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Tale of two quakes: Horror @ Everest, tremors in Kolkata

By Ashish Agashe
May 12, 2015 19:39 IST
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The events at the Everest Base Camp at an altitude of 17,700 feet on April 25, however, were very different from those witnessed on Tuesday, recalls Lipika Biswas

Women show the cracks at a Government office after an earthquake in Kolkata on Tuesday. Photograph: Ashok Bhaumik/PTI

The strong temblor that shook Nepal and parts of northern and eastern India on Tuesday brought back chilling memories of the April 25 earthquake for 47-year-old mountaineer Lipika Biswas who was at the Everest Base Camp when it had hit the Himalayan country.

The Kolkata-based Lipika ran out of her office in Eastern Railway chief engineer's office after the tremors, to find a lot of people on the office veranda and outside.

The events at the Everest Base Camp at an altitude of 17,700 feet on April 25, however, were very different from those witnessed on Tuesday, recalls Lipika, who could not climb the Everest last year after the climbing season was called off abruptly following a deadly avalanche. "We were resting in our tents and immediately after the first shock, we ran out in the open," she told PTI.

Once out in the open, she and her fellow climbers started scanning the slopes of the world's highest peak, especially the Khumbu Icefall stretch, to assess if the route they were to take to the summit had had any impact. "The entire glacier on which the camp is located was like a boat in choppy waters and it was still shaking as we stood outside. There was utter chaos and a cacophony of thuds all around. We were looking towards the Everest, but a loud noise on the other side, from the Pumori Peak, diverted our attention," she recalls.

It was an avalanche, "coming down fast resembling a cloud", Lipika recollects. The memory still makes her tremble.

Avalanche is one of the most dreaded dangers which the climbers in Himalayas face. A gargantuan mass of snow, triggered by the quake, was now rolling down and the lives of over 1,000 mountaineers, Sherpas and support staff were in peril.

"My friends from Kolkata -- Sunita and Gautam -- were with me. We ran in different directions," she says.

 Lipika saved herself by moving behind a boulder. Sunita found refuge behind another, while Gautam fell and remained in the open ground.

"Thankfully, the avalanche didn't stop where we were and passed us quickly." Within 15 minutes, they could locate what was remaining of their tent.

However, several other denizens of the 'tent city' at the base camp were not so lucky, as they were caught unaware and had no time get out.

The tents of the 30-member Indian Army expedition team and an 11-member expedition team from Assam suffered the greatest damage, but the members of both the teams escaped the fury of avalanche because they were out for acclimatisation and training exercises.

Within 30 minutes of the avalanche, Lipika's group started a long walk back to the civilisation and safety. "The base camp is situated on a glacier and it was not advisable to stay on due to the possibility of aftershocks ... We started trekking down to Gorakshep with an emergency backpack," she recalls, reflecting that the classic mountain discipline of being prepared for disaster helped her come out quickly from her tent and run for cover.

Back home, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee's tweet informing that Lipika was safe assuaged her relatives and friends.

The group reached Gorakshep the same evening and by April 29 it had reached Lukla. After three days of wait in the town, they flew back on an Indian Air Force chopper, which had brought supplies for the town.

Once in the quake-ravaged Kathmandu, they flew to Kolkata on a special Air India flight which evacuated the Indians stuck in Nepal.

At the end of this all, climbing Everest remains an unrealised dream for Lipika. Last year she made it to the base camp, but an avalanche on April 17, 2014 and deaths of some Sherpas led to the cancellation of the climb.

This year she was about to leave for the camp one of Everest in the wee hours of April 25, but was forced to stay back due to bad weather. She, however, refuses to call her Everest dream jinxed, saying that high climbs are always challenging.

Will she attempt the peak for a third time next year or later? "I think I don't have the mental and financial energy to take it up again this year. At present I am happy to be alive," she says, pointing to personal loan of Rs 21 lakh which she had to spend without even reaching the camp one and which, nevertheless, has to be repaid now.

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Ashish Agashe
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