Moody blues

With its ever changing colours, Pangong lake enhances the enchantment of rugged yet awesome Ladakh

Moody blues
Many moons ago, before the benefits of a liberalised economy made it easier for middle-class climbers in India to chase their dreams, a mountaineering friend and I organised a women’s expedition to Rathong (6,678 metres) in Sikkim. A difficult to reach peak, with a long walk-in from Chouri Kiang, past the Kabru massif and across Rathong La and then along the massive Yalung glacier, it is not popular.

It is also a technical peak and was once chosen for an Everest team selection expedition. As such, the climbing route was obscure and we were little wiser after poring over a map with a summitter from that expedition.

But long before our group of bright young women climbers from Kolkata piled on to the Darjeeling Mail, encouraged by the principal of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) also travelling on the train and proffering advice and blessings, my friend and I struggled with the logistical and financial aspects of expedition organising. Some sponsors donated cash or kind but, equally, much of the cost was borne by the expedition members with the lion’s share coming out of her and my pockets. She was the expedition leader while I was deputy leader.

One day, while in office, I received a call from her asking when she could come to my house to discuss something crucial. We could discuss it over the phone right then, I offered. No, it’s important so it’s best to discuss it face to face, she said.

In my house, she began by saying I obviously knew how much the expedition was draining our resources and the tight budget we were on.

“So I have a proposal to cut costs. Instead of getting insurance cover for Rs 1 lakh, let us reduce the amount to Rs 50,000,” she said. (In those days, Rs 1 lakh was the standard insurance cover per person for most 6,000-metre peaks in India.

Significantly, for Sherpas going to Everest it was Rs 4 lakh and for those going to Kanchenjunga — a more dangerous mountain — it was Rs 5 lakh.)

It took me a minute to make my decision. “Okay, Rs 50,000 for us — the expedition members. But Rs 1 lakh for the Sherpas. No compromise on that,” were my precise words.

“But we have to manage our finances…,” she murmured feebly.

“No compromise, I said. The Sherpas are going to go ahead of us and open the route. This is final. Let’s not discuss it anymore,” was my firm reply.

On the expedition, we never reached the gully through which the route lay. The head Sherpa mistakenly chose to enter the wrong one and, on the first day of route-opening, the four Sherpas began to fix rope on an ice wall.

Hapshi, lead climbing with crampons while we watched from the camp far below, fixed two ice pitons — learning on the spot from the head Sherpa, who was an instructor at HMI. Since we were all trained and could teach too, we applauded.

A few minutes later, the entire ice wall disintegrated.

It was evening by the time the other three Sherpas finally brought Hapshi’s body into the camp. Several hours later, as acceptance of death ultimately enveloped us, I thanked God for my decision.

In time, his widow and two-year-old daughter received the insured amount.

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