Narrative

SOS from Kolahoi Glacier: Death knell at 4,500 meters above sea level

In a shocking incident on Kolahoi glacier lately, two climbers lost their lives, while another was taken home in a traumatic state. The deadly consequence of the adventure has brought home the deep-seated horrors of changing nature. Here, an ardent mountaineer and adventurer recalls his association with the fallen climber and the pressing rescue operation that brought him back home in a body bag.

Amid cries and crisis, I was at Aru Base Camp on September 8. My phone was repeatedly ringing, but I had no news to share. The searing suspense on the glacier was taking its own time to end. In those frozen heights above, my buddy was lying lifeless — beneath the rocks and under the snow mound.

The death knell had disillusioned many people about the calm and towering peaks. “What do you guys get out of it?” someone asked me, as copters pressed into service were still struggling to get down the bodies. 

I couldn’t tell the gentleman that mountaineers have a different mindset. We’re non-conformists who don’t dwell or look up on things which are materialistic in nature.

Before facing such queries, some hours ago, I was lazily checking my phone after dinner, when the most heart-wrenching flash appeared on my screen: “Tragic accident at Kolahoi Glacier, 2 dead, 1 grievously injured.” 

I read the news, again and again, to confirm the names given in it. I was shocked. I knew all of them. I knew them well. They were a part of me. They were my fellow mountaineers.

My phone started ringing. Everyone was worried and concerned about the devastating news. My friend Sadam called me up, and asked me to pack the gear immediately. My mother heard me saying: “Bodies, mountains, dead.” 

She sat down, sad and sullen. I looked at her, sensed her anguish, and told her: I’ve to go.

I called Azhar, my old chum and cousin of one of the dead trekkers, Aadil Shah. Sobbingly, he told me: “Everything is finished, Omar! All of it!” And with that, we both cried like children.

The Departed: Adil Shah (left) and Naveed Jeelani.

It was 10.30pm, when the three of us left from Srinagar to Aru. While travelling I was getting calls from my friends, relatives of the injured, friends of the fallen and the messages from the mountaineer community. In that hour of shock and grief, I had no news to share. 

I was traversing a long and dark tunnel, at the end of which awaited a heartbreaking tragedy.

Aru was dark and silent when we pulled over at around 1 am. I could see small flickering bulbs, and heads peeking through windows as we passed around. For the night, hardly anyone was sleeping in the hamlet. Earlier in the evening, a team of local mountaineers had left for Camp 1 for the rescue mission. 

Even the top officials had reached the spot and were presiding over the rescue mission. Among them was Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, Baseer Khan. He was literally on his knees, while mobilising his men and machinery for the operation.

In that murky hour, the first sign of light came when a local rescuer informed the home stay owner in Aru that injured trekker Hazik Beigh had been moved down to Camp 1. Inside that crowded night stay was Beigh’s mournful brother. 

“He was low on energy when I spoke to him a while ago,” the distraught sibling told me. “He said he’s injured, but can move.” He could only pray that his brother would make it till next morning when the air rescue was likely to begin. But while he could pray, others were hoping against the hope.

“I wish Aadil is injured, not dead,” said a tearful Azhar, Aadil’s cousin. With that, he sank on his knees and cried.

It was one heck of a nerve-wrecking ordeal out there. Rain and cold were further sending chills around. And during that distress hour, I could only think, what it would be like at 4,500 meters above sea level, on a glacier! 

The phones kept ringing all night. There was no news to share yet. We could only wait for the sun to rise. 

Next morning, we rushed back to the place where all the officials had camped. I was told that two helicopters had already left for the rescue. 

Around 9:30 am, we got the news of the injured trekker being airlifted to Srinagar Air Base, and that there would be another attempt to retrieve the bodies of the deceased.

An injured Haziq Beigh being treated at the Bone and Joint Hospital, Srinagar after he was airlifted.

We waited till noon, and hoped to hear the helicopters flying again. But that moment never came. They had no clearance to fly due to bad weather.

It only sank us deep in the black hole where we could only hear the cries and sobs of Aadil’s mother. I could only think about her and her tormenting state. The very thought drove me crazy.  

In that moment of anguish, people were spreading their own theories and rumours.

Life is but a risk, my grandfather would often tell me. But this was tragic for the families of the deceased. Their bodies had been lying on the glacier at 15, 000 feet above sea level, under freezing conditions, with no one around. In such a situation, rumours only freaked them out. They were crying a river for their departed beloveds, who were too numb to respond.

Among the fallen, Aadil Shah was a living legend when it comes to alpine trekking in Kashmir.

The man had broken all records including successful expeditions to more than 145 alpine lakes. He not only explored these places but documented them as well. In a span of three years, he summitted all the four highest peaks of Kashmir.

Before every expedition, he would study the routes and dig out history about them. I’m being told that he was writing a book about adventure in Kashmir. Last year he even went to the Everest Base camp. The man’s mountaineering knowledge and feats can actually be taught in schools. We can also create a museum out of his collection. A stone from each lake is on display in his room, which looks like a world of adventure itself.

But like all of us, he had his future plans, too. His mother would often talk to him about getting married, but he would laugh at it. All for everything, but nothing. 

The adventurer now rests deep underground, leaving behind a legacy. He may have no heirs but he sowed the seeds of love towards mountains and adventure in Kashmir. 

I was told by one of his co-climbers that he had left a tent behind at one high camp, with a note attached to it: “I’m so sorry, dear Nature! I don’t mean to harm you in anyway, but I’ve to keep this here because I’ve no other alternative. 

The same person was taken into an embrace, by nature, that he respected so much! 

The next day, on Saturday morning, the rescuers left for the glacier. The rescuers were joined by Gullu, a co-climber and friend of Aadil. Despite his major knee injury, he went ahead. “I didn’t want to leave him alone,” Gullu said. “I just can’t stand the thought of his demise.” 

Upon reaching the glacier, the rescuer saw his friend lying in peace there. It might be easy to help a stranger in times of hardship, but it’s always difficult to see your friend lying lifeless down on a cold surface.

In between, the Indian Air Force helicopters had started hovering around. After an hour, they picked up the fallen, who were first sent to Police Control Room in Srinagar for legal proceedings, before being taken to their homes.

A week ago, they had left home with bagpacks, only to return in body bags. 

At Aadil’s place, it was mayhem, as everyone had lost a comrade and an adorned person. 

The mother hugged his body and lay beside him. The brother kissed his cold feet. The father stood benumbed at a distance. The friends sat in a corner with teary eyes and aching hearts. 

There were mountaineers around, and each one of them was shattered and broken. They couldn’t believe that he was gone. Each time they looked at those mountains, they would see him. We would see him running in the fields of summer, in the snow of winter, in the smell of spring and in the colours of autumn.

Only thing that cures my heart is that he died doing something he loved. He belonged to the mountains and to the mountains only. 

While descending from the summit, I was told, the climbers had decided to make a high camp due to the bad weather. 

Next day, when the sky was clear, they had decided to descend. Two teams of around 5 members, roped in together, were slowly stepping down a ridge line. 

One team had made it to the baseline whilst others were still descending. Then, within an instant, a volley of rocks started falling from the top, rumbling and shaking the ground, hitting Naveed, Aadil and Hazik together. 

Adil Shah (second left), Omar Bazaz (third left) during a trip to Affarwat.

Naveed was hit on his head and shoulder, resulting in his instant death. Aadil was thrown away a few metres ahead with a huge rock following him and settling on his abdomen. Hazik was thrown into a crevasse hanging on his own harness. 

There was Majid who was stationed at one place as the force of rocks had cut him loose from his harness. He couldn’t believe that none of the rocks hit him. All this happened within seconds. And in that time, it changed the lives of everyone out there. 

As the other climbers rushed towards Naveed, they found him dead. They then rushed towards Aadil, who was still under a big rock. 

“It took us 25 minutes to move that rock from his body,” one of the climbers said. “He didn’t speak a word except for a few cries. He turned his eyes away and asked for some water. The only thing that eats us up is the fact that we had no water to give him.” 

They wrapped his body in a sleeping bag over that glacier. And just like that, a leader had gone. 

There’re many factors that led to such a terrible disaster and climate change is one of them. 

The glacier has receded 3 metres in a span of few years only. We’ve 7,00,000 religious pilgrims visiting the same area every year. 

The amount of pollution created by such an activity, the number of vehicles plying around and the amount of fuel being burned for cooking food is taking a huge toll on the glaciers. Every tiny thing matters at such an altitude, where the ecology is extremely fragile. 

ALSO READ: Are Kashmir’s glaciers melting? What Satellite images suggest is nothing but scary

As a mountaineer, I feel so helpless for Mother Nature here. There has to be a check on everything that we plan to do. Climate Change has altered the behaviour and the topography of the area. Even the route that had been set for Mount Kolohai had to be changed because of the same affect. Deeper crevasses and now loose snow packs trigger rock falls often.

Also, the lack of rescue operations and scarcity of basic equipment required for such climbing expeditions must be equally blamed for such a mishap. 

There were local rescuers involved in this, and an SOS call was flagged by an ex-tourism official at his personal effort. The first call had come from the glacier itself.

Call it luck or anything, but if there was no cellular network there, we would still have been wondering where these men went.

Besides, the use of radio communications is strictly banned in our part of the world under the official guidelines. We go on expeditions, and then search for corners at these places to find network to make a call. This is an utter shame when it comes to adventure sports.

Our disaster management response is equally appalling. When the NDRF’s rescue team lately reached Camp 1, local rescuers were shocked to see them without basic equipment or gear. Asked to head back, it was an embarrassing moment for such an organisation. 

Had it been a few more hours of delay for the injured, we might have had another casualty. And therefore, we need a local regular body which should be comprised of local experienced mountaineers for such missions.

But the Indian Air Force did play a commendable role in the whole rescue mission. Had it not been for them, we would still be carrying the bodies down for the third day as well.

There has to be a proper system, and the present infrastructure needs to be immediately upgraded. The whole disaster management and rescue operations sector has to go through an overhaul, if we don’t want more Aadils and Naveeds to be lost.

 

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