“Mountains are not Stadiums where I satisfy my ambition to achieve, they are the cathedrals where I practice my religion.” ― Anatoli Boukreev
It was mid of Jan 2014, I just finished reading – ‘The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest’ by Anatoli Boukreev after finishing – ‘Into Thin Air’ by Jon Krakauer and ‘Left for Dead – My journey home from Everest’ by Beck Weather other two most talked about books on 1996 Everest Disaster in the order mentioned.
More I read about the incident my heart filled with deep remorse.
I am not a climber or mountaineer but I am a mountain lover. Though I couldn’t imagine how it feels to be on the top of the highest point of the earth but I could feel the love all those mountaineers had for mountains and what they wanted to get in their life to become close with the mountains. I felt a deep-rooted sense of sadness. I just kept on thinking why was not all things were correct on 10th May 1996 at high Himalayan area or on Everest. Days passed by I kept on thinking about what would have happened that day. What decision should have been taken that day. Two decades have been passed after that but probably we will never have any proper answers to our questions. Like many I do feel sad about losing world’s best mountaineers due to the Everest’s worst disaster.
While reading about 1996 Everest disaster and little known about all these great mountaineers, one name was striking on my mind repeatedly. He was mentioned in all the above mentioned books which I had finished reading very recently. More I was reading about him I started imagining him and I started painting his built, feature and look on my mind. On all those three books wherever his name was mentioned I would have read all those line repeatedly and I will underline those lines for reading later again. I felt that I started falling for the man. He was none other than Anatoli Boukreev.
Hence, after reading all those books and doing lot of research on this Russian mountaineer my heart ached for meeting him. By mid of February 2014 or little later than that I was mentally prepared to head back to Himalayas to visit the Annapurna Base Camp where Anatoli took his last breath. Anatoli died on 25th December 1997 during his winter expedition at Annapurna due to an avalanche strike.
12th April 2014 I headed back to Himalaya for Annapurna Base Camp trek.
My sole intention was to visit Anatoli’s burial memorial at Annapurna Base Camp and more so to walk down the same path through which he walked last time.
Once again I returned to Nepal, a beautiful mountain country which had been ravaged by the bitter consequences of its civil war. Everytime when I landed to Nepal I felt its long lasting pain that always wrecked my heart from the core. I always felt something is missing there yet the country is enormously beautiful. Deep down in my heart I always feel this country is rich with great assets like its human being and its natural beauty.
After reaching Kathmandu, all the team members for the ABC trekking met at Nirvana Hotel which is located in the center of the busy Thamel road. Our trek leader Sujoy gave us a brief idea about the entire journey and introduced each member with the others. This continued as an one hour session followed by a group dinner.
Next day morning I woke up with strong stomach ache and I got up very early morning and had to head to the lue. I was shocked by my condition. It was a devastating diarrhea left me on an annoying situations. I got ready and with an acute rumbling stomach headed for Pothana. Our first day of trekking starts on 13th April 2014.
It was mid of April. Hence, the day was pleasant and slightly warm. Our microvan dropped us till a place called Kande. However, before reaching Kande seeing the lower Himalayan Mountain ranges I was scared. Thinking that the kind of height I have to climb and realising that the first day trek shouldn’t be a easy game. Once reached Kande, our porters bundled our bags and shared our loads among themselves and started moving for the trail. I just looked at them they smiled at me and said come we will see you at Austrian camp. I felt refreshed due to their positive attitude towards starting a journey and towards life. Before starting entire team took a happy, smiling group photo knowing that we will not be this happy once we will start trekking the Himalayan trail.
It was April, hence weather was not so cold. Rather it was quite warm and it was tough to walk under the sun wearing windstopper or any fleece jacket. Hence, from fleece top to windstopper, ultimately I started walking in my tank top. But the happy part of the first day journey was that on the contrary of my imagination the trail from Kande to Austrian camp was quite flat. We can define it as Nepali flat and it was a easy walk for all of us. We walked, stopped, gossiped, photographed each other and reached Austrian camp happily.
Austrian camp was a wide-open flat Himalayan valley. From this place the entire Annapurna range along with Fish Tail mountain range was visible. As it was told by our trek leader. But we couldn’t see anything as the entire horizon was covered with thick stormy cloud. However, we were walking under the bright warm sun lights. During that point we were absolutely unaware what weather was waiting for us or at least how mountain weather was going to welcome us. After a small break at Austrian camp we headed for Pothana. Deep inside the Himalayan woods we kept walking leisurely. The journey was so pleasant, that we stopped several times to take photographs. Those were the time when we built great team bonding. And I used all the opportunities to do modelling and enjoyed my journey within the scenic beauty of the Himalayan woods. We reached Pothana, our lunch spot sometime around 1.30 PM and as usual I ordered for Nepali Daal Bhat. Once the lunch was over I went inside the kitchen to pay my bill to the house owner. The lady who was collecting money or the house owner looked at me and gave a big smile saying you came to our lodge on 2012. Well, it was a surprise. I was in Pothana on 2012 and I stayed one night in this place indeed. But it was amazingly surprising to see that lady remembered me. We shook hand greeted each other with smile. After the lunch we headed for Tolka where we were supposed to spent our first night. While heading towards Tolka, there was one place where roads bifurcated and I got slightly confused which roads to follow. I stopped at the junction and briefly noticed that in the roadside there was an aged person sitting and Nepali kids are surrounding him checking his iPad with curiosity. I walked ahead and glanced at one young guy who called the aged person as dad. Giving not much importance to those fellow trekkers I moved forward selecting randomly one road hoping that it will reach Tolka. Soon after I found that both the roads meet at one point and reach Tolka. At Tolka, we spent our first night relaxing and leisurely. Night spent well playing cards and gossiping with fellow trekkers.
Tolka to Chomrong – It was dark when I got up next day early morning to see the mountains in the eastern region during the twilight. Even in the predawn darkness I could see the white mountains were standing high with their strength and magnanimity. I looked at the mountains and they were looking at me as no one was around. In my solitude I felt that life is beautiful and life is less complicated while I am close to nature. I look back to my past life. I tried to realise what I could do what I couldn’t. Well, I am not a perfect person. With lot of fallacies at the end of the day I am a normal human being and I deserved to be happy. Once again it reminds me the lines of Anatoli Boukreev what he had mentioned to a Kazakh Journalist just before leaving for Annapurna – “Speaking honestly, I do not feel fear climbing high; rather, my shoulders straighten, square like a bird stretching it’s wings. I enjoy freedom and height. Down below, when I become immersed in the problems of ordinary life, there is fear sometimes, or the pettiness of human behaviour can weigh heavily on my shoulders.”
Standing alone in front of the mountains I was happy about surroundings and enjoying my freedom. Life is a journey and live it at the fullest.
After a while with the rising sun and with the sounds of chirping birds all my teammates got up and we all got ready for heading to Chomrong. What I heard that to reach Chomrong we have to climb thousands and thousands of steps which are famously known as Chomrong Steps.
Well I managed to negotiate with Chomrong Steps and reached Chomrong without much hassle. It was an easy trek for me. I enjoyed the scenic beauty of the nearby mountain village, high Himalayan trail covered with vibrant Rhododendron colors. It was enchanting except the part of occasional rains in the trail.
We reached Kalpana Lodge of Chomrong sometime around 3 PM. Moment after we all settled in our lodge, it was started pouring heavily. We all were captivated inside our rooms and due to bad weather darkness enveloped the entire region pretty fast. We had no option but to had our day’s last supper and to settle inside the sleeping bag.
Chomrong to Dovan – Next morning I was standing outside the lodge and looking around, speechless with the beauty of the sky and with the surrounding view of mountains. It was pristine. Competing with the clear blue sky, bright golden sunlights, shinning crystal dewdrops or raindrops from the last nights rainfall there were lot of blue Verditer Flycathcher playing around here and there. It was just adding that extra tinch of color to make the entire environment more beautiful and charming. Once again I admired the beauty of our mother nature.
It was then time to start our third day trek. Sometime around 8 AM I started from Kalpana lodge and first we had to go down to valley near the Modi Khola river bed then will start the climb to cross other mountains and to reach Deorali. Soon after I started a tall guy crossed me very fast and he went to a local village shop to buy fruits. I moved ahead and started climbing down from the Chomrong village towards the river bed. I didn’t took much time and I crossed my fellow trekkers and I was extremely happy and was proud about my physical condition and seeing that I have truly increased my fitness level. I was actually walking with my sherpa porter and maintaining the same speed with him and I reached our lunch spot Sinewa quite early. I was happy.
Quietly eating my lunch, I noticed, several feet away an handsome-looking tall man looking at me with a pleasant smile in his face. He had strong physique reminiscent of a greek warrior. Instantly, I got distracted. Not been able to understand how to respond back to his smile I tried to concentrate on having my lunch. But I was unable to hold on to my curiosity and me too looked at him while having my lunch. So four crossed each other several times. While I was having my lunch our trek leader noticed that I was completely drenched in sweat. He immediately asked me took of the top layers of t-shirt and to stand in the sun lights to dry myself quickly. He was anxious to see me and told me that you might catch cold.
Listening to the advice of my leader I was standing under the bright sun lights to keep myself dry and warm. While standing all alone and admiring the surroundings, I suddenly noticed that the guy who was looking at me he is coming towards me carrying the beautiful smile on his face. This time I looked at him directly and smiled back to him. Quietly he came near to me and looking at me said – ‘It’s quite windy up here’. I nodded my head agreeing to his comments. We were standing there silently looking at the forest, river and mountains. No words came out from me though I was expecting him to be stand beside me as long as it was possible. Two traveler from the different parts of the earth standing side by side in the Himalayan areas admiring nature’s beauty and probably was thinking of a new friendship was the perfect sense of being a traveler. But this unreal beautiful rhythm was like for few moments. My head sherpa called me and asked me to get ready and to start for our next destination Bamboo.
I got ready took my backpack and headed for Bamboo. Before starting, I looked at the guy and gave him a smile and he responded back. Quite unsure and unaware about our next meeting I moved ahead. For the next few hours, we crossed our path several times. Sometimes he passed me saying ‘hello’, sometime I passed him saying – ‘hey, how u doing’. It was fun and I was on it. During traveling in the Himalayan woods and partly accompanied by a handsome guy always makes your journey interesting. Well, it was intoxicating!
Adding to the fun, all of a sudden it started drizzling. It was sunny yet drizzling and windy too. From Upper Sinuwa we proceed along the forest track to Khuldi. Thirty minutes on a steep downhill from Khuldi was our next stop at Bamboo. When I reached Bamboo, apart from the local people no one was around. I started strolling here and there to wait for my other team members. The place was slightly dark and damp. There was a small circular area which was completely plane and empty from any big trees. So I could see the entire sky from inside the woods. And what I saw was not at all a funny stuff for me. The entire sky was dark with stormy clouds and it started lightning too. I looked around worriedly as I had never seen such weather before in mountains.
Suddenly a known face appear and walked towards me. Oh! It was that handsome guy on the trail. This time I couldn’t see any smile on his face. He looked at me said – ‘Hi, We gotta fast. It will start raining. Weather seems not so happy.’ He asked me – ‘Where is your group?’ I pointed downhill. He said if I wish I can join him and can trek with him till Dovan. He seems quite worried due to the sudden change in weather. I would be honest I wanted to go with him but I politely said that I have to wait for my group to come and I asked him to move ahead. He said – ‘See you in Dovan’ and he moved ahead.
I waited for my team to reach almost half an hour and I started feeling cold sitting at that damp cold area. Once team reached and spend few more time on tea table I started for Dovan with one of my fellow trek mate. Just after 5 minutes we started for Dovan, it started raining vigorously. I never faced such situation before. I never experienced Himalayan areas in stormy and rainy weather. Initially, the trail was slippery and then it was all covered with flowing water. Far down in the valley, flowing water in the Modi Khola river was declaring it’s proud presence. We got completely drenched in this sudden and unexpected rain. Though I was managed to cover myself with raincoat but it was of little help. Both of us were shivering in wet cold. We tried to walk fast but the vehement movement of the trees inside the woods were making our progress almost to nothing. We struggled to track down the trail, maintain the body balance as by then the entire trail was too slippery and risky. Rain continued for long 30 mins making the entire environment gloomy. In the entire trail from Bamboo to Dovan we had not crossed any other trekkers. Neither our team member could started from Bamboo. They all were stuck at Bamboo. Somehow we two managed to reach Dovan by 4 PM. Dovan was cold and very windy. As it was open from the three sides of the mountains.
Once we reached first we identified our tea house and settled our stuff inside the room. I changed and came outside to see the present situation of the weather and also to wait for our other teammates. One hour later the entire team reached Dovan.
As per my usual characteristics I started walking around the Tea house area. Then suddenly someone called me saying – ‘Hi’. I looked back and saw that guy was standing just behind me with his lovely smile. I felt very happy and comfortable with his presence. Looking at my hair he could realise that I was caught in the rain. He mentioned that he was lucky to cross the trail before rain starts. He pointed towards another tea house where he was staying.
We found a place nearby and sat together closely to keep ourselves warm and I hide myself from wind just sitting close to him. Well he was too tall to guard me from the wind. He started asking me about myself, like where from I am? Whether I am traveling alone or I have my partner? What do I do as my profession. Once I answered all his questions it was my turn. Well, he was from Israel and he was travelling with his Dad. Dad-son duo was supposed to go for Everest Base Camp trek but due to unavailability of flight for Lukla and after waiting and wasting two days of their time they changed their plan and came to trek the Annapurna Base Camp side. They had their flight back to Israel on 25th April just one day before my flight back to kolkata. We talked hours on several things and then suddenly it started raining again. We ran back to my tea house and sat on a two seater chair in the veranda. I could realise that he was liking my company and nothing to hide, I did liked the same. He ordered for ginger lemon tea and Gurung bread. It seemed extraordinarily delicious while we two together was having this evening snacks. Then suddenly he asked me – ‘Hey, what’s your name?’ We laughed out loud noticing that we didn’t know the name of each other. I said – ‘I am Susmita and what about you?’. He smiled and looked at me deeply and pronounced my name as ‘S-U-S-M-I-T-A’. He pronounced it slowly but correctly and said it’s a sweet name. We smiled at each other and he said his name was Daniel. We shook hand for the first time and laughed again.
Time passed and it was pitch dark outside. It was stormy, rainy and snowing outside. We had ginger tea again then chocolate milk shake and we were no longer talking to each other. We were sitting side by side and watching the mood swing of mother nature. After a while he left our tea house and before leaving worriedly he said weather is not good. Let see how it would be next day morning.
Rain continued for the whole night and for the first time I realised what is called cloudburst in high Himalayan areas. We all slept worriedly thinking about next day’s condition.
Dovan to Deurali – On the contrary of our imagination next day was crystal clear and sky was washed with fresh blue colors. While standing at the corner of the Tea house suddenly someone called me S-U-S-M-I-T-A. I looked back and saw Daniel is coming towards me with his lovely smile. We greeted each other with Good Morning smile. We had breakfast together and started our journey together for Deurali. In between Dovan and Deurali there was a place known to be “Himalayan” and the place was very similar as before we walked on the trek. Then from “Himalayan” the altitude starts. We saw herbs, shrubs but no big trees. Unfortunately I lost my trekking pole in “Himalayan”. I realised without the pole my journey will be tough. In the path I told the same to Daniel. Daniel and my sherpa managed to get me a dry wooden stick with which I managed the rest of my journey. On the way to Deurali we saw Hinku cave. We saw one Glacier which I managed to cross very painfully. I slipped several times and fallen on the trail. I am thankful to my sherpa friend who almost dragged me through that slippery area and placed me on a safe region. Daniel continued his journey as their plan was different than ours. They were supposed to visit Machhapuchre Base Camp, Annapurna Base Camp and back to Deorali on the same day.
… and then suddenly I started feeling restless and breathless. I was almost unable to walk because too much of restlessness. Looking at me my sherpa probably could realise that it was mild altitude sickness. He took my backpack and ask me to sit on the trail and asked me to drink plenty of water. I sat on the trail for long time and till date I am thankful to my sherpa friend Bhakta that he stood by me and gave me a good support. After a while I started moving slowly slowly towards Fishtail base camp. At the same time I noticed far down in the valley dark cloud patches started appearing in the horizon. I realised the weather is going to be bad but then I didn’t had any ideas that how bad it could be. Sometime around 10 AM I reached Mt. Machhapuchre Base Camp.
We settled our backpacks in the respective areas and had hot garlic soup. We tried to sit outside expecting sunlights but weather turned out to be very angry. Entire skyline got covered with thick dark clouds. Everybody went inside as the temperature was falling drastically. I was sitting on the same place for long expecting weather could change. I was also feeling slightly restless and I couldn’t had my lunch properly. I was worried thinking about the altitude sickness. Then suddenly far down the horizontal line from ABC side I saw a known figure was appearing. A man coming fast towards MBC wearing a stone grey colored hoodie holding a wooden tick in hand. Soon I recognised it was Daniel coming back from ABC. He could also see me and when he recognised me instead of following the trail on the Deorali side, he came to meet me where I was standing. We felt happy seen each other. I informed him that I am not feeling well and promptly said that it could be altitude sickness and I should go down acclimatize better and should trek up till ABC tomorrow. I simply wanted to go down with him however I couldn’t leave my team and can’t go beyond the decision of my team leader. Weather was turning very bad and he had to rush back to Deorali. We bid adieu to each other, shook hand one last time. We smiled to each other and Daniel left MBC soon. That was the last time I had seen Daniel.
Soon after Daniel left it started raining heavily. It started sometime around 2 PM in the afternoon and soon it became heavy snow fall. It continued for the entire afternoon, evening and the night. We were captivated inside the small lodge house. We all gathered inside the small kitchen hall and the trekkers were from across the world. There were trekkers from Brazil, Italy, UK, New Zealand, India, Australia, Poland, USA and from many other places which I wasn’t aware of. The snow fall, snow storm continue for the whole night along with small avalanches from body of Machhapuchre. None of us were aware how worst this could be at the other side of the Himalayas. Well I am talking about the side of the Everest Region.
A day with Mighty Machhapuchre – It was 18th April 2014. Like the day before morning weather was crystal clear. Morning I felt quite okay and I was ready to go for Annapurna Base Camp. However, I was slightly nervous as the night before I was not well and I was quite unable to understand whether it was high altitude sickness or I was just tired. I was all dressed up and ready to start my journey. But, then our trek leader approached me and asked me to stayed back to Machhapuchre Base Camp. Well, this decision was quite unexpected. I looked at him emptily that why I need to be here and why I can’t go to Annapurna Base Camp. Understanding my silence, he promptly said that – ‘you do not really look quite well. It’s better that you stay back here.’ I accepted his reasoning. He is a seasoned and experienced trekker and it’s a long time he is taking people to high mountain areas. Hence, without asking single question I accepted and obeyed his decision. Though a deep sense of sadness filled my heart knowing that it is quite uncertain whether I will be able to come back to Annapurna Base Camp again or not. I saw all the porters getting ready tying up bags of other trekkers. My friend Bhakta came to me and looked at me and then asked me to join. He said he can take care of the things and nothing will happen. He also mentioned that in this altitude all feel slightly dizzy or tired and that was nothing serious. I understood that probably he was correct but I decided to listen to the words of my trek leader. Hence, I stayed back at Machhapuchre Base Camp and saw my other trekmates approached towards Annapurna Base Camp along with other trekkers. Within morning 8.30 AM entire Machhapuhre Base Camp was absolutely empty. I looked around and I could only found one sherpa man. He looked at me and I smiled back at him. He came down and asked me that why I haven’t gone up to Annapurna Base Camp? I told him about my last night sickness. He said very casually okay take rest today and you can go up tomorrow morning. Knowing that there is no opportunity to go up there I kept myself silent. He said not to worry about it and if I require some help I can always call him for help. I felt quite comfortable with his caring words. The guy left and I stood all alone admiring my surroundings.
A reverent silence was proving my presence in high mountain areas. Standing absolutely alone at the Machhapuchre Base Camp and looking at the mighty Machhapuchre I felt quite spiritual and I felt my life is perfect and beautiful. There could be nothing beautiful watching sun bathed mountains all around me and feeling the sense of my presence. The sense of freedom was exhilarating.
I kept on watching Machhapuchre. They said it is the place of lord Shiva. Machhapuchre is one of the peak which is restricted from climbing. Looking at it I felt reason for keeping this mountain away from climbing make sense. The beauty of Machhapuchre was unexplainable. It’s sharp triangular peak was touching the blue sky proving as if it is really the place of lord Shiva. A thin floating cloud veiled around it’s pinnacle enhancing it’s beauty and masculinity. At 8.30 AM morning sun was yet to cross the high head of Machhapuchre and sunrays behind the peak had created a beautiful luminous effect around the peak. Sunrays touching the icy bed and bending through ice crystals were making the entire scene absolutely heavenly. Somewhere scattered shiny ice crystals were looking like diamond dust and the coloration of the mountains and it’s base were changing fast. At the same time continuous roaring sound of the avalanche from the snow bed of the surrounding mountains were making the entire environment quite mysterious and out of the living world. It seemed to me it was not me watching the mountains rather all the mountains were watching me and was quite amused with my tiny presence in between them. The feelings were out of the world.
I kept on watching at Machhapuchre and looking at the amazing color change and change of it’s mood. A divine feelings kept me trapped in that position. Even the entire base camp was extremely cold and no one was around I was still standing outside.