Rajib Bhattacharyya's Last Climb

Dhaulagiri May 2016
What Happened? Why did happen?

Dream Wanderlust

Photographs: Rajib Bhattacharyya, Giripremi, 2x14x8000
Category: Featured Article
Date of Publication: Sept 12 , 2016Vol-03 Issue-02

Disclaimer: This report is based on some interviews and data collected from the climbers who attempted Mt. Dhaulagiri at the time when Rajib attempted the last ill-fated climb of his life. The basic objective was to find out the possible causes that led to the tragedy that happened on Dhaulagiri on 19th May, 2016. This report is based on the data given by fellow climbers who were with him or had seen him during his last expedition and Dream Wanderlust undertakes no responsibility of it.

Background

On 19th May, Rajib Bhattacharyya (43), an Indian climber from Bengal was on his way to the summit of Dhaulagiri-1 (8,167m), the 7th Highest peak of the world. He was supported by his mountain guide Tashi Sherpa from 'Seven Summit Treks' agency. The news came after a day that he had passed away during his summit attempt. Initial reports [see ref.] state that the cause of death was snow blindness and exhaustion. The report was prepared primarily on the basis of the statements given by the Kathmandu based agency people. The time and location of the incident was not clearly clarified and properly reported. Whether that accident took place on his way up or way down is also unclear. Most importantly, what actually led to his death and his final moments is a big mystery. Seeing the ambiguous nature of the main report Dream Wanderlust has tried its best to unravel the mystery surrounding Rajib's death so that we don't lose such a gallant climber like him in the deep crevasses of obscurity.

Rajib Bhattacharyya

Mt. Dhaulagiri North Face (8,167m) [Courtesy: Rajib Bhattacharyya]

Our Study

In this study, we have focused on some basic points to keep the report short and to the point. We interviewed climbers from four team viz. Tashi Sherpa (Rajib's team), Team 2x14x8000 who had climbed Mt. Dhaulagiri without supplementary oxygen for second time on the same day, Prasad Joshi and Umesh Zirpe from Indian Team Giripremi, Pashang Sherpa (Sherpa from British Team). The focused questions are as follows:

  1. What were the possible reasons behind the accident?
  2. Could his death be avoided?
  3. What was his health condition apparently?
  4. What were the efforts made to rescue him alive?

As it happened

Before the final summit attempt:

All the teams had performed a common base camp puja on 20th April, 2016. There were teams from across the world. Rajib Bhattacharyya from Angyan Chhariye, India was accompanied by Tashi Sherpa from Seven Summit Trek Agency from Nepal. After a few rotations for acclimatization, on 12th May they all left Base Camp for attempt final summit.

Prasad Joshi: All the teams started on 12th May from BC. We reached Camp-2 from Camp-1 on 13th May and Camp-3 from Camp-2 on 14th May. Our first summit attempt was on 14th May at night from the Summit Camp (Camp-3).

Prasad Joshi: The Sherpas had managed to open only 300 metres of the route to the summit. We went till an altitude of 7900m. It was 1.30 pm by then on 15th May. We had to return to Camp-2 as the weather started to deteriorate. Rajib and Tashi was the only team (possibly) to have stayed back in Camp-3. I remember his Sherpa came to Camp-2 once for collecting oxygen cylinder for Camp-3.

On 17th May, Team Giripremi climbed to Camp-3 for the 2nd time for summit bid. Unfortunately, heavy wind stopped them again at just 60 m above the summit Camp (Camp-3) and they returned back to the Camp-3. Meanwhile, a few teams including British team had already abandoned their expedition due to the extreme weather condition.

The third attempt to the summit was made by all the teams (Indian, Spanish, Argentina, Korean) including Rajib and Tashi on 18th May.

Prasad Joshi: On 18th we started from Camp-3 for summit for the third time. We started at around 9.30 pm. Rajib and his Sherpa started at around 8 pm from Camp-3. Argentina and Spanish team started almost 3 hours later. They set out on their summit attempt without any supplementary Oxygen.

Rajib Bhattacharyya

Rajib Bhattacharyya at Dhaulagiri BC [Courtesy: Giripremi]

Rajib Bhattacharyya

Base Camp puja on 20th April, 2016, Dhaulagiri BC [Courtesy: Giripremi]

Rajib Bhattacharyya

Towards Camp-3 on 14th May [Courtesy: Rajib Bhattacharyya]

Rajib Bhattacharyya

Near Camp-3 on 14th May [Courtesy: Rajib Bhattacharyya]

Rajib Bhattacharyya

First Summit Attempt on 15th May at 10:48hrs [Courtesy: Rajib Bhattacharyya]

Final Summit attempt from Camp-3:

The decision to stay at Camp-3 from 14th May till 18th May is what must have gone against Rajib. In extreme bad weather and in the thin air, his health condition might have deteriorated. However, it can be assumed that they had enough supplementary oxygen even for their stay at Camp-3. It can also be assumed that they did not consume it continuously for the five days. The important question that arises from Rajib's unfortunate demise is that, what changes does the human physiological system undergoes during such a prolonged exposure to extreme climatic conditions at such a high altitude.

18th, May 2016

Around 20:00 Hrs Rajib and Tashi left Camp-3 for the summit with the Spanish Team (2x14x8000) followed by Giripremi and Korean Team.

Tashi Sherpa: On 18th May 20:00 hrs., we started approaching summit from C-3. That time Rajib was bit slower.

Spanish Team: We left Camp-3 on May 18th, at 23:30. We met Rajib while they were at C-3 Camp, before going to the summit.

Prasad Joshi: We started around 21:30 hrs. Rajib and started around 20:00 from Camp-3. Argentina and Spanish team had started around 3 hours late. They set out on their summit attempt without Oxygen.

Tashi Sherpa: On 18th May, around 22:00, Korean Team, Giripremi Team crossed us.

Prasad Joshi: I overtook Rajib around 22.30 pm near the wall (7500m). His speed had slowed down and he looked very exhausted. In spite of starting 1.30 hours after Rajib I overtook him. He had taken 2 and half hours to cover the same distance which I covered in 1 hour.

Umesh Zirpe: We tried for the final time. Rajib had stayed back for all these 5 days up there. The oxygen level was depleting. It was very hard to survive for Rajib.

Pashang Sherpa: I was a Sherpa with the British Team. Yes I did meet him before attempt. They had two failed summit attempts on 14th and 15th before the third summit attempt on 18th.

Rajib Bhattacharyya

Summit Camp (Camp-3) [Courtesy: Rajib Bhattacharyya]

Rajib Bhattacharyya

Rajib Bhattacharyya at Camp-3 [Courtesy: 2x14x8000]

Rajib Bhattacharyya

Rajib with Alberto at Camp-3 [Courtesy: 2x14x8000]

Rajib Bhattacharyya

At summit Camp (Camp-3) [Courtesy: 2x14x8000]

Rajib Bhattacharyya

Before leaving the summit Camp [Courtesy: 2x14x8000]

19th, May 2016

Tashi Sherpa: At 4:00 am, by the time we reached the crevasse point (7500m), Rajib became much slower. Then I repeatedly asked Rajib to go back to C-3 but he refused.

Prasad Joshi: He (Rajib) appeared very exhausted and he was walking at an extremely slow pace. Since we were walking at a brisk pace our Sherpa decided to go ahead and open the route. We reached the crevasse point at around 2:00 am on 19th morning.

Spanish Team: We reached the summit at 10:15 hrs.

Prasad Joshi: Temperature was around -40 degree Celsius. Pashang Sherpa had come to help our Sherpa in opening the route. Finally we reached the summit on 19th at 11am. We started descending around 11.30 am from the summit.

Tashi Sherpa: At 11:30, we could only reach 7900m (only 400m after 7:30hrs) Noticed weakness in left hand and right leg of Rajib. Then I forcefully told him to get down. He was so exhausted that he couldn't move a bit farther.

Tashi Sherpa: Pasang (Korean team) and I had tried to bring him down and could move a bit. After some time Pasang left. I was carrying him on my shoulder for some time.

Prasad Joshi: Around 13:00 Hrs. when we came down to the crevasse. Rajib was present there. He was in a very weak condition and he kept on tripping after every few steps.

Umesh Zirpe: Rajib was very exhausted and in no situation to walk. Tashi had informed them that they had abandoned all plans of Dhaulagiri summit and would return to Camp-3 shortly.

Spanish Team: We didn't see Rajib on our way down, we went down right away.

Prasad Joshi: Tashi was having a lot of difficulty in bringing Rajib down. Tashi's rope was anchored to Rajib's which in turn was anchored to the rope.

Umesh Zirpe: Nobody is aware of whether they had sufficient supplementary oxygen or not, but they did not ask for supplementary Oxygen from anyone.

Tashi Sherpa: At 19:00, Rajib stopped moving at 7600m. We waited for 1:30hrs. Then Rajib stopped talking. Health condition became severe.

Pashang Sherpa: As I was informed Rajib did appear very fatigued as a result of which he was barely able to walk.

Umesh Zirpe: Everybody was in a hurry to descend fast after summit as their oxygen levels were depleting. Rajib and Tashi had told them (other climbers including Spanish and Korean team) that they had dropped their Dhaulagiri summit plans and they had sufficient Oxygen to survive.

Prasad Joshi: No, they hadn't asked for any help from us. Even if they had asked for help it would be difficult for us to support.

Tashi Sherpa: At 18:00. I sent SOS to the base camp for help through my walkie-talkie.

Umesh Zirpe: Rajib was adamant on going for the Dhaulagiri summit. He had made up his mind either to go for the summit or die. Tashi waited with Rajib till 8pm and saw Rajib passing away in front of his eyes. His breathing gradually became strained. Finally after Rajib breathed his last Tashi came back to Camp-2 around 23:30 Hrs.

Tashi Sherpa: He took his last breath at 20:45. Then I started descending alone. Yes, we had sufficient supplementary oxygen with us.

Prasad Joshi: We got to know about his death this on 20th morning. The walkie talkies of only the 'Himalayan Ride' and 'Seven Summit Treks' were functioning. Tashi had tried his level best to pull Rajib down but he was reluctant to do so. I don't know the exact sequence of events. Rajib passed away during the night.

Spanish Team: Alberto and Mariano went down first and they came to knew about Rajib when they came down to C3.

The health condition

Rajib was slow soon after leaving Camp-3. That means he was not fit enough to go higher. He may have had suffered from hypoxia which was unnoticed by his Sherpa. On the summit day, he stopped ascending because of fatigue. The weather condition was good for climbing. They had sufficient oxygen as his Sherpa mentioned. Then why did he collapse within few hours? However, nobody (Sherpa and climbers) have reported that he had snow blindness.

A Medical point of view: A Retrospective analysis of the probable cause of death
(*AMS, HACO, HAPO and related terms are explained in the last section in detail)

by Former mountaineer Dr. Rupak Bhattacharya

From the meagre information available, and in the absence of any competent authority at the place of occurrence to corroborate the findings, one can only hypothesise at the causes behind the events and arrive at only a likely cause of Rajib's unfortunate death.

The most plausible cause of Rajib's death is HACO. Though HACO can kill within a few hours, it is very likely that Rajib was not fully fit before his final summit attempt. 21 days at or above Base Camp at 4600m should have been adequate time for optimal acclimatisation, provided "climb high sleep low" rotations had been done (details not available).
Or was it also long enough for deterioration to also set in. 5 days spent at Camp-3 at 7300 m, with 1 very long day of extreme activity, during first summit attempt, is enough time for deterioration to overshadow acclimatisation.

This deterioration would have initially been in the form of AMS. At C3 did they have enough fuel for adequate nutrition and hydration? With 2 people at C2 at least 8 to 10 litres of fluids was essential every day. Was Rajib dehydrated even before he started his final attempt? (Dehydration aggravates AMS) Was he using oxygen when in Camp at C-3? (Hypoxia aggravates AMS)

At Camp-3 they faced days of bad weather. Bad weather is always associated with low barometric pressure. This low atmospheric pressure further reduces the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere, thus aggravating AMS.

On his final summit attempt, he was "SLOW" even in the early stages(AMS makes him weak and tired).Then he becomes "SLOWER" (AMS in transition to HACO).Then he repeatedly "REFUSES TO GO DOWN" (HACO makes him confused and disoriented and behaviour becomes irrational and psychotic).Then he becomes "EXTREMELY SLOW" (HACO causes severe fatigue).Then he starts "TRIPPING" (HACO causes loss of balance).Then he becomes "IMMOBILE, then STOPS TALKING then STOPS MOVING then STOPS BREATHING" (HACO progresses from drowsiness to stupor to coma to death). If HAPO was also present is difficult to judge, but the ambient cold temperature aggravated the symptoms.

Another very important factor which must have influenced Rajib's decision making process is "DENIAL". Denial is very common; denial that I am" not fit to climb". This is classically exhibited by climbers, even with AMS, especially by those whose "SUMMIT AMBITIONS are NOT commensurate with their "CLIMBING SKILLS". This is most often the case with "CLIENTS" in Guided Ascents. The "illusion" of the "Sherpa" and the "oxygen" makes these "guided clients" a liability, dangerous to their own selves and their guides (recall Everest 1996).

To quote Anatoli Boukreev "poorly conditioned dilletantes are lured to the death zone with the illusory guarantees of safety and summit success. The most experienced guides can only die with you in these elevations. That is the sad lesson of commercial mountaineering". (Recall Chanda Gayen, Kanchenjungha).

This has not been a pleasant task, and one can only hope that this exercise may prove helpful to future climbers in high places.

Was it the right decision to keep on climbing?

Certainly it was not. Rajib was adamant to summit the peak risking his own life. And his Sherpa too let him take the final decision at a time when Rajib was probably not in a position to make the right choice, or think rationally.

Role of Sherpa

Tashi may have had tried his best to bring him down to Camp-3. But, why he did not ask for any help from other climbers is still unknown.

Umesh Zirpe: Weather wasn't that critical. They should have asked for help from other Sherpas. Sherpas should have taken control of the situation and carried Rajib forcibly back to base camp. It is not clear why Tashi didn't ask for help from others. It is not clear why he didn't do so.

If Rajib's health was found to have deteriorated at Camp-3 then Tashi should have stopped him from climbing farther. As per the UIAA code, the mountain guide should take the final decision during adverse conditions. As the ministry of Nepal tourism marked the accident as man-made, it could certainly be avoided.

UIAA mountain code:

Article 5.5: The client must accept the decisions of the guide and follow instructions without resisting, since in most cases, the client is not in a position to make sound judgment of the risk factors involved.

Article 5.6: In emergencies, the guide must do everything in his power to prevent the client from coming to harm. In the most extreme event, the guide is obliged to risk his life thereby.

Umesh Zirpe: The bizarre part here is that though Rajib had developed Hypoxia, which may results in the loss of ability to think, Tashi had still allowed him to continue his plans of moving ahead with the summit plan instead of bringing him forcibly back to Camp-2.

Lack of communication

Tashi said that he talked to the Base camp over walkie-talkie, which means that his communication system was working at that time. It is not clear why he didn't try to contact the Sherpas who were nearer to him. No fellow climbers received the call for help.

Umesh Zirpe: I think their battery had died down. They didn't even ask for walkie talkie from any other team for making contact with the base camp. At least they should have asked for oxygen supply from the other teams. Sunita was rescued alive as many Sherpas had come forward to help her come out of the adverse situation.

Concluding comments

It is clear that there were prominent indications that Rajib was not fully fit just before the final attempt for summit from Camp-3. The decision of staying at summit camp in bad weather conditions for almost five days would have gone against Rajib.

The decision of staying at Camp-3 was taken possibly to avoid facing the comparatively difficult route to and from Camp-2.

Ideally Rajib should have to abandoned his summit push and returned back to the lower camps if he felt unfit at Camp-3. Or soon after leaving Camp-3.

Nobody (from the other teams) had initially noticed any abnormality while ascending towards the summit apart from his slow pace.

After the first 2 hrs of climbing above the summit camp, Rajib was fully exhausted.

Lack of understanding between Rajib and his Sherpa made the situation worse.

According to his Sherpa, Rajib stuck to his own decision of climbing farther and he failed to convince him to stop climbing.

The strange fact was that Tashi did not convey this message to other climbers who were passing by, and seek their help.

Tashi was equipped with a walkie-talkie which was functioning properly. He made a call for help at 18:00 hrs. Then why didn't he make any calls earlier in the day is not clear.


ACKNOWLEDGMENT:

  1. Our sincere thanks to Team 2x14x8000 for providing us with images/video content of their Dhaulagiri expedition.
  2. Our sincere thanks to Angyan Chhariye for helping us identify the images from Rajib's camera.
  3. Our sincere thanks to Team Giripremi for providing the climbing data and facts of the events connected to Rajib's accident.
  4. We are also grateful to Umesh Zirpe, Prasad Joshi, Pasang Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa, Alberto Zerain and Mariano Galvan for their valuable inputs connected to Rajib's accident.
  5. Our sincere gratitude to the rescue team sent by the Youth Service department, Govt. of West Bengal for helping us by providing useful information.
  6. Our sincere thanks to Dr. Rupak Bhattacharya for sharing his medical expertise on the case that has been really helpful to prepare this report.

Additional Information related to Health Issues at High Altitude

Altitude and Acclimatisation

The percentage of Oxygen in the atmosphere remains 21% at sea level and even at the top of Everest. It is the partial pressure of Oxygen which becomes progressively less with increase in altitude. This essentially means that there are lesser molecules of Oxygen per unit of atmospheric air the higher you go, but the % remains the same. At higher altitudes the human body adapts to this change by breathing faster and deeper. Other complex biochemical changes also take place.

This increase is an immediate and rapid response of the body to deal with the emergency shortfall in supply. But if we keep on going higher non-stop, then this response reaches its physical limit, because you cannot breathe faster and faster the higher you go. You then decompensate very rapidly, and it may prove fatal if you do not come down to a safer altitude.

The process of gradually getting used to increasing altitudes, to be able to function normally, both mentally and physically, is called acclimatisation.

Some facts about acclimatisation:

Everyone, male or female, needs to acclimatise

Rates of acclimatisation varies individually

Quality of acclimatisation varies individually

Older people acclimatise better than younger

It is not permanent, you lose it with time on coming down

Resident highlanders do it better than resident lowlanders

Acclimatisation depends on altitude

Even athletes may find it difficult to acclimatize

Altitude ceiling varies individually, and in the same person over a period of days or weeks

After a time acclimatisation reaches a peak, you cannot acclimatise any further

After a certain altitude acclimatisation and deterioration go on simultaneously. With increasing time and altitude deterioration overtakes acclimatisation

Adequate hydration helps the process

High carbohydrate diet,70% of total calories, helps the process. Tobacco, alcohol and sleeping pills retard the process

High Altitude Illnesses

Failure to adequately acclimatise to increasing altitudes may lead to a spectrum of problems, from the milder "ACUTE MOUNTAIN SICKNESS" (AMS) to the potentially fatal "HIGH ALTITUDE PULMONARY OEDEMA" (HAPO) or "HIGH ALTITUDE CEREBRAL OEDEMA" (HACO) ,or both, which can lead to death within hours unless treated promptly and adequately.

AMS:

Presence of a combination of non-specific symptoms

Appears within a few hours of ascent to altitude

Includes: headache, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, weakness, tiredness, dizziness, difficulty in sleeping

Diagnosed by presence of headache and any one of the other symptoms given above

Usually benign and self-limiting, and has NO neurological symptoms or signs

If symptoms increase in severity and signs and symptoms of neurological dysfunction appear, it then indicates a transition to the more dangerous life threatening HACO.

HACO:

Defined as

loss of balance (a simple test: unable to walk heel-to-toe in a straight line)

altered consciousness and impaired mentation, which may present as: confusion, disorientation, loss of memory, hallucination, psychotic behaviour, drowsiness, stupor or coma

severe lassitude

Headache, nausea and vomiting are frequently present

Deterioration from AMS to HACO may be rapid, leading to coma and death in hours.

HACO may be associated with HAPO.

HACO is nearly always preceded by worsening AMS.

HAPO:

At least two of the following symptoms must be present

breathing difficulty on exercise progressing to breathing difficulty at rest

cough with or without frothy sputum sometimes pink

decreased exercise performance

chest tightness or congestion

At least two of the following signs must be present

wheezing in chest

blueness of tongue

increase in heart rate

increase in rate of breathing

Severe fatigue and exercise intolerance is universally present. May become worse very fast with death in hours. Cold exposure worsens HAPO.


[References]
[1] - http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/indian-climber-rajib-bhattacharya-dies-while-descending-mt-dhaulagiri/story-NQ5FUbKxNf5Z1m3DD4hcmM.html
[2] - http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/indian-climber-rajib-bhattacharya-while-descending-mount-dhaulagiri-in-nepal-2810286/
[3] - http://www.americanbazaaronline.com/2016/05/20/indian-mountaineer-rajib-bhattacharya-dies-in-mt-dhaulagiri-412394/
[4] - http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/indian-climber-dies-on-mt-dhaulagiri-in-nepal/article8626538.ece
[5] - http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-news-india/indian-climber-rajib-bhattacharya-while-descending-mount-dhaulagiri-in-nepal-2810286/


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