A PUNE CLUB AND ITS TRYST WITH 8000M

Mt Shivling (6543m / 21,466 feet). It was after an expedition to Shivling in 2007 that Giripremi’s string of expeditions to 8000m peaks, started (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

Climbing an 8000m peak is a major project. A project to climb all the fourteen 8000m peaks is in a league by itself. Aside from the climbing, crucial aspects therein are – project structure, funding and management. Pune-based mountaineering club Giripremi and its senior mountaineer, Umesh Zirpe, have been tackling this challenge for a while now. Here’s a snapshot of how the engagement with 8000m came about and how they managed repeated expeditions to high altitude.  

Shivling, the 21,466 feet-high peak in the Garhwal Himalaya, is among the most beautiful mountains in the world.

It resembles a rugged pyramid. While ascents along steep ridge lines visible on the mountain’s popular pictures have won climbers the highest accolades in mountaineering, its regular climbing route moves up the mountain’s bulk that lay behind its well-known visage. But regular route or not, any climb on Shivling entails technical climbing. It is not an easy peak, modest elevation notwithstanding. In 2007, Pune-based mountaineering club, Giripremi, marked its silver jubilee celebration with an expedition to climb Shivling.

According to Umesh Zirpe, senior member of Giripremi, when the expedition returned to Pune after the climb, there were interactions with the public. At one such meeting, a woman held forth on her relative who had just been on a pilgrimage called Char Dham in the lower Himalaya. To her mind, Char Dham and attempting Shivling represented the same level of objective difficulty – it was all similar; all Himalaya. For Umesh, who had plans for more expeditions, the interaction was both reason to feel aghast and a lesson in marketing. Funding mountaineering expeditions has been traditionally difficult for civilians in India. It is an expensive sport entailing costly equipment, travel to remote places and eventually a method of team-work wherein the hard work of many will put a handful on coveted summit. It is also a fringe sport in India with proper awareness of climbing restricted to those who have been out in the mountains. In their ranks Shivling is hugely respected. Move away from that niche to larger world, and knowledge of technical climbing and other objective difficulties faced at elevation, fade. How do you raise funds for mountaineering if the public’s knowledge of climbing is limited?

South Col, Everest (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

The Indian state of Maharashtra (where Pune is) had a successful civilian expedition to Everest in 1998; it was called Tata Everest Expedition, named so after the main sponsor. One of the expedition’s two members reaching the summit of Everest – Surendra Chavan – was from Giripremi. By 2007, mountaineering in India was increasingly aware of objectives like the many challenging peaks of medium elevation in the Himalaya (overlooked through obsession with Everest) and the much prized goal among mountaineers worldwide of climbing the planet’s fourteen 8000m peaks. Not to mention – Seven Summits, the quest to reach the highest point on every continent. Umesh’s vision was to attempt good climbs, go for the 8000m peaks and promote mountain sports on a large scale so that it got noticed. To do any of this you need funds. Problem was – in the public’s perception height of peak was everything. Therein nothing beats Everest (8848m / 29,029 feet) although as guided ascent by its regular route, the mountain is not ranked a major challenge by climbers. Still, as the woman at the public interaction proved, the world was blind to mountaineering’s details. All it asked was: how high did you climb? Space probes journeying far from Earth sometimes exploit the proximity of celestial objects to propel themselves onward. It is called gravitational sling-shot, gravity assist maneuver or swing-by. Umesh knew after that public interaction, Giripremi would have to be sling-shot on its journey by Everest. The club should first summit Everest and bring mountaineering closer to the public, if they are to become interested in more such big projects. Right then, in Maharashtra’s mountaineering circles that approach seemed regressive. Especially since Giripremi had just returned from Shivling, a peak genuinely respected by climbers. But then marketing has its rules and those rules are decided by the market.

Umesh joined Giripremi in 1986. He was into rock climbing; he also did his mountaineering courses from government-run institutes in the Himalaya. When the Shivling expedition occurred he was already some 20 years old at the club. A tax consultant by profession, he had become one of Maharashtra’s most successful expedition leaders with major peaks climbed by his teams (eight of these expeditions were to 8000m peaks). He had also been conferred the state’s Shiv Chhatrapati Award. Giripremi is at present Maharashtra’s most accomplished mountaineering club by a wide margin. The journey started in 2007 when after Giripremi’s return from Shivling and that session spent listening to Char Dham, steps commenced for a club expedition to Everest. “ I decided that mountaineering required the hue of a brand; something that draws the attention of the public. We will tell the people what the sport is. I was certain that I wanted to leverage Everest to popularize mountaineering,’’ he told this blog, July 2019, at Giripremi’s office in Pune. The planned Everest expedition featuring 13 members was estimated to cost Rs 3.5 crore (1 crore = 10 million). The number of climbers was large for a reason. Umesh wanted to avoid that classic mountaineering endgame of only a handful reaching the top. It kept a few in the limelight; the others faded to backdrop.

Umesh Zirpe (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

The expedition budget initially shocked Giripremi. Back in 1998, a smaller budget for Everest had nearly gone unmet and the eventually successful expedition was a case of last minute bail-out by the leading Indian business conglomerate, Tata. Giripremi’s biggest budget till its Everest expedition was the just preceding trip to Shivling; that cost Rs 10 lakhs (1 lakh = 100,000). Umesh also wanted an altered approach to expedition. “ Usually in our expeditions a bunch of climbers did everything from beginning to end. By the time they reached the peak, they were tired. I didn’t want that, I wanted my climbers to be able to focus on their training and climbing,’’ Umesh said. He called for a meeting of mountaineers from Maharashtra. Around 125 people turned up to help the Everest expedition and spread word about the need for funds. In the fund raising campaign that followed, Umesh estimates that close to 25,000 people extended support. The campaign also had hooks built in. For instance, there was a trek arranged to the top of Kalsubai (5400 feet), Maharashtra’s highest peak. More than 470 people signed a banner kept on the summit; it would travel with the Giripremi team to Everest Base Camp. Specifically with regard to his climbing team, Umesh demanded commitment of two years from every member. Six people resigned their jobs to comply. The expedition members took to staying at the Giripremi office (while Umesh did not articulate it as such, others this blog spoke to said that this would have helped the team bond and know each other better). Aside from regular training, they also had sessions for meditation and breathing exercises. “ Roughly 80 per cent of funds for this expedition came from individual contributions. About 20 per cent was from company sponsorships,’’ Umesh said. It is a critical ratio. For in its progressive change over the years lay the contours of the machinery Umesh and Giripremi were putting in place. On May 19, 2012, eight members of Giripremi’s team reached the top of Everest. After the expedition, the attitude was one of objective met. For Umesh, it was launch pad for the next stage – attempt the planet’s fourteen 8000m peaks.

Last section before summit of Makalu (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

The next peak the club focused on was Lhotse (8516m / 27,940 feet). It is adjacent to Everest and given some members from the 2012 Everest expedition hadn’t been able to top out, this expedition was made a joint Lhotse-Everest expedition. The previous success on Everest helped. Company sponsorships were more. According to Umesh, the ratio of financing for the new expedition settled at 60 per cent from individual contributions and 40 per cent from companies. In mid-May 2013, up on Everest, the team’s progress was hampered by unexpected bad weather at Camp 4. Descending to lower camps and then returning in fair weather was not an option as the Sherpas accompanying the team made it clear that in such weather conditions a descent would be descent for good. There would be no coming back up. Given oxygen supply was dwindling alongside, Umesh volunteered to go down; it would spare bottles for the others. On May 17, three Giripremi climbers reached the top of Everest. Same day, Ashish Mane from the club, reached the summit of Lhotse. The club now turned its attention to Makalu (8485m / 27,838 feet). In the Makalu expedition which followed in 2014, Ashish Mane became the first Indian civilian to reach the summit. In 2016 Giripremi had successful expeditions to Cho Oyu (8188m / 26,864 feet / two persons summited) and Dhaulagiri (8167m / 26,795 feet / Prasad Joshi became the first Indian civilian to summit the peak). In 2017, Giripremi reached the top of Manaslu (8163m / 26,781 feet) with two members summitting. Then in May 2019, it planted ten club members on the top of Kanchenjunga (8586m / 28,169 feet). “ That leaves Shishapangma and Annapurna from the list of 8000m peaks accessible to Indians,’’ Umesh said. The remaining peaks are in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Giripremi plans to attempt Shishapangma in 2020.

Ashish Mane; he reached the top of five 8000m peaks besides being the first Indian civilian climber to summit Makalu (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

With this journey since the 2007 Shivling expedition, club member Ashish Mane has the distinction of reaching the top of five 8000m peaks (Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Manaslu and Kanchenjunga). Others from the club with the distinction of summiting at least two 8000m peaks include Ganesh More, Dr Sumit Mandale, Bhushan Harshe, Anand Mali, Rupesh Khopade and Krushna Dhokale. From an organization perspective (which is the thrust of this article) there are trends to note. When you ask about Umesh in mountaineering circles, you hear him described as someone focused on what needs to be done and a manager of people who connects with others. By his own admission, he has gone out of his way to ensure that his team members are properly taken care of; at one point he even met a company CEO to secure employment for a climber so that the latter could continue training for one of Giripremi’s expeditions in peace. You sensed premium for loyalty in the operating ambiance. There are also other vignettes of the style of project execution and attention to keeping constituents happy. Giripremi has done social work in the Everest region. Project Shivaji was launched for the welfare of the Sherpa community in the Solukhumbu valley; Mt Everest is located in the northern part of Solukhumbu district. In 2012, a statue of the Maratha warrior king Chhatrapati Shivaji was installed at Gorakshep (16,942 feet), on the way to Everest Base Camp. Three years later, the club did relief work when Nepal was hit by a major earthquake in April 2015 (it did so at times of calamity in other parts of the Himalaya too – in Uttarakhand [2013] and Ladakh [2010]).

Still, what matters more from the perspective of repeating expeditions to major peaks is how well the project model transitions to stable funding. As subject, sustainable funding of expeditions has often been glossed over at India’s outdoor clubs. Good climbing clubs are a composite of considerable experience in the outdoors plus a convergence of people having different professional skills. With good leadership, mechanisms can be evolved and institutionalized to set up funds devoted for expeditions that a club can periodically dip into; at the very least, make the hunt for funds easier to handle. However, the traditional tendency at clubs has been to address expeditions as they arise. Once an objective is decided, the scramble for funds starts again, from scratch. At Giripremi, you notice departure from this attitude; you detect different pattern.

Prasad Joshi; first Indian civilian climber to summit Dhaulagiri (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

As of 2019, Giripremi had organized more than 40 expeditions to the Himalaya (source: information provided in a diary brought out by the club). Somewhere along the way, the resource base available for Giripremi to play with began to change. Arguably the toughest part of life by expedition is getting started; that is when inertia is highest. Once the ball gets rolling, it develops its own momentum. The growing confidence and familiarity with solving problems become lubricant for journey’s progress. Through the club’s earlier expeditions, including the ones to Shivling and Everest, Giripremi built up a stock of mountaineering gear. Once bought, this equipment is good for several expeditions. Consequently such capital costs slowly declined with each expedition. The club’s budget for Everest in 2012 may have been Rs 3.5 crore. But according to Umesh, Lhotse-Everest settled at around Rs 90 lakhs and Makalu at Rs 60 lakhs. The budget for Cho Oyu and Dhaulagiri was one crore rupees; for Kanchenjunga, a major peak with time consuming access, the budget was Rs 1.57 crore. These figures must be read alongside location of peak, logistics and expedition size.

Further the ratio in funding between individual contributions and corporate sponsorships changed more from where it was by Lhotse-Everest. For the Makalu expedition it was 50:50. “ Now, we are at around 20:80, with 80 being corporate sponsorship,’’ Umesh said. Without doubt the Pune environment has contributed to this pattern of progressively institutionalized funding. After the successful 1965 Everest Expedition sponsored by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF), the early fulcrum of civilian mountaineering in India was Kolkata. The city and the state of West Bengal have many mountaineering clubs and they are known to have traditional strength in collecting funds through individual contributions. But well-oiled club machinery devoted to systematically targeting big budget 8000m peaks and repeating expeditions of that magnitude year after year (as Giripremi did) is rarely heard of. One likely reason for this – as per those familiar with the West Bengal mountaineering scene that this blog spoke to in Mumbai – was the lack of resource-rich clubs. West Bengal has a community that backs mountaineering and donates at the individual level to assist expeditions. But clubs backed by organizations / patrons with deep pockets, are few. Equally, once past the threshold of support by individual donors, expeditions don’t have a large base of companies to turn to, locally. As aggregators of people and resources, companies have the financial strength to sponsor expeditions on a scale individual contributions pooled-in, would find tough to match. Major companies (and companies in general) capable of vaulting civilian expeditions into the big budget league are more in western India.

Beholding peaks (from left to right): Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

At Giripremi’s 8000m expeditions, the drift to more and more company provided-funds was likely made possible by some structural changes in overall model. Around the time of the club’s Manaslu expedition, those working on the 8000m peaks project started an 8000-er club. By all accounts, in terms of economic background, this club is a notch above the regular outdoor club. “ Currently this small club has about 85 individuals and eight companies as members,’’ Umesh said. Members of this niche club get to hire equipment from the cachet of gear accumulated by Giripremi through sustained mountaineering. They can also avail facilities from another initiative commenced by Giripremi – the Guardian Giripremi Institute of Mountaineering (GGIM). In a national climbing ecosystem with leading government run mountaineering institutes located in the north, GGIM is Maharashtra’s first establishment in that role. The institute has a battery of services. As per its website, the institute – its advisory board has officials from the IMF and India’s mountaineering institutes – offers adventure courses, treks and hikes, mountaineering expeditions, tour of the Sahyadri for expats and adventure programs for companies. In August 2016, it launched a rescue co-ordination center for adventure enthusiasts landing in trouble in the state’s Sahyadri range. According to Umesh, Giripremi is a NGO while GGIM is a NGO under the Companies Act. GGIM is operated in league with the business group – Guardian Corporation; the latter’s involvement falls in the category of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). GGIM has tangible services to offer individuals and companies. In turn, that shared ecosystem, the goodwill it generates and the many people and companies it touches, is available to assist Giripremi’s expeditions. Not just that; as Umesh pointed out, GGIM has provided full time employment to some whose first love is climbing and the outdoors; they have been thus spared the need to struggle for livelihood in contexts they don’t fit in as well. One more point qualifies Giripremi’s funding model. Their backers are usually medium sized companies, not large ones. Umesh explained the reason. “ Large companies have more capital. But it is also true that decisions in such environments take time because the owners or really top officials, who decide on sponsoring expeditions, are far up in the hierarchy from the levels you get to speak to. On the other hand, at medium sized companies, this distance is less. You get to speak to owners. We typically speak to a basket of medium sized companies,” Umesh said.

Giripremi’s 8000m expeditions, essayed with Sherpa-support,  are not unquestioningly lauded by all in the climbing fraternity. For sure these expeditions are not in the same league as the alpine ascents, winter ascents and ascents up difficult routes done by some other countries. But it is a significant beginning and everyone this blog spoke to said, disagreements aside, credit must be given where it is due. Mumbai-based mountaineer, Rajesh Gadgil is a senior member of The Himalayan Club, one of the oldest and most respected institutions in mountaineering. “ I may have my differences of opinion in terms of what constitutes a great climb. But I cannot overlook a few important factors in the Giripremi story. First, they have been very consistent with their visits to the Himalaya. Second, they systematically groomed a new generation of climbers. Umesh is the expedition leader. His team belongs to a younger generation and that speaks volumes about how the club has operated, bridging generations. This is not a case of one group of people excelling and the club declining after they are gone. They have transmitted the enthusiasm onward. Third, they availed the same support systems as anyone else seeking to climb the high Himalaya. Yet, even as accidents occurred for others, Giripremi expeditions have returned safely from altitude, year after year.” Mountaineering circles recalled that there was a time long ago, when a set of tragic reversals in the Himalaya saw Giripremi reviewing its engagement with the world’s highest mountain range. The club eventually resolved to continue its expeditions to the Himalaya. The present track record follows that introspection, those this blog spoke to in Mumbai, said.

According to Umesh, the selection procedure followed for the Pune club’s 8000m expeditions is strict. A high level of physical fitness is demanded from participants. This is complemented by much training and preparation. “ Before each major expedition I travel to the location concerned to see for myself what the place is like and to develop a first hand idea of what safety and rescue measures we should have in place. We go in with Plan A, Plan B – like that. Finally, there is God’s grace,” Umesh said. Rajesh pointed out that steps like expedition members working and staying together at the Giripremi office would have introduced a degree of mutual familiarity in advance; something critical when it comes to intervening and assisting in hostile environments like high altitude. “ You typically listen to those you know. When you have known somebody for long, you trust their judgement,” he said. One classic occasion, when this mutual trust and respect becomes important is when people are told to descend for safety, much against their own wishes and perception of self. Timely descent from altitude has often saved lives.

On Kanchenjunga; approaching Camp 4 (Photo: courtesy Giripremi)

Umesh’s real legacy in Indian civilian mountaineering is most probably the systems and structures he evolved, which bring an element of sustainability – including sustainable funding – to mountaineering expeditions. Unfortunately even as he and Giripremi have emerged successful, the model they used may be a tough act to follow. Umesh’s journey started with Everest selected as objective for very practical reasons. At that time – Giripremi’s Everest expeditions happened in 2012 and 2013 – there were eyebrows raised in Maharashtra’s climbing circles over this continued pursuit of Everest, a much climbed peak and one associated strongly with commercial expeditions to boot. For mountaineers, the criticism was relevant. For the general public, it didn’t matter; in their eyes Everest was the pinnacle of mountaineering. To their credit, Giripremi successfully transitioned the public attention on their projects provided by Everest, to projects involving other peaks. However, by 2019, Everest, which kick-started the 8000m journey of Giripremi and Umesh, had fallen in public perception. There was yet again a season of high number of mountaineering deaths and most importantly a bulk of the blame was heaped on too many people lured to attempt the peak because the normal route is not very hard to do. If you can afford to pay the required money, guiding companies take you up. Queues built up at altitude when conditions turned adverse affecting climbers’ progress. Inexperienced climbers added to the mess. The long wait and exposure to the elements took its toll; people died. The media glare on Everest and the many stories told has meant the magic of Everest dimmed proportionately. The media has also brought to light the high levels of garbage collected and brought back from Everest at the end of each climbing season. It is likely that now if you say you are planning Everest, at least some may ask: can’t you spare it? Don’t you have another peak to try?

Simply put, it will be difficult to make Everest the sling-shot it was for Umesh and Giripremi.

What can you use other than Everest?

Time will tell.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article is based on a conversation with Umesh Zirpe in Pune. Further conversation for building context and adding shades to debate was provided by others hailing from Mumbai’s climbing circles.) 

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