Climbing Annapurna, The Killer Mountain.
Mountains have always mystified mankind. Venerated as gods and goddesses, worshipped through centuries, they continue to challenge man’s indomitable spirit to conquer nature. The great mountaineer Mallory, asked why he wanted to climb the world’s highest mountain, gave his legendary answer: “Because it is there!” The reality is that he gave his life in the attempt. Among the peaks that have claimed more human lives than others the most lethal has been Annapurna-1, infamous among mountaineers as the Killer Mountain. Yet attempts to conquer its summit continue to this day …
On the morning of 17th May, 2010 the news spread like wildfire. Everest had been conquered by India’s First Civilian Bangali mountaineers – Basanta Sinha Roy and Debashish Biswas – both members of the Mountaineer’s Association of Krishnanagar. Basanta works for the Punjab National Bank, while Debashish is an Income Tax Officer.Just a year later, on 20th May 2011, they again became the first Indian civilian team to reach the third highest peak in the world – Kanchenjungha, famous as the Mountaineer’s Mountain.
The conquest to these two peaks in quick succession generated tremendous enthusiasm among all mountain-lovers. Not ready to rest on their laurels, the duo looked forward to more difficult challenges.
Their hopes and ambitions drove them on, and this year they stepped forward again to the call of the mountains. Their target now was Annapurna-1.At a height of 8,091 metres, or 25,545 feet, Annapurna-1 is only the world’s 10th highest summit, one among the 14 peaks above 8,000 metres. But it leads among the least conquered and most dangerous peaks, claiming more lives than any other.Annapurna is named after the Hindu Goddess of harvests, food-grains and prosperity. It was first conquered on 3rd June 1950 by two French climbers – Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachanel – 3 years before man set foot on the Everest. Though it was the first peak above 8,000 metres to be climbed, it still remains the least conquered. Basanta and Debashish were inexorably drawn to this Killer Mountain.
Annapurna is located in the middle of Nepal, situated north of the populous city of Pokhra, on the eastern banks of the Kali Gandki River, which flows from North to South between the Annapurna and the other famous Dhaulagiri peak at 8,167 metres, creating the world’s deepest ravine.Annapurna-1 is part of a cluster, along with 13 other peaks of 7,000 metres and 16 more at heights of more than 6,000 metres. Together they comprise the Annapurna Conservation Area of 7,629 square kilometres – Nepal’s largest.
One of the two primary routes to the Annapurna-1 summit goes from Pokhra to the famous pilgrimage of Muktinath via Jomson, along which you get off at Phedi, and travel along the Modi Khola to the South Face. The other one is further ahead on the same road till Lethe Village, from where the route takes you along the Hoom Khola and the Mirishti Khola up to the North Face, which Basanta and Debashish had chosen for their assault on Annapurna-1.
On Monday 2nd April, 2012, their journey began at the Kolkata Airport. Their destination: Kathmandu. Club members, enthusiasts, and mountain-lovers congregated to see them off. Club President Dr Pramathesh Das Mahapatra formally handed over the National Flag and the Club Flag to them, with blessings and good wishes from all.
The two-man team touched down at Kathmandu an hour and a half later. They were welcomed at the airport by the head of the Lobain Expedition. In the afternoon, they were met at their hotel by Jeevan Sreshtha, who works for Mrs Elizabeth Howley of New Zealand, dedicated in collecting details of all mountaineering expeditions.The next day they prayed at the Buddhist monastery for the success of their expedition, and received the blessings of its distinguished Lama. Later they lit the 108 sacramental lamps at the Boudhnath Stupa, according to the custom.
On 4th April they left early. Their companions were two Sherpas, Pemba and Dawa, their cook Nima and Norbu. With breakfast on the way they reached Beni by early afternoon. They changed vehicles at Beni and reached Ghasa the same day. Early next morning the bus dropped them an hour later at Lethe, at 2,480 metres. From here onwards they would be on foot, trekking.They spent the night at Lethe – a picturesque mountain village on the eastern slopes of the Dhaulagiri, and collected the necessary porters. Packing was a major activity. Their trek began next morning at 8.30, with a single objective in mind – the conquest of Annapurna.
Next on their route was the Village of Jipra, through agricultural fields, where wheat, potatoes and corn are mainly cultivated. A wooden sign indicated the route map to the Annapurna Base Camp. In a cloudy weather they climbed slowly upwards.As they came down to a small river valley they crossed another group on the descent. They had set up their kitchen there and was much like a picnic. More members of the same group came down the opposite slope, which was to be their way forward.After the river came a steep slope through a jungle pathway. Non-stop progress brought them to a plateau – the Shepherd’s Kharka. They pitched tents here for the night, at an altitude of 3,260 metres.
Right in front, the Dhaulagiri stood in all its grandeur. Next morning it was time to move on. A straight upward climb began along the hill slopes. The majestic Dhaulagiri Range rose just behind them. With snowfall on the steep grass, the slope was dangerously slippery, and every step a hazard, as they moved painstakingly forward.Gradually they entered an area where huge mountain peaks covered three sides. In the south-east stood Annapurna-1, the challenge that had drawn them to these wilds. Further upwards lay a plateau. Scattered tents could be seen in the far distance. The Annapurna Base Camp.The porters arrived soon after. The kitchen tent was the first to come up. By the time their luggage was organized, dinner was ready.
The porters finished dinner quickly to leave as soon as possible, to climb down towards Lethe. After dinner Pemba paid the porters off, before they said goodbye and took the way back home. Meanwhile, the setting up of Base Camp continued.Annapurna Base Camp takes up quite some space at 4,200 metres, or 14,000 feet. Two tents were pitched for the climbers, and two more for the Sherpas and the cook, along with the toilet tent.
They saw many birds. The next day their luggage was checked and sorted. Luggage for the expedition has arrived earlier by helicopter on 26th March, and awaited their arrival with the team from Kathmandu’s Seven Summit Treks.The Base Camp was surrounded on the northern and north-eastern sides by a sheer black rock face, hiding the Tilicho range behind. Stretched out from the north-east to the south-east, the lofty snow-clad crests extended from the Annapurna to the Tilicho. They comprise what is famous as the Great Barrier Wall. They had entered the Base Camp through the narrow gap between the northern and eastern sides. In the west stood several peaks of the Nilgiri range.
A temple has been constructed on the mound beside the climbers’ tents. On the 11th of April, the day began with prayers and rituals to pray for blessings for the expedition. A Sherpa from another expedition performed the role of the Lama. Other Sherpas joined in the religious ceremonies. Sacramental food was distributed among them.After prayers and breakfast, the team made its way to Camp-1.First there was an easy slope to climb. The glacier’s northern side was marked by Right Lateral Moraine – a slope of mud, rock and sand that steeply descended to the glacier on their right hand side. They climb by the steep slope with ropes right into the glacier. Along its right hand side was their pathway forward. It was indicated by Crayons built with stones along their way.Flowing water had created channels across the glacier. In places this water had frozen to form glacial pools. The ice around them has been sculpted into various forms. And countless crevices or cracks scarred the entire glacier. Some were narrow, but some wide and deep. Darkness stared back at the viewer peeping into them.
They put on their mountaineering boots, to climb the icy and rocky slopes. Eventually, they also attached Crampons under their boots,the sharp teeth of which prevented slipping on hard ice. Danger lay onevery step, so extreme caution was a must. Ice Axes and ropes helped them on their hazardous ascent.They criss-crossed along the slope ahead in the forward climb. In mountaineering terms, it’s called a “traverse”. Across these slopes, around the mounds, the team reached Camp-1 at 2.20 in the afternoon. A few scattered tents were already pitched in a small plateau amidst the rock and ice slopes.
Lunch consisted of packed food they had brought along. They stole a few moments of rest before storing their luggage in the pitched tent, before they returned to the Base Camp.The two foreign teams had already reached base Camp by 27th March, and had already made two return trips to Camp-2. They were poised for the final assault on the summit, awaiting news of good weather. Time was short for Basanta and Debashish, so they wasted no time to forge ahead next day.Starting off at 8.30 in the morning, the familiar route took them to Camp-1 at 2:20 in the afternoon. Norbu accompanying them returned to Base Camp. They were now 4, with Pemba and Dawa, with one tent to share.
Camp-1 was spread over a large area. Due south stood the Annapurna, while the Tilicho range could be seen in the north.Next day was rest at Camp-1. A game of cards, adding notes in their diaries, and friendly chats occupied them. The Sherpas had gone ahead in the morning to set up Camp-2, and returned by 2.00 in the afternoon.The weather is clear in the mornings, but continuous snowfall usually resumes by about one in the afternoon.
14th April, 8:15 am. Destination Camp-2. At first is a field of ice. Then their path continued across the glacier, with countless crevices. They crossed at a tangent from the right to the left bank of the glacier.Then came the steep icy slope through the rock face. They completed the death-defying climb with fixed ropes with Zoomers attached, dragging their bodies upwards with the help of Crampons under their boots.After the icy wall came the steep slope of soft snow, interspersed with crevices. By 12:30 they reached Camp-2. The Sherpas had arrived the previous day and pitched the only tent that offered them rest.
15th April. The next day they returned to Base Camp. This regular ascents and descents are part of mountaineering, acclimatizing them to the extreme weather and physical conditions.That same day they learnt that the weather in the summit would be conducive on 19th and 20th April. They set their target for the 19th. 3 climbers and 5 Sherpas of the Seven Summit Treks expedition had began their ascent. Since Basanta and Debashish had returned from Camp-2 a day earlier, they rested at the Base Camp.
Next day, Tuesday, 17th April, they were back on the route familiar they had climbed twice. Above their heads they could see the storm raging at the Annapurna summit. They advanced with caution. Non-stop travel brought them to Camp-1 at 10:45.After a short rest they went ahead towards Camp-2. Lunching on the way with packed food, they arrived at Camp at 2:30.At 7:00 next morning they left for Camp-3. First they crossed an ice-field on an easy gradient in a southerly direction. Towards the north they could see the Nilgiri and Tilicho ranges.
Another breathtaking ice-field. The niche carved out in its middle was what mountaineers call Couloirs. It conceals a dangerous ravine. Ice or rocks dislodged from the heights travel through it at tremendous speed. A landslide can happen at any moment along their path through the most hazardous mountain-scape in the ascent of Annapurna. Disaster could strike at any moment.Climbers usually begin their descent for acclimatization from Camp-2 the moment they reach, to minimize the risks along the Couloirs. At the end of the ice-field were obvious signs of a landslide – an almost daily occurrence.
They advanced one by one along this hazardous path, with Zoomers on their ropes to move quickly. Death in this landslide zone is a constant threat, and determination, the only driving force. A moment’s wait can invite the worst disaster.Suddenly, when they had climbed up quite a bit, a huge snow-slide came down. Its roar was like the roll of war drums, and the entire mountain shook in its force, as it danced destructively down the slopes, and took a rightwards turn away from them, whipping them with loose snow. Narrowly, they escaped a certain death.
Their progress continued. A steep wall of ice greets them. The crampons under their boots help to haul them up. The rock wall above presents another challenge. The thin layer of ice has made the ground slippery. They cross with the delicate balance of a trapeze artiste.Beyond this were three Serachs, hanging walls of ice that lean forward more than 90 degrees.They crossed these dangerous obstacles to reach Camp-3 above the third Serach, at 6,600 metres. The Sherpas hacked snow away from the slopes to level the ground in order to pitch their tent. Tents of other expeditions are scattered in the vicinity.
Two such tents are crushed by the sudden fall of a nearby Ice Tower. Fortunately, no one was physically hurt, but it certainly shattered the confidence of the other climbers.Next day, 19th April. It was clear early in the morning that all the climbers here would descend to Base Camp. They had lost the will to go forward. Basanta and Debashish were undecided whether to return to Base Camp and wait for better weather, or to ascend to Camp-4 now.After a lot of deliberation, they decided to go onwards. The 3-member Seven Summits Trek team were just ahead of them with their 5 highly skilled Sherpas, who had virtually opened up of the route to Annapurna this time. An American woman climber called Cleo in their team had perfect weather reports. Her information had been instrumental in the Kanchenjungha ascent in 2011.So the decision to ascend was taken by 8:00. They would continue to the summit, from now with oxygen support.
A wall of ice was the first obstacle. Beyond that was a wide crevice that could neither be avoided nor circumnavigated. They had to go down and come up again. The sun was bright. And that made the climb all the more arduous. In some places the soft snow came up to their knees, in others the ice walls were hard as rock.Around 1:00 in the afternoon they could see signs of tents pitched by the preceding climbers. They had cut through the slopes for level ground. Their footsteps on the ascent could be seen clearly. These were the signs they followed up the steep slopes. By 3:30 they decided to pitch their tent where they had reached. Once again, ice slopes had to be cut to set the tents to create Camp-4, at a height of 7,200 metres. They decided to rest for a while, and to launch their final assault at 10:00 in the night.Accordingly, they rested in the tent and sharp at 10:00 Debashish and Basanta began their assault along with Pemba. Dawa was unwell, so he rested back in the tent.
Their head torches lit the path forward. Within an hour they caught up with the other climbers who had gone ahead. Together, the ascent continued throughout the night, across soft snowy slopes, over hard walls of ice. Without ropes, their only help came from their Ice Axes and the Crampons on their boots. In the deadly darkness that hung around them, the glint from the head torches of the climbers was their only guide.
Around 4:00 in the morning, the sky began to clear. A golden line appeared in the eastern sky. All the mountains to the north and the east were below their feet. Above them the light crowned the Annapurna summit in gold. It seemed so near …
… But there was still a long climb ahead. The path seemed endless. The last phase presented a sheer rock cliff, and they had to scramble upwards on all fours. At the end of it was a steep ice slope of 20 to 22 feet.
Eventually, they climbed the ice slope, on top of which is what mountaineers call a ‘cornice’. This could easily crumble under their feet, so the top of the slope was impossible to cross. There was hardly space to plant their feet at the Annapurna summit. It was 10:30 in the morning of the 20th of April. Debashish Biswas and Basanta Sinha Roy had created history again. As the first Indian civilian mountaineering team they flew the National Flag on Annapurna-1.
To the west stood Dhaulagiri, in the north were the Nilgiri peaks, and the Tilicho. Due east was the other Annapurna peak, standing at 8,013 metres, and beyond it lay the entire Annapurna range and its other peaks.After 15 minutes at the summit they began their descent. By 4:00 in the afternoon they reached Camp-4. From here they informed Norbu at the Base camp by walkie-talkie about their successful ascent.They continued their descent at 9:00 next morning, amid bad weather and a threatening storm till Camp-2. Next day they were back at Base Camp.
23rd April was spent packing. On 24th they began their return. The same day they reached Hum Khola, where they spent the night. Next day they were at Lethe.
On 25th they drove into Kathmandu. Spending a day there they landed at Kolkata Airport on the 27th. A huge crowd had assembled to welcome them. The mood was one of great festivity.Mountain-lovers everywhere celebrated their victory over the Killer Mountain Annapurna-1.In the near future the Indian tri-colour will fly at many more challenging summits with Basanta Sinha Roy and Debashish Biswas. They have many more promises to keep, and miles to go …
Read this article in Bengali
Expedition Organised By:
Mountaineers Association Krishnanagar
Adapted from the screenplay By Debasish Biswas