Updated: June 21, 2021 11:34:05 am
“The best view comes after the hardest climb. It was not easy but it was totally worth it.” Fresh from conquering Mt Everest in his first attempt, Harshvardhan Joshi has another reason to be so proud of his achievement. The 25-year-old mountaineer from Maharashtra climbed the world’s tallest mountain after recovering from Covid-19 just weeks before. And to top off his achievement comes the fact that his entire expedition was planned in an eco-friendly way to promote sustainability.
Joshi’s Everest mission, called ‘SangHarsh’, was anything but easy. He didn’t foresee the challenges he would have to face even before reaching Base Camp. Coming from a middle class family and after training for five years before achieving the feat in 65 days, Joshi now calls it a “learning and humbling experience”.
Covid at Base Camp
A view of the picturesque snow-capped Himalayas can take one’s breath away, quite literally. So, the man from Vasai wasn’t much bothered about feeling unwell or seeing many members of his team coughing. However, things changed when he came across news reports saying the coronavirus had reached the Everest base camp.
“You would imagine training and being responsible for the expedition would prepare you for everything, but that’s not quite so what happened up there,” Joshi told indianexpress.com over the phone. “The pandemic did make us cautious and the journey was just fine until me and some of my team members contracted the virus,” he said.
“Owing to the pandemic, teams were not interacting with each other at the base camp and everyone was trying to maintain their bubble. We are not sure who contracted the virus when and where,” he explained.
Joshi explained that it was common for climbers to catch the Khumbu cough — named after the valley that leads up to Mt Everest — and there’s no way to differentiate it from Covid symptoms. “Worst part was there were no Covid-testing facilities at the base camp,” he said.
After he and a few of his teammates started feeling sick, the wife of a team doctor flew in with some rapid-antigen test kits and started testing randomly. “I wasn’t sure if it was coronavirus or general altitude sickness, but I knew I had to get tested before starting the final phase of my journey,” Joshi said.
A week before his initial plan to summit, on May 8, he tested positive. “I carried on with my preparations after taking the test. But when I saw two lines on my kit, my heart sank,” he added.
While a few doctors suggested that he should return, he wasn’t ready to give up yet. “I wasn’t going to be reckless or irresponsible, but I wasn’t going to return rightaway,” Joshi said. “My plans had already been cancelled once due to the pandemic and I wasn’t ready to let my training go to waste. Let alone the humongous financial load that this expedition holds,” he said. With an expedition cost of more than Rs 60 lakh, it wasn’t easy to secure another sponsorship for his mission.
Recovery and journey ahead
“I isolated myself immediately and was observing if my condition would deteriorate,” he said. “I decided to wait as I quickly realised I was asymptomatic.” His team had extra oxygen, a chopper at their disposal, and doctors, so Joshi was mentally prepared to come down if needed but thought it would be better to wait.
“I realised the situation was perhaps better at base camp than in Kathmandu at the time with a huge surge in daily counts.” It helped that Joshi was fully vaccinated before the start of his expedition. “Vaccines definitely work. It was probably why I could manage to do the impossible…recovering from covid in an environment that is perilous to the disease.”
During the treatment, he also trekked to a few nearby peaks to see if his body could take it. “I neither experienced unusual fatigue nor found it difficult to breathe. I later also got myself examined by doctors at the health centre, where they said my chest sounded fine and it was okay for me to continue,” he explained.
Having already acclimatised for over four weeks, he again took a test hoping to scale Everest after testing negative. Finally, after ten days, as a small weather window was coming up, he started his journey to Camp 2 and conquered the summit on May 23.
On top of the world
“When I reached the top, and waved the flag, I just couldn’t feel much, I was very numb to be honest. I was very happy but I was thinking this is just 50 per cent of the journey,” Joshi said. “Many might think summiting is all that is, but climbing down is more dangerous.”
As the weather hadn’t been very pleasant, he could only stay for a few minutes on the top before climbing back. The news of veteran Everester falling into a crevasse a few days before kept lingering somewhere back of his mind. And it only got worse, when he was stranded in Camp 2 all alone for five days after summiting.
“I was all alone, even my sherpa had returned to Camp 1 with empty oxygen cylinders. I barely had some 20 songs on my phone and tried to keep my morale up with that.” Reminiscing the mixed feeling of accomplishment and fear, he added: “It was too windy outside and barely saw any sun, and I was anxious till I made it out of there.”
Thankfully, on May 29, he finally managed to climb down, before being able to find a helicopter to fly out of the base camp.
In a one-of-a-kind trip, his team did not burn non-renewable fuel for heating and other purposes, reducing their carbon footprint to minimum. “Mountain environments are very sensitive to climate change. They appear among the most severely and rapidly impacted ecosystems, and can be affected easily. Even the most isolated valleys have been touched by climate change,” he said.
Along with all his gear and equipment, Joshi and team carried several solar panels and batteries to the Everest camps to sustain themselves for two months. “My mission was very simple: promote awareness about renewable energy. While also trying to show a way to reduce the adverse effects of such missions or tourism at large, without harming nature,” he explained, underlining how renewable energy can be enough in one of the most hostile environments on Earth.
Before coming back from the mountains, he donated all the solar panels he had taken on his expedition. His initial plan was to install solar power systems in some of the remote Nepalese villages with the support of Mumbai-based Chirag Rural Development Foundation (CRFD), one of his sponsors. However, owing to the pandemic that wasn’t possible on this trip and the IT engineer now plans to go back soon to complete this project.
His main goal now is to scale Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world, often dubbed to be more challenging than Everest. “My original plan was to climb both Everest and Lhotse and set a record for India but bad weather didn’t permit it.”
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