It was one o’clock in the afternoon and it was getting sweltering hot in the bylanes of Katmandu. The summer was at its peak. Gagan and Varun were famished and were looking for a place to have their lunch after drifting through the markets all through the morning. They had gathered sufficient information about their treks which they wanted to undertake next year. This was their first visit to Nepal and they had thoroughly enjoyed trekking in the Himalayas. It was their last day in the country and they had a flight to catch in the evening to Mumbai.
They stumbled upon the iconic restaurant ‘Rum Doodle’1 as they were scouting for a place to eat. Gagan was pleasantly surprised. He remembered having vaguely read about the restaurant on the net. As they entered the restaurant they saw the easy-going atmosphere in there with a lot of foreigners sipping on their beers and coffees. Most of them were mountaineering enthusiasts. Gagan and Varun slipped in and placed their orders. It was then that Gagan noticed the memorabilia hanging on the walls; the wall of fame as it was known.
“Look at this Varun.” He drew Varun’s attention.
“What is it?” His friend quipped. He looked at it with vague indifference.
“It’s the footmarks of all the Everest Summiteers.” He was admiring it with a childlike fascination.
Every single Everest summiteer’s footprint had a place of pride on the wall. Gagan was thrilled and mesmerized by the sight. He was an avid trekker and had trekked in the Sahyadris and in the Himalayas. Just the fact that he was standing in a place where every single person who had set his foot on Everest, had passed through and earned his place on the wall, gave him goosebumps!
It was the first time he felt the urge to have his name placed on that wall. He would henceforth nurture a secret desire to be on top of the world, the highest point on earth; to book a place in the annals of history by summitting Everest, ‘Chomolungma’ or ‘Sagarmatha’ as it is known to locals. The dream and desire had started taking shape in his mind. But was it ever going to be possible, he wondered.
Gagan had just finished his graduation from Mulund College of Commerce. He was a topper throughout his academic years. Coming from a family of third generation businessmen, he had natural gifted talent of number crunching. His father was a prominent broker on the Dalal Street. He wanted Gagan to join his business and take it to other suburbs in the city and expand in the state by setting up franchises. He had hopes and expectations from Gagan.
Gagan hardly found any solace and satisfaction working with numbers. The reports, analysis, the stocks, derivatives, alphas, and the ROEs; he found it drab and boring. It was not that he was not good at it, in fact, he had a very sharp mind and a hold on the subject. His father knew and noticed it. He asked him one day.
“What’s the matter son?” he said, “Don’t you find your job at the bank satisfying?”
“Why don’t you join our business? You have enough experience now. Work with me.”
“It’s not that Dad. I need to think, whether this is what I want to do, I am still not sure.”
“Do you want to study further? You can get a scholarship to go to the best schools in Europe. Maybe even a place at LSE. I can help you with finances if you want.”
Gagan did not commit anything to his dad. But his mind was racing. What did he want to do? Was he cut out for the job at the Dalal Street? He did not know it himself. What fascinated him and made his heart happy was something different. He was only contemplating whether he wanted to do it so desperately.
Back in his high school days, Gagan and his friends had trekked a lot in the Sahyadris. They used to go to weekend hikes organized by the various hiking clubs in the city. He had been to most of the forts in Maharashtra. In the vacation after his tenth standard board exams, he had gone trekking in the Himalayas for the first time. The ‘Sar Pass trek.‘ His first trekking expedition. The mountains had fascinated him. He realized that they made him happy and joyous. They made him come back to them. And indeed, he went back to them very regularly.
What followed was a streak of trekking expeditions, first the simple ones like the Chandrakhani, Pindari, and Kedarkantha; and then the more challenging ones like Stok Kangri and Chadar Trek. In the year after his HSC exams, he and his friends went for the Basic Mountaineering Course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering in Uttarkashi. It was followed a year later by an Advanced course at Manali. The training and exposure were gradually turning an adventure into a passion.
The Nepal trip had finally sowed the seeds of taking the passion to the final level. To set foot atop Mt. Everest. The dream had taken shape. Gagan was dreaming dreams which no one else could see! Not even his father.
Gagan and his friends of the local trekking group started crowdfunding their dream. They approached various corporate as well as sports bodies for it. They asked the local political leaders to chip in resources. They were still short on funds, as the per head cost ran into a crore of rupees.
Gagan finally broke the news to his father. He told him about his dream and his planned expedition. His father was taken aback. He had never traveled anywhere except for business. He did not know what to say.
“I thought you were going abroad for studies. What is this Gagan? Are you sure you want to do this? You understand the risks involved. What am I going to say to your mother?”
“Don’t worry Dad, I know this is what I want. I have trained myself for this. I think I am now prepared, for the big league.” He assured his father.
His father took his time. He was not convinced. He tried his best to dissuade Gagan. His mother tried reasoning it out with him. Reluctantly, they yielded. His Dad knew Gagan was very headstrong and he appreciated that fact. With a worried and caring heart of a father, he finally agreed.
“Gagan, If that is your wish and if it’s going to make you happy, so be it. You require any help?”
“Dad, as a matter of fact, we are short of funding. Some help would do us good.”
“Okay son, consider it done. And hey, all the best.”
Exactly, one year later, Gagan and his team were stationed at Camp 4. They were on the South Cole route to Everest, the most commonly taken route. It resembled moonscape, a small opening where they were perched. This was probably the closest you could get to space from earth!
They were to attempt the summit early morning. About three groups had started the ascent; Finnish, Chinese and Indian. The weather was as good as it could be, the skies were spotless. The other peaks of the Himalayan ranges appeared tiny from this vantage point. They slowly inched their way to Hilary’s step; the Khumbu Ice Fall and Base camp appeared so distant from there!
Gagan was taking a single breath at a time. His lungs were fighting for oxygen. His body was not responding to his commands. He was in the death zone. Well above eight thousand meters. Every step was like a giant struggle. His nose was blistered, his ears numb. His legs were trembling. His body was telling him to stop. His mind was struggling and egging him to go on. He could see the Finnish team already near the summit. He told himself, ‘You want your footprint at Rum Doodle. If you stop now, it will all be for nothing.’
Finally, he could see the white edge ending over the horizon. From there onwards, it was the downslope. The North face of Everest!
At exactly 07.03 a.m. IST, he opened his satellite phone. The Tri-Color was fluttering in the background. His team was posing for a selfie. Gagan dialed the number. Dad answered it on the first ring. He was waiting for the call the whole night.
“Dad I have summitted. I am on top.”
With that, he started sobbing as tears rolled down his cheeks. The team hugged each other. He had a look all around. He wanted to freeze and hardwire that image forever in his brain. They had little time. The descent had to begin. That was more treacherous than the climb. A final deep breath of the pure rarified air and they started their journey back home.
Three years had passed after Gagan had placed his footprint in ‘Rum Doodle.’ He was expecting his Dad and was meeting him after six months. They were visiting him for the first time in Manali. They had just heard wonderful stories of his adventures on the phone. Sitting at his Dalal street office, his Dad often smiled to himself and was happy for his son and for himself. He thought he had taken the right decision, of letting Gagan do what he wanted. He was now known everywhere as Gagan’s Dad. Gagan was now a celebrity.
Gagan welcomed his Mom and Dad at his office at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute where he was now a full-time faculty. He showed them around the place with pride. He showed his photo that hung in the institute’s Hall of Fame, amongst the great mountaineers.
Gagan then took them to his adventure resort “Whistling Heights,” which he had set up catering to the mountaineering and adventure enthusiasts. He was making a handsome profit now. The resort conducted and organized small treks, rock climbing, river crossing, rappelling, white river rafting, biking, and similar activities. His Dad was pleased to know the progress Gagan had made since his last visit.
“So what’s up son? You are doing very well for yourself. I am happy to see your progress.”
“Nothing much. The institute work keeps me very busy. And a couple of projects that I am working on.” Gagan responded with a twinkle in his eyes.
His Dad eyed him suspiciously and said, “Now what are you up to son? Don’t shock me. As it is, there is nothing higher than Everest.”
“Well, Now that you have brought it up. Let me be honest with you.”
“I am planning to do the Eight-Thousanders3.” Said Gagan.
“They are all the peaks above eight thousand meters, Dad. Fourteen in total.”
1. Rum doodle restaurant is a restaurant in Kathmandu that pays tribute to the greatest mountaineers that have set their feet on Mt Everest.
2. The Ascent of Rum : Doodle is a short 1956 novel by W. E. Bowman (1911–1985). It is a parody of the non-fictional chronicles of mountaineering expeditions (notably H. W. Tilman‘s account of the ascent of Nanda Devi and Maurice Herzog‘s book Annapurna chronicling the first ascent of Annapurna in Nepal) that were popular during the 1950s, as many of the world’s highest peaks were climbed for the first time.
3. Eight Thousanders :The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation or UIAA recognise eight-thousanders as the 14 mountains that are more than 8,000 metres (26,247 ft) in height above sea level.