Six deaths, four missing, 200 failed attempts. That was the status report at the Mt. Everest summit camp at 8,000m where an Indian Army team was waiting to launch a summit attempt on May 19, 2012.
In the team were seven women, the first from the Indian Army to try scaling the world’s highest peak along the longer and tougher south face route, following in the footsteps of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.
The expedition was extraordinary also because Discovery Channel cameraman Gary Jarman was following the team. Ahead of the airing of the documentary film he shot (Everest: Indian Army Women’s Expedition), Major Neha Bhatnagar, the second oldest of the women officers, rewound to the day during a telephonic chat with t2.
“The forecast had been a clear night. But such a strong wind started blowing that there was a threat that our camp might get blown off, along with us! Our team leader Colonel Ajay Kothiyal decided to retreat,” says the 31-year-old combat-trained engineer from Rajasthan.
The seven had been selected for the expedition after three rounds of elimination and one year of training. As they returned to the base camp at 5,500m, it might have been the end of their Everest dream. “We were practically going down the entire mountain and with monsoon at the door, there was no knowing if we would get another shot.”
The trickier part, says the former NCC air wing Best Cadet, was not the final assault but negotiating the Khumbu glacier, the world’s highest, en route to the base camp. “We had to cross this route 12 times in those 45 days to acclimatise.” Another challenge was an ice wall, at 80-degree gradient, which had to be crossed to reach Camp 3. “Blue ice is tougher than rock. While climbing, we also had to keep an eye out for the shooting stones from above.”
On the night of the summit attempt, the climb started at 8pm under a moonless sky. It was 5.43am (Nepal time) when she set foot on the highest point of the earth. “Suddenly there was nowhere to go. A bright orange sun was rising and a canopy of white cloud floated over the Tibetan plateau in the east. Slowly the tears came and all the summiteers hugged each other. It didn’t matter that we spoke different languages or were from different countries.”