Kanchenjunga Expedition- The preparations/ Delhi/ Siliguri/ Darjeeling .

View from Kanchenjunga Base camp at Night

The Kanchenjunga Expedition 2004- The Beginnings…

“Are you sure you will be able to climb?’’, asked Lt Colonel Satish Sharma, leader of the Indian Army’s Kanchenjunga Expedition 2004. I was not a city slicker, who had never seen a mountain before. I was born and brought up in a hill station and had trekked up small hillocks for picnics and walked in over two feet of snow in my Wellingtons on many a Shimla’s winter. But going up the world’s third highest mountain was a different ball game altogether. 

I looked at the satellite pictures of Kanchenjunga on the wall behind the Colonel and realized clearly where I was pushing myself. The picture taken from the mountain’s southwest side showed a broad white massif of the mountain, with leviathan glaciers running down its many ridges. I saw the progression of camps marked on the mountain and traced the Advanced Base Camp to a spot frighteningly close to the very summit! This was the point till where I had volunteered to accompany the Indian Army to record its expedition on camera and in my journal.

Would I be able to make it? Those who have climbed both Mount Everest and Kanchenjunga, say latter is a much more difficult mountain. It demands great technical expertise from the mountaineer and unlike Everest which has now become every back-packers destination, Kanchenjunga is not on the itinerary of even the most seasoned of mountaineers. The route to the summit is virtually unknown. The dangers and pitfalls on the way undiscovered. In Everest there are avalanche experts called `ice-doctors’ who go ahead to the Khumbu Ice fall region before the climbers and warn them if there is danger of an avalanche there. No such luxury in Kanchenjunga. Avalanches, blizzards, falling rocks, and crevasses have to be risked with the climb. There are no fixed ropes here and every expedition has to do its hard work. One in every four climbers has died climbing this 8586-meter high mountain, making it arguably the most dangerous mountain in the world.

I was accompanying a team of hardened mountaineers of the Indian Army, mind you. Almost all the 22 members had been on more than half a dozen mountain expeditions before. Four of them had climbed Everest, besides other 8000 meter peaks of the world. Among them, Naib Subedar Neel Chand and Naib Subedar C N Bodh, were regarded as the best mountaineers in India. Even Gary Lamare the young zealous cameraman hired to make a film on the expedition was something of a precocious climber. A few years ago, he had climbed up to Camp 1-in Everest-and this time, he was determined to climb to the very top of Kanchenjunga.

Even the thought of walking in such company was intimidating. I thought of avalanches, frostbite, deep crevasses and death. Nonetheless, I nodded to the Colonel. Within a week , my rucksack was ready and I was raring to go.

20august ,2004- On the Train to Siliguri- The Journey Begins

The train leaves at 2 noon from New Delhi Railway Station and at 8:30 my bags are not yet packed..Much of what I have is still in its plastic packings-stuff bought from Shimla. Two pair of monkey caps, three pairs of gloves, three pair of socks, two pairs of thermals, a knee protector. All of it stuffed into my briefcase as I haven’t yet got the  army rucksack as promised. I have a small kitbag though and I am not yet sure how it will be useful when I will have the ruck-sack to stuff my all my things into anyway.


The army guys in the train told me I have to lug my own rucksack up the Kanchenjunga slopes. I am worried how I will take pictures with the load on my back. We leave in a taxi around 10. Amitabh’s production assistant –who will join us at the Base Camp later, picks me up from the Savitri complex in Delhi. His name is Taprej.  I cannot say what are his origins are but he says he is from Bihar. A very unlikely state for anyone with Mongolian features. He speaks English with the strong accent most North-East guys have. I give it to his education in Darjeeling for 11 years as he informs me.

There are more than a few last minute plans at the Kanchenjunga cell at the transit camp in Delhi cantt. Over the few hours and I am sure over the period of over two months I am going to be with the army, I will bear witness to the shattering of a few popular stereotypes. One of them that the army chaps are so well organized.
Kanchenjunga cell is a minor chaos and Amitab and his production  team which includes me adds to the confusion. Col. Sharma presides smugly over it all, taking time to make a few inquiries from me about Shimla and about the equipment. I realise they want me to make a few generous cuts in my list of equipment. Col Sharma will buy it all in Katmandu and join us later. Today only 13 of us are leaving for Siliguri by Rajdhani Express- seven jawans and four officers. It turn out we are travelling with the jawans in their AC-3 tier coach and not with the officers in their AC-2 tier. It is good as I manage to make a good rapport with the jawans-who are in any case Himachali. They make me listen to Himachali songs on their Walkman’s- a very prized commodity among the jawans as every one wants their ears plugged with an ear-piece. They have a cheerful and child-like response to everything –from my camera to their curiosity as to what Amitab does with all the girls in this production team.

One of the early signs of their mismanagement become evident. No sooner our taxi lands at the Kanchenjunga Cell around 11:30, there is no rucksack for me. It is gone they say  as I was late by a few minutes. Col. Sharma tells me I’ll get my rucksack in Siliguri Transit Camp. I am a little relieved. I cannot imagine myself lugging my duplicate skybag-suitcase on the Kanchenjunga heights.
I sign a few documents without reading them. One I assume is the form that takes my assent should some untoward event happens. The other is about my willingness in understanding the dangers involved to the equipment etc.

By 12:30  we are bag and baggage in the army bus screaming through Delhi roads to the Railway Station. The burly driver uses the horrible ear-splintning horn liberally and bullies the traffic on the roads in giving him way. The jawans shout `Jai something’-I forget the God- thought they have a flag with his name –they say they will implant on the peak. There is some confusion at the Railway Station about the coach we are going in. It is settled with a bit of fluster and it is quite a relief to be inside the AC coach after a prickly Delhi afternoon.

Amitabh and me sit separately on the windowside of one cubicle-with the other jawans in the other alongside. But within a few hours we mix up and the guy who says he is from Tikkar sits on Amitab’s seat-when he goes up for a nap. The others follow and soon I have friends.
21-August,2004 – In Siliguri Army Cantonment

The train waiter wakes us all up a little before 7 am and I rub my eyes groggily. I am keen to pick the thread of bonhomie established the previous day with the jawans so sit up and wait for them to get up. Our train is expected to reach Siliguri by 11:30 am where we would stay for a few days in the transit camp. I cannot understand why we cannot make a move for the mountains right away.  I take my first few pictures of the jawans –listening to their walkman (I took the first pictures while uploading at New Delhi Railway Station). The jawans like our Nepali gorkhas are excited by these small luxuries of civilization. They love songs and want to listen to them over their walkman. Ashok a five-foot something jawan who is barely 21 but can pass-off as a school kid is a bubbly, spirited fellow, full of fun and humour. He is talkative and smiles a lot. He reminds me a lot of Gopal Bhai. They both share the similar accent and suprisingly also facial features. Especially their smiles when they talk. Their mannerism, their elocution is remarkably the same. He becomes friendly enough to let me plug in one ear-piece while he listens with the another to his favourite song. He lets on that he has recorded songs of his own on a  CD and will let me hear them soon.
We arrive on time and Amitabh wants me to shoot a few pics of the expedition team getting off. I might have got a few good frames, the blazing mid-day sun nothwithstanding and my inability to monitor good exposure in such short –fast moving situations.

The transit camp at Siliguri is a green  oasis and a welcome retreat. I gulp down a few mugfulls of beer at the officers mess and sleep thereafter. I get up around 6pm and walk around the campus. I am told by the jawans whom I meet at the STD booth nearby that If I went out, as I intended to exlplore the city, I wouldn’t be allowed back in. So here am I hemmed in by the army protocol. I am surprised I don’t even pack any t-shirt apart from the green-one I have been wearing since yesterday. It is only dirty for want of a wash but yesterday a bird, probably a crow judging from the size of its shit, shat on top of my head, with the muck dribbling down the side of this sole t-shirt I have. I don’t have a decent pari of trousers either should the occasion arise for the time we are in the Transit Camp.

In the evening I get the taste of the army officers insatiable appetite for drinks. Among the four of them, the Doctor-Col Uppadhaya drinks like a fish. The others drink and smoke too and I am genuinely surprised they are successful climbers now attempting the Kanchenjunga summit.

22august,2004 – To Darjaleeing


Dressed up in traditional Darjeeling costums

Today listening to the grim stories of life at Base camp from Col Vijay, the Principal of Darjeeling Mountaineering Institute and Col Upadhaya I am a bit intimidated. They were discussing the ordeal of shitting on those heights. One has to shit in drums dug out into the ground by turns and wait for the sherpas to clear the cesspits. The shit they told me is a valued commodity to them (I don’t know why yet). For the campers shitting is never easy. One cannot really sit
down properly to shit Col Upadhaya said. Perhaps because of the excreta in the drums, the stink etc. He said those with loose-motion were blamed for scattering their shit about and there is a quarrel each time this happens. Shitting in the high altitude could make for an interesting story in itself.



I visit Darjeeling today and realise that all hill –stations are the same. The madcap driver Muna is with us and he scares me cold with his speed and knocks me around at the back of the Sumo for he dosent bother about side-stepping pot-holes. He irritates me a lot and I let him know what I thought of his driving when I find myself alone with him-more because of the fear that he might do the similar dare-devilry on the way down than out of ire. He apologises and he indeed drives soberly for half the distance after which he steps as hard on the gas as he could. The drive up and down to Darjling is about 65 kilometers from Siliguri and it takes about 2-3 hours covering this distance –but was really too tiring.

I take a couple of frames of Col Vijay arnd the expedition team members in the diffused light. Have to use a flash and i am not sure how the frames have come out. Col Vijay is the senior most guy around and the junious have to laugh at all his wise-cracks. I find it too obsequious but for Col. Upadhaya-who laughs the loudest-hanging on to every word of Col Vijay – i soon realise pampering the seniors is part of the army protocol too.

On the way up a taxi-driver gets rounded up by a few locals and beaten up. The driver fights back and at one point it seems he would thrash the small guy who was attacking him. But soon few others are upon him and he is in a bad-shape. A girl beats him all along and I assume he teased her or hit her while driving. The officers stay-put in the taxi and watch the drama along with the by-standers of the road. Amitabh and I move out along with Neelu. I try to pacify matters. The small guy who now has an upper edge turns to me and asks me if I know what happened. I say no. He tells me to shut up. I do. A few minutes later and after a stone lads on the driver’s face, peace descends.

A boy and girl dressed in traditional Sikkimese costumes.

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