I almost fractured all the major bones of my body and today I carry three titanium rods from that event.
After two back to back life-changing events, what does one do to get back on track?
I was clueless, no plan worked out.
Shimla was the first place where I fell for the hills. Just pastime trekking helped me heal myself mentally.
Then came Leh and the opportunity to climb Mt Everest. I said ‘no’ at first go because I knew I was not physically fit to climb mountains.
Discussing over and over with colleagues they convinced me to go for the expedition to Mt Stok Kangri which is considered as the easiest peak to scale.
I was not trained in mountaineering at all and went stupidly for this. During the course, I fell sick and had to come back. But later, I was determined to climb and experience how it feels to be on the top of a mountain and to this day it’s one feeling I have not forgotten even after climbing Everest.
People usually say that how can you describe a feeling or a moment to anyone who is not there. I say you cannot describe it by words but by sharing the passion.
After this, the love affair with mountains became more strong. It’s like an addiction now.
I trained at HIM for the basics and did the advance from AMI.
After that, we went for Mt Mamostong Kangri in the Ladakh region, 6153 m. That peak was such a beauty that it just lets you go into a trance while climbing.
Next was Mt Saser Kangri 7672m and Mt Nun 7135m, both extremely challenging peaks. During these expeditions, I realised that I am a very slow CLIMBER and slow acclimatizer. I got to know how my body behaved with height and low temperatures. But is this enough for Everest I asked myself?
Being a doctor I was also responsible for the team, and being a climber I have to be responsible for myself too.
Until January 2017, I was not convinced with my physical fitness at all. Over a period of two months, I pushed my body, running 10 to 12 km in Leh in the winter mornings. Let me tell you not easy at all, but that was the only thing that kept me fit. Of course a healthy high protein diet too.
Finally, the day came whence we flew to Kathmandu and that city was full of climbers from all parts of the world. And then the flight to Lukla, the most exciting flight ever. The plane actually nosedives. And then you get to see the first view of the mighty Goddess, what a feeling to see her!
From Lukla, it’s a 9-day trek to the base camp situated at a height of 17700 ft. 42 km of upslope and a little bit of down slope, adventurous suspension bridges, a crowd of fellow climbers, the hustle and bustle, the yaks and sherpas doing load ferrying is still fresh in my mind. Gradually you gain height and acclimatise which is getting very important. Plus you carry your own load of 20 kg all through the trek. By the time we reached Tengbouche my legs had already given up and I was seriously contemplating on quitting, but my team motivated me so much that today I am thankful to them for I wouldn’t have done the summit without them.
On reaching base camp one would find so many colourful canopies of tents that it doesn’t feel like that you are on an expedition. You interact with so many teams and climbers that they become your family for the next two months. It was an honour to meet the famous Swiss climber Ueli Stack who attained his peaceful end in the work he loved to do.
Then over next two weeks, we went for height gaining exercises to Kala Patthar and Pumori base camp, taking three steps at that height was a pain indeed. I used to get breathless at night while sleeping and get up at 3 am to go out of the tent. One night I just saw a trail of lights in Khumbu icefall and it was just so mesmerizing that I forgot I am actually out in cold.
So first time when you cross the notorious Khumbu icefall it’s like an endless maze of walls of ice, I literally took 12 hours to cross that monster but I knew I have to cross it again and again. So there is a team called ‘Icefall Doctors’ who fix the rope and ladders across Khumbu and they are the reason one crosses Khumbu safely.
Base Camp, Mt. Everest
Crossing snake bend on Khumbu icefall
Climbing icefall to camp 1
Climbing Lhotse face
Camp 2, Mt. Everest
Camp 2 to Camp 3, Mt. Everest
Camp 3, Mt. Everest
Climbing Lhotse face en route Camp 3 to Camp 4, Mt. Everest
From Camp 3 to Camp 4, Mt. Everest
Camp 4, Mt. Everest
Enroute Summit, Mount Everest
So you do two to three cycles of height gain till camp 4 to adjust your body to the height and rarefied atmosphere. The cycle where I spent a night at Camp 2 at 21000 ft, I realised how hard it’s going to be. Camp 2 is like an advance base camp and in a flat space that it’s called a football ground or the silent valley. After that, you ascend to camp 3 to 24000 ft facing a 75-degree climb and strong winds of almost 60 to 100 mph. The night at Camp 3 was sleepless. The swishing sound of oxygen cylinders the wind and the height, restlessness is all you feel. It’s painful to be at that height where you can’t even pee without being killed.
Camp 4 at 26000 ft is known as the death zone, it was creepy. We faced the mighty Lhotse incline, I was facing health problems already and was sitting down at every three step using more of my oxygen. Then suddenly out of nowhere, an oxygen cylinder comes rolling down and hits one of our Sherpas in the leg and we had to bring him down with a broken leg. Such mistakes which cost you. Once you reach camp 4 and realize why it’s called death zone, you can actually feel death in the air. Bodies all black and blue with climbing gear are lying behind rocks, no one cares like it’s a common sight to see. No humanity no emotion and no respect for them. Climbers crossing over them and then leaving behind the ones dying is something haunts you for long and scares you to the core.
After coming back to base camp there was a moment I thought for what if something happens to me, will I also be a reference point for others in future just lying out there. But then I thought I will die doing something I liked and wanted to. So why regret?
After this we did two more cycles and before final summit window had a total rest and recoup. Prayers were done to evoke the ‘Sagarmatha Goddess’ for her blessings before the climb. It was all getting surreal now.
But the weather Gods were merciless and it was the worst climbing season ever. No ropes were fixed till summit and all were getting anxious over a failed season this time. Our team left in wee hours of May 17 morning halting at Camp 2 directly. Next day we left for camp 3 and the weather got bad, 100 mph blizzard and we were stuck, but after the blizzard died out we moved on to the next camp. Ideally, camp 4 is a stopover for 6 hrs and then you leave for the summit, but again the blizzard started and we were stuck there for two days without food and depleting oxygen. Few cylinders were stolen and then half of our team had to go down and it was decided only the strongest will climb. I was a weak member but then I went against team leaders’ decision to go for it for I knew I came so far and either I die here or go back after summoning. I was foolish I think now, such impulsive decisions can cost your team members lives too, that is what I learnt. So on the night of 20th May, a team of 8 left and it was one of the hardest things I have done till now. I felt jumping off planes is easier.
Then after crossing the famous Hilary step, the dangerous rocky patch where an inch here or there and you freefall to darkness. I started hallucinating I thought a fellow climber wants to cross over and I let off my safety anchor and suddenly my sherpa holds my backpack and shakes me asking what the hell am I doing? I was like oh my gosh! that was so real and a slight wind would have grown me into Nepal or Tibet dead. At t50 m from the summit, I could see what I was training for all this while. It’s just there now in front of you and it took me 50 minutes to reach on top and I was blank when I got on top. There was no thought, no chattering in my brain. Complete emptiness. Then I felt the wind saying you did it and am not making it up, it really did. Then I dropped to my knees and knelt before the Goddess, thanking her for considering me worthy of this view. Tears roll down my cheeks and freeze. I asked myself is this what you wanted? I sit there for 20 minutes looking at the 360 view and vast expanse of clouds and other peaks. It was a sight imprinted. I make a call to the base camp at 8 am exactly 13 hrs later that we have done it, feeling a relief!
A few minutes later after clicking necessary proof pictures, we start descending. The most difficult part.
As the descent starts, we reach camp 4 and two of my team members became snow blind and one started having frostbite in his fingers. We hardly managed to reach camp 3 as everyone was so tired that we could hardly walk. I being the leader had to make them reach safely even though I did not have one percent energy left. 72 hrs without food crushed your body, it was like walking in the desert but of snow and during daytime it’s as hit as 40 degrees. Somehow we dragged ourselves to camp 3 and had to spend another night without food. Next morning we made our slow descent to camp 2, the condition of patients was worsening and I was worried that one might lose all his fingers. I also started having frostbite in both my feet and when I took off the shoes the whole skin peeled off. Finally, a call was made to evacuate three patients and me from camp 2 to base camp by chopper. It cost me 8000 USD to sort and if it’s from camp 3 then 24000 USD which is more than the whole expedition cost for a 5 member team. Meanwhile, we heard the sad news of Indian climber passing away. All through expedition we saw dead people dying and sherpas leaving them back. So now all these bodies have become reference points. Camp 3 and camp 4 are full of human shit and pee. We have to take care of this peak before it becomes a tourist centre. I mean we are climbing to worship a Goddess but this is what we humans do there.
Reaching base camp was the time I realised that I am back alive with the whole team safe and no major medical problems. The three patients were sent to Delhi and rest of the team trekked back and finally, we flew to our home country.
As soon as I landed in India there was this sudden withdrawal or sadness that what now?
Even though I was busy with presentations, I was sad. I felt like I left a part of me there.
Understanding that it is a mountain withdrawal, I was diagnosed with anxiety and that my cancer was back in stage 1. But I was not sad about it because I felt that I did something which I would have never even dreamt of.
People often ask me how was your experience? What did you feel? How was it like on top of the world?
I am often left speechless because of that, I was at the top.
What is the point of sharing my story? Even though you have been through hell in your life you should never think that you can’t do it, it’s not about Everest, it is about your ‘mind’.
Whatever adventure you do, find a connection to it, don’t do it just because you have the time and money for it. Relate to it. Feel connected to it. I see a lot of youngsters who go for trekking without training just to get good pictures. Get educated and train well before you go for it. Any mountain can turn on you!
Summit, Mount Everest
What did I learn from climbing?
Mountains have the magical power to heal you. I have had chronic depression and climbing mountains have been of great help. If you go into mountains and don’t come back changed then you never connected to that mountain. They are a form of God on earth and always respect them. Don’t have any ego while climbing. Respect the traditions of culture followed there.
After recovering from cancer I got addicted to adventure, I jump out of planes, I climb mountains but still am scared of water. After my accident till now, I have not ridden a bike or a car. We all have our fears to conquer. We all have the guts to do it and that’s what I do and want everyone to do it.
That nothing is impossible. To make your dreams reality you have to take that first step out of your comfort zone. Nothing comes easy, but then you alone have to take that step and you alone have to make that journey to live your dream. There will be many hiccups. But there will always be a way out for that.
Take chances, make mistakes, let go of the pain, that’s how you grow. Be not scared of failures. You have to fail in order to practice being brave. It’s your journey, you might get lost in the way, but you will reach your destination if you have the will. There will be the hell lot of problems in your life, how you handle them and come out alive makes you your own superhero. Climb your own Everest. Be your own Superhero!
As my favourite quote says, ‘A valliant coeur, rien d’impossible!’ which means, ‘For a brave heart, nothing is impossible!’
Excerpts by team member.
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