In May this year, Hemant Leuva, 48, was stranded in his tent at the South Col (Camp 4) on Everest. A snowstorm triggered by Cyclone Tauktae raged outside, casting doubts on the summit push that was scheduled to begin later hour that evening. The news of a few casualties had started doing the rounds as well. After a long wait and some deliberation, the team had little choice but to abandon the climb and get off the mountain.
Four months on, during a summit attempt on Manaslu, the eighth highest mountain in the world, Leuva got a feeling of deja vu. This time, his wife, Surbhi, 48, was on the climb as well. The snowfall had picked up and visibility was down to a few metres. The previous day, they had witnessed the corpse of a climber being brought down by a few high altitude guides. There were now genuine concerns on how the weather conditions would unfold.
“We were worried that if the bad weather continued, our summit plans would go for a toss. The mind tends to play tricks on you and all kinds of negative thoughts run through your head, especially with death on the mountain. So we had to remain strong and focussed, and hope that the conditions got better,” Leuva says.
Two days later, the weather had finally improved and the couple set out for the summit from Camp 4. By 6.45am on 29 September, the Leuvas stood on the summit of Manaslu. Leuva says that the couple felt relieved rather than joyous after reaching the summit. “The goal has always been to climb Everest and this expedition handed me the confidence that I could possibly make another attempt in the future.”
Everest had left Leuva with mixed feelings. On one hand, he was happy to get off the mountain alive. At the same time, he was aware of all that had been at stake. Besides the finances, he had spent an entire year training for the climb. Surbhi had been at the Everest base camp through all those weeks in May, supporting her husband. Her time there was also spent observing other climbers. Over time, she had started harbouring mountaineering dreams of her own. “I interacted with women who were gearing up for their climbs. Some were my age and really strong. Then, I saw younger girls and realised that I was way fitter than some of them. The two experiences were enough motivation for me to consider climbing these big mountains,” she says.
The couple have been trekking since they were in school, and, after marriage, had been bitten by the climbing bug. At the age of 35, Leuva started pursuing his rock climbing and mountaineering training. During this time, he also had the opportunity to join expeditions to 6,000-metre peaks such as Indrasan and Menthosa in Himachal Pradesh, and Nilkanth in Uttarakhand. Surbhi too practiced rock climbing and found a place on teams climbing Srikanth in Uttarakhand, Stok Kangri in Ladakh and Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. As they considered their next objective, they decided to climb together on Manaslu.
While Leuva had a training routine in place due to the Everest attempt, Surbhi had a lot of catching up to do. She hired a fitness trainer who worked with her remotely. During the early days, the workouts would last 2-3 hours each day, which extended to 6-7 hours during the final few weeks leading up to the climb. Almost 90% of it was dedicated to cardio-based endurance training, while the rest of the effort was focussed on building strength. “The training was more about staying on your feet for long periods of time. So most workouts featured a slow, extended effort as compared to one that was based on speed,” Leuva says.
As practicing doctors in Ahmedabad - Surbhi is the chief medical officer at Gujarat Vidyapith while Hemant is a general surgeon at Shardaben General Hospital - time was often a constraint. They would split the training sessions between mornings and evenings, while dedicating the weekend to longer hours of consistent effort. “It was good to have someone with the same goals in the house. The day one of us was tired, the other person would provide the motivation to step out,” Leuva says.
On 1 September, they reached Kathmandu and after a week-long trek, arrived at base camp. Over the next few weeks, they pulled off three acclimatisation climbs on the mountain, reaching as high as Camp 3. After a quick birthday celebration for Leuva on the 22nd, they readied for the final push. Five days later, they stood on the summit of Manaslu. Leuva is now readying for another attempt on Everest next year. And this time around, Surbhi hopes to be by his side on the summit of the highest mountain in the world.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist.