In April 2021, Keval Kakka was attempting a climb up Dhaulagiri in the Nepal Himalaya. Earlier that month, he had successfully reached the summit of Annapurna I. If all went well on Dhaulagiri, he was scheduled to climb Makalu in the weeks ahead. The idea was to climb three 8,000m mountains in a single season as part of “Project Tri Summits”—a first for an Indian.
However, heavy snowfall on Dhaulagiri and a covid breakout at base camp forced him to abandon the climb. He had invested heavily in the project, but he simply decided to return home without making any further attempts. “There were too many sick people and so many covid cases at base camp. That was not the time to take risks,” Kakka, 30, recalls.
In two weeks, he will return to Nepal to chase his project yet again. This time around, he’s trained his eyes on Kangchenjunga, Makalu and Dhaulagiri—the third, fifth and seventh highest mountains in the world, respectively. “The idea is to push my limits and do something that no Indian has managed so far. I want to set a benchmark for other climbers,” Kakka says.
In 2017, Kakka climbed his first 8,000er, Manaslu, reaching as high as 7,980m without the use of supplementary oxygen. The following year, he summited Cho Oyu without any high altitude support after his climbing partner fell ill. The experience made him confident about his technical abilities and he decided to test himself further. His first attempt at climbing multiple peaks in a single season came in 2019: that year, he climbed Everest and Lhotse in a span of a few days. “Patience is the key during these attempts. The mountain continuously gives you hints on whether it will allow you to climb. You have to observe the conditions and stay healthy to make the most of the opportunity when it arises. It’s all a mental game,” Kakka says.
A decade ago, Kakka decided to walk away from a conventional career in engineering to pursue his love for the mountains. After finishing his basic and advance mountaineering courses, he set up an outdoors company, Beyond Altitudes, and started guiding treks to earn a living. It not only allowed him to fund his expeditions, but also doubled up as useful training before the big climbs.“If you want to climb, you need to train on vertical terrain. I live in Mumbai which is at sea level. Any amount of work that I put in here isn’t the same,” he says.
During the winter months, he guided treks to Kuari Pass, and Pangarchula and Kedarkantha peaks in Uttarakhand. Heavy snowfall meant a more arduous exercise in route opening and carrying loads to stock higher camps in sub-zero temperatures. In between, he would squeeze in workouts to strengthen his core, as well as run on trails at altitude. “Guiding requires a lot of mental strength to tackle everything from the terrain to working as a team. The conditions were similar to what you find on the high mountains, so it was really good training, both physical and mental,” he says.
At home, his daily schedule includes six hours of training that included strength and cardio workouts, besides yoga and meditation. The rest of the day would be dedicated to the arduous task of fundraising. “I feel like if you want to climb, you should be able to raise money for it on your own, instead of going the crowdfunding way. Besides sponsors, I’ve also invested a lot of my savings over the years,” he says.
Kakka prefers to climb in spring due to the favourable weather, as post monsoon, it often gets a lot colder at altitude. As part of his acclimatization process, he will lead a trek to Everest Base Camp in early March. He will then head to Dhaulagiri sooner than last year to make the most of the conditions on the mountain. “Dhaulagiri is usually dumped with heavy snow. Closer to winter, the snow is more compact, which presents better climbing conditions. It is the key to success on this mountain, since there are a lot of hidden crevasses,” he says. He will then head to Kanchenjunga, a strenuous climb he admits, where the summit push from Camp 4 can be as long as 24 hours. The final attempt will take him to Makalu in May. “If you look at the statistics, there’s a long window of good weather in the Everest region where Makalu lies. Climbers have made the summit of Makalu even in June, so it will give us enough time to finish the project,” he says.
The fastest recorded climb on these three mountains was pulled off by Nirmal Purja in 2019. He first climbed Dhaulagiri on 12 May, followed by Kangchenjunga three days later. After climbing Everest and Lhotse on 22 May, he reached the summit of Makalu on 24 May. These climbs were a part of Bremont Project Possible where he scaled all the fourteen 8,000m peaks in six months and six days.
So far, Kakka has climbed five of the 8,000ers. This season, he has signed up with an expedition led by Mingma G, who alongside Purja was a part of the all-Nepali team that made the first winter climb up K2 in January last year. “He’s a really strong climber and will be on all three mountains with me. His experience will be crucial for the team,” he says.
In between meetings with potential sponsors last week, Kakka was also busy running around making the final preparations for his engagement to his partner, Krupa. It was the mountains that brought them together on a trek a few years ago. “She knows how much I’ve learnt from the mountains and has always supported my climbing. It is why she understands that the mountains will always be my first love,” Kakka says.
Shail Desai is a Mumbai-based journalist.