THE INDO TIBET Border Police (ITBP) expedition which left New Delhi on 22 March 1996 travelled by road to Kathmandu, crossing the border with Tibet at the Friendship Bridge to Zhangmu where our Chinese liaison officer, Li Rui Hua who was deputy leader of the 1975 Chinese team on the same route, took us in his charge. With him was interpreter XuChang and we moved with our 475 loads in three trucks and two land-cruisers. Li was from the Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA) and was at pains to see us comfortable as we proceeded to Nyalam (3800 m) where we spent a day acclimatising before proceeding to Xigar at 4200 m, driving over the snow-covered Nyalam Thungla (5000 m) which was a flat snow-covered field for 3 km. The road ran east-west and we had our first view of Qomolungma and Cho Oyu. At the Shelkhar Hotel of Xigar we met other foreign teams which were to attempt Everest from our route, visited Shekhar Dzong as well as the local gompa. After three nights in Xigar, we drove for six hours over a reasonably good dirt track in land-cruisers and one truck, crossing a pass at 5500 m to reach our base camp at Rongbuk, leaving the high peaks of Xixapangma, Cho Oyu to our right. It was a dramatic entry into the Rongbuk valley with an excellent view of the North Ridge and the Northeast Ridge overwhelming the landscape. The historic Rongbuk gompa lay on the left as one motored right in to the base camp which was at 5200 m. The base camp was on a huge flat at the end of the terminal moraine of the Rongbuk glacier which we eventually shared with as many as 14 teams of various nationalities. The CMA had built a permanent RCC hut at a vantage point for the liaison officers, well equipped with television facilities and a running mess where the hospitable Li often entertained us to Chinese tea and biscuits during our stay at base camp.
Already the Japanese and Russian teams were camping there on 5 April when we reached base camp. The race to the summit was on. The ITBP team was fit and restless to be on the move.
The route from base camp at 5200 m to Camp 3 (ABC) at 6400 m was along the East Rongbuk glacier and was a long haul of 15 km. Initially we found the going extremely tiring and had to set up two camps i.e. Camp 1 at 5700 m and Camp 2 at 5800 m on the way. With the passage of time and with the movement of yaks which carried loads upto Camp 3, the route became well-trodden and many of us were able to travel from base camp to ABC in one day.
Interaction with the German camp, whose leader was Gotz Wiegand, revealed that they would be attempting the North Col route without oxygen. The Norway team was especially formidable. The leader, Jon Gangdal and I found that we were of the same mental make up and of the same age as his twin brother Sven, who was also on the same expedition. We met frequently on the mountain to discuss varied subjects stretching from the Norwegian//o/'t/s to different climbing styles. Often our conversation was joined in by other members of their team - Olaf, Joseph Nezeriche who was one of the most experienced 8000 m climbers from Czechoslovakia, Fausto who had tried to get to the summit of Everest without oxygen on three different occasions. This team worked with enviable harmony and precision so that 8 of their 10 member team eventually reached the summit. Camping near us was a team of Spaniards from Barcelona with an attractive lady member, planning to ascend the Norton Couloir. Their plans and movement were highly flexible and after having nosed around the West Rongbuk glacier, they eventually turned around and made an attempt by the North Col route from the East Rongbuk glacier.
I occupied Camp 2 for the first time on 15 April. The location of this camp was in a bowl, over-looking the penitents on the East Rongbuk glacier. The next day, in a move of six hours and carrying a lighter rucksack, I reached Camp 3 which was our ABC at 6400 m. It was over-looked by the North Col ( Chang la ) at the head of the East Rongbuk glacier, up a steep ice/snow slope of 700 m. Across the valley was the Northeast Ridge ascending from the Raphu la to the summit of Everest. Extending from the North Col to the left was the windy North Ridge up which we would be climbing and on the right was the beautiful North Peak of Changtse.
On 18 April the route to the North Col having been opened by a combination of German, Norwegian and Indian groups, we found that Mohinder Singh, the leader was not well. Perhaps the altitude gain had been too fast for him and he complained of chest congestion and vomiting. He went down for a rest.
After the first load ferry to the North Col led by me on 19 April, a plan was made for five climbers headed by Prem Singh to occupy the North Col, open the route to Camp 5 and return to ABC in three days. The rest of us would move up in support.
On 21 April, I climbed the slopes above ABC, tackling the traverse up the final slopes to the North Col and found that apart from the Indian tents, other teams were also camped there - Norwegians, Germans, Japanese who had also been working on the route to the North Col. They were also now out in the front, opening the route towards Camp 5 from Camp 4.
There was bad weather around ABC but the weather was clear on the higher slopes of the mountain.
On 24 April, a load ferrying team was led by Wangchuk Sherpa with three Sherpas supported by two Ladakhis, while the others ferried loads to the North Col. Then we descended to base camp to await better weather. Camp 5 was eventually established by Sangay Sherpa and a team of four members on 27 April.
Back to ABC on 29 April, I find that this campsite had swelled with various expeditions camping along the same glacier. In fact, it looked like a small village of different nationalities.
There were the perpetual problems of toilets, hygiene and of melting water to drink but it was clear that the Norwegian camp was the best organised and well laid out. They had even installed a kerosene stove inside their drawing room for warming up climbers !
30 April was spent in discussion on tactics. Sangay Sherpa reported that while opening the route to Camp 5 (established at 7800 m) he had fixed 230 m of rope on the route, while the Japanese team from Fukuoka had also fixed some parts. It was decided that now onwards, groups of climbers would climb to the North Col, spend a night there, reach Camp 5 without oxygen and return to ABC. This excercise was to make us fitter before the eventual summit attempts.
On 2 May, I reached the North Col, with me were Harbhajan Singh and five others. Poonam, one of the lady climbers, dropped out at the base of the slopes as she was not feeling well. The North Col at 7010 m brought to mind memories of the prewar attempts on the mountain. I was familiar with the Changtse massif; the view of the broad but steep North Ridge ahead of me, up which I would have to go tomorrow to Camp 5; the West Rongbuk glacier to our right below the cornices above our tents. The West Ridge of Everest leading to the summit; the pinnacles on the N.E. Ridge with the long stretch right upto the summit pyramid of the mountain. Etched clearly against the sky line was the First Step at 8498 m, the Second Step at 8595 m and the site for Camp 6 at 8320 m, below the crest of the Northeast Ridge. Theweatherwas clear andl was acclimatising well and hope to be on the summit with one of the attempt teams. The party under Prem Singh was returning after having carried loads to Camp 5 and they descend to ABC. Sangay Sherpa, Nadhre Sherpa again occuppied Camp 5 supplemented by Kusang, (Sherpa Sirdar).
On 3 May I was ready early. I found that others of our team had already left for Camp 5. However, the fixed rope was there and I clipped on and moved up at a slow but steady pace. In my rucksack was a load of oxygen cylinder which I intended to take as high as possible for the first summit team. We were lucky that there was no wind today and the sun felt warm. Otherwise, the North Ridge was notorious for being cold and with high velocity winds. It was airy and I had excellent views of the Rongbuk Cwm on the right, a superb view of the Hombein Couloir and the Great Couloir which was first discovered by the legendary C.F. Norton in 1924 and which had received very few ascents. It certainly looked a promising alternative in case the Chinese ladder (placed in 1975) was missing at the Second Step. A private plane flew from Nepal over the Khumbu glacier and over the Lho La, circling over the West Ridge before disappearing from view. I recalled the hallucinations of Frank Smythe who had seen giant balloons in the sky in this area and wonder whether I was going through it also with oxygen deprivation to the brain. However, I suddenly met a group consisting of Wangchuk, Dorji and Norphel returning from Camp 5 having dumped their loads. They confirmed that they too had seen the aeroplane and I was relieved. They requested me to descend with them but I waved them on, hoping to carry my load to as near Camp 5 as possible. I climbed to the end of the snow-ridge at 7700 m and though the camp was within knocking distance, I suddenly felt my ebullience disappear. In my mind I asked : why proceed if you do not enjoy the climb ? Was it to prove that you were a strong weight- lifter and must reach the end objective at any cost ? My alter ego could not agree.
There was no suitable place to dump my load without the risk of pilferage ( an unfortunate problem with so many expeditions on the same route ) and so I moved down to place it behind a rock 100 m below, before reaching the North Col where a hot meal was awaiting. Shortly, I was joined by Harbhajan who informed me that the route to Camp 6 had been opened by Sangay, Nadhre, Kusang and Nima Sherpa, i.e. two members and two Sherpas. I descended to ABC the same day, getting caught in a snow- storm on the lower slopes of the North Col and being chilled to the bone by the time I reached camp where Mohinder Singh, the leader, was awaiting with hot tea.
With Camp 6 having been opened, a reluctant Sangay was recalled to ABC. There was great confidence and most of the climbers were straining on the leash, though I cautioned them that we were ahead of the schedule and that the weather was likely to break again shortly. Many members suffered from dry coughs and needed rest. The summit teams were announced by Mohinder Singh in consultation with Harbhajan Singh and I found myself to be the group leader of the third attempt party. Harbhajan Singh would be in the first and Prem Singh would head the second. With my stomach having given way and with a troublesome cough, I descend to Camp 2 (aptly called India Camp since we had opened our medium arctic tent to all expeditions travelling on the route). An Inmarsat satellite telephone arrived in our camp and for the next few days we were able to communicate with the outside world much to the relief of the families in India.
On 7 May, I was back in ABC and the first summit group consisting of T. Smanla, Dorji Murup, Chewang Paljor, Wangchuk, Jodh Singh, Lobsang (who was suffering from mild frost-bite on a finger) and Harbhajan Singh prepared for the attempt. Harbhajan and Dorji moved on to spend the night on the North Col while the rest moved from ABC directly to Camp 5 in six hours on 8 May. On 9 May we spent some anxious moments since there was no radio contact with the attempt group but we presumed that all was well and they were occupying Camp 6. The route from Camp 5 to Camp 6 was below the Northeast ridge over the 'boiler-plate slabs" but fairly straightforward. Lobsang realised that there was danger of freezing fingers and turned downwards. The second summit group led by Prem Singh moved up to occupy the North Col camp.
Triumph and Tragedy
We watched anxiously through binoculars and a telescope as 10 May was cloudy while the summit team camped at 8320 m. Despite best efforts, they could only make a late start at 0800 hrs. They sorted out the jumble of old fixed ropes - ITBP are the first team working above Camp 6 in this season - and climbed towards the First Step at 8498 m. They ran out of fixed rope and Paljor volunteered to return to Camp 6 to collect a bundle and return. Harbhajan, Jodh Singh and Wangchuk turned back near the First Step Harbhajan was suffering from frost-bitten toes and was moving slowly. Smanla, Dorji and Paljor (all Ladakhis) carried on fixing rope and ascended the Chinese ladder, at the 30 m Second Step, which they cleared by 1540 hrs. At 1550 hrs, the walkie-talkie at ABC crackled to life and Smanla communicated with Mohinder Singh to inform him that they were headed for the summit. There was an air of expectant jubilation in all camps. Harbhajan did not come on the air. We were anxious as the weather was closing in but at last at 1830 hrs Smanla announced on the walkie- talkie that the three of them had reached the top. Mohinder told them to look for the Chinese tripod and other items planted on the summit by the earlier teams and to take photographs. The second group camping at the North Col as well as the Norwegian team also camping there had seen our summit team a little short of the top and informed us accordingly over the radio. At 1900 hrs a storm was raging over the summit section and there was no further radio contact. Mohinder was busy on the satellite telephone informing the organisers and others of the success but we were anxious for the climbers to get back safely. Little did we realise that five other climbers on the South Col route also perished in the storm on the same day. At 1930 hrs, in the darkness we noticed two head-torches light up and the rapid movement of the climbers descending, one of the beams spiralling downwards, towards the Second Step. Then darkness, as they went out of our lives.
On 11 May, ABC failed to get any response from the summit group at Camp 6. At 0600 hrs Prem Singh came on the air from the North Col to say that he was in touch with Camp 6 and informed us that the summit group had failed to reach the camp. He spotted a figure at the top of the Second Step. This figure was moving around and looking for a way down. This was the day for the summit attempt of the Japanese Fukuoka party of five who had spent the night of 10 May at Camp 6. Immediately, the ITBP began liaising with the Japanese leader at ABC for a possible rescue attempt. In the course of the day, Wangchuk and Jodh Singh who were in Camp 6 made an attempt to move towards the First Step but were enfeebled by the altitude and returned after leaving four oxygen cylinders, 100 m short of the First Step. Prem Singh and his group moved up to Camp 5 to assist the fatigued climbers in Camp 6. The Japanese leader was co-operative and though there were no direct communications from ABC with the summit group, he was able to get in touch with them through base camp. They had made an early start, and came across Dorji between the First and Second Steps, who was reportedly proceeding down slowly. He had refused to put on gloves over his frost-bitten hands. He was finding difficulty in unclipping his safety carabiner at anchor points and the Japanese team undipped it for him before attaching him to the next stretch of the fixed rope.
Smanla was already dead and his body was found lying above the Second Step as the Japanese team and Sherpas moved up towards the summit slopes. It was not clearly known whether Paljor too was seen but during a later narration by one of the Sherpas to Kusang, we were told that he was also seen alive but delirious between the First and Second Steps.
On their return from the summit, the Japanese team had crossed Dorji again below the First Step and assuming that he would be able to reach Camp 6, proceeded ahead. He died that afternoon and his body was found by later teams, close to Camp 6. The body of Paljor was not found and it is likely that he slipped and fell down the cliffs towards the Kangshung Face, on the eastern side of Everest.
In the next few days there was much debate as to what should be done with the expedition : Should it be called-off ? Should a fresh attempt be mounted ? Advice was sought from the leaders of the British, Slovenian, and Norwegian teams. Most of them advised that the expedition be called-off as had been done by some of them who had faced such tragedies on Everest on earlier occasions. A council-of-war was held with the team where it was expressed by most of the members, that to honour the first Indian ascent made by the three dead climbers, eventhough the rest of the team was extremely fit and almost each member could climb to the summit, it would be a proper tribute to call-off the expedition. However, Mohinder eventually announced after consultations with his headquarters over the satellite telephone, that it had been decided to make one more attempt.
Sangay Sherpa, Hira Ram, Tashi Ram, Nadhre alongwith Sherpa Sirdar Kusang and all Sherpas in support moved up. Harbhajan's frost-bitten toes were very painful and he was completely exhausted, despite having used oxygen on the descent, right upto ABC. He and his two companions left for base camp where he would spend an agonising period till the end of the expedition.
The Second Attempt
On 15 May, the second group led by Sangay Sherpa moved up to Camp 5. On 16 May the group consisting of four members and Kusang occupied Camp 6. The summit teams of the Norwegian and Japanese groups also occupied Camp 6. On 17 May, our second group alongwith the Norwegian and Japanese climbed in copybook style. We watched through the telescope at ABC as the climbers emerged from the Second Step, crossed over a snowfield, ascended the fixed ropes on a rocky section joining with the Great Couloir, before climbing onto the final summit slopes. They were on the top by 0955 hrs and Sangay's voice came jubilantly over the walkie-talkie. They went through the summit rituals around the GPS prisms, the Chinese tripod and Smanla's prayer flags, before turning back. The weather was stable and they were able to descend to the safety of Camp 6 without difficulty. On the way down they had spotted the body of Smanla lying without jacket and crampons, 20 m away from their route above the Second Step. His rucksack was missing and so was his red Goretex jacket. Lower down, they spotted the body of Dorji lying under the shelter of a boulder near their line of descent, close to Camp 6. His clothing was intact and his rucksack lay by his side.
I leamt that after our second attempt an Austrian climber, Reinhardt, who had attached himself to one of the foreign teams had died of cerebral oedema at Camp 6. His body still lay wrapped up in one of our tents in the camp. Another epic was commencing when the deputy leader of the Rissoho University (Japan) team, rushed in to our base camp to say that on 21 May, two of his team mates returned safely from the summit but the leader disappeared above the Second Step after reaching the summit. Through our satellite phone he was able to contact Japan. On 24 May he rushed back to inform us that his leader had been traced. Having bivouacked under a boulder in a storm after reaching the summit on 21 May, he was able to come down on his own to Camp 6 the following day, after which he was rescued by a German team above Camp 5. The Japanese member was able to telephone his sponsors in Japan and speak to them just as a condolence meeting was being held by their university Alpine Club !
I left the base camp on 26 May with Prem Singh in a land- cruiser for Lhasa with the task of procuring death certificates of our three comrades. I asked myself what had been gained in the last two months on this mountain ? I look back on the agony, pain, physical and emotional strains, the physical problems, deaths, tension of the last two months. This mountain had brought out the worst of man and woman, the mean side of all had been laid bare. All inhibitions had been stripped. The words of Jon Gangdal, the Norwegian team leader, who came to bid goodbye to me, rang in my ears for long. He should be very happy since 8 of his 10 members had reached the summit. His opinion of a particular team leader was very poor and he declared his decision that he would never climb on 8000 m peaks again because of the severe strain on human nerves, dead bodies, deaths, illness, thefts at various camps. On the other hand, I look back to the brief friendships I had made with fellow climbers of different expeditions; interaction with the best climbers of different countries; to sharing a common bond - that of a mountaineer away from his home, climbing in a remote corner of the earth on the highest mountain of the world which taxes the human body and the brain to the fullest.
The Indian I.T.B.P. expedition to the North Ridge of Everest. 3 climbers died after their ascent on 10 May 1996. 4 other climbers reached the summit on 17 May 1996.
The author was the senior deputy leader of the team, though he did not belong to the organisation.