My life is replete with ‘I Should not be alive’ situations. Still, I am alive and none the worse for the ordeal. As you can observe this post is part 1 and if my memory does not fail me in my next ‘fall’ then you would have more such stories of epic survivals. You would notice a deliberate suppression of names including that of the mountain since this expedition went on to become a highly controversial one with the blame game being thrown all around terminating the careers of some brilliant mountaineers and good human beings. If any of the participants of that expedition reads this then let me make it clear that I have absolutely nothing against anyone. I risked my life on my own and whatever happened then or since are the outcome of my own actions. For those, who have been climbing long enough and would be able to identify the expedition and the climbers involved, may I request you to hold your peace and tongue. Mountains teach us not to hate or to hold on to grudges, it teaches us to accept, to let go and to move on. Now read and enjoy.
By that summer of my twentieth year, I had already experienced being buried alive under tons of snow and ice, plunging head first into deep dark crevasses, broken bones at high and improbable places, falling free under gravity, and unimaginable rescue efforts of few who risked everything they held dear in their life to save mine. I had seen life and death from uncomfortably close quarters. Though less than a decade old in the world of mountaineering, I figured that I had pretty much seen them all and then I changed my views.
We were a group of high strung and experienced climbers led by a legendary veteran. I was the youngest and least experienced in the team. After several punishing weeks, two of my partners and I finally topped a 1000 m steep wall of rock and ice and pitched our tiny tent on the shoulder of the summit ridge. All our hurdles, technical difficulties and dangers now lay below. The glistening summit stared down at us benignly over a smooth, steep ridge that did not offer any complications. From here, it was a simple scramble of 500 m ice the gradient at the most touching a measly 50 deg; shouldn’t be more than a walk in the park, my seniors observed. We carried only two days of food and fuel. It was a prized summit and we were poised to make the first ascent. It had darkened by the time we had camped and it was decided that early next morning we would strike for the top and could easily have lunch with our team placed below the rock wall. Naturally we were buoyant and happy. One of my partners thumped me on the back, ‘Satya, young man, you did well. You will become famous when we return. World’s top climbers would give anything to be where you are right now.’ I did become famous on return but in a way beyond my imagination then.
By midnight, the air stilled and the sky darkened. All the surrounding peaks, piercing the sky, fell silent. The breeze-less air felt rather warm. I spied some fireworks to the north, but it seemed too far to cause any harm. The mercury fell alarmingly through the night and though we hadn’t moved at all, we had gained altitude of more than 100 m by two in the morning. I was about to get my first serious practical lesson in weather prediction. My partners looked mildly worried. The silent night started becoming foreboding. Around three, just an hour before we wanted to start, the tent flaps started stirring like a flag. The guy ropes started beating on the ground making eerie sounds. Soon the tent shook violently and a sudden blast of snow caught us squarely. By now our altimeter had gone completely berserk. The needle spun as if under some spell. I was far too inexperienced to understand what was going on. My companions now looked really worried. I unzipped the tent door about two inches and immediately snow poured in through the perforation covering all of us and everything in an inch deep slush. The tent by now shook uncontrollably as if a giant was trying to uproot us and play Frisbee. We were perched at 6300 m, not really high but high enough if situations turned worse. I realized it then that to be with seniors is highly comforting since one feels that they would know what to do, that they always had a solution, no matter how bad things were. I was not deeply worried, just concerned that perhaps we won’t be able to summit that day.
Unknowing to us, we had been hit by one of the worst weather fronts ever recorded anywhere in the Himalaya.
Perched on the shoulder our tent lay exposed to the full fury of the cross-blizzard. Our only comfort being that we were not in the path of any major avalanche. The ground shook violently and our tent bellowed uncontrollably. I have no idea how it did not tear into shreds. It was not large enough for all three of us to lie down; we could simply squeeze in sitting positions and had some room to move our limbs. We occupied three corners of the tent, with our backs pushing against the wind, with all our equipment etc piled up on to the fourth corner, hoping that our combined weight would keep the tent grounded. The storm raged through the day and the night. We ate little and melted snow often. If there was one thing topmost on all our minds then it was a fervent hope that the tentmaker knew his job and had indeed used the best materials known to man in its fabrication. But for that thin layer of fabric we would be dead in under an hour.
The storm did not abate the next day and night. It raged through the third as well. Now my partners appeared as frightened as I. Our comm. sets died one by one and so did our hope for survival. We cut down on our food, of which barely anything was left. We rationed to a symbolic intake of two biscuits and two cups of water a day. Our fuel and the final biscuit ran out on the fifth day and with that all our hopes. We were hypothermic, delirious, weak to the bones, totally silent and barely alive. Huddled inside our sleeping bags we simply stared blankly at each other and the tent interior with no thoughts at all. In a bid for self-preservation, our bodies had started switching off the major organs one by one. First to go was the digestive system. I did not feel hunger or the urge to answer nature’s call. Only a deep hollow pit in my stomach raged from within. The storm continued without. The tent held up in defiance its tiny dome even as the snow piled up to its crown, burying us literally in a snow chamber. If one of us could muster enough strength and felt inclined then he would simply brush the tent roof or give a feeble foot-lash to dislodge the snow piling up from outside. I froze all over in slow motion. Amazingly my mind could feel and see as my extremities and then my innards froze one after another. As soon as the nerve endings died, it stopped hurting. I dozed in and out of consciousness.
On the sixth day, I looked around for some moisture. My throat was set in fire; I could not even swallow as there was no saliva at all. My tongue swelled up and must have turned black. Both my companion sat inert in their sleeping bags, eyes shut and dead in all appearance, though I was certain they were not, rather as close to being dead as I was. My wind pipe felt brittle and almost about to fall into shreds, I couldn’t breathe. I needed moisture, even a drop would do. Desperately I put a small snow flake in my mouth and immediately regretted as it choked and dehydrated me further. Then I saw my climbing boots. It were the days of leather climbing boots, unlike the plastic double layered ones of today. I knew the leather would have soaked in some moisture and it would still be pliable. Without any thoughts at all, I brought the shoe to my lips and started chewing and sucking at the leather. After hours I felt a slow trickle run down my parched throat. I continued chewing. That night my shoe kept me alive.
The windward corner of the tent finally gave way on the seventh evening. Snow filled up the tent like thick smoke, entering every tiny pore it found. Only my nose was exposed, rest all buried within my down jackets and fleece, most of which were by now useless. I had reached the state of zero thought process. I no longer had an identity, did not know who I was, or where I was or what I was up to. I did not even know if I was alive or had already died. I certainly felt dead since I felt nothing at all. The roaring blizzard outside and the swirling snow inside had silenced everything else, had driven away my last iota of strength and rationality.
My eyes saw but did not observe, my ears heard but did not listen; my heart still worked but did not beat. I detached from my physical body, hovering a little above and looked down at myself in a disjointed fashion. I was wasted completely and I was dead and so were my companions. And with that blissful realization I passed away into oblivion.
Post Script: For those who are wondering what happened thereafter; the storm raged for five more days, finally clearing up on the 12th morning. My back up team climbed up and found me still ticking but my companions frozen stiff. They brought me down in what must have been a herculean task. I don’t recall any of it. I was told that they found me completely caked in five inches of snow from head to toe. Only a pair of hole where my nose lay buried told them that I still breathed. They tried to feed me some water but I had coughed out everything. They bundled me like a stuffed turkey in my sleeping bag and simply lowered me hand over hand through twenty vertical pitches. My body banged and dashed on the rock and ice, swinging wildly on several occasions and I was told that I could have died on the way down too. It was not a time for kid-glove treatment. Haste was paramount. They literally dragged my body down like a sack of potato, rolling, pushing, pulling, and throwing, whatever it needed to get me down. While doing so, this superb team of men selflessly laid their own lives at unimaginable risk to save mine. They did it mechanically, since it needed to be done, or at least attempted. We mountaineers are foolishly stubborn and refuse to give up even when failure is assured.
From the lower camp, three Sherpas took turns to ferry me across the mountain and the glacier, getting me finally to the nearest hospital. I remember none of this either. The first thing I saw when I gained consciousness was a gentle looking fellow in white, with kind eyes. I was sure that I had opened my eyes in heaven. It was the doctor. When I was discharged and returned home, I found that I had lost 12 kg and most of my top layer of skin. I was emaciated beyond recognition. I took nearly two months to regain enough strength to stand unsupported on my feet. What remained the mystery of this ordeal was how I survived when my companions did not and medically it was virtually impossible that I still lived. A renowned cardiologist, neuroscientist and a clinical psychologist ran endless tests on me as I became a case study for them. Meanwhile a proper investigation was carried out and the expedition was analyzed in depth. The cardiologist and the neuroscientist finally accepted defeat. They could find absolutely no reason for me to be alive. The psychologist surmised that it was my will to live and my refusal to give up that had kept me alive. He said that my mind ticked while my body died. The other two died when they gave up and accepted the inevitable. I learned later that my case was often a matter of study for PG students under the psychologist.
Many people ask me even now as they did then, what I went through and what did I make of it. To them I have no answer, not then, not now. I just don’t know except that every time I go into these icy summits, I know it from the bottom of my heart that I am visiting my family and that I am among friends. I surrender myself completely to them, seeking nothing in return except their acceptance. Perhaps that’s what saved my life. After all, who would kill their own!