The neglected mountaineer
By : Seema Sengupta
Is the disappearance of Indian lady mountaineer Chhanda Gayen in the Kanchenjunga massif last month the first foreign policy failure of India’s newly anointed Modi government?
The climber along with two Sherpas was reportedly swept away by an avalanche on the higher reaches when she diverted her trail toward Mount Yalung Kang after successfully summiting Kanchenjunga.
Chhanda, incidentally, is a world record holder for conquering Mount Everest and Lhotse consequently without returning to the base camp in 2013.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot escape responsibility for the country’s failure to put in place an emergency evacuation plan to rescue Chhanda. He might not have taken charge officially when the incident occurred, but a personal request to Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala — an invitee to Modi’s oath-taking ceremony — for appropriate action would have worked wonders under the given circumstances.
In the absence of any prodding from the top, a deep penetration ground rescue mission involving high altitude professional mountain rescue experts was never launched. Instead, helicopters conducted superficial reconnaissance sorties over the snow-clad mountainous terrain to trace Chhanda and her missing Sherpa colleagues unsuccessfully.
Even though, the first 24 hours after an accident is extremely crucial for high altitude evacuation of this scale, the joint Indo-Nepali rescue team ended up wasting precious time on deliberations in Kathmandu — hundreds of kilometers away from ground zero. Intriguing it is that Modi failed to take up the matter with his Nepali counterpart in spite of Rahul Sinha, West Bengal provincial chief of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) assuring Chhanda’s family of providing institutional assistance at the central level. So, was the BJP playing to the gallery even as the missing mountaineer’s distraught family groped in the dark about her fate?
True, the indomitable zeal for climbing coupled with intense passion for adventure and an appetite to take adequate risk draws a climber back to the lofty snowy mountain peaks time and again. Yalung Kang, the western Kanchenjunga peak that Chhanda was attempting to climb is treacherous at its higher reaches. The deadly crevasses, steep ice-walls and huge ice-blocks make any expedition to conquer it challenging in all sense. While surmounting this environment of mortal risk, death stares at the expedition team very closely every second. And a mountaineer loves to go through these breathtaking moments despite all odds. But does that mean nations that mountaineers represents in the form of carrying the respective national flags to the summit will leave them in the lurch when the need arises? Why was India’s foreign secretary — daughter of a former intelligence chief herself — passive all throughout? Even the Indian external intelligence station chief in Kathmandu was very apathetic and did not find it necessary to activate his assets based in southeastern Nepal immediately after the accident was reported. Surely, both are aware of the strategic importance of such peaks, which have immense value in terms of signal surveillance.
In the early 1960s, when China had tested a nuclear device in Xinjiang, the 8579 meters long and strategically located Kanchenjunga was the chosen peak for installation of a communication interpreter. Did it not occurred to anybody in India that Chhanda had actually raised Rs3.5 million from sponsors and other sources — almost double the amount normally required for summiting two above 8,000 meters peaks simultaneously? Let us not forget that an agile Chhanda, who is also an expert in martial art, would have been an invaluable asset for any intelligence agency seeking to hire mountaineers for carrying classified load to the peak. After all, it is not unusual for the security apparatus worldwide to engage freelance mountaineering experts for strategic missions atop the snowy mountains. Since the early 20th century — starting with the German expedition to Tibet in 1930s in the garb of conducting Anthropological research — the majestic Himalayan mountain range and its adjoining territories have witnessed intense undercover activities. Nepal too has been a fairly major theatre for covert foreign intelligence action traditionally.
Modi does owe an answer to not only mountaineer Chhanda’s family but also to the fraternity as a whole. Though, to be fair to him, successive governments in India have been lackadaisical to the woes of these indomitable mountaineers. The sports ministry has never cared to intervene as the climbers face tremendous difficulty in arranging the exorbitant fund required for launching such expeditions. In almost all cases, mountaineers are forced to run from pillar to post for mobilizing money. Coming from not very affluent families these brave hearts are required to dip into their hard-earned savings, avail loan at high interest rates, sale family valuables and even mortgage immovable assets while the corporate sector hardly sponsors such adventurous sporting activity due to low visibility.
Indeed, from a marketing perspective, sponsorship is all about finding ways to connect to the target audience for enhancing brand loyalty and hiking the market share of product. Lack of live-stream of mountaineering expeditions thus deters corporate houses from sponsoring mountaineers even as the 8,000 meters plus peaks are getting overcrowded with climbers each passing day. Perhaps, the government can help Indian mountaineers to obtain decent financial support by offering tax concessions to sponsors in order to ensure that the passion of climbers are not exploited unnecessarily.
Finally, while Nepal has opened 104 new peaks — including Yalung Kang — for climbing to boost mountain tourism, augmenting safety by introducing well-equipped and specialized high-altitude, rapid-action ground rescue groups consisting of sniffer dogs is a must.
Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.