Like you, I was shocked when the news broke and then relieved when Baljeet Kaur was rescued on Mt Annapurna last month. When I heard her tell the full ordeal on Insta Live, I reached out to her seeking permission to transcribe her story and share with others. This is her story, in her own words.Akhil Dua
I knew before leaving for Nepal that it will be a difficult climb. Even in 2022, we had a difficult time climbing and were stuck in a storm for 7-8 hours with 5 other climbers.
This year even the sponsors had their eyes glued to what would happen in Annapurna. If this expedition was not successful my grand plans would fail without their support.
I went into this expedition knowing very well that things can go wrong, but not to this extent.
Subscribe to Trek Library and get premium content, free.
We started climbing on March 26, 2023. I had a very experienced Sherpa - Shaanu Sherpa who had done multiple 8000m peaks. After the first rotation I had to return to base camp to address a family emergency. When I came back to base camp I was told that Shaanu Sherpa had left for Kathmandu. He didn’t inform me. When I contacted him he said that he had to recover money from another climber and so he had left for Kathmandu. I later found out that he joined a foreign cimber who paid more money than I was paying him.
I contacted my agency ‘Pioneer’ and asked them to send a replacement. They did. They sent Mingma Dorjee who is experienced and very capable. He informed me that a porter is climbing with us for his training to become Sherpa next year, his name is Kami Dai. I told Mingma Dorjee that I doesn’t care who else is climbing as long as he will be there to guide me.
CAMP IV AND SUMMIT PUSH
We reached camp IV on April 15th. The weather was not good but there was a window for the night of April 16th for Summit push. We would gain 1600-1700m for the summit.
As I had planned to climb without oxygen, I was asked to leave for summit at 2:30pm on April 16th. Mingma Dorjee told me to go ahead with the porter and he will join us later. This is normal procedure. I agreed. If all went according to plan, I would summit early morning on April 17th.
200-300 meter below the summit, Pasang Sherpa shows up stating that Mingma Dorjee has sent him as a replacement. I had met Pasang Sherpa at Camp IV earlier as he accompanied another climber (Satish) to the summit a day before. I did the math and realized that he had not slept in 2 days and had no experience in climbing without oxygen.
He even claimed that there were no batteries in his walkie-talkie.
EARLY WARNING BELLS
With no point in argument at that altitude, I had no choice but to keep moving on. Even though we were quite close to the top, each one of us was extremely tired and fatigued. All 3 of us fell asleep and I would wake up anxious that we need to keep moving. With an extremely sleepy and tired Sherpa, an amateur porter and a climber on no oxygen - there was no one to take a clear decision. I kept telling the two men that we should head back and I didn’t want to do the summit anymore. In my mind, I had already planned that I will come back next year with a professional sherpa.
But, they insisted in going ahead. The porter will make his maiden attempt to the summit and earn a good tip, was the argument. The two of them pushed ahead and I slowly followed. At the summit, I started hallucinating. I saw a young girl congratulating me on reaching the summit. When I asked her if I could borrow India’s flag as I forgot mine and reached out to take it, she disappeared. I freaked out and asked to start the descent immediately.
Subscribe to Trek Library and get premium content for free.
ALL HELL BREAKS LOOSE
Once we came down 100 meters all three of us were hallucinating. The two men had taken off their masks at the summit for taking photographs and I was already feeling the symptoms. I had visions of being in basecamp, lots of tree nearby, inside a tent, two couples taking care of me - giving me water and their sleeping bag. In my state of hallucinations I was telling the Sherpa and porter that let’s stay back here, it’s so nice. I was also breathing heavy.
The two men started arguing internally and then would come back and argue with me. They offered me oxygen which I was prepared to take but never did. They kept saying that we will tell everyone at basecamp that you climbed with oxygen and not without if you don’t hurry up and descent. Finally, they both asked for my permission and to leave left.
I must have fallen asleep for two more hours. When I got up and came out of my delusions I was shocked that the couples were not real. And that I was left behind by my support team. There I was - a rope, an anchor and me.
I started to slap myself. I bit my fingers to avoid frostbite. I kept telling myself to get up.
SURVIVAL AT 7500M
The wind had picked up but I remember feeling protected. As if there was something / someone right behind me guiding the wind not to harm me. In my state of hallucinations, I had even lost layers of my gloves. I now only had mittens in my hands. The entire night I kept pushing myself. Like a drunk, falling, getting up and falling again.
What would take 2-3 second to anchor myself to the rope was taking several minutes. I would walk few hundred meters, fall, hallucinate and slap myself back to reality. It became difficult to believe what was real and what wasn’t. I heard punjabi boliyan (songs) and south indian music all jumbled up together. It was noisy. I screamed and then it went away.
At one point I fell 20 - 30 meters. I tried to stop myself using my crampons and try to grab anything. I wasn’t even sure if I was anchored in. Fortunately I was and was saved. I started hallucinating about a man who was teasing me to jump and fly to basecamp. He kept calling me ‘flying jatni’. It was my NCC instructor’s voice that pulled me back to reality.
AFTER 48 HOURS
It had been 48 hours without food, water, sleep and oxygen. I stood again and walked another 100 meters. It was my third day of periods and I kept thinking I had to reach Camp IV anyhow. While taking a break sitting down, I reached in to grab my phone to read Gurbani (Sikh hymns) and get some energy flowing.
When I opened my phone, the first thing I saw was the Garmin Earthmate app. I figured I should inform others that I am stranded and they can reach out to rescuers. At 7:41 am I messaged Pioneer. They reverted back at 9:00 am and eventually rescue helicopter was sent. I reached basecamp around 1:30 pm.
I survived because of the training I received in NCC and the training I did in Siachen glaciers. I came to know about the viral news about my death when I reached the hospital. That disturbed me more knowing what my family must have gone through.
I later found out that another climber (Satish) was suffering from snow blindness on his way down and hence Mingma Dorjee had to stay back and hence sent Pasang Sherpa.
All of this could have been avoided if the expedition operator had stuck to the sherpa & climber pairing.
The news outlets should have confirmed the news with people on the ground before publishing it.
Compete against yourself and support others. Work in honesty, don’t dilute or corrupt your work for others. Problems will arise. You can deal with them if passion and honesty are part of your faith.
Subscribe to Trek Library and get premium content for free.
My observations of BaljeetAkhil Dua
>> She truly considers mountains to be her God. Spoke several times about she fully surrendered herself to them. Just like a child knows that their parent will not harm them but always protect them, Baljeet's faith in her God-like-parent helped her survive.
>> Instead of spending precious time and energy arguing at 8000m about not getting the desired Sherpa, she focused on the climb.
>> Her faith mattered but so did her training
Follow Baljeet on Instagram.