My excitement levels were at their highest as I boarded the flight to Kathmandu. My first ever 8000er expedition – after a long wait – none other than Mt. Kangchenjunga – with Giripremi’s most experienced members.
I remember the times, when there were rumors that Umesh Zirpe, the leader of Giripremi’s all 8000er expeditions, whom everyone affectionately calls ‘Mama’, would form a large team of highly experienced climbers for this expedition. Along with the experienced ones, there were to join a few new faces as debutants. At that time, I seemed to be the last to be considered; or as a matter of fact, I was just to be a support team member.
It so happened that Bhushan was Mama’s first pick as a climbing member. Whenever there are huge extra-mountain-climbing challenges such as fundraising, building a large team and handling the team dynamics during the higher camps etc; Bhushan has always been the most resourceful person to Giripremi. His fitness, ability to calmly handle any critical situation, firm stance by the team in difficult times, make him one of the most valuable assets of the team. Additionally, he had been like Mama’s shadow during Giripremi’s Everest expedition in 2012. So, since Bhushan had to go, I had to look after GGIM’s courses, treks and expeditions which would run in parallel to the Kangchenjunga expedition. Giripremi in 2015, had launched an adventure training institute named ‘Guardian Giripremi Institute of Mountaineering’, where Bhushan and I have been working full time from its day 1. We both had forged a great friendship through this common aspiration of pursuing career in the field of mountaineering. In a way, I was very happy to see Bhushan come back in action after a long time. I had seen him playing a support member role for many expeditions like Makalu, Cho Oyu, Dhaulagiri, & Manaslu. And despite how much he wanted to climb, he was always happy in supporting fellow teammates climb. Because that was what then the team Giripremi needed.
During the past 4-5 years, I got to interact a lot with veteran mountaineer Usha tai (founder of Giripremi), Mama, Bhushan and other seniors in Giripremi. I sensed the intensity in their efforts to make the organization stronger than any individual person. They emphasized on how essential it was to give priority towards building a sustainable and progressive institution rather than merely creating individual glories. Individuals will come and go; the institution must thrive. The same philosophy would trickle among new generations to come. Over these 4-5 years of my association in Giripremi, I learnt, and still learning to put institutional goals ahead of my personal ambitions. So, this time to be honest, I was excited to shoulder whatever responsibility that would come to me and support the expedition in every possible way.
Time passed. Mama’s vision of expedition-beyond-just-climbing-began to take shape. Eco project, which involved research on ecological aspects of Kangchenjunga National Park, received a wonderful response from various research institutions in Pune. Numerous corporate firms, social groups, and countless mountain lovers began to extend their support to Giripremi’s goal. Jamling Norgey, son of Veteran mountaineer, Sir Sherpa Tenzing, had arrived in Pune to officially launch the expedition. We hosted a two-days photography exhibition that displayed journey of Giripremi’s quest of 8000er from Everest 2012 to Manaslu 2017. We celebrated International Mountain Day, by conducting a mountain run event. These events helped spread the awareness about Mt. Kangchenjunga. Over 40 enthusiastic trekkers participated in eco treks to Kangchenjunga base from India side (Goecha la trek) during Nov-Dec 2018. They performed certain soil examinations, procured various essential samples that could be used for further research on biodiversity of Kangchenjunga national park. Another set of 30 members were to trek from Nepal side to Kangchenjunga base in Apr- May 2019. Mama came up with a unique idea for fund raising. Mt. Kangchenjunga’s height is 8586 m. He appealed everyone to celebrate Birthdays by donating Rs 8586 for the expedition. The idea was so well appreciated in Giripremi that over the entire season more than 100 supporters donated Rs. 8685. Some even donated Rs. 28162, an amount equivalent to the mountain’s height in feet. We hosted numerous Kangchenjunga awareness public events. The very fact that, Kangchenjunga image exists on Indian 100 rupee note, was enough to trigger the masses to realize the huge significance of this less known mountain for every Indian. These programmes instigated people to believe that this expedition was not just Giripremi’s, but it belonged to entire Maharashtra. It was a way Mama could connect everyone to the expedition.
Meanwhile, my mountaineering career in Giripremi, had steadily reached to the noticeable grounds. Mt. CB13 reattempt, double ascent of Mt. Elbrus, followed by Mt. Kilimanjaro… all successful ascents in three consecutive months of 2017. Those three months of hard-earned glories boosted my confidence in my own abilities, and it had slowly begun to resonate with Mama’s confidence in me. As with my growing confidence, a strong will to make a debut in an 8000er expedition began to harbor in me. And here was the opportunity!!! Mt. Kangchenjunga. The third highest mountain in the world! One which is considered as a truly audacious climb. The recent History of its success ratio had even intrigued everyone about how our team would do against such her might. After 2014, there were three consecutive years which didn’t see a single summit. It was only in the year 2018, ONGC team with their incredible logistical support, had managed to scale and break the jinx. Naturally, at Giripremi, everyone had immense curiosity as well as anxiety about what laid in Giripremi’s fortune.
I still vividly remember that during my college days, I had been to Darjeeling with my family. From a small hilltop, at 5:00 AM in the morning, I had the opportunity to see her beautiful snow cladded massif. Her picturesque panoramic view cast an intense impression on me then. However, now when the expedition was launched, and having earned certain degree of mountaineering experience, I wanted to get a bit closer to her. Every time when I daydreamed about it, I would think back about Bhushan, who had been sitting back happily when I used to go out for my expeditions. It happened quite often. At times the feelings would grow too intense for me to handle. Numerous times I prayed to God for a miracle to happen. So that both Bhushan and I could be in the team. On so many occasions, two of us would only discuss about our dream to climb together. Although at the back of the mind we both knew that dream was quite distant.
In July 2018, I got an opportunity to lead Giripremi’s expedition to Mt. Cathedral in Spiti region. It was a mix team of men & women, experienced and the new ones. The expedition went well and 7 out of 9 members topped out. I led the team from front and contributed guides in route opening by fixing a rope of over 300 ft. It added another glorious feather in my hat. However, in hindsight, more than the success moments, the ups and downs in planning process I faced, were the most rewarding and hence truly they are the cherishing times. On my personal levels, mountain offered little difficulty in climbing but it made me realize the importance of thorough preparation and safe execution. I was learning lessons of leadership in harder ways than I had anticipated. They only made me tougher in the face of difficulties. 1. Meticulous planning with safety, 2. Patience & willingness to sacrifice smaller gains for larger ones.
Planning and preparations were quite demanding tasks. Gather all teammates, ensure systematic fitness training, raise funds, negotiate with the logistics agency, equipment, food, safety preparations and what not… I think, I was the luckiest to have Mama strongly behind me during those days. He initially did let me suffer the pains and frustrations. At times I badly wanted to quit the expedition even before it was started. Mama not just stood by me but disregarding his illness, came all the way till the roadhead village Batal to ensure everything happens safely and smoothly. Before leaving us with soaking eyes, he told me an important rule of mountaineering- detailed planning at hometown wins you half the expedition, rest is your fitness and skills. The success of Mt. Cathedral, I owe entirely to Mama.
Though successful and in a jubilant mood the whole team was, I was restless. To be a part of Kangchenjunga team was becoming an irresistible urge. A night before we left for Cathedral expedition, Mama had announced that best member from that team would be chosen for Kj squad. And he clearly mentioned that I was not going to be chosen as I had to shoulder GGIM responsibilities in Bhushan’s absence. It made me narrow down my entire focus on Cathedral. But after the expedition was over, the thoughts of Kj began to crawl in my mind again. Mama’s decision was not a cheering one for me, but one he had to take for GGIM. I accepted it wholeheartedly with a realization that perhaps miracles don’t happen with me.
During the return journey, I began to plan the next expedition in Mul-Killa region in Himachal Pradesh. I just couldn’t sit quiet. The grey cells were continuously in action. If not Kj, then Himachal will always embrace me I knew. Thus, with brief details of Mul-Killa region, I came back to Pune. Back in Pune, Mama, in private, asked me for the team’s feedback. Based on Fitness, discipline, confidence, responsible behavior, and camaraderie, I told him that I had found Priyanka and Varun were the emerging mountaineers for Giripremi. Varun being stronger, I knew Mama would select him for Kj.
In Giripremi’s weekly meeting, all the seniors welcomed us warmly and gifted each one of us mountaineering books to take inspiration for the next climb. After the felicitation, Mama gathered everyone and began to review the expedition. He was to declare the new Kj team member too. I sat quietly in a corner waiting to hear Varun’s announcement. Mama, had already received detailed expedition report from our guides, & team members. So, he shared expedition development with all in the meeting. I wasn’t much into listening mode to be honest. Rather I was lost into Cathedral days. I recalled how Jitendra- on so many occasions during the expedition, wished that I should have been in the Kj team. Rohan sitting next to me expressed the same. I smiled at him and tried to listen to what Mama was speaking. Varun seemed happy. I looked at him and then at Priyanka. They both looked at me and smiled as if they knew something already. And in the next moment, Mama announced Varun’s and after that, my selection in the Kj team.
For a moment, I thought I was still in the day-dreaming mode. I couldn’t believe it happened. I saw everyone being cheerful and proud. Jitu, Amit, Rohan, everyone hugged me, and I could feel the happiness in their smiles. Dinesh, Ankit, Pawan, Jayant, Prabhakar, Swapnil, Tate Kaka, Chandan Kaka, all members of Giripremi, happily opted to take GGIM’s responsibility while Bhushan and I would be in expedition. Mama wholeheartedly appreciated my performance in the expedition. His decision was based on insightful observation, feedback from the teammates, guides, and seniors in Giripremi.
As I write this now, I’m highly overwhelmed and grateful to so many because of whom I got this opportunity I never thought I would have gotten. With that ecstatic feeling, surely came a lot of responsibility as well. I pledged to work as hard as possible to achieving Giripremi’s dream of Kj and be worthy of Mama’s trust in me. That night as I shared this news with my family, I realized that miracles do happen. However, for them to happen, you must work hard. Bear genuine & selfless motives. And stop never until you fulfill them.
Getting the opportunity was indeed a miracle that happened. Now it was entirely on me to make one.