5, 6 and 7 May, 1978 were three glorious days for the Indian Air Force. On 5 May, six members of the team set foot on the virgin Bharte Khunta peak (21,580 ft). The second party, comprising four members, repeated the feat the following day. On 7 May, four members and two porters reached the summit of Kedar Dome (22,4-01 ft), from where they later skied down to the Advance Base Camp, about 7000 ft below.
The first serious but unsuccessful attempt to climb Kedarnath was made by a German team in 1938. In 1947, a Swiss team led by Andre Roch successfully scaled Kedar Dome and Kedarnath. Subsequently, though half-a-dozen Indian attempts made on Kedarnath massif between 1967 and 1976 were partly successful in climbing Kedar Dome, ours was the first attempt to ski down.
The 24-member team I was chosen to lead comprised Squadron Leaders J. G. Malik and Ran jit Kumar (medical officer), Flight Lieutenants J. B. Jagad and S. Bhasin (both deputy leaders), T. K. Rath, B. S. Ahluwalia, D. B. Ajgaonkar and M. N. Sharma. (medical officer), Flying Officers D. M. Puranik, Y. S. Yadav, P. Murthy, B. G. Joshi, and S. Aparajit, Pilot Officer T. Shridharan, Corporals Surjit Singh, D. S. Verma, B. P. Rao and T. K. Biswas, Shri Dorjee Lhatoo from HMI, Shri Nirmal Singh from NIM, Shri Manik Banerjee, cameraman R. S. Lingiaiah and Naik R. N. Shukla.
On 18 April, we sent most stores by air from Palam to Sarsawa, from where they were further transported to Rishikesh by road. As we alighted from our transport and hurriedly moved into a shack of a motel, dark rain-soaked clouds built up over the mountains and a downpour followed. It was, indeed, a welcome relief from the sweltering heat through which we had driven up. We reached Uttarkashi by evening and spent the next day in drawing mountaineering clothing and equipment from the NIM, arranging for porters and then Inner-Line permits. Despite all our efforts, we could depart for Harsil by noon only. We spent the night at Harsil, some of us in tents pitched by the side of the Bhagirathi and the others in a barrack provided by a local Army unit. As the local porters were inadequately equipped for high altitudes, certain items were collected from the Army stores. Besides, we collected 12 jerricans of kerosene and 4 jerricans of petrol to meet our fuel requirements in the days to come.
30. Snow ridge from Camp 2 to 3.
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31. The Fist Rock and the Upper Slab Zone seen from 6600 m.
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32. Wire ladder installed on rock wall from 6000 m to 6300 m.
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33. Nanda Kot from Nanda Devi. Article Page 54.
The Trek Out
To start with, the route lay along the left bank of the Bhagirathi. At this time of the year, the motorable road was reduced to a bridle path due to the numerous land- and snow-slides. We had to trek through Dharali, the last hamlet on this route, and then crossed a bridge to resume our climb along the right bank of the river. From here onwards to Lanka, the going was smooth but for a couple of steep gradients beyond Kopang. The bridge linking Lanka with the Bhagirathi across a deep gorge was still in the making, so we had to descend nearly 2000 ft to the confluence of Jharganga with Bhagirathi followed by half-an-hour's arduous ascent to regain our previous level.
Bhairon Ghati, a couple of temples, a dharmshala and rest- house, presented a deserted look. A jacked-up bus sans wheels held a promise of better days to come and indeed during our return journey we found it ferrying pilgrims between Gangotri and Bhairon Ghati.
It was dark when we stomped out of Bhairon Ghati for the trudge upstream towards Gangotri. The noisy Bhagirathi flowed in the depths below allowing an occasional glimpse at places. It was not before midnight that we could deposit our jaded bodies on the bare floor of the Forest Rest House at Gangotri. Luckily for us our energetic Sherpas had cooked a hot meal. A few hours of sleep that we could snatch were a boon indeed and rejuvenated us for the next day's ordeal.
An ordeal, indeed, it was on the morning of 24 August to undertake a 16 km trek that took us from a height of 12,200 ft to about 13,000 ft at Gaumukh, a snout of the Gangotri glacier.
We could hardly enjoy the lunch prepared by the advance party in an improvized kitchen, set up by the right bank of a nullah covered on either side with layers, of fresh snow, about 6 km short of Gaumukh. By the time we reached lunch point, our fatigue was made nearly unbearable by the onslaught of bad weather.
Soon after, but not before it was dark, we reached our windblown camp site at Gaumukh. We were wet and tired but thanks to our advance party, a couple of tents had already been pitched and we could soon savour the warmth of our sleeping-bags after a quick dinner.
So far, we had followed the schedule and in the same spirit a six-member party was sent after early breakfast on-25 April to reconnoitre the route ahead and select a site for the Base Camp somewhere at the foot of Shivling. They carried a tent and sufficient food to last them 3 to 4 days. Crossing the Bhagirathi by cautiously treading on a snow-bridge they negotiated a steep slope and followed the southwest ridges leading to Tapoban at the southern end. They selected a camp site (14,300 ft) on a rocky ridge with a frozen pool of water at its base.
The night of 26 April rings an ominous bell in our minds. It had been drizzling and snowing the whole evening and by 9 p.m.— quite a late hour in the mountains-we were all in our sleeping- bags, when we heard a frightening roar as if in a dreadful nightmare. Most of us came out of our tents wearing sleeping-bags like sacks and found to our horror that the biggest tent in our small colony was ablaze. Flames fanned by a fierce gale had the whole structure in their merciless grip and it was the six hapless inmates who had shouted for help. Under the circumstances, there was little that could be done. We quickly discarded our sleeping-bags, put on our shoes and started stamping out little embers of fire to save the other tents from getting gutted. This catastrophe took a heavy toll of precious mountaineering clothing and equipment but six lives were saved.
The morning of 27 April found us dispirited and dejected but soon we took stock of the losses and dispelled the despair which was urging us to abandon the attempt on Bharte Khunta. We found it was still possible for us to make do with the remaining equipment and re-equipped the affected members adequately from within the available resources. Unaware of the tragedy that had befallen our camp, Lhatoo, Bhasin, Ajgaonkar and Lakhapa left Base Camp to explore the route ahead and find a suitable site on the Kirti Bamak for establishing the Advance Base Camp.
The Base Camp firmly established and well stocked, the remaining members wound up the Gaumukh camp and moved up to occupy it on 28 April.
The snowy terrain between the Base Camp and the confluence of Gangotri glacier with Kirti Bamak was characterized by numerous deep hollows and dunes. From the confluence of the two glaciers, we turned westward trudging along the precarious crest of the medial moraine.
Advance Base Camp
At the end of this ridge, an hour and a half's march away, lay our Advance Base Camp at a height of 15,500 ft by the side of two small lakes. The view from here in all directions had cinemascopic dimensions. Directly in front, towards south, lay the famous Kedarnath (22,770 ft) flanked by its twin satellites —Kedar Dome (22,410 ft) on its eastern flank and Bharte Khunta (21,580 ft) on the western flank. On the eastern side, across the Gangotri glacier stood the magnificent Bhagirathi trio, seemingly so near that we could touch them. Behind us, to the north, stood a series of jagged rocky granite walls with the bare back of Shivling towering over them.
We had a busy schedule on 1 May 1978. Lhatoo, Ahluwalia, Rath and Lakhpa explored the route ahead through an icefall and recceed a site for Camp 1. The skiers carried out practice descents from the slopes of Kedar Dome. Basin sustained a knee injury executing a ski-jump across a crevasse—a factor which affected the later ski venture on the Kedar Dome to a great extent.
Assault on Bharte Khunta
On 3 May, Lhatoo, accompanied by four other members and Sherpa Lakhpa, set out on two ropes in the early morning to recce the route ahead and find a suitable site for Camp 2. Inching their way through the hazardous icefall, they found themselves against dead ends many a time and had to beat a retreat and resort to detours. The progress was further hampered due to laborious step-cutting in hard ice and fixing of ropes on precious pitches to ensure safe climbing. With the sky partially overcast, and the sun all too often obscured, they suffered a good deal from cold, especially during their frequent halts. After a five-hour grind, they came upon an area suitable for siting Camp 2 on a small plateau between two wide and deep crevasses. They dumped some food and equipment there and made a hurried retreat to beat the fast deteriorating weather. By the time they checked in at Camp 2 they had been on their feet over twelve hours.
Next day, the party left at 7 a.m., made their way to Camp 2 using the steps already cut and the fixed rope. It took them, about four and a half hours to reach Camp 2.
By midday, we were informed about their having established Camp 2 at about 19,500 ft right beside a crevasse and that they planned the assault for the following day.
5 May, time: 3.30 a.m., under the canopy of a moonlit sky, six mouths munched biscuits and drank lukewarm tea. Emerging from their tents, they divided themselves in two ropes—the first consisting of Lhatoo in the lead followed by Ahluwalia and Jagad and the second rope led by Lakhpa included Joshi and Rath. In the bitter cold that prevailed, they found their toes and fingers getting numb. The couloir, after a first brief stretch of the wet snow, became very hard going indeed. They had a tough time in crossing a number of crevassesr—oije of them was so huge that they had to descend into it and climb out of it at the other end. About 800 ft short of the main summit, the soft snow gave way to hard blue ice. They fixed crampons and started cutting steps by turns. The sun had brightened and its heat had already sapped their energy and depleted their reserves of strength. The expertise of Lhatoo and stamina of Lakhpa were very handy; they fixed' 300 ft of rope on the inner ice-wall of a bowl separating the main peak from the subsidiary peak.
I shall carry on for this next rope's length and then we shall change over again,' Lhatoo called out to Lakhpa. He climbed up a shallow snow-bank, the slope of which continually become less pronounced. This in turn soon led to a heavily corniced crest after a small crevasse. By now, the gradient was so slight that the ground seemed more or less flat. There was no higher for them to climb. Wherever they looked, the ground sloped down all around them. Jagad looked at his watch which was showing 8.45 a.m., called down to Lakhpa, 'There is no need for you to take over from Lhatoo now—we are already on the summit at last.'
Soon Lakhpa's rope joined the first rope and the six summit- men threw their arms around each other and ardently shook hands. The view was panoramic. The weather had turned windy and it chilled their hands and toes. They paid their homage to the mountain Gods, planted national and Air Force flags and took photographs of the surrounding peaks.
The descent to Camp 2 was slow, lengthy and laborious. On the last stretch, just before reaching the tents, their route doubled back uphill in a huge crevasse for a short way and every step was sheer agony for them before returning to Camp 2 at 11.30 hrs. After a quick lunch they made for Camp 1 in two ropes as before.
The second party comprising Ranjit Kumar, Shridharan, Puranik, Biswas and Sherpas Kami and Karma found the climb easier—thanks to the steps already cut and the rope fixed en route by the first party. Ranjit, Shridharan, Kami and Karma repeated the performance of the first assault party at 11 a.m. on 6 May.
Assault on Kedar Dome
The skiing contingent apart from the other equipment and food had to carry five pairs of skis and the allied outfit. The advance party, comprising Yadav, Murthy, Aparajit, Nirmal Singh and Sherpa Chunjey, established Camp 1 at an altitude of 19,500 ft on the NW. slopes of Kedar Dome. En route they had to negotiate steep slopes and wade through knee-deep snow.
4 May dawned bright and clear. After a quick breakfast Nirmal Singh with Murthy, Yadav, Aparajit and two porters moved up to reconnoitre the route ahead and find a site for Camp 2. A climb of merely 2000 ft to Camp 2 took them seven long hours to wade through waist-deep snow at places. The route was marked with flags. They had to tackle one steep snowy pitch after another which was as exacting as cutting steps on hard ice. They also had to fix rope at two places. Finally they selected a site for Camp 2 above the last big crevasse some 1500 ft short of the summit of Kedar Dome. They dumped foodstuff and equipment and hurriedly retreated for Camp 1 to beat the fast deteriorating weather.
5 May—-time 06.30 a.m., bright and clear morning: 'We were moving in a bid to establish Camp 2,' Surjit noted. 'The ridge, after a first brief stretch of wet snow, became very hard going indeed. Its surface was solid ice, and on the side facing the west cwm, it was steep. We were divided in three ropes. By half-past two in the afternoon we managed to reach one reasonably flat surface: the farther lips of a huge crevasse. Three tents were pitched in a row leaving space between two tents for a makeshift kitchen. It was bitterly cold outside.'
6 May was observed as a rest day due to sickness of porters and some members. Up at Camp 2 everything was set for the final spurt.
On 7 May, still bad weather: Nirmal Singh, Ajgaonkar, Murthy Verma, Rao and porters Lal Singh, and Bhim Bahadur divided on two ropes commenced the final assault on the summit. However, the weather was just holding fine and the task for the day one of paramount importance. The news, of keeping behind Yadav and Aparajit to look after the two sick porters at Camp 2 as also to be standing by for any emergency confronting the skiers while skiing down the summit, was received at Advance Base with mixed feelings if not totally discouraging.
Bird'eye view of Kedarnath Massif. (Photo: Indian Air force)
IAF expedition route to summit of Bharte Khunta. (Photo: Indian Air Force)
Down below, at Advance Base, we had our binocs trained on those seven black dots, as they slowly crawled across the vast, elemental shoulders of Kedar Dome, At 09.30, we saw six dots —now mere pinpricks against the immensity of snow—vanish over the crest of the Dome. At this point Ajgaonkar noted afterwards: 'Nirmal was leading. He stopped for a moment, just below the summit. My watch showed 09.30 a.m. Rest of the members joined us after 15 minutes. We shook hands and hugged each other ardently.'
We at Camp 1 at 10.45 hrs noticed two black dots appearing on the horizon, moving faster than usual. The long awaited ski- descent had commenced and soon black dots were turning into black sticks growing in size continually. By this time, we could discern four dots emerging from the summit ridge descending slowly without skis.
The two skiers made it to Camp 2 in 25 minutes, where they were greeted with juices by Yadav and Aparajit who were already set to ski down with them. By now clouds had started building up and there was no time for celebrations if they wanted to beat the fast deteriorating weather. Joined by Yadav, Murthy and Aparajit from Camp 2 Nirmal and Ajgaonkar commenced the ski descent again.
Aparajit later reported, 'The initial 300 ft of run was on a ruler-like slope, at more than 60°, covered with soft snow on top and hard ice below. We followed Ajg'aonkar and Nirmal keeping within 100 to 150 ft trying hard to control our descent, for the precarious slope ahead was infested with numerous hazardous deathtraps for unwary skiers. We threaded our way round numerous crevasses, cornices and overhangs. The red route- marking flags warned us, from a distance, of the approaching danger zone. The loose powdery snow was flying behind us in fountain-like formation. Down below towards Camp 1 we noticed no mo figures waving their hands. Over Bharte Khunta, a massive cloud pulsated with the glow and flash of lightning—a grim reminder of how unsettled the weather still was. The visibility was fast deteriorating. The going was pretty tough and not without i fall here and there. The high-velocity winds caused a flurry of now to rise and remain suspended in the air, reducing visibility further for the skiers who were following. It was not before another fifteen minutes that we were hugged by Bhasin, Doc Sharma and our porters at Camp 1. After a quick cup of tea, led by Bhasin on skis we zoomed down to Advance Base Camp in another half an hour. I suddenly felt a surge of triumphant relief run through me.'
Once back amidst their companions, the skiiers forgot theitf tiredness and excitedly narrated their trials and tribulations. While the climb to the summit of Kedar Dome took 15 gruelling hours spread over 5 days, the zoom down on skis to Advance Base 7000 ft below took only 90 minutes.
Their unique success was shared by other members, Sherpas, porters of the expedition and everyone who made the venture possible.