A NOTE ON THE ARTICLE 'LIVING WITH AN ANGRY MOUNTAIN. By P. M. Das
Volume 38 of the Himalayan Journal (p. 77) carries an article 'Living with an angry mountain' written by Mr P. M, Das, on an accident, and of the events that followed, on Bhagirathi II on June 3 1981, during a special camp that was being held at Gaumukh by the IMF to impart training in 'Alpine Style' climbing. Versions of this accident have filtered through to many climbing circles, and the Himalayan Journal is justified in wanting to publish an account of the accident by one who figured in it to satisfy the curiosity of readers. For one who was present himself, this article is a disappointing one as P. M. Das omits a number of relevant details, and distorts some 'to present a somewhat warped picture. I wish to support the Himalayan journal's endeavour by attempting to fill in some details, and correct others.
This attempt was one of the many 'Alpine outings' that were organized in the course of the camp, where groups of five or six would move out together on a particular glacier or peak" for a few days — in this case on Bhagirathi II. All six of us (Instructor M. Bisht, A. K. Roy, N. Sah, P. Singh, P. M. Das and I) were to move from a low camp at c. 16,700 ft on 3- June to a summit camp at c. 18,700 ft —perhaps walk up further to take a better look at the route as well as to get used to the altitude and return to the summit camp for the night. 4 June was fixed for the summit attempt by all six of us. It had snowed a little on the evenings of 1 and 2 June. P. M. Das, perhaps expecting the weather to worsen, invited opinion (on 2 June) on a plan to go for the summit on 3 June from the lower camp itself. The response was not positive, but P. M. Das insisted on moving at 3 a.m. on 3 June. As it happened, it snowed that night, and we moved at 8.30 a.m. reaching the higher camp site between 10.30 a.m. and 11 a.m. P. M. Das managed to convince N. Sah and P. Singh to move' up further with him. The three of us who were against this rushed attempt were told that we were- now a support party. The team was thus split.
Das mentions a bivvy sac in his list of equipment being carried by the summit party. Our team did not carry up a bivvy sac from. Tapovan itself. What they were carrying was one emergency thermal foil blanket. They were not carrying their sleeping-bags, and at least one of them had even left his feather jacket behind. Maybe this was so because he was not planning to go for the summit (which meant benightment) but only for a recce as had been decided earlier. The summit party might have got lured by the 'nearness' of the peak - and pushed on, disregarding the approaching bad weather which they must have seen better than we did,
It is implicit in Bass account of the events after the accident that they were denied a rescue by the three at camp, who Das assumes were aware of the entire sequence of events. Having seen them near the summit rocks (and as Das himself states that the mountain was technically a simple one) we took their muffled shouts after the accident to be asking for a direction in which to move during 'the prevailing white- out. Bisht and I climbed up beyond 20.000 ft, yelling and flashing our torchlights, at night during the snowstorm looking for them. Their yells had stopped, and I climbed a little further and traversed over a bulge to a spot where the summit party might see the torchlight, and hoped that whoever had been yelling would either come across to the torchlight (which, as Das says, was barely a stone's throw away) or yell back. Getting no response for quite some time, I retreated in the steps of Bisht down to camp. All of us moved up at morning light and found Das sitting in the debris of an avalanche (he had slid down till there) about 700 ft above camp (not 20 m as Das reports). After we gave him a duvet, food and water, we asked him to stay there while we moved up towards the other two. N. Sah and P. Singh were lying together at c. 20,300 ft (the fall was thus 6001 ft-700 ft and not 400 m as according to Das)—N. Sah was dead, and the rope was coiled around him. P. Singh's feet were entangled in the rope and he was thus suspended upside down with his face in the snow. He was still conscious, and there were signs of his having tried to twist and straighten himself up to an upright position (or perhaps try and disentangle his feet) all night. The gradient had proved too much for him since his feet were stuck in the rope above Mm. He had consequently tried to keep his face away from the snow by pushing away from the slope with his hands, and had contracted frostbite almost up to his elbows. His face was badly swollen, having been upside down all night. If we consider the fact that P. Singh was lying upside down with his face in the snow trying to straighten up all night next to Das, as also the fact that Das did not guide or go across, to the flashlight which was so close if he was as much in control of himself as he says he was then we come to a contradiction. We must conclude that he was suffering from shock. Not unnaturally so — we would expect anyone who has gone through eleven hours of continuous climbing (most of it in the sun) a height gain from c. 16,700 ft to c. 21,300 ft, and then a long disastrous fall to be reasonably tired and shocked. In fact his lack of memory as to the heights and distances involved bear evidence to this.
We freed P. Singh, and while Roy and Bisht started to bring him down, I rushed down on my way to Tapovan to fetch medical help. I noticed that Das had got up, and was falling at every step in his attempt to descend down the snowslope. He did not have his crampons on and his stiff legs were not being able to give him support and balance. I gave him, the end of a small length of rope, and giving him tension from behind, tried to give him support as he leaned on the rope and slowly walked down the slope. We went down till the slope eased, and then I rushed on to Topavan. Das dismisses the help he got as 'irritating' as I was trying to lead him down on a string'.
Help, though rushed immediately, was too late lor Singh. All members of the camp who were present helped to bring down the bodies of P. Singh and N. 9ah and to evacuate P. M. Das down to Tapovan.
P. M. Das seems to have lost the correct perspective of the events in retrospect. This may be due to his not remembering the events so clearly as he was suffering from, shock. Perhaps, after he was almost ostracized by many in camp and then grilled during an official inquiry, this article may have been written as some sort of a reflex action.
16, St. Bernards Row,
Edinburgh EH4 IHW U.K.
25 March 1983
Thank you for, your letter of about three months ago asking if you could reprint my article1 on the Pilgun Gad in the Himalayan Journal I must apologise for being so slow to reply. To be honest I have mixed feelings about your request. I enjoy the Himalayan Journal, would like to support it and feel it would be rather churlish of me to refuse. On the other hand I do- feel that as more and more of the Himalaya are 'Opened Up' for trekking and tourism and climbing, it would be nice if some areas were left unvisited and little known. An important part of the experience of travelling and climbing in the Himalaya, for me and I think for many others, is the fact that there aren't good maps and guides—the aspect of the unknown adventure which is diluted by the knowledge of too many previous travellers and the details of their exploits.
You may quite rightly ask them, why I wrote my article in the first place, and I have to confess I cannot 1 give a very satisfactory answer. There is, I think, in all of us to varying degrees, the desire to share our mountain experiences by telling others as well as the awareness that by telling too many others we may only make it less possible for them to share the same quality of experience. There is an inherent contradiction in writing articles extolling 'unspoilt' wilderness areas in journals which essentially encourage people to go there. My own view is that while each individual traveller or climber may act from the best of motives, as a total group we may have the 'Midas Touch' and end up by destroying the possibility for future generations to experience anything like the adventure that we ourselves enjoyed. Already of course we are a great way along that road. It is impossible for us to experience the same quality of remoteness in the Himalaya that Shipton and Tilman experienced, to say nothing of their nineteenth century forebears. My only excuse for writing the AJ article is, that I felt it was unlikely to draw to the Bhillangana, area too many of the larger type of expedition that I particularly deplore. You will notice that I devoted little space to our climbing activities for this reason. Although I have not been to the Gangotri glacier, and would indeed very much like to do so, the thought of dozens of expeditions converging on the place every season is to me a little distasteful. Of course the Baltoro is far worse.
I don't know if you have been to the Alps, but if you have may be you will understand something of what I am trying to say. Of course the forests and mountains of the Alps are still magnificent, beautiful, inspiring—choose whatever word you wish—and many people derive great enjoyment from, them every year.. But the more popular mountains and routes are desperately overcrowded, full of litter, degraded with ironmongery and cable cars, and generally turned into a human playground instead of being a place where we can lose our sense of ourselves and realise something of the wider majesty of nature.
Well, In spite of all this I do not really wish to prevent you from reprinting my article if you feel strongly that you still want -to. It is, after all, only a straw in the wind and I don't suppose it will make' a jot of difference in the long run whether it is reprinted or not. However I wanted to explain to you some of the misgivings that made me hesitate to accede- before. (I may say that Dave Broadhead who was my companion on the Pilgun trip feels the same way.) If you feel any sympathy, with these notions perhaps you will consider how the H.J. can retain its character as a vehicle for communication between enthusiasts for the Himalaya, while not becoming an agent in the destructive processes of popularisation or touristification.
3rd April 1983
Thank you for your letter of 25 March, 1983. By the time you reacted to my request to reprint your article, H.J. was already in press with your article included with the kind permission of the editor of A.J. As I had not received any objection from you, 2 went ahead with the temptation to reprint your excellent article.
It is indeed gratifying to note your concern about Bhillangna valley. In the days of "commercial tourism' such thoughts are most welcome. Rest assured that the Himalayan Journal shares your concern to the fullest. 1 was trekking in the Bhillangna valley last year and I too would hate to see its forest denuded and tourist parties overwhelming the simple people of Gangi. Our intention is to record your trek as information and record for the mountaineers. And it is hoped that mountaineers, readers of H.J., like that of Alpine Journal will be more responsible than tourists, contractors and poachers. However haven't we too- learnt a lot about the remote valley 3 of Himalaya from the writings of Shipton and Tilman?
Bhillangna has received trekkers and pilgrims for many years now. Let us hope that in future whatever mountaineers are attracted to this beautiful valley by your article will be equally responsible.