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‘Even in blizzards, Chanda carried on’

- Missing climber’s Kanchenjungha trail

Summit camp

May 17, 5.30pm: Purba Ongbi Sherpa rushes into our tent to inform it’s time to set out for the peak. The weather is good and if everything falls into place, we should be setting our feet on Kanchenjungha by tomorrow morning.

The other day, Sherpa Dawa Wangchu, who is accompanying Chanda Gayen and Rajib Bhattacharjee, was telling us how the Sikkimese people accord godly status to Kanchenjungha.

All four of us (Dipankar Ghosh, two foreign climbers and I) get ready within minutes and come out of our tents beneath a twilight sky. I notice Chanda and Rajib too are getting ready to climb the world’s third highest peak.

Lack of proper routes, unpredictable weather and the possibility of an avalanche at every step compounded my difficulties in negotiating every stretch on Kanchenjungha.

Evening descends and so does darkness. We keep climbing in the light of headlamps fixed on our helmets.

Avalanches are common on the steep face dotted with fluted ice gullies. Suddenly, small blocks of hard ice break off high above and thunder by, sweeping away everything in their wake.

Ask me whether I’m scared and I will say, “Yes, I am and everybody would be.” The huge vertical columns, rocky cliffs upon cliffs and ice walls look like night monsters.

By fixing ropes after ropes, we keep following the meticulously calculated footsteps of our guide sherpas. One wrong step and you are no more, our guides keep reminding us.

Along with the sherpas, we too at times have to keep on hacking tonnes of ice to make routes. The nylon ropes are flung all over the area, so that in case of any accident, we can save ourselves from falling down.

From here I can see Chanda climbing a high tower with Sherpa Tashi guiding her.

Besides, she is also negotiating big cornices — the overhanging edges of snow on a ridge and along the sides of gullies. Even in the face of occasional blizzards, Chanda carries on with utmost care and excellence.

We climb and crawl throughout the night, braving treacherous terrain, and reach the cliff from where the peak became distinctly visible — a stark contrast against soft clouds and dark blue sky in the morning sun.

What majesty! The 8,586m peak, with all its grandeur, is standing tall before us.

Words seem so feeble in putting forth our minds at a time when we are about to conquer the unconquerable.

The stretch from here up to the summit entirely consists of hard ice and rock. The summit ridge requires an amount of travel on rock as well as climbing.

Chanda is behind us and I can spot her in that yellow jacket far below negotiating an ice wall by inserting her ice axe.

It’s a safety test for us, and if a blue glow comes out of the hole, a mountaineer generally retreats to a safer zone.

And for us, a few metres to move on and…

Kanchenjungha

May 18, 10.05am: Mission accomplished! We are at the top of Kanchenjungha.

Dipankar scales the peak around 10am and I set my feet on the summit five minutes later.

The last stretch that put our climbing skill to test paid dividends. It was almost a knife-edge ridge, a mixture of rock and ice, and dangerously balanced on each other.

10.50am: Chanda reaches the summit with Rajib behind her.

A dream-come-true moment for us and we congratulate each other. The mountaineers, including a few foreign climbers, bring out their cameras and start taking photographs. Dawa is taking Chanda’s pictures. Dipankar takes a few snaps of all of us.

Mt Everest, Lhotse, Jannu and Yalung are visible on the horizon. We are standing between two layers of clouds. Some of my fellow climbers are busy planting flags.

Our first hurdle is an almost 700ft high icefall, one of the most dangerous in the entire expedition, below camp I.

Chanda shows her skill in excellently negotiating that. These precipices, which look aggressive and roar with avalanches, cannot defeat us and all of us can negotiate the vertical hill of ice.

11.15am: I start descending and just below the summit, we have to climb down a steep vertical crevasse.

The weather improves by now. The ice in couloir has transformed, appearing much steeper with the snow quality often changing. Since it is deep and soft, breaking the trail exhausted me. We have to encounter hard ice on quite a few stretches.

And there it happens.

For a moment my concentration strays and I slip from an ice wall. Though I try to arrest myself by inserting the ice axe on the wall, it doesn’t help because of the soft snow and I fall at least 30m below.

I hurt my left ankle and can’t stand on my feet for a few minutes.

Since my sherpa has moved ahead and no one can be spotted at the place, I have to start climbing up the wall on my own. Thank God, quite a few ropes are flung on the tower and these help me climb up to the descending route. The weather becomes much warmer now.

(It’s not possible to recollect all my thoughts and feelings now as I had been under tremendous stress while descending.)

A few moments later, I can again spot Chanda descending carefully.

She is negotiating a narrow gully with a steep slope. I can see Sherpa Dawa Wangchu breaking the trail with Chanda and Temba following her.

I am below an ice wall while she is attempting to descend it. I help her by throwing a hanging nylon rope towards her. She catches it and the rest is easy.

While I keep moving by cutting a tunnel through a monstrous tower, she slogs in deep snow amid speedy winds.

At that moment, the distance between us becomes wider as I make through the route though small avalanches keep obliterating my trail.

The sole saving factor remains the slope. As it is almost vertical, the snow keeps sliding off. At times, I come under avalanches and after they pass, I shrugged off the snow and continue my descent.

Summit camp

9pm: We are back at the summit camp. It’s a starry night and the lamps in our tents look like fireflies.

Dipankar and I will start climbing down towards base camp tomorrow morning.

Though I enquire about Chanda at dinner, a sherpa says she has not reached the summit camp.

A skilled mountaineer, she must be safely here by now, I think.

May 19, 10.50am: I couldn’t say bye to Chanda while starting from the summit camp. She must have reached here late last night and taking rest. We set out for the base camp at 10.58am. Anyway, we will have a chat over the entire expedition once we get together in Kathmandu.

May 23, 12.30pm: Dipankar and I, along with Ongbi Sherpa, are on our way to Yangphudin (2,150m).

Midway, we come across a team of Spanish mountaineers. From their sherpas, I get to know that Chanda is missing along with two sherpas below the summit camp of Yalung Kang or Kanchenjungha West.

For a moment, I can’t believe my ears. They say avalanches struck them when they were about to summit Kanchenjungha West.

I could still recollect Chanda wearing an oxygen mask and a yellow jacket, bubbling with spirit to achieve another feat. Had I known that she would set for Kanchenjungha West soon after scaling the main peak, I would have surely warned her.

Nothing can be done now except pray for her survival.