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When the cliff came crashing down on us
Brigadier Ashok Malhotra, Hindustan Times
December 12, 2009
First Published: 22:06 IST(12/12/2009)
Last Updated: 23:44 IST(12/12/2009)

In 1966, as a young Second Lieutenant, I undertook a five-week advanced course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute at Darjeeling. One of the peaks we were required to climb was the 22,000 ft-tall Forked Peak in the region, with the Onglaktang glacier to its north and the Rathong glacier to its south.

My team comprised four other students and three sherpa instructors who had weathered the elements on many others peaks. One of them, Nawrang Gombu, had already climbed Mt Everest twice by then.

It was the month of September. We had spent two days acclimatising at the advance base camp situated at an altitude of 18,000 ft. On the third day Gombu, Ang Kami, another instructor, and I set out to set up Camp 1. As we climbed the rock-ice cliff the weather steadily deteriorated.

Finally, after two hours of arduous climbing, we reached a crevasse. We found a suitable location in the shelter of a huge 60-ft vertical cliff and that’s where we set up our camp, at an altitude of 19,500 ft. The rest of the gang followed.

A night of snowfall

That night, there was about six inches of light snowfall, but the morning was bright and clear. We set out to cut our way through the cliff. It was incredibly steep and icy, so we had to use fixed ropes and ice axes to hack our way to Camp 1.

Phu Dorjee, a fellow-student from Nepal, who had already climbed Mt Everest, led two others on the leading rope and a colleague and I were on the other rope. Two instructors were waiting halfway on the cliff face. Soft snow over the moraine makes for a treacherous and uncomfortable climb, and it gets more difficult as the sun gets brighter. 

Suddenly the whole cliff face collapsed. The leading rope flew over my head and within a fraction of a second I, too, was knocked off. I landed on my colleague and heard someone scream, “Help me”. We all began to slide down with increasing speed. At one point I levelled up with Phu Dorjee, who asked me to hold on to his rope to stop us from going further. We were all sliding down at an incredible speed, and in the end, it was the convex slope that finally stopped us from certain death. We were 400 ft from where we had started falling, and a 100-foot crevasse yawned below us.

Assessing damage

Phu Dorjiee was bleeding from his forehead since he received the first block of rock and ice. The two with him had sprained their ankle and knee. My mate had cut his thighs badly because I had landed on him. Both our instructors had pulled their muscles and sprained their ankles. I, on the other hand, had escaped unscathed.

I picked up the rucksacks of all my teammates and carried my mate to the first aid point. Gombu’s medicine box had antiseptic cream and Iodex with crepe bandages. From there, we walked back to the base camp. My mate leaned against me as we walked back slowly. At the camp we had a hot cup of tea waiting for us.

An officer with the Infantry corps, Malhotra was posted with the

Fifth Gurkha Rifles at the time of the expedition. He retired in 1997.


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