Wing Commander Amit Chowdhury, who led the IAF Everest expedition, talks about the loss of a friend and colleague
I’m back here in the heat and dust of New Delhi, back after leading the successful Indian Air Force Everest expedition, back without Chaithu, friend and colleague Squadron Leader Sirigere Shivashankara Chaithanya.
I did not summit. I am fit at 46, fit enough to lead the team but not any more the sprightly youngster who began climbing first for the Jadavpur University Mountaineering and Trekking Club and then for the Indian Air Force.
Chaithu summited. He is missing, presumed dead. His camera tells a tale. These photographs (Chaithanya on the summit in picture on left) were clicked with his Sony digital.
On Saturday, I take the team to Bangalore, on way to Shimoga, to meet Chaithu’s family. His daughter was born when we were at base camp. The news came on the sat phone. Chaithu turned to Ramesh (Wing Commander Ramesh Chandra Tripathi) wearing a wide grin and said: “Sir, I need to make some money now, to get my daughter married.”
In camp, Chaithu used to give teammates haircuts. He even cut the hair of people on the other expeditions. After a month in the mountains you can look wild. Chaithu summited on May 30. He was the third of our summit teams.
Before him, the summit team leader, Ramesh, and Sergeant Nikku Ram Chowdhary made it. Chaithu was at the summit the longest, for 14 minutes. Few people spend so much time at the top. But Chaithu was obsessed. He had to take photographs, he had to shoot on the video. It’s all here now. Only Chaithu went missing in the blizzard.
He summited at 10.53 in the morning. He had read everything about Mount Everest. I was at advance base camp (6,400 metres). Mount Everest is 8,848 metres. Mount Everest is never conquered.
On the night of May 29, all three of our summiteers started together from advance base camp at 10.15. Actually we started three years back. I, personally, 30 years back. If you are a mountaineer, you want to get to Everest.
Chaithu had done his basic and advanced courses from Darjeeling and Uttar Kashi but had not done any real mountaineering when we picked him. He was in the IAF base in Agra, in the electronics and radar wing. He showed a lot of promise.
When he climed Kamet (7,757 metres) we knew he was our man. He always carried Willie Unseold’s History of Everest with him. One day he said: “Sir, read page 88, 3rd para. Nikolai Chorni, who is here with the Russian expedition, was here 14 years ago. He is 62 years old now.”
Chorni did not summit. Our doctor advised him against it.
Chaithu was not superstitious. He was just diligent. In his rucksack, which the sherpa gave to me, was his Motorola radio which had died, his digital and video cameras, spare socks, a spare scarf and a copy of the Bhagvad Gita. He used to carry a dictaphone. He left that behind in camp. But he is giving a commentary in the video footage from the summit. He was confident.
After summitting, he was in touch with me on the radio till about four hours later when he and Sherpa Jamling had separated. Chaithu had given his rucksack to sherpa and said: “You carry on.”
In the blizzard, visibility is hardly two feet. From the ABC (advance base camp) I was constantly giving instructions. Once I even told Ramesh, who had reached summit camp, to go out and look for Chaithu after his sherpa stumbled into the tent, hypoxic (acutely short of oxygen) and barely alive. It was not possible.
Chaithu did not give up. I think in his hypoxic state he probably fell from the ridge. That is my professional assessment.
As told to Sujan Dutta