We are always looking for excuses not to break walls,” says Premlata Agrawal in the car that her husband is driving to see me and the photographer off at the Jamshedpur railway station. Outside the rolled-up windows, Jamshedpur seems every bit the fume-spewing, horn-obsessed Indian city of the plains. Fashionable lifestyle shops and newly bought, gleaming sedans indicate rising aspirations; an army of bicyclists, scooter-borne, helmet-shy families and chaotic crossings belong to the old order. Under the circumstances, it’s difficult for the imagination to summon up Mt Everest.
Yet, a day later, Agrawal left her in-laws’ home in Jamshedpur for the higher climes of Nepal’s Kathmandu. From there, the mother of two says in a calm calculated tone, “It’ll be towards Everest.”
If 45-year-old Agrawal makes it to the top of the world around mid-May, she will become “Jharkhand’s first and the oldest Indian woman to do so”. “My mother-in-law is a little worried,” says Agrawal. Her husband, Vimal, genially admits that he has no right to stop his wife from achieving her goal, while their two daughters—one is studying in Bhubaneswar and the second, who got married recently, lives in Mumbai—are confident that mom can.
As of now, Agrawal will join a lengthening queue of Indian civilians attempting to climb Mt Everest. In this year’s pre-monsoon climbing season, about a dozen Indian civilian climbers are vying to reach the jetliner altitude of the Everest summit: reportedly the largest-ever contingent of Indian civilian aspirants on the frozen slopes of the world’s tallest mountain.
Agrawal’s quest to climb the Everest tip started modestly—she came third in a climbing competition that required ascending the Dalma Range’s highest hill, at 3,000ft. That was in 1999.
Arjun Vajpai was only 16 when he summited the Everest last year, the youngest Indian to do so.
Since then, Agrawal has undergone courses at Darjeeling’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and Uttarakhand’s Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM), successfully returned from expeditions to the Karakoram Pass (18,300ft) and Island Peak (20,000ft-plus) in Nepal, and been on a 40-day camel voyage across the Thar desert.
In 1999, Agrawal first approached veteran climber and India’s first woman to summit Everest, Bachendri Pal, who heads the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation (TSAF) in Jamshedpur. It was to enrol Priyansha, her elder daughter, then 14, for a trekking trip. “She (Pal) wanted me to join too,” Agrawal beams, sitting at the TSAF office under a photographic collage from the successful Pal-led all-women Everest expedition in 1993.
As a homemaker in a “traditional” Marwari family, Agrawal’s daily life tallies with the many constructs—she cooks, looks after her in-laws, sees off her journalist husband to office, performs the household chores, shops, corresponds with her daughters, attends to guests and awaits her husband’s return. Basically, she does everything to keep the family wheels well-oiled.
Crowded at the top: Asian Trekking got 30 Indian applications for this year’s attempt at scaling the Everest. Eight have confirmed.
For the past two years, in between performing her daily quadruple roles as daughter-in-law, wife, mother and mother-in-law, Agrawal puts in 6-7 hours of daily sweaty physical rigour: jogging, gym sessions, yoga, freehand exercises and rock climbing. “At HMI, I didn’t mention my children. I was anyway aged for the course and didn’t want more scepticism. But after I got the best trainee award, I started believing in my abilities,” she says. “Everest is the final goal.”
It is said that nobody remembers the second person to climb Everest. Yet nearly six decades after Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first made it to the top, human traffic on the peak just keeps on increasing.
Much of the movement, it is reported, has come from those on commercial guided expeditions, where non-professional climbers buy themselves a slot on expeditions organized entirely by agencies with experience in high-altitude climbing.
Arjun Vajpai on his way to the top in 2010. Photo: Mountaineers’ Association of Krishnagar
Everest has been a favourite for record hunters and even publicity seekers. The peak has been climbed by the visually challenged, the disabled, the one-armed and a double amputee— inspiring legions across the world. Attempts have been made to snowboard and ski down Everest and paraglide off its summit. In 2005, a Nepalese couple got married on the summit, after many similar but unsuccessful attempts by other couples. Recently, the record-making spree got more eccentric—a charity cricket match, supported by a cellphone manufacturer, was played a little above the Base Camp, and the world’s first diabetic scaled the peak.
Since 1965, when Capt. M.S. Kohli led the first successful Indian services team to the Everest, the peak has been the lofty expedition terrain for India’s various defence and police teams. “Only the best would get selected,” says Kohli, who was also part of the first (1960) and second (1962) unsuccessful Indian attempts. “The Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) would also nominate members. Individuals had little chance to be in Everest missions of institutional teams.”
Now individuals can buy themselves an Everest ticket. Last year, Asian Trekking—a leading Kathmandu-based commercial guided expedition company led by the much-experienced Ang Tshering Sherpa—was corresponding with 30 Indians interested in joining its Everest 2011 programme. Eight, including Agrawal, have confirmed. The numbers are growing: There was just one Indian client, Krushnaa Patil, in 2009, and three—Arjun Vajpai, Mamta Sodha and Bhagyashree Sawant—in 2010.
“There’s been a large shift in Indian attitude towards outdoor sports and adventures,” Tshering explains the “increasing trend” of civilian efforts over “government-funded” Everest expeditions by the Armed Forces. “India’s economy too has been booming and Indians have higher disposable incomes to pay for expeditions,” he says.
Capt. M.S. Kohli, who led the first successful Indian team on Everest. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The fees pack a formidable punch. While Tshering says Asian Trekking charges $32,350 (around Rs14.5 lakh) per individual, both Vajpai and Agrawal confirm their total Everest budget, including personal expenses, is around Rs30 lakh. Vajpai’s expedition last year, when he became the youngest Indian to summit Everest at age 16, was funded by family and friends; Agrawal is being sponsored by Tata Steel.
Once the money is paid, Asian Trekking takes over. Clients are picked up from Kathmandu airport, hotels arranged, assistance provided for the purchase of climbing equipment, permits obtained and domestic flights booked. Climbers are guided to the Everest Base Camp at 17,590ft, and lodging and meals organized. The agency runs a full-fledged kitchen with cooking staff, facilitates rope-fixing, provides oxygen cylinders and radios to climbers, Internet and satellite phone facilities. Importantly, high-altitude climbing Sherpas accompany aspirants during the ascent. They act as guide-mentors and carry load.
“Basically, Asian Trekking takes care of all important details so that climbers can focus on the mountain,” says Tshering.
Indeed, there has been widespread commercialization of the mountain in the three decades since Walt Unsworth’s 1979 book Everest: A Mountaineering History talked about the unattainable having a special attraction—with climbers on Western commercial expeditions crowding the way to the top.
Commercial guided expeditions—with their paraphernalia of comfort, safety and personnel support right up to the perilous summit and back to Kathmandu airport—have made Everest seem more achievable than Unsworth could prophesize. In highfalutin fashion, Scott Fischer, leader of Mountain Madness, a US-based commercial guided expedition company, is quoted by journalist Jon Krakauer in his book Into Thin Air (1997) as telling the author: “We’ve got the big E totally wired. These days, we’ve built a yellow brick road to the summit.”
Tragically, Fischer would perish on the peak, along with Rob Hall, the legendary climber and owner of New Zealand-based guided expedition company Adventure Consultants. Both were leading up clients.
That was 1996—the year of the worst Everest disaster, when eight people died on a single day and three more soon after. Five of the eight who died following the snowstorm on 11 May belonged to guided expedition groups, a fact that later triggered debate on multiple issues—the competition among commercial expeditions to have more summiteers on their rolls; the rationale of allowing modestly experienced clients on Everest; the mammoth fees paid by clients which makes them desperate to succeed; and of no less significance, the rampant commercialization and trivialization of Mt Everest.
The three other climbers to die on 11 May 1996 were Indians of a paramilitary team. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) team members, Tsewang Samanla, Dorje Morup and Tsewang Paljor, died on the northern, Tibet side of the mountain.
On that day, when over 50 climbers from different routes were vying to stand on the oxygen-starved slender icy patch that is the top of the world, Mt Everest was in an unforgiving mood.
But it didn’t dim the attraction. Twenty-nine years after establishing Asian Trekking, Tshering knows India’s potential to be the next “big market for Everest expedition operators”. “Demographically, Indians are young and aspiring for the ‘world class’. This draws them to the challenges and achievements that Everest poses,” he adds. Already, the company has started designing India-specific Everest packages: cooks trained in Indian cuisine; Hindi language training for staff and climbing Sherpas; cost calculations in Indian currency and Indian bank transactions.
“With its long history and global impact, it’s great to see the wheel turn and India return to a prominent position,” says US-based Roger Kehr, Base Camp manager for the 2007 SuperSherpas expedition, the first-ever “role reversing” all-Sherpa ascent of Everest. Kehr, though, doesn’t directly answer my emailed query on whether a deep-pocketed India will further commodify the great mountain, a process that began with Westerners.
“Earlier in India, people had time but little money. Now, money isn’t the constraint but time is. This is where commercial guided expeditions come in,” says Harish Kapadia, author of 17 books on the Himalayas. Despite summiting 33 peaks over 45 years, Kapadia considers himself to be less of a climber and more of an explorer: one of the reasons, he says, that he craved to discover newer areas beyond the much-treaded Everest zone. “But in general consciousness, Everest is the ultimate in achievement.”
From the early 1920s, the unclimbed Everest had stood as a motif for national pride, its summit hotly pursued by the English and the Swiss. A hundred and one years after it was confirmed to be the earth’s highest point, New Zealander (and fellow Commonwealth citizen) Edmund Hillary reached the top in 1953—it coincided with Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. Hillary’s feat reinstated British pride, dented after the North Pole and South Pole were reached first by American and Norwegian expeditions, respectively.
Meanwhile, India and Nepal bickered over the nationality of the Nepal-born but Darjeeling-settled Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, who accompanied Hillary to the top.
After the Swiss successfully climbed Everest in 1956, the race for the third position was primarily between two nations, the US and India, says Kohli.
Taking advantage of two consecutive Indian failures, the US reached the top two years before Kohli put nine Indians on the summit in 1965, including Nowang Gombu Sherpa, the first person to summit Everest twice—he was with the previous successful American team too (Gombu, who had been part of Hillary’s team though he did not summit then, died on 24 April at his home in Darjeeling after a brief illness. He was 79). Considering that citizens of 81 nations had climbed Everest till 2009, India’s fourth position is widely respected in mountaineering circles.
The relationship of Indians with Everest began in 1852 when Radhanath Sikdar, the “Bengali computer”, as the mathematician who worked with the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was known, discovered the world’s highest mountain. Sikdar’s calculation considered atmospheric refraction, the earth’s curvature and plumb-line defection before deducing the height of Peak XV (as it was christened then) to be 29,002ft above sea level—the apex of earth and the pinnacle of adventure.
Today one of the pillars used during the Great Trigonometric Survey stands in an unassuming corner of the busy BT Road fringing north Kolkata. The ancient looming brick tower would earlier be plastered with film and political posters, its pedestal used for drying dung cakes. It was an object of conjecture till last year, when municipal authorities installed a plaque explaining its role in the survey and the consequent discovery of the world’s tallest mountain.
Everest has over the years increased in height (from the revised 29,028ft to 29,035ft, the Himalayas being a growing mountain range), but going by Kohli’s words, the sense of achievement has diminished.
Today Mt Everest seems to have regained its metaphorical pedigree in an age of open-market societies, when conquering its jetstream-penetrating tip seems a realizable dream for many. In 2005, when Kohli’s book On Top of the World was published, it carried the names of all 118 Indian summiteers over the 52 years since Tenzing’s ascent. In the last five years, the number has swelled to over 200, a worrying increase, Kohli feels. “Commercialization is the worst thing to happen. Inexperienced climbers are getting pushed up by Sherpas after paying lots of money,” says the former IMF president. “Advance Sherpa parties formed by expedition companies fix ropes and ladders, set up tents, bring in rations and do all the hard work. The adventure element is missing.”
In this age of convenience, nothing like George Mallory and Andrew Irvine’s 1924 ascent beyond the 26,000ft Death Zone of Everest can be expected. Their deaths, unlike those of the 180-odd others still lying in the Everest snow, have remained an unresolved mystery of mountaineering.
Or consider iconic mountaineer Reinhold Messner’s uncompromising solo ascent of Everest in 1980, unsupported by oxygen, ropes, ladders, radio or personnel (his girlfriend, Nena, stayed behind at Base Camp). “I must go, and yet each smallest chore is an effort. Up here life is brutally racked between exhaustion and willpower; self-conquest becomes a compulsion,” Messner recounted in The Crystal Horizon. “This climb was one of the great moments in our human relationship with Everest, noting the near impossibility these days of enjoying such seclusion,” wrote ace mountaineer Tom Hornbein in The Mountaineers Anthology Series: Everest (Volume IV).
Yet Everest occasionally continues to serve a purpose. Its tip—8.85km above sea level; starved of oxygen; blasted by hurricane winds and with average summer temperatures between -20 degrees Celsius and -25 degrees Celsius—is often the high point, literally, in the lives of mountaineers, adventurers, activists, geologists, climate scientists, dreamers, idealists, film-makers, fame-seekers, fatalists, racists and rebels.
“My father told me that he climbed Everest so that we, his children, wouldn’t have to. He found a climbing Sherpa’s work dangerous,” Jamling Norgay, son of Tenzing, told me on a sunny Darjeeling morning.
We chatted on the large verandah of the Norgay family home as the majestic Mt Kanchenjunga sat like a celestial crown above the hill town; a plume bellowing from its top—at 28,169ft the planet’s third highest point.
For a while, Kanchenjunga was thought of as the world’s highest peak. Eventually, Everest bagged the height and the stories; Kanchenjunga preserved its stature as the mountaineer’s mountain.
“For me Everest’s pull was compelling. I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps,” says Norgay, who ascended the mountain during the infamous 1996 season. His climb was filmed in the David Breashears-directed IMAX documentary, Everest (1998), and resulted in an autobiographical book Touching my Father’s Soul (2001). Reasons and more reasons to hit the sub-zero Everest trail.
For Bachendri Pal, standing at its summit was the only way to break free from the limitations of life in her Uttarakhand village; undeniably it was about breaking new ground as an Indian woman and an Everest summiteer. “I’d practised with rocks tied to my ankles. To validate my practice away from my village, I would collect firewood for the family. Convincing my parents was difficult.” After becoming the first Indian woman to climb Everest in 1984, she led an Indo-Nepalese all-women expedition in 1993, putting seven women on the summit. Today, as TSAF chief, Pal is Agrawal’s mentor. “When you empower a woman you empower a family,” Pal says.
Everest has also bestowed stature. After two decades of high-altitude expeditions, including the ascent of the 25,000ft-plus Mt Kamet, it was only after climbing Everest in 2010—as part of West Bengal’s first successful civilian expedition with Debashish Biswas—that Basanta Singha Roy felt he was accorded climber’s status. “Before the summit, I ran from pillar to post trying to arrange for Rs5 lakh. After our triumph, the state government took over our debt burden. Only Everest could have proved it for us,” says Roy, days before leaving for a Kanchenjunga expedition.
Everest promises to open doors for others too. For instance, the primary reason why the 28-year-old, Pune-based mountaineering club Giripremi is orchestrating an Everest expedition in 2012 is because a successful climb will net sponsors and allow the club access to the elite group of 8,000m peaks in the world. The 20-member team’s budget is Rs3.15 crore, which the club hopes to generate from well-wishers and corporate bodies. “There are other challenging peaks, but Everest is the only name that can get sponsors,” says Umesh Zirpe, who heads Giripremi.
A new book, On Top of the World: My Everest Adventure by Arjun Vajpai with Anu Kumar (Puffin, Rs175), chronicles the adventures of 16-year-old Vajpai, the youngest non-Sherpa and the youngest Indian to climb Everest. This student of the Ryan International School in Noida, who wants to join the army like his father, has been trekking since he was 10. He writes that at the summit, there was a statue of the Buddha, placed there by previous summiteers. He knelt, bowed in front of it, and “felt complete.”
The summit is also inspiration. “Everest was once below the Tethys Sea and rose to be the earth’s highest. Nothing signifies dignity more. Despite all support, a climber still needs to breathlessly claw up. That is a huge test of the human spirit and only skilled mountaineers succeed,” says Dipankar Ghosh who, along with Rajib Bhattacharya, will attempt to scale Everest this year.
The Kolkata duo have invested Rs10 lakh of their savings to part-fund the expedition, organized by Loben Expeditions, which has offices in Darjeeling and Nepal. The rest of their Rs30 lakh combined budget has come as easy loans from acquaintances. In a long mountaineering career, Ghosh has been on 36 expeditions and stood on the summit of 24 peaks, including the 22,769ft Kedarnath (Main). He thirsts for Everest above everything. “Nothing can erode its unique challenges—the weather and altitude beyond the Death Zone. It’s still the final outpost.”
In his backpack, Ghosh will carry a small idol of the Hindu god Ganesh, which he plans to place on the Everest summit.
As Indian divine iconography goes, Lord Ganesh has multiple associations. He is representative of the playful outdoorsy god; bearer of wisdom and luck; the remover of obstacles. And he is the carrier of wealth, a god to worship before any commercial start-up.
With a tie-up across domains of spirituality, exploration, knowledge and commerce, the Ganesh idol, when it gets carried up the steep whitewashed incline, will be a sublime summation of India’s ongoing Everest narrative.
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