Topping all fears

Before peaking: At Camp Four, Brijmohan Sharma and his guide were blasted by winds over 90 kmph. There was little to do but wait for the weather to improve

Before peaking: At Camp Four, Brijmohan Sharma and his guide were blasted by winds over 90 kmph. There was little to do but wait for the weather to improve

When Brijmohan Sharma scaled Everest last month, he overcame not just physical challenges but also harrowing memories of an expedition abandoned in the face of death

Mount Everest challenged Brijmohan ‘Breeze’ Sharma much before he began climbing it. Getting to the summit last month was not only the realisation of a 23-year-old dream, but also a psychological victory of sorts after the Nepal earthquake in 2015 truncated his first attempt and left Sharma battling inner demons and debt.

On April 15, when Sharma reached Everest Base Camp, he was overwhelmed by memories. Two years ago, the 42-year-old had stood at the same spot, geared up to climb Everest. He had teamed with three other climbers from West Bengal — Pradeep Chandra Sahoo, his wife Chetna, and Debraj Datta. Everything was on track and acclimatisation climbs had taken the four of them to Camp Two, after which they had returned to base camp to recuperate.

Around noon on April 25, 2015, a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Nepal. Sharma and Sahoo were taking a walk around base camp when they heard a loud bang. The next few minutes were a blur back then, but now Sharma can remember every second of it.

“That noise was like nothing I had ever heard before. I looked towards the range right across, where Pumori (7,161m ) is located, and saw tons of snow hurtling down. The avalanche captivated us initially, but I soon realised it could reach us. So we climbed to the ridge in front to reach higher ground.”

As the duo ran up, they heard another loud bang, this time from the opposite direction. Another avalanche was coming down the mountain that stood directly behind the ridge. Before the avalanche from Pumori could reach them, they were caught in the other one.

“It was a huge white cloud of smoke filled with snow, ice and debris. It simply swept us away. All of it happened in a few seconds,” he recalls. When the tremors subsided, Sharma dug himself out of the snow. Luckily, a tent that had flown in not only enveloped him, but created a pocket of air, allowing him to breathe. Emerging from under the snow, he was blinded by the white-out. When he focused minutes later, he saw sights he would never forget.

“There was a girl lying 10 ft away. She was inside her tent when the avalanche hit and the tent was shred to bits. When I reached her, I saw her clothes were in tatters. She was crying and unresponsive to what I was saying. I carried her in my arms and walked looking for help. She died a few minutes later,” he says.

“I could not concentrate on anything after that; I was conscious, yet not in my senses. Someone had died in my arms. There was blood on the snow and destruction all around,” he adds. He found help soon after.

All expeditions that year were subsequently cancelled. The death toll on Everest was pegged at 14, according to the website The Himalayan Database. Sharma had walked away from the avalanche unharmed, but was in debt. He had borrowed around ₹25 lakh for the expedition. With the mission incomplete, there was no recognition nor rewards. Sharma, who works with the Indian Navy, returned quietly, lived alone and started raising funds to clear his debt. He sold his belongings and took a bank loan. When debts were settled, he focused on a new target.

Sharma took up long-distance running. A regular on the ultra marathon circuit, he decided to raise the bar. In 2016, he took up the gruelling 135-mile Badwater Ultra in Death Valley, US, the 104-mile Mt Gaoligong Ultra in China, and three other 100-mile marathons. In addition, he also covered 204.8km during the 36-hour stadium run in Bengaluru, finished three 12-hour runs (covering 92km, 79.2km and 72km respectively), and the 80-km Goa Beach Darling Ultra.

Sharma was physically prepared for another shot at the summit, but emotionally he wasn’t. Yet he found himself back at base camp in April. Avalanches — big and small — are a regular phenomenon in the high mountains. Each time he watched one tumbling down the slopes at a distance, it unsettled him. His mind raced back to the moment when he escaped death by a whisker. He struggled to sleep.

“As the days went by, strange thoughts played in my head. I constantly wondered if I would go back alive. At times, I felt someone was strangling me — like I felt when I was buried in snow,” Sharma recalls.

However, he persisted. Acclimatisation runs to Camp Three were soon completed. Sharma and his high-altitude guide, Phurba Sherpa, sat in the base camp, awaiting good weather and the chance to scale the summit. They began on May 15, and made steady progress to get to Camp Four at South Col three days later. The plan was to head for the summit after a few hours’ rest. However, when they arrived at Camp Four, they were blasted by winds over 90kmph. There was little to do but wait for the weather to improve.

The next 28 hours were spent tent-bound at 7,906m. To replenish their oxygen stock, they bought a cylinder from a descending team. By evening on May 19, the winds subsided and Sharma geared up for the final climb. The unscheduled stop had snapped his momentum and gearing up took effort. Surmounting the Hillary Step at about 8,790m — the last major obstacle before the summit — demanded absolute commitment at a time when his energy was draining.

At 6.42am on May 20, Sharma made it to the top of Everest. With just two Sherpas ahead of him, Sharma had the summit to himself for a few moments. In that quiet while, he said a little prayer, thanking Sagarmatha (as Everest is known in Nepal) for seeing him through.

Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based writer

Published on June 09, 2017
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