Everest Strikes
IT WAS 26 March and we were at Pheriche, looking forward to begin the acclimatisation phase prior to moving to the base camp for the expedition proper. Was there death in the air? If there was, we were oblivious of it, immersed as we were in our pleasant conversation in Hill Tashi's lodge. Sherpa Ang Ringzin had been killed by an ice-avalanche that swept down the Lho la and buried him under four feet of debris when he with a party of fifteen odd Sherpas were on their way to the icefall, hardly fifteen minutes walking distance from the base camp. It was a sad event and highly unexpected. Without upsetting the acclimatisation plan, members were despatched to the base camp to help in the evacuation of the other casualties as four others had been injured and needed helicopter evacuation and the dead had to be brought down to the Everest cremation ground at Thukla, a place which bore the morbid evidence of the mortality rate on the mountain. There were scores of chortens that were lined up on this windy spur on the way to Lobuje. The leader with KI, Rattan, Lopsang, Chandra and our liaison officer followed the same day, but unlike the first group were to make it to the base camp in 2 days. The rest of the team stayed on at Pheriche and were to remain there for a week to acclimatise properly.

We had crossed Gorakshep, for many the last stage to the base camp. I saw a party of Sherpas moving down carrying the deceased. I was certain I wouldn't be meeting a happy group considering what they had just gone through but I wasn't really expecting what followed. Was their mood foul? It was terrible. Reeking of chhang, for it is the Sherpa's way of life to consume large quantity of this country-made brew in sad as well happy moments, not an altogether disagreeable philosophy to their own selves but entirely discomforting for the others. On coming to know that I was the leader they let loose their emotional selves bursting out with genuine and not so genuine grievances. This was natural. For half an hour there was a kind of empty violence in the air and we were finally able to pacify the group. By 1 p.m. I had arrived at the base and was surprised to see Prem, who had taken a lift in the chopper from Pheriche. After about an hour's stay, I moved down to attend the funeral. Four members also came along leaving the rest to keep the base camp organised.

Well, so far we had taken this painful experience with equanimity but it was as though only the beginning of our troubles. Half way down to Lobuje, the next shock followed when we found Jang Bir, one of our kitchen boys lying unconscious by the side of a small rock. He was probably dead but the body was still warm. Strangely none of the local people, chiefly the yak wallas, had bothered to help as he had been sent down with them. Prem and Phu Dorjee in their characteristic way wasted no time and carried him down till we were able to persuade a couple of locals also to help but not before we had agreed to pay them Rs. 500/- for their labour.

We now had two dead men and the expedition had hardly begun. It was important to keep the team together, refurbish the morale and win back the confidence of the Sherpas. The leader's, deputy leader's and other members' presence at the funeral and our generous contribution in cash and in kind in meeting the expenditure on the ceremony and ex-gratia grant to the families of the deceased was definitely a beginning in this direction.

Back to Work

Formalities over, I moved up to the base on 30 March. Prem tht rest moved down to Pheriche for recuperation. The two ittnt Sirdars, Ang Dorjee and Pasang Temba, dispersed to the Ideal habitat with the message that they would need a week's time to get over the traumatic experience and to assess whether the expedition was worth their effort. That left us with just 20-odd Sherpas without their Sirdars at the base and they naturally declined to do any climbing. We, therefore, utilised them for organising the camp site, stacking loads, pitching tents and so on. II was a precious loss of 10 days work on the mountain, and the ioefall route fixed earlier on by the advance party would require i major effort all over again. For the members at the base however, life was far from inactive. A study of the Lho la and the threatening hanging glacier on it and the configuration of the lower reaches of the icefall was carried out and by 3 April we had Girved out a safe but a little tedious route giving Lho la a wide berth and it set our minds at some rest.

By 5 April our camp was fully occupied. The complete team less Sonam Palzor and our communication officer Fit Lt T. Sridharan who were chasing up loads from the rear had settled down and now awaited the assault on the mountain to begin. The two assistant Sirdars were back, and the Sherpas were set to Work, reluctantly though, as they feared the expedition would not honour its financial commitment. Quite erroneously an impression of financial bankruptcy had been created which had to be removed and remove we did, Forty Sherpas is a big number to handle and there were a dozen, other camp followers and this is when we realised the need for a non-climbing base camp manager with the sole responsibility of managing base camp affairs. Inevitably the task fell on Dr Meena Agrawal who discharged her duties with her known efficiency.

The Sherpa Lot
There were some good Sherpas and strong climbers amongst them. Asstt. Sirdar Ang Dorjee, literally a king of climbers, slight of build but so tough that he carried the heaviest loads and yet moved far ahead of others and generally came back to help the stragglers with, their loads. He was a simple man in all matters save that of money. Without doubt he and his band of ten Sherpas from Thame were to remain our most reliable load carriers, till injuries put them out of reckoning. Sherpas love to speak English and that is a delight for seldom elsewhere is the Queen's English murdered with such open relish. You tend to get carried away listening and communicating to them and are not quite so sure of what your own expression will be at the end.

Fixing the Lhotse Face
Prem, ND, Phu Dorjee and Bissa had blazed their way to Camp 2 at 21,600 ft, midway in the Western Cwn. Operating from our comfortable site at Camp 2, the party worked in pairs. While the major work was done by Ang Dorjee and Liopsang, KI and Jai did the initial route finding. By 15 April fixed rope had been laid up to 24,000 ft, our Camp 3 site. The next 2000 ft to the South Col involved a vertical climb of nearly 1000 ft followed by a precarious traverse across the highly exposed couloir and the Yellow Band till one reached the Geneva Spur from where one could trudge on to the South Col. Besides the technical work which can prove trying at such a height, progress on this particular pitch often gets seriously affected by other hazards like high winds, snow-avalanche down the couloir and salvos of stone falls during rough weather. This particular task was taken on by Dorjee Lhatoo, Jtattan Singh and Phu Dorjee. Ordinarily this task, given 'good conditions, can be done in a matter of two to three days. But this group, technically very well qualified, lost some valuable time in orientation and the arrival of the girl friends of some was also a distracting factor. When they finally moved up to Camp 3 on 20 April, the weather on the mountain turned really bad and it became practically impossible to work on the mountain. The winds were simply furious and any prolonged stay at this height led to rapid deterioration. But in spite of this and to safe-guard their izzat, Dorjee Lhatoo, Rattan Singh and Phu Dorjee did a magnificent job by fixing the route upto the Yellow Band, a little over 25,000 ft. They were recalled to the base camp for recuperation. Phu Dorjee still looked remarkably fit even though he had used no oxygen but the other two had been done in. They had a gruelling time under very adverse conditions and the fact that Phu Dorjee was still so fit was an indication of his extraordinary physique, an attribute which was even more pronouncedly demonstrated at a later stage. Meanwhile the mission to reach South Col still remained incomplete and we were falling slightly behind schedule. The weather was now good and it was important to reach South Col without further delay. Ang Dorjee, Lopsang and Bissa did this for us, when after fixing the remaining route, they reached the South Col at 3 p.m, on 29 April and there were celebrations at the base camp.

The Bulgarian Connection
During this period, the Bulgarians made what could be termed as a pre-emptive bid on the mountain, prompted no doubt by the relative calm that prevailed in April. One of their members Christo Pradanov, who had earlier the solo climb of Lhotse to his credit and an outstanding mountaineer, reached the summit of Everest on 21 April by the difficult West Ridge. It was done solo and without oxygen but sadly he could never return and perished somewhere very high up on the mountain. Never before had Everest been climbed in April and this was a record but at a very high price.

Building up
By 1 May after some sustained performance by KI, Jai, Palzor and for a change by our otherwise muddle-headed Asstt. Sirdar Pasang Temba and his band of Sherpas, they were able to place 12 loads on the South Col. We had planned for 20, but 8 loads remained abandoned at various points on the Lhotse Face/Geneva Spur as some Sherpas simply gave up in spite of the incentives. We were confident of organising another big ferry later on along with the first summit party.

The Attempt
The first summit party under Prem left early from the base camp on the 5th. Prem moved well ahead of others. By 9.30 a.m. Wt were all at Camp 1. It was going to be a hot day. Prem and his group after an hour's halt moved on to Camp 2. I stayed on twaiting for the afternoon clouds to start gathering as the heat ill the Western Cwm can indeed get very repressing and reached Camp 2 in company of Sanjiv by 4.30 p.m. Night 5-6 May was ail uncomfortable one. The weather was bad. Wind had pickedup considerably and to add to our discomfiture, Camp 2 was overcrowded and the Sherpas had spilled over to the members medium arctic tent. A couple of them smelled hideously and I had a miserable night. Rita didn't look her healthy self as the journey through the Cwm in that repressing heat had affected her. The others were as fit as they could be. There was the atmosphere that precedes the summit attempt then at Camp 2, some what heightened by the squally weather.

6 May began with a threat of uncertainty as the wind, instead of letting up, increased its velocity. But Prem was confident that it would die down and it reasonably did._ Prem, Phu Dorjee,' Chandra, Rita and Ang Dorjee were soon on their way to Camp 3. The second summit party arrived soon thereafter. The (high journey to the summit had truly begun.

7th appeared to pass on without any extraordinary event. Things were going smoothly till on reaching the Yellow Band, Rita was found swooning because of lack of oxygen. The Sherpa moving past her was carrying a couple of cylinders and gave her one. She went on smoothly thereafter. Slight disconcert set in when only four of the eight Sherpas meant for supporting the assault camp were able to reach the South Col. Of the ferry party to South Col also only six of the original twelve reached, the others, having abandoned their loads on the way, returned to Camp 2. Not an encouraging development to come about at the end of the day but the situation wasn't desperate either. We had at this juncture enough for two attempts but a lot depended on all four Sherpas making it to the assault camp on the morrow.

D-Day, the 8th produced excellent weather. Summer lightning in the distant horizon could be seen through our tent entrance. Prem came on and informed that they were about to leave. They left at 6.30 a.m. followed soon by the support group. At eight Phu Dorjee informed us that only two Sherpas were able to come up with him and Chandra. This was a very serious setback and worse was to follow. At eleven Prem after reaching the proposed summit camp took the crucial decision of not proceeding further. He was not certain of reaching the summit well in time to ensure a safe return to the summit camp in the daylight hours as it would be risky, he thought, to benight with a lady climber at that height. Prem is an experienced climber with an outstanding record and it was difficult to disagree with him at that stage. But his decision implied that two of the members would have to sacrifice their chance and return to South Col as the assault camp was hardly a camp.. In his characteristic unselfish manner he opted to go down. Of the two girls he asked Chandra to accompany him.

While we had drawn a blank, on the 8th, the Bulgarian pair of Ivan and Methody were making their slow progress to the summit. It was nearly 7 p.m. when they reached it and there was once again going to be trouble. Their base camp contacted us if our summit camp could guide them but they couldn't, the summit was out of reach. By 9 p.m. the pair could proceed no further and had to bivouac in a crevasse on the south summit. The Bulgarians were obviously worried and the memory of Christo's death on the mountain was still very fresh. I had no intention to disturb the summit plan but the people at the South Col were warned to be prepared to help. By then realizing also that Bachendri had reached up from Camp 3 late in the evening and might not be in a condition to make it directly to the summit on the next day, I called off the second attempt and instructed all others save ND and Lopsang to move down

Phu Dorjee’s Solo

We now waited for better things to happen on the 9th. We failed to make any walkie-talkie contact as Phu Dorjee's set had gone defective. They had left summit camp at 7 a.m. After having gone for over an hour, Ang Dorjee decided to turn back feet were getting very cold and he feared frost-bite. Rita was with him. Phu Dorjee who was ahead by about fifty yards waited for Rita to come up. She was in two minds. There was the temptation to turn back as her other companion had done. The Weather was not really ideal with the wind blowing ten per hour and a thin haze of clouds swept over the mountain, made her succumb to the weaker of the two decisions.

Fhu Dorjee's was a different story. He was leading the way and had to plod through knee deep snow. His oxygen supply was limited and just as Rita and Ang Dorjee turned back, his oxygen cylinder ran out. For him it was a question of just 200 m to the summit and it looked so near. The thought of turning back was the least in his mind. He decided to give it a try. He was soon met by the Bulgarian climber (Ivan) and spoke to the leader. It took him two hours to reach the South summit where he found the second Bulgarian (Methody) lying prostrate on the snow. He thought the Bulgarian was dead and in any case had nothing on him to give help. Short of the Hillary step he met the second summit pair of the Bulgarians coming down the summit. They had made it in excellent time, no doubt spurred on by the need to reach their team-mates of the first summit party. This is when he again spoke to the leader and informed him about his determination to go on. Who would turn back when the inner confidence and physical strength of the person are so exceedingly Strong? By 12.30 p.m. Phu Dorjee was atop Everest.

With the summit behind him, Phu Dorjee's main concern now was to reach down as quickly as possible. He wanted to help our Bulgarian friends. When others walked, he glissaded, overtook and led them to the summit camp and brewed some hot tea and water. Methody was also there having been resurrected with oxygen and drugs by his colleagues. ND moved up a few hundred yards from South Col with hot juice and oxygen. We had four of our Bulgarian friends at the South Col. Ivan and Methody were given due attention by ND whose performance must rank on the superlative. The next two days passed with the two expeditions actively involved in evacuation.

Everest Strikes again
It took us a couple of days to regroup our forces for a renewed attempt on the mountain. Dorjee Lhatoo, Rattan Singh, Sonam Palzor and Rekha Sharma were put in the lead and reached South Col on the 15th. ND, Lopsang, Bachendri with seven Sherpas occupied Camp 3 on the same day. This second party looked so strong, acclimatised and confident. The weather, never too bad earlier, was getting better and a trifle warmer. When I parted with them, I left a very beaming group behind and I thought the mountain gods were similarly disposed. Alas no, Everest was yet in no mood to relent and it struck where it mattered most. Our strongest party was soon to be out of reckoning. We had our walkie-talkie set on the whole night which incidentally was that of the full moon, more so Buddha Poornima, considered very sacred and auspicious by the Buddhists. At 12.30 a.m., a mighty serac broke off from the Lhotse Face and rolled down to Camp 3. Seeing the magnitude, there should have been nothing left of the camp. Luck is a relative factor. While we were thoroughly unlucky that this had to happen, we now considered ourselves very lucky, that no one was dead. A Sherpa had a broken leg, ND a broken rib or two, three head injuries and painful bruises to others. Lopsang was slightly hurt but the mountain had put a mortal fright in him. Destiny had spared Bachendri, who came out unscathed and must also thank Lopsang for rescuing her from their beleaguered tent.

The Third Evacuation
Without losing much time, Sanjiv, Minoo and that wonderful man Ang Tshering, our Camp 2 cook with Sherpa Lakpa Dorjee (junior) left for the accident site. Our eight other Sherpas too dog tired to even stir refused to budge. Life or death means little to them unless it happens to be their own. This was quite a disappointment.

By 8 a.m. all less the leg injury case had arrived at Camp 2. By 1 p.m., Sanjiv, Minoo, KI, Jai and Bissa were seen approaching with their improvised sledge. A high altitude evacuation had been accomplished by these people and it was high time the God of Everest took notice that ours was not the team to give in. Meanwhile, we had kept the details of the avalanche away from Dorjee Lhatoo's party at South Col hoping that they would make their bid. Rattan Singh fearing frost bite (he had already suffered earlier on Nanda Devi in 1981) had bowed down the previous evening. But when by 9 a.m. on 16 May, they could not make up their minds as the Sherpas with them were unable to move up, I called him back to Camp 2.

The Last Effort
There was nothing left of Camp 3 save a torn tent. Supplies at South Col were limited, Most of our capable Sherpas had been injured the others were too exhausted. The majority were convinced that the expedition was jinxed thanks no doubt to the dubious prediction of a lama. He did not have to be a genius; accidents on Everest are a common occurrence. Even Sherpa Sirdar Ang Dorjee wanted us to wind up and leave. We were not the best of friends when he left with the casualty for I warned him that the team this time would climb without the Sherpas if MOeSsary and in my Sherpa English I told him 'if you coward NOT come-members climb alone'. And I think this and than that his rapport with the press brought him back to us May in company of three of his gallant Thame colleagues he last of what were left.

The situation had changed radically. The mountain had to be Climbed and that too by a woman. We had to put in every thing we had. It was KI, Jai, Bissa and Minoo's chance and Bachendri would go with them. I had called up Prem to replace me at Camp 2. He with Lhatoo, Palzor and whatever Sherpas we could muster would support them to Camp 3 or South Col. Lhatoo and Palzor would attempt a day later.

The attempt was to be made on the 23rd. The summit party left Camp 2 at 8 p.m. on 21st. The 22nd brought in some interesting developments. Lhatoo and Palzor, uneasy about their chance made plans to beat the summit party to the South Col and lay their claim. Prem kept this information from me. When I learnt of it from KI at 8.30 a.m. it was too late to act. I let the now not so holy race to the summit continue with the thought that may 'be it would produce the result. Lhatoo and Palzor using oxygen overtook the first party and reached south Col by 1 p.m. Bachendri was quick on their heels. Bissa after faltering midway, switched on his cylinder and joined them at South Col by 1.80 p.m. our other friends, slightly demoralized and without oxygen moved on at a much slower pace. When by 5 p.m. they had failed to catch up, Bachendri could no longer contain her anxiety; after all that was the group she was a part of. Defying the men then at South Col, she moved down the Geneva Spur wtth hot liquid in her thermos. When I learnt of this, I was livid with Bissa and Lhatoo and sent them packing after her, the latter not without an unbecoming altercation. By 8 p.m. the situation had been restored but a fresh summit plan was necessary. After prolonged communication over the walkie-talkie, it was decided that Lhatoo, Palzor, Bachendri and the fittest from KFs group would move to the summit camp on the following morning. Ang Dorjee with Sherpa Kami were to support if possible. All this of course proved to be infructuous as the 23rd was to be a day extraordinary.

Bachendri-Climb to the Top
At 6 a.m. Lhatoo came on the walkie-talkie with the information that Bachendri and Ang Dorjee were ready and raring to go for the summit and that for Ang Dorjee it was either direct to the summit or he would move down. There was an oxygen crisis; the six life support cylinders were found to be empty and why so could hardly be our concern then. I asked Ang Dorjee and Bachendri to move on without further delay and Lhatoo to follow taking three Bulgarian cylinders as quickly as possible. Ang Dorjee and Bachendri left at 6.20 a.m., the former as an oxygenless climber. I had wanted Bissa to also go with the two partially filled cylinders then in Palzor's custody, the intention being to give both groups an even chance. While Lhatoo took some time to check pressure, Palzor was not the one to give up his chance. Picking, up his cylinders, he literally ran off after Ang Dorjee and Bachendri ignoring the calls from KI and Bissa to return. This happened at 7 a.m. At 7.30 a.m. Lhatoo followed. The race for the summit had begun in earnest. KI, Jai, Minoo and Bissa were left out, but had shown restraint and to a cynic, lack of initiative.

The 23rd proved to be a magnificent day. It was perfect weather. The progress was fast. Bissa moved down periodically; to the Geneva Spur to report progress. Within two hours Ang Dorjee and Bachendri had crossed the summit camp. Lhatoo having overtaken Palzor was in hot pursuit. The route lay along the eastern slope of the southeast ridge and cut directly across to 100 m beneath the South Summit from where it is difficult going. Lhatoo caught up at this stage and made Ang Dorjee and Bachendri rope up and moved unroped alongside with them. He came on the walkie-talkie and reported their fine progress. By noon they reached the south summit and the last hurdle-the Hillary step- was negotiated. The fact that all difficult stretches had been fixed by the Japanese in the preceding winter and by the Bulgarians recently on the descent, definitely helped. It was joy, it was relief, it was a terrific event. At 1.07 p.m., the trio of Lhatoo, Bachendri und Ang Dorjee had reached the summit. It was Ang Dorjee's day, his second ascent of Everest without oxygen and surely Bachendri's and his spurred up energies that made the climb. Palzor carrying the much heavier cylinder reached up 15 minutes later.

After 45 minutes on the summit, the group beat a retreat. Bissa far from sulking rose to the occasion by going as high as the Bummit camp with juice and oxygen.

That then is our story of Everest-a story of success by a team that worked hard in spite of hardships and probably that is what makes it noteworthy. We had the first Indian woman, the fifth in the world on top of Everest. Given some luck, there could have been more summitters and many people happier than they are because like it or not, all mountaineers on Everest, seek the summit, I wish it was the one within them.

The highest junk yard in the world—South Col on Everest. The Indian Everest expedition camp.

The highest junk yard in the world—South Col on Everest. The Indian Everest expedition camp.