“ My take in life is that whoever I see as a hero – I see that person as somebody who had the right opportunity to do something and grabbed it. I will respect that person but not idolise him.’’
Meet Dr Murad Lala.
He was born in 1963, in Secunderabad, the youngest of three brothers.
His father was a pilot in the Indian Air Force, who passed on the credo that no matter what you choose to do in life, you should try give it the best shot you can. Dr. Lala studied at Lawrence School, Lovedale, Ooty. He wasn’t a very academically oriented student. The school emphasized all around development of the individual. Outdoor activity was part of school life.
When it came to college, given his desire to be a pilot, the youngster shifted to Bengaluru. There, while doing his BSc, he became active in the National Cadet Corps (NCC), going on to represent Karnataka at the annual Republic Day parade in New Delhi. He was adjudged the All India Best Cadet (Air Wing). Thanks to that, the state offered him a seat to study medicine or engineering. He picked medicine, enrolling at the government medical college in Bellary. He would periodically come to Bengaluru to continue his lessons in flying and pursue getting a pilot’s licence. Eventually he took his Private Pilot Licence. Following his MBBS he did his MS in General Surgery and MCh in Surgical Oncology from the Kidwai Memorial Institute of Oncology in Bengaluru. For some years thereafter, he worked at Tata Memorial hospital in Mumbai. Later, he shifted to Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai, as a Consultant Surgical Oncologist.
The old bug for the active lifestyle entered the frame every time Dr. Lala travelled out on fellowships or training workshops. Thus he did skydiving in the US and deep sea diving in Australia. Back home, he teamed up with his paediatrician wife Dr. Mamatha Lala, to race in the Raid de Himalaya car rally thrice. Murad drove their Maruti SX4; Mamatha was navigator. In the third attempt in 2009, they finished third overall. The rally route taking them through the Himalaya and over some of its high passes was Dr Murad Lala’s introduction to the Himalayas. It sparked off the idea of climbing mountains as a new line of adventure, particularly attempting the world’s highest peak, the 8850m-high Mt Everest.
Next pit stop for the Lalas was however in an entirely different direction.
In 2010, there was a vacancy for a doctor aboard the Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica, where India has maintained a base station for several years now. Realizing that six months away from work would be impossible for him, Dr Lala encouraged his wife to apply. Dr Mamatha Lala applied, trained for life on the frozen continent with mountaineers from the Indo Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) and finally did that stint as expedition doctor in Antarctica. Dr Mamatha Lala was aware of her husband’s desire to attempt Everest. While training with the ITBP, she asked around for inputs.
Armed with the information and wanting to train before climbing any mountain, Dr Murad Lala wrote to the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) expressing his wish to do the Basic and Advanced Mountaineering Courses offered by India’s government run mountaineering institutes. The best known of these training institutes are run in league with the armed forces. The imagination at work has traditionally straddled a few key aspects – among them emphasis on youth, performance and potential livelihood. The then 49 year-old Dr Lala, got the same reply others in that age group have been receiving: the institutes don’t cater to over-aged people.
I asked Dr Lala, what the physician in him thought of the establishment’s response given many middle aged Indians these days live an active life filled with physical activity. He said he couldn’t make sense of it.
On the other hand, those wedded to pure ethics in mountaineering would wonder why someone who hasn’t climbed a mountain before should choose Everest for first peak. “ Why not some other peak?’’ I asked Dr Lala. “ Why not Everest?’’ he asked in return. It is a debate that divides climbers sharply. Dr Lala wasn’t thinking of Everest without homework. He knew that amid all the mountaineering stories surrounding the peak, Everest by its normal route is not a technically difficult mountain to climb. “ This is not K2, which I know I shouldn’t try,’’ he said. Everest is a test of endurance that is additionally, a well guided ascent now.
With training denied by officialdom in India and still wishing to climb Everest, Dr Lala turned to the Internet. He contacted the Canadian company Peak Freaks (http://www.peakfreaks.com/). They had a training program for the novice wishing to attempt Everest; they first put you through an expedition called the Triple Crown Expedition which involved climbing three peaks of lower elevation – Island Peak (6145m), Pokhalde (5806m) and Lobuche East (6119m). In October 2012 Dr Lala did the Triple Crown Expedition with Peak Freaks. It was structured in such a fashion that the participants got trained in the fundamentals of climbing as the expedition progressed. At trip’s close, the team leader would assess and decide who is eligible for Everest. Of 13 people who started out, three completed the training. Dr Lala was one of them. He was told by the team leader that if he wished, he could attempt Everest with Peak Freaks in 2013. It left him with mere months to prepare. There was also the hurdle of securing finances and two months-leave from work.
In Mumbai, Dr Lala’s search for sponsors fell flat. But amazingly, his request for leave was accepted. The hospital he worked at got sufficiently enthused about his endeavour and made a contribution to the expedition kitty as well. The rest – a sizable amount as the whole budget was around three to three and half million rupees – was put together from his resources and savings. Then came the issue of how a busy cancer surgeon will train to be physically fit for the expedition. He jogged at night after work; began walking the long distance from where he stayed to his place of work, he started climbing the stairs of his tall hospital building daily, he used every opportunity he could avail at work to snatch a move or two of recommended exercise. Dr Lala also visited Altitude and Pilates, a gym in Mumbai that offered the facility to train in a chamber capable of simulating high altitude. He did all this training as much as he could. He picked up some essential gear like his backpack, from AVI Industries in the city (for more on AVI Industries please see https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/02/26/avi-industries-the-fortitude-of-the-lone-shop/), worked at the hospital till the eve of his departure and then flew from Mumbai to Kathmandu on March 28, 2013, Everest in mind.
At Kathmandu, he met his new team members. He also shopped for the remaining personal gear he had to have in place. He bought La Sportiva mountaineering boots meant for high altitude climbing and for warm wear, he bought locally made stuff reputed to work as well as the expensive big brands. The team then flew to Lukla and trekked to Everest Base Camp (EBC). At EBC, before starting the climb, there was a prayer meeting (puja) after which the clients were taken to the Khumbu Icefall to learn techniques required for crossing it, including how to handle the ladders bridging the icefall’s massive crevasses. There was also an acclimatisation overnight stay at Kala Patthar (5644.5m), a high point in the vicinity of EBC, known to offer fine views of the Everest massif. The day before formally commencing the ascent of Everest, the clients were allotted personal Sherpa guides. Dr Lala’s constant friend for the ascent was Mingmar Sherpa who had already climbed Everest six times. Asked what a Sherpa guide will do and won’t do on a commercial expedition to Everest, Dr Lala said that while they were there to help the client, it is the client’s onus to get himself or herself to the top. This matched the emergent scene on Everest outlined by Dawa Steven Sherpa, Managing Director, Astrek Group, at the annual seminar of the Himalayan Club (for that report, please visit https://shyamgopan.wordpress.com/2015/02/16/everest-may-get-costlier/).
The ascent was tough on the Mumbai doctor. “ For me everything was a struggle,’’ Dr Lala said of his climb up the mountain from EBC and the first major challenge en route (in some ways it’s most formidable) – the Khumbu Icefall. The team leader had set out clear rules for safety. Turn round times had to be respected and cannot be compromised. There were time limits for each stage of the climb, failing to meet which you turned back. You had to be able to reach Camp 3 and be comfortable there without oxygen. Else, you could be asked to turn back for early oxygen use typically betrays poor acclimatization. “ I always kept myself within the aerobic zone. I never tried to catch up with anyone ahead of me and start panting. I proceeded at my slow pace. I was always the last in the group, it had been so even in the hike up to EBC,’’ Dr Lala said. The group had started out from Kathmandu with eight clients. Within the first week of commencing ascent, three turned back. The remaining five soldiered on. “ As it happened, we were five persons from five different continents,’’ Dr Lala said.
Given their slow pace, Dr Lala and another climber were always the first to leave camp for a day’s ascent. The impact of some of these experiences on the doctor, planted on Everest from Mumbai with just the Triple Crown Expedition in between, can be imagined. At Camp 1, the team was caught in a blizzard for three nights. “ I found that very unnerving. It was total white out during the day. Supplies were limited and there was nothing to do except stay in the tent,’’ he said. The toughest portions of the ascent for him were the Khumbu Icefall, the Lhotse face, the summit push from Camp 4 and the Hillary Step. Thanks to his slow pace, Dr Lala had to leave Camp 4 for the summit an evening at 7PM with the temperature at -36 degrees. He recalls being exhausted within half an hour. Around 9PM, his headlamp – with a new set of batteries in it – failed. It could not be revived. The lack of sufficient light made the climb even more difficult. In the middle of all this his electric toe warmers were also not working (much later it was traced to the apparatus not being switched on). “ The ascent was a battle with physical fatigue. I was wondering how to put the next foot forward,’’ he said. If the team failed to reach the feature called `the balcony’ by 6AM, they would have to turn back. They reached the balcony by 1AM, well ahead of the cut off time for that stage – 6AM. The climbers rested here to change oxygen cylinders and have a quick snack. Then they pushed for the South Summit (from where you get to see the main summit), tackled the Hillary Step with its traffic of the season’s climbers and reached the summit of Mt Everest.
Dr Lala was on top by 9.10AM on May 19, 2013. Those who reach the summit are reminded to take photos with their goggles, helmet and oxygen mask off for identification (needed for certificate). The Mumbai doctor went through all these moves. “ I just wanted to get down. With my mask off and thereby no bottled oxygen to breathe, I was beginning to feel breathless up there,’’ he said. The descent commenced at 9.30AM and the team was soon engulfed by clouds. “ For me, the descent was also a struggle,’’ Dr Lala said. By the time, he got back to Camp 4, it was 6PM. The whole summit effort had taken 23 hours. Next afternoon he reached Camp 2 and the following day he made it safely back to EBC. That was when he allowed himself to accept the realization that he had successfully climbed Everest. He gave away most of his gear to the Sherpas with first choice on everything reserved for Mingmar. On May 28, he reached Mumbai, seven kilos less in body weight. June first week, he was back at work at Hinduja Hospital.
In the early flush of celebrations and reports in the media, Dr Lala was portrayed as the first Indian doctor to climb Everest. In the ensuing months, Dr Lala discovered it was incorrect for there were doctors from the Indian armed forces who had been up there much before him. He is the first Indian civilian doctor to climb Mt. Everest. Not that it matters to him – he said he did not climb Everest for any record or recognition. The only use of such distinction is – had he known of this likelihood, it could have been a means to market his Everest-attempt and find sponsors, something he drew a blank on in early 2013. I quizzed him some bit on the lack of purity in climbing Everest as a client in a commercial expedition. “ I was going there to do something I wanted to do. My take in life is that whoever I see as a hero – I see that person as somebody who had the right opportunity to do something and grabbed it. I will respect that person for what he or she did but I won’t idolize the individual. Just because I am an ordinary person, it does not mean that I can’t have an extraordinary dream, ’’ Dr Lala said.
A question valid in Dr Lala’s context is whether he is a mountaineer or an adventurer. Although he took his pilot licence, it has since lapsed. He did skydiving and deep sea diving but is neither a skydiver nor a deep sea diver in the real sense of the term. He did the Triple Crown Expedition and climbed Everest but whether he is a mountaineer or not would be lost in debates about what makes one a mountaineer. A likely answer lay in a development almost a year and a half after the Everest climb. The five clients on Everest – one from each continent – had bonded as a team. They kept in touch. Over July-September 2014, four of them including Dr Lala, applied to orbit the planet with Virgin Galactic. Founded by British industrialist Sir Richard Branson one of Virgin Galactic’s stated aims is space tourism. The results of the application and selection process were due in December 2014. Unfortunately, the company lost a spacecraft in an accident in October 2014. The results of the selection process never came. The proposed trip has been put off, Dr Lala said. For those still wondering whether he is a mountaineer or an adventurer, the application for space travel should provide a clue.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. Where ` by arrangement’ has been mentioned in photo credits, the photos have been sourced from Dr Murad Lala)