Sudeb Hazra, 44, is waiting outside a north Kolkata nursing home. The visiting hours are over, he will head out to have lunch at a nearby eatery. For 12 hours, Sudeb has not budged from the reception area of the nursing home. Every half-hour, he approaches the reception, enquiring about his wife Sunita’s health.
Sunita, 42, who was a part of the tragic Everest expedition of May 20, was flown into the city on Saturday evening. “She is out of danger but the doctors aren’t sure when will she be discharged. The frost bite was particularly severe,” says Sudeb, who runs a mountaineering equipment store in south Kolkata.
This season, 11 mountaineers from West Bengal tried to reach the world’s highest peak. While eight of them were successful, the rest could not make it due to adverse weather conditions.
Sunita, an assistant health officer of Duttanagar, was one of the lucky survivors. She was part of a team of four climbers who started on an expedition to summit the Everest on May 20. While Subhash Pal was successful, he perished on his way back to Base Camp No. 2. Sunita was rescued by the Himalayan Rescue Association and airlifted from the Everest base camp to Kathmandu, where was treated before being brought back to Kolkata.
“We have been saving for years. Sunita took loans to make this happen. She took up a nurse’s job to save money for her mountaineering trips. It is her enduring passion,” says Sudeb.
Their combined income, says Sudeb, is barely enough to run their family of three. “We make do with very little, we have an 11-year-old son, but we still save an amount every month for Sunita’s expeditions,” he says.
At the spartan office of North Face Mountaineering Club in Shyambazar, Ujjal De, secretary of the club, explains the logistics involved in an Everest expedition. “It takes at least Rs 25 lakh. This includes the cost of equipment and guides,” says De.
His mountaineering club has people from all walks of life enrolling for basic mountaineering courses. “More than half of our students are from middle-class and lower middle-class families. A mechanic and even a plumber enrolled with us. Mountaineering is not just a rich man’s hobby in Kolkata,” says De.
On Saturday, Debraj Dutta, who successfully scaled Everest on May 20, returned to Kolkata to be greeted by an enthusiastic crowd at Howrah station. He is 35 and has been a mountaineering instructor with a south Kolkata club for years. “I make less than Rs 20,000 a month. I took a loan for this and will probably spend the rest of my life paying them off,” laughs Dutta.
Three years ago, Ujjwal Roy, the then officer-incharge of Shyampukur police station in north Kolkata, scaled Everest. Roy, 52, who trained at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi, and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, has also climbed 11 peaks in India.
An OC doesn’t earn more than Rs 40,000 a month. “I approached Kolkata Police, the state government and others. I managed to get the money from them and other sources. When there is a will, there is a way,” says Roy.
He cites the examples of Tusi Das and Chhanda Gayen — two women climbers from Kolkata who scaled the Everest in 2013 — saying their modest background didn’t stop them either. “Tusi used to sell eggs in a market in Dum Dum. Gayen, who died during a Kanchenjunga expedition, came from a modest background too,” says Roy.
Meanwhile, the Hazras continue to dream. “Sunita is already planning her next expedition,” says Sudeb.