His eyes glinting with tears, 58-year-old Sharad Kulkarni says he does not know if he wants to continue with his goal of scaling the seven great peaks of the world that he had planned with his wife Anjali.
Anjali Kulkarni, a mountaineer, was one of the three Indians who died scaling the Mount Everest. Kalpana Das (49) from Odisha and Nihal Bagwan (27) from Pune were the other two who died in one of the most crowded seasons at the world’s tallest peak.
Sharad recounts how the Sherpa had to drag him away from his wife’s lifeless body near the South Summit of the Everest. “I stayed with her for 15 minutes as we waited for some rescue. Eventually, when she stopped breathing, my Sherpa dragged me away as even we had less oxygen,” he says.
The senior couple had been preparing for the Everest for the past five years. “Now, I don’t know if I even want to go to the other peaks,” he says.
On May 23, owing to a huge queue of people on the trek, the Kulkarnis got stuck between camp four and the final summit. “By the time I reached the base camp, I had suffered a swelling in my brain that also affected my eyesight. I saw my wife struggle for oxygen as her supply got over, even as rescue teams were stuck in traffic,” Sharad says.
While Sharad managed to reach the summit, Anjali could not as she collapsed just 50 metres away, their son Shantanu says.
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For the Thane-born couple, trekking was a shared passion. “Our family was always involved in sports. We would go trekking around Maharashtra and even to the lower Himalayas for all our vacations. My first trek was when I was five,” Shantanu says, adding, “it shaped me and our equation as a family, so much so that I ended up leading trekking tours as an occupation.”
“They had trekked to Mansarovar when there was a flood in Kedarnath, they had even gone to Nepal during the earthquake. Everywhere they went, they faced challenges, but they didn’t give up or worry too much,” he says.
One of the costliest places to take home the dead, the family commended the Indian embassy. “Several people who go to Mount Everest are not even aware of the consequences. Most don’t get any insurance, and even those who do are fleeced by the companies. The Indian embassy paid for each and every rescue of Indian bodies from the area,” Sharad says.
Rescued on the last day of the open season, Anjali’s body was brought back to their Thane house on May 30, following which she was cremated on May 31. “Always active and extremely social” is how her family and friends remember Anjali. “She was someone who had trekked, taken part in countless marathons and made friends everywhere she went. She had a strong sense of giving back to the society without worrying about her issues,” Shantanu says.
“Nobody believes that she is no more. We had planned to write a book together about living life after 50. We had planned so many things, like press conferences, events and celebrations after we reached the summit at the Everest. All of it is useless now,” Sharad says.
The couple ran a media agency, which they quit just a year ago for full-time training to scale the Everest. “We had enrolled in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute in Darjeeling, despite crossing the age limit there. Mount Everest was our dream,” he says.
For Shantanu, his mother’s death comes as a lesson. “As we have been involved in mountaineering and even lead other groups, the dangers have always been apparent. My parents had discussed the worst-case scenario, and even prepared for it, by getting extra supply of oxygen, two skilled Sherpas and top-class gear. However, there are certain things we have learnt from this experience, which we hope future mountaineers will pay heed to,” he says.
He says to be able to climb the mountain takes a lot of practice, and newcomers or inexperienced people tend to hold up the line causing blockages. The number of people allowed should also be monitored and people need to be aware of medical complications and get a solid insurance as it sometimes means the difference between life and death, he adds.
“We have lost her, but at least she was doing something she loved. We only hope the deaths at the highest peak can be minimised,” he says.