Saturday, July 30, 2005

A fair conquest

Four women from the Indian Army set a record by scaling the Everest in the first shot. Vijay Mohan on their three-month-long arduous yet successful expedition

WHEN on June 2, 2005, nine members — five men and four women — of the Indian Army Women’s Everest Expedition conquered the world’s highest peak, they set a record of sorts. This is the first time that four women members belonging to the Army of a single nation climbed the highest mountain in their maiden attempt. The team’s members were also the first women in the Indian Army to undertake such an expedition.

The expedition was planned to initiate Army’s women mountaineers into extreme altitude climbing. They underwent an extensive selection and training programme at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi and thereafter the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen glacier.

Maj S.S. Shekhawat,

Capt Sipra Majumdar

Cadet Tsering Ladol,

Capt Ashwini Pawa

Dechen Lhamo

Finally, 10 women climbers were selected out of the 140 volunteers. To assist them in the expedition, 18 Armymen, all experts in mountaineering, were handpicked.

"The expedition was remarkable as we scaled the Everest from the Tibetan side, which is much more tough and challenging," Maj S.S. Shekhawat, the team leader, said during the team’s recent visit to Chandimandir. Indian Army expeditions have reached the top from the Nepal side twice," he added. A Special Forces officer, he had scaled the Everest twice before through the south-east ridge.

The four women who touched the world’s highest point were Captains Sipra Majumdar, Ashwini A. S. Pawar, Dechen Lhamo and Cadet Tsering. A mechanical engineer, Captain Majumdar was commissioned into the Corps of Engineers in March 2002. Captain Pawar was commissioned into the Army Ordnance Corps in September 2002.

Hailing from Nepal, Dechen Lhamo is from the Special Frontier Force, which comprises Tibetan refugees and is the only Army establishment to have woman combatants. Tsering, the youngest member of the team, is an NCC cadet from Korzok, a small village in Ladakh. All four had also taken part in the Army Women’s Expedition to Mount Gamin (7355 m) in 2004. Besides them, there were five other women Army officers and an NCC girl cadet in the team. In fact Capt Ashwini Pawar’s sister, Capt Gopika A. S. Pawar was also part of the expedition.

Tough climb

The team left New Delhi on March 27, after being flagged off by the Chief of the Army Staff, Gen J. J. Singh, and flew to Kathmandu and then to Lhasa on March 29. From Lhasa, the team traversed the vast expanse of the picturesque Tibetan plateau on land cruisers, touching Gyantse, Shigatse and New Tingri till it reached base camp (BC) on April 4. En route, the team visited important Tibetan monasteries.

After resting for a day, the team started its acclimatisation programme. "Normally, acclimatisation is done in three stages — at 9,000 feet, 12,000 feet and 15,000 feet. Beyond 16,000 feet, it is said, the human body does not acclimatise, it only deteriorates," Major Shekhawat said. "But on Mount Everest, this rule does not apply as the base camp itself is located at an altitude of 17,200 feet," he added.

The BC was established on the banks of the Rongbuk. From this point, climbers have a clear view of the majestic Quomolungma, as Mount Everest is called in Tibet. Twenty teams had set up camps at this point this year. The team started the first stage of acclimatisation by touching 19,000 feet, climbing nearby mountains.

After the initial acclimatisation, the team moved to the intermediate camp on April 8, which was established at 19,800 feet on the east Rongbuk Glacier. This camp was established to facilitate the movement of climbers, porters, and yaks to the advanced base camp (ABC), since the 13-km distance between the BC and the ABC was difficult to cover in one day at that altitude.

The ABC was established on April 10 at 21,000 feet on the eastern flank of Changtse. This is the place from where the east Rongbuk glacier starts and was described by team members as a "wind-polished glacier and a vast field of ice." The ABC was the hub of all activities, from where climbs on the higher reaches of the Everest were coordinated.

To reach the second stage of acclimatisation, the team climbed up to North Col at 23,265 feet on April 15 and established Camp-I. This camp was located above a 3,000-foot-high ice wall with large crevasses and overhangs. There was danger of ice slabs falling if an overhang broke or if there was heavy snowfall. The camp was, however, protected from high-velocity winds because it was located on the leeward side of a big ice wall.

The team then came down to the BC for six days to rest and recoup. Here, to keep themselves fit for the last stage of acclimatisation, the team members undertook regular endurance marches for six to seven km and practised pranayama to increase lung capacity.

On April 23, the team started its climb for Camp-II and established it on April 27. It was located on the slopes of the North Ridge at an altitude of 25,575 feet. There is paucity of camping space due to the steep gradient and the platforms for pitching tents have to be carved out by arranging rock slabs and stones.

Often tents hang precariously on loose stones and they have to be tied with rope nets to prevent them from being blown away. Due to the funnel effect, the speed of wind at this site is unusually high, at times reaching up to 100 miles per hour. From this camp to the summit, it is all rock and ice.

With some exhaustion setting in after a month of climbing at extreme altitude, the team descended to Old Tingri, a small village located at 14,000 feet, on May 6. It is perhaps the last habitation before the BC. With its hot water springs, fresh food and three days of total rest, the team was rejuvenated for the attempt to scale the summit.

The team came back to the ABC on May 15 with the weather playing tricks. There was intermittent snow and high-velocity winds. Many teams which attempted to reach the summit had to suffer casualties.

On May 18, Camp-III was established on steep slopes at 27,390 feet. It is from here that the attempt to scale the summit was launched. On the day of the summit attempt, climbers moved from Camp-II to this place and rested for a few hours. Extreme cold, high velocity winds, lack of oxygen and very low atmospheric pressure make this place unsuitable for human survival. This is the area where many legendary mountaineers, including George Mallory and Irvine Andrew, died.

Final obstacle

The National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecast had predicted clear weather between June 1 and 3. A team comprising four women climbers, five men climbers and six sherpas reached North Col on May 29 after a three-day climb from the ABC. On May 31, low clouds enveloped the Everest and wind speeds rose to 100 kmph, making any movement near impossible.

Ultimately, on June 1, after the weather conditions improved, the team left Camp-II and reached the summit camp by 11.30 am. The countdown for scaling the summit started. Just before midnight, the attempt started. Climbing in pitch dark with the help of headlamps, the team, divided into three groups, slowly picked its way over rocks and ice. Many a time, the climbers lost their balance since they were walking on rocks with clamp-ons and at times some of them fell, but were saved because they were clipped to ropes. Negotiating First Step, Second Step and Third Step is the most dangerous. At places, there was barely enough place to accommodate a boot.

Dawn broke as the first group approached Third Step, the last obstacle before the Summit Pyramid. Here the group encountered the body of a Slovakian climber from the Russian team, who had died on May 21. The sight was too much for one of the woman members, who sat down and started crying. It took some effort on the part of the team leader to get her moving.

On June 2, as the morning rays lit up the Everest, the first group, comprising Major Shekhawat, Sub Surjeet Singh, Dechen Lhamo and Tsering Ladol, proudly stood atop the world’s highest point. The second group comprising Capt Ashwini Pawar, Sub Jagat Singh, Hav Topgey Bhutia and Kaman Singh followed a couple of hours later. By about 10.30 a.m., the final group comprising Captain Majumdar and some sherpas was also atop the Everest.

And, the joyous team finally returned to Delhi on June 23. It was flagged in by Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee.

Pawar bond

The first group, with Cadet Tsering Ladol holding the NCC flag, atop the Everest
The first group, with Cadet Tsering Ladol holding the NCC flag, atop the Everest

Taking up the challenge of conquering the Everest were two sisters, Captains Ashwini A.S. Pawar and Gopika A.S.Pawar. Hailing from Vadodara, Gujarat, they readily responded to the call of adventure. The sisters had opted for NCCduring their college.

They were commissioned in September 2002 and began mountaineering together in 2003 after doing basic as well as advanced courses in mountaineering at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi. They took part in the Fourth National Winter Games, 2004, by representing the Army in skiing.

Capt Ashwini Pawar was in charge of the team's accounts, while Capt Gopika Pawar was responsible for the management of the Advanced Base Camp. The sisters are from the Ordnance Corps and are postgraduates in industrial relations and personnel management.

On a visit to Chandimandir, Capt Gopika Pawar said: "Our grandfather was a Major-General in the Baroda State Army. We draw our inspiration from his achievements. The challenge of scaling the Everest was as big as the Everest itself. The tough training and awesome odds did not deter us."

Capt Gopika Pawar felt bad for a "fleeting moment" when she was not part of the team that scaled the Everest but was immensely happy at her sister's achievement. The Pawar sisters are planning to scale the Satopanth peak in Gharwal next year. — V.M.

Managing crises

At 27,390 feet, Camp-III is the last chance for rest before the ascent to the summit
At 27,390 feet, Camp-III is the last chance for rest before the ascent to the summit

The team had its share of tough moments. Climbing down is more difficult than ascending and 99 per cent of the mishaps happen on the way down because climbers are exhausted and hypoxiated. This can lead to mistakes or they are so tired that their legs give way and they just sit down to die. A similar situation gripped Captain Majumdar, who after attaining the summit, was unable to move without assistance because of exhaustion.

Members of the second group were sent for the rescue, which lasted about 17 hours. Even though they were within the reach of the summit, Hav Champa Younten, Hav Nin Bahadur and N/Nk Sherab Palden gave up their quest and battled death to get her to safety from Second Step, a point where none of the exhausted climbers are said to have come down alive. By the time she was rescued she had stayed for 26 hours beyond the height of 8300 metres. "I though I was going to die," Captain Majumdar said at Chandimandir.

In another incident, one of the sherpas, who was carrying the additional oxygen, complained of chest pain and came down without informing the team leader. To add to this, two oxygen cylinders didn’t work, creating a serious shortage of oxygen near the summit. When this crisis came up, Sub Jagat Singh and Hav Topgey readily gave up their oxygen cylinders to those who required it and descended without oxygen. In the meantime, the second group, which had arrived from Camp-II just a few hours ago, was asked to deliver additional cylinders at Second Step. The group then came back to the summit camp to prepare for their climb to the top.