This article provides the account of a 1981 expedition to Nanda Devi undertaken by the Indian armed forces. The expedition by paratroopers was led by Major K. I. Kumar KC; Captain Lakha Singh was deputy leader. It featured two teams. Group Captain P. Venugopal SC (Retd), who served several years as Chief Instructor of the Paratroopers Training School, was leader of the team attempting the main summit (25,643 feet). Wing Commander Unni Krishnan Palat SC (Retd) was part of the team attempting Nanda Devi East (24,390 feet). In events that unfolded, he had to assume a leadership role on the east peak. Also on the expedition’s agenda was doing the traverse linking the two peaks, the first time an exclusively Indian expedition would be trying it. Across both peaks, the expedition suffered casualties; five climbers lost their lives. Nanda Devi is one of the tougher mountains to climb. The approach to the mountain is difficult; once accessed, the climb is steep and challenging
The 1981 expedition was among the last climbing the mountain from inside the sanctuary and among the last to attempt the mountain’s main summit in the era the main peak was open for mountaineering. In 1982, the Nanda Devi National Park was established. In 1983 the Nanda Devi Sanctuary was closed to mountaineering expeditions. With that, civilian access to the main summit ceased. In 1988, the Nanda Devi National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nanda Devi East remains open for climbing; its climbing route can be accessed from outside the sanctuary wall. In 1993, a 40 member-team of the army’s Corps of Engineers was given special permission to climb Nanda Devi. Group Captain Venugopal’s account of the 1981 expedition was published as part of an interview with him, in the annual magazine of Sri Shankara College, Kalady, where he had studied years ago. He provided me a copy of the magazine to flesh out a narrative besides noting down his observations and mailing them across. Wing Commander Palat wrote about his experience in one of the brochures brought out by his unit. He scanned and mailed that across to refer, edit and publish afresh. The following narrative is a mix of all three inputs. For ease of reading, after formal introduction stating rank, military personnel have been referred to by name. The reference by name is also in part to remain true to the tenor of Palat’s narrative, which was based on his expedition diary. – Shyam G Menon
In 1981, the Indian Army’s paratroopers launched an expedition to scale both Nanda Devi West and East and traverse the ridge linking the two summits. The traverse, at an altitude of over 22,000 feet, had been done only once before, by an Indo-Japanese team in 1976. According to Venugopal, an Indo-French team tried to climb the two peaks and do the traverse in May 1975. They climbed both the peaks but failed to execute the traverse. There were two attempts made on June 18 and 19; both had to be abandoned owing to bad weather.
At the time the 1981 project was announced, Unni Krishnan Palat was a Parachute Jump Instructor. He was selected as a climber along with his colleague Venugopal. Besides K.I. Kumar, Lakha Singh, Venugopal and Palat, other members of the team included Deputy Leader Namgyal, Phurba Dorji; Captain Srivastava, Captain Premjit Rokhpa, Captain Shekhawat, Captain P.D. Punekar (medical officer), Lieutenant Chib, Asst Political Leader Nima Tashi of the Special Frontier Force and a few more climbing members and members of support staff. In all, the party consisted of 20 climbing members plus support staff and high altitude porters, Venugopal said recalling the expedition.
The team left Agra – where the Paratroopers Training School is – by road on August 18 and reached the village of Lata near Joshimath, on August 22. On August 27, an advance party led by Lakha Singh and consisting of four climbers and 80 porters left Lata for Base Camp, a ten day-trek. The rest departed for Base Camp on September 1. Base Camp was established by September 12, on the glaciers of Nanda Devi South Basin at a height of 16,000 feet. The expedition was split into two teams; one to attempt the higher main summit and the other for the lower east summit.
The Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) had a team of men and women in the sanctuary attempting the main peak. This was an important expedition. According to Venugopal, in 1949, after seeing Nanda Devi in the Indian Himalaya, American mountaineer Willie Unsoeld had decided to name his daughter after the mountain. Twenty seven years later, he came to Nanda Devi, co-leader of an expedition attempting the peak. His daughter Nanda Devi Unsoeld, who was part of the expedition, died on that trip. Consequently it was popularly believed that the mountain will not receive woman climbers on its top. IMF’s mixed expedition of 1981, aspired to put the first set of Indian women on the summit of Nanda Devi; something it eventually did successfully. The presence of that team on the mountain meant shortage of space to pitch tents, from Camp 2 upward. The paratroopers’ expedition being military was told to delay its departure. “ We were asked not to proceed beyond Base Camp till September 25 or till the other expedition returned, whichever happened earlier,’’ Venugopal noted in the interview he gave his old college. The delayed departure meant they could end up climbing in harsh conditions. In additional observations he mailed in, Venugopal noted that from mid-August onward, temperatures inside the Nanda Devi sanctuary drop drastically with winds at higher altitudes picking up speed, often creating jet streams. Beyond mid-September, it becomes very tough to stay inside the sanctuary due to sub-zero temperatures, high wind speed and white-out snow conditions.
Unlike on the west peak, there was no embargo on the army expedition attempting Nanda Devi East. The team therefore decided to focus first on Nanda Devi East, opening the route and sending up supplies and men. Palat was with the Nanda Devi East team.
By September 14, Prem’s party established Camp 1. Palat set off to Camp 1 from Base Camp with a load at 0600 hours. “ I appreciated the efforts of Prem and Dorji better when I carried a load myself on a route threatened by falling rocks with at its end, a steep climb of almost 800 feet up to Longstaff Col,’’ he noted. The next day, the complete Nanda Devi East party moved out of Base Camp to a Dumping Point below Longstaff Col. Dorji and Palat went up at 1630 hours. When they emerged from their tents at Base Camp, Palat recalled, Sherpas Pasang and Sonam coming to see them off; they had a flask of hot tea and insisted on carrying their backpacks. After accompanying the two climbers for half the distance, they gave them tea, embraced them and went back down wishing us luck. Longstaff Col (19,390 feet) is integral to climbing Nanda Devi East. It is a saddle on the ridge between Nanda Devi East and Nanda Khat and was first climbed by Dr T.G. Longstaff along with two Swiss guides in 1905. A rather poignant video on the garbage left behind by previous expeditions shot by Anindya Mukherjee during his 2014 expedition to Nanda Devi East (available on YouTube) provides a feel of Longstaff Col. The ridge is narrow here. Longstaff Col connects to the South Ridge climbing route on Nanda Devi East. The South Ridge route was pioneered by Polish climbers in 1939. Following the closure of the Nanda Devi sanctuary to mountaineering expeditions, Longstaff Col has been accessed from the Lawan glacier side, which falls outside the outer wall of the sanctuary. A doctor, explorer and mountaineer, Longstaff is also regarded as the first person to climb a peak of over 7000 meters, when in June 1907 he reached the summit of Trisul (23,360 feet). Trisul is part of the ring of peaks protecting the Nanda Devi sanctuary.
On September 16, while doing a load ferry to Camp 1, a falling stone hit Palat on the stomach. The team decided to stop all movement in the stone fall-area by 1000 hours as the place was dangerous once snow, which holds rocks in place, began melting in the day’s warmth. Palat shifted the temporary camp at Dumping Point, further away from the mountain slope. It was a sound decision. A few days later, an avalanche hit the old site. Then the challenge the mountain posed began to slowly reveal itself. Further climbing became extremely difficult as the fixed ropes got buried in snow. On September 17, it started snowing at 1000 hours. Progress of Sri’s party opening route to Camp 2 was also rendered slow, given bad weather. The next day, Palat went up with another load to Camp 1. Ferrying load on the tough route began taking a toll. Two climbers fell sick and returned to Base Camp.
Tashi and Palat were to lead two different parties. But both were left with only two climbers. So on September 18, Palat decided to go up to Camp 1 and replace a climber who was stuck there after losing his crampons. He decided to form a new party at Camp 1 with himself, Tashi and Sherpas, Tshering and Phurba. He set off alone from Dumping Point at 0800 hours and made it to Camp 1 in three hours. Two tents perched precariously on the narrow ridge. That was the camp site. On either side were sheer falls. On September 20, he moved up to Camp 2 at an altitude of 21,000 feet with his team under white-out conditions. “ We dug up the snow and cleared a small area to pitch our two 2-person tents to establish Camp 2. Cooking with a pump stove with no pin was tough. So we had Tibetan tea and biscuits and retired,’’ Palat wrote in his diary.
Over September 21 to 25, the team opened the route and fixed ropes between altitudes of 21,000-23,000 feet. It was not easy. “ Strong wind and continuous snowfall made things worse. Irritation came in the form of load and rations not coming up from lower camps. Plus, there was the loss of our only good ice hammer in a crevasse. We all looked forward to our 1800 hours radio contact with Base Camp and other camps perched on the main and east peaks. When that happened, there was exchange of notes and jokes and pep talk to boost morale. Sometimes Prem played tunes on his mouth organ,’’ Palat noted. On September 22, they stumbled upon an old Japanese camp buried in the snow. They kept working their way up the sharp ridge leading to the peak, establishing Camp 3 by September 25.
The next day, Prem’s party went up to occupy Camp 3 and open the route to Camp 4. Palat descended to Camp 2 to ferry load. By September 28, it was snowing heavily. It snowed so heavily through the night that Palat feared his tent may collapse under the weight of snow. Venugopal from the Nanda Devi main summit team and Prem from Camp 3 reported similar foul weather. To be watchful of when working in the mountains, especially amid snowfall and bad weather, is frostbite. It occurs when cold temperature causes skin and other tissue to freeze. Hands, feet and face are most commonly affected. Not to be confused with frostbite and according to Wikipedia, capable of affecting individuals with a predisposition for it, is chilblains. It is tissue damage caused by exposure to cold and humidity. To his horror Palat discovered that Camp 3 did not have a first aid kit. So he inquired from the doctor at Base Camp details to prevent frostbite. On September 29, Prem’s party moved up to occupy Camp 4. “ We did a ferry for them. I was getting worried that my team mates and I may not have enough strength left in us after such regular load-carrying above 22,000 feet,’’ Palat wrote. Next day, he went up to Camp 4 with load. By then two of Prem’s party had chilblains. They descended to Camp 3 with the others and then further down to Base Camp.
With Camp 4 in place, the summit was beginning to look realistic. On October 2, Prem and party came down to Camp 3 to rest, prior to their summit attempt. A day later, on October 3, Prem, Phu Dorji and a Sherpa went up to occupy Camp 4. But the third member returned soon complaining of chilblains. Prem’s party was reduced to two people. On the morning of October 4, Palat dispatched a climber to join Prem before the summit attempt. “ But to our amazement, we discovered through our binoculars, early morning, two tiny specks moving towards the summit. They were Prem and Phu Dorji. Soon clouds enveloped the whole area. That was the last we saw of them,’’ he wrote in the article. That evening, there was no radio contact from the two climbers. Panic gripped the expedition, especially the Sherpas and porters, who considered it a bad omen and wanted to be off the mountain. A search and rescue mission was immediately planned.
Early morning, October 5, Palat moved up to Camp 4 with three members. The going was tough. The wind velocity had reached 100 kmph (jet stream effect) at that time. “ Very often we had to lie flat on the ice and anchor ourselves with our axes, to avoid being blown off the mountain. We staggered into Camp 4 at 1600 hours. Camp was just a two-person tent. We realized that Prem and Dorji had not gone prepared to endure the night. They hadn’t taken feather clothing for use in sub-zero temperature. I radioed the situation to Base Camp. I volunteered to conduct a search for the missing climbers. The leader cautioned us of the adverse weather and the danger to our own lives. Five of us spent a cold, sleepless night at 23,400 feet in the two-person tent,’’ he recalled.
On October 6, the team searched for the two missing climbers at an altitude of 23,800 feet. All that they found was Prem’s blood stained balaclava and Dorji’s ice axe (although their bodies were subsequently spotted using binoculars, they could not be retrieved as the climbers had fallen into an inaccessible area prone to frequent rock fall and avalanche). That evening Palat radioed his leader about his plans to attempt the summit the following day. “ He tried to dissuade me saying that the main concern was to retrieve all climbers to the safety of Base Camp. I realized that winter had approached the mountains and an attempt would have to be done immediately or we wouldn’t get another chance. Ultimately, I got my leader’s consent,’’ Palat said. Up at 4 AM the next day, Palat and his team had some Viva and pre-cooked chappathi, little realizing that would be their only meal for the next 30 hours. By the time the four of them put on crampons and roped up, it was 0700 hours. They made it to the slope above their camp in good time. There were two humps to negotiate on the ridge they were following. By 1130 hours they had only got past the first one. Our progress became slow. By 1300 hours they crossed the second hump and were on the snow field right below the summit. The summit ridge was steep. “ We dragged ourselves up and reached the top of Nanda Devi East at 1415 hours. The descent to Camp 4 was equally painful as we were thoroughly exhausted and it was getting quite cold. By 1900 hours we reached Camp 4. To our horror we found that Sri’s party of five was already there and squeezed into the two-person tent, the only shelter available. That night all of us piled on top of each other in a tent meant for just two. Melting snow was out of question. We went hungry and thirsty. In the bargain, I suffered frostbite,’’ Palat wrote.
The next day, Palat’s team descended to Camp 2 where to their relief they found food and a stove. Upon reaching Base Camp he was evacuated quickly to Bareilly Military Hospital and then to Army Hospital, Delhi. On October 9, Sri and his party of four climbers reached the summit of Nanda Devi East. It had its share of tragedy. Dayachand slipped out of his tent at Camp 4 and suffered a fatal fall.
Meanwhile on the main peak (west summit) of Nanda Devi, Venugopal’s team – as was expected of them – had stayed focused on route-opening and setting up Camp 1. By around the time the east summit bid was nearing the top, Venugopal had managed to lead his team of four to Camp 3 (23,000 feet) on the main peak. They got stuck there for four days due to white out conditions and raging wind. He got chilblains and returned to Base Camp for medical attention. Deputy Leader Lakha Singh and Havildar Kushal Singh climbed up to Camp 4 (24,100 feet). There, they got stuck for the next nine days. They had no food and water. Successive teams attempting to reach Camp 4 were beaten back by the weather. Many got injured. After recovering from chilblains, Venugopal led another team of four to Camp 4 on the ninth day in an attempt to rescue those at Camp 4. “ That night a badly dehydrated, blistered and frostbitten Kushal Singh arrived outside my tent and collapsed. I nursed him through the night. He informed us about the demise of Captain Lakha Singh at Camp 4 due to exhaustion and dehydration. Meanwhile another of my team members developed frostbite while yet another person vomited blood. At daybreak I instructed the sick team members to descend to the safety of lower camp. Then I singlehandedly evacuated Kushal Singh and reached him to the lower camp. He survived,’’ Venugopal said in the interview he gave the college magazine.
The following day, they formed a team of four with Venugopal as leader and climbed back up to Camp 3. The other members were Ki Kami, Sepoy Wangdu and Naik Gyarsi Ram, who was Venugopal’s trainee. The weather cleared up. They moved up to Camp 4. On October 16, while engaged in the summit bid and a mere 400 feet short of the main summit, Venugopal who had been experiencing blurred vision, became totally snow-blind. According to Wikipedia, snow blindness or photokeratitis is a painful eye condition caused by exposure of insufficiently protected eyes to ultraviolet (UV) rays. The website of World Health Organization (WHO) links the level of exposure, to the sun’s height (UV levels are most during mid-day and in summer), latitude, cloud cover, altitude (thinner atmosphere means less filtration of UV rays), the level of ozone and ground reflection. High in the mountains, the two factors catalyzing photokeratitis are altitude and ground reflection. While with every 1000 meters of altitude gained, the UV level rises 10-12 per cent due to thinner atmosphere, snow reflects as much as 80 per cent of UV rays. Snow blindness is similar to a sunburn of the cornea and conjunctiva and is not usually noticed until several hours after exposure. Speaking to this blog, during the interactive composition of this article, Venugopal said that he had mistaken his progressively depleting vision to be a case of deteriorating weather. Eventually, he could see nothing. “ About 400 steps short of the summit,’’ while attempting to clip in and climb up, the anchor of the fixed rope came lose and he rolled down about 100 feet. He survived. His teammates offered to come down and take him up to the summit but he declined their offer. “ It was one of the most difficult decisions I have made. We had been climbing for nine hours and were exhausted. If the rest took me up, they would put their lives too in risk. I did not call off the climb because I knew it would be unfair on the others. The wind was blowing at 80-90 kmph. I told them to tie me to a rock and encouraged them to proceed,’’ he said. He told those proceeding ahead to keep photos as proof of summit for skepticism was bound to be high of summit reached in such conditions, so late in the season. One of the members came down and tied him to a rock. Then, those three proceeded to the summit. They returned to where the leader was, “ in about half an hour to 45 minutes,’’ Venugopal wrote in.
Their problems didn’t end there. Venugopal was blind and frostbitten on toes, fingers, nose and ears. While bringing him down tied to a rope, Naik Gyarsi Ram unclipped himself at one point, slipped and fell to his death. Venugopal survived two more falls but broke a rib. He decided to call off the descent. They spent the night in the open, exposed to minus 35 degrees ambient temperature and wind speed much in excess of 100 kmph. Factoring in wind chill, the actual cold felt by the body would have been significantly more. Thanks to their layered high altitude clothing and feathered jacket and trousers, they survived. “ It took another six days to crawl down the mountain and be evacuated by helicopter to the safety of the plains. Fifteen to twenty days after the accident, I regained my vision fully. After five months of hospitalization, three surgeries and partial loss of eight fingers and toes, I was back on my feet again. Six months later, I successfully argued my case with the medical board to upgrade me to a fit para jump medical category,’’ Venugopal said.
(Group Captain P. Venugopal (Retd) now lives in Bengaluru; Wing Commander Unni Krishnan Palat [Retd] lives in Kochi. The original articles they provided access to were edited into one composite text. Where required, portions were tweaked to keep the narrative focused on mountaineering and sense of context and individual. The priority has been to feel the mountain and what altitude entails; not obsess with summit. The resultant text – essentially the portions based on their earlier writings – was played back to both former air force officers before being published on this blog. The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)