Before Mt Everest turned into a “tourist peak", before hundreds of people began lining up on a fixed rope nose-to-butt in a “traffic jam" up to the summit every climbing season, it was the final frontier in adventure, and mountaineering.

This is a story from that time.

A time when Everest was uncrowded and unpolluted, when only three expeditions had succeeded in putting men on its summit, when attempts at climbing the peak were an undertaking at the very limits of human endeavour.

In 1965, the first Indian climbers stood on top of Everest: nine of them, a record for any expedition till then. It was a team effort: 15 core members of the expedition, and as many climbing sherpas. We spoke to the last living members of that team, eight men aged 73 to 92, still as excited about their Everest triumph as if they were telling the story for the first time. This is their story. ​

Everest, 1965

For H.P.S. Ahluwalia, now 78, the first of these was in early March, 50 years ago, in 1965. Just above the Sun Kosi river, on the trek up towards Namche Bazaar in Nepal, Ahluwalia got his first glimpse of Everest.

“The aura of Everest had been around us from the time the expedition was announced. We felt humbled when we saw it because you had no idea if you could get to the top of that," he says.

Ahluwalia, a retired major of the Indian Army and the founder-chairman of the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in New Delhi, was a member of India’s 1965 Everest Expedition team of 21 climbers, 800 porters and 50 high-altitude sherpas—the country’s third attempt in five years. A few from this team had been part of the previous Indian attempts, in 1960 and 1962. Nawang Gombu, a sherpa with the 1965 team, had already summited with the first successful American expedition, in 1963. “For us it was do or die that time; it was our motto," says Ahluwalia, a sentiment that was stitched on the team’s rucksacks.

On 22 February, the expedition members left Delhi by train to meet with their mammoth porter-sherpa team in Jaynagar, a village in Bihar on the Indo-Nepal border. For Mohan Singh Kohli, a navy captain and leader of the 1965 expedition, it was going to be his third attempt. This time he had promised his wife that “there should be at least eight on top". Kohli, now 83, wrote a book on the expedition titled Nine Atop Everest. He describes Jaynagar as resembling a carnival ground—almost 900 expedition members and porters, and perhaps twice as many curious onlookers gathered around a field. Here began the job of allocating loads and distributing kits. The sherpa head was Ang Tshering, who had been part of the 1963 American expedition. Several of the other sherpas had climbed with the previous Indian expeditions as well. The assistant head or assistant sirdar of the sherpa team, Phu Dorji, left with most of the porters on the long trek to the base of Everest on 25 February, followed a day later by the rest of the expedition.

The journey had taken them through the Terai region of grasslands, forests, meadows and fertile, terraced fields—the climbers had parted curtains of rhododendron and apricot blossoms to pass. They had, egged on by their porters, swigged chhaang and danced late into the nights.

From Namche Bazaar (11,300ft) began the sherpa areas of Solu and Khumbu, whose wildly fluttering Buddhist prayer flags could be heard before they could be seen. Lined with stupas, gompas and chortens, and home to the Thyangboche Monastery, they are markedly austere compared with the unrestrained lushness of the Terai. As the air grew thinner and the ice thicker, the team would have had to moult: progressively shed its worldly comforts, crew members and habits, and try to adapt to a realm never meant for humankind. On 22 March, the team reached the great glacial amphitheatre of Everest and pitched Base Camp (BC) at 17,800ft.

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The seeds of a climb

At 82, Mulk Raj is a man who walks straight and tall—like most of the still living members of the 1965 expedition—and speaks with a twinkle in his eye. For him, the idea for the expedition was seeded back in 1962, high up the south-eastern route to the summit of Everest.

“That expedition was led by one of the greatest mountaineers, Major John Dias," Raj says. “We were coming down the Lhotse Face and, of course, wishing we had done it. We had missed it by 400ft. Dias said, ‘We owe this to our nation. We failed twice but we must succeed on the next one. Mulk…you will not get married till we are done.’ It was a request, in the form of an order, from a good friend," says Raj (Dias died in 1964 of blood cancer).

This was a time when the Sino-Indian border was rumbling with ambition of a different kind, building up to the war of 1962. The High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in Gulmarg, Jammu and Kashmir, was training Indian troops in mountain warfare. “Dias and I were posted as instructors there. Our thoughts always revolved around—when do we go to the mountain? It was like we were dating Everest," says Raj. HAWS was ground zero for a lot of the high-altitude groundwork—food, equipment, climbing technique. It was backed by other government institutions: the New Delhi-based Defence Research and Development Organization, the food research laboratories, the Government Central Textile Institute (now renamed Uttar Pradesh Textile Technology Institute) in Kanpur. The work during the war would go on to underpin much of the logistical structure for the 1965 expedition. “We would spell out our high-altitude problems to them, and they would find answers," says Raj, who handled food and logistics for the expedition. The logistics were exceptional in their scale, cooperation and entrepreneurship. “It wasn’t like just making a list, going to the mall and picking things up. We had put deep thought and a lot of effort into it," says Raj. Despite the backing of the enormous state machinery, there was little money to spare in the struggling economy of the 1960s, and importing mountaineering equipment and supplies was impossible.

“Unfortunately for us, ‘Make in India’ had started then," says Colonel Narendra “Bull" Kumar (retired), 81. “I had to run from one ordnance factory, which made 90% of the equipment, to another, from Shahjahanpur to Kanpur to Calcutta to Jabalpur." Kumar, a veteran mountaineer who famously claimed the Siachen glacier for India in 1981, was in charge of equipment for the 1965 expedition.

On a previous climb, Kumar had realized that the leather boots from the Central Textile Institute absorbed a lot of water and could cause frostbite. He knew the pain of frostbite: He had had to sacrifice five toes to a harrowing expedition to Mt Neelkanth in 1961, in a bid to protect seven men in a one-man bivouac tent, trapped in a crevasse by a blizzard for four days. Even today, his body language speaks of his fortitude. His gait is swift, a slightly bent upper body propelling him forward, like someone who wants to reach his destination faster than his body can carry, possibly justifying his nickname “Bull". Ironically, after Neelkanth, Kumar was put in “Category C" by the army—not to be posted above 7,000ft—and for all subsequent expeditions, including the 1965 one, had to sign a waiver absolving the army of any responsibility if he climbed above that altitude.

While most of the boots were re-engineered, some reindeer-leather boots were imported for the summit climb. Kumar sourced carabiners from Jabalpur and rucksacks from Kolkata. “Just to get one rucksack, I had to get buckles from somewhere, straps from someone, frames from someone else. Total headache," says Kumar, guffawing.

For the first time in India, accelerated freeze-dried food was manufactured, by a factory in Tundla, Uttar Pradesh. As news of the expedition spread, several people sent in their wishes and help in unique ways. “An old lady in Punjab had stitched florets of sun-dried cauliflower as garlands and sent it with blessings. Someone picked these up and yelled, ‘Who the hell is going to eat this at high altitudes?’" Raj recalls. “I said, ‘Every time this woman put her needle through a floret, she gave us a blessing: ‘mere beton, tum zinda raho’ (stay alive, my sons). Where can you buy this?"

The Delhi Milk Scheme donated butter for the trip; another company manufactured special lacquer-coated boxes to carry the butter. The textile cluster in Ludhiana sent over cheerful sweaters in black and red, with matching caps. The goodwill wasn’t just national: An Italian climber who owned a coffee company donated large boxes of coffee; a Japanese firm offered cameras.

Base Camp

This is what the early attempts must have looked like from the summit, as it observed indifferently the decades of Everest expeditions. Stumbling, lost climbers, haunted by their repeated failures, roped tenuously to one another, desperate for clear weather or luck. Between 1852 and 1965, there had been 21 attempts—14 expeditions, four reconnaissance trips and three solo ventures. Only three were successful. Here was the 15th expedition on the mountain, trying its luck.

Surrounded by towers of ice, frigid lakes and moraines, the team set up the BC, which would be home for several weeks. It would also be the respite before the climb. The Camp meant a full kitchen and fresh food every day. For his culinary skills, the BC cook, Thondup, was fondly called “Brigadier Thondup". A few weeks into the expedition, he had been elevated to “General".

“We would play high-stake card games at Base Camp," says Ahluwalia. “If someone loses, he has to take everyone to dinner at The Oberoi, or pay 1,000—payable when able—that was the motto. No one ever actually paid because no one was ever able."

The first step up from BC is one of the toughest, the Khumbu Icefall: a giant river of slow-moving glacial ice, with seracs the size of multi-storey buildings that threaten to splinter and fall any second, and yawning crevasses that shift and transform with the glacier’s movement.

“Khumbu’s shape changes all the time. I had seen it in 1960 and 1962. In 1965, again it was unrecognizable," says C.P. Vohra, a geologist and a 1965 summiteer. The icefall cascades over 2,000ft down a precipitous gradient in icy waves. It took four days to open a route and set ropes and ladders across this monster, a route that would be used to transport tonnes of supplies up.

Beyond the icefall is a valley of calm, the Western Cwm, a glacier guarded by three peaks: Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. Occasionally, avalanches would thunder down faraway slopes. Across the Cwm, Camp III (22,900ft) was set up by sherpas Nawang Gombu and Ang Kami.

Wangyal was 23 in 1965, the youngest climber in the party, usually paired with the most experienced members—Gurdial Singh (now 92) and Gyatso (who died in 1968 at the age of 45). Both Singh and Gyatso were part of the very beginnings of Indian mountaineering. Singh had led India’s first climbing expedition, to Trisul I, a peak in the Nanda Devi National Park, in 1951. Gyatso was among the first batch of students under Tenzing Norgay at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) in Darjeeling in 1954. For both, this was the third time on Everest.

When Wangyal, an imposing and fit 73, begins to tell his story, he moves to a bigger couch to give himself enough space to gesticulate. The problem, says Wangyal, is that though Singh had the instinct of a mountaineer, he had the soul of a poet. “Guru (Gurdial) finds a beautiful spot and he calls me and starts telling me how beautiful the view is, asks me to listen to the music of the water. I said, ‘It’s getting late, it’s getting dark, the wind is howling, what do we have to do with the view? We are going to die here!’

“We were on Lhotse Face, at the Yellow Band, there are rocks falling, ice falling, shoooo shooooo… and Guru is sitting there appreciating the view! But I have never met a man like Guru—he would sacrifice his tent for someone else. He gave up his oxygen quota."

20 April dawned clear, and the winds seemed friendly. The first two summit teams—Cheema and Gombu, Wangyal and Gyatso—with Singh, Kohli and sherpa Dawa Norbu, moved up from Camp II, hoping for a quick push to the summit. Over the next one week, the climbers tried to set up a final camp high above the South Col, but failed as the weather worsened. South Col was being swept cruelly by high-speed glacial winds.

There was no option but to descend. By 30 April, all the climbers were back at the BC. The team was anxious, haunted by the earlier expeditions, but it wasn’t the end. Kumar recalls this moment of failure as one of his most memorable. “When the early attempts failed, the leader sent a very sad message saying, ‘Sorry we failed’," Kumar says. “I said, don’t worry, logistically I am prepared to put 11 people on the top. Just give us some time."

They would have to wait at the BC for almost a month.

The second attempt

At 5am on 20 May, Cheema and Gombu set out in -30 degrees Celsius for the peak. As the expedition leader, Kohli stayed put at Camp III, or Advanced Base Camp, to coordinate the effort. Singh was at South Col as support, and Kumar was stationed at a place called Pumori Ridge, from where he had the clearest view of the route to the summit.

“I was as tense as the summiteers," says Kohli. “If they were climbing physically, I was climbing mentally. I was exhausted doing nothing because my mind was with the summiteers, every second, every minute."

By 7.30am, Cheema and Gombu were below the South Summit, a small plateau just beneath the true summit.

Kumar said over the wireless, “Kohli, I can see two people going up…they are going up and up, and they look like they are over the South Summit and beyond…" Kumar then lost sight of the climbers.

“We were sitting inside the tent (at South Col camp), and I was thinking that we were going to die any second," says Wangyal, “when Sonam says, ‘You go out and look for them (Cheema and Gombu)’—as if I had come first in a Ladakhi patrolling competition!

“For about an hour and a half, I searched for them alone," Wangyal, who is from Ladakh, says. “If you breathed in you could not breathe out because the wind was coming straight at you. When I found them, they were in a very bad state—ice frozen everywhere on them, oxygen masks in tatters, both of them suffering from snow blindness."

Wangyal led them to the tent, from where they radioed the rest of the team. “They confirmed the success, and I shouted, ‘It is done!,’" says Kohli.

“Cheema was from my battalion and Gombu was my instructor in HMI," says Raj. “I was so, so proud when they reached the top. John (Dias) would have been so happy. That was my first thought. I prayed for him and said, ‘John, it has been done.’"

For Cheema and Gombu, the triumph was tempered by pain, as they struggled through the night in the death zone of South Col. “Through the night the two of them screamed in pain," says Wangyal. “No one who has not had snow blindness can know how painful it is. On top of that, the wind howled and did not let us sleep. The next morning, the weather wasn’t great and I asked Gyatso, ‘What do we do?’ Gyatso said, ‘We are mountain lovers; even if we die, we will go up.’ When he said that, I thought, yes, we must go," says Wangyal.

When they reached the summit camp, the two Sonams saw that the tent had been uprooted by the storm. They, along with the three sherpas who were with them, began searching for it.

“Ang Dawa found it," Wangyal says, and suddenly he is struck by how few of the expedition members are still alive. “He is dead now…all three sherpas are dead…Gyatso is dead."

All the summiteers

The morning of the second team’s attempt, 22 May, “was like God had flipped a switch; the weather was absolutely clear and there was no wind," says Wangyal. “When we were almost at the summit, Gyatso said, ‘Sonam, we will go up to the summit shoulder to shoulder.’ Now, I was well aware of Tenzing and Hillary’s story—the controversy over who was first to step on the summit. So I said, yes. At 12.55pm, we were at the top."

As the second summit pair descended to South Col, they crossed paths with a third pair going up to the peak: the geologist Vohra and Ang Kami. Vohra’s most enduring memory is the last few steps to the summit on 24 May: “Once you are on top of Hillary Step, the top is very near. That last part is actually a pleasurable walk. It is a wonderful feeling. You can see the top, and there is no hurdle between you and the top."

Vohra also had a movie camera that he had gotten specially lubricated from Mahatta & Co. in New Delhi’s Connaught Place, one of the oldest photo studios in the country, but it only worked for a few seconds. Nonetheless, it was the first-ever movie shot on Everest.

Now only two more summit pairs remained. But even as they were preparing to leave Camp I, they heard a loud explosion. An avalanche had buried Camp II, uninhabited at the time, under a thick sheet of snow. It had buried with it all the oxygen cylinders of the expedition.

“That devastated us a lot," says Ahluwalia, who was part of the last summit team. “The leader had a hard choice to make. He said we should wind up the expedition. I went to Captain Kohli and begged him to let me try something. I said, ‘We put six people on top, the Americans also put six people, now we have a chance to do better—why not take the chance? I am prepared to look for the cylinders, just give me five sherpas." They dug around for hours before Ahluwalia’s axe hit a cylinder. “Ting! I heard the sound and I knew what it was."

On 29 May, Ahluwalia stood on top of Everest with Phu Dorji and Harish Rawat. A fourth member, Major Harsh Vardhan Bahuguna, had to turn back from South Col with altitude sickness (he would lose his life while attempting Everest for the second time in 1971). For Dorji, who had been on Everest teams in 1953 (British), 1956 (Swiss), 1960 and 1962 (Indian) and 1963 (American), the summit had been a long time coming.

“The weather was supposed to be bad that day but it was bright, sunny," says Ahluwalia. “I stood there looking at the Tibetan plateau and Central Asia and thought of the wars that had been fought there, of Genghis Khan, and I thought, someday I will go there (he did, in 1994, though he had fought in the war against Pakistan in 1965 and lost the use of his legs).

“Suddenly, Phu Dorji got a lovely cup of coffee for me. I said, ‘Where is this from?’ He said, ‘This is a gift from me.’ Ahluwalia and Dorji dug around and found a bar of chocolate left by the American expedition to go with the coffee.

Like each of the summit parties before them, Ahluwalia, Dorji and Rawat too had trouble coming down. Their oxygen cylinders stopped working. By the time they reached the South Col, it had gotten dark and they could not find the camp, so they decided to dig a hole to sleep in before being found by a sherpa and brought down. “I hallucinated throughout the night," says Ahluwalia. “I’d come out of the tent and go and puff on empty oxygen cylinders. I also cursed Phu Dorji all night that he was taking my oxygen!"

It was the end of the expedition. On 1 June, the BC was packed up.

Received by prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri on their return to New Delhi, the first Indians to climb Everest toured the country, visiting schools and colleges for talks. Mulk Raj spoke of one such visit to a school. His eyes, sharp and blue like an alpine lake, welled up ever so slightly. “A little girl, who was tired of her mother asking her to change socks all the time, asked me how many times I changed socks on the mountain," he says. “And my wife replied, ‘Never.’ So, the girl said, ‘Oh, then I can climb Everest’."

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‘Aloo parathas’ at 26,000 feet

Supplies, equipment and packaging had to break new ground for the 1965 expedition.

The first concern was, of course, the weight: calories, volume and carriage all dovetailed into each other. There were two kinds of boxes: commodity and composite. Commodity was a box of just one thing, say, sugar or rice, to be carried to the Base Camp. A composite box had food and essential supplies for, say, six people at one camp—all meals, toilet paper, toothpicks, etc.

Packaging also had to be waterproof. Plastic was new then. A shop in Sadar Bazar had just imported a machine to make plastic bags of thicker gauge. They could also customize sizes. All fresh eggs were packed in sawdust and bamboo bags. The Defence Food Research Laboratory in Mysore (now Mysuru) had also started manufacturing canned food. Their contribution was ‘parathas’ with ‘amchoor’ (dry mango powder), spices and salt, and ‘halwa’, using inert gas as a preservative. “We ate those right up to South Col!" says Mulk Raj.

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Stranded in death zone

MS Kohli’s account of being trapped high up on the mountain during the 1962 attempt

The next morning we went up to 27,650ft and set up a tent. Then the blizzard hit us again. We closed the tent and could not open it for the rest of the day. We were running short of oxygen, but we decided to stay one more night and see if the next day we could go for the peak. We did not want to come back without summiting. We needed the bottled oxygen for the climb, so we spent the day and night without it.

The next day, 30 May, we left at 7 in the morning; the weather was reasonably good. We thought we were climbing very fast, and we had to cover only about 1,200ft. But at around 9am, the weather became bad again. The wind became stronger and stronger, and we became slower and slower. We were in a trance. When I looked at the watch again, it was 3pm; 8 hours since we had started climbing! We were at least 300ft below the South Summit, we realized that there was no way we could make it and come back. I was on one end of the rope, Sonam was on the leading end. I shouted, “Sonam, stop! Hari, stop!" Look at your watches…how many hours have we been climbing?"

And then we realized we needed to descend, and descend fast.

It should have taken us about 2 hours to get back to the South Col, but at 8, it became absolutely dark and we had still not reached the camp. Our oxygen was over. Sonam slipped, Hari was taken with a jerk as I felt the tug and started falling, I dug my ice axe in. Sonam and Hari dangled 20ft from me. We would have fallen 10,000ft.

It took us half an hour just to get up. We realized that we had no energy to reach the last camp. We talked about it, we accepted death because we were so high up, our mind was dull, we were tired. We lay down. About an hour later, we got back some energy. We told ourselves, we can’t walk, but we can crawl! So we started crawling...finally, at about 10pm, I felt a fabric in my hand...I said “Look! Our tent!" We slept like logs, went into a stupor without oxygen. The next morning we looked at the sunlight, and we started crawling towards the South Col. It took us 8 hours for a 2-hour descent.

The news was already out that we were presumed dead; we had been up at that altitude for five days and four nights!

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