reportage Sport

Out of Thin Air

West Bengal’s unlikely love for mountaineering

By PADMAPARNA GHOSH | 1 February 2017

SUNITA HAZRA carefully settled into a plastic chair in her house in Barasat, a town 26 kilometres north-east of Kolkata. One of her arms was in a plaster cast, and a few fingertips were blackened with frostbite—they were due to be amputated in a week. A stray cat prowled at the door. Hazra asked her husband, Sudeb, where her medicines were. Then, she recounted the tragic and controversial climbing expedition to Everest that she had been part of a couple of months earlier, in May last year.

Hazra had embarked on the expedition along with three teammates—Subhash Pal, Paresh Nath and Goutam Ghosh—all of whom died during the climb. While Pal had run out of oxygen, Nath and Ghosh died from exposure. She herself escaped death by a whisker, after she was rescued by Leslie John Binns, a British climber, who abandoned his summit quest after he found Hazra in distress.

Hazra told me that at one point, while she was struggling to make her way down to safety, she came across Bir Bahadur, a Nepali mountain guide who had been hired to help Pal. She asked him how Pal was doing.

Woh udhar baith gaya”—he sat down over there, Bahadur replied. Hazra immediately knew what had happened. “Did anyone try to pull him up?” she wondered as she narrated her account. “I was also about to die, and what if Pasang”—her Nepali guide—“just said, ‘Didi udhar baith gayi.’”

But she survived. After the expedition, Hazra claimed she had reached the mountain’s summit, but the Nepal government refused to give her a summit-success certificate, as she was unable to produce required evidence—videos, photos or testimony of a mountain guide.

Neither the expedition nor the controversy that followed has diminished her love for the mountains. As a child, Hazra recalled reading stories of expeditions published in the Bengali-language newspaper Ananda Bazar Patrika’s Sunday edition. “I read because I loved mountains,” she said, absentmindedly peeling layers of skin from her distressed fingers. Then, referring to the first two civilian Bengali mountaineers who scaled Everest, in 2010, she said, “When Basanta da and Debasish claimed Everest, they allowed all Bengalis to dream.”

HAZRA IS ONLY BEING slightly hyperbolic when she says “all Bengalis.” West Bengal, whose popular imagination is immortally linked to its rivers, fields and forests, also has an eccentric, yet pervasive, addiction to mountaineering. The handbook of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, or IMF, lists 101 mountaineering clubs in the state, while the Himalayan states of Nagaland, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh have one, two and four, respectively.

In the absence of high mountains within the state, initiation into climbing in West Bengal happens in the only rocky outcrops and cliffs available near Kolkata—in the hills of Bankura and Purulia districts. These hills in the west of the state are more an aberration on a tediously flat landscape than a part of it. Today, these areas are so oversubscribed by climbing clubs conducting training camps that the West Bengal Mountaineering and Adventure Sports Foundation, or WBMASF, has had to conduct a lottery for climbing slots in the past few years.
Clubs often conscript future members at climbing camps, where the fledglings are toughened up and prepared for expeditions. “I loved my first camp in Purulia,” Hazra told me at her house. “I liked waking up early, saying good morning to others. It was very disciplined and tough … I remember listening to stories of adventures from the instructors. How they survived.”

The genesis of mountaineering-club culture in West Bengal is often traced to a successful expedition by Bengalis to Nanda Ghunti in 1960. In the decades that followed, clubs sprouted up across the state, with many climbers juggling regular jobs along with Himalayan expeditions. Today, clubs are thriving, and the IMF’s annual expedition list is packed with the names of West Bengal clubs. New climbing walls are being constructed wherever there is space and funding, including in schools in small towns. Some climbers call this the “golden age of Bengal mountaineering,” with the past six years witnessing successful ascents of Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and, of course, Everest.

The state’s first successful civilian expedition to Everest, in 2010, led to a major boost in institutional support. For the past three years, the WBMASF has been giving Rs 5 lakh to climbers who aim to climb peaks 8,000 metres above sea level. In 2013, the government also started bequeathing a Rs 1 lakh prize to those who summit Everest. After the disappearance of the young mountaineer Chhanda Gayen on Kanchenjunga in 2014, the government also announced a bravery award worth Rs 75,000 for women who perform extraordinarily well in adventure sport.

While the IMF gives grants to many of these expeditions, Dipankar Ghosh, a 51-year-old veteran mountaineer who works as an advisor to the WBMASF, told me, “Our government also gives a matching grant to IMF’s amount, which can be around Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000.” Outside the WBMASF office, where I met Ghosh, a 17.5-metre-high climbing wall stood in the high afternoon sun, desolate in the heat. Next to Ghosh’s room was a large hall stocked tight with ropes, climbing gear and rows of boots for men and women.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister (who was also a union minister of youth affairs and sports in 1991), has a personal interest in mountaineering, which explains the government’s financial patronage. Ujjwal Roy, an advisor with the WBMASF and a police officer, recounted that Banerjee was the first one to call him after he summited Everest in 2013. “I got an urgent call that ‘madam’ was inquiring about me and my health,” he told me. “Also, when Chhanda went missing, she sent me with the rescue team the very next day.”

But like most phases of acceleration, this one too has seen its share of friction and sparks. One of the reasons for the proliferation of clubs today is the eruption of rivalries between climbers aspiring to conquer the same peaks. Many big clubs have split into smaller units, and individual fame has become the overriding goal for contemporary mountaineers. As a result, in recent years, many climbers have fallen deep into debt to fund expeditions, and there has been a rash of summit-claim disputes, which further fuel jealousy and hostility.

BENGALIS’ INFATUATION with snowy peaks goes as far back as the late eighteenth century. The earliest travels of Bengalis to the Himalayas were mostly inspired by religious sentiments—they were typically pilgrimages to temples or expeditions to meet holy men in icy caves.

The literary output from these early explorations was generous. Several of the adventurers were from affluent, established families—among them Gangadhar Gangopadhyay, who became famous as Swami Akhandananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, and Debendranath Thakur, the father of Rabindranath Tagore. In a letter written from Kashmir, Thakur tried to explain the origin of mountains: “Mountains arose from the ocean and went on to pierce the clouds to find Him but they couldn’t. And so they stood still.” Accounts of these explorations can still be found in the libraries of some of the older mountaineering clubs.

The history of contemporary mountaineering in West Bengal starts with a high-altitude loan of some leg warmers, in June 1957. At Garbiang village, now in Uttarakhand, Dhrubaranjan Majumder, of Kolkata’s Chowringhee neighbourhood, had a serendipitous meeting with Sukumar Roy, of Khidirpur. Majumder’s team was on its way down on the Kailash Mansarovar yatra, while Roy’s was trudging up. Roy had forgotten to bring strips of cloth he would need to tie on his feet to keep them warm. Majumder lent him his on a promise of their return.

When they met after Roy’s expedition, “they started talking about the Himalayas and felt the need for a community of mountain lovers,” Shyamal Sarkar, a joint secretary of the Parvat Abhiyatri Sangha, or PAS, a climbing club owned by the Ananda Bazaar Patrika Group, told me. “That was a great meeting of all-time great mountaineers, who formed the first civilian mountaineering club of India.”

Sarkar, a history fiend, has an uncannily detailed knowledge of the sport’s history in West Bengal. “Sukumar and Dhruba”—Majumder—“used to meet at the press of Dhruba’s brother at Number 2, British India Street,” in Kolkata, he told me. “Sukumar-da was calm, soft-spoken, reticent but had a lot of physical and mental strength. Dhruba-da was courageous, a positive thinker, but not as strong as Sukumar.”

These meetings in a small, dingy room, far from rarefied air, led to the inception of West Bengal’s first mountaineering club. It is at this point that Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay, the writer of several Bengali books on travel and mountains, and brother of the right-wing politician who founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Syama Prasad Mukherjee, stepped in. “Umaprasad was excited and he offered them money to form a club. He also connected Bishwadeb Biswas, a prominent mountaineer, to them. Finally, on March 12, 1960, the Himalayan Institute was formally opened at the Ashutosh Memorial Hall,” Sarkar said.

The same year, the institute initiated India’s first civilian expedition, to the 6,309-metre Nanda Ghunti, sponsored by the ABP Group. It was also the year that the Indian government sent the country’s maiden expedition to Mount Everest, which failed to summit.

The Nanda Ghunti expedition was riddled with controversies, among them one over the exclusion from it of non-Bengali members of the Himalayan Institute, such as Sesh Kumar Surana. Chanchal Mitra, an 82-year-old climbing veteran who was a member of the Himalayan Institute, recounted that Majumder told him that Surana “speaks in gol-gol Bangla”—a non-Bengali accent. “If I take him along, people will ask why I have brought a non-Bengali,” Mitra remembered Majumder saying. According to him, the Himalayan Institute president, Umaprasad, “got frustrated and resigned in despair.” Mitra said that the Bongal Kheda—an ethnic cleansing of Bengalis from the Northeast, especially Assam—played a part in stoking tensions. “It was a season of strong regionalism and the dominating sentiment was preservation of Bengalis.”

The expedition was a matter of prestige for West Bengal, as well as for the ABP Group and its owner, Ashok Kumar Sarkar, who came on board as chief benefactor. Sarkar had extensively interviewed Majumder for a book about the history of mountaineering in West Bengal that never got published. “Just three, four days before our departure, Mr Sarkar called us and showed us a letter,” Majumder is quoted as saying in one interview. “Our heart sank when we saw the letterhead. It was from the Prime Minister. The letter warned us that we were inexperienced and cavalier to attempt something like this and should cancel the expedition immediately. Mr Sarkar then asked to go ahead with our plans and that he would reply to it as he saw fit.” Indeed, when the successful team returned from the peak, the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, sent congratulatory messages. He also requested that the club’s name be changed to avoid confusion with the government-run Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. It was renamed the Himalayan Association.

In as close a thing to live-tweeting as one could get in 1960, Ananda Bazaar Patrika and Hindustan Standard, also of the ABP group, frequently published large photos of the men’s progress on the expedition and letter dispatches from the high passes. The staff reporter Gour Kishore Ghosh and photographer Birendranath Sinha, who accompanied the mountaineers up to a low camp, sent text and pictures from the expedition via runners who dispatched telegrams. In one front-page story, Ghosh reports, “Just now I am sending you a very exciting piece of news. Yeti footprints were seen by some members of the team on Ronti Glacier at 14,800 feet. These footprints of the mysterious gentleman or—men—or maybe lady or ladies—of the snowy mountain are not very far from our Camp I.” He ends it with a joke, “I am hoping to have the privilege of having an exclusive Press interview with their spokes (snow) man.”

On 28 October 1960, a headline of Hindustan Standard exclaimed, “Our boys are up there. Nanda Ghunti climbed.”

The 1980s were the biggest boom time for West Bengal clubs. According to an estimate by the mountaineer Gautam Dutta in the book Paahar Panchali, between 1979 and 1990, the number of clubs grew from 76 to almost 230. The total has dropped to around 150 today, according to unofficial estimates. The explosion in clubs, however, should be viewed cynically, some climbers told me, arguing that the number of clubs does not signal quality. Some of them, when asked about the high number of clubs, stated an old joke about the Bengali psyche, “One Bengali is a poet, two Bengalis are an argument, three are a political party, and four Bengalis are two political parties.”

The Himalayan Association is considered the mother of all clubs, but right after the inaugural Nanda Ghunti expedition, its members split. While Roy stayed with the original club, Bishwadeb Biswas and Dhruba Majumder formed the Parvat Abhiyatri Sangha, which Sarkar runs now. “This happens only in Bengal,” Mitra said. “One team went to Nanda Ghunti, and even before the descent was complete, there were two. Then those two became six, and so on.”

OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, the annual expedition list published by the IMF has registered a small blip that might have a larger import. From 2006 to 2010, there were no non-club affiliated groups from West Bengal that went for expeditions. From 2010 to 2015 there were 14. This has marked a departure from previous decades, when almost all expeditions from the state were attached to and managed by clubs. Retired Air Vice Marshal AK Bhattacharya, an expert climber who has held posts in the IMF, the Himalayan Cluba different group than the Himalayan Associationand the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, told me that this indicated a larger change in the approach towards climbing itself.

“The trend has increasingly been towards individual efforts and not club effort,” Bhattacharya said. “Earlier, climbing was just a passion, for love. Today it is for personal glorification, for self-promotion, or certain stature in society.”

In the 1980s, a part of the expansion of clubs happened in towns in the industrial belt of West Bengal—most prominently Howrah, Asansol and Durgapur, because of their relative affluence at the time, and because companies located there often provided sponsorship. Today, most clubs are in a precarious financial situation. They depend on member donations or on personal connections that might lead to sponsorships.

Bhattacharya had seen this coming. “Mountaineering is very expensive,” he said. “Most clubs today are small and have few members, most of whom are middle-class or poor,” he said. He told me that he advised the IMF to centralise the administration of the sport so that funds could be better collected and disbursed. “But,” he said, “Bengalis didn’t want to follow that.”

The commercialisation of the sport, especially in Nepal, which has the highest peaks, has also encouraged atomisation. This partly explains the Everest craze.
Making it to the top of Everest can bring a climber instant fame and money, as Basanta Singha Roy, a Punjab National Bank employee, found out. In 2010, he was a part of the first successful Bengali civilian expedition to the mountain. Since then, 18 Bengali climbers have summited.

“After our climb … the West Bengal board’s class 10 examination had a 20-mark question on the climb,” he told me. “We were also felicitated at the Netaji Indoor Stadium.”

Singha Roy even sacrificed getting ahead in his day job as a banker in his pursuit of mountaineering success. “Bank is only my profession, my income. But it’s not my interest,” he told me, describing how he refused certain promotions so that he could continue climbing. “You can’t take so much leave if you’re branch manager.”

Singha Roy had been trying to make it to an Everest expedition team since 1991. When he was first selected for one, in 2001, he was not included in the final team. “I felt pain here,” he said, pointing to his chest. “After that, whenever I heard anyone climbing, I used get pain here. Do you get me? How big Everest is to a mountaineer?”

But there is a flip side to the obsession with Everest. Debabrata Mukherjee, a 54-year-old who has been climbing since 1985, is among its most prominent critics. Tusi Das, a young woman mountaineer who was trained by Mukherjee, climbed Everest in 2013. When Das came back from the climb, Mukherjee remembers that she told him, “You have to go. If you don’t, no one will take you seriously.” Mukherjee said that climbing Everest would have added little to his achievements as a mountaineer. He had already climbed Chaukhamba I, which some consider tougher than Everest. But, he said, he would not have received recognition from the media until he summited the highest peak. In 2014, Mukherjee finally climbed Everest.

But he remains bitter about the focus on the highest peaks, including Everest. “Everybody wants a brag tag,” Mukherjee said, adding that many who attempt 8,000-metre-plus peaks do not have the necessary experience. He cited the examples of Rajib Bhattacharya, who died descending Mount Dhaulagiri in 2016, and Chhanda Gayen, who died in an avalanche on Kanchenjunga in 2014. “None of them did any significant peak before. But if you go, you get famous,” Mukherjee said, restlessly fidgeting with a carabiner attached to his phone. Other climbers also say that targeting higher peaks without adequate experience is inherently risky, while pointing at the deaths of Gayen and Subhash Pal, who was Sunita Hazra’s teammate.

The desperation for fame has also led to controversies over false summit claims. In July, I met Sarkar of the PAS just after the first rains of monsoon had washed Kolkata. As we drove to a club in the Sealdah locality, steaming inside an old taxi, Sarkar got a call. The speaker told him that a Pune couple had been exposed for falsely claiming to have climbed Everest. In high, excited tones, Sarkar spoke about how unscrupulous mountaineers could use Photoshop to manufacture fake claims of summiting.

A couple of weeks later, on 15 July, the mountaineers Debabrata Mukherjee, Tusi Das and Gautam Dutta held a press conference at the Sports Journalists Club in Kolkata. In the preceding days, the state had been shaken by the controversy surrounding Sunita Hazra’s Everest climb and the Nepal government’s refusal to issue her a summit-success certificate. Mukherjee, in the press conference, wanted to address the “intensifying issue of false summit claims.”

Mukherjee is on a personal mission of “exposing false claims.” His recent appearance on a Bengali news channel, where he spoke of such incidents, sparked long Facebook fights and bitterness among a lot of clubs. Mukherjee’s primary target is Gayen, who climbed Everest on 18 May 2013. Two days behind her was Tusi Das, Mukherjee’s protégée, who got delayed because of a frostbitten eye. They were neck-to-neck in the race to become the first Bengali woman to climb Everest. Gayen’s achievement got an enormous reception. “She got a ton of sponsorships and money after that. She got the ‘Sera Bengali’ award”—given to eminent Bengali personalities, said Singha Roy, who was her close friend and ally. Das came second. The next year, Gayen and Das were in another race this time to climb Kanchenjunga, where Gayen died in an accident.

Mukherjee, who is a member of the IMF summit-claim verification committee, formed in 2016, showed me a slew of Gayen’s summit photos, collected from her Facebook account, and explained the various ways he could prove that she didn’t climb Everest or Lhotse or Kanchenjunga—arguments he has made repeatedly in press conferences. He has also, in the past, cast doubts on some of the summiting claims of Debasish Biswas, a much-celebrated young mountaineer. In the list of expeditions he finds suspicious, Mukherjee includes the 2007 Nilkanth climb, led by AK Bhattacharya. It took the IMF seven years to resolve the controversy that sprang from Mukherjee’s accusation. In 2014, after several meetings and committee reports, the IMF, in a letter, announced that they considered the expedition a success.

Bhattacharya told me that this is why he left the Himalayan Club, which Mukherjee also belongs to. “This was a fallout of increasing rivalry between Bombay and Kolkata sections of the HC,” the 73-year-old said. “It started after the Kolkata chapter was reactivated”—in 2004—“and every year there were good climbs and more activities. But it should have been healthy competition. Slowly, it ballooned to such an extent that it wasn’t healthy. That’s why I quit finally. I didn’t want politics. Mountain is a way of life for me, not this bickering.”

The pressure to succeed also stems from the expense of these expeditions and the debt that they leave climbers with. Subhash Pal, Hazra’s teammate, made three attempts to climb Everest, two of which were aborted. He borrowed Rs 28 lakh to fund these expeditions. Of this sum, Rs 8 lakh remains to be paid off by his family. The average cost of an Everest expedition for one person is between Rs 17 lakh and Rs 18 lakh. Subhash used to drive a small pickup truck for a livelihood. His truck, which he drove till his last day in Bankura, where he was from, still stands outside his house.

“There is pressure because you have so much money riding on it,” Debraj Dutta, one of the top mountaineers from the state, told me. “This pressure has to disappear. That you won’t get attention if you don’t summit.” But how else does one reward excellence in an increasingly competitive sphere?

Subhash Pal’s brother Pranab, who does electrical jobs in houses, now has to pay off Subhash’s Everest debt. “What can we do?” he said. “If we have to sell the house, we do. Yes, that was one of our primary fears. What if he doesn’t succeed? But being successful was important for Bankura, for Subhash. So, now we can hope for some help.”

Today, at the bend of a road leading up to Bankura’s Susunia hill, where a climbing camp is hosted every year, hang a few plastic posters displaying Subhash Pal’s climbing photos and listing his achievements. “He has made us soar. It is binding on us to make climbing big in Bankura now,” Gautam De, the president of a Bankura climbing club, told me. The club has leased some land for 30 years, on which it will construct a climbing wall for which the WBMASF has sanctioned funding. “This would have been Subhash’s wish,” Pranab said.

I MET DUTTA at the mouth of a narrow lane in south-west Kolkata. He escorted me to his house, outside of which were large flex posters sponsored by Hindustan Sangha, a local social club, congratulating him on his Everest success in 2016. Three years ago, Debraj led the team that made the “first ascent”—the first successful expedition to a summit of a mountain—of the 7,287-metre peak Mount Plateau: the highest first ascent by a Bengali climber. Since then, he has climbed scores of peaks higher than 7,000 metres.

Dutta is like a small, tightly packed box of energy. He talks fast, laughs easily and moves briskly. According to Dutta, his success would not have been possible if he had not made a critical decision in 2004 to change clubs. “See, decision-making is the primary skill mountaineers need to have—where to go and when. Same in life as on the mountain,” he said. He said he was irritated with the internal politics at PAS, led by Sarkar, and so moved to the Himalayan Club, where AK Bhattacharya took him under his wing.

He said that he was annoyed by the pettiness shown by many climbers in the state. “From Kolkata itself they would decide who would summit,” Dutta said. “Whoever is closer to the leader or whoever got more sponsors would get the opportunity irrespective of other qualities.” He said that many strong climbers are not allowed to attempt the summit and are made to sit at lower camps. “I have faced this myself. How can you decide who will summit from Kolkata? How do you judge who has acclimatised better or is stronger?”

Though he has climbed the mountain, Dutta does not approve of the media’s obsession with Everest. “Go, do some other peak. No one will call you on TV,” he said. “No one will write about it. Isn’t fame valuable for a mountaineer? There might be tougher climbs but for an ordinary man or woman, this is very important.” Talking about the extent to which the Everest craze has permeated society, he said, “Our own WBMASF governing body only has Everesters,” except one, and that the chief minister herself “has said that Everest is like graduation.”
Now, even the state government has begun putting an undue focus on climbers who reach the summit, Dutta pointed out. “Our government sends some expeditions,” he said. “When these teams return, they only recognise those who summit. It doesn’t even call the rest on the team on stage for felicitation.” He has experienced this with his own expeditions. “When they wanted to felicitate my Mount Plateau climb, they only called the four summitters on stage, out of a team of ten, and only we got the cash prize. This sends a very wrong message. You can’t even recognise them by giving them a rose on stage? Mountaineering can’t be a competition. One can climb only on another’s shoulders. Even if one member reaches, it is considered a success for everyone.”

In this context, the last passage of Gaur Kishore’s report on the success of the Nanda Ghunti expedition, which ran on 1 November 1960, seems just as relevant today. “The expedition has met with success … for the team as a whole,” he wrote. “Not all were lucky to climb the peak but each … can rightly have a share of the credit. It is the collective effort after all that wins a peak.”

SUNITA HAZRA carefully settled into a plastic chair in her house in Barasat, a town 26 kilometres north-east of Kolkata. One of her arms was in a plaster cast, and a few fingertips were blackened with frostbite—they were due to be amputated in a week. A stray cat prowled at the door. Hazra asked her husband, Sudeb, where her medicines were. Then, she recounted the tragic and controversial climbing expedition to Everest that she had been part of a couple of months earlier, in May last year.

Hazra had embarked on the expedition along with three teammates—Subhash Pal, Paresh Nath and Goutam Ghosh—all of whom died during the climb. While Pal had run out of oxygen, Nath and Ghosh died from exposure. She herself escaped death by a whisker, after she was rescued by Leslie John Binns, a British climber, who abandoned his summit quest after he found Hazra in distress.

Hazra told me that at one point, while she was struggling to make her way down to safety, she came across Bir Bahadur, a Nepali mountain guide who had been hired to help Pal. She asked him how Pal was doing.

Woh udhar baith gaya”—he sat down over there, Bahadur replied. Hazra immediately knew what had happened. “Did anyone try to pull him up?” she wondered as she narrated her account. “I was also about to die, and what if Pasang”—her Nepali guide—“just said, ‘Didi udhar baith gayi.’”

But she survived. After the expedition, Hazra claimed she had reached the mountain’s summit, but the Nepal government refused to give her a summit-success certificate, as she was unable to produce required evidence—videos, photos or testimony of a mountain guide.

Neither the expedition nor the controversy that followed has diminished her love for the mountains. As a child, Hazra recalled reading stories of expeditions published in the Bengali-language newspaper Ananda Bazar Patrika’s Sunday edition. “I read because I loved mountains,” she said, absentmindedly peeling layers of skin from her distressed fingers. Then, referring to the first two civilian Bengali mountaineers who scaled Everest, in 2010, she said, “When Basanta da and Debasish claimed Everest, they allowed all Bengalis to dream.”

HAZRA IS ONLY BEING slightly hyperbolic when she says “all Bengalis.” West Bengal, whose popular imagination is immortally linked to its rivers, fields and forests, also has an eccentric, yet pervasive, addiction to mountaineering. The handbook of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, or IMF, lists 101 mountaineering clubs in the state, while the Himalayan states of Nagaland, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh have one, two and four, respectively.

In the absence of high mountains within the state, initiation into climbing in West Bengal happens in the only rocky outcrops and cliffs available near Kolkata—in the hills of Bankura and Purulia districts. These hills in the west of the state are more an aberration on a tediously flat landscape than a part of it. Today, these areas are so oversubscribed by climbing clubs conducting training camps that the West Bengal Mountaineering and Adventure Sports Foundation, or WBMASF, has had to conduct a lottery for climbing slots in the past few years.
Clubs often conscript future members at climbing camps, where the fledglings are toughened up and prepared for expeditions. “I loved my first camp in Purulia,” Hazra told me at her house. “I liked waking up early, saying good morning to others. It was very disciplined and tough … I remember listening to stories of adventures from the instructors. How they survived.”

The genesis of mountaineering-club culture in West Bengal is often traced to a successful expedition by Bengalis to Nanda Ghunti in 1960. In the decades that followed, clubs sprouted up across the state, with many climbers juggling regular jobs along with Himalayan expeditions. Today, clubs are thriving, and the IMF’s annual expedition list is packed with the names of West Bengal clubs. New climbing walls are being constructed wherever there is space and funding, including in schools in small towns. Some climbers call this the “golden age of Bengal mountaineering,” with the past six years witnessing successful ascents of Kanchenjunga, Lhotse and, of course, Everest.

The state’s first successful civilian expedition to Everest, in 2010, led to a major boost in institutional support. For the past three years, the WBMASF has been giving Rs 5 lakh to climbers who aim to climb peaks 8,000 metres above sea level. In 2013, the government also started bequeathing a Rs 1 lakh prize to those who summit Everest. After the disappearance of the young mountaineer Chhanda Gayen on Kanchenjunga in 2014, the government also announced a bravery award worth Rs 75,000 for women who perform extraordinarily well in adventure sport.

While the IMF gives grants to many of these expeditions, Dipankar Ghosh, a 51-year-old veteran mountaineer who works as an advisor to the WBMASF, told me, “Our government also gives a matching grant to IMF’s amount, which can be around Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000.” Outside the WBMASF office, where I met Ghosh, a 17.5-metre-high climbing wall stood in the high afternoon sun, desolate in the heat. Next to Ghosh’s room was a large hall stocked tight with ropes, climbing gear and rows of boots for men and women.

Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister (who was also a union minister of youth affairs and sports in 1991), has a personal interest in mountaineering, which explains the government’s financial patronage. Ujjwal Roy, an advisor with the WBMASF and a police officer, recounted that Banerjee was the first one to call him after he summited Everest in 2013. “I got an urgent call that ‘madam’ was inquiring about me and my health,” he told me. “Also, when Chhanda went missing, she sent me with the rescue team the very next day.”

But like most phases of acceleration, this one too has seen its share of friction and sparks. One of the reasons for the proliferation of clubs today is the eruption of rivalries between climbers aspiring to conquer the same peaks. Many big clubs have split into smaller units, and individual fame has become the overriding goal for contemporary mountaineers. As a result, in recent years, many climbers have fallen deep into debt to fund expeditions, and there has been a rash of summit-claim disputes, which further fuel jealousy and hostility.

BENGALIS’ INFATUATION with snowy peaks goes as far back as the late eighteenth century. The earliest travels of Bengalis to the Himalayas were mostly inspired by religious sentiments—they were typically pilgrimages to temples or expeditions to meet holy men in icy caves.

The literary output from these early explorations was generous. Several of the adventurers were from affluent, established families—among them Gangadhar Gangopadhyay, who became famous as Swami Akhandananda of the Ramakrishna Mission, and Debendranath Thakur, the father of Rabindranath Tagore. In a letter written from Kashmir, Thakur tried to explain the origin of mountains: “Mountains arose from the ocean and went on to pierce the clouds to find Him but they couldn’t. And so they stood still.” Accounts of these explorations can still be found in the libraries of some of the older mountaineering clubs.

The history of contemporary mountaineering in West Bengal starts with a high-altitude loan of some leg warmers, in June 1957. At Garbiang village, now in Uttarakhand, Dhrubaranjan Majumder, of Kolkata’s Chowringhee neighbourhood, had a serendipitous meeting with Sukumar Roy, of Khidirpur. Majumder’s team was on its way down on the Kailash Mansarovar yatra, while Roy’s was trudging up. Roy had forgotten to bring strips of cloth he would need to tie on his feet to keep them warm. Majumder lent him his on a promise of their return.

When they met after Roy’s expedition, “they started talking about the Himalayas and felt the need for a community of mountain lovers,” Shyamal Sarkar, a joint secretary of the Parvat Abhiyatri Sangha, or PAS, a climbing club owned by the Ananda Bazaar Patrika Group, told me. “That was a great meeting of all-time great mountaineers, who formed the first civilian mountaineering club of India.”

Sarkar, a history fiend, has an uncannily detailed knowledge of the sport’s history in West Bengal. “Sukumar and Dhruba”—Majumder—“used to meet at the press of Dhruba’s brother at Number 2, British India Street,” in Kolkata, he told me. “Sukumar-da was calm, soft-spoken, reticent but had a lot of physical and mental strength. Dhruba-da was courageous, a positive thinker, but not as strong as Sukumar.”

These meetings in a small, dingy room, far from rarefied air, led to the inception of West Bengal’s first mountaineering club. It is at this point that Umaprasad Mukhopadhyay, the writer of several Bengali books on travel and mountains, and brother of the right-wing politician who founded the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Syama Prasad Mukherjee, stepped in. “Umaprasad was excited and he offered them money to form a club. He also connected Bishwadeb Biswas, a prominent mountaineer, to them. Finally, on March 12, 1960, the Himalayan Institute was formally opened at the Ashutosh Memorial Hall,” Sarkar said.

The same year, the institute initiated India’s first civilian expedition, to the 6,309-metre Nanda Ghunti, sponsored by the ABP Group. It was also the year that the Indian government sent the country’s maiden expedition to Mount Everest, which failed to summit.

The Nanda Ghunti expedition was riddled with controversies, among them one over the exclusion from it of non-Bengali members of the Himalayan Institute, such as Sesh Kumar Surana. Chanchal Mitra, an 82-year-old climbing veteran who was a member of the Himalayan Institute, recounted that Majumder told him that Surana “speaks in gol-gol Bangla”—a non-Bengali accent. “If I take him along, people will ask why I have brought a non-Bengali,” Mitra remembered Majumder saying. According to him, the Himalayan Institute president, Umaprasad, “got frustrated and resigned in despair.” Mitra said that the Bongal Kheda—an ethnic cleansing of Bengalis from the Northeast, especially Assam—played a part in stoking tensions. “It was a season of strong regionalism and the dominating sentiment was preservation of Bengalis.”

The expedition was a matter of prestige for West Bengal, as well as for the ABP Group and its owner, Ashok Kumar Sarkar, who came on board as chief benefactor. Sarkar had extensively interviewed Majumder for a book about the history of mountaineering in West Bengal that never got published. “Just three, four days before our departure, Mr Sarkar called us and showed us a letter,” Majumder is quoted as saying in one interview. “Our heart sank when we saw the letterhead. It was from the Prime Minister. The letter warned us that we were inexperienced and cavalier to attempt something like this and should cancel the expedition immediately. Mr Sarkar then asked to go ahead with our plans and that he would reply to it as he saw fit.” Indeed, when the successful team returned from the peak, the prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, sent congratulatory messages. He also requested that the club’s name be changed to avoid confusion with the government-run Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling. It was renamed the Himalayan Association.

In as close a thing to live-tweeting as one could get in 1960, Ananda Bazaar Patrika and Hindustan Standard, also of the ABP group, frequently published large photos of the men’s progress on the expedition and letter dispatches from the high passes. The staff reporter Gour Kishore Ghosh and photographer Birendranath Sinha, who accompanied the mountaineers up to a low camp, sent text and pictures from the expedition via runners who dispatched telegrams. In one front-page story, Ghosh reports, “Just now I am sending you a very exciting piece of news. Yeti footprints were seen by some members of the team on Ronti Glacier at 14,800 feet. These footprints of the mysterious gentleman or—men—or maybe lady or ladies—of the snowy mountain are not very far from our Camp I.” He ends it with a joke, “I am hoping to have the privilege of having an exclusive Press interview with their spokes (snow) man.”

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Padmaparna Ghosh is pursuing an MSc in biodiversity and conservation at Trinity College, Dublin. She has worked as a journalist for Mint, The Telegraph, Sunday Times of India, India Today and Down to Earth.

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READER'S COMMENTS

One thought on “Out of Thin Air”

Lazy writing, unbecoming of the Caravan. Two examples below, many more dot the piece.

1. “In the absence of high mountains within the state..” Really? Padmaparna Ghosh needs to find out about the eastern Himalayas. For instance, Sandakphu, in West Bengal, is about 12,000ft.

2. “.. initiation into climbing in West Bengal happens in the only rocky outcrops and cliffs available near Kolkata”. False. The (venerable) Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, West Bengal is an important training centre.

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