Scaling Mount Everest with a film camera
In order to document India's first mixed expedition to the peak in 1984, Siddharth Kak prepared for the greatest ascent of his life
The film Everest 1984: India’s Expedition To Mt Everest, opens with footage of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, wishing the team luck before it sets off for Nepal. The expedition was special because, if successful, it would see an Indian woman summiting the highest mountain in the world for the first time. “Adventure should be a part of everybody’s life. It is the difference between living and just existing," Gandhi told the team.
Her interviewer, Siddharth Kak, who went on to script and direct the film, couldn’t have agreed more.
Till just nine months ago, Kak had been employed with the Tata group, travelling around the country on work. In his own words, it was a “privileged existence", rubbing shoulders with some illustrious personalities, including Jamshed Bhabha who was an arts patron associated with the National Centre for the Performing Arts, to whom he was executive assistant.
“Eventually, I found that I was facilitating other people’s talents rather than my own," he says, sitting at his office desk on a humid afternoon in Mumbai. “It became a little claustrophobic. Before it got too late, I decided to make the most of the one life I had."
Kak quit his comfortable perch and embarked on a journey of observation and writing, favouring film as a medium. Most of the learning was on the job. He chose to make documentary films rather than commercial cinema, and became a familiar face to many in India when he began co-hosting and producing a popular culture programme called Surabhi, in 1990.
Into thin air
But to go back in time, to 1984. Kak was drinking a cup of tea at his home in Mumbai and browsing a newspaper when he read that an Indian expedition would be going to the Everest in a few months. He called a college mate from St Stephen’s in New Delhi whose father, H.C. Sarin, was president of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. Soon, he was on board as a film-maker.
“Who gets a chance to go to Everest?" he says. “I was reasonably fit, having been a sportsperson in my youth. Besides, I’m from Kashmir, so mountains are my habitat. I’ve often gone trekking. It was like one of those impossible adventures that would never come again. I had to go."
He turned to his last employer for sponsorship, and Tata Oil Mills Co. obliged. It took Kak time to fathom the scale of the project. In 1984, climbing Everest remained the domain of a few adventurers, unlike the crowds that can be witnessed on the mountain these days. He first had to understand the kind of equipment needed at those high altitudes.
“This was the time of the film camera," he recalls. “There was no guarantee that the fluids in it would not freeze in those conditions. I had to do a lot of research until I found a technology unit in Bombay (now Mumbai) that used aviation fuel, which would freeze at much lower temperatures.
“Then we got special heaters created to mount on the lens and in the eyepiece, so that it wouldn’t frost over and one could keep filming. Eventually, if all technology failed, we had hand-wound spring cameras. These were obsolete by then, but turned out to be a valuable asset on the mountain."
In 1965, Captain M.S. Kohli had led nine men to the summit of Everest. But India’s first mixed expedition to the mountain came 19 years later. At that point, only four other women had reached the top since Junko Tabei’s first ascent in 1975. On 23 May 1984, Bachendri Pal joined that elite circle.
To get the project rolling, Kak paid a visit to each team member’s home, to see what they were like away from the extreme strain of a mountaineering expedition.
“I remember filming Bachendri with her parents in her little hut, one among 12 others in rustic Nakuri, in Uttarakhand. Mountaineering was liberation for her. We went to the cosy home of Brigadier Darshan Kumar Khullar (who led the expedition), amid fields in the Bassi Pathana region of Punjab. I chatted with his mother while she sat on a charpoy. It was a great glimpse into the character of India."
Alongside were Deepak Haldankar, a Films Division cameraman who had been to Antarctica, Sanjeev Saith, a climber and photographer who had joined the advance party that set the route on the mountain, and K. Nand Kumar, a trekker. Then, Kak’s father died and he fell ill himself. He pleaded with the doctor to let him get on the flight to Nepal in a few days.
Once they were in Kathmandu, the feasting began. It proved to be the perfect cure.
“We were fattened—steaks with colas, milkshakes and desserts," he says, smiling. “It was much needed. I lost it all by the time I returned. I envy what I looked like after finishing Everest, because I hadn’t looked that way since college."
It was time to get down to work. Kak next shot the scene in which viewers gets a first glimpse of the mighty Himalayas in the film. Kak and Haldankar boarded a single-engine Pilatus PC-6 Porter from Kathmandu to get aerial shots of the Everest. While flying into the Western Cwm—a glacial valley that must be traversed to get to the base of Everest and Lhotse—the plane was hit by a downwind that drove it rapidly towards the mountain face. The Swiss pilot battled to bail the plane out, and had intruded into Chinese territory by the time he managed to regain control.
The fear of falling through the door was one thing (it was left open for filming) but the duo soon had a near-catastrophe to deal with.
“Because of the extreme cold, the film had snapped," Kak says. “Amid the panic and turbulence, Deepak had to put his hand inside the camera and join it with a tape. The plane circled for some 20 minutes until we fixed it. Despite losing time, we were lucky to get quite a few shots."
Those were the days when visuals could not be seen until the film was developed in a studio. As they stumbled into their hotel on Durbar Marg, Kak remembers asking: “Deepak, you got some good shots of Everest, right? ‘Yes, yes,’ Deepak replied. ‘But which one of those mountains was Everest?’"
“But we did manage to get it," says Kak, chuckling at the memory.
Meanwhile, the advance party was dealing with a tragedy: A Sherpa member of the team had been killed in an avalanche. Saith filmed the sombre mood and the subsequent airlift from Everest Base Camp. The team in Kathmandu sneaked a camera into the airport while receiving the party, before visiting the hospital to meet the injured Sherpas. The drama had begun even before Kak set foot on the mountain.
The team eventually reunited at base camp, where they were taught how to walk on ice and rope up. Standing amid the grandeur of those lofty mountains, Kak finally could make sense of what he had signed up for. Before leaving for Camp I, he wrote a letter to his wife, Geeta, and left it with Khullar, explaining why it was important for him to go up that mountain. All the mountaineering literature back home during the preparatory months had left her unnerved, and it had taken patient coaxing on Kak’s part to earn her hesitant approval.
He signed off by writing, “If I come back, I’ll complete this letter and give it to you." Geeta has the letter even today.
“The hard part is done by the person pioneering the route," Kak says. “For an amateur like me, it was a matter of competence—stamina and steadiness. Then again, I had no idea what it was all about."
The highest number of casualties on the Everest take place in the Khumbu Icefall—an unstable mass of towering seracs that creak and groan as the sun shines on them. It is also the first hurdle one must negotiate to get to Camp I. It was pitch dark when the filming crew left alongside some climbers, who soon pulled ahead. At one point that night, Kak’s crampon came loose, but he managed to scramble to the closest ledge and fix it back on.
“These moments were like a lifetime," he remembers. “Our progress was slow, and up there, it’s all very practical as the climbing team looked to get to camp soon. As I looked down one yawning crevice, I saw this blue, cold, evil space. It wasn’t about falling in there; more about how you may die there alone."
The team eventually stumbled into Camp I in the fading light, amid cheers from those who had reached hours earlier. For the next few days, they shot there, before resuming their march to Camp II. Saith, the only experienced mountaineer in the film crew, continued filming a little higher up, while the rest took to shooting between the two camps.
One tent-bound night at Camp II, Khullar stirred Kak. For hours, they had been hearing what sounded like cannons booming in the distance—it was the sound of an avalanche. Kak dragged himself out in the sub-zero temperature and was immediately spellbound.
“A huge mass of clouds and snow was spewing off the Everest and into the sky," he says. “Then the first rays of the sun came out and it looked like a volcano erupting on Everest. It was the shot of the century, gone in a few minutes. But we had been filming—I knew I had my opening visual of the film."
Kak reached 22,000ft. As the climbing teams moved further up, the filming was left to three climbers—Major Kiran Inder Kumar, Sonam Paljore and Magan Bissa— who agreed to carry the lighter cameras. A deadly avalanche that buried Camp III threatened to bring the expedition to a premature end, but five members eventually reached the top, including Bachendri Pal, who can be heard squealing in the dispatch from the summit in the film.
Yet nothing goes quite as planned, especially not on an expedition like this. Amid the happy delirium, a rude shock awaited the film team in Kathmandu. The canister that held some of the high-altitude footage, most importantly the fireball they had witnessed on Everest, had gone missing. Kak remains heartbroken about it even today.
“The film (released in 1985) was beautifully done eventually and narrated very nicely by Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah)," Kak says. “And we put our heart into it. It’s a story of aspirations, determination, achievements and disappointments." But that first shot, the cover of the film, could have been Everest in flames—“a legacy visual".
The film went on to win the Best Exploration/Adventure Film category at the 32nd National Film Awards, though Kak swears that it could have been very different. These days, he has also started documenting the journey in a book that will be titled, rather aptly, “An Amateur On Everest".
“When I went up that fateful morning, it changed my life forever," Kak says. “It’s the journey that matters at the end of the day. Of course, it helps if the destination is also reached."