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‘Death zone is the toughest’

Ujjal Roy, a police officer by chance and a mountaineer by choice, climbed Mount Everest on May 19 last year.

Roy spoke to BITAN SIKDAR on Friday about the perilous Khumbu icefall, where several climbers were buried under an avalanche in the morning, and the other dangers that crop up every moment on the way to the highest peak on earth.

Everester Roy is currently the officer-in-charge of Gariahat police station.

I heaved a sigh of relief after putting up a photo of Swami Vivekananda and a police flag atop Mt Everest at 7.05am on May 19 last year.

It was a dream come true for me as every mountaineer aspires to scale the highest hump in the world.

But my 37-day journey from base camp at 5,364m to the 8,848m peak through the southeast ridge had never been a “package tour” as has often been dubbed by experts. It took me 10 years and 15 expeditions to conquer Mt Everest.

With GPS and space-tech gear allowing even the unlikeliest of guys — grandpas like 80-year-old Japanese adventurer Yuichiro Miura — to take a shot at the summit, Everest climbing is now seen as child’s play!

But, even the tailor-made trek cannot diminish the glory of crossing the “death zone” (8,000m and above) to the summit.

Ask the ol’ mules (as orthodox mountaineers are called)! They may snigger at the trek to Mt Everest over a glass of beer but even they know how hostile it could become on a quiet and sunny May day, the most popular month for expeditions before miserable monsoon sets in.

We started from base camp towards the Khumbu icefall. One has to climb the Khumbu icefall to reach the glacier where Camp I is located. We ascended the icefall at the dead of night when it was partially frozen and less susceptible to movement.

On May 14, while negotiating the icefall, we had a narrow escape as huge blocks of ice started tumbling down from the glacier once we crossed it. The large seracs (ice blocks), which comprise the icefall, have been known to collapse without warning. We had to negotiate a number of large crevasses, ranging from 4ft to 25ft, through metal ladders.

Snowfall, whiteouts and blizzards are a common phenomenon here. I can remember how difficult it became for us when visibility dropped suddenly because of the snow.

We came across quite a few crevasses on our journey from Camp I to Camp II. The stretch consists of a large icefield covered with snow. It took around seven hours to cross it. On that stretch, we saw a large avalanche from the wall of Mt Nuptse (7,855m).

At the base of Mt Everest lies Camp II. From there, we started for Camp III and to reach that we had to negotiate a stiff ice wall. After a climb of nearly six hours, we reached a stance where Camp III is located. Once I reached there, I could understand why it is identified as the most vulnerable camp on the way to the peak. It is quite common for snowstorms and avalanches to wash out the camp. And it is impossible to run away, or even know which way to run.

The stretch between Camp III and IV is a diagonal climb from the Lhotse wall to South Col. Again, snowstorm or blizzard played a crucial role on this stretch. From Camp III onwards, we had to put on the oxygen mask.

South Col and above is often called the “death zone” because of low oxygen and unpredictable weather.

Money can buy one the best gear. On the way to the summit one may get the assistance of aluminium ladders, harnesses and pre-fitted ropes on hooks.

But then, no amount of equipment is enough at an altitude of above 8,000m. It’s the ultimate test of human survival.

You have to be supremely fit to fight the imposing elements at every step.