KOLKATA: Debabrata Mukherjee and Biplab Baidya’s dreams of getting to the Mount Everest summit have been realized but the world’s highest peak has exacted a price. Baidya, for whom it was a first major expedition, is likely to lose the tips of several fingers from frostbite. But, then, both know it could’ve been worse. From a nasty blizzard that threatened to blow them off the slopes to a dangerously dwindling supply of oxygen, the duo from the state had to survive them all at an altitude where such setbacks can have fatal fallouts.
“When we set out for the final push from the summit camp at 10.30 pm on May 24, we had six bottles of oxygen left for the four of us (Mukherjee, Baidya and two sherpas) but when we came back around 3.30 pm the following day after touching the summit at 9, there was just one left. At those altitudes, oxygen is more critical to survival than food, and suddenly we were left with a lot less,” said Mukherjee as he spoke to TOI at his Beliaghata residence.
The situation, he pointed out, just added to what was already a serious test of physical and mental endurance.
He explained that, in keeping with Everest expedition thumb rules, the base camp is at 5,200 metres, an interim camp at 5,800 and an Advanced Base Camp (ABC) at 6,470 metres, and that the “real climb starts 200 metres from the ABC”. “This is roughly at an altitude of 6,700 metres; it’s from where the rope is fixed and the mountaineers will have to use both hands and both feet to progress,” Mukherjee explained, adding that three more camps – Camp One at 7,600 m, Camp Two at 8,000 and the Summit Camp at 8,300 m – are set up before the 8,848m summit.
“The climbers prefer to come all the way down to Camp One after touching summit because it saves oxygen and decreases chances of weather-related disasters but when we came down to the Summit Camp it was already late in the afternoon and the weather had turned rough,” Mukherjee said. “We had no tent because the sherpas had anticipated that we’d be back at Camp One. Biplab was suffering from intense pain from the frostbite in three fingers on the right hand and two on the left and we had only one bottle of oxygen – not enough even for one person for the night,” he added to give a sense of the situation the mountaineers found themselves in.
“I think it was because I took off the outer shell (of the gloves combo) once too often for certain functions like taking photographs, gripping the ice axe and moving the crampons,” says Baidya when asked about the frostbite. “I was at the RG Kar Hospital, where they will guide me with plastic surgery. At 52, I think I’m the oldest Indian to have made it to the Everest summit,” he added through the pain.
At the Summit Camp, the duo and the sherpas were lucky to be given a 6×4-feet tent by a Hungarian youth, who had returned to a lower camp after failing to make the summit that day. “It was a really cramped for the four as we moved in with the blizzard hitting at 4pm with an accompanying hailstorm and speeds reaching 100 to 120 kmph,” Mukherjee said. “There were two options – wait out the storm or try and make it through the blizzard – and we had preferred to stick to the basics of climbing. Sometimes the storm was so strong that I feared the worst. We took turns with the puffs of oxygen, trying to stretch the intervals as much as we could. It was pitch dark outside and the mercury had dipped to -33 degrees but we somehow managed.”
The next morning, when they started the climb down, there was very little oxygen left. “There was only 40% oxygen in the air and we were gasping. It would’ve been fatal to stop so we kept trudging along. I knew from my long experience on the mountains that if we rested we will rest for ever. So I forced the team members to walk until we reached Camp One. It was only then that the joy of conquering the top of the world could be celebrated,” Mukherjee said.