An Evening with India's Most Daring Mountaineer
Basanta Singha Roy
On the evening of 10th August 2014, Basanta Singha Roy invited us at his Bijoygarh residence in South Calcutta. He is my wife’s colleague in Punjab National Bank and also a good friend of hers. He has the wiry and sturdy physique of a seasoned mountaineer, but despite his extraordinary achievements in scaling the mighty and formidable Himalayan peaks, he is as friendly and easy-going as your next-door neighbour. He had his formal training on mountaineering at the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, where my wife also had a stint In basic training when she was a teenager.
Basanta’s fearless passion for embracing nature’s fury at heights where not even the eagles dare has always been his defining feature. With Debasish Biswas, his climbing partner, he reached the top of Mt.Everest, the world’s highest peak, in May 2010. They were the first civilians from Bengal to do so. After Everest, the duo went on to successfully summit two more of the 14 highest peaks of the world, all above 8000 metres (26,246 feet)—Kanchenjunga and Annapurna I. Last year, while attempting their third eight-thousander, Dhaulagiri, they were forced to turn back from touching distance of the summit due to inclement weather.+-
Basanta’s eyes gleamed with the light of adventure as he narrated some of the spine chilling moments while climbing these summits. On Everest, the biggest challenge was the Hillary Step—a dark bare rock wall, hardly 40 ft in height and about 300 ft below the summit—with straight 8000 feet or more falls on either side of the ridge. In the past, this is the section that defeated mountaineers from making the summit of Everest, till Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay conquered it on their way to becoming the first men to stand on top of Everest in 1952.
“He had used his New Zealand Alps climbing skills to achieve this most dangerous feat,” wrote the celebrated US mountaineer Ed Viesturs in ‘The Right Way to do the Hillary Step’ (New York Times). “He had jammed his feet, hands and shoulders into a thin crack between a ridge of ice and the rock and then levered himself up the wall. Then he brought Tenzing up on a tight rope and together climbed the final 300 ft….”
Now ropes are permanently fixed on the section to help climbers.
Yet, Basanta says that climbing the Hillary step is still extremely challenging and arduous because one of the heavy gear climbers have to carry at that altitude, including oxygen cylinders, and all this while wearing snow goggles and crampons.
Basanta loves to haunt the dark, dangerous and primaeval heights were nature’s fury can rip everything apart in a matter of seconds. While climbing Annapurna I, he captured an avalanche in his camera—it is a stunning and chilling picture. You can see climbers, the size of ants, in the distance, while a gigantic white cloud of snow and ice descends from above. Annapurna I is the 10th highest peak in the world at 8091m. It is also the first eight-thousander to be summited—French climbing pioneers Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenal did that in 1950, losing limbs and fingers in the process. The expedition is captured in a fantastic book written by Herzog, called, simply, ‘Annapurna’. It is such a difficult peak that the next successful climb was only in the seventies, and it continues to claim a high rate of climbing fatalities.
Basanta also spoke about his last expedition, where he came so close to summiting Dhaulagiri but had to turn back. Not for nothing is Dhaulagiri also known as the “mountain of the storm”.
It’s the 7th highest peak and stands at 8177 M (26810 ft). Basanta and his team were at the Base Camp on 26th April 2013. But due to extremely bad weather, they were forced to return back to Base Camp several times for almost a month. Only on 22nd May, acting on a forecast of clear and improved weather conditions, Basanta and Debasish set out for the final assault. They started off from Camp III deep in the night so that they could reach the summit on the same day. They trudged through the whole night to reach a point just above 25000 ft—Dhaulagiri’s summit is at 26810 ft. On the way up, Basanta saw two accidents. The first one was a Spanish climber and his Sherpa who came rolling down the slope, gathering speed, and turning into a huge snowball. They stood no chance. The second fatality was a Japanese woman climber. These two accidents shook him up. Then the weather started getting bad. The long climb from Camp III finished Basanta and Debashish’s oxygen. There was nothing to do but turn back and head to Camp III again. But all the incidents, the weather, the lack of oxygen took its toll on Basanta. He recalled that his strength to continue further ebbed. The icy cold wind also had a disastrous effect on the sun goggles—they froze like a hard white rock within seconds, blocking their vision. They decided to plough the snow to create a hammock-like cavity with the help of their Sherpa so that Basanta could lie down and wait for Debasish to climb down and fetch aid. It was a long wait, recollects Basanta. Except the icy cold wind whizzing past and the dreaded storm howling over him there was nothing more but isolated, a freezing lap of fearsome darkness. Since he lay still, frozen and half conscious, he could only sense the daylight as the sun climbed over the mountains. It was a very strange feeling, he told me. The day passed, darkness descended again, but there was no sign of a rescue. It finally turned up the next day, in the form of a chopper arranged by Debasish. As far as Basanta could remember, his boots were opened and he was wrapped in a mattress, and then tied up and carried to Camp III with his body dangling in the air. In the process, frostbite took two of his toes. His condition was very serious and had to be admitted to a hospital in Kathmandu with cerebral oedema due to the prolonged lack of oxygen.
Today, after barely a year, Basanta has fully recovered. Unless he shows you his injuries you would never be able to make out that he was in such a situation at all. His intense urge to encounter the charm of the unexpected fills him with joy and gives him the strength to put his feet again on the mighty Himalayan range. At the time of writing, he is already on his way to the 7135m Nun peak in Kashmir, leading a twelve member team.
Mt. Everest – Approach South Kol – first Bengali civilian
Mt. Kanchenjunga (8603 M – 3rd highest) - Approach South Face- first Indian civilian
Mt. Annapurna I (8091 M- 10th highest) - Approach North Face – first Indian civilian
|Yak on the way to Everest Base Camp|
|Base Camp at Khumbu Glacier of Mt. Everest|
|Crossing a crevasse at Khumbu Ice Fall|
|Climbing the Mt.Lhotse wall on the way from Camp II to Camp III of Mt.Everest South Col route|
|Climbing from Camp III to Camp IV (South Col) at Mt. Everest|
|A Russian climber's body retrieved by Sherpa when Basanta and his team were climbing on the same rope from Camp III to Camp IV at Everest|
|The most dreaded Hillary Step below the summit of Everest|
|Top of Mt. Everest ( the picture was taken from below the summit )|
|On the top of the world - Basanta, Debasish, Pemba and Pasang|
|Basanta and his team climbing Mt. Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world in 2011|
|Basanta and Debasish on the top of Mt. Kanchenjunga|
|This picture taken from the top of Kanchenjunga shows Mt. Yalung Kang in the middle ( this is the site where Bengal's woman mountaineer Chanda Gayen met with an accident in 2014 ). Far behind are Mt.Makalu,Mt.Lhotse and Mt.Everest.|
|A daring picture of an avalanche between Camp II and III of Mt. Annapurna I. This was taken when Basanta and Debasish were climbing Annapurna|
|Photo taken from Camp III of Annapurna I shows Mt. Dhaulagiri (left - far behind and Basanta's destination in 2013); and Mt. Nilgiri group of peaks (from left to right)|
|This heavenly view of first rays of sunlight was captured from the long ridge to Mt. Annapurna I summit as the sun climbs the mountain.|
|Basanta and Debasish with national flag atop Mt. Annapurna I summit|
|Basanta Singha Roy receiving the Tenjing Norgay National Adventure Award 2012 from President of India Pranab Mukherjee|
|Basanta proudly displays the trophy to us at his residence|
|Basanta with his wife and son|
|Basanta with his mother|
|Trophies and Awards|
Expedition Photos: Courtesy Basanta Singha Roy