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Top shot

Mr Ahluwalia with Phu Dorjee.

Mr Ahluwalia with Phu Dorjee.

Way back in 1965, when the India was making its third desperate attempt at scaling Mt. Everest, a number of questions were bothering its nine-member team. What if it turns out to be yet another unsuccessful bid what would be the reaction of the public and those in the corridors of power for it was the dream of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had just passed away, to see India’s tricolour flutter on the world’s highest point.. Equally, what kind of obstacles like an avalanche or a mythical Yeti would confront them during their quest for the Everest? Those questions might have cropped up in their minds but one member Major HPS Ahluwalia was single minded in his determination to conquer the world’s highest mountain.

It was his alertness, never say die attitude, along with resourcefulness, mental strength and camaraderie of other members that made India become the first nation to put nine men atop the Everest in a single expedition. Half a century later as India celebrates that momentous occasion , Ahluwalia, one of the surviving members of that historic expedition, says Everest taught him humility and has had a change in his character. To begin with, the third expedition began on an inauspicious note as an avalanche submerged Camp III and with it the life-sustaining oxygen cylinders.

“It seemed the avalanche had buried the hopes of our summit party reaching the top. The leader (Captain M. S. Kohli) had to call off the final attempt as without oxygen it was doomed to fail. I persuaded Captain Kohli that we should not give up as this was our last opportunity as Everest was to be closed for the next five years,” says Ahluwalia, sitting in his spacious room, well stocked with mountaineering books and memorabilia, at the Indian Spinal Injuries Centre in New Delhi.

After getting the consent from the leader, Ahluwalia and other members started relentless digging at Camp III.

“We were digging for two hours. It was exhausting and was soon turning out to be an exercise in futility. I kept praying ‘Oh! God please come to our rescue’ and suddenly my axe struck a cylinder. A few more whacks through the thick stone and we soon located two and three cylinders. Most Everest experts would describe it as good luck but is was nothing short of miracle for us.”

However, the ascent was not a cakewalk as high up on the altitude, Ahluwalia began gasping for breath as his cylinder, recovered from the avalanche, began leaking. “The pipe was unusually long and I, inadvertently, stepped on it. Consequently, it developed a hole and I could barely breathe. Normally at such an altitude one’s mind stops working but I quickly realised that I need to take out the adhesive tape from the camera and put it on the pipe. I did and starting inhaling the oxygen.”

Just when it looked that things were getting back into normal, Ahluwalia saw a tall figure moving towards him. “An excited Phu Dorjee told him it was Yeti. It was waving a hand at us and when it came near we were relieved to find out that it was one of our members.”

Amidst all this thoughts of fulfilling Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream were far from his mind.

“It was Pandit Nehru’s mission to see India’s tricolour flutter on the world’s highest point. The first two expeditions in 1960 and 1962 failed due to bad weather. There was pressure to emerge successful but my priority was the job at hand. As far as I was concerned there was me and the mountain. We would take one step and then rest and then continue. We would be greeted by a small ridge; we would cross one and then find another. Only God knows how many ridges we had to cross before breaking the world record,” says Ahluwalia.

Surprisingly, there was behavioural change in his personality. Before his world-record feat, he is brutally frank enough to admit that he would easily lose his cool.

“The good thing about Everest is that even if you scale it the success doesn’t go to your head. In fact, you become more humble. Earlier, I would lose my cool. It taught me humility. When you reach the top you feel that you are like a tiny insect. Also while descending you feel sad because you would never get to climb a higher altitude than Everest.”

Normally, after scaling the Everest there would have been euphoria and jubilation but Ahluwalia, who was 26-year-old then, had an onerous responsibility on his shoulders. As the official photographer, he had to capture as many pictures as possible. “We had to show that indeed we had conquered the world’s highest mountain. We were hungry and heaved a sigh of relief when I was offered coffee by team member Phu Dorjee.”

Ahluwalia’s never-say-die attitude continued as he refused to give up when a few months after the Everest conquest a bullet injury during the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 confined him to a wheelchair. For someone, who by a cruel fate of destiny has become immobilised, has some advice for the youth – do outdoor activities. He feels it is high time that mountaineering as well as disaster management were made compulsory in schools.


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Printable version | May 22, 2022 1:17:07 am | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/hps-ahluwalias-top-shot-everest-expedition/article7241567.ece