Every winter several groups of mountaineers would make an attempt to conquer those peaks. Some of them weren’t fortunate to rejoice the event. And I used to wonder what kind of passion is that, which keep one thriving for it, knowing the amount of risk involved you still don’t want to give up!
Ours was a small town, with a handful of inhabitants. Everybody knew everybody else. Although Abba was a tourist guide, he was an integral part of all the search teams that were formed perpetually after each excursion event for the rescue operations. Nobody knew those peaks as Abba did and I had often heard them saying,
“He Knows The Mountains Like The Back Of His Hands”.
That would make me mighty proud. For me, Abbu was my hero!
He was a great storyteller too. Now that I reflect and think, all his life he had lived in the lap of nature and interacting with adventure sports enthusiasts. Must have been a great combination of recluse and excitement, same time.
Every night, after finishing our meals, while still sitting around the fire, keeping our own ‘kangris’ in our kaftans. I would ask Abba to tell me stories of these rescue operations. We would not move from our places for hours until the story is finished.
That night also was one such story that Abba was telling us about. This was a mixed bunch of experienced and first-time mountaineers, who were staying for over a period of 2 months or so, both for preparations actual tracking on the mountains. That was a very common practice with mountaineers, in a way that was the tourist season for the residents of valley. Something that each one of us would look forward too. It used to be a great time for amusement for kids of my age too, so much new stuff we were exposed to too, equipment’s, clothes, snow glasses, cameras and upon reflection a lot of junk that they would leave behind them as litter. Ironic, but those who were nature lovers, adventure enthusiasts were the ones who were destroying the environment and its beauty.
Before the group leaves for a mountain climbing expedition, as a ritual they would first offer a prayer to the Peer Baba’s Mazaar, seeking good luck.
“But Abbu, science doesn’t believe in God’s or any similar being, no?” I was as inquisitive as any other 10 years old would be.
“Yes, Azlaan! It doesn’t. But it certainly believes in the power of positive thinking, doesn’t it?
But how does Abba know about all this he never even attended any college. He has never stepped out if this small town in all his life. Still, he sounded convincingly learned and knowledgeable.
“This group of mountaineers called themselves ‘Peck of Wolves’ had the youngest member of 24 yrs and oldest f 58. They were 7 in all, 2 women and 5 men. When I was called for the rescue operation, it was very late at night. The local munshi and his patrolling team came knocking at our door. The Peck of Wolves had started their expedition around 11 in the morning. The snowstorm started to build up at around 4 in the evening. They had to stop the climb and wait for the storm to pass by. Something didn’t work their way. Only four of them could make their way to the base camp. Three of them were still lost, either taken by the mountain or by the snow. The villagers were speculating if their members truly believed in the local rituals”, Abbu continued.
Why can’t they check for the weather reports, I wondered.
“The snowstorm was a surprise element that night, no weather reports had mentioned about any such occurrence”, as if Abbu could read my mind.
“It was a sudden low-pressure zone created from the north-eastern plains. Due to these low-pressure areas, the wind starts to circulate around the peaks. A strong wind can develop in the stronger storms, occasionally leads to cyclonic and resulting in an avalanche. The weather didn’t give them any warning before it took them by surprise.
We rushed towards their base camp. The foresighted munshi had already informed the helicopter squad and based on the sketchy details given by the Peck Of Wolf members, we had the toughest task to plot their exact location on the map.”
“Who all could make it to the base camp?”, I asked anxiously.
Abbu looked into my eyes for a few seconds before he answered, “One of the two ladies, the old man, the youngest lad and one guy who was from army background“, he said.
“But what went wrong?”, my younger sister asked this time, as if we were to take turns in asking questions. I smiled and so did everyone else. I forgot to mention about my family.
We were three siblings, Shaheen (7), Afroz (3) and myself, Azlaan (10). Ammi was the warmest person on earth, who makes the best Biryani and Kahwa. All five of us would sit in the innermost room of the house, which also uses to be the bedroom for all three of us. Afroz still being youngest used to sleep with Ammi-Abbu. He would often fall asleep in Ammi’s lap while listening to the stories.
Shaheen was waiting curiously.
“It took us 8 hours to find out what went wrong, other than the avalanche”, Abbu replied.
Something about his expressions that told me this was not a usual rescue operation.
“To plot their exact or even the faintest location, we were heavily dependent on the description given by the crew members. They were traumatized by the series of events. The senior-most member and the Major could still maintain their mental states to help us chalk out a plan. You know, Shaheen mountains signify strength and to conquer their heights we need to have, both our mind and body made of steel”, he said. I don’t know how much Shaheen could understand from this but for me, these words became one of my guiding principles in life.
“The rest of the crew members were still in a state of shock. So, we spoke to them separately. Sometimes extremely temperature conditions and high-stress levels dehydrate the body, which may result in hallucination” Abbu took a pause to evaluate the impact of the slippage of his s tongue. Afroz and Shaheen had long slept, so Ammi and Abbu put them to bed.
Abbu searched my face and tried to read my mind if I was attentive to have heard the last part of the story. I smiled, and he understood. Ammi came and set with us. She had put her arms around me and had cuddled me up. She would always make sure that I get my good night hugs. Although, at the age of 10, I actually didn’t value it much. Something that I miss a great deal even now.
“Tell us from the beginning now and don’t stop till you finish it”, said Ammi in her soft, gentle voice, which was filled with excitement too.
He smiled and continued “From the information and details that we could gather from the crew members and our knowledge of the mountains, we managed to plot the location of the three lost crew members. The search party was able to spot them but one person was still missing. We were totally exhausted after the search which lasted for something around 5 hours. It was decided that we should all rest for some time, revisit the details and try one more time”.
“But who was the missing person, what was his name?”, it was impossible for me to just keep listening.
Abbu showed some hesitation before he started again, “You see, Azlaan. There are times when our logical thinking and rational approach doesn’t help us reach a conclusion. Sometimes, what you think and the reality are far away from each other.”
I wasn’t making any sense to me and the intense look on Abbu’s face made me even restless. “But what happened, Abbu? Please tell no!”, I insisted.
“So, once all the recovered crew members relaxed their nerves and we’re in better control of their emotions, we again set with the map. Siddhartha Kesvan (29) was the name of the crew member who was yet to be rescued.
Fondly he was called ‘Psycho’ by the crew, for he always had a different viewpoint towards life in general. A little pessimistic and a lot deeper his thoughts were. His music playlist was only about sad romantic songs which he would listen to while tracking.
The code name for the senior-most person was ‘The Hawk’ for he would keep a watchful eye on each member of the group. ‘Hawk’ would always point to him not to put the earplugs on while climbing the mountain as he may not be able to hear the calls from the crew. That day also, there was an argument on the same. Siddhartha had called up someone, maybe from his family or a close friend and since then he was very disturbed.
At the huddle time, that eventful morning ‘Hawk’ had insisted that if he has the slightest of discomfort, he can drop the plan and he could return home. The crew will have to make alterations in the plan but that would be too much of an effort. They were ready to delay the climb by a day to make the changes. But Siddhartha was hell-bent to make no changes and continue.
With a considerable amount of back and forth, the ‘Peck Of Wolves’ had started as planned and on the schedule. The day was bright, actually brighter than most days around that time if the year. There was some breeze too but all looked under control and pleasant. They were dropped at the base camp ( at 5,400 metres /17,700 ft)/by a local expedition management teams and Munshi was there for the flag off. They started the track on the dot!!
Munshi was hoping that they had followed the local rituals and have offered their prayers to the Mazaar. He prayed on their behalf and wished them a safe and successful expedition. It was around 4 in the evening when the crew took a break, closer to the cliff. Everyone was excited to have climbed some distance despite the extreme cold weather and wind. While they were sipping hit chocolate ‘Major’ (the ex-army personal) saw the ice blowing along with the wind from the top of the peak, as he was on the highest elevation. He consulted with ‘Hawk’ and they both decided to quickly move ahead and fund a safer spot for the crew.
Siddhartha insisted that he has studied the mountain range very well and should be allowed to go to search in the other direction. He was warned not to do so, in as stern a manner an adult could have been told. And so ‘Hawk’ and ‘Major’ went ahead. The others had started to panic as it was already an hour past since the duo had gone for search and the end had started to howl.”
Abba wanted me to understand the fact that on heights the temperature drops drastically even from Valley to the base camp, to as low as -47°C. Those conditions are not congenial for lives, forget about being able to make a rational decision if you are not strong mentally.
“They had to track for another 3000 meters approximately 9000ft of which they had hardly covered some 350 metres by then. Running and climbing the same distance are two very different activities when it comes covering the same distance.”, he tried to explain. I was filled with amazement then and now also when I think how much knowledge he had without even attending any university ever in his life.
But then, like he always said: “Life was his Teacher and The Valley was his Classroom”!
“What happened to Hawk and Major, where did they get stuck, Abbu?”, I was getting restless as maybe was the rest of the crew.
“While, everyone was panicking but still maintaining the discipline, as informed by the rest of the crew, Psycho was getting restless. They were all at few yards distance from each other, still, we’re connected with the rope. He unhooked his rope and decided to explore the cliff when the crew heard him talk to someone. He sounded engrossed in conversation with someone. The crew members got worried and concerned about him. They tried to talk to him and bring him back to attach the rope, but nothing seemed to have worked their way. Suddenly they heard his historic laugh. The mountain is calling me!!, he kept on screaming. The first-timers, though were trained both physically and emotionally to handle themselves and any of the crew, felt nervous. And if this wasn’t enough, a gust of wind and along with-it hardened ice began to slide down very rapidly. Luckily those who were close to the cliff took shelter in the creeks. They were fortunate not to be very far away from the base camp and could be rescued before they were buried in the ice.
The sudden turn of weather changed the track of tracking expedition. For some, even their lives. Some of them believe that they actually heard someone’s voice calling the Psycho, others believed that he succumbed to the mountains.
The Mountains are very choosy, they keep some, they leave some!” He stopped suddenly. Its been almost 30 years but I still remember those lines. They still give me chills to my spine, leave me wondering as in, really?
Do they? Do Mountains have a calling or is it just the howling wind?
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