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Conquering Covid and Mount Everest

Mountaineer and athlete Harshvardhan Joshi shares his experience

Saionee Chakraborty | Published 08.07.21, 12:18 AM
From Harshvardhan’s Everest album

From Harshvardhan’s Everest album

There is an innocence and candour about Harshvardhan Joshi, the 25-year-old Vasai (Maharashtra) boy who climbed Mount Everest in 65 days, on May 23. This despite being derailed by Covid up in the mountains while on mission Everest. “You can’t replicate that experience. You always have to climb at night because during the day, it’s much more dangerous and you are sleep deprived, dehydrated. It’s like (attempting) an Ironman event every day for two months,” says Harshvardhan who “googled breathing exercises through satellite Internet” to keep calm while battling Covid. Though he knew that he might have to turn back if things took a turn for the worse, he was determined not to give up.

His goals will keep evolving he says. In autumn he is planning to attempt Manaslu. “I want to do it without supplemental oxygen, in September, a 40-day 8,000m peak expedition,” says Harshvardhan who was supported by Seagram’s Royal Stag ‘Make It Large Stories’ initiative for his Everest expedition. A candid chat.

How has life changed ever since mountains became a passion for you?

I am an IT engineer. During the second year of my engineering I got into backpacking and trekking. I knew that I was going to climb Mount Everest someday because it is every mountaineer’s dream. Who doesn’t want to experience the view from the top of the world? Back then I didn’t know that this would happen in five-six years because I knew this was going to be a very expensive affair. After my engineering, just as I was about to get into a B-school, all my IIM graduate friends told me my life is much better in the mountains. So, I decided to pursue my Everest dream. The life lessons I would get from Everest will be much bigger.

I was supposed to go there in 2020 but due to the pandemic it was pushed to 2021. I am glad it happened that way. With more struggles and hurdles, this was a greater experience.

When did the mountains happen to you?

When I was 15, I was assembling and selling computers and a group of doctors who were my clients took me for a hike to a wildlife sanctuary. They had been to the Everest base camp. When I started trekking, these doctor friends mentored me. All my solo trips across the Himalayas were so rich that I couldn’t stop.

What do the mountains tell you?

To leave no trace and expect the unexpected.

When did you start planning for Mount Everest?

I started in 2016. Post my graduation in 2017, I started taking it seriously. I came across friends who had already climbed Everest and they told me I could do it and that I was physically good enough and it’s not as expensive as I was thinking it to be. I targeted 2020 so that I could figure out the finances. In 2018, my training became more target specific. I also went to Nepal twice and climbed another big mountain with the same team to understand everything. I also went to the Everest base camp trek once and climbed a few smaller peaks nearby and spent a few days at base camp. Since my life would be at stake up there, I wanted to prepare well. I really believe in the quote: ‘Over prepare, then go with the flow’.

Is the mental and physical toughness ratio 50-50 when you are preparing for something so challenging?

A lot of people are physically fit to climb Everest even in our cities, but not mentally. There is no way to prepare for it. It only comes with experience and even after experience, it is about the mindset. You need to be positive. For me, it came from years of experience and spending time in the mountains. Being young, I also had fewer responsibilities to worry about.

Physically, you need to have the technical skills and basic knowledge for which we do mountaineering courses. Since 2019, I was following a scientific training plan specifically for Everest, with a coach, wearing heart-rate monitors and sensors on my body and training in a place near Mumbai... running a few times a week, swimming every evening, hiking every weekend. It changed every week as I moved closer to my goal. My training was around the ideology of structured training or endurance sports and because I was also used to that format for my triathlon training. I wanted to go for the Ironman races after Everest, but since it got postponed, Ironman came earlier. Both are similar... low intensity, high volume, long duration.

Did your diet change drastically?

I never had professional help with my nutrition till mid-2020. I thought since I am a vegetarian and I never eat out, I was eating clean, but later on I realised even in that one could go wrong. Then my diet involved a lot of salads, lentils, pulses and fruits. My sport is also such that I need to consume a lot of carbs, but that too I consumed mostly vegetables. I left everything to the professionals.

What do you eat once you are up in the mountains?

Till the base camp, where we spend most of the time, supplies come on yaks or porters or helicopters. So, you get fresh vegetables and fruits to some extent. We have a dedicated team who would prepare anything we wanted. I would personally eat dal-bhaat because it’s the safest. On the higher camps, we would have dehydrated meals or prepare something from the base camp, carry it and keep it in lightweight containers. There you don’t even have water to prepare anything. To melt snow, it takes many hours.

You were also struck by Covid. Who would have thought Covid would reach even Mt Everest?!

We all thought we were at the safest place on earth though we knew that if there was a Covid outbreak there, nobody would be able to control it. Our worst fear came true. On May 8 I was supposed to leave for the summit push and I was the leader of my team, which had nine people. We decided to test everyone randomly because a member of the team had tested positive and he had to be evacuated and hospitalised.

I tested positive. We all knew that I couldn’t go up now because the condition was precisely what shouldn’t be there for Covid. There is lack of oxygen, your body is under stress, no medical backup, choppers cannot fly high enough and there is no network and things can deteriorate very fast because of the lack of oxygen. 

I was the most careful about Covid, but it happened. I called my doctors in India and most of them asked me to come down. I was already on vitamin supplements because we don’t get fresh food out there. I just increased the doses as per Covid requirement and isolated and monitored myself for the next 10 days. I also spoke to my friends who were very supportive, meditated, practised pranayama, took steam and did hot water gargle. I had taken both doses of the vaccine and it definitely worked for me.

Can you recall that moment when you were on the summit? What were your first thoughts?

I did it on May 23 morning. The weather was not good enough to climb Mount Everest and I was up there to climb a nearby peak. Suddenly, from Camp 3, just below the summit camp, I decided to attempt it. It was windy, but I was in good shape and my Sherpa was strong and he had confidence in me. We pushed and could do Everest.

I was not euphoric but just relieved. I was happy as I could make it against all odds, but reaching the top is just halfway there, coming down safely is more important and much more dangerous so I wanted to come down safely before celebrating. Also, I had another 8,000m peak (Lhotse) to climb just after Everest, so I was focused on executing the plan.

I would also like to thank Royal Stag and couldn’t think of a better sponsor for my first attempt to climb Mt Everest. Their campaign ‘Make It Large’ matches a lot with my ideology.

What life lessons did this expedition teach you?

It made me much more patient. I started valuing minimalism and simplicity. It also made me realise how fragile life can be and to live in the moment. I learned to be prepared and go with the flow.

Besides conquering peaks, what are your other future plans?

I want to keep motivating the youth, drive them towards sustainability. I carried solar panels to Everest and made sure that we didn’t use generators, to set an example. I am also mentoring a few younger athletes and preparing a para athlete for Everest.

More about Harshvardhan Joshi

Fave expeditions...

In 2019, Nimsdai (of Bremont Project Possible) climbed all the 14 highest peaks on earth in six months.

A few of my Sherpa friends did K2 in winter, which is the last achievement left for the eight thousanders. I like these guys because they are raising the Asian benchmarks.

Fave mountaineers...

Nimsdai, Adrian Ballinger

When not climbing peaks, he is...

Writing, watching documentaries, learning French. He is also passionate about marketing

Last updated on 08.07.21, 12:18 AM
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