Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Nanda Devi East Expedition: May 2013: A Brief Report

To Roger Payne
Text and Photographs: Anindya Mukherjee


A lightweight, semi-alpine style attempt on Nanda Devi East by an Indian party in May 2013.


View of the south ridge and Nanda Devi east from our base camp at Bidalgwar, May 2013

There are mountains, particularly in some ranges of the Indian Himalaya; that have grown taller in our minds. Many of them are made taller, tougher and almost legendary by an intricate veil of mythology around them. Add a rich history of heroic explorations, epic ascents and liberal dash of romanticism to that and you have Nanda Devi. And for reasons known, yet unexplained, plutonium or pollution, political or practical; Nanda Devi and its sanctum sanctorum remain out of bounds for less fortunate alpinists like us.

Alpinists who have begun their climbing journeys in the late eighties or early nineties; have been out rightly denied of their rights to pay homage to the Goddess in their own humble, yet unique ways. A piece of earth, ransacked, plundered, brutalized by politics and look who is forced to pay its price! The sanctuary is closed since the late 1982 and it seems less than likely that its doors will open in our climbing lifetime! There is however one consolation! One can attempt to approach its mountains from outside, by climbing the outer rim of the sanctuary.

Being brought up on a staple diet of the classic mountaineering stories and exploration literature, written and documented over the years around the Blessed Goddess myself; it was inevitable one day, I guess. At the same time, all my climbing and exploration around Garhwal was reaching a culmination point and sometime in the late 2011, I started dreaming of Nanda Devi (7816m) and a possible attempt to its East Summit (7434m).

It all started with an email. I wrote to Roger Payne. Within a few days, I received an encouraging, informative reply from him.  It is thus, our pilgrimage to the eastern summit of the Blessed Goddess Nanda Devi, to the little sister Sunanda (Nanda Devi East) was conceived and an expedition was born. 

Nanda Devi East and Main summits as seen while entering the Lawan Valley


 “At almost 24,390 feet, Nanda Devi East is bigger, harder and higher than Nanda Kot, and is a sister summit to Nanda Devi, which lies roughly one mile to its west. It’s never been climbed by Americans and is one of the hardest summits in the Himalaya, having just one route to its summit. Tenzing Norgay, of Everest fame, stated it was the hardest thing he’d ever climbed. Our attempt was the most intense mountain experience I’ve ever had. In four days Jonny and I got within 200 meters (one hour) of the top in an alpine-style effort before a blizzard blew in. We bailed from 23,500 feet with no food and a half can of fuel left.”
Pete Takeda, The Secret of Nanda Devi, Rock and Ice

Like Pete Takeda, ‘intense’ is the word that comes to my mind too while writing this summary of our attempt on Nanda Devi East. But before I start to narrate our little story let us have a look back at the earlier, notable attempts and ascents of the mountain (7434m).

Tom Longstaff in his characteristic boldness had climbed the Nanda Devi Khal (5910m, more popularly known as Longstaff’s Col today) back in 1905 and following his clue the daring Poles achieved the first ascent of Devi’s east summit in 1939. Here is a list of notable expeditions that happened after that:

1939- Polish first ascent
1951- French (Tenzing Norgay was part of this)
1975- Indo-French
1976-Indo-Jap ( in both '75 and '76 my climbing guru Dorjee Lhatoo summitted Sunanda Devi)
1991- Indo-Russian
1992-Border Security Force
1994-Spanish ( '91 to '94- all very large expeditions- responsible for leaving enormous litter along the south ridge)
1995- Indian-American ( responsible for cleaning a lot of litter left by the previous parties)

And then, the most spectacular of climbs on Nanda Devi East happened. In 1994 , Roger Payne and Julie-Ann Clyma did a truly Longstaff style ascent of the south ridge. Surely their feat is yet to be matched or repeated by any in the Himalayan scene.

There have been a few more large and medium sized expeditions after Roger Payne and Julie-Ann's climb. Among them are the Spanish in 2005, Poles and Brits (Martin Moran) in 2009. All of them failed. The only strikingly notable and significant attempt in the post Roger Payne era, would be Pete Takeda's light weight and fast attack on the south ridge (2005)[i].

I personally, always felt immensely inspired by Roger Payne and Julie-Ann's climb on NDE and their style in particular. And then, sometime in July 2012, as I was passing through Lilongwe, Malawi, during my Trans-Africa bicycle journey, I got the heartbreaking news of Roger’s passing away! Next morning, as I was approaching Chipata, a small town on the Zambia-Malawi border, I had a clear purpose forming in my mind. I will climb Nanda Devi east in 2013 and I will dedicate this to Roger Payne! I mean, who else? Roger Payne and Julie Ann Clyma have set the highest standards of excellence in alpinism on this particular mountain! I am sure Sunanda Devi (as some of the Kumauni’s would rather call Nanda Devi East[ii]) was not happy either when she heard of that stupid avalanche off Mt Maudit!

 Choosing a Style

“Basically, you'll have two options. One is fast and light -- but you'll need to be acclimatized and very good at technical climbing. The other will be slow and methodical --fixing new/refixing old rope. This will mean a big team and multiple trips up the 900m snow face leading to the col. That will be hazardous and a load of work. That means you'll probably be looking at two weeks of ferrying, fixing, and climbing”. - Pete Takeda to me in a personal email on March 13, 2013

In March, 2013, less than two months before we were to set out for our mountain, came the above lines from Pete. From the very beginning, we never took NDE casually! Well, who would! But, as if being serious was not enough, Pete’s words hammered in reality and pretty much so in the right places. We needed a strategy to overcome one of the hardest summits in the Himalaya.

I am never in favour of a big team working up a mountain, fixing up ropes, ferrying loads, setting up camps etc. I do not like that mammoth, slow, prehistoric style of ‘conquering’ a mountain. Apart from our personal likings, me and my friends will never be able to get that sort of fund raised either. So a full- fledged expedition style was out. But at the same time, I do not dare rate myself as a super alpine style athlete as Roger Payne or Pete Takeda! Therefore, I looked for a path in between. We will go expedition style up to the Longstaff’s col and adopt Alpine style techniques beyond that, I thought.

The path in between and the team

Ours would be a small team, a team consisting of close friends, working in semi-alpine style, fixing and re-fixing where necessary. We will be setting up camps, allowing us only 2 days of ferrying up the 900m snow face to the Longstaff’s Col and then employ alpine style movement swiftly up the south ridge. We will allow ourselves about 2 weeks, base camp to base camp, in our hands to do our job!

I have been climbing in the Indian Himalaya for the past decade with Thendup Sherpa. Today he is more than a climbing partner. He is a friend and a brother. Without hesitation I can admit that I am yet to meet a stronger climber than Thendup. A strong climbing partner with a calm and calculative head is exactly what one needs. Especially, on a mountain like Nanda Devi East, it is a blessing!

Thendup brought along Karna Bahadur Rai (interestingly, not a ‘sherpa’ by birth) from Darjeeling. Karna, as Thendup mentioned, would be a big help while we will start carry, camp and climb beyond the Longstaff’s Col. And for the load ferries up to the col, we recruited 3 HAPs, namely Kiran Chetri, Lhakpa Sherpa and Temba Sherpa. All of whom from Darjeeling as well. As for the main climbing party, this time I wanted the team to expand and have a bit more flexibility than just myself and Thendup as the summit party. I wanted at least three more climbers to be included in the team, thus giving us an opportunity to split into two separate summit parties as and when necessary. It was then I invited Ananth H Vishkantiah (Bangalore), Suman Guhaneogy (Chandannagore) and Aloke Kumar Das (Kolkata) to join the gang and the team was complete. With 6 climbers and 3 high altitude support guys, we could almost call ourselves the magnificent nine!

The Expedition: an expected journey

On May 2, 2013, approximately 22 hours of train journey from Kolkata brought us to Bareilly. Without wasting time, we quickly huddled ourselves on a government bus that belched us out in Haldwani, the ‘Gateway of Kumaon’. ‘Bikki’, a driver from Munsiari was waiting for us at Haldwani. He was sent by our mountaineer friend Theo, who himself is based in Munsiari. At the outset, Bikki was outraged to see our small hillock of bags and duffels. Without wasting a moment he declared we would need another vehicle. While one of us tried to explain to Bikki that we simply did not have the money to pay for another car; to his utter dismay, some of us did not take long to stuff all our gear into Bikki’s Tata Sumo. Lock, stock and barrel; all in and off we went. Sometime past midnight we reached Munsiari.

Next day, we managed to do all the necessary paper works with the local authorities. Biru Brijwal proved his efficiency in organizing low altitude porters for us and on May 4, 2013 we started our trek to the base camp Bidalgwar. For the next 5 days we trekked on a nicely built trail, spending nights in Rupsiabagar, Nahar Devi, Martoli, Naspanpatti respectively and reached Bidalgwar (4300m) on May 8, 2013. May 9, was spent on organizing our loads, checking our gears at Base and on May 10, all nine of us did our first ferry to the foot of Longstaff’s Col. At around 4900m, this snow covered moraine hump would become our Advance Base Camp in a couple of days, or so we thought. But from May 11 to May 13, for three continuous days and nights it snowed and snowed. Helplessly we observed and accepted the fact that we were now left with only 12 days to climb Nanda Devi East and come back down to our base. Not a very comforting thought!

Puja at Base Camp

The col and the giant gendarmes

During the next two days, we ferried up and positioned ourselves at the ABC and then after only two team ferries to the Longstaff’s col, on May 17, we were camping ourselves on the col (5910m) itself. It took us 10 hours from our ABC with loaded backpacks to reach Longsatff’s Col. Snow conditions on the slope and the nonstop elevation was tiring. But our exposure to the bombardments of rocks, coming from the southern flanks of the col kept us on our toes! This ‘col camp’ was our camp I. The next morning we were awarded with the much coveted view of the inner sanctuary and the main summit of Nanda Devi. 

Our camp on Longstaff's Col. Main summit of Nanda Devi on the left and the first pinnacle immediately in front

The next two days were spent in bringing up our limited lengths of static rope from the lower sections of the snow slope below Longstaff’s Col and fixing them on pitches of the three giant pinnacles standing as sentinels of the south ridge. We found very little snow and ice on the rock pillars, especially so on the inner sanctuary side. This made our climb interesting, but thankfully without any incident. From top of the first gendarme it is a relatively straightforward yet very exposed crossing to the second pinnacle. From the top of the second pinnacle an abseil brought us down on the south ridge and then a short climb to the top of the third pinnacle.
On May 18, we had left the giant gendarmes behind us and were now very strategically located on the south ridge. It was about time and place, we established another camp. Camp II (6200m) thus was pitched on the very narrow south ridge, meters beyond the third pinnacle, with great views of Nanda’s main and East summits. It was an awe inspiring sight indeed!

Camp II 

Over the next three days we, relocated our Camp II to a buttress after a steep 25m ascent. Fixed higher sections of the south ridge and finally on May 22, 2013, after crossing a few rock and snow steps, a gentle snow arĂȘte appeared before us. We kept moving up the snow arĂȘte and stopped just before it merged into a snow shelf. We dig ourselves a platform and established Camp III (6600m).

Our relocated Camp II on the buttress

interesting rock step while moving up beyond camp II

Camp III or Summit Camp just below the snow shelf at 6600m

Summit day and a failure
On May 23, we made an alpine start. We started as two roped up parties (all 8 members, except Lhakpa Sherpa, who had stayed back at ABC). At the very outset of our summit attempt that morning, the one very striking factor was the wind. It felt so strong that one could easily declare it as gale.  We just had this one day in our disposal to give the summit a shot. Two nights of food and fuel, and that is all we had managed to carry on our way up.  So we did not really have a choice but to move on! At around 7100m, just before the quartzite mixed rock sections of the summit pyramid began at a gradient of approximately 50 degrees, we stopped. Day broke bringing in the slightest of promise of warmth. But by that time, both myself  and Aloke’s feet were frozen solid. Ananth was complaining of a lost pair of mittens (and frozen fingers as a consequence) and Suman was finding his movement too slow. Thendup, as usual, was probably the only person in the party, who seemed unaffected by the environment.  I looked around and all the stories of fatalities on Nanda Devi east came rushing back to me. I had to make a call. Summit or Safety? What is success without safety? I had a quick discussion with Aloke, the senior most climber in our team. We reached a unanimous decision within minutes.  We were turning back. In spite of being a small, lightweight team with very limited resources and time; we have overcome all the technical climbing challenges of the formidable south ridge of Nanda Devi East, but decided not to push the last 300 meters to the very top.
Why? Because, the safety of the whole team, their limbs and their lives seemed to be of more value to us at that moment; than standing atop Nanda’s sister. Safety over a pseudo glory suits me fine. Any day, any place, anytime, and this was just one of those moments!

Point from where we turned back 

Over the next two days we retraced our steps over the south ridge; the Longstaff’s Col and reached base camp on May 25, 2013. We had with us approximately 900 meters of static ropes for fixing (as opposed to some 3000 meters used and proudly declared by some expeditions) and we brought it all down.  

We had taken 12 days in total to reach our high point and get back down to our base.

We found out it is us who make mountains taller than they actually are.

We dedicate this effort of ours to the great alpinist Roger Payne.

And yes, we have always wanted to say this: NO DESTRUCTIVE DAMS IN THE HIMALAYA PLEASE!

The team is ever grateful to Sabyasachi Talukdar, Editor and CEO of the Bengali daily Uttarbanga Sambad . A significant amount of financial help came from him at a crucial moment. We want to thank Dr. Rupak Bhattacharya for all his time, advice and treatment on our frozen toes. We want to thank Sudeb Hajra of Alpine for his contribution to this expedition as well. And a BIG thanks to my elder brother Arindam Mukherjee for bringing us all the boil-in-the bag foods that we could use in our high camps. And to Pete Takeda, for the all invaluable photos and information he shared with us.

End Notes: References

[ii]  Reference to Nanda Devi East and Sunanda Devi :

Monday, April 29, 2013

Prelude to Nanda Devi East Expedition 2013: Part III

The Men and their Mountains: a bit about this and a bit about that

“We walked through the streets. It was hot and muggy and sweat poured off us. A deep breath gave no ventilation.... It was the real India-muggy, smelly, with small children pulling at my clothes, and pointing pathetically at their small baby brothers and sisters....” So wrote Peter Boardman in The Shining Mountain (p 27-29).  Peter Boardman was sharing his Delhi experience. In August, 1976, he and Joe Tasker were on their way to make their epic climb of the West Wall of Changabang.
Changabang and kalanka from Deotoli Col. Photo: Anindya Mukherjee, September 2011

Welcome to our lives Peter. Glad, you had to deal with Delhi for a few days only. We are the ‘real Indians’ you see and we live in this muggy, smelly existence. And you know what? It is highly likely that the small children with little brothers and sisters that pulled at your clothes? Yes, those pathetic children, poorest of the poor, they may not be brothers or sisters at all! They were most probably borrowed accessories for the improvement of the art of begging by my fellow countrymen. Always rise for the higher cause. United in corruption, bound by the camaraderie of filth. This is my India today. Alas!

" A nation is advanced in proportion as education and intelligence spread among the masses. The chief cause of India's ruin has been the monopolizing of the whole education and intelligence of the land, by dint of pride and royal authority, among a handful of men. If we were to rise again,we shall have to do it in the same way, i.e. by spreading education among masses. "- Swami Vivekananda

I know, many or most of the western visitors to India, even today, go back to their lives of ‘quality living’ after a short spell of Delhi-Taj Mahal-Jaipur with  some version of the above image or other. I do not blame them. India is not a fast food joint. India is a richer, more complicated story. A bit more subtle than fish and chips and what usually meets ones eyes Peter! Please do not take "Slumdog Millionaire" the movie as the Gita! ( Well, I am glad you did not have to watch it in your times!) Surely, India is more than Chicken Tikka Masala, a butter Naan bread, a Bollywood movie and a Kingfisher Beer! 

By the way, where are you these days? Some of us miss your and Joe’s spirits and your super courageous mountaineering feats! You guys were awesome! Some say you guys vanished on Everest! I do not believe them. You guys are inspiration personified. You do not vanish into thin air! You exist, among many, or may be a handful; and you will be surprised- you live among some of us in this filthy, smelly, pathetic country too!
Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker, pic courtesy:

Wish you could spend a bit more time with us! You know what is more interesting? Delhi is way better! You should have checked out Calcutta! Humidity normally here is so high that one wishes deliverance in the shades of large banyan trees by the river Ganga. But even that wish seems outlandish most of the times these days now, for we have killed almost all of them. The wise old trees are out of our pathetic lives. Salvation is a mirage.

It is end of April and the damp,hazy heat of Kolkata has already reached its prime. Thendup appeared out of a state government run bus. He had been on that tin can for the past 16 hours. He boarded that apology of a long distance coach last evening in Siliguri. It should have been here in down town Kolkata (which the Bengalis so fondly call Esplanade) hours ago. But their driver had precious cargo to deliver door to door and hence the usual and the obvious happens- delay.

Eventually, you will get there and this too shall pass. The bus conductor have been pouring philosophy onto  his heat exhausted yet patient passengers. Surely Thendup looked untouched by the viscous flow of fluid philosophy of the bus conductor. He had all the calm and cool of a hidden glacier. And at that moment, amid all the chaos, above the cacophony of the deafening noise; we both knew it is time to pack our bags again. To the mountains, to the Himalaya, I hummed! The heat, the dust, smoke, noise, people around me did not matter any more. We are off to Kumaun Himalaya, to the sanctuary of the blessed Goddess herself! Nanda Devi's sister summit Sunanda Devi ( beckons! Some one told us she is kinder than her elder sister! Less harsh, more welcoming and forgiving. She is more like my mother's sister who can never see anything bad in me and was always loving, caring and gentle. Well, we can only hope and pray!
Goddesses Nanda and Sunanda :

Nanda Devi 7816m as seen from Deotoli Col over and above the Devisthan ridge. Photo: Anindya Mukherjee, Sep 2011

Oh, we pathetic Bengalis! We do not lose an opportunity to attach our earthly sentiments even to a ruthless mountain such as Nanda Devi East! But pray we shall and pray we must, for famous mountaineers have declared this mountain to be formidable. To reach its top at 7434m, one needs to climb more vertical meters compared to the summit of Everest from its base camp and the only established route by its south ridge is a  lot more technical and demanding climb. No wonder, Tenzing Norgay had declared it to be the most difficult that he had ever done! Many expeditions ( both past and as recent as 2009 and 2012) have failed to even go beyond the Longstaff's Col, or should I say the Nanda Devi Khal.
Sunanda Devi 7434m and its south ridge
Tom Longstaff in his usual boldness had climbed the Nanda Devi Khal back in 1905 and following his clue the daring Poles did the first ascent of Sunanda Devi in 1939. Here is list of expeditions that happened after that:

1939- Polish first ascent
1951- French ( Tenzing Norgay was part of this)
1975- Indo-French
1976-Indo-Jap ( in both '75 and '76 my climbing guru Dorjee Lhatoo summitted Sunanda Devi)
1991- Indo-Rus
1992-Border Security Force
1994-Spanish ( '91 to '94- all very large expeditions- responsible for leaving enormous litter along the south ridge)
1995- Indian-American ( responsible for cleaning a lot of litter left by the previous parties)

And then happened the most spectacular of climb on Sunanda Devi. In 1995, Roger Payne and Julie-Ann Clyma did a truly Longstaff style ascent of the south ridge. Surely their feat is yet to be matched or repeated by any in the Himalayan scene.

There have been a few more large and medium sized expeditions after Roger Payne and Julie-Ann's climb. The Spanish in 2005, Poles and Brits again in 2009. All failed. The only striking and significant attemp in the post Roger Payne era, would be Pete Takeda's light weight and fast attack on the south ridge (2005). Read about the exciting reports of Pete's expedition here:

I personally got inspired by Roger Payne and Julie-Ann's climb and their style. Our effort in this upcoming expedition is to pay our humble tribute to Roger Payne. I am sure Sunanda Devi was not happy when she heard of that stupid avalanche off Mt Maudit!
Roger Payne:
Mt Maudit in foreground centre right. Mt Blanc behind as seen from top of Mt Blanc du tacul. Pic. Anindya Mukherjee, July 2011

When I say 'we', I mean 4 climbers, 2 climbing sherpas. They are Ananth HV from Bangalore, Suman Guhaneogy from Chandannagar, Alok Das from Kolkata, Thendup Sherpa  and Temba Sherpa from Darjeeling and Anindya Mukherjee from Belurmath, Howrah.

We have a tiny budget, very little time, some experience. We are ready. Our train leaves Kolkata on May 1, 2013. Wish us luck. Pray for our safety and success!

To sum it up again: small expedition, humble tribute to the spirit of Roger Payne and a simple message: NO DESTRUCTIVE DAMS IN THE HIMALAYA~

Friday, April 19, 2013

Welcome UTTARBANGA SAMBAD: Expedition Partner of Nanda Devi East 2013

Nanda Devi East Expedition team is thrilled, delighted to welcome "UTTARBANGA SAMBAD"  as their expedition partner. "UTTARBANGA SAMBAD" is the largest circulated Bengali Newspaper of North Bengal and growing. 

This support from 'UTTARBANGA SAMBAD' has come at a  point when we were beginning to worry about reaching the optimum figure. Therefore, thank you so much 'UTTARBANGA SAMBAD'! The team is indebted!

Nanda Devi East, May 2013 Expedition is a very small budget expedition comprising of only 4 Indian mountaineers. We were hoping to raise the required fund by paying from our pockets and that we are doing. But in spite of our best efforts in emptying our savings accounts (which some of us do not have) there remained a substantial deficit. 

We all understand fully well, that all the sponsorship in the field of sports in India, goes to cricket. And a very select few who sympathize with and promote adventure sports; would rather pay for someone going to Mt. Everest. For them it does not matter if their sponsored climber is joining another commercial expedition- a packaged mountaineering travel program. The style, difficulty, quality, purity of mountaineering does not matter to them. 

The total budget of our expedition is equivalent to a single Everest aspirant's personal clothing and gear. 4 of us struggled to pay for that even. And here was UBS to our rescue! Thank God! Some one out there still believes in the real charms, challenges and the true spirit of mountaineering. 

Here is a comparative study of their circulation and readership with other dailies that are based in Kolkata.
And here is a map of the 6 districts of West Bengal where Uttarbanga Sambad is published and circulated.

For those who can read Bengali but do not reside in North Bengal, can also read Uttarbanga Sambad online here:

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Prelude to Nanda Devi East Expedition 2013: Part II

(Read Part I of this story here:

Part II

The River

“Stop flattering me to cover up your inertness, you oaf. I know what I truly am-a lost individual rushing through her Karma to get back her individuality. Or should it be universality? Do you know what that is? The ocean. That is my origin, culmination and true identity. But these are deep things which you will never understand. Stuck in one place, you don’t even know what the ocean is. Nor do you know the peak from which I descend to attain my identity."

So said the river to the tree in ‘Param’, a book by ‘Samarpan’.  But looks like no one but the tree was listening, at least not us the human beings. 

The river and the tree, Sundarban. Photo: Anindya Mukherjee
India has been an independent country for the last 66 years. It is the seventh largest country in the world. The second most populous country and the most populous democracy in the world! 

Some say our economy is the 10th largest by nominal GDP and the 3rd largest by the Purchasing Power Parity. No matter how huge that may sound, the fact is, after all these years, we have not been able to bring social justice. We have not been able to feed every mouth. We have not been able to build shelter over each family. We have not been able to build enough schools or even eradicate malnutrition. Why? Well many of the failures will route to this fact that we have not been able to wipe out corruption from our system. At all! 

Like an irreversible carcinoma it has been spreading, seeping deep through all the layers of society. Fine, we understand. Unity in diversity, they say in school text books. True, such diversity we have, geographical, social, linguistic, religious, cultural, political. Yet, rising above all, there is unity in one thing- corruption. We have not been able to clean the mess. And it seems like it is getting worse by the day.  Is there even an intention? Has there ever been any? No, in spite of promises, the garbage keeps piling up.

Only one place remained untouched, unscathed. The Himalaya. The ultimate pilgrimage for millions of Indians for centuries. It meditated in bliss oblivious of the heinous acts plaguing its plains among the populace. Could it be that the pained screams were heard by the high mountains of the snows? Could it be that this made even the abode of the snow sad and sorry? We do not know. 

And, then they had to plant a nuclear powered listening device on one of the most significant mountains in the Indian Himalaya- Nanda Devi (7816m). Of course, how could they leave the mighty Himalaya out of their dirty politics? 
Nanda Devi from the Deotoli Col. Photo: Anindya Mukherjee, where is Deotoli Col?  Visit this link:
Since then, we keep coming across many versions of their story on how they managed to lose a plutonium powered device high up Nanda Devi (1965) and then came the sudden closure of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary (1982). The naughty nuclear affair was admitted in the parliament by politicians . But the official reason for closing down the sanctuary back then and still is the word -‘conservation’! But of course, they are politicians right? How much truthfulness can one expect from them anyway? 

" Conservation", when one hears this word, feels positive about it. After all our ravaging, come let us conserve it. Man, this sounds so righteous! Righteous, yet ridiculous and contradictory! Why? Well, if you have something closed, conserved, protected; then why let big military expeditions go in there in regular intervals? Are they carrying Geiger counters along with their train of porters and helicopter drops of food? 

Secondly, if the Himalayan ecology is so fragile, why give permission to build dams right along the edges of the sanctuary. Destructive dams, erasing history, culture, nature once and for all. Where is your righteous 'conservation' now? Guys you are putting the term 'pork barrel politics' to shame! 

I am sure not everyone will agree that dam building has few redeeming qualities. Some people would mention flood control for urban areas, a commonly used excuse for constructing dams. But does an upstream dam really protect the floodplain of a river from flooding? Do we really have many dammed rivers that have not also had flooding disasters downstream? Do dams simply delay the economic disasters of major floods rather than prevent them forever? Ask the people downstream who have survived a broken dam if the trauma was worth the protection offered against a few years of minor flooding. Is the protection-from-flooding feature attributed to river dams simply another public acceptance without objective evaluation of the true worth?

Reconsidering the whole process associated with constructing river dams would be healthy. Should we stop building any more and even remove a few already in place? After all, removing some dams would create jobs, not to mention making for healthier river ecosystems.

I feel it is about time they should open up the Nanda Devi Sanctuary for mountaineers, trekkers and Himalaya lovers. I am 41. Like many mountaineers across the globe, I am being denied of the chance to visit one of the most amazing places on this earth. 

Will they open it in my lifetime? Well, if they do, even as a regulated group of expeditions and treks in the sanctuary, will put an end to poaching and illegal picking of the yarsagumba ( caterpillar fungus). Will they? Doubtful. 

Well, you can keep your secrets in your radiation proof bureaucracy. Do us one favour. Stop building destructive dams in the Himalaya for a change.
Gori Ganga pic. Sukanta Deb Mandal

Friday, April 5, 2013

Expedition Poster: Nanda Devi East

Less than a month from now, our team of 4 Indian mountaineers, 2 Climbing Sherpa, and 3 support staff will leave for the Kumaun Himalaya. We will make a lightweight, semi alpine style attempt on the famed and formidable south ridge of Nanda Devi East, 7434m.

Details and updates of the expedition will keep appearing on this blog. Today we are sharing our expedition poster here. This poster shows our route up the south ridge. It also includes our statement- "SAVE HIMALAYA FROM DESTRUCTIVE DAMS". We will of course elaborate on this in future posts.

Prelude to Nanda Devi East Expedition 2013 :Part I

The Award

It was late March and it was yet another hot and humid evening in the suburb of Belur Math in West Bengal. The heat, along with the smoke and dust was in their prohibitive best. On top of that, the humidity was making sure that it takes away enough juice out of me, without wasting any time. A slow, poisonous spell of lethargy was spreading all around. What a climate to live in! To think in an extremely healthy sense of humour, I could wink and say, well, at least, we don’t need to visit a sauna or pay for a steam bath you see! No wonder Bengalis are born intellectuals! Though I personally think it has made us more subnormal than sublime.

I was born here by the river Ganga, a name which the British with their stiff upper lips could never rightly pronounce. I mean, how could they call it ‘Ganges’ for God’s sake? I understand making ‘Kolkata’ sound like ‘Calcutta’; but ‘Ganges’? Come On!

The Ganga. I took my first swimming lessons in it, played soccer by its banks and over the past 10 years have seen the place change and transform into an ugly, unplanned concrete hell and the river turn into a gutter. I hate this place, I do not like the way things have turned out here in the name of development. Yet, this is where I belong. Every time, after spending months in the Himalaya, I long to come back here. I still do. Strange as though it may seem sometimes!

What is it that draws me back here? Is it my attachment towards my family, my parents? That and that only? Or, does my root of a lower middle class Bengali have something to do with it in addition? I guessed and I wondered.

That evening, I was coming out of my dentist’s chamber after yet another long session of a root canal treatment. Pain and anaesthetics were having their own conversation and I was lost in my arguments around this existence. No matter how much I tried to focus my thoughts on the upcoming expeditions-their planning and logistics; my mind wanted to stay back in a lethargic cave. It was then my phone rang.

It was a call from Rajesh Gadgil. Rajesh, a mountaineer based in Mumbai, is a warm, enthusiastic, down to earth and confident person to talk to. Anytime, anywhere. He is also the Honorary Editor of the Himalayan Journal. It was a pleasant surprise to get his call after a not so pleasant session in the dentist’s chamber.

What’s up? He asked in his usual jovial manner and spirit. I tried but, could not sound even half as positive as Rajesh while replying. Rajesh broke the news! Boss, this is not the time to feel low, you should be making preparations for other things! You have won the first Jagdish Nanavati Award for Excellence in Mountaineering! You have to come to Mumbai on 30th March for the award function! 

Wow! I was speechless for a few moments and wanted to remain so for some time I guess. Cherish this moment in silence rather than shout and celebrate out loud! Being loud is just not me! I have always been a little reserved when it came to expressing elation! And this award is like reaching a Himalayan summit, you are happy, but not celebrating yet as you still have to get back down safely to the base camp. 

Yes indeed, our research, planning, team effort and all the hard work to reach the 'impregnable' Zemu Gap' from south is recognized! I do not climb mountains for awards and accolades, but this form and gesture of recognition seemed nice at that very moment and that made me smile in silence! What could be a better prelude to Nanda Devi East than this? Indeed the Lord is kind!

But, silence is something  that would not happen then, as on the phone on the other side already was Nandini Purandare, the Honoray Secretary of the Himalayan Club, breaking the news to me in a more elaborate manner followed by the indomitable Divyesh Muni and then the legendary Harish Kapadia himself. Words of congratulations flowed freely. Man, this is serious, I thought, while trying to find the right words to reply. After the phone calls, I wanted to grab a beer somewhere but quickly remembered that my dentist have prohibited me from eating or even drinking for the next one hour. #@!! ~!##)(

Right after the phone calls were over,walking down the street to my home, I felt this award is a solemn and timely reminder of humility that we learn from the Himalaya and have just reinforced my beliefs in going to the mountains without bravado, with safety and knowledge. Why so? Well, just for the simple and singular reason of the name Jagdish C. Nanavati should explain it all, at least to the Indian mountaineering community. And exactly that is what makes this award so special and distinctive! 

( link to the first JCN Award: )

I felt thankful to the distinguished Jury, the Himalayan Club, and of course the Nanavati family for instituting this award for Indian mountaineering expeditions. I am sure this is going to be the most coveted award for all serious mountaineers of India in the coming years. I have just become part of that history by being the first ever recipient of it. Amazing!  I am inspired, encouraged, humbled, indebted!
Jagdish Nanavati 1928-2011
About JCN:

It was then I decided to dedicate this award. This award is not mine. It belongs to the man without whom I may have never ventured out to the mountains! I decided to dedicate my first award in the field of mountaineering to my uncle, Sujal Mukherjee. Sujal was a West Bengal mountaineer who took part in 25 Himalayan expeditions starting 1965 to 1989. He left this world in a bit of hurry in 1994, at the age of 62 only. I miss him. I knew his and Jagdish Nanavati’s spirits would be shaking hands tonight.
Me with my Uncle Sujal Mukherjee in 1973 during a family trek in Garhwal

Before closing this post I must also add that the award included a cash prize of Rs. 51000/. This indeed came as a blessing, a helping hand to our upcoming project on Nanda Devi East (7434m) as we are still struggling to get enough funds for our semi alpine style, light weight attempt on the south ridge of the famous and formidable mountain of Kumaun Himalaya. 

Any help is welcome, and we will try our best to reciprocate our kind donors/sponsors with photographs/ write ups/ blogs/facebook as necessary and as applicable. We leave Kolkata on May 1, 2013. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

A quote from 'The Secret of Nanda Devi' by Pete Takeda

Photo Courtesy: Pete Takeda
I am quoting Pete Takeda from his article (The Secret of Nanda Devi) published in 'Rock and Ice' based on his own research and expedition to climb Nanda Devi East in 2005. I have taken permission from Pete to use his photograph in my blog posts. Thanks Pete!

"At almost 24,390 feet, Nanda Devi East is bigger, harder and higher than Nanda Kot, and is a sister summit to Nanda Devi, which lies roughly one mile to its west. It’s never been climbed by Americans and is one of the hardest summits in the Himalaya, having just one route to its summit. Tenzing Norgay, of Everest fame, stated it was the hardest thing he’d ever climbed. Our attempt was the most intense mountain experience I’ve ever had. In four days Jonny and I got within 200 meters (one hour) of the top in an alpine-style effort before a blizzard blew in. We bailed from 23,500 feet with no food and a half can of fuel left. While we didn’t make the summit, we did get a tremendous view into the Sanctuary and a panorama that included the fall line of the SNAP.

For the next few weeks we journeyed to the western side of the Sanctuary (nine days and hundreds of miles by bus and foot). We saw Nanda Devi from the Rishi Ganga side and also interviewed a host of locals, including a porter who claimed to be 101 years old, and remembered expeditions back to the 1950s.

We also filled three bottles with samples of silt and water from the stream that issues from the Rishi Ganga as it enters one of the three tributaries of the Ganges. Though Indian government testing of glacial runoff in the late 1970s revealed no evidence of contamination, it is unclear if that testing has been conducted on an ongoing basis.

Back home in Boulder I sent the samples off to a lab for testing. The report came back saying that the alpha, beta and gamma counts were, “above expected levels for natural sediments,” and that “It certainly looks like you have something interesting going on with these samples.”  

While these tests are inconclusive, at press time the silt samples are undergoing more detailed analysis. Four decades after the SNAP device was lost, we are no closer to solving the mystery—the one thing that is certain is that the plutonium remains out there, buried in the Sanctuary, grinding inexorably toward whatever fate may bring, a Pandora’s box locked in ice."
By Pete Takeda
Pete Takeda lives in Boulder, Colorado. His new book An Eye At The Top Of The World: The Terrifying Legacy of the Cold War’s Most Daring C.I.A. Operation is available through or at your local bookstore.