Bangalore based Pushpam Singh, a writer, documentary film maker and founder of Kraft films had a story for me. It was a thrilling escapade, one that showcased the metamorphosis of an ordinary man into a true trekker. And no, it isn’t fictional material for his latest book or his next documentary series; this is in fact a true story that unfolded on the canvas of real life amidst the intimidating mountains of Goechala. But to humour the writer in him, I am going to share this with you in a chapter wise format anyway.
Chapter 1: Just a man on the mountains
Pushpam Singh with his tent mates on Goechala trek.
Pushpam Singh isn’t a novice to the world of trekking, having completed three high altitude treks before. His quest to hone his trekking skills led him to the Goechala trek. “The terrain here is completely different from the places I have trekked before and I really wanted to put my trekking skills to the test,” says Pushpam Singh.
Most trekkers head out to the mountains in a bid to escape the monotony of their city jobs. But not Pushpam. “As a documentary filmmaker, I tend to draw inspiration from everything and everyone around me. The mountains especially inspire a great passion for my craft. I have heard that the sunrise from Goechala is something you have to witness atleast once in your life and the documenter in me wanted to capture every single detail about it,” says Pushpam Singh.
Little did Pushpam Singh know just then that he would discover something about himself that would far surpass his trekking and documenting skills.
Chapter 2: An unfortunate setback
It was the seventh day of the trek. The party led by Trek Leader Tanmay Bain would be heading from the meadows of Thansing to Lamuney (the fifth campsite at Goechala). Pushpam was beside himself with excitement. He had fared quite well on the rugged Sikkim terrain till now and come tomorrow morning, he would be standing tall on Goechala. That would account to a baccalaureate of sorts for the aspiring mountaineer.
During the day, Pushpam noticed that Prashanth, one of his co-trekkers, was struggling to cover a comparatively easy stretch. From what Pushpam had gauged, Prashanth was a fit trekker. He was surprised to see him stop every few steps and catch his breath. Midway during the trek, Trek Leader Tanmay Bain even administered a dose of Diamox to the struggling trekker.
By that evening, Pushpam realised that Prashanth’s health had been compromised. “Prashanth was called to the dining tent for a check- up,” Pushpam Singh recalls, “His oxygen saturation reading was really low. When he returned to our tent, he started shivering uncontrollably. We draped him in three ghodawala quilts, which are the warmest quilts known to man in these parts. Despite that, he was shivering like he was barely clothed at all. We immediately sent for Tanmay.”
For Tanmay Bain, the sight of Prashanth trembling like a leaf in a gust of high wind, despite being bundled up like a snowman, is a memory that will be seared in his mind for a long time. “The moment I saw him; I knew that it was High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE). My fears were confirmed when I checked his vitals. His oxygen saturation level was 42, when it is supposed to be well above 80. To be honest, I was scared but I couldn’t reveal that to the rest of the group. I gave him a dose of Diamox to help his rate of acclimatization and Nifedipine to reduce his blood pressure. [For HAPE victims, their blood pressure shoots up at an alarming rate causing fluid to infiltrate the lungs.] I even administered a Dexamethasone injection. But Prashanth wouldn’t stop shivering,” says Trek Leader Tanmay Bain.
A dark cloud of uncertainty descended upon the group of trekkers. They all knew that the course of their trek would be altered but in that moment none of them knew how.
Pushpam sincerely hoped that his fellow trekker would be better the following morning. “Each one of us aspired to see the trek to completion. I really hoped Prashanth could join us in accomplishing that feat as a group the next day,” says Pushpam Singh.
Tanmay Bain was caught up in a whirlwind of thoughts of his own. “I knew I couldn’t accompany my group any further. Prashanth had to be evacuated at the earliest and that was going to prove to be a near impossible task, considering that Lamuney is deeply tucked away at 13, 743 feet. He needed to be descended to a safer altitude of at least 7,000 feet. Such altitudes were 2-3 days away in terms of trekking. I had very less time and not many options to get Prashanth to safety,” says Trek Leader, Tanmay Bain.
Chapter 3: From ordinary man to true trekker
Later that evening, Trek Leader Tanmay Bain informed the 30th October, 2016, Goechala Trek batch that they would be continuing on to Goechala without him. He explained that he would be evacuating Prashanth. He wasn’t surprised when Prashanth’s friends, Aditya and Rounak insisted on staying back with him. But what really took Tanmay by surprise was when Pushpam Singh said in no uncertain terms that he would be staying back to assist them as well.
“Aditya and Rounak were Prashanth’s good friends. From my understanding Pushpam was more of an acquaintance, but he insisted on staying back with us. I told him to go on to the sunrise point, but he was adamant on staying back,” says Trek Leader Tanmay.
Pushpam Singh along with his trek mates at Dzongri Top
Pushpam Singh didn’t understand Tanmay Bain’s perplexing reaction to his decision. After all it was the young, inspiring trek leader who had roused the spirit of a true trekker in him. “I vividly recall what Tanmay told us before the commencement of the trek. He said that there are two types of people who scale the mountains, a mountaineer and a climber. A climber has only one goal in mind, to reach his destination and is oblivious to everything around him, even an injured party. But a mountaineer [or a trekker in this case] is someone who adheres to ethics at all times, even if it means he can’t reach his destination on account of that.
“As long as Goechala is there, that beautiful sunrise isn’t going anywhere. I can always come back at some point of time and witness that sunrise. But right now, my co-trekker needed me,” says Pushpam Singh.
Chapter 4: Mission Possible!
The goal of the mission was crystal clear: the quartet would trek down to Yuksom base camp, which at a safe altitude of 5, 643 feet, would provide higher atmospheric oxygen levels to help the HAPE afflicted trekker recover. The only antagonist to this mission was the never ending distance involved in the descent to safer altitudes with a trail that goes on for almost 25 km before dipping below 12, 000 feet. Such distances can be tackled by a healthy trekker, but a HAPE victim would experience extreme fatigue and even taking ten steps would be difficult for the person. A 25 km trek would be nothing short of an extraordinary challenge.
It might have seemed like mission impossible but Pushpam Singh knew without a doubt that it was indeed mission possible! “All that splitting and doing your own thing which we see in movies won’t work out here. As a single minded unit, I knew we could successfully reach Yuksom. Besides, we were being led by Tanmay, who really knows the mountains, that made me feel all the more confident.”
And so commenced Mission Possible.
Chapter 5: A Tricky Descent
Trek leader Tanmay Bain had formulated Mission Possible in three stages. The first stage would be to descend to Kockchurang that very evening. To help him cover the first stage, Prashanth had already been administered a Dexamethasone injection earlier that evening, a steroid that would reduce the inflammation and give his organs a boost for a short period of time. Tanmay Bain had also made preparations for Prashant’s backpack to be carried down to Kockchurang before their descent. Equipped with a 2 litre oxygen cylinder (in case an emergency arose), the young Trek Leader prepared himself to lead the little group.
The path from Lamuney to Thansing followed a gentle descent. “We walked along a valley area with the Prekchu river twisting through the gentle grassy slopes for about 3 hours and reached Thansing by 8:30 p.m. However, it was a struggle for Prashanth as Thansing is at 12, 946 feet. We hardly lost any altitude during that descent. I could hear a crackling sound from his chest. That wasn’t a good sign,” says Trek Leader Tanmay Bain.
But they couldn’t stop just yet, after some hot tea and a few minutes rest, off they went towards Kockchurang. The party navigated their way through nearly 800 feet of steep, rocky patches and moderately forested areas, under an inky cloak of darkness, something that would have captured Pushpam Singh’s eye if it weren’t for their current predicament. “There wasn’t a moon in the sky to guide us along that night,” says Pushpam Singh. “The rhododendron forests that appear so beautiful by day, bore down on us like skeletal silhouettes against the light from our headlamps and torches. There was an eerie silence with only the gurgling of the Prekchu river piercing through it. The steep descent was a real struggle for Prashanth. Even though we helped him along, he had to stop every five or ten steps to catch his breath. He was coughing heavily by then. Tanmay gave him a Dex tablet an hour into our descent. Even though he felt slightly better after that, it wasn’t an easy feat for him at all,” says Pushpam Singh.
Around 500 metres before Kockchurang, the rhododendron jungles cleared and the group bid adieu to the Prekchu river for that night while crossing a log bridge. By around 11:45 p.m., the group had made it to Kockchurang.
Chapter 6: A long night in the lonely mountains
That night was extremely critical for Prashanth. Kockchurang’s high altitude of 12,152 feet wasn’t conducive to HAPE victims. Moreover, Trek Leader Tanmay was aware that most HAPE victims succumbed to the disease during the night. He quickly came up with a plan to prevent Prashanth’s condition from worsening. They would all take hourly turns to watch over Prashanth during the course of the night and raise an alarm if necessary.
“I gave Prashanth a Diamox and we propped him in an upright sleeping position to ease his already heavy breathing. His every breath was laborious and a strange crackling sound came from his chest that entire night. I kept the oxygen cylinder nearby in case the situation took a turn for the worse. To be honest, the odds were not in his favour,” says Trek Leader Tanmay Bain.
Pushpam Singh tried his best to remain in the realm of positive thoughts. “Even though we were scared I didn’t want us to fear the worst and start imagining it. That would mean manifesting those fears,” says Pushpam Singh. “I didn’t care how silly my jokes were, but I thought they were essential to inject an air of normalcy to the situation. In my mind, I knew we would all make it successfully to Yuksom.”
Tanmay Bain’s expertise and the relay of positive thoughts into the universe on Pushpam Singh’s part, yielded them some hopeful news well into the night. “It was my turn to watch over Prashanth at around 3:30 a.m. There was still a scary crackling noise coming from his chest, but there weren’t any other worrisome symptoms. His oxygen saturation was nearing 74. I administered a Dex injection and slept a little peacefully after that,” says Trek Leader Tanmay Bain.
Chapter 7: Downward through the jungles
The party was up at the break of dawn. That day they would commence stage two of Mission Possible: the descent from Kockchurang to Phedang and further down to Tshoka. Prashanth was on the required course of Diamox and Dex tablets, but that didn’t mean he was out of danger just as yet.
The trek through forest section at Goechala, much before the evacuation.
“Till we reached considerably lower altitudes, it wasn’t going to be safe for Prashanth. So we had to stick to our downward course,” says Trek Leader Tanmay Bain.
And so they trekked downwards, through narrow (not enough space for 4 legged animals), landslide prone strips along the side of the mountain, surrounded by primitive, untouched jungles. There were moderate ascents and descents throughout their path strewn with tall, intimidating oaks and glimpses of the Prekchu river below. Prashanth however couldn’t afford to soak in the beauty of his surroundings. “He was doing better than the previous day. He was able to take fifteen to twenty steps before stopping. He wasn’t gasping either. The others really helped Prashanth along,” says Trek Leader Tanmay Bain.
On his part, Pushpam Singh motivated his fellow trekker with the unlikeliest scenarios. “What’s the point in motivating someone by saying that if you complete this descent we can get you to the doctor faster? The best way to motivate someone is by inspiring their love for life. Since Prashanth is a biker I told him that once he gets to the bottom of the slope, we could go on an epic bike ride or I would buy him pizza,” says Pushpam Singh.
The group was slowly but steadily making its way to Phedang, but Trek Leader Tanmay Bain was perturbed about a particular stretch. “About 1.7 km from Phedang is a slight ascent. Prashanth’s walking speed was definitely better but I was concerned as to how he would handle that stretch,” says Tanmay Bain.
It may have been the energizing rays of the sun or the thought of an exciting bike ride waiting for him at the foot of the mountains, but Prashanth managed to surprise his Trek Leader by completing the last stretch before Phedang without too much of a struggle.
“He was able to maintain his walking speed, “says Trek Leader Tanmay Bain. “It was a sure sign that his condition was starting to stabilise.”
After a brief pit stop in Phedang, the group resumed their trek to Tshoka. The path started off with a jungle trail and then progressed to a wooden trail surrounded by beautiful rhododendron trees and strong, silent oaks. It was one of the only paths ever since their descent from Lamuney that Prashanth was able to enjoy.
“He seemed quite normal,” says Tanmay Bain. “He wasn’t coughing too much and was even able to converse with us during the descent. This is partly due to the fact that Phedang is the point below which you rapidly start losing altitude.”
Pushpam Singh was elated at the progress his co trekker was making. “It was so good to see Prashanth getting back on his feet. He was moving around without much difficulty. My agenda was to see him get better and it was happening sooner than we all thought. I even pulled his leg and said that I would film a documentary on our adventure and he would have to essay the role of Prashanth’s character. He was quite embarrassed by that. Jokes aside, everything that happened from the time we were in Lamuney were like scenes of a movie unfolding,” says Pushpam Singh.
In a few hours, the real life trekking party left the jungle trails behind and made their way to Tshoka, having completed a rapid descent from 12, 200 feet to 9,701 feet.
Their night was certainly more relaxed than the previous one and Trek Leader Tanmay Bain was starting to feel more confident about Prashanth’s condition. “His breathing patterns had definitely improved. I wouldn’t say he was breathing normally, there was a whispering sound to his breath but I knew he wasn’t going to be in danger anytime soon,” says Tanmay Bain.
Chapter 8: Base camp Yuksom!
Early next morning, the reinvigorated group embarked on the final stage of Mission Possible: the descent from Tshoka to Yuksom. They left Tshoka and made their way through the one-hour stretch of forested areas, spotting many more varieties of rhododendrons, before arriving at Bakhim, just in time for breakfast. Bakhim is at an altitude of 9,000 feet and Prashanth was faring much better. The group was looking forward to cover their final stretch and reach the base camp at Yuksom.
Muddy jungle trails and four bridges stationed at regular intervals, bridged the gap between Bakhim and Yuksom. Accompanied by the mirthful burbling of the Prekchu river, the group started their journey. They crossed the first bridge over Prekchu herself, climbed steadily for about 200 metres and then gradually descended till they got to the second cemented bridge. They then made their way towards the third suspension bridge stopping in Sachen along the way, where they refilled their water bottles and stocked up on dry fruits. They were just two bridges away from Yuksom and the excitement to get to the base camp was more than enough to energize them for the remainder of their journey.
Two suspension bridges later, the trekkers eagerly covered the final stretch of land, before arriving at base camp Yuksom! They had finally accomplished the goal of Mission Possible!
After a brief rest, they set off to a local hospital in order to get a medical professional’s view on Prashanth’s health status. “Prashanth’s oxygen saturation was 98 which is in the normal range. His coughing had also considerably reduced. Even the doctor reassured us that he would be fine,” says Trek Leader Tanmay Bain.
“Having Prashanth with us, alive and well was worth sacrificing that sunrise at Goechala. For me, this was the ultimate aim of the trek and we had achieved that as a team,” says Pushpam Singh.
Chapter 9: Acknowledging the Spirit of a Trekker
When the time came to hand out the Spirit of Trekking award, the entire batch knew who the clear winner was. “Pushpam Singh embodied the spirit of a true mountaineer, something I wish to see in all my trekkers. He sacrificed going ahead to Goechala, because he felt that his co- trekker would benefit from his assistance. It’s quite rare to see people going out of their way like that to be there for someone else. That’s what sets a true mountaineer or trekker apart from an ordinary climber. He really was a huge asset to our little team and kept our spirits up during the entire descent to Yuksom. This award is just a small gesture from our side to acknowledge that,” says Trek Leader Tanmay Bain.
The team a little ahead of Dzongri with Trek leader Tanmay.
Pushpam Singh was happy to receive the award, but he felt that this experience itself was life changing. “I certainly learnt how important teamwork is. Also, I feel that it is under extreme situations that your true self is revealed. Just take a moment to gauge your true self, let it be someone you will be proud to live with and not be ashamed of when you get back to the safety of your home in the city,” says Spirit of Trekking award winner, Pushpam Singh.