Odds even out on Everest

The registration papers of their flat, the fixed deposit certificates, the insurance papers, the keys.

By Jhinuk Mazumdar and Anwesha Ambaly
  • Published 11.06.16
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Calcutta/Bhubaneswar, June 10: The registration papers of their flat, the fixed deposit certificates, the insurance papers, the keys.

Chetna Sahoo had a long list of things to explain to her 17-year-old son Vihang and 15-year-old daughter Teesta before leaving for her Everest expedition with husband Pradeep in March.

There was little option but to be pragmatic in the life they had chosen to lead. The couple, who had met and fell in love while climbing mountains, were going to the "death zone" for the third time in three years, leaving their children behind and with no certainty of a safe return.

The middle-aged couple's climb to the top of the world had, in many ways, begun at home. The first step was convincing their children, the elder one a student of Class XI and the younger one in Class X, about their overwhelming ambition to go back to Everest. The duo had had to twice abort their Everest attempts in 2014 and 2015 because of natural disasters.

"The children would often ask: 'If it is so difficult, why are you going there?' I would convince them by saying that not all people die in the mountains. Some also die in the plains," 50-year-old Chetna recounted on Wednesday, sitting in her living room in Calcutta's Tollygunge with frostbite on both hands.

Pradeep seconded his wife and said: "It was hard to leave them behind and depart on a journey where there is no surety to return. But, mountaineering was the reason why my wife and me are together today and we have always wanted to do this," said Pradeep.

The teenagers eventually said yes, but only after extracting the promise that 2016 would be their parents' last shot at Everest.

Chetna and Pradeep needn't break that promise. The couple reached the summit of the 8850m mountain separately on May 19.

The expedition, a battle against emotional pangs and near-vertical inclines, gale-force winds and thinning oxygen in the air, ended on Wednesday evening with the couple's joyous homecoming.

" Hum wapas aa gaye (We have come back)," they kept repeating, surrounded by family members and friends in their Calcutta flat.

The journey back home had been delayed because Chetna needed to be hospitalised in Siliguri for almost two weeks because of frostbite. She would need medical attention for some more time.

Despite the huge odds, what kept them motivated during the journey was blessing from Lord Jagannath, admits Pradeep.

"Before leaving for the climb, we had visited Puri temple and will visit again when I come to Odisha next. I was carrying a statue of Lord Jagannath throughout my journey without whom we could never have completed the journey," said Sahoo whose family members live in Bhubaneswar.

Years ago, long before the couple were bitten by the Everest bug, they had together tried to climb Panchchuli, Plateau Peak and Shivling. They thereafter decided to climb separately so that the children weren't left alone at home.

"We would plan our expeditions separately because the children were small and they needed someone at home to take care of them. We have been going to Everest together for the past two years because they have grown up somewhat and we have strong support from my brother and brother-in-law," said Pradeep, also 50.

Pradeep, who hails from Karabara village in Nayagarh district of Odisha, and Chetna, who is from Anand in Gujarat, had first met in the mountains in 1993 during a four-week training in Alpine-style climbing organised by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation.

Their paths crossed again on the Mount Shivling trail the next year. During the expedition, Chetna proposed to Pradeep and the two married in December 1995.

"Our roots are elsewhere but we feel so proud when people say that mountaineers from Bengal have reached the summit of Everest," Pradeep said.

The climb to the top, of course, had been every bit as nerve-wracking as they feared it would be.

Before the summit bid, Chetna was suffering from cold and cough, dental problems, a blistered tongue and bruised ribs caused by repeated coughing. She was on a pain reliever to be able to continue.

The couple started from South Col (around 7,900m) at 9.30pm on May 18. When Chetna reached the Balcony, a natural platform at an altitude of about 8400m, she said: "I may have to go down."

Pradeep left it to her to make the decision. "I was maintaining a bit of distance with Chetna and I left it to her and Phurba Sherpa (an Everest veteran) to decide what is the best course of action," he recounted.

Chetna eventually managed to carry on and reached the summit at 11.10am, half an hour after Pradeep.

The descent was even more tense, especially for Pradeep, who believes that no climb is complete until one comes down safely. At South Col, about 900m below the summit and near Camp IV, he spent two hours waiting for his wife and fearing the worst.

Pradeep had reached South Col around 7pm and expected Chetna to reach in another two hours. "Around midnight, I heard some noise outside and found out that Phurba Sherpa had arrived and was without oxygen. He had barely reached the camp before fainting. He said that Chetna was coming down, but I found it hard to believe him," he said.

Pradeep later learnt that Phurba and Chetna had run out of oxygen around 9pm. Phurba hurried down and sent a rescue team to get Chetna. She reached South Col at 2.15am, almost two hours after Phurba Sherpa's descent. "To see her alive was the biggest solace," recalled Pradeep.

Till last year, the couple had spent Rs 60 lakh, four months in the mountains and two years training to fulfil their dream of reaching Everest. Their co-climber Debraj Dutta took loans to meet the cost of his expeditions.

Pradeep runs a mining business and stays in Harare, Zimbabwe, for eight months in a year. The remaining months are spent mostly in the mountains.

The last three annual family holidays were in West Sikkim. The couple trained for Everest while the children were by themselves. "At least we were together!" Chetna said.

A typical day for Chetna would start at 6.30am with the children leaving for school. She would then embark on long sessions of walking, gymming and yoga. "Whenever Pradeep called from Harare, the conversation would not be about how we were but whether either of us had gone to the gym," Chetna smiled.

In love with the mountains since childhood, Chetna's training in mountaineering had begun when she was 16. Several of her expeditions since have been with Bachendri Pal, who in 1984 became the first Indian woman to reach the summit of Everest.

Chetna climbed Africa's highest mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895m), in 2008.

Pradeep's interest in the mountains was ignited during a month-long summer vacation in Kalimpong, just before starting his engineering education in Roorkee. He was 19 then. "Kalimpong was my first exposure to the Himalayas... very different from the small hills around my village," recalled Pradeep, who is an alumnus of the BJB (Autonomous) College in Bhubaneswar.

While he is appreciative of a number of mountaineers emerging from Odisha, Pradeep desires to set up a mountaineering club in Odisha.

"I want to bring all mountaineers from the state under one club. Whatever is being done is on an individual level, but there is need for a concerted effort," said Pradeep.

For most of his climbing career, he did not even think about attempting to scale Everest. Climbing the world's highest mountain had seemed an impossible ask after a spine injury during an expedition to Kamet (7,756m) in 2006.

Pradeep went through spinal surgery and was almost bedridden for nine months before returning to the mountains in 2008. Everest was now waiting for him.

What message do you have for Chetna and Pradeep Sahoo? Tell ttodisha@abp.in