As the nation celebrated its 75th Independence Day last year, Colonel Ranveer Singh Jamwal started looking for a unique climb to mark the occasion. Jamwal has summited Everest on three occasions, and has scaled the highest peak of every continent. The idea that he finally hit upon, turned out to be his longest expedition yet—the highest peak in every Indian state.
To reach this aim, Jamwal, who is the director of the National Institute of Mountaineering and Adventure Sports (NIMAS) in Dirang, Arunachal Pradesh, put together a crack team from the school. On 16 October last year, Team NIMAS reached the summit of Gorichen (6,858m), the highest mountain in Arunachal Pradesh.By the time they summited Jongsong (7,462m) in Sikkim on 2 October this year, the team had succeeded in climbing the highest mountain in each of the 28 states of India.
“Our goal was to tell the world and the Indian adventure community aboutthese incredible mountains that we have in our own backyard. So there are plenty of opportunities in India to learn the necessary climbing skills, organise your own expedition and become a good mountaineer,” says Jamwal. “And of course, since nobody had done anything like this before, it was an added motivation.”
Climbing Gorichen, after spending over two weeks on the mountain, helped Jamwal realise the abilities of his team. They soon received approval from the Ministry of Defence and set out to climb the rest on 1 May this year. “The big mountains can only be attempted during certain months, so we had to plan our climbs accordingly,” he says.
In the second phase, the first peak that they tackled was Reo Purgyil (6,816m) in Himachal Pradesh. At the road head in Nako, it took them a while to locate a mule herder who could guide them to the base of the mountain.
“It’s one of the most challenging mountains that I’ve climbed, with little information available about the route. The last 400 metres to the summit really tested us, since it needed rock climbing skills in cold conditions,” Jamwal says.
With Nanda Devi—India’s highest peak that’s entirely within its borders—off limits, they made an attempt on Kamet (7,756m) in Uttarakhand next. “It is the most underrated 7,000er in the country. The climb has everything—glacier and moraine traverses, mixed climbing on ice and rock, and plenty of rockfall. This mountain definitely tested our patience and skills,” he says. It is also where a few members had a narrow escape. Their rope snapped while climbing an ice wall, sending three climbers hurtling towards a crevasse, until they effectively used ice axes and crampons to bring their slide to a halt.
The peaks in the plains and along the coasts posed their own unique challenges. For instance, Sonsogor (1,026m) in Goa needed a 12-hour march in heavy downpour that took longer than expected. Then, Someshwar Fort (874m) in Bihar, the lowest peak of the expedition, required the team to find their way through a dense jungle, while on the lookout for wild animals.
But the bigger task was handling the logistics of the entire operation. A few team members were dedicated to simply planning the gear and rations needed for each climb, as well as route planning. On the smaller mountains, they would reach out to local mountaineering clubs and students, and invite them to be a part of the climb; in all, the core team was joined by over a thousand participants.
After 31,000km on the road, they finally approached the last mountain in Sikkim in end-September. “We arrived later than expected and were informed that it was not a good time to climb Jongsong. But I was hopeful that we would be handed one opportunity to make an attempt,” Jamwal says.The team assessed daily reports from the Indian Meteorological Department, while Jamwal also reached out to his wife, Kiran, who kept an eye on other weather channels. By 1 October, the team had reached the summit camp on Jongsong, awaiting further news before a final push.
“We learned that the weather would open up for a short duration the following day. That was our only chance, since the winds were going to change here on. Though it was our last mountain, it didn’t make sense to get into trouble. So we decided to take calculated risks, make one last attempt and if it didn’t work out, come back the following year,” Jamwal says.
At 10pm, the team started out from summit camp, with around 650 metres of steep climbing ahead of them. There were clouds in the sky and it soon started snowing. But at first light, the weather cleared up. And after a 12-hour summit push, the team finally unfurled the tricolour on the summit of their last mountain.
“This was a unique expedition even for me, since I had never done anything that had lasted so long. There was no one to ask about certain mountains, neither any documentation to refer to. So finding our own way was a thrill in itself. But after each climb, it was also important to remain focussed instead of celebrating and resting, well aware that we had a long way to go,” Jamwal says.
As the team celebrated at their campus in NIMAS, Jamwal received a phone call quite out of the blue. It was from legendary mountaineer and the first Indian woman to climb Everest, Bachendri Pal, who congratulated them on their success. “She never imagined such an expedition was possible and lauded our efforts,” he says.
There’s one final challenge that Jamwal has to negotiate in the time ahead to sign off the project.“We are compiling a book where we will document all the climbs for others who would like to attempt them someday. But for someone who struggles with writing, this is turning out to be an expedition in itself,” he says, laughing.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based freelance writer.