The Sea to Sky Expedition by the Nashik based-Mahajan brothers concluded as planned with a successful ascent of Everest. But it came at a cost. This is their story:
Early morning May 22, 2019, Dr Mahendra Mahajan reached the summit of Everest.
“ I was among those arriving there early in the day. So I was spared much of what unfolded on the peak this season,’’ he said. But he committed a mistake; a small one in anyone’s eyes, except that at high altitude, consequences – especially handling them – can be challenging. When taking photos at the planet’s highest point, he briefly pushed his glacier goggles on to his forehead. It wasn’t for long as in the extreme cold of the summit, his cell phone as well as a small digital camera he carried, clicked only a few pictures before their battery died. When he returned the goggles to his eyes he found that the glass surface was coated in ice, too tough to remove by rubbing. Goggles on, he couldn’t see a thing. So he switched to a pair of ski glasses that he had carried as spare. They were not the ideal replacement. They were not designed for the glare of punishing altitudes; their bulky construction was also such that climbers who value being able to see their feet were denied that by intervening frame. He had to be careful. By the time he set out for Camp 4 from the summit, Mahendra could see the first signs of what had been generally apprehended – a traffic jam of climbers close to the summit of Everest.
When Nashik-based Dr Hitendra Mahajan and Dr Mahendra Mahajan – aka Mahajan brothers – announced their Sea to Sky expedition, it was regular adventure engagingly packaged. They were accomplished cyclists; they were the first Indians to complete Race Across America (RAAM), they had cycled the full length of India’s highway system called Golden Quadrilateral. More recently, Mahendra had set a record for the fastest passage by a cyclist on the Kashmir to Kanyakumari route. Sea to Sky had shades of Goran Kropp to it. In 1996, the Swedish adventurer and mountaineer had cycled alone from Sweden to Nepal, climbed Everest without oxygen and cycled back part of the way. The Mahajan brothers (among the two, Hitendra is a trained mountaineer) planned a bicycle trip from Mumbai to Kathmandu and then, a guided ascent of Everest.
They commenced their bicycle ride from Mumbai on March 31, 2019. They cycled in relay pattern, taking turns to be on the road. A reason for this was that their expedition also included work towards spreading awareness about cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). The brothers covered the distance from Mumbai to Kathmandu in about a week. They reached the Nepali capital on April 7. A day after reaching Kathmandu, the brothers took the flight to Lukla. The Everest attempt was as part of a team managed by Kathmandu-based Pioneer Adventure. The team included Everest aspirants from India, Pakistan, USA and Singapore. They commenced their walk-in to Everest Base Camp (EBC) from Lukla. Along the way, they climbed Island Peak (20,305 feet). After the walk-in and the trips up Everest (highest point reached doing so being Camp 3) they descended to Debouche set amid green surroundings at lower altitude to rest and recover.
According to Mahendra, the brothers stayed in Debouche for 4-5 nights following which, they trekked back slowly to EBC. Another 4-5 days were spent at EBC. A concern during this entire period was when the summit window would be. You need clear days with manageable wind speed. In 2018, there had been a week or so of such weather. This time, the weather seemed fickle. To complicate matters, from April 26 to May 5, Cyclone Fani, the first severe cyclonic storm of the year was detected and tracked en route to India. It had its landfall in Odisha and after visiting Bangladesh, saw its remnants dissipate over Bhutan. All this was away from Nepal but in the world of weather, enough to call neighborhood. For the 2019 climbing season, Nepal had issued around 381 permits. A few hundred climbers, guides and support staff were due to ascend Everest. At EBC, people tuned in to multiple weather forecasts. Eventually, Mahendra said, the period around May 22-23 was decided as summit window. He recalled May 24 being cited as not good. Everyone jumped on to the May 22 / 23 bandwagon. That, he said, is how the bunching of climbers witnessed in 2019 commenced. The climbs by various teams couldn’t be spread out. The team the Mahajan brothers were on commenced its trip from EBC to higher camps around 2 AM on May 18. “ Our first taste of what could potentially happen came at the Khumbu Icefall, where the glacier is heavily crevassed. At sections where ladders were few, queues occurred. If it was a single file it would have been alright. Problem was – it was managed a bit badly. So at times, there was more than one line and resultant delay. At one big ladder there was a line of 50-100 climbers,’’ Mahendra said.
The night of May 18 and 19, they spent at Camp 2. From there it was six to eight hours to Camp 3. “ Half of this section is a gradual climb, the rest is fairly steep,’’ Mahendra said. At Camp 3, oxygen bottles were used while sleeping at night. The regulator was set to a gentle flow. From Camp 3 it was an eight hour-climb to Camp 4 at around 8000 meters. “ We reached it on the afternoon of May 21. Same night at around 7 PM we set off for the summit,’’ Mahendra said. The brothers started out together but on a mountain, everyone drifts to their respective pace. Mahendra, who is the younger of the Mahajan brothers, went ahead with his guide. Hitendra and his guide followed, the gap between the two brothers slowly growing. After about four to five hours of ascending the peak, Mahendra reached the area called Balcony. There was slow moving traffic here. “ It was just slow, that’s all; people were beginning to tire. Else there was nothing complicated. Most people were glad to continue so. A handful of climbers, who still had much energy in them, would overtake and go ahead,’’ Mahendra said.
Everything was fine till South Summit. Past this point, the nature of the route changed. It became significantly narrow. Up to South Summit, although climbers were many, a sense of bunching wasn’t felt except at occasional bottlenecks. From South Summit onward, through Hilary Step and on to the actual summit of Everest, the narrow ridge was invitation for bunching. The horizon was just warming up to light as Mahendra approached the summit. “ I had to pause due to clustering of climbers only at Hillary Step. Otherwise everything was under control,’’ Mahendra said of his passage to the summit. But photos taken, as he began his descent to Camp 4, a line of climbers was clearly manifesting.
Tired and coping with altitude, the climbers moved slowly. Complicated tasks are challenging in this state. So, few tried to get past others. Doing so requires clipping in and out from fixed ropes. The queue moved slowly. Then it ground to a halt. “ At this stage there was no co-ordination. The whole line came to a standstill,’’ Mahendra said. A climber who was behind him in the queue asked if he could move past Mahendra and go ahead. Doing so, he negotiated his way across a patch of terrain Mahendra evaluated as unsafe. Seeing this, others started pressuring Mahendra too to proceed and cross the risky patch; it would be a move executed without proper anchors and safety. “ I too tackled that portion and became free of the bottleneck,’’ Mahendra said. But fresh trouble was setting in. Exposed to the environment on the summit when he removed his goggles and inadequately protected from the glare later because he was wearing ski glasses, his eyes were becoming painful. At about 1.30 PM in the afternoon, Mahendra reached Camp 4. His guide wanted him to carry on further down but he was tired. More important he wanted to wait for Hitendra, who he had last seen going up, while Mahendra was already descending. Hitendra had asked him if he was faring alright with his glasses. About an hour into his stay at Camp 4, Mahendra developed severe burning sensation in his eyes. “ My eyes were very painful and watery. I almost cried from the discomfort. It was the most painful night of my life. Adding to the stress was – I had no idea what happened to Hitendra,’’ he said.
Hitendra was in the thick of the traffic jam and the impact it wrought. His case too was a series of cascading events commencing in a minor detail. When he started out for the summit, he gave his spare goggles to a Sherpa having none. Moving at a gentler pace than Mahendra, by the time Hitendra got to the upper parts of the summit push, traffic jam had set in. It meant slow progress and that much more time spent in conditions hostile to the human body. While he was otherwise alright, the longer time spent so meant his goggles started to ice up. He must have removed them and tried to rub off the ice. “ By the time he reached the summit, Hitendra was totally snow-blind. He couldn’t see a thing,’’ Mahendra said. Then their colleague on the same team, Don Cash, a client from the US, collapsed and died. (On May 24, Time magazine reported: While Sherpa guides with the company tried to keep him alive through CPR and by raising his oxygen pressure, Cash was unable to stand up or walk. As they tried to drag Cash down to a camp near Hillary Step, he fainted again and could not be revived; Pioneer Adventures said in a statement.) Hitendra’s guide asked him if he would be able to descend with assistance. He said yes. “ That was how he began coming down from the summit. He couldn’t see anything but the Sherpa told him where to keep his feet and helped him climb down. Noticing the situation, Don Cash’s guide also pitched in to assist. Despite all this, there were instances when Hitendra, unable to see, slipped and fell. His down-suit got torn. Mahendra took approximately seven hours to reach Camp 4 from the summit. Hitendra took 19 hours. From Camp 4 to Camp 4, Hitendra’s summit day spanned roughly 29 hours, Mahendra said.
At Camp 4, the tired climbers were lucky in one aspect – they had adequate bottled oxygen. In situations like this that is a life saver. Next morning by around 6-7 AM, they started the descent to lower camps. “ By now I was a bit rested and my eye pain was 50 per cent gone. But Hitendra, having arrived late, hadn’t had much rest. He was still blind seeing people as only blurred spots,’’ Mahendra said. Twelve hours later, the brothers reached Camp 2. They stayed the night there. By next morning, more damage was becoming visible – all ten fingers on Hitendra’s hands were shades of blue from frostbite. On the bright side, his vision was beginning to improve slowly. The brothers took a chopper from Camp 2 to EBC and another from there to Lukla, where they visited the local primary health center. Then they flew to Kathmandu and onward to Delhi. May 26, late night, they reached Nashik. At the time of writing, Hitendra was recuperating in hospital. In varying degrees both brothers have suffered minor injuries on their retina. “ We are hopeful everything will heal,’’ Mahendra said.
Did they anticipate any of this when Sea to Sky kicked off from Mumbai? “ We knew the climb wouldn’t be easy. But I wish I was warned about smaller details – like not removing one’s goggles. There were guides around who weren’t wearing goggles or kept taking them off. You see that and think you also can do it. In retrospect, if there is one advice I will give anyone venturing to climb Everest, it will be: don’t take off your glasses. I would also add that people should be flexible and not be insistent or egoistic about gaining the summit. Beyond South Summit – that is where I found the problems to be. If the situation is bad and it seems wise to turn back from there, you should,’’ Mahendra said.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Dr Mahendra Mahajan.)