I have had 18 close encounters with death and managed a narrow escape each time. But of all these, the one experience that remains shrouded in mystery is when I was struck by lightning in the icy Himalayas.
Weather conditions had been deteriorating fast by the time Sonam Gyatso, Sona Girni and I reached the virgin summit of Annapurna III (24,858 feet). We were at an altitude of 24,000 feet when lightning struck.
Only a few days ago, some 300 local Bhotias had climbed up to our base camp and had taken away all our supplies and held two team members hostage. Thanks to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s intervention, His Majesty, the King of Nepal had rushed a company of Nepali soldiers to guard our base camp.
The late hour and the increasingly heavy snowfall did not permit us to remain at the summit much longer. The descent to Camp V was made in trying conditions. Our tracks had all but disappeared. The visibility was so poor that we could not see each other. We were not even sure if we were going in the right direction.
During these moments of struggle between life and death, I suddenly heard an irritating, humming noise. I could not understand it or explain where it came from. I heard it every time I pushed up my glacier goggles over the nose and the sound disappeared as soon as I pulled them back into place. Sonam Gyatso, who had taken off his glasses altogether, ascribed the sound to the presence of insects. But we could never be sure what the strange humming sound was. We shuffled and stumbled along and finally reached Camp V a little after 7 pm, weary but happy. God had been merciful. We had survived.
After we reached Kathmandu a week later, I shared my bizarre experience with Nepal Prime Minister BP Koirala, who was hosting a reception for us. He felt that the metal frame of my goggles probably got charged with electricity during the lightning strike, causing that buzzing noise. This could perhaps be the right explanation for that life-threatening incident.
How did I survive? I don’t know, maybe providence spared my life. Forty eight years on, I am still seeking an answer to that question. Captain Manmohan Singh Kohli was the leader of the first successful Indian expedition to Mount Everest in 1965 and is the founding chairman of the Himalayan Environment Trust.