Friday, May 29, 2015

Everest: 29th May 1953

Tenzing and Hillary at Advance Base after the successful climb
Today is sixty two years since the historic first ascent of Everest.

On 29th May 1953 at 11.30 am, a sherpa and a New Zealander became the first men to stand on top of the highest peak on this planet.  However the intervening years has seen a sea change as far as Everest is concerned. The mountain, enshrined in controversy, has now become a playground for guided expeditions, with rich clients paying upto sixty thousand dollars or more to stand on the highest point on earth. The South Col route climbed in 1953 is now disdainfully referred to as the “yak trail”. The dangerous icefall below the Western Cwm is maintained by a team of sherpas right through the season led by a senior “Icefall Doctor.” In order to make it possible for inexperienced clients to summit Everest, the entire mountain has fixed rope from bottom to top. Climbers assisted by their sherpas clip onto the fixed rope and move up the mountain. There have been stories of sherpas dragging clients up difficult pitches in order to get them to the summit!

And human traffic jams are the order of the day. In May 2012, a German climber Ralf Dujmovits published a photograph which went viral on the internet showing a long line of climbers stuck on the Lhotse face all bunched one behind the other - human jams on the Hillary Step has also become a great bottleneck on the mountain.

 This  year 2015  has been a "lost season" for Everest due to the great Nepal earthquake which caused an enormous avalanche at Everest Base Camp on 25th April 2015. Last year the loss of sixteen sherpas in the Everest icefall effectively ended the Everest season from the south side.

However, this post recounts through photographs,  the 1953 climb, the historic ascent of the first two men to summit Everest and the team of climbers and sherpas who supported them through this endeavour.

From left: John Hunt, Hillary, Tenzing and Ang Nyima. Standing : Alfred Gregory and George Lowe at Advanced Base after the return of Tenzing and Hillary from the summit

Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon at the South Col after coming back from the South Summit on 26th May 1953, a decision which Bourdillon regretted for the rest of his life

Returning from the South Col: Evans, Hillay, Tenzing, Bourdillon and George Band

Nawang Gombu crosses a ladder over the Everest ice fall- Gombu later climbed Everest in 1963 and again in 1965

Tenzing and Hillary at Tengboche monastery after the successful climb 
The team of climbers and sherpas at Base  Camp after the successful climb
The coded telegram which meant " Hillary and Tenzing reached the summit on 29th May 1953"

Tenzing on the summit of Everest 29th May 1953 at 11.30 am

The entrance of Tenzing's home in Darjeeling

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Nepal Earthquake Support - Report on a Visit to Sundara Devi VDC


At the very outset, I would like to thank all the donors who have opened their hearts and  contributed for the South Col Relief Fund for these two villages in Nuwakot district.   All our donors are individuals and we have been able to raise US $20,000 till  date. This is an incredible performance beyond my wildest imagination and the funds are being put to good use as you will see in the course of this post. 

The red box below indicates the district of Nuwakot which is the area where these two villages are located. Kathmandu lies immediately south east of the red box.

The two adjacent villages of Kaaule and Bhangeri are located in the Sundara Devi VDC of Nuwakot district around 85 km from the capital Kathmandu. The road goes to a point around 7 km from the village from where there is a dirt track which is suitable for a Toyota Land Cruiser or similar four wheel drive vehicle. The two villages are up on the hill at an altitude of around 1800 metres with an excellent view into the valley below and the river. We went up in the Land Cruiser and came down on foot to a school from where we were ferried on a motor bike to a place called Battar near Trisuli Bazar. From here,  we were able to get a micro bus to Kathmandu. The journey took around five to six hours on an average both ways. The dirt track will in all probability become unusable for vehicles during the monsoon and then there would a problem of ferrying supplies up to the villages.

The maps below give the location of the region. Nuwakot district is circled in blue in the map  below which gives the most affected areas of the earthquake.  

Sundara Devi VDC is marked in red in the map below which shows the VDC’s of Nuwakot district (click the map below to enlarge).


We reached the village around noon on May 22nd 2015 and found the villagers waiting for us near the old school building which had been damaged in the quake. We waited for the rest of the villagers to come and soon the crowd was about four hundred strong. 

 We were introduced by Santaman Tamang and the villagers presented us with khadas and garlands amidst a lot of cheering - it was quite embarrassing and something we were totally unprepared for. Then followed a round of speeches by the important people in the villages explaining the plans to rehabilitate the villages and our contribution and effort. Finally I spoke to the villagers in Hindi, as they would not be able to understand English – I mentioned quite clearly that our contribution was from individual donors not from an NGO or corporates and we would continue to help them to build their village as best as we could. After I completed my speech, Sharan also spoke in Hindi and mentioned that he would be working on a design using local materials at a  low cost to ensure that the permanent housing that would be built would be earthquake proof to the extent possible so that  the devastation and loss of life and property would be much less if another disaster was to take place. 

 This was followed by distribution of galvanised iron sheets (9 feet in length and around 30 inches in width) to some of the villagers from the funds provided by South Col.


In my first meeting with Santaman in Kathmandu on May 1st 2015, which was soon after the first earthquake, he had mentioned that the villages needed blankets, tarpaulin sheets and rice to provide immediate relief. Our first appeal had mentioned these items and we had also drawn up a budget for the same. 

However after May 1st 2015, Santaman was able to get some relief from for these items and so in consultation with the villagers, they decided to use the South Col funds to buy galvanised iron sheets which are zinc coated for housing. This was because the tarpaulins which they were using were not likely to last very long especially with the monsoons around the corner. These iron sheets would be used initially as temporary shelters to be built by the villagers themselves. Once the monsoon was over and the construction of the permanent housing starts, the same sheets could be used for the roofing of the permanent houses. This is the present plan for the village using the funds provided by South Col and has been explained to the villagers.


It has been estimated that each house will need two bundles of sheets (each bundle has 8 sheets of around 9 ft by 30 inches) so they will get 16 sheets each.

The cost of one bundle of 9 sheets is around NPR 6,500 or INR 4,063 or USD 65.

The target quantity needed is 200 houses x 2 bundles = 400 bundles x NPR 6500 = NPR 26 lacs or INR 16.25 lacs or USD 26,000.

South Col has so far raised INR 12.50 lacs or NPR 20 lacs or USD 20,000. There are some contributions in the pipeline which would be around USD 2,000 awaited from UK, USA, Australia, India etc. 

From the remittances made by us we received one bill for NPRS 9.03 lacs (USD 9030) for the first lot of sheets. On delivery of this first lot,  an order will be placed for the second lot and supplied accordingly. There is also a shortage of sheets in Nepal due to the high demand at present. There are apparently a few factories that make these sheets and all are working at full capacity. The Government of Nepal has asked these factories not to export these sheets to India at present but to deliver the full capacity to Nepal until this crisis is over. We will receive the subsequent bills once the sheets are supplied.

Hence, with the total South Col contribution at present,  we would be able to do around 170 houses or so. Santaman expects some further support from other donors around the world and so the immediate need for providing shelter through the monsoon months will be met. The framework to support the sheets would be made with the existing materials which are presently lying in the village. 

However, other than the housing for the villagers, the school for the children is also damaged and will need repairs. Presently the school benches are out in the field and school is taking place outdoors. This will not be possible once the rains start in mid June 2015.


At present the villages have not received any support from the government though a fixed amount for every family has been promised. However, this amount is small and will not last long. It is my gut feeling that private donors and NGOs working on the ground will have to help villages like Kaaule, Bhangeri and so many others all across Nepal. 


After distributing some of the zinc sheets to the villagers, we took our sirdar Shyam Tamang and made a tour of the two villages. The photographs below will give an idea of the villages but we found that all the houses had sustained damage and most were on the ground.

 The houses were mainly built with mud and stone and these must have crumpled like a pack of cards. The villagers were mostly in shelters covered by tarpaulin – some of the broken houses were being used to store their belongings wrapped up in large cloth bundles. The cattle sheds with their tin roofs seemed to have suffered less damage and many of the buffaloes goats and chickens were still in the sheds. 

Some of the villagers had started working on re-building walls and repairing the damage to the extent possible. It was heart breaking to see the monastery at Bhangeri in total ruins with the statues of Buddha and Padmasambhava lying amidst the rubble. 


Architect Ashish Sharan Lal who accompanied me on this visit has made a review of the existing materials available on site as well as the indigenous materials available in and  around the villages. He has also measured a house which was destroyed with the intention of creating a suitable prototype plan which could be possible in this village. Sharan will give an update on this once he is ready with his plans.

Sujoy Das
May 28th 2015

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Green Lakes| The Forests of the Zemu Valley

In November 2014, a small team from South Col Expeditions trekked the Zemu Valley in North Sikkim.  Other than the spectacular mountain views which surrounds the valley on all sides, I found the forests to have an amazing wealth of plant life. This short photo essay shows  the forests of the Zemu Valley :

For more photos of the Zemu Valley and the Green Lakes trek do visit

Friday, May 15, 2015

Nine Atop Everest: The Indian Expedition of 1965

On May 19th 1965, two men spent the night at 27,930 feet – the highest camp on Mount Everest.  Next morning at 9.30 am, Capt A.S Cheema and Sherpa Nawang Gombu reached the summit. In the following nine days the Indians made three successful attempts on Everest and created a record which remained unbroken for seventeen years – they placed nine men on the summit of Everest in a single expedition. Nawang Gombu became the first  man to climb Everest twice in 1963 and 1965.

But, it had not been easy for the Indians and they had to fight hard for their success.

In 1960 a team led by Brigadier Gyan Singh fell 700 feet short of the summit.  In 1962, the expedition was led by Major John Dias. Capt M S Kohli who led the successful Indian team in 1965 was one of the unlucky climbers that year – along with Sonam Gyatso and Hari Dang, the team reached 28,600 feet.  A raging blizzard on 30th May 1962 pushed them back and the three climbers were lucky to escape with their lives reaching the highest camp at 10 pm at night, literally crawling through the snow!

Camp in the Western Cwn with the Lhotse Face beyond
Interestingly, before the Indian climb in 1965, only fifteen men from four expeditions had climbed Everest.

To commemorate this great climb, a series of events will be held throughout the country and in Kathmandu in May 2015. This will include screening of the 1965 Everest film, release of the Golden Jubilee stamp and the commemorative volume “Nine Atop Everest. The ten living members of the 1965 team will also be felicitated at the different venues.

Pumori behind the climbers

Friday, May 8, 2015

Kathmandu Durbar Square: After The Earthquake

In September 2012, I spend a couple of weeks in Kathmandu researching and photographing for the Indian edition of the Lonely Planet book on Nepal. It was the end of the monsoon so I was treated to spectacular evening skies, rolling clouds, crisp evening light and views of the monuments of the heritage sites of Kathmandu  in that grey-blue light of dusk.

My hotel in Thamel was close to the Kathmandu Durbar Square and very often I used to walk down in the early evening and spend some time on the steps of one of the temples soaking in the atmosphere and also taking some photographs.  The Maju Deval which is a Shiva temple and across the square from Kastamandap was one of my favourite locations. From here you could see life in Kathmandu unfold - the trinket sellers, the hawkers, the couples out for a date, the tourists visiting the square and rickshaws waiting for rides.

I had taken a South Col team to Mustang on a trek and on the day of the earthquake, Saturday 25th April 2015,  we were in the capital Lo Manthang.

On May 1st 2015, I finally reached Kathmandu after a long and difficult journey from Upper Mustang. That afternoon I walked through Thamel and reached the Durbar Square.

This is what I saw:

Near the entrance of the square I spotted this  house supported by wooden beams to prevent it from toppling over into the narrow Thamel street:

Next to this house further down the road was this beautiful wall painting. The house behind it had sustained cracks, but the wall was not damaged in the quake.

I entered the square from the western end and immediately saw that the great temple of Kastamandap was no more. The platform on which the temple stood had been taken over by soldiers and police supervising relief operations. Luckily the smaller statue of Garuda was not damaged.

I walked further and saw to my dismay that the Maju Deval temple on whose steps I had spent many an evening was razed to the ground. The platform remained and as I walked up those steps to the platform this was the view that greeted me:

The Gaddhi Baithak- the white building above was still standing but had sustained structural damage in many places. The Kumari Bahal on the right was miraculously spared but the Narayan temple next to it had vanished with only the platform left.

I came down and headed towards the Kumari Bahal and looked back west towards the square. A large vehicle was busy picking up the rubble and tossing it into a lorry to be taken out of the square. To me it suddenly  seemed that  the vehicle was attacking the lions of the  Kumari Bahal!

The presence of soldiers and police were everywhere and they were preventing people from getting into the square. Photographers and news persons were allowed and a film crew were shooting near this location below.

Two of the soldiers were resting at the entrance of the Bhagwati temple which had escaped the wrath of the quake.

A little further down walking towards the Hanuman Dhoka, the ticket counter had been damaged and the rear of the famous Shiva-Parvati temple was being again supported with wooden beams.

Next to the ticket counter,  this stone inscription was on the ground:

Thankfully, the group of temples near  the Hanuman Dhoka, the Jaganath temple, the Vishnu temple and the Kala Bhairab were intact though King Pratap Malla's column was damaged. The Hanuman statue had also escaped damage.

As I left the Durbar Square from the eastern end and entered the narrow streets of Thamel, I spotted this small temple - people were praying as they were passing by. I looked at the flickering flames and hoped that somehow Nepal would make it through this catastrophic disaster and rise once again.


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