A NONEXISTENT WRONG AND AN OLD NEED STILL UNMET

Nanda Devi (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

There doesn’t seem to be anything illegal about attempting Peak 6477 when main objective was Nanda Devi East. On the other hand, one feels sad that we still don’t have a dedicated mountain rescue system empathetic to climbing and other such sports of high altitude.

After five bodies spotted near Peak 6477 some distance from Nanda Devi East, the peak for which climbing permission was originally given to the eight mountaineers reported missing, official narrative had devolved to the climbers having courted risk “ knowingly.’’

According to an experienced mountaineer who has served as Liaison Officer in the past, when the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) grants permission for a peak it doesn’t mean that a team cannot attempt nearby peaks. With the onsite permission of the Liaison Officer accompanying the team, they can attempt any other peak in the neighborhood. On return to Delhi and IMF, they are expected to submit a report and pay the relevant climbing fee for the new peak attempted. Aside from approval of request to climb a specific peak, the permission provided has a practical value. It ensures there are no conflicts through multiple teams on the same peak. Sometimes, although one main objective is requested for and permission obtained; other subsidiary peaks of interest are indicated alongside, in the original paperwork. There have also been instances when the main objective is indicated on the map as feature or high point but isn’t identified by any particular name. In such cases, permission has been taken for the larger mountain, the feature / high point is an appendage of.

What this means is that if Martin Moran hadn’t earlier shown Peak 6477 as a peak of potential interest, he was still free to attempt it after reaching the vicinity of Nanda Devi East, provided he secured permission from the IMF Liaison Officer assigned to his team. Such redirection of efforts, have happened before. One instance – going by Wikipedia – would be Moran’s own 2009 ascent of Changuch (a 6322m / 20,741 feet high-peak that is not far from Peak 6477). Wikipedia describes this ascent – it was the first time the peak was successfully climbed – as fallout of an aborted mission to climb Nanda Devi East. “ The expedition’s original target was Nanda Devi East. However, during the course of expedition, due to difficult conditions and lack of resources to meet original target, they shifted the target to nearby Changuch,’’ Wikipedia said.

Early June, when news of climbers missing near Nanda Devi first appeared along with mention of an unclimbed, unnamed peak the team hoped to scale, at least one mountaineer this blog spoke to in Mumbai speculated that the attempt on Peak 6477 may have been for acclimatization purposes before the team formally tried Nanda Devi East. His reasoning was based on the timeline of events. Against the timeline available on social media, May-end appeared a bit too soon for them to be high on Nanda Devi East. “ June first week would seem a more reasonable period for them to scale it,’’ he had said (this conversation was on June 1 and according to those associated with the subsequent rescue process, the climber’s inference is fairly correct). To consider additionally would be weather conditions. Point is – as the above conversation shows, in mountaineering’s reality surrendered to immediate conditions at altitude and compulsions therefrom, attempting a nearby peak or high point will always be a temptation or practical need; a stepping stone to some larger objective in mind or consolation if larger objective was denied. For climbers tuned into the ongoing Nanda Devi East episode, given expedition has unfortunately ended in mishap, what merits attention now is retrieval of bodies. You hope for dignified closure.

One of the news reports on the missing mountaineers, featured a spokesperson for the paramilitary saying that even if anyone from the forces went up to the accident spot for human presence on the ground, they would take time to acclimatize. A dedicated mountain rescue organization (and India does not have one) is expected to have people ready at any given point in time to move to altitude. The alternative would be to look for others – mainly civilians – who have been to similar altitude recently and are adequately acclimatized to repeat the visit at short notice. In emergency situations like this, you will not just check in your neighborhood, you will cast a wider net, scan recent mountaineering expeditions that touched similar altitude or more, check for experienced climbers in that lot and get in touch. One would expect the countries the missing climbers belonged to, to also pitch in – see if any of their good climbers are already in the Himalaya and acclimatized to volunteer.

It is understood that till at least June 4, there were acclimatized civilian climbers and representatives of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) in Pithoragarh, which was base for search operations. However authorities wished to keep operations restricted to the paramilitary and state disaster response teams. They had a relevant point – it makes no sense to risk more lives trying to retrieve the bodies. Around noon June 5, there were media reports with photographs of rescue personnel and helicopter, announcing commencement of “ very high risk’’ operation to retrieve the bodies. Soon afterwards, an ANI report (published in Business Standard) which referred to the rescue mission as Operation Daredevils, informed that after three attempts to reach the accident site earlier that morning, the helicopter and its team had returned to Pithoragarh to evolve new strategy. In its report, BBC included terrain, weather conditions and limitations of helicopter among causes for setback.

India does not have a dedicated mountain rescue system, focused on climbing accidents and such in the civilian realm. What we have is the military and paramilitary doubling up as search and rescue teams and more recently with state disaster response units set up, personnel from there also participating in the process. A rescue ecosystem empathetic to climbing and trekking and approaching these pursuits as normal civilian activity, has remained elusive. The subject of dedicated mountain rescue system has been a topic of discussion for several years among climbers and adventure tour operators. Nothing has happened yet. That said; it is worth remembering that 27 years ago an epic rescue had happened in the same region. After some expedition members ran down to Munsyari and alerted authorities, an Indian Air Force (IAF) Cheetah helicopter had picked up a severely injured Steven Venables from around 21,000 feet on Panch Chuli V (21,242 feet). The photo showed pilot, unable to land, holding the chopper steady, its rotor blades inches away from steep mountain slope. Venables lay slumped on one of the chopper’s skis. The year was 1992. The location was the Panch Chuli range, in lands across the Gori Ganga from Nanda Devi East.

Update / June 6: Following the above text published, there were more points highlighted by friends in mountaineering circles. Collectively they portray the systemic constraints within which, search, rescue and insurance claims operate for those frequenting high mountains in India.

In the event of emergency, absence of acclimatized people to reach altitude and expeditions scanned to find competent people to form a team, two critical components are necessary to have that team fall in place at short notice.  You need the ability to communicate quickly; you must be able to move people, pick them up from where they are and drop them off where their services are needed. Time is very important when addressing accidents. Unfortunately there is a longstanding problem in the Indian environment as regards communication.

Although cellphone penetration has risen considerably, the places mountaineers go to are typically beyond the reach of regular networks. Overseas, satellite phones are often used for communication in wilderness spaces. Unfortunately, there is tremendous restriction on the use of satellite phones in India after these phones were misused by anti-national elements. Consequently, most mountaineering expeditions operate without them. There have been instances when phones that got through security check at airports were used in the event of emergency and proved to be life savers. But the act ended up in criminal cases filed. In some instances, exceptional judges who comprehended the gravity of emergency in which the phones were used, let off the guilty with a reprimand. The equipment is always impounded. Notwithstanding tweaks and refinements to this situation, the reality at ground level isn’t any different from what it used to be, a senior mountaineer said. Without such means of quick communication, even if well acclimatized climbers capable of rescue operations are located by scanning expedition lists (in the event of an emergency somewhere), those responsible for assembling the team won’t be able to contact them quickly. There are moves afoot to somehow address this communication problem.

Should by some miracle, quick contact be made, then, the next step is to physically transport those climbers from wherever they are to accident site. In India, the best option is still IAF pilots; only they operate regularly at altitude in mountain weather. But you need to slice through some bureaucracy before any flying gets underway. Since time is of the essence when responding to emergency situations, a more efficient way of harnessing this resident expertise in flying could be considered, those this blog spoke to said. Given most of our concepts and approaches are authored for settled life, satisfying the demands of paperwork inspired by the plains can sometimes be challenging at altitude. When somebody dies in an accident, insurance claim requires post-mortem. A mountaineer recalled an incident when a climber died at altitude in the eastern Himalaya. The body was lodged in a crevasse. When a later expedition tried locating it, the body was nowhere to be found; it must have slid deeper into the crevasse. Luckily the district magistrate who was aware of the incident understood the situation and helped with the needed documents.

All of the above underscores what was mentioned earlier in the article: you need an ecosystem that is empathetic to climbing, mountaineering and trekking and imagines processes – from paperwork to search and rescue – with practitioners’ perspective also included. Else, there will be plenty of disconnect.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)