Men and mountains

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Harsh Bahuguna

:: Memorial for Major Harsh Bahuguna, enroute Everest Base Camp
Copyright © Sandeep Chopra

The mountain has seen many heartbreaking deaths. There is a story which lurks in every corner, on every rock, on every ridge, one every couloir, in and above every crevasse.

This is a story about one such crevasse Hema. It is about a brave concept: an international expedition to the mountain which decided to try a dangerous route...the South West face and then the West Ridge Direct. The mountain herself warns us not to try that route often. She tells us often enough by creating wind loops and storms on the West Ridge more often than anywhere else on her body.

Yet this team set out to try the ridge. And sure enough, a storm hit the ridge beyond Camp 3. The expedition is an International one - there are 30 climbers from 13 countries. Yet, the story focusses on one climber from one country who is struggling, caught in the middle of the storm, clipped onto fixed ropes and dangling in mid-air. Helpless. It is -32 degree centigrade, and this man has lost a glove, and his bare midriff is exposed to air, and his face is coated in ice. His eyes are nearly frozen due to formation of ice.

Yet he is alive. He is struggling, trying to disentangle himself from the clips, trying to disentangle himself from the taut fixed rope which is stretched across a crevasse. Whatever little life is inside him is struggling for release.

There is his companion at one end of the crevasse who is trying to get this man to move horizontally along the rope. This other man is also tired and exhausted but is trying his best. The man dangling and the man trying to help are the best of friends - as best as friendship can be. They are pleading to the mountain to let this friendship not be cut short.

It is impossible to move this man horizontally across the rope. He is too entangled for that. This other man then gets an idea. He has some fixed rope in his rucksack. He takes out this rope. He throws it across to the dangling man and tries to lower him down vertically. The idea being that there is a crevasse below and that the crevasse would give him some shelter from the storm till help could be fetched. The idea works. The man starts getting lowered into the crevasse and hopes springs.

It was all a question of 2 feet. The new rope fell short by 2 feet and the man was left dangling 2 feet above the crevasse, not getting any shelter. It was a hopeless situation. The mountain raged her fury while a man dangled 2 feet above a crevasse exposed and another man looked on helplessly from one end of the crevasse.

Don Whillians said later that it was the saddest moment of his life as he saw Harsh Bahuguna's eyes open and look at him helplessly. There was fear and the inevitability of death in those eyes. There was also the pain of knowing that a friendship was ending. And then Harsh looked down at the gaping crevasse.

And Don Whillians said those famous words which he says haunt him even today " Sorry Harsh, old son, you've had it". And he turned and carried on, into the mist and zero visibility. Harsh kept looking down at the crevasse which was 2 feet below him till his eyes closed forever.

All that remains of this man is an inscription on the way to EBC. And a story which that crevasse narrates.

-- Sandeep Chopra, 19 November, 2003


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