The Annapurna Miracle

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Big or small, I have always believed in miracles, and today, I am living as one myself! 

Allow me to tell you the tale…

My mountaineering journey is not just about the excitement of scaling high peaks or terrains. It runs in more deep and more personal. I climb for a purpose. I climb for a mission. I climb for the SDGs. 

It has been my personal mission to spread awareness about the United Nations’ Global Goals, which is what made me start the ‘Climbing4SDGs’ initiative, with an aim to use mountaineering as a tool to engage with local communities, create awareness about the Sustainable Development Goals, motivate individuals to take action, and support innovation. I believe the difficulties faced while mountaineering serve as a powerful metaphor for humanity’s struggles in achieving the UN SDGs. Nevertheless, we must persist.

My mountaineering journey began a decade ago with the ‘Leadership on the Edge’ expedition to Antarctica with Robert Swan, in 2013. This was followed by some trekking in Nepal and India, the Basic Mountaineering Course (BMC) from Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM, Uttarkashi), climbing several 6,000’ers in Ladakh & Nepal, attempting technical mountains like Mt. Satopanth (7050m) in Uttarakhand, Mt. Nun in Ladakh (7,135m) and finally Ama Dablam (6,812m) before heading for my first big 8,000’er, the one and only Mt. Annapurna. It was here when my life took a turn. Or a fall, to be specific.

Mt. Annapurna, the tenth-highest mountain in the world, is known for its avalanche-prone slopes and technical difficulties. Despite its lower elevation than Everest, it has a higher death rate. It is the deadliest mountain in the world to climb. With a fatality rate of around 32%, it sees approximately 32 deaths per 100 successful summits. I understood the risks and had prepared myself too for this venture. My passion and desire to raise awareness for the UN’s Global Goals drove me to climb and scale the cause up to the top. I felt if I could climb this one, I could climb anything, literally.

It was the 17th of April, 2023. I had climbed about 7,900metres, and was only 150 metres below the Annapurna summit. I had to turn back because it was getting late in the afternoon and it would be quite late by the time I’d reach the top. I’ll reach the summit of Annapurna and the best thing I can do at the time is to descend down and make another attempt a couple of days later when there is a good weather window. 16 hours of ascent had drained me, and I couldn’t ignore my body any further. In addition to that, the weather conditions didn’t allow for ascension to the top. I had to make a decision then and there, and considering the weather within and without, I chose to descend. 

It was on the return journey when I mistakenly chose the wrong rope. I fell 300 metres down through the most dangerous section between Camp II and Camp III, and finally landed in a deep, icy crevasse, 80 metres below the earth’s surface. Around 12 noon when I opened my eyes, I found myself in a dark and scary place, all alone. While a part of me believed it was the end, another hoped to be rescued. Though I don’t remember the fall and its impact, I did record videos inside the crevasse talking to myself on my GoPro. I was fully conscious for three days, but was likely buried by an avalanche on 19th April night. Eyes closed, cold setting in, I crumpled into the foetal position in the lap of Mother Annapurna. With the rush of fall and hit, my eyes saw the last sky before they shut themselves for one last time. 

This was what had happened inside the crevasse. Outside, there was an entire global community trying to bring me back. According to my family, the rescue operations behind were another miracle on their own. The first two attempts were unsuccessful due to a lack of necessary equipment, skill set and manpower. But as they say, “the third time’s the charm”. Finally, two Polish extreme mountaineers and alpinists, Adam Bielecki, and Mariusz Hatala, along with a team of Sherpas and a helicopter pilot, Sobit Gauchan set out to find me. Or rather, as they were expecting, to recover a dead man.

On 20th April, 2023 at 9am, it was my helmet that caught Adam’s eyes. Finally, I was found buried neck-deep, resting in a foetal position inside the womb of Maa Annapurna, at an altitude of approximately 6000 metres. My body was cold, but, to everyone’s surprise, I was found breathing. My faint breath was strong enough to transform a body excavation attempt to a 6-hour long rescue mission. I was airlifted out of the crevasse and taken to the Manipal Teaching Hospital in Pokhara, where after 30 minutes, I was declared dead. However, my brother Ashish didn’t accept defeat and urged the doctors to continue their efforts. After over 4 hours of Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), I started breathing again. I was immediately transferred to the Mediciti Hospital in Kathmandu for critical care where I battled for survival on ventilator support for 21 days. Getting help from Gautam bhai, an air ambulance was arranged by the Adani Foundation, and I was eventually admitted to AIIMS Delhi on 11th May, under the Department of Burns & Plastic Reconstructive Surgery. 

With seven surgeries for infection control and reconstructive surgeries for cold burns and frost bites, followed by countless therapies, my time at AIIMS Delhi was critical and painful, to say the least. Yet, with all the support from doctors, surgeons, nutritionists, physiotherapists and occupational therapists, my family & friends, and my global community, I am STANDING. STANDING TALL against all the frostbites, cold burns’ affected toes and thumbs, and against the race of time and death. 

Ever since the incident, I have had to relearn the basics: how to write, how to walk, how to move my hand, and how to start a new life. It’s safe to say that I now have the intellect of a 34-year-old with the body of a baby. It’s not the most usual combination but I’m trying to work my way through it.

I’m still quite weak physically and undergoing daily physiotherapy sessions. Currently, I’m healing and recovering, and looking forward to my new life that’s nothing short of a miracle. I owe this one to every individual and organisation that left no stone unturned in bringing me back, but above all, I owe it to Annapurna, the Mother Mountain, that kept me safe in its lap. The mountains called me, gave me a story, and now they’ve sent me back to tell it. I am here because of the mountains, and I will continue to be for them!