by Col . N. Kumar
Nilkantha (21,640 ft) is one of the most beautiful and difficult peaks in the Garhwal Himalayas. Prior to the ascent of this peak in 1961, it had defied six foreign and one Indian attempt. Apart from renowned climbers like Symthe, Wilys and others, Sir Edmund Hillary and Willie unsold both, who have climbed Everest, had been on this mountain. Though, this peak has the easiest approach march in the Central Himalayas, is only three day’s from Badrinath, it had the reputation of an unclimbable dangerous giant.
In 1961, the sponsoring Committee of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation decided to send an expedition to attempt Nilkantha, ‘so tantalizingly near and yet unclimbed’. It was my good fortune that I was selected as the leader of this expedition. The team consisted of Flt/ Lt Choudhary, Flt/ Lt AJS Grewal, Major Mulk Raj and Shri OP Sharma all of whom had been to Everest once or twice. We took with us five high altitude porters from that rare brand of Sherpas. The party reached Badrinath on 30th May.
Previous expeditions had tried this mountain from almost all conceivable approaches; therefore, I had the great advantage of having their records before me for selection of my approach. The north face had not been attempted by six out of seven previous expeditions because it was considered the most dangerous of the routes. My party decided to accept the challenge of the north face and attempt Nilkantha from this side.
One of the most dangerous and difficult obstacles on the northern face is the awe inspiring over hanging blue shadow of death –0 150 ft of ice fall which keeps sending down avalanches at will. No one had dared so far to cross this ice fall.
It was 8th June and the party had only gone up to Camp II (about 18,000 ft when all India Radio announced the onset of the monsoon in the area. We had only a few days to make the peak and return and we had not even reached the most formidable obstacle. We decided to rush the mountain. But Nilkantha was not easy to rush. By 11th June the party had just managed to camp on the western side of the ice fall. The real monsoons caught us here. However the party decided to do a mild reconnaissance of the western side of the ice fall before withdrawing. This light hearted and light equipped reconnaissance turned out to be one of the most hazardous climbs of the expedition. The route, which members of own team had described as suicidal earlier on, was undertaken and fortunately crossed without any mishap. It was too good to be true, we had crossed the major obstacle on our route, and this feat had never been accomplished before. We took stock of the situation and found that between seven of us, we had only one two man tent, two days food, a few ice pitons, three ropes, two mattresses and no sleeping bags. These stores were by no means adequate for climbing further. But having had such good luck, we decided to push on for a few more days.
The night of 11th was spent in a crevasse at a height of 19,000 ft. This was to be the expedition’s camp IV. On 12th, the expedition came just below the ice ledge above which in a huge cave were lots of figures bearing resemblance to animates like man, snake, goat etc. First we thought that we were having hallucinations, but hallucinations when they occur on high mountains are peculiar to oneself and not to all, whereas all seven of us were seeing the same figures. Day arrived on 13th June. The expedition though famished and without sleep was in high spirits and decided to make the final attempt. Shri. OP Sharma with two Sherpas, unbeaten by the weather, pangs of hunger and bone chilling cold reached the summit after seven hours of grueling effort from camp V. It was 5.15 pm.
The coming down was as dangerous, if not more. More ever the climbers were tired. They just could not reach Camp V and safety. They had to spend a night without even a tent, exposed to snow, wind and cold. At camp V we waited anxiously for our comrades not knowing what had happened to these three brave climbers who had left us a day earlier. The night was spent by flashing torches, shouting and speculating.
The next morning, the sun brought rays of hope for the three climbers who had been camping in the open. They started their journey downwards, and arrived at camp V at 10 o’clock - exactly after 24 hours having accomplished what no one else in the world had done before and which so many had tried. But the welcome given to them was only by words. They wanted food, they wanted water and we had nothing to give them. Our fuel had been expended. So we tried to burn everything we had with us- nylon tents, woolen clothes and whatever we could lay hands on.
On our way down to camp IV we were forced to bivouac in the crevasse again. It was here that the zip of a tent gave way and my feet slipped into open snow. I tried my best to bring them in and so did everybody else. We were so badly jammed into the tent that even for a small movement like bringing my feet in meant, two members getting outside the tent, as they were sleeping on my legs. At this time of the night to get out of the tent, which was so precariously pitched on a steep slope, was out of the question.
At 4 o’clock in the morning I realised that I had been frost bitten, it was a terrible thought but it was true. After a nightmarish descent to camp II, I was carried on a stretcher all the way back. But the damage seemed to have been done and the result was that I had to spend a year in Hospital with the doctors struggling to save as much as they could of my toes. They succeeded a great deal but perhaps as the leader had to make some sacrifice to this great mountain.