With as many as 11 people from Bengal attempting to summit Mount Everest and two more attempting Lhotse and Doulagiri, 2016 was set to become a memorable mountaineering year for the state.
Halfway through the year, 2016 has become memorable, but for all the wrong reasons.
Along with the number of successful summit attempts, the death rate has become an important statistic of the world’s highest mountain. And Bengal has already lost four of its mountaineers, with a very close call for a fifth.
Experienced climbers feel that the expedition has become about bragging rights and the overnight celebrity status for many who can afford the Rs 17-20 lakh it costs to conquer the summit.
Three of Bengal’s climbers died on the Everest and one on Dhaulagiri within a week last month. Those who managed to returned after summiting have been compelled to deeply introspect what’s going wrong.
Subhas Pal, who managed to reach the summit, died on his way back. His body was retrieved after a long search. Gautam Ghosh and Paresh Nath were not that fortunate, and their bodies remain snowed in on the menacing face of the mountain.
Sunita Hazra was luckier than the three of them. Down on oxygen supply and suffering altitude sickness, Hazra was on the edge of losing consciousness when a British climber rescued her. Leslie Binns, a former serviceman, had given up on his Everest conquest to help Hazra down.
The circumstances, in general, are brutal, and experts climbers feel that these instances were entirely due to a lack of physical fitness.
Debasis Biswas, who has climbed Everest, Kanchenjunga, Dhaulagiri, Makalu and Manslu (all above 8000 m) and was present at the base camp during the mishap on Everest last month, said: “Gautam, Subhash, Paresh and Sunita went to the Everest without preparing themselves before the expedition. Even two or three days before the expedition they were not sure if they would be able to gather enough funds. When they should have been engaged in physical fitness activities, they were busy collecting funds. This may be the one of the causes of their death.”
Rudraprasad Halder, who climbed Everest on May 22, said the team of four climbers comprising Gautam, Sunita, Paresh and Subhas were very slow during their ascent from base camp. “They even reached Camp I at least four hours later than the scheduled time. Throughout the ascent they were trailing behind,” said Haldar.
Many climbers from Bengal point out that before the final ascent for the summit from base camp climbers must get acclimatized to the altitude.
The usual trail is something like this: People climb to Camp I and spend a day and again climb down to the base camp. On the next day, they climb to Camp 2 to store essential items such as tent, sleeping bag and oxygen cylinder. After spending a day, they again climb down to the base camp. On the next day they climb to Camp 3, stay there for a day and climb down to base camp.
The constant up and down climbing is meant to acclimatise one to the thin air and physical rigours, which ultimately ensure your reach the summit and back down. It also doubles up as a way to stock on vital gear and reserves.
“But Gautam, Sunita, Paresh and Subhash went up to Camp 2 and climbed down to base camp. None of them were seen making any attempt to reach Camp 3 by crossing the deadly Khumbhu ice fall. They simply sat idle for 15 days at the base camp before leaving for the final climb,” said Haldar.
As a result, the four climbers were found exhausted when they started for Camp 1 from the base camp during the final mission. They reached Camp 1 at least five hours late. During the climb from the Camp 4 to the summit, they were extremely exhausted. They had to spend 12 hours more at Camp 4 to take rest. This depleted their oxygen reserves.
“Taking the right decision at the right moment is crucial while climbing at 8,000 meters. To be precise, taking the decision to quit at the right moment is the key to safe return. You have to keep track of oxygen supply in accordance with climbing speed. Many climbers do not quit even when they start running out of oxygen. They don’t want to accept failure,” said Debraj Dutta, who climbed the Everest on May 19.
Timing is also crucial. Subhash Pal reached the Everest summit at around 1.30 pm. “He should have descended to Camp 4 by that time. This delay turned fatal. He lost a lot of energy while descending. He didn’t even have the strength to stand up,” said Debasis Biswas.
Lack of experience is another major factor leading to fatalities. “Subhash, Gautam, Sunita and Paresh were aware of their poor physical condition when they left Camp 1. They had very little strength by the time they reached Camp 4. The delay exhausted their oxygen supply and they didn’t have extra cylinders,” said Haldar.
Rajib, on the other hand, wanted more oxygen after reaching Camp 3 on Dhaulagiri. He asked Tashi Sherpa to climb down to base camp and bring more cylinders. Tashi Sherpa returned after three days.
“Spending three days in that altitude is suicidal. I don’t know what Rajib ate. A vegetarian and light eater, Rajib was complaining of weakness. On the peak he became snow blind and eventually collapsed,” said Biswas.
Experienced climbers now feel that only those who have summited mountains at 6,000m at least five times in the last five years should attempt to summit at 8,000m.
The West Bengal state government has also entrusted two experts to draw up a list of criteria for its state mountaineers to adhere to when attempting to scale any mountain above 8,000m.