Chronicle of a magnificent conquest - Sunita Singh Chocken (also known as Jenny Chocken) conquered a virgin peak in the Himalayas (19,700 ft. high) in June, 2017. Following is an account of the adventure, which I have put together with the help of Jenny Chocken and her sister Jen Chocken.
The Annoying Reporter:
I put down the report in my hand with some annoyance. The account held a meticulous record of an expedition in the Himalayas. I was told that it was meant to be submitted to the authorities as a truthful and comprehensive account of an ascent to a virgin peak in one of the remote Himalayan ranges. I did not like the report. While being thorough and detailed, it had done little justice to the spirit of adventure and the great drama that such an adventure must have entailed.
I have the fortune of knowing Sunita (Jenny Chocken), the leader of this mountaineering group, through her sister Jen, who is an accomplished climber herself. Both are dear friends of mine.
Jen had given me the chronicle for a quick review. I told her that the extraordinary feat of the adventurers was evident, although the writeup was rather ordinary. The writer had taken an exceptional care to knock out all romance and thrill out of his description. Jen defended the writer by saying that an official report has the sole obligation and responsibility to bear out exacts facts and events. Upon further coaxing I discovered that the author is a career software engineer, who once had a luxuriant childhood and presently enjoys an opulent and indolent lifestyle. In other words, a rich spoilt kid turned into an unimaginative professional with limited sensitivity and almost no appreciation for adventure.
The story of this adventure has already created some excitement among the public and the press, but a full account has not yet been prepared or made available. I sought permission from the sisters to write and publish the popular account of this riveting journey through a hitherto unexplored and untraversed trail in the snowfields of the Himalayas. Admittedly, the report, which carries the technical details of the climb, and which I deemed to be dull and uninspiring, has indeed helped me to fix the dates and timings of the expedition. Sunita and her sister furnished me with further details in order for me to compile the following chronicle.
The Call For the Unknown:
Sunita Singh Chocken (popularly known as Jenny Chocken) commands a high respect in the mountaineering community. She is the youngest woman from Haryana to have conquered Mt. Everest. But that was not enough for her. She had the ambition to conquer a virgin peak in the Himalayas. But, it was of course another matter to find the resources for the expedition. India is indeed a strange country. While it invests billions in beauty pageants and fashion ramps, it cannot care any less for its athletes and explorers. The mountaineers confront a serious challenge when it comes to acquiring funds for their expeditions. Sunita would very often need to explain why she would rather trek across treacherous crevices instead of enjoying a lavish holiday on the beach. The beckoning of the unknown, the thrill of a fresh conquest, the compelling desire to test the limit of endurance of the body and the mind, namely the forces which drive the human race forward coupled with a great love for the mountains motivate her in ways beyond the appreciation of the commonplace.
Sunita had set her mind to discover a route to Mt. MB-17, a virgin range of peaks at an altitude of approximately 19,700 ft. Back in 2012, she had conducted a reiki of the terrain, north of Gomukh. She had observed the gamut set in the mountains, unvanquished and strange to human contact. A rare opportunity for a mountaineer --- she reckoned. The tradition in the mountaineering community mandates that as soon as someone steps on the summit of a virgin peak, she earns the right to give it a name. Sunita wanted to add a name to the revered list of the Himalayan peaks --- Mt. Everest, Kanchenjunga, Lhotse etc. She had also thought of a name for her conquest --- "Peak Maa-Beti", an accomplishment she would want to dedicate to the girl child of India.
Sunita prepared and trained well for the excursion. It took her almost an year to convince her sponsors and obtain the wherewithal for the expedition. In her Haryana home she mentally chalked out her path, contacted her trusted guide Vishveshvar Semwal (Vishnu Bhaiji) and handpicked 5 other members for her team. She realised that the climb would be extremely technical, and she would have to bring forth all her expertise and experience to achieve the summit.
Ganga Arati at Gangotri - A Sight to Behold
Finally, on May 20th, 2017 a team of 7 seasoned mountaineers, led by Sunita, set forth from Delhi to conquer what had so far eluded human reach. At Uttarkashi they conducted a thorough scrutiny of their equipment, and satisfied themselves that their gears were in best order. Thereafter, the party bought food, medicine and other useful provisions for the excursion. The climbers reached Gangotri on the 24th of May, from where the adventure would begin in all earnest.
Ganga Arati is a delectable spectacle. The river Ganges starts from the Gomukh glacier, and then flows through Gangotri down to the great Indian plains. Along her banks from Gangotri to Haridwar to Varanasi to Patna to Kolkata this ritual has been performed for hundreds of years. The mountaineers gathered on the river bank at the onset of dusk. Hundreds of torches lit up the cold evening, as priests and devotees chanted the vesper, offering their tribute to the lifeline of India. The reflection of the brilliant torches shimmered against the swift current, which swirled around in foams and meandered rapidly through the gathering darkness. On the following day the climbers would follow the river up to her origin at Gomukh. From there, the team would have to discover, pave and traverse the path to the remote and unexplored peak of the Himalayas. Earlier in the day, the team had sorted their loads such that the burden gets evenly distributed among the porters. The entire team was eagerly looking forward to the upcoming adventure.
Day 1: May 26th, 2017 - Bhojbasha
On the morning of May 26th, the party started from Gangotri towards Bhojbasa in small groups. Bhojbasha is the last point en-route to Gomukh where travellers can find temporary shelter. The groups trekked at different speeds, and reached Bhoojbasha before 3 pm. Thereafter, the entire team climbed up to Gomukh in order to attain a suitable degree of acclimatisation with the mountainous terrain and climate. They returned to find a hot dinner waiting for them, and following a hearty repast they made plans for the next day. At around 7 pm Sunita adjourned the meeting and enjoined the climbers to retire for the night.
Day 2: May 27th, 2017 - Spirit of a Mountaineer
"Watch out!" Sunita yelled. The party had just crossed the Gomukh glacier and was near a T-junction, where the route bifurcates. One of the paths is well traversed and leads towards Tapovan, while the other would take them to the summit yet unknown to human presence. Here, they noticed that a group of tourists, who had climbed down the Tapovan trail, were resting on some loose rocks. Rockslides are common in this terrain, and the possibility of one prompted Sunita to shout out the warning. Her experienced eye had just observed that some mountain goats were roaming about, a disturbance than can cause rocks to roll down in these young fold mountains. As soon as the tourists had moved out of their resting spot, big boulders came thundering down, and missed them by a whisker.
Sunita had just demonstrated the spirit of a mountaineer. As a climber she would do everything in her power to conquer the peak she had set out to scale. However, as a mountaineer she would always put the safety and well being of her fellow climbers (even if they did not belong to her team) above everything else. Her mentor and trainer Chandraprabha Aitwal, a 75 year old mountaineer, had once abandoned the opportunity to summit Mt. Everest in order to bring an ailing companion back to the base camp. She was just a few hundred feet away from making history, and yet the life of a friend became her priority. She was indeed Sunita's role model. Sunita could never look up to the selfish climber who ignores a dying friend en-route to personal glory. For a true mountaineer the ascent is in the heart as much as it is in the hills.
The team made it to the base camp (altitude: 14,500ft) at around 2:30 pm, where they put up their tents. The climbers looked in excellent shape and mentally braced to undertake the long and hard excursion through crevices, cliffs and glaciers.
Day 3 and Day 4: May 28th and May 29th, 2017 - Preparations at the Base Camp
The base camp is an important milestone for a mission. The crucial groundwork for the expedition is laid here. On the 28th of May, the team directed its energy to ensure the safety arrangements for the onward and upward journey. They converted few of their fixed ropes into daisy chains (to be used as a harness while climbing up a steep gradient), while with the rest they created slings for snow stakes. They fixed crampons to their climbing boots and trained for a while on the moraines. They built between 50 to 60 sticks and attached red marking ribbons to them. The route opening team would use these markers to warn and ward off the succeeding climbers from treacherous footings.
Sunita pays very close attention to minute details, since the success of the mission critically depends on meticulous planning. She prepares and strictly adheres to a diet plan, which enumerates the amount of food, water, sugar and salt that needs to be partaken on each day of the climb. She is keenly aware of the high altitude afflictions such as dehydration, hill diarrhoea etc, and takes every precaution to defend her team from such threats. The next day the team conducted a thorough survey of the terrain. The nature of the rocks, cliffs, snow, ice and the gradient determine the techniques that the climbers would employ to scale the mountain. They discovered that moraines dominated the area instead of the ice cover they had expected to find. After a useful reconnaissance they returned to their camp and went off to sleep, satisfied with the day’s work.
Day 5 and Day 6: May 30th and May 31st, 2017 - Carry Your Own Burden
The human civilisation is all about delegation. At the first opportunity we transfer our burden to whoever we can bend to carry it. But mountaineers have no such luxury. Load ferrying is an overhead for their mission, which they cannot skirt around. They get some assistance at the lower altitudes, but the porters generally do not advance beyond the base camp. So far the team only had to trek, but from this point the climb would begin. An ascent of some 1200 ft from the base camp would bring them to camp-1 at an altitude of 15,700 ft. They ferried their equipment, provisions and other possessions in two instalments up the steep path to camp-1. After having secured their heavier luggage at camp-1, they climbed down to basecamp, from where they would resume at daybreak with the rest of their belongings.
The next morning the team woke up, exhausted with the exertions of the previous day. Sunita climbed with Vishnu and Gumaan with another instalment of load to camp-1. The rest stayed back at the basecamp to recover and recuperate. They would follow their captain's trail the next day, with the final few pieces of equipment and gear.
Day 7: June 1st, 2017 - Camp-1: The Captain and Her Subaltern Open the Route
Camp-1 was at 15,700 ft. Sunita stepped out of her tent and was joined by Vishnu, as they both looked thoughtfully at the vast landscape in front of them. A bitter cold wind cut through the layers of clothing they were wearing. Vishnu started clicking pictures with his camera. These photographs, along with the daily journal that Sunita was recording, would help them to stitch together a detailed account of their expedition. Such accounts are invaluable for the mountaineering communities, especially since this was a maiden climb to a virgin peak. Expeditions to Mt. Everest, Lhotse etc are difficult and exacting, but the risks along the way are well assessed, allowing mountaineers to prepare adequately in advance. Himalaya is an endless gamut of imposing peaks, valleys, ridges and passes, much of which is shrouded in mystery. Over the last hundred years mountain lovers, climbers and archaeologists have relentlessly sought to uncover the secret passes, remote valleys and unknown glaciers, in the course of which many have laid down there lives as well. Sunita is one in the long line of such brave explorers, who want to extend the frontiers of human reach.
After breakfast Sunita, Vishnu and Gumaan went out to gather intelligence about the territory they were about to traverse. A cursory glance immediately revealed that a gruelling climb, and an inclement terrain awaited the climbers. Vishnu expertly paved the path for the expedition by fixing ropes for a harness and sticks with red ribbons to mark dangerous areas. This exercise is known as route-opening, a responsibility generally assigned to the most skilled and experienced. A little ahead they got the first glimpse of the peak they had set out to summit. Vishnu took photographs of the riveting view, upon which they climbed back to camp-1, where their friends from the basecamp had just arrived. The photographs cheered the team immensely. As they retired for the night, the jaded climbers simmered in eager anticipation of a triumphant advance to the summit.
Day 8: June 2nd, 2017 - Vale of Death
"Ohhh!" One of the climbers groaned, as she fought to gain grip with her ice axe and crampons on the slippery ice. Each upward step was extremely laborious. They had to first get a grip on the surface of the ice, with their ice axe. Thereafter they needed to stamp hard on the ground with their crampons to pull the body upwards and retain balance. This process would have to be repeated at least a thousand times for the next 8 hours. Sunita had warned her colleagues that the route leading up from camp-1 was tough, treacherous, technical and vulnerable to frequent rockslides.
The Himalayan snow fields looked gorgeous on the sun bathed morning. However, the sun and the wind tore at the climbers’ skin, peeling it off from under their eyes. The breathtaking scenery could not belie the fact that a cold and cruel death awaited the mountaineers at every possible misstep. The team followed their captain across the valley of death and up a 75-degree gradient .The seven mountaineers sang loudly to urge themselves on as deadly rocks whistled past their ropes, and their limbs ached under the heavy load they were carrying. The ascent became steeper and stiffer, and finally the stress, fatigue and the angst began to drain all their energy. The team climbed the last part of this fearsome trail in total silence, and after 8 hours of superhuman effort the climbers finally reached a ridge. A magnificent view rewarded the fatigued men and women. The entire range of the virgin peaks was outlined against a bright, blue sky. The sight instantly washed away their fatigue and filled them with renewed hope and energy. Thereupon, they undertook the more difficult task of climbing down the valley on the other side. The group reached camp-2 (17, 100 ft.) at around 4 pm.
Generally, in the evenings the explorers would entertain themselves by playing cards. But on this day they abandoned their pastime and stepped outside to admire the resplendent view. Dusk was falling, and the elusive colours of twilight tinged the mountains, valleys and the snow. The sight was indeed magical and mesmerising.
Day 9: June 3rd, 2017 - March Through the Missiles
The team thought that they had already seen the worst. However, they were up against a deadlier climb on the 3rd of June. On that day Sunita started with Vishnu and Gumaan at 5:00 am to open the route. They climbed through a steep and dangerous valley redolent of Hanuman Tibba’s Tentu pass and Deo Tibba’s Dwangal Coul – two of the most dangerous passes known to the mountaineering community. The rocks were untrustworthy, and therefore every step was fraught with risk.
At the end of the valley they found a stream running through the rocks. A closer inspection revealed that they were in fact looking at an unnamed and undiscovered glacier, which was feeding the rivulet. They jumped across the rocks on the riverbed to reach the other side. The track that followed was probably the most dangerous they had encountered during their entire expedition. It was a narrow ice covered ascent squeezed between two mountains, and rocks bounced against the walls of the cliffs, falling in a zigzag trajectory. The climbers were not wearing helmets, and hence were hard pressed to take evasive actions in such a constricted space. Somehow, they eschewed the missiles and finally reached the first shoulder of the peak. It had indeed been a close brush with death. Sunita signalled over the wireless to her colleagues in camp-2 that the path was open for them to scale. They discovered that shoulder-1 was not suitable to put up the tents. They progressed to shoulder-2, which proved to be equally unfit for the night’s refuge. They collected rocks to create a reasonably smooth surface for setting up the tent. After labouring for two and half hours, their summit camp at an altitude of 18,800 ft. was finally established.
Night of June 3rd, 2017 - Summit Camp
The climbers were exhausted, as they sat uncomfortably inside the cramped summit camp. A dull moon was shining from the star lit sky. The silver rays of the moon reflected against the white valley, transporting the silent night into a land of fantasy and magic. Dinner was a simple matter with noodles and chocolate. The nourishment was necessary to maintain the energy levels. Battle would resume in a matter of hours, but victory was nigh.
The climbers had fallen into a restless slumber. They woke up at 2 am to an unpleasant surprise. A warm beverage is imperative before an early morning hike. But the stove had stopped working --- there was no way to warm water or make tea. It took them a few hours before they could thaw ice and obtain some water. Sunita quickly spotted the problem the team would soon have to deal with -- dearth of water. Dehydration poses a grave challenge in the mountains. While the sun and the cold scorches the exposed skin, the covered portions sweat profusely under the layers of wool. Therefore, a continuos supply of fresh water is required to compensate for the loss of fluid. A very small thing such as a malfunctioning stove can throw an entire expedition into jeopardy.
Day 10: June 4th, 2017 - Peak Maa-Beti
Finally, at 6 am the team commenced its final push towards the invincible. They harnessed themselves to a rope, creeping ever so slowly towards the pinnacle. The bitter wind and the steep ascent tested the limit of their fitness and stamina. The team charged on and at 9 am. set foot on the first peak of the gamut. They had climbed upto 19,714 ft. (Sunita would name this Peak Maa). From Peak Maa they could see another rocky point. They relentlessly pursued that height as well, and touched 19720 ft. (Peak Beti). Sunita’s eyes swelled with emotion as she gazed upon the magnificent array of Himalyan peaks that surrounded peak Maa-Beti. Mt. Sudarshan, Shivling, Meru and many such formidable crests were smiling down at her in silent reverence. Nature had thrown every impediment at her path, and yet she had vanquished the insuperable. As Sunita stood proudly with her fellow climbers and chanted the Hanuman Chalisa, a loud and clear message rang across the Himalayan snow range unto the greats plains of the subcontinent. “Do not kill the girl child in the womb. Otherwise, how are they going to breach the barriers, conquer fresh horizons, and bring glory to the nation and the human race?”.
Sunita knew that water was scarce and provisions were running low. She ordered her team to commence the descent back to civilisation.
Victory, victory !!
The descent back to civilisation was not easy either. They had to drag their tired bodies through the same route back to the base camp. The entire team reached base camp on the 6th of June. The porters then helped them to get their luggage back to Gangotri.
A few days later Sunita was back in her hometown. The entire town of Rewari came down to congratulate her. Important men such as the local MLA and the police commissioner spoke in her felicitation. The press was all over her house. Victory was indeed hers.
I was listening to the story in rapt attention. Finally I asked a question. “When you guys sleep under the stars in the mountains do you never feel scared? You told me that you sometimes hear the sound of rocks falling in the distance. Surely a rockslide or a glacier can pulverise a camp in no time?” “Yes it can” the simplicity and the directness of the reply caught me off guard. I suddenly realised that my world was so different from theirs. I was reminded of the retort that the great British mountaineer George Mallory gave when he was asked “Why did you want to climb the Mt. Everest?” He had replied “Because it's there". Adventure for the sake of adventure is beyond the comprehension of a commoner like me.
As I write this document the cartographers of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation are adding the newly named peaks to the Himalayan map. In a couple of months two more names would feature along with Everest, Lhostse and the kinds on the map of India - Peak Maa-Beti.