This is no ordinary village. Located at an elevation of 3,870 metres, it lies on the route to Kanchenjunga and treks can take you to either India or Tibet. Clouds here can come up suddenly, covering the two quaint guest houses in snow-white opaqueness, restricting vision to your immediate surroundings. Helicopter sorties in the area can be tricky because of the weather and the terrain.
It's a little distance away from this village, Tseram, that mountaineer Arjun Vajpai had to spend a night in a chopper -- in an unihabited area -- after successfully scaling the world's third highest peak, Kanchenjunga. Arjun is the youngest mountaineer in the world to have scaled six peaks above 8,000 metres, including the prized Everest. Many climbers regard Kanchenjunga as being tougher to climb than Everest.
The circumstances which led Arjun to spend a night with his father, Col Sanjiv Vajpai, and the chopper pilot in cramped quarters are as follows:
A group of eight journalists and Col Vajpai were being flown on May 23 from Suketar Airport, with a stopover at Tseram, in two choppers, to catch up with Arjun when he came down from the peak to the advance base camp at 5,300 metres. But weather decreed otherwise. After landing in Tseram, the weather turned for the worse, making the steep climb to the advance base camp difficult.
That afternoon, a 10-minute weather window opened up to fly back to Kathmandu. But most of us preferred to stay put in the hope of making it to the advance base camp. By late afternoon, it had become impossible to fly out as the weather worsened.
There is no mobile network at Tseram but its two guest houses cater to tourists and trekkers keen on exploring the peaks of eastern Nepal. The serene village in a deep valley has a snowy stream nearby. When the weather clears up, you can see the sharp surrounding peaks, many covered with snow. At night, the glow of the moon adds a further touch of beauty to the scene.
Before flying, the pilots had also warned us of the difficulties in acclimatising due to the lower amount of oxygen available at higher altitude. "If your brain does not get oxygen for 10 seconds, you are gone," was among the warnings giving goosebumps to many of us. At Tseram, we were advised to take a lot of hot water as it helps the body to acclimatise. We were not the only ones grounded in the village. Sabine from Chile, who had trekked for about 20 days to reach Tseram to meet her mountaineer husband coming down Kanchenjunga, was advised not to go ahead.
The facilitation team of Mountain Dew suggested that instead of the whole team going to the base camp, perhaps Arjun could fly down to Tseram. But Col Vajpai had flown twice during the day to reach Arjun at the advance base camp -- to no avail. The experienced and daring pilot Suraj Thapa could not locate the camp and returned to Tseram after negotiating threatening clouds.
Then, in the early evening, seeing a break in weather, Thapa decided to take another chance to locate Arjun. He took off with Col Vajpai. We of course were left in the dark about their whereabouts. Half an hour later the pilot of the other chopper, Nirajan could briefly talk to Thapa over satellite phone to be told that Thapa's chopper had landed.
There was a sense or relief. But we did not know the details. What transpired, as we learnt later, was that Col Vajpai sighted Arjun's jacket at the advance base camp and alerted the pilot, who then went down to near snow level and the mountaineer was pulled into the chopper cabin. The pilot then tried to fly back to Tseram but the weather worsened. He then found a rocky area and landed the chopper. The three had to spend the night as flying would have been fraught with danger.
Next morning, Tseram's calm was broken by the thunder of helicopter and Arjun and his father stepped out. They had barely slept. Col Vajpai said he spent the night remembering the Almighty. "The night appeared to be very long. Every time I looked at my watch, I felt time had not moved," he said.
The weather was still playing truant at Tseram, but everyone was eager to talk to Arjun about his experience in climbing the third highest peak. The pilots signalled that a small window to fly out was available, but the journalistic instincts got the better of the visitors. The window came and went.
It was only two hours later that another opportunity arose. This time safety took precedence and we flew out to Kathmandu with Col Vajpai. Arjun remained back saying his crew and equipment needed to be moved out from the advance base camp.
Mountain flying in Nepal is not easy. Especially when the weather turns adverse. On May 22, our original plan was to go to the Kanjchenjunga advance base camp from Kathmandu with a brief stopover at Tapethok at 1,456 metres. But a little after take-off from the capital, the helicopters had to be diverted to Tumlingtar airport. When the weather cleared, we took off from there only to land in the fields near Suketar Airport in Taplejung district, requiring us to trudge to a resort nearby. The next morning, on our way to the Kanchenjunga advance base camp, the choppers could not take off after what was to be a brief stopover at Tseram.
In the mountains, it is the nature that rules -- whether you are on a mountaineering expedition or taking a helicopter ride.
(Prashant Sood was in Nepal at the invitation of Mountain Dew. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)