‘Nationalism is forgotten at the top of the world’

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High point Ahluwalia on top of Everest
High point Ahluwalia on top of Everest

On 29 May 1965, Captain HPS Ahluwalia, reached the summit of Mount Everest along with two others, making it the first successful Indian expedition to scale the highest peak in the world. He had two missed opportunities to make up for. Being underage, he had missed India’s first attempt in 1960 and had to opt out of the second in 1962 because he was pursuing a course he couldn’t leave. Both expeditions failed due to bad weather. When the opportunity finally presented itself in 1965, neither an avalanche nor lack of oxygen could prevent the 26-year-old from reaching the top.

In two years, it will be 50 years since the first Indian contingent conquered Mount Everest. As a 26-year-old, I was one of 20 climbers with 80 porters, 50 Sherpas and 10 support staff, who had set out with one aim: to get to the top of the world, now or never. India’s previous expeditions, in 1960 and 1962, had failed because of bad weather, but we could not this time. India would have lost its chance for the next five years if this failed, since the peak would be closed until 1970 for environmental purposes. I would have certainly lost mine.

It wasn’t like it is now. There was only one expedition for one season and only two seasons a year: pre-monsoon and post-monsoon. We started from Jayanagar, a small town on the Indo-Nepal border, walking everyday for a month to get to the Everest Base Camp, which stood at 17,000 feet. The trek acclimatises climbers; it strengthens you. As you start to climb, your head gets heavy, grogginess sets in and the throat gets sore. At 27,000 feet, if you are not acclimatised, you will crack.

There were other challenges too. Four days short of the conquest, at 21,000 feet, we lost about 12 oxygen tanks and other climbing equipment to an avalanche, but dug it out from almost 10 feet of snow. Then my oxygen tank finished just 20 minutes before the summit, but I went on.

Once we made it — HCS Rawat, Phu Dorji and I — we took a long wheeling look from the highest point in the world: Mount Makalu, Nuptse, Luptse, Kanchenjunga. We were there for all of 20 minutes, within which we planted the flag and took photos. It’s very humbling, standing on the highest pinnacle of the earth, to realise you’re one insignificant member of the infinite universe. Nationalism is forgotten.

Three months after the climb, I sustained a war injury — a bullet hit my neck, damaging my spine — that confined me to a wheelchair. It took me two and a half years in various hospitals before we heard of the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in the UK; I arrived broken in body, but not in spirit. I was determined to rebuild my life against all odds. I resolved to set up such a centre in India like the one that finally treated me, which I did much later in 1993: the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre.

Today, things have changed. Take a jacket, some fancy goggles, advertise it well and make as many trips as possible. The Nepali government argues that it’s their primary source of income. The climbers just want to go fast and come back as fast. They do their job in a month, when it took us four. We climbed bare mountains and ice walls. Now, they’ve put a rope right from the summit to the bottom, for which they charge, say, an extra $100 per metre. Personally, I don’t like this at all. It is an unethical way of climbing. Things were so different in our time. Most of all, the idea of climbing was for the love of climbing. Now it’s just about finances. Thirteen-and-a-half percent of the snow in the Everest region has melted in the last couple of years. How long the rest will last, only time will tell.

As told to Shonali Ghosal

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