In September, Kieren D’Souza, 27, bumped into a few mountaineers during a recce climb on Deo Tibba, a 6,001m peak in the Pir Panjal range in Himachal Pradesh. They had spent over a week on the mountain but had been unsuccessful in getting to the summit.
During their exchange, D’Souza mentioned that he was planning a lightning fast ascent and descent of the mountain, possibly in under 24 hours. They shook their heads in disbelief and told him it was impossible, given that most teams took around nine days on average to make it to the top. This fact had crossed D’Souza’s mind repeatedly over the last few months, and each time, he had set it aside to focus on the job at hand.
Under the ethereal glow of a full moon on 1 October, D’Souza set off at 3.20am from the road-head at the Allain Duhangan hydroelectric power plant. His body shivered in the sub-zero temperature, his nerves jangled at the thought of the uncharted territory awaiting him. He had run up many mountains in the past, but none as high as this one, nor in the manner that he was going to do this time. This was to be a solo attempt, in a single push, with minimal gear and support along the way. He would only stop once he had made the finish, or in case of bad weather or worse, if he suffered a mishap.
He was soon negotiating boggy marshland that had solidified in the chill, followed by a knee-deep river crossing in frigid glacial waters. By the time he reached the base camp of the mountain at around 7am, D’Souza was a wreck. He grabbed a mug of hot water to thaw his frozen hands and incoherently related what had just unfolded to the video team that doubled up as his crew. The body screamed for respite, pleading with him to give up on his audacious attempt. But his mind ordered him to get on with it.
At 2.50pm, D’Souza was on the summit of Deo Tibba.
When he finally returned to the starting point that evening and could stop running, his watch showed an incredible timing of 19 hours, 38 minutes. In that moment, D’Souza had firmly established himself both as a pioneer and a maverick, given the possibilities for mountain running that he had opened up. Simply put, nobody in India had ever climbed a mountain such as this one in one day.
While fastest known times (FKTs) and speed ascents have been the go-to challenge for runners and mountaineers in the West for many years now, the concept is relatively new in India. For instance, the Swiss-Ecuadorian athlete Karl Egloff established a new FKT on Denali last year, while the Spanish runner Kilian Jornet Burgada holds the best time for Mont Blanc since 2013. In terms of a sporting milestone, it is as important as Usain Bolt’s 100m world record, though without an official timekeeper, relying on data from GPS-enabled devices instead. And the benchmark, of course, is set on a particular route up the mountain should anyone desire to challenge it, with little more than bragging rights at stake.
“It’s essentially the same thing—the mountaineering audience understands speed climbs and the moment I say FKT, it’s looked at from a running point of view. But you need both skills to make an attempt on a mountain like Deo Tibba. It’s a new approach to climbing these mountains, where you are competing against the clock,” D’Souza says.
In 2016, D’Souza shifted base to Manali to chase his trail-running dreams. Since then, he has run daunting races such as the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (CCC) in France and the Spartathlon in Greece, while also turning out for India at various competitions. Though there are enough trail races around the country these days, six years ago, the sport was relatively unknown and came with its own perils. D’Souza, who is a full-time runner, soon realized that it would take a massive effort on his part to leave a mark on the world stage.
“I have had no problem with the sacrifices over the last few years. It’s all a part of the choices that I have made. I only get annoyed when the lack of finances affects my training and hampers progress,” says D’Souza, who raises money through sponsors and endorsements.
Despite the meagre support, he has managed to achieve many firsts over the years. When the covid-19 pandemic led to race cancellations around the world, he decided to take on personal projects of a different kind.
“It’s disappointing to not read about such speed attempts in India, given how exciting this space is. That’s one reason I wanted to attempt it in this style,” he says.
Over the last few years, D’Souza has taken on both trail runs that wind their way through mountain tracks, and ultra marathons, which are distances of over 42km. This requires a certain level of fitness and conditioning around the year, but for what he had in mind, he had to look further. Mountaineering skills such as the use of ice axes, crampons and ropes were now part of the routine, besides a focus on upper-body training. To understand his body better, he pulled off a double ascent on a 4,000m mountain in his backyard, Khanpari Tibba, in 9 hours, having food and water only in between the two climbs.
In June, D’Souza tested the waters by attempting a similar climb on the 5,290m Friendship Peak in the Kullu Valley in 11 hours, 35 minutes, another unheard of time on a route that is climbed routinely. Three months later, he ran a 126km loop, starting from Manali, over two high passes—Hamta (4,270m) and Rohtang (3,980m)—before finishing where he had started, in 18 hours, 55 minutes. Though there was little time for specific training, the experience from these two lung-busting efforts and a week of acclimatization set him up for the Deo Tibba attempt. Yet the decision to achieve a relatively unknown objective kept niggling away.
“My worry was from a skills perspective because it was the first time I was doing that kind of climbing. There were crevasses to negotiate, steep walls to climb and exposure in certain sections that can make you giddy—one mistake and it’s all the way down,” he says. “I think it has a lot to do with mental preparation. More than the risk factor, I was assessing my comfort zone. The idea was to block things out and keep pushing under all circumstances,” he adds.
This is what D’Souza did on a few occasions during the climb, with a little bit of motivation from the film crew. Layers were added at each camp to tackle the cold as he gained altitude; gels, cheese, laddoos and chocolate bars kept the body fuelled. Until Duhangan Col (5,200m), D’Souza was in running gear; at that point, he switched to boots and crampons, besides donning a harness and picking up an ice axe. At summit camp, he roped up with his mate, Sukrit Gupta, who was waiting for him, for security while negotiating a 70-degree ice wall and soon topped out under a faint afternoon sun.
“It was a big deal for the two of us to be at the top, since he had been involved with the project right from the start. I had thought of these random ideas and he had put his trust in it. I couldn’t quite believe we had made it. And then I realized that it was only the half-way point,” D’Souza says.
As the sun dipped behind the mountains, the nip in the air returned, wearing him down, even as the light of the rising moon egged him on. A crisscrossed beam of headlamps against the dark nightmarked the finish line in the distance. There was no award or medal once he got there, but the cheers, high-fives and back thumps were recognition enough for what D’Souza had accomplished.
His mind rushed back to the day he had decided to live the life of a full-time trail runner, a revolutionary step for its time. This time, he had set an example by scaling a mountain—against all odds.