“When we lost these three people, I was the fourth, I was with them,” he says, gazing beyond me. “I’m in front of you today, but if I would have tried, I would be gone. It’s only God’s gift that I am alive.”
Summit fever, he suspects, had overtaken his men.
At last, at 15:00 that afternoon, an anxious Singh, awaiting news from Advanced Base Camp, heard his walkie-talkie sputter to life. It was Smanla. He had called to inform that they are heading towards the summit.
It wasn’t until 17:35 that Singh heard back from his men. A flood of relief and excitement washed over him as Smanla announced that he, Paljor and Morup were standing on the summit. Even as Singh stressed the importance of returning as soon as possible, he began looking forward to the triumphant message that he would send to New Delhi announcing his team’s victory.
Celebrations immediately ensued, both at home and at camp. The men had just set a record for their country. Whether Paljor and his teammates actually summited, however, was later called into question. Krakauer and others suspect that the men unintentionally stopped 150m (500ft) short of the peak, believing – due to increasingly bad weather and the mental haze of high altitude – that they had reached the top. Despite the uncertainty, however, they are credited with the ascent, as the trophies Tashi Angmo later received on behalf of her dead son attest. As Singh says: “They made it, they accepted that they made it, and I confirmed it.”
Yet the jubilant feeling at camp was to be short-lived. Shortly after Smanla called, the weather, which had been steadily deteriorating, broke. The infamous 1996 blizzard had arrived, cloaking the mountain in a fury of snow and wind. Trying to keep his fears at bay, Singh told himself that the men would be fine, that they had dealt with worst weather in the past. If they hustled, they could even make it back to Camp VI by midnight. “However,” he later recalled, “this did not happen.”