Uttarkashi tragedy: 1st Indian woman to climb Everest, Makalu among those killed

Updated on Oct 05, 2022 01:13 PM IST

An instructor at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Savita Kanswal climbed Mount Everest (8848 m) on May 12

Savita Kanswal (Sourced)
Savita Kanswal (Sourced)
ByAmit Bathla

Savita Kanswal, 26, who this year became the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest and Mount Makalu in just 16 days and created a national record, was among those killed when an avalanche struck a group of trainee mountaineers and instructors from the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) in Uttarakhand’s Uttarkashi on Tuesday.

An instructor at the institute, Kanswal climbed Mount Everest (8848 m) on May 12 on the 16th day. On May 28, she climbed Mount Makalu (8485 m), the world’s fifth highest peak.

Kanswal, who was from Uttarkashi’s Lonthru village, was part of the group of 41 trainee mountaineers and instructors when the avalanche hit them near the Dokrani Bamak glacier. The group was returning from high-altitude navigation from Mount Draupadi ka Danda 2 peak (5670 m).

Uttarkashi’s additional district magistrate Tirath Pal Singh, who confirmed Kanswal’s death, said four people have been confirmed dead so far. “Kanswal and Naumi, who were working as instructors with NIM, are among them.”

He said the rescue operations resumed on Wednesday morning and they have been able to safely bring 14 people from the NIM base camp. “Army and Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopters are engaged in the rescue and relief operations,” said Singh.

State Disaster Response Force (SDRF) media in charge Lalita Negi said 11 trainees and three instructors have been rescued since the rescue operation resumed.

Those rescued have been identified as Deep Singh (Gujarat), Rohit Bhatt, Suraj Singh, Kanchan Singh, Ankit Singh, Ankur Sharma, Rajesh Rana, Babita, Rekha Uttarakhand), Sunil, Aakash (Mumbai), Anil Kumar (Rajasthan), Manish Agarwal (Delhi), Pradeep Kumar (West Bengal).

Uttarkashi district disaster management officer Devendra Patwal said snowfall at the avalanche site stalled the rescue operation before it was resumed. “Those brought back are being treated at local health care facilities.”

The avalanche hit the group around 8.45am. In a statement, NIM said an advanced mountaineering course, which included 34 trainees and seven instructors, began on September 14.

The group shifted to the mountains after undergoing over a week of rock-climbing training. It arrived at the NIM “advanced base camp” on September 23 and underwent ice and snow craft training. Around 4am on October 4, the group moved to High Altitude and Height Gain training at the Mount Draupadi ka Danda 2 peak. The group was caught in the avalanche when it was descending around 22km from the closest road in Bhukki.

A five-member SDRF team and three trainers of NIM were rushed for the rescue operation through a private helicopter, which returned to Dehradun later. An ALH chopper from the Air Force station in Bareilly was later deployed at a helipad in Matli, Uttarkashi.

Two IAF helicopters from its base camp in Sarsawa in Saharanpur surveyed the area and were deployed at the Army helipad in Harsil.

The rescue operation was hampered as the weather began to worsen after 4pm on Tuesday. Rescuers were also facing challenges in communication due to the high altitude, and the hostility of the terrain, which has deep crevasses with little accessibility.

Snowfall, poor visibility, and accessibility were also major challenges. It takes a two-day trek to reach the area and communication only takes place through satellite phones at the NIM base camp.

IMD has sounded a red alert for Uttarakhand beginning October 7, with a forecast of heavy to very heavy rainfall in several places across the state. An “orange alert” for October 6, and a “yellow alert” for rainfall accompanied by lightning at some places have been sounded in the state for October 5.

NIM is considered among the best mountaineering institutes in the country with an intake of 1,500 students a year across several courses.

The avalanche incident has been described as a rarity. It was the first such incident in over five decades of training courses in an area where avalanches do not generally occur.

It was suspected to be a slab avalanche, which occurs when large chunks of snow or ice slide down the mountain face giving no time to escape.

The avalanche was the fourth in two weeks in the region. Three avalanches were earlier reported in the Kedarnath area between September 22 and October 2 with no casualties.

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