Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A Journey Called Pain

As a part of my mountaineering and wilderness survival training, I learned all about first aids, medical emergencies, poking needles, setting broken bones, reviving avalanche victims, or anyone from almost any situations, etc well before I left the comforting confines of my teens. Over the years as I risked life and limbs countless times in extremely hostile and remote places of our planet, my knowledge came handy in saving lives, or locating dead bodies when I was unable to save. I could fill up an entire book only with such tales. But the story I have for you today is from a different perspective. It is in the order of the age old dictum that what one learns through one's own mistakes one never forgets.

The first victim of my surgical expertise, if I had any at that stage, whose gash of wound I had to stitch up was none other than 'yours truly'. This is the story.

The location: last camp on a high and remote Himalayan Mountain, seldom climbed and rarely summited. A highly inhospitable place and totally unsuitable for the kind of drama that was about to unfold.

The actors: two excitable and excited climbers, dead to their bones out of exhaustion, both veterans in such places, and euphoric as they had just returned from the summit. The protagonist: one puny little fellow, who had missed the summit by his non-existent whiskers, and in considerable pain with very little experience in such places or situations for that matter. A tiny plastic figurine of Lord Shiva, who actually did nothing and observed the entire performance with that mysterious smile locked on his face as ever.

Of the two of my partners on that incredibly steep and tiny campsite, one is no more and the other disappeared from the face of earth few years ago, to where no one knows. They were fine people much respected and admired by all of us, and this post might not show them in their correct perspective, hence I would give them names that they weren't born with.

But before I begin, let me remind you, lest you judge in haste, that in such places that I call 'home' people change in a manner that is unimaginable at sea-level. They show their purest as well as vilest traits, which might never have surfaced otherwise. When so much is at stake, including your own life, and after having undergone the severest of punishments (self-inflicted) possible both physical and mental, it is but human for factors like self-preservation, self ambition and self glorification to emerge where none might have existed afore. But having said that, I must also add that more often it is the other traits that rein supreme where a normal man rises above human frailty.

We were at 20,660 ft, perched on a tiny ledge, which was not even large enough for our tent to rest all its four corner poles on ground. One pole flapped free over a void of 4000 ft. The three of us had battled through raging storms and blinding snows over the last few days to reach the summit camp. From here a sheer knife edge ridge, with dizzy drops on either sides led up to the pointed summit where very few had stepped before. My partners, Sam and Mike were both veteran Himalayan climbers and a decade elder to me in age and little more in experience. The day after we reached the summit camp, clouded in heavily and the weather turned even worse wiping out all our chances of a quick summit and a dash back to safety. I was only 20 then. I already had a dozen Himalayan peaks under my belt and several superlative ascents in the Alps and Andes, yet the peak that now lay almost within my sneezing distance was the highest of my life. We had another 2000 ft or so to go. I was as eager, fit and ready as my partners to go for the conical summit that haunted my dreams.

The next morning, Mike, our leader surveyed the ridge and returned with a long face. 'It's totally messed up, guys, knee deep snow, very unstable.' And he discussed the possibilities and options with Sam. I was far too young then, according to them, to participate in such technical and high risk deliberations. What they summed up and what I gathered was that we could not go up on that ridge because of the heavy and soft snow all along its top, which made the ice extremely vulnerable to avalanche and we could simply be swept away to our death if we proceeded as it was now. It was objectively too hazardous. We had only one option. We needed someone to go up and stamp a route through the snow covered ridge, not right up to the summit, which was not possible but almost. So that the next day all of us could walk through the fresh trail.

Even with my little experience I understood that the person who would have to open a route through knee deep fresh snow on a ridge that was two feet wide at its widest with 4000 ft of drop on either side, and snaked up at a dizzy angle of 60 deg through buffeting cross winds, would be stretched to his physical and mental limits of endurance if not more. He would be lucky just to stay alive and get back to the summit camp in one piece. Three is an odd number to be at such places and under such circumstances. Such highly dangerous and technical climbs are best done in pairs, not in threes or ones. Mike and Sam have been partnering each other for many years. I was with them for the first time. They looked at me. I wanted the summit as much as they did, may be even more. They couldn't force me to be the sacrificial goat, but one of us had to go out there and open the route. I had also learnt by then that the credit of the summit goes to the entire team and not only to the ones who stand there. We had reached an impasse.

None of us willing to open the route, while each knew that if no one did, then we would simply go back without the summit. Around two hours later, I picked up my gear and stood up in my climbing boots. I thought I was strong enough to open the route and join my senior partners to the summit the next day. I was wrong. I had underestimated the mountain and overestimated my own abilities as a human. A mistake I seldom repeated ever again.

By the time I reached within 500 ft of the summit, my body was beyond any feeling of exhaustion. If I was tired, my brain did not register. If I still had my limbs attached to my body, I did not feel them to be so. I was climbing out of my physical existence. Only two things stayed with me; that I was still alive and wanted to remain alive. Under the glare of a moribund sun, I literally rolled down the ridge (it amazes me even to this day, how did I not fall off or die on that ridge) and when I hobbled back and crashed outside the tent I knew, just a moment before blacking out, that my feet would never graze that lofty summit I so strongly desired. I had been on my feet for nearly 12 hours. Snow had permeated every part of my body and clothing. Mike and Sam tended to my deliriums and dehydration throughout the night. They even discussed calling off the summit attempt and take me down instead. But I would not hear any of it.

The next day, sun rose gloriously across the high mountains to our east. The clear cut, well stamped trail led all the way from our tent to the distant summit, now bathed in the golden glow. Mike and Sam bid me goodbye and left. I returned inside the tent to pacify my restless soul. Seeing them go and knowing that I would never again stand where I stood and that the summit was now out of my grasp was one of my hardest moments of climbing career. The day passed in pondering. Towards the evening a foul smell had started filling up the tent, of which I couldn't locate the source. I also felt a numbing pain beneath my right big toe that I couldn't explain. Delirious and somnambulistic as I was, all I did through the day was to melt more snow and hydrate my parched throat. I barely ate a morsel. By the time my partners returned in a highly exhausted and euphoric state, the tent stank with rancid odor of putrid flesh. Mike reacted first.

'You ok, Satya?' He asked. I nodded without thinking. And then he looked at my feet and to their utmost horror (as they related later) they realized that I still had my boots on (this is an absolute no-no; once you are back in your tent you must take off your boots and dry up your feet and the inner soles. Though I pondered later, how come both of them missed it as well through the previous night). Mike took off both my boots and immediately the smell became overpowering. My right big toe was swollen and black from under. It had developed into second degree of gangrene. The surface tissues were dead and were now eating into the deeper ones. 'Oh my god,' Sam screamed his head off. 'This is serious,' Mike observed ruefully. 'Do you feel anything there, Satya, can you move your toe?' I tried and failed on both accounts. I had enough training to know what I was witnessing on my own body. My toes must have frozen during the previous day's route opening and had swelled up cutting off any further blood flow into the extremities. Through the night the cells and tissues died deepening the frost bite without my realization. My mind was far too fatigued to register anything.

The smell said it all. Within hours, if the rotten flesh was not snipped off immediately, I could lose my entire right leg to amputation. Under my present condition there was no way that I could descend to the base camp. Once again, as it has been proven in my life innumerable times, lack of options is always an option that makes the process of decision making puerilely simple. We had to chop off my right toe till all the putrid flesh had gone and then stitch up the remainder. We had the necessary paraphernalia to do a minor surgery, but who would do it!

Mike brought out the surgical blade and went to work. He dabbed as much antiseptic he could on my toe and snipped off the flesh layer after layer. The dark foul flesh fell off like putty. The pain must have shot through my head out of my body. The gangrene had spread deeper than we had thought. Huge chunks of flesh fell away and still more emerged from under. He finally stopped when the blade touched my toe bone. There was no more flesh left. By this time a huge hollow had been carved out from the area. Now came the next stage, to stitch up the healthy skin across the hollow. Mike nodded his head dejectedly. He did not seem to be sure what was required. None of us had any previous suturing experience.

Once again the lack of option was the only option. I took out the half-moon shaped 'taper Cutting' needle and threaded the absorbable suture through the eye. Feeling of pain is purely a state of mind as I have experienced so many times. Any other physical feelings cannot be defined in so base a manner. If you can convince your mind that you are not going to feel the pain then you won't. I upturned the bottle of celebratory Vodka into the hollow, watching incredulously as the white foams burnt out all infections bursting the bubbles like a geothermal pool. We had no anesthetics and there was no need either.

The first contact between tempered steel and raw open flesh was my only point of hesitation. Hastily I stitched up the open wound with long sweeps of the needle and packed it all up under tons of cotton and bandage. I popped four pills of antibiotics and we prepared to descend. Mike ruled out another night so high up for me. We abseiled down continuously through the night, both my partners taking turns to lead while I took up the middle. I had to keep my weight consciously on my heels and every time I landed on my right toe I would tear the silent night with my screams.

P.S. The story does not end here; the story never ends… it only ends when the teller ends. Well, I am still here, so more stories will keep coming. But for today, allow me to pause here and ponder instead that on that monumental day did I prove myself to be a fool or a martyr or simply a human seeking the impossible!


  1. Just reading this article makes my hairs stand up. But as you rightly said it is more of a mind game, lack of options & necessary skills.
    JAI HO... Dr. Satya

  2. OMG, S had goose bumps and still do even after am finished. Ufffff, really am a little too shaken right now to even think straight. Tight hugs to u.