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The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.

- Alexander von Humboldt

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Op-Ed

Aug 21, 2018

India’s Lost History – Part 1. Indians are Embracing Mountain Sports, But There is a Big Problem with #FakeNews

India's Instagram generation is finally getting outdoors - but has a deep-rooted problem acknowledging India's long-established climbing history, and those who came before them.

The Outdoor Journal is proud to present the first in a series of articles by Siddharth Chattopadhyay, that will rediscover India’s Mountaineering History. With interviews and contributions from many generations, who have contributed to India’s rich outdoor legacy across the country.

Technology is increasingly affecting and altering our lives faster than we ever imagined. It has not only made our lives easier and knowledge more accessible, but it has uniformly altered the social fabric of our modern society. Of all the generations so far, as some may say and agree, millennials seem to have gained the most from its use. The gain, though obvious, calls for a dialogue on how it may influence a culture built around telling untruths.

Of all the generations so far, millennials seem to have gained the most from the access to information brought on by 21st century technology. This so-called gain calls for a dialogue on how it may influence a culture built around telling untruths.

Unlike the inevitable generational gap, there appears to be a disconnect between the older and current generation of our times that is more subtle than you might think. The disconnect possibly emerges from a generation that stresses on baseless and often trivial claims to fame rather than the actual perceived values of their actions.

It is very self-centered and almost presumptuous of millennials to adopt technology and use it as a means to monopolize their contribution to the outdoor community. This not only reflects on their ignorance but also brings to notice a kind of ignorance that seems intended. Essentially, what this means is that when you work under the premise that all who came before you simply don’t exist, then it becomes a serious cause for concern. Under such a construct, if it wasn’t recorded and posted to Instagram, then it didn’t happen. And the first ascent or descent or flag planted on a summit belongs to the one who social media-ed or Instagrammed it first, rather than the generation which might have done all of that, and possibly even more without ever publishing it on the Internet. “Climbing was never a competitive sport, but now there is so much pressure to find some way to be the first,” said Billi Bierling: a German Journalist and climber now managing the Himalayan Database.

A screengrab from a 4Play Facebook share about the first North Face ascent of CB 13. Note the copy that the video was shared with; they mistook the north ridge with the North Face. North Ridge has been climbed before.

You can read The Psychology of Summiting Everest by Billi Bierling on OutdoorJournal.com.

When Apoorva, the founder, and editor in chief of The Outdoor Journal, first spoke to me about this subject, I remember being quiet for some time, lost in thought. I guess I wasn’t sure about where I’d start. Although, what concerned me the most was the foundation upon which I’d build the narrative. When I did begin my research, I came across overwhelming evidence that not only peeled off the disingenuous nature of Outdoor Journalism in our country but so much more. One of the most distasteful findings surrounded the indefatigable effort funnelled into branding of the heroic “first ascent” of a frozen waterfall in India. Mountain Dew India, one of the biggest adventure sport sponsors, had just published a video on their youtube channel titled: “Mountain Dew Real Heroes presents The Fall – India’s First Frozen Waterfall Ascent”. It was April 22, 2016. The video has since garnered more than 2 million views. There were other media channels that soon followed suit. “Their goal? To attempt the first ever ascent of a frozen waterfall in India,” said YOURSTORY. Another title from a different media outlet read: “These Brave Mountaineers Completed India’s First Ever Frozen Waterfall Climb. Bow Down!.”

This was nowhere near the first time someone climbed a frozen waterfall in India.

The really strange thing – this was nowhere near the first time someone climbed a frozen waterfall in India. Mountaineers have been climbing frozen water ever since front-point crampons were invented in 1933! The 1938 ascent of the Eiger’s fearsome North Face in Switzerland actually has a section called… wait for it… the Waterfall.

Encountering a section of a frozen waterfall on a massive mountain is generally par for the course – you only have to spend a few hours perusing entries in the American Alpine Journal to read all about Micah Dash and Johnny Copp’s epic ascents in the Zanskar region to understand that they were climbing rock, snow, crumbly shale, epic granite and frozen waterfalls as they reached the summit of Shafat Fortress in 2007.



Even if we are to talk about ice-climbing as a separate activity, akin to sport climbing or cragging or something similar to the Ouray Ice Festival in Colorado, the “first ever” recorded ascent of a frozen Indian ice/waterfall could have been in Sikkim in 2004. The team consisted of  Adam George, Philippe Wheelock and Richard Durnan, all from Colorado along with Carlene Grant from Canada, Kelsang Phuntsok and Tashi Sherpa from Sikkim and Andreas Prammer from Austria (Durnan, R. Sikkim. The American Alpine Journal. 2004. 384)

while it could be the most competitive space to get introduced to, it is built around humility

The thing about this community, as I have learned over time, is that while it could be the most competitive space to get introduced to, it is built around humility. And yet some of our present-day cultural icons have me convinced that it’s the mountains we climb and not ourselves. I remember one such conversation with a person whose preoccupation with becoming a known alpinist belied his earnestness. Now, this doesn’t mean that we aren’t pushing the envelope, what it means instead is that there’s a lack of maturity. It feels as though there’s an underlying competitiveness in our pursuit; a kind of complexity that arises from a complacent attitude of “me-knowing-more-than-you-do”. Isn’t climbing a selfless act or as Karn puts it: “an exercise in the destruction of ego?”

Over time, I realised that I couldn’t just single-handedly hold technology accountable, though it does add to the gimmick. I also realised that it is almost impossible to sustain a culture when it doesn’t have a strong footing, in which case the community can only thrive so much. So I visited The Prow area in Dhauj while climbing with a friend of mine, Prerna Dangi, a young and accomplished female Indian climber and mountaineer. It was my first time top-roping outside. I specifically remember the rack Prerna pulled out of her bag. As soon as I had the harness on I tied my first figure-of-eight knot. My gaze then shifted to this green multipurpose belaying-rappel device that felt unusually lighter. Although what impressed me the most was this nut tool meant for pulling cams or nuts out.  

While nearing Dhauj, possibly one of the best trad crags in the world, the outcrops made themselves visible from far away. It seemed like a climber’s paradise. As soon as I set my foot on the holy Dhauj soil, I became wary of the late climbing scene from the 80s. There is an undervalued guidebook that Prerna spoke of – compiled and written by Mohit Oberoi, a 46 year old doyen of rock, who has spent a lifetime climbing all across India, with a list of alluring crags in and around Delhi. When I learned about the book I bought it right away. I couldn’t have been more appreciative of the effort and work that went into bringing this record together. It just seemed so well-organized especially for a country that is yet to understand the value of institutional memory. Upon leafing through, l came across several routes with monikers such as “Burra Sahib” and “Hysteria with a Sten gun,” laid out with appropriate grades and caution. It gave me the impression that some of these folks were more active than I’d thought. Shortly after, I caught myself reflecting on what it must have been  like to be climbing back in the 80s – the heartiness of the community and culture around it.

This series is going to be a diary of my learnings as I rediscover India’s seemingly lost outdoor history, as an exercise in honest journalism, with research and interviews conducted with stalwarts across generations of the Indian outdoors. They will include Captain Kohli, known for leading an Everest expedition in 1965, which put 9 men on the summit; Mandip Singh Soin, a Mountaineer, Explorer and a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society; Mohit Oberoi, an accomplished Climber and Triathlete; Punit Mehta, another accomplished climber and Harish Kapadia, a distinguished Mountaineer and editor of the Himalayan Journal. I hope to inspire our readers to dig into their own histories and that of their passions to help “rediscover” lost heroes.

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Op-Ed

Sep 05, 2019

Everest, The Earthquake, my Husband Norbu Sherpa and Me.

Between waiting her turn for the rescue chopper and summiting in silence one year later, Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann relies on her husband, a native Sherpa, as her guide on Everest.

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It is 3:45 in the morning, May 21, 2016: a date that will remain in my mind forever.

I am standing on the “top of the world” at 8,848 meters (29,028 ft) with my husband, Norbu Sherpa. We are alone in the full moon: Norbu, me and the Goddess Chomolungma. The stars are lighting up a pure sky. The atmosphere is simply magical. One-and-a-half hours in the silence of the mountain on the top of Mount Everest.

Read next: Exclusive Interview with Lakpa Tsheri Sherpa, of The Ultimate Descent

A stunning sunrise brings us back to reality. Some climbers have started to arrive. We begin our descent with calm and serenity. Each step is controlled and assured. We are in full command of our emotions and abilities. A single step off the path would mean a no-return plummet down a vertical of several thousand meters. Twenty-three hours after our start at 8,300 meters (the last Camp) via the summit, we are back at the Advance Base Camp on the Northside with our heavy loads. A dream had come true.

This personal project – summiting Everest – was supposed to have happened one year earlier. But in 2015, on our way to Everest Base Camp in Tibet, we found ourselves suddenly in a disastrous shadow. Like in a movie, people were screaming, crying, running in all directions. Huge rocks were falling from everywhere and the earth was shaking. Once, twice and then more frequently. We were trapped in a narrow valley with the rocks threatening above our heads. We were lucky to secure ourselves. Many other people are no longer here today to testify to that horrific moment. In the end, we were trapped for four days in the valley: four days of waiting, hoping and agonizing with several hundred other people. Standing, sitting and sleeping in the middle of terraced fields. Hour after hour after hour. Disconnected from the rest of the world. With no material and no food except for the items that people had on them when running for their lives from their house or car.

Like in a nightmare, we were unable to provide any help other than what was possible to do with basically nothing. The dream that I had seriously prepared and trained for during so many months was still in the back of my mind. The days were passing with no updates. We had no idea what was going on. All we knew was that all of the roads were blocked by heavy landslides. Repeat aftershocks compelled us not to take any risks. We were, in fact, supposed to be at Base Camp, above 5,000 meters. But every aftershock reminded us that, in reality, we were just two kilometers away from the epicenter of the tragic earthquake, registering 7.8 on the Richter scale, that dramatically affected Nepal on that day, 25 April 2015…

“A terrible spectacle.”

After four days, we heard the sound of the first helicopter. People jumped up from every side and ran in the direction of the small helipad that was prepared with the help of all of us during those last days. But the pilot could not land. The helipad was too small for his helicopter. The disappointment was legible on our faces. We were worried not only about all the injured people who were just waiting to get rescued but also for one woman who gave birth in the middle of the night in terrible hygiene conditions. A few hours later, a smaller helicopter arrived. The pilot managed to land but had to turn off his machine. Some people were so willing to get out of this trap that they tried, by all means, to get a place inside the helicopter… a terrible spectacle. In the end, the injured people could luckily be rescued back to Kathmandu. Then it was our turn, tourists as we were.

A unique picture that you need to be ready for. Descending from Everest, you can see the shadow of Everest reflecting on the mountains of Nepal. This only lasts a few minutes. So it’s thanks to my husband, who knew about this and told me to just wait.

Finally, we were rescued by helicopter from this disastrous valley. At that moment, our initial expectation of reaching the summit was merely a slight memory. Flying back to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, we could see what it would mean to be in a war-torn country. Everything was destroyed. In the meantime, the image of a couple sitting in the ruins of their kitchen in what used to be their home, making fire out of their house’s destroyed wooden beams, and feeding us two small bowls of rice per day that they cooked on their stove, was stuck in our minds. We could not simply go back home to Switzerland. We decided to stay in Kathmandu and help support earthquake victims however we could. Forty-five days later, thanks to the numerous donations on account of our small charity organisation The Butterfly Help Project, we had distributed more than 31 tons of food supplies, rebuilt three provisional school buildings for more than 500 children and brought clothing to several remote villages. Everest was not a topic anymore. The Mountain was still there, of course, but going to these remote villages where the villagers had lost everything was another new and difficult challenge.

Find out more about The Butterfly Help Project

“I have to be here. This is my job”

However, when something is in your heart, it is impossible to forget so easily. Everest. Simply to hear the word illuminates my eyes. Everest is known as the Goddess of Giving to the Sherpa climbing community. My husband is always so thankful for all that she has given them. Every year, the climbing Sherpas, who are part of the ethnic Sherpa people, put their lives in danger to bring us other climbers to the top of the World just to fulfill a personal and selfish dream. And every year, they go back to work, to risk it all again, because they have to support their families. Once one knows that the income from a two-month Everest expedition can support a family for almost one year, compared to the average Nepalese salary, there is no doubt. They have to go. Again and again. In 2015, shortly before our Tibetan expedition, we went to Everest Base Camp on the Nepali side for an acclimatization trip. It was one year after seracs on the western spur of Mount Everest had collapsed, resulting in an ice avalanche that killed sixteen climbing Sherpas on the Khumbu Icefall. They were carrying loads to Camp I & II. At Base Camp, we encountered one of our good Sherpa friends, Mingma Sherpa. He is married and has four children, the youngest of whom had just been born at that time. I asked him why he was there, after surviving what happened last year, when he had children and a wife waiting for him at home. Was he not scared? With a generous smile on his face, he simply answered “I have to be here. This is my job.”

Andrea and her husband following their successful ascent of Everest.

And that is how it is. The Sherpa families at home are consumed with worry. The Sherpa community sticks strongly together, encouraging one another. They know that it is one of the hardest jobs on earth. They are handling heavy loads in the scientifically speaking, famous “death zone” (above 7,500 meters (24,606 ft)) in order to survive the rest of the year. They cannot complain, otherwise they might not be hired for the job the next year. They have to be strong even if it hurts. The clients have paid, and so the Sherpas have to bring them to the top and back to Base Camp. At least, this is what has happened since the first expedition in history. But we have to keep in mind: it is thanks to them that we can experience such an amazing and great adventure! They are simply “the true heroes of Mount Everest!” As an Everest Summiteer, Sherpas cannot be thanked enough for their hard work, dedication, and humility.

In 2016, when I had decided to listen to my heart again, my motivation had increased tenfold. I was already training the whole year, not only participating in ski mountaineering competitions but also ultra-trail races. For many years, I have competed at a high level and I would consider my fitness level to be good. But I knew from my previous expeditions at 8,000 meters (26,246 ft) that going for these kinds of altitudes is another story. You have to be in perfect shape, not only for yourself but because you depend mainly on others – the Sherpas. For several weeks, you must live in a zone where no human being can survive for long.

To climb Mount Everest, you must thus not only be completely fit, but you must have experience about how your metabolism reacts at such heights. You must be technically independent so that you can react quickly and without a doubt at some tricky passages. You must have good knowledge of how oxygen and mask regulators work. You should also be able to calculate your oxygen according to the hours it might take you for the climb. You cannot just say “I want to fulfil a dream to put on my resume, and anyway I am paying enough money for this challenge.” No! Indeed, we are speaking about a challenge. A Challenge with a capital “C”. A Challenge in the death zone, where every decision is either yes or no, live or die. There can be no hesitation. And the Sherpas are not employees. We talk about a team. A team that must work together in the highest zone of our planet.

When you are sitting at 7,000 meters (22,965 ft) in the dining tent of the climbing Sherpa Team, sharing a tea with them, getting inspired by their positive energy, it is just a fantastic feeling. For some, it was the first time on Everest, as it was for myself. For others, it is like attending the same race, year after year. There is a mixture of respect and excitement around being upon this mountain again. It is the home of the Goddess Chomolungma, no climbing Sherpa will start such an expedition without the traditional Puja – a Buddhist ceremony in which the Sherpa will thank the mountain for letting them pass and come back safely. However, it is also a way in which to apologise for the tracks made on her. To observe them, preparing the tea, setting up the tents, discussing the next days, was as if I was sitting in a tea-room somewhere in a mountain resort, they almost seem to be in communion with the mountain. Some are young, some are older. Whilst they all share the same aim, they also share the same pain. But no one shows it. Their movements are fluid and natural – You might almost forget that you are so high in the altitude… But what is the hard truth?

“The chance to fulfill my dream”

Without discussing the numerous Sherpas who have lost their lives, dedicated to some unprepared and inexperienced clients, how many Sherpas have lost their jobs because of frostbite? Because of not having the financial resources to pay their medical care? Lost the use of or the entirety of their fingers, toes, etc.? Once back home, no one is taking care of them anymore.

I had the chance to fulfill my dream, with my husband by my side. I trained especially hard in order to ensure that we could achieve this goal. Not only to make it to the top, but to make it safely back to Base Camp, and to also recover properly after such an achievement. But one of my main thoughts, my top priorities while preparing for this adventure was not to endanger my husband, who has been on Everest expeditions more than 9 times, due to my lack of physical or technical preparation.

On May 21, 2016, we reached the summit with no overcrowded route (the infamous “traffic jams”), and we took no uncontrolled risks. It was simply a perfect combination of appropriate preparation and years of experience. How does this get achieved? My husband has been for more than a decade the “Sirdar” (i.e. the Head of the climbing Sherpas), leading large-scale expeditions on the highest summits on Earth. He himself has stood seven times on Mount Everest and more than 14 times on other 8,000 meter peaks. Based on his long-term knowledge and skill, he knew exactly which decision to make at which time. Along with his expertise, my fitness level, training, and mental preparation allowed me to experience the highest of the Himalaya summits with him, to see for myself the glorious sunrise on the Goddess Chomolungma, to achieve the holiest of Challenges.

Andrea at Everest Base Camp

Andrea Sherpa-Zimmermann is a co-founder of the trekking and expedition agency Wild Yak Expeditions, and President of the non-governmental charity organization The Butterfly Help Project”.

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