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Mount obsession

Have you wondered what being at 8,850 m feels like? A 20-year-old tells us about braving avalanches, eating apple pie at base camp and feeling drunk from altitude sickness.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 08, 2010 19:23 IST
Vidya Balachander

In the Himalayan landscape dominated by snow, you can never be too sure of your next step. One moment you could be treading a familiar route and the next you could have lost your bearings. In this terrain, several thousand feet above sea level, imagine making your way from one camp to another. But there is a sudden snowstorm and you lose your way. Bracing against icy winds and battling poor visibility, you wander around for an hour before finding the right path again.

This might seem quite remote to you. Even for most experienced mountaineers, Mount Everest is the final frontier. They spend years preparing for the arduous climb up to the summit that is a true test of their mettle. But 20-year-old Krushnaa Patil says her own tryst with the mountain “happened by chance”. In April 2009, with just three months of training behind her, she scaled the 8,848-metre-high mountain after a 46-day journey that she describes as “quick and easy”. Since then, she has also scaled three of the seven peaks that constitute the “seven summits”, or the highest peaks in the seven continents. Her next expedition will take her to either Indonesia or Australia at the end of the month.

Patil says her love for the mountains stems from the summer vacations she spent in the Himalayas with her adventure-loving family. “I was always obsessed with the Himalayas and wanted to go back to them,” she says. But Everest was not on the cards until much later. After completing a basic course in mountaineering from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarakhand, Patil joined the institute’s expedition to Mount Satopanth in the Garhwal Himalayas in 2008. It was only after climbing the precarious, 7,095-metre-high Satopanth, that she developed a taste for dizzying heights. “All we spoke about on Satopanth was the Everest,” she says.

To prepare for the mental and physical hardships that the Everest would pose, Patil enrolled in the 20-day Search and Rescue course conducted by the Nehru Institute of Engineering. The gruelling course simulated the conditions — such as decreased oxygen and hostile weather — that she would have to brave during her ascent. “I had to perform difficult work at a high altitude of 3,500 metres,” she says. “We were only three girls and we had to carry 70-kg boys up and down the mountains. We also had to carry aluminium and iron stretchers on our shoulders.” This training steeled her for the mostly solitary climb that was to follow.

Experience the Everest with mountaineer Krushnaa Patil:

Is it easy to tame the Everest?

To climb Everest, you have to build a relationship with it. It is like being married to the mountain. Once you get to the base camp, you climb up to Camp 1, stay there for a bit and come back down. Then you rest for a while, eat a lot and go to Camp 2. You stay there for a day and come back again. Each time you go up and down, you are a little more tired or a little more homesick.

Why do you need to do this back-and-forth?

We do it to get used to the altitude. Your body needs to acclimatise to remain fit at the higher altitude. After this process, we go down another 1,000 metres from the base camp to the villages, where all we’re supposed to do is eat a lot of carbohydrates and protein. This is because your body doesn’t absorb nutrition at high altitude. After 10 days, we come back to base camp. Then we go directly to Camp 2, stay there for a day, proceed to Camp 3 where we stay another day, and then to Camp 4, from where we leave for the summit.

How long did the final climb to the summit take and did you face bad weather?

We had some weather at the base camp. But in general, we had good conditions while climbing. We got caught in a snowstorm while returning from the summit but it passed in a short while. The summit day on Everest lasted 15 hours — we started at 9 pm, reached the summit at 6 in the morning and returned to base camp by noon. You have to climb at night because during the day the sun would be just too harsh. In fact, my Everest summit day was much shorter than the one I had while climbing Mount Satopanth as part of my training. That climb was without oxygen — it took 22 hours to reach the summit with high winds throughout the night.

What was the trickiest part?

Between base camp and Camp 1, you have to go through the Khumbu Icefall. This icefall at 5,486 m is one of the most dangerous parts of the Everest. It is full of crevasses that open up suddenly. There are frequent avalanches and ice walls break without warning. About 96 people have lost their lives in this particular stretch.

Have you ever witnessed an avalanche?

Twice while crossing the Khumbu Icefall, avalanches came down 100 m from us. The whole ground shook and we tried to huddle together and make ourselves secure. Avalanches are of different kinds, and they are all very dangerous. If you get caught in one, you don’t survive 95 per cent of the time. Even if they’re in a safe pocket between snow, people just die out of panic and cold. You have to be very, very mentally strong to emerge alive from an avalanche.

How did you gear yourself up mentally for the unpredictability of the climb?

I didn’t allow myself to feel fearful. We lost a sherpas from our company at the Khumbu Icefall. There was an avalanche and he got lost. Ten days later, we had to go back on the same path but I totally phased out that experience. I have a selective memory — I block certain thoughts out. I know about the risks I’m taking every time I climb a mountain but I’m okay with that. If you are not comfortable with taking risks, you will not be able to give your 100 per cent to mountaineering.

What effect does high altitude have on the body? Do you lose a lot of weight?

You feel nauseous all the time. The body is not able to pull nutrition out of the food so you don’t feel hungry. You do lose a lot of weight. Most people end up losing about 10 kg of weight. If you don’t lose too much weight, it shows you are healthier. Starting about 3,000 m, you also start having headaches. If you don’t drink enough water, you end up vomiting a lot. This is called Acute Mountain Sickness.

There is disorientation; you become emotional and angry very easily. It’s like being drunk — you are very high. Once, I lost my water bottle for just two minutes before I found it again. But in those two minutes, I started crying and didn’t stop the whole day.

What is the right kind of nutrition for a climb? Did you carry food supplies?

The company that organised my expedition made all the arrangements. We had very good food on Everest. There was spam, ham, sausages and French fries. There was also a bakery at base camp, so we had apple pie, chocolate and cheese croissants. Mountaineering is one sport in which you can eat whatever you want — and be sure you will lose the weight you put on.

How long does it take for water to boil up there?

I haven’t actually checked but it takes a very long while. Generally, we let it boil while we start packing up for the next day. It’s very unhealthy to get annoyed or angry so it’s best to distract yourself.

How does the weather change as the height increases? Isn’t the sun also really harsh at that height?

The sun is very harsh. I had the worst time between Camp 1 and 2. We were walking in the Western Kumbh. It’s like an amphitheatre and the sun is reflected from all four sides as well as the floor. It is really hot there. I got badly tanned. I’ve used sunscreen with SPF 80 but it makes no difference. I always return with a burnt nose.

How did you about routine tasks like attending to nature’s call? How did you deal with your period?

I was part of an Eco Everest expedition so we had to defecate into containers at base camp. At higher altitude, we used waste bags that we had to carry back down with us. Most people use pee bottles on Everest so that you don’t have to come out of the tent. But I was not comfortable with that. On Everest, I was constantly menstruating because of the high barometric pressure. But I was not uncomfortable at all.

Was it an effort to get out of your sleeping bag at times?

On Everest you start walking in the night. You go to sleep at 5 pm and wake up at 2 am. But I’m not a morning person at all so I hated to get out of my sleeping bag. Being the only girl on the expedition, there was always this talk of girls taking longer to get ready. So I made sure I got up 15 minutes before everyone else, although I hated it.

Would you call the Everest the toughest climb you’ve attempted?

Everest will remain the biggest aim for everyone. But I’m sure that in my life, there will be mountains that are much more challenging. In reality, Mount Aconcagua in South America was more challenging than Everest.