The story of the first Indian to climb six 8000m-peaks.
Sometime in the concluding portion of the bus ride from Reckong Peo, the Spiti valley assumes shape and begins to impress by its dimension. After much distance covered in the valley’s folds, the wait for Kaza melds into a small township in the distance, on the banks of the river which gave the valley its name. The bus passed through a gateway next to premises operated by the Border Roads Organization (BRO) and a while later rolled to a halt at the local bus depot.
I was in Kaza, Spiti; eastern part (tad north too) of Himachal Pradesh. The terrain was quite similar to that of better known Ladakh. Except – Leh is at 11,500ft; Kaza is close to 12,000ft up. The Ladakh link shouldn’t surprise for both Ladakh and Spiti share the same Buddhist culture and in times gone by, the two provinces were administratively linked. Kaza felt like a quieter version of Leh, an older version of its northern sibling before the world arrived and made Leh the Leh of today. The world hasn’t poured as much into Spiti, yet.
Getting off the bus I pulled out my cell phone. There was a story to do. We – my subject and I – had promised to connect as soon as I reached Kaza. Too lazy to hunt for my specs, I held the phone away from my eyes and checked its screen. One stick; two sticks….? There was zero connectivity on my Mumbai-phone. I had thought the bigger operator I shifted to, would deliver network in Kaza. Damn! I looked around for somebody who could be the person I was looking for. There was no anticipation on anyone’s face. A few people calmly conversed. Some others went about their daily work. A monk stood sipping tea before a teashop; quintessentially monk, alive to the moment, to the sip. Nobody seemed to be expecting anyone. On the other hand, it was becoming increasingly clear from my nervousness that I was looking for somebody. From the depth of a beedi or a cup of tea being enjoyed, eyebrows rose casually to survey my presence.
“ Excuse me,’’ I said, stopping a person passing by. I explained my predicament and sought the use of his phone. “ Sure,’’ he said extending me his phone. I dialled the number and introduced myself. “ You have reached? Give me five minutes, I will be there,’’ the voice at the other end said. I returned the phone, said thank you. The evening was slowly fading to dusk. It suddenly occurred to me that I had given no clue regarding how I looked or the colour of T-shirt I wore. I wondered how two people who had not seen each other before would meet in Kaza’s bus depot. A few minutes went by. A middle aged stocky man of short to medium height with a day pack slung on his shoulder, appeared. “ Mr Shyam?’’ he asked loudly to nobody in particular. It was like a query to the winds; rather befitting, I thought, given surrounding geography of mountains and passes with the wind as timeless spectator. We shook hands. I had found the school teacher. Next morning, in a classroom overlooking the school and beyond that, the town, the teacher narrated his story.
Chhering Norbu Bodh was born in May 1969 in the village of Lalung, a cluster of about a dozen houses then, not far from Kaza. The fourth child of his parents they were in all two brothers and four sisters; now only Bodh and a sister remain. With his father sadly caught in a dispute over family property, life was a struggle. His early school education was at Rama village and Lalung. In 1976, the family shifted to Chobrang, a village roughly six kilometres away from Lalung. After the fifth standard, he shifted to Kaza’s high school, 20km away. He stayed at the government hostel. He was good at his studies. In 1985, the uncle who bore the expenses of his education, died. A year later Bodh cleared the tenth standard. But he had none to fund onward studies. He was now an angry young man earning a livelihood doing odd jobs. Around this time, he worked for about two to three months at the local branch of the State Bank of India (SBI) as a ` water carrier.’ His responsibilities included cleaning the office premises and fetching water.
Courtesy the region’s severe winter, the pattern of life in Spiti was six months of work followed by six month of rest. Although of late climate change has been making its presence felt here too, traditionally Spiti winters have been harsh. In this remote mountain scenario with premium on usable land, the person who owned land and cultivable fields was affluent. That was the old order. Over time, as links to the outside world became more, government jobs became an alternative option for survival. In 1988, Bodh recalled, at a public function in Kaza, an official of the Indian Army’s Himachal Scouts (part of the Dogra Regiment) informed that recruitment was due to happen. Bodh had no idea what a career as soldier entailed. He nevertheless joined the army. He trained for nine months during which time he was adjudged best student in weapons training. In 1993, he volunteered to train at the army’s High Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in Gulmarg, Kashmir. It was on his return from HAWS that he got called for his first mountaineering expedition – an army expedition to climb Phabrang (6172m) in Himachal Pradesh. Losing his goggles after reaching the summit, the trip gifted the young climber his first taste of snow blindness.
In 1994, he was part of the army expedition to Kabru (7412m), located on the Indo-Nepal border. A year later, Bodh was in Kumaon, attempting Nanda Devi East (7434m) with an international army expedition. Their objective was to traverse the ridge linking Nanda Devi’s twin summits. But following an accident after gaining the east summit, the traverse was called off. Being part of the second summit team, Bodh didn’t get a chance to climb the peak. Following this expedition, Bodh travelled with his regimental team to climb Gya (6794m). Gya has a reputation for foxing climbers, directing them to a false summit. That turned out to be the case on this expedition; the team climbed Gya Gaar. In 1998, Bodh did his advanced training at HAWS (he was best student); he also did his basic and advanced courses in skiing (best student again). He secured instructor grading. From 1999 onward, he was posted in Kashmir. A year before this, in 1998, he was part of an expedition by the cadets of the National Defence Academy (NDA) to Kedar Dome (6940m). Twenty cadets reached the summit on that expedition, he said.
In 2000, Bodh was a Lance Naik posted at HAWS as instructor. That year in June, he was in Kaza on leave, when he got the call to report for selection to climb Everest. The selection was done on Mana Peak (7274m). Bodh couldn’t summit owing to dehydration. However he made it into the Everest team after some others, who had been selected, dropped out. Selection done, the team proceeded to Manali for winter training. In March 2001, the team was flagged off by the then Chief of Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan. The army was returning to Everest after tragedy and death on a previous 1984 expedition to the peak, when five team members had died. Bodh was tasked with overseeing the 2001 expedition’s equipment. On May 24, 2001, Kaza’s future school teacher reached the top of Everest (8850m). As on Nanda Devi, he had been part of the second summit. “ Almost always, I have been part of the second summit team,’’ Bodh said. Soon after the Everest expedition, talk began of attempting Annapurna (8091m). In 2002, the army team proceeded for Annapurna. Yet again, part of the second summit team, Bodh had descended to Advance Base Camp on the mountain when he was informed of the first summit team’s failure. On May 6, 2002, Bodh reached the summit of Annapurna.
According to Bodh, on his way down from the summit, he met the British climber, Alan Hinkes, who was going up. Hinkes would become one of the people to climb all the fourteen 8000m peaks. As of August 2015 Wikipedia still listed his claim as ` disputed’ owing to lack of clarity on his ascent of Cho Oyu. The world’s fourteen 8000m peaks are Everest (8850m), K2 (8611m), Kanchenjunga (8586m), Lhotse (8516m), Makalu (8485m), Cho Oyu (8201m), Dhaulagiri 1 (8167m), Manaslu (8163m), Nanga Parbat (8126m), Annapurna I (8091m), Gasherbrum I (8080m), Broad Peak (8051m), Gasherbrum II (8035m) and Sishapangma (8027m). Climbing all the fourteen 8000m peaks is prized in mountaineering. The first person to do so was Reinhold Messner, who hails from South Tyrol in Italy. The second person to do so was the legendary Polish climber Jerzy Kukuczka. As of August 2015, on Wikipedia, there were 33 verified ascents of all the fourteen 8000m peaks and five disputed ones. No Indian mountaineer featured on the list. One reason for this is that five of these high peaks lay in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, territory illegally occupied by Pakistan. From South Asia, home to the Himalaya, only Mingma Sherpa and Chhang Dawa Sherpa of Nepal, figured on the list. Unknown to Bodh, while Hinkes proceeded for the summit on Annapurna, Kaza’s would be school teacher, returning from Annapurna’s summit, was commencing a new journey.
After Annapurna, Bodh was due to leave HAWS for his unit, when he got a message directing him to report to Delhi. There was to be a joint Indo-Nepal expedition to Everest to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the first successful ascent of Everest. Of interest to Bodh was that the agenda included an attempt of Lhotse. The selection was held on the Gangotri group of peaks in Garhwal. The eventual team was a big one, Bodh said. It was drawn from the armies of both India and Nepal. The Lhotse climb was a smooth affair with not much of the up and down shunting that typically happened on expeditions. In all, 12 people including Bodh reached the summit in May 2003, he said. With it, Bodh became the first Indian to summit three 8000m peaks. He didn’t go to attempt Everest on this expedition because he had already climbed the peak once. Celebrations were muted for the joint team suffered the loss of one member from a crevasse-fall. In December 2003, Bodh was in Delhi in connection with the army tableaux for the Republic Day parade, when he was informed of an upcoming expedition to Kangchenjunga by the Dogra Regiment. In May-June 2004, he underwent selection procedures at Beas Kund near Manali. Asked why he consistently reported for selection despite rising stature as mountaineer, Bodh replied, “ when a man thinks he is too big for his shoes, he becomes a problem for his team.’’
The Kangchenjunga expedition was set for the post-monsoon phase, a cold period. The ascent of the 8586m-high peak happened in cold conditions. At 10AM on October 10, 2004, Bodh reached the summit of Kangchenjunga after a steady climb of twelve hours. For the Indian Army, it was its second ascent of the peak. On return, Bodh enjoyed a brief holiday and was then posted to Srinagar. Just when he got to the transit camp in Jammu, he got a call from Delhi; he had been deputed to go to Everest as part of the support team for the army women’s expedition. On that trip, which put four climbers on the summit, Bodh once again oversaw the management of the expedition’s gear. Back in Delhi from this expedition, he was told to join the team going to Nyegi Kangtsang (6983m) in Arunachal Pradesh. The expedition failed. The approach was very difficult; the weather was bad, there was heavy rain. As it turned out, the trip served as selection process for an upcoming expedition to Cho Oyu. Bodh became part of the 2006 army expedition to Cho Oyu. Not a very technical peak, all 12 team members reached the summit of Cho Oyu. Bodh’s tally of 8000m peaks climbed was now at five. He spent the next few months on UN peace keeping duty in Lebanon, attached to 15th Punjab, also known in the army as First Patiala.
Bodh got back to India from Lebanon, in July 2007. He was home on holiday when he got instructions to report to Delhi in a few days time. He was deputed to a joint Indo-Australian army expedition attempting Mt Shivling (6543m), among the most beautiful peaks in the Himalaya. It is also quite technical. Up on the mountain, the team had just finished fixing ropes, when a big ice wall broke. Additionally weather turned bad; it was bad weather across much of the surrounding Himalaya. Despite the conditions, four climbers reached the summit in that expedition. Bodh wasn’t one of them. Returning to Delhi, he was dispatched to Siachen Glacier becoming part of the team that helped raise the Army Mountaineering Institute. The institute has played an important role in commencing civilian treks to the glacier. Meanwhile, the 8000m-story continued.
In 2008, the selection process for an expedition to Dhaulagiri was done on a trip to Saser Kangri I (7672m). While the Saser Kangri climb had to be aborted midway owing to avalanche (there was one from nearby Plateau Peak that rolled in close to camp) and bad weather, Bodh reluctantly got included in the Dhaulagiri team. He wasn’t keen on going as he had much work to do at his given posting. In April 2009, the team reached Dhaulagiri Base Camp. That day, a Polish climber died in a crevasse-fall between Camp 1 and 2. The lower part of the mountain is heavily crevassed. The team leader put Bodh in the second summit team. The first summit team returned from Camp 2 as it snowed hard. The second summit team went forth. Between Camp 2 and 3, it was mostly blue ice. The newly dumped snow, helped in the climb. Bodh set out for the summit from Camp 3 at 8PM. He climbed through heavy snow. At 11.30AM on May 8, 2009, he reached the summit of Dhaulagiri, sixth 8000m peak in the bag. By the time he got back to Camp 3, he had been out on the mountain for 23 hours at a stretch. A second summit attempt by the first team was called off due to persistent bad weather.
Bodh considers all the mountains he climbed as challenging in their own way. But he remembers especially the descent from Dhaulagiri in a raging storm. He feels he would have died that day and was saved by the grace of God. The storm began when the team was on the summit and kept hammering periodically all the way back to Camp 3. “ Due to the storm, there was much electricity in the atmosphere on top of the peak,’’ Bodh said.
In November 2009, Bodh was promoted to Subedar Major. In the period following the promotion, he helped train an army women’s team heading to Indira Col at the apex of the Siachen Glacier; did a stint with the National Cadet Corps (NCC), was posted back to HAWS, was part of an army delegation to Alaska and was part of a Dogra Regiment trek through Zanskar following the old campaign route of the famous Dogra general, Zorawar Singh. In January 2013, Bodh was made an Honorary Lieutenant and in August that same year, he was made Honorary Captain. On September 30, 2013, he retired from the army. Bodh’s awards include a Shaurya Chakra, the Tenzing Norgay National Award for Adventure in 2006 and the gold medal of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) in 2012. Besides being thankful to his battalion for the support he received, Bodh remembered three individuals as important to his journey. They were his spiritual guru the 19th T.K. Lochen Tulku Rinpoche, head of the Kye monastery, Colonel S.C. Sharma (Retd) of the Dogra Regiment and Brigadier K. Kumar (Retd) of the Madras Regiment, both of them mountaineers.
Retirement is tough on the army man if he has nothing to do. It wasn’t long before Bodh reached that stage in Kaza. Luckily for him, the state government had begun vocational education courses at its schools and there was a module on security related studies at the local school. The ex-army man became a teacher. A devout Buddhist, Bodh now splits his time between work at school and prayers. Whenever we met in the evening, he had his prayer beads with him and arrived at my door wrapped in a cocoon of soft chanting. Mostly staying in Kaza, he visited family in Chobrang, once in a long while. Aside from knowledge that he worked in the army, he does not think his parents knew anything of his mountaineering or how far he reached in the field.
At six 8000m peaks climbed, Bodh is the Indian with the most number of 8000m peaks to his credit. He recalled two other army men, close on his heels. There was Neelchand of the Dogra Regiment, who joined the army and retired from it on the same day as Bodh. Neelchand climbed five 8000m peaks. Then there was Rajinder Singh of the Kumaon Regiment, who was still serving when I met Bodh. Theoretically, keeping aside the peaks in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, three other 8000m peaks – Shishapangma, Makalu and Manaslu – could have been attempted by Bodh. That is three peaks, critical for an Indian to reach the nine peaks tally when chasing 8000m peaks. Bodh revealed a hint of lingering regret. As against the three peaks he did not climb, he was thrice on Everest expeditions and climbed the peak only once. Having climbed it once, he wasn’t interested in attempting Everest again. On one occasion (as mentioned earlier in this story) he went on an expedition trying both Everest and Lhotse and climbed Lhotse. If only one of those Everest expeditions had been to any of the said other three peaks. Maybe one more 8000m peak would have been in the bag?
The army is a massive organization; it is a world in itself. One thing about retiring from the army is that the soldier – particularly soldier-mountaineer – leaves supportive ecosystem behind. Bodh knew that his days of back to back expeditions ended when he left the army. Born in 1969 and already retired, he was yet middle aged when I met him in July 2015. For a climber, the forties are still within his / her mountaineering-years. Bodh’s retirement happened in tune with army regulations. Having got his promotions well in time and reached as far as he can in the ranks, there was only so much time he could serve. Retired and now civilian, will he go for a Shishapangma, Manaslu or Makalu if resources and sponsors are available? “ Why not? It is worth thinking about,’’ he said, a smile on his face as the subject returned to mountains and mountaineering.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on interviews with the subject. Where photo credit has been mentioned as `by arrangement,’ the photo concerned has been sourced from C.N. Bodh.)