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Explained: Why climbing Mount Kanchenjunga is still a challenge for those who have scaled Everest

In order to examine the circumstances surrounding deaths on expeditions, The Indian Express spoke to professional climbers, mountaineers and trainers.

Written by Sweety Kumari | Kolkata |
May 17, 2019 7:46:18 pm
In order to examine the circumstances surrounding deaths on expeditions, The Indian Express spoke to professional climbers, mountaineers and trainers. (File/PTI)

Two climbers from Kolkata are feared dead on Mount Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain with an elevation of 8,586 meters. According to reports, both Kolkata residents — Kuntal Karar, 46, and Biplab Baidya, 48 — died after suffering from altitude-related sickness.

Mount Kanchenjunga, which leaves tourists awestruck from a distance when seen from North Bengal or Sikkim, is among the most treacherous peaks to climb for mountaineers.

Climbing Mountains is dangerous, but exactly how and why trained mountaineers from Bengal have died, had not been studied well. It is found that most deaths occur during descents from the summit above 8,000 meters. Amongst the identified factors that cause death are high-altitude cerebral edema, falling ice and high-altitude pulmonary edema.

In order to examine the circumstances surrounding deaths on expeditions, The Indian Express spoke to professional climbers, mountaineers and trainers. Deaths were categorised as traumatic, from falls or external hazards such as avalanches; nontraumatic, from high-altitude illness, hypothermia or other medical causes; or as disappearances by experienced Himalayan mountaineers.

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What makes Kanchenjunga expedition so challenging

Kanchenjunga is the highest peak in India and the easternmost of the peaks higher than 8,000 metres. As per Everesters in Bengal, the constant threat of snowstorms and avalanches makes the peak dangerous for climbers. Near the top, the oxygen in the air is about a third at the sea level. Some of the factors that make the job of mountaineers even more difficult are unpredictable weather conditions and the possibility of a snow slip at every step. The mountaineers who have even climbed multiple 8,000-metre-plus peaks think twice before setting foot on the world’s third highest mountain. Low oxygen level and bitter cold are also key factors.

Every season maximum 20-25 people climb Kanchenjunga, this time it was the highest with 34 people attempting to reach the summit. On the other hand, as many as 300-350 mountaineers climb Everest every season.

Mortality rates of sherpas lower than climbers

The reduced mortality rate among sherpas during descent suggests that taking time to adapt to high altitude could improve survival chances. Most of the sherpas are born and live their lives at high altitudes, and the competitive process for expedition employment probably selects those who are best adapted to and most skilled for the work. So the ability of lowlanders to familiarise to these very high altitudes needs further attention.

How can mountaineers assure a safe return

Above 8,000-meter one loses brain cells every hour, symptoms like fatigue, headache, vomiting and sleeplessness do not occur suddenly. As per mountaineers who have successfully scaled Everest, the key to a successful expedition is to understand your body so that you can turn back at the right time.

As explained, many apply their energies to reach the summit and fall sick while returning, they are fatigued and as a result fall behind other climbers.

Many of those who have died had developed symptoms such as confusion, a loss of physical coordination and unconsciousness, which suggest high-altitude cerebral edema, a swelling of the brain that results from leakage of cerebral blood vessels. Once you are fatigued you become slow and since the oxygen supply is limited, there is a risk.

Experts say logistics are complicated in Kanchenjungha and it becomes difficult to find guides who have previously summited the mountain and are willing to repeat the feat.

“Kanchenjunga is three times tougher than Everest. Everest is commercial, a lot of people go there, number of sherpas available are higher in Everest. Helicopters are available and rescue is also easier. Kanchenjunga is a lengthy and tough mountain,” said an Everester Satyarupa Siddhanta.

Some past incident with Mountaineers from Bengal

Chanda Gayan (35) was a Bengali mountaineer. An Everester, Gayan from Howrah had scaled Kanchenjunga but went missing after being caught in an avalanche at an altitude of over 8,000 metres while trying to ascend an adjacent peak. On May 20, 2014, she went missing along with two Sherpas in an avalanche while descending the western side of Mount Kanchenjunga in Nepal. All three of them were later declared to have died in the avalanche.

Gayan was best known for being the first civilian woman from the state of West Bengal to climb to the summit of Mount Everest.

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