As summer sets in over the Northern Hemisphere and Everest’s raw and challenging landscape seems at its most benign, nearly 800 climbers will attempt to conquer it; the cost is exorbitant (nearly $45,000) but it has helped Nepal’s economy breathe. Ever since Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay first summited it in 1953, more than 4,000 people have followed suit (according to The Himalayan Database), leaving the wider world unable to comprehend why an increasing number of climbers prefers its ice-cold embrace, even if all they get is approximately 20 minutes at the top.
Mountaineering emerged as a sport in Europe in the 1850s, but opened up to recreational climbers only in the 1980s when it started getting commercialised. An increasing number of travel holidays centre around exploring the Alps and the Lesser Himalayas, but Everest remains the Holy Grail of mountaineering. The trail of ice-picks pounding its slopes has affected its environment and geography, but for some, climbing it is not a one-time dalliance but a life-long affair.
Col Jamwal navigating the dangerous Khumbu icefall
It is 7 am, May 25, 2012. The peak of Mount Everest glints in the sunlight like a diamond on fire. Picket after picket of the Himalayas is shrouded in cloud. From here, eternity seems to lie at Colonel Ranveer Singh Jamwal’s feet. The ascent to the highest peak in the world began in the wee hours of dawn, guided by a twinkling swathe of the Milky Way. If anyone on earth is closest to plucking a star from the night sky at this moment, it is Jamwal, the man from Jammu who, over the next few years, would become the first Army officer to summit the highest peak in all seven continents, rounding off the last when he unfurled the Tricolour on Antarctica’s desolate Vinson Massif on January 4 this year. With 10 days at hand, he followed it up by climbing six mountains over 6,000 metres in the Chilean Andes, including Ojos del Salado, the planet’s highest volcanic peak. Everywhere, the Tricolour, Army flag and the Hanuman Chalisa have been constant companions.
Col Jamwal unfurling the flag atop Vinson, Antarctica
No shortcuts to the top
Jamwal, 44, has been at the highest point on the planet thrice when he summited Everest in 2012, 2013 and 2016. His derring-do has earned him the Vishisht Seva Medal twice (a decoration of the Indian armed forces for distinguished service of an exceptional order, indicated by **), the Tenzing Norgay National Adventure Award and a host of other distinctions.
In a part-email, part-telephonic interview, his voice laced with humour and cheer, Jamwal (Jammy to family and friends) says he never joined the Army thinking it would open doors for him to see the world from above. Hailing from sturdy mountain stock, he spent his childhood pursuing sport of every kind, excelling in football and javelin, consistently winning gold. Along with a love for the outdoors, Jamwal also inherited a legacy of service to the nation. His father and grandfather had served in the Army and Jamwal too joined as a soldier when he was 17. With the same remarkable tenacity that underlines his life as a mountaineer, Jamwal rose to be an infantry officer after clearing the Army Cadet College exam. In 2003, he arrived at the High Altitude Warfare School, Gulmarg, for a course and left a convert. “Getting a chance to be part of the Army mountaineering team is an honour. In 2007, I first climbed Machoi near Zoji La.”
Col Jamwal receiving the Tenzing Norgay national adventure award from President Pranab Mukherjee
In 2009, prolonged exposure to the brutal cold while climbing Mana, Uttarakhand, led to both joy and pain. The team summited the peak, but Jamwal knew he had lost his ring finger on his left hand to frostbite. He simply moved his wedding ring to his other hand and climbed on.
Jamwal says the jagged, lone beauty of mountains such as Shivling, Trishul and Nanda Devi in the Garhwal and Kumaon Himalayas have made this area his favourite climbing destination.
“These mountains are beautiful and between 6,000 and 7,000 metres. They are lovely to climb at leisure.” But his resoluteness finds its echo in the crevasses that he bounds across and the many iconic mountaineers such as Reinhold Messner, David Breashears and Lakpa Rita Sherpa whom he has met and is inspired by.
Col Jamwal at Union Glacier, Antarctica
After 39 mountaineering expeditions in the last 15 years, that have included four mountain rescue missions, including for the avalanche triggered by the Nepal earthquake of 2015 that resulted in many deaths at Everest Base Camp, Jamwal says he doesn’t feel the need to prove himself. “My aim is to better myself,” he adds.
“Every climbing day is full of nervousness. You pack for contingency carrying clothing, equipment, food and chocolates. Finally, it boils down to the vagaries of weather; every experience with Everest has been different — blizzards, quake, blinding sunshine. Going up is optional but coming down is mandatory, so positive thoughts help.”
Every place from where a climb is launched is a great place to tick off on the travel list. Often located away from the humdrum of tourist hubs, these are places that thrill the intrepid traveller. Jamwal says that going with the sole aim to climb does not leave him much time to travel beyond his brief, but a good local mountaineering partner, like he had in the Andes, can show views that are memorable enough to fill your hard drive.
Back in India, Jamwal says he hopes to get his 11-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter interested in the mountains with an Everest trek soon.
And what will be his next challenge, I ask. There’s a pause and I can sense him smile. “You can’t challenge mountains,” he says. “You survive them.”