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EVEREST – 1960

by Col . N. Kumar

“The sun is down. Purple shadows race swiftly across the desolate Tibetan uplands, and the buildings of the ancient monasteries in the valley are soon almost indistinguishable from the mountain rock.  Presently, across the valley, there sounds the blare of trumpets --- an eerie monotonous note, long sustained, reverberating from the valley walls and the ice fields far above. It is answered by a clash of cymbals and the tiny tinkling of prayer wheels.  Men sit cross legged and motionless on the terraces of the monasteries, besides rough piles of stones in the surrounding waste, and at the mouths of caves cut in the living rock. They are yellow, weather beaten men in homespun robes and pointed hats; holy lamas of the Buddhist faith. They sit quietly while the dusk deepens, their eyes raised to the mountain that looms white and gigantic above them.

It is a magical mountain at which they are gazing --- a scared and super natural mountain, ringed with mystery and a fear as old as night. It is the abode of spirits and demons, creating shadowy shapes with flaming eyes which prowl the glaciers. And on the gaunt heights beyond, the ghosts of the departed hold black communion with the howling wind.  The evil ones are there – the Sukpas and Zhidags and Nitikanjis lurking in blue crevasses and behind the walls of precipices, and the blood thirsty snowmen, with long hair and tails, roam the high ridges under the stars. Woe to the mere mortal who would violate the demon guarded sanctuary of the mountain Goddess.

The lamas of the Rongbuk valley gaze up at the monstrous white pinnacle above there and slowly turn their prayer wheels. “Chomolugma”, they murmur, “Goddess Mother of the World”.

The long shadows race swiftly up the mountain side. They fall on glacier and snow-field, precipice and ice wall, and now, at last, on a sky-line ridge, thousands of feet above the valley, where the tiny figures of two men are moving upward towards the darkening sky. These men move with infinite slowness, their feet dragging on the ice encrusted rocks, their bodies bent almost double against the fury of the snow and wind. Their faces are not yellow, but white, beneath their frosted beards; and on their heads, instead of pointed lamas hats are helmets of leather and fleece. Dark goggles cover their eyes, and they carry packs on their backs and ice-axes in their mittened hands. For a dozen steps they struggle on, then for another dozen, while their hearts pound to bursting, their lungs gasp for air, as the last light of day drains slowly from the sky. Then suddenly, they stop. For a long while they stand motionless, leaning on their axes, staring upwards.

“Above them the desolate ridge twists on into space. Their eyes, straining through the dusk, perceive neither beast nor demon, nor Goddess, nor do their ears hear the cries of the departed and damned. All that they see is the brown, snow-flecked rock slanting endlessly away. The only sound is the deep moaning of the wind. Yet the two men go no further, for they know to go farther is to die. The night is at hand, they have given it the last measure of their strength and will - and it has not been enough. The great white pinnacle of the mountain still looms above them in the darkness, inviolate, as it has been since the beginning of time. One of the men starts slowly down. The other lingers for still another moment, gazing upwards.  Pain exhaustion and disappointment lie on him like a leaden weight but his eyes, behind their snow-fogged goggles, fix the summit with the deep, quiet challenge of the undefeated.

“Just wait, old thing, “he mutters between cracked and frozen lips, “We will get you yet”!

The above passage is the opening narrative of the ultimate book--- The Age of Mountaineering. But no other words of description could have expressed our feelings and our experiences on that fateful day more befittingly.  The only difference seems to have been that we were on the scene of action only 35 years later than Geoffrey Bruce, and were perhaps 2,000 feet higher. Oh ! on that unforgettable day the summit had been only 700  feet away from  us --- a mere 200 meters ahead – so close and yet it had been so far and so unattainable. Yes, it was just   200 meters of an Icy slope which had lain between the fulfillment and non fulfillment of a lifetime’s dream and aspiration.

That day these 200 meters could have meant the difference between life and death as well. We had stretched the powers of living to the maximum. Any further steps towards the summit could have only extended the already over stretched filament of our lives resulting in the sudden and fatal snapping of it. Such was the situation while we stood defenceless and vulnerable at 28, 300 ft. --- Nawang Gombu, Sonam Gyatso and I--- three insignificant figures on this huge mountain face, pitched against the unbridled fury of the elements. The furious and violent raging winds howled and whistled shrilly all around us forbidding all conversation. Just for that little while we had been plugged in thought wondering of what could have been, but had turned out so contrary to all hopes and expectations. We knew we had been so thoroughly beaten. Our condition then was so heartrendingly distressing and miserable. Our sapping and exhausting strength could have borne no more of this torture. All our hopes had been so mercilessly shattered, and when hope is gone uncertainty goes also – and fear with it. For men don’t fear certainties. Against these miseries was ranged the last flicker of will power, the desperate will to live and the yet unfulfilled and cherished dreams of life.  The human animal in me was extremely depressed and unhappy. The snow entered by my wrists and neck, my fingers were clumsy, my toes freezing, my dampened clothes formed a creaking shell.

I looked around and sensed the same anxieties and the same reflections in the minds of my companions. If the camera could have recorded my memories at that time the result would have certainly passed as a slow motion picture.  

For a while my thoughts flitted back to my comrades and teammates. They had toiled so continuously and so laboriously to put us where we were now and even beyond. They had left no stone unturned, and had been willingness and cooperation all along. It was always with alacrity that they had accomplished the urgent and exigent requirements of the expedition. They had set about these essentialities with a devotion and determination that had indeed been admirable. Their zeal and enthusiasm had seemed limitless and unbounded. All the way the goal had been common, and all had shared the interest in the conquest of the summit equally. Their goal had been my goal, and hence my failure to get to the top was going to be their failure as well. It was immaterial that we were being hunted down by the vagaries of weather. In some unknown and intangible way I felt I was letting down their confidence in me. But I need not have worried and should have had far more confidence in their understanding.  Their profundity and sagacity went far deeper than the mere ostentatious surface. They did not terribly mind that we had failed to bring them the glory they had so long waited for.

I could do nothing to prevent my thoughts from rambling even further back to the people in India who had done all in their power for the success of our cause. A vision of my father engrossed in his prayers of Lord Shiva flitted across my mind. He had been lost in the infallibility of his God and had held on to Lord Shiva’s feet with such fevour invoking his blessings for my teammates and me. This faith in the lord was a must for us mere mortals - instead to even contemplate stepping on to his abode was indeed foolhardy. Perhaps it was all for the good that we had been halted just on the threshold of the mother Goddess of the winds. May be it was her way of protecting us by arresting our progress any further. Some evil spirit must have been haunting the holy peak that fateful day. We had come up with so much hope and expectations. So many hours of day dreaming had been spent upon this final attempt. There had been so many messages of good wishes – some sincere, and others only customary, and now it was all over. The mountain had proved too mighty for us. The summit still lay an unconquerable distance beyond us. We had done our best, but our best had obviously not been good enough. There was nothing left for us to do now but to retrace our steps. This momentous, and yet the greatest decision of our lives was taken without a word being exchanged. Our understanding had been so remarkable that the three of us, tired and battered climbers just got up, gave one last longing look at Everest and turned our faces away. But our spirits had not been entirely curbed for a lumpy feeling in the throat wanted to shout and yell back at the Gods and the Goddesses, and the Sukpas and the Zhidags and the Nitikanijis of Everest. “We are   not beaten yet. We shall come back and have a fling at you some day or another.” With these words whirling in our minds our eyes looked downwards, seeking the more comfortable and friendly souls of our teammates, and our feet followed tiredly and heavily.

On my return everyone had congratulated me. Some people had even insisted on convincing me of the greatness of our achievement. They said that I had made the
 “World Mountaineering eleven”. Of course, they all seemed to overlook the fact that there is no competition in the mountains. But they had it all figured out and were waiting for my arrival. According to them, there were only eleven of us at that time that had made this enviable height. It was a point higher than any other peak in the World – except for Everest itself. Others congratulated me for being the first Indian born to attain that height. Though all these messages had been so well meaning, I felt all along that some thing was being left unsaid. Hidden words seemed to say again and again, “All the same, I wish you had done it.” I felt sorry for these people for they were feeling genuinely sad at what I had failed to accomplish. I only wished they could have understood the feelings deep within me, “it is not the summit that matters, it is the fight for the summit.”

And our fight had been a tremendous one. To me it had even been most satisfying. In this experience --- you may even prefer to call it defeat – I had learnt and gained a lot. I had learnt about my weaknesses, my strength, my ego, my curiosities and myself. I had learnt a great deal about my fellow beings. I had discovered far more about what made them tick than their psychiatrists could have ever done. I learnt about the mountains and their mighty ways. How big and how destructive they could be and yet all the while they could be such a continuous source of calm and peace. Serenity, humility, nobility and tranquility seemed to flow from them. I learnt about the man and mountain relationship. Mountains propose innumerable challenges and innumerable men rise to meet them. Their relationship is not one of the vanquished and the conquered. It is never the lust of the conquest, which brings human beings to a particular peak. It is reverence, love and a deep attachment for the latter.

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