Pioneers pass away, leave behind a lost legacy

Dream Wanderlust | Jan 9 , 2019

Two of the earliest, distinguished and widely respected, mountaineers from India passed away recently.

Birendra Sarkar, on 29th Decemeber, 2018 and Karunamoy Das, on 5th January, 2019 'unclipped' themselves from their 'rope' of life.

They were amongst the first-generation climbers from West Bengal, India. Having started their trekking career in the 1950's, they trained themselves with Advanced Mountaineering Courses at Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling, in the early 1960's.

They were of an age, era and temperament when the paramountcy of adequate training in rock, snow and ice craft, together with a deep sense of self-reliance and camaraderie, forged them into a band of climbers, who truly appreciated the "freedom of the hills", reflecting the spirit of a nation that had won their battle of independence not too long ago. Their ethos of alpinism remained unadulterated. They knew their limits and climbed with humility for the sheer joy of climbing.

Karunamoy Das, Birendra Sarkar

Karunamoy Das (L) and Birendra Sarkar (R)

They leave behind a rich legacy which is all the more relevant today in its retelling, as summit-centric, guided, high-altitude-tourist-climbing sadly becomes the norm for a large section of the present generation.

(Read More: Interview with Birendra Sarkar)

Dream Wanderlust pays its respects to the departed climbers. Their contemporaries and admirers reminisce about them as follows:

Dr. Swapan Roy Chowdhury

I am deeply saddened by the demise of both Mr. Karunamoy Das and Mr. Birendra Sarkar - two of the most important members of the Gangotri Glacier Exploration Committee (GGEC). Both being the front running voyagers to Gangotri Glacier, their careers would always be looked upon by the generations to come. In 1963, we voyaged our first expedition to Mt. Trishuli together under the banner of the "Himalayan Association" which also happens to be the 2nd expedition, led by Dr. Biswas, a Pediatrician and a professor at Calcutta Medical College. Mr. Sarkar was one of the founding members of the Gangotri Glacier Exploration Committee (GGEC), also to name the organization as aforementioned in 1965. After its inception, Mr. Amulya Sen and Mr. Karunamoy Das had successfully made the first ever ascent to Mt. Kedar Dome in 1967. I would credit Mr. Sarkar for his excellent organizational skill during all our expeditions. He has always been a very safe climber; relished being in the mountains, rather than just being a climb in rush. His books on Himalayan flowers, disaster in the mountains, and other travelogues are worth mentioning to appreciate his literary genius.

Karunamoy Das

Karunamoy Das

Himadri Bhattacharya

Himadri BhattacharyaI am not only shocked by this news, but also, the sudden passing-away of another mountaineering genius Mr. Birendra Sarkar. However, Mr. Das and I came to know about each other way back in 1966. He was associated with Gangotri Glacier Exploration Committee (GGEC) as well since long-time. He was one of the handsome and superbly fit mountaineers of his generation. We have been on 4 expeditions all together; Mt. Kedar Dome (6831m), Mt. Kedarnath (6940m), Mt. Satopanth (7075m), along with our independent exploration to Raktvarn Glacier. During our Raktvarn expedition, I remember that Mr. Karunamoy Das, Binit, Mr. Sujal Mukherjee and I had climbed Mt. Kharkot.

Biren da has spent a significant amount of time in his life penning down adventure stories. If I am not mistaken, he has authored 21 books so far; "Smritipath Beye", "Gongar Kotha", "Ishwarer Uddyan", and "Sikkim" – to name a few.

Kedarnath Parbat Expedition 1967 team

Kedarnath Parbat Expedition 1967 team

Amulya Sen

Amulya SenMr. Karunamoy Das had been to a lot of exploratory expeditions with me. He hailed from Lucknow. Together, we climbed Mt. Kedar Dome as first ever Indians under my leadership. In addition, he was one of the first-generation adventurers to explore Gangotri Glacier as an Indian. I have led ~50 expeditions in my entire mountaineering career so far. My philosophy that I always stood by, and endeavored to lead my team with, is that "safe return is the best return". Nowadays, death counts have been on its utmost high because of inattentiveness towards safety. On the other hand, we always had death-free expeditions. My philosophy is as similar as what Frank Smith used to say, that the mountains are going to be there for us to come back next time and climb again. Because we can never have conquered mountains. Every expedition must be a unique blend of sports and science. We are the first ever team of explorers to collect 430 specimens from Valley of Flowers in the Garhwal Himalayas falling in the state of Uttarakhand, under the leadership of Botanist U.C. Bhattacharya. Those specimens are still on display at the Northern Regional Centre Dehradun: Botanical Survey of India. I would say that our expeditions to Mt. Kedar Dome and then-virgin Mt. Radhanath (which we named after our successful summit) would be the most notable voyages in his climbing career. He also had climbed another unnamed then-virgin peak in the Gangotri Glacier under the leadership of Dr. Swapan Roy Chowdhury.

Rajib Das
(Nephew of Kaurnamoy Das)

Rajib DasAs a part of the Gangotri Glacier Exploration Committee (GGEC), I recall my uncle Mr. Karunamoy Das and Mr. Birendra Sarkar as two of the greatest adventurers in their generation in India. I remember my uncle had gone for a solo exploration trip at Kailash Man Sarovar in late 50's. That ended up becoming an eye-opening quest for adventure in his life before he stepped into serious mountaineering. He completed his Basic Mountaineering Course at Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling; followed by the Advanced Mountaineering Course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering, Uttarkashi. I remember him being very calm and composed; someone always approaching life with utmost positivity. Last time he came with us for a trek, was at Gangotri region. Being someone in his 80's, I could recall how sturdy physique he maintained till that age. He was going to be 95 in coming March. Apart from being so humble, I would always remember how kind-hearted human being he was. He used to sponsor educational facilities for underprivileged children. He always had a zest for exploring the Himalayas in the most unique way possible. He, with his fellow mountaineers, was way ahead of their time in terms of how they approach explorations in general. Undoubtedly, they are the draftsmen of the golden era in Indian mountaineering scene. During his time at HMI (Himalayan Mountaineering Institute), he had trained with Tenzing Norgay. Some Eminent mountaineers had awarded him with a medal. Besides, I remember that he always nurtured a dream of documenting myths and legends about Mt. Everest in Bengali; which unfortunately, has been left being undone.

Karunamoy Das

Karunamoy Das in right

Souren Banerjee

Souren BanerjeeMr. Karunamoy Das and Mr. Birendra Sarkar, both were two of senior-most Indian mountaineers alive. Though I never had the opportunity to have that a close alliance with any of them, yet I was, of course, aware of their influences and contributions to the field of mountaineering in India. Mr. Sarkar documented a vast set of work about Himalayan flowers. If you ask me to differentiate between the mountaineering approaches, taken by mountaineers then and now, I would say that, in those days, they approached mountaineering wholeheartedly, without having been running after the fame and glamour that kisses your feet with every successful expedition. They are first-generation Indian adventurers to transform how mountaineering should be approached in the mighty Himalayas. That is only because of their unconditional love for discovering the exquisiteness of every Himalayan region.

Birendra Sarkar

Birendra Sarkar in white shirt - From his Roopkund book published in 1961

Anindya Mukherjee

Anindya MukherjeeOn 29th December, we lost Sri. Biren Sarkar and on 5th January, 2019 we lost Sri. Karunamoy Das. Now both of these names even though many of us may not recall or just know, were the founding fathers, one of the founding fathers of Indian Mountaineering, I am saying Indian, not just Bengal mountaineering. They were the first generation mountaineers of India. They started going to the mountains from the 1950's and in the early 1960's they had already undertaken the mountaineering course and started going to the mountains, even high altitude treks and pilgrimage trails like Kailash Manasarovar, Roopkund, Kedarnath stuff like that and by the mid 60's they were already bold enough to form a club named the "Gangotri Glacier Exploration Committee" or GGEC in short.

Birendra Sarkar

Birendra Sarkar in center - one of the GGEC treks (Photo: Late Sujal Mukherjee)

Sri. Birendra Nath Sarkar and Sri. Karunamoy Das and the lives like of him were not just contained in forming a club and organizing certain mountaineering expeditions, they were very serious in their approach to the Himalaya. They trained themselves, they prepared themselves for the high altitudes, they learned the crafts and the skills in rock climbing to mountaineering to snow and ice crafts. They knew their limits and they did it their way in a very perfect manner. They came back from the mountains and then documented their adventures, their climbs and published it in the journal. Everything was done with a lot of humility, knowledge, courage, training and preparation. And this is the legacy Sri. Biren Sarkar and Karunamoy Das have left us. This is a legacy we have forgotten; this is the legacy most of us do not know it exists. I think this is the high time with the loss of these lives, we, the younger generation must write more about them, speak more about their adventures.

Karunamoy Das was one of the summit members that did the first ascent of Kedarnath Dome. It happened in 1967 when a team from GGEC was trying to climb Kedarnath Parbat. My uncle Sujal and his friend Pranesh was a team, that was trying to climb Kedarnath. They couldn't climb Kedarnath for some reasons Pranesh Da fell into a Crevasse and there was some bad weather. And the second team, Amulya Sen, Karunamoy Das, Havilder Ramnath and instructor from NIM and three sherpas' did the first ascent of this unnamed domed peak, which they named Kedarnath Dome. And the following year GGEC went back to the Gangotri Glacier again and they attempted Satopanth a 7075m, a formidable mountain as we all know, they couldn't climb the main summit of Satopanth, they did climb another unnamed mountain and named it Radhanath Parbat. So, Karuna Da had two first ascents to his credit in two consecutive years. And the very next year they went back to Chaturangi Glacier, they attempted Sudershan Parbat, they climbed Koteshwar and two more unnamed peaks. So another two first accents were done named after Sujoya and Kamala. So the list just can go on, my point is not to make that list here, my point is, it is high time we look back to the legacy these mountaineers, these great human beings have left us.

Mt. Radhanath

Mt. Radhanath (21020ft) - First ascent by GGEC in 1968

Biren da not only organized a club, organized mountaineering expeditions, he also wrote. He is pivotal in making mountaineering popular in Bengal because he wrote a very popular series in Anandabazar Patrika called "Rahasyamoy Roopkund", which later became a very popular book. One can find about Kamaradri, how good fellowship they had and how they appreciated each other's strengths, how they respected each other. That is something we have to learn today and of course we have to learn humility, knowledge, courage and how to prepare ourselves for big mountains. Everything is left there to be learned. I think we have to look back these guys to these gentlemen and restart our journey on becoming a mountaineer. Because from the 60's to the 70's to the mid 80's Bengal had fine tradition of mountaineering, it has lost its growth in somewhere else it has taken different distracted paths, it is high time. We are losing these people every day, they are getting old and so their stories need to be told.

So rest in peace Karuna Da and rest in peace Biren Da, I am sure you must have met Pranesh and Sujal and your old buddies. Somewhere you must be planning to rope up and you must be planning some new expeditions. I look forward to see you, I don't believe in next life but my respects because every one of you continuously inspire me and my pranam to all of you.

Sincere Acknowledgement: Anindya Mukherjee, Amulya Sen, Dr. Swapan Roy Chowdhury, Himadri Bhattacharya, Rajib Das, Souren Banerjee and Dr. Rupak Bhattacharya

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