This is an ordinary story of extraordinary courage which I never knew I had. A frail girl who happened to be a doctor shall be pushed to her limits and end up saving her husband from severe AMS (acute mountain sickness) slipping into oblivion. That adversary would give her strength to rescue her husband single-handedly in the dead of the night at 4390 meters above sea level on a seemingly innocuous trek where they kissed and slept promising to get up at midnight to watch the magnificence of the Milky Way together.
Thinking about it still gives me shivers.
Something about us. We (Gautam and I) both love mountains and adventure. Love was bound to happen and soon we were married. He had planned to do Satopanth Lake trek (4600 meters above sea level) in Uttarakhand (India) Himalayas for many years but destiny had plans for us to take this journey together. What fascinated him was the spiritual aspect of those Himalayan crags.
Just ahead of the lake lies the Swargarohini glacier where according to Hindu mythology, the king, Yudhisthira had climbed the stairway to heaven thousands of years ago. Perhaps for some, the legend was hogwash but for us we knew that if we tune ourselves to it, the universe will reveal itself.
It was a sunny day in June 2017 when the journey began from the hot plains of Gurgaon and we reached Rudraprayag on day one. Next day we reached Badrinath and stayed overnight in Badrinath. Hot humid weather was replaced by cool breeze and gentle chill. We did an evening hike to Charan Paduka for acclimatization.
Next day golden sun rays on Neelkantha welcomed us and we started for our journey to Mana village from where our trek to Satopanth taal started. On day one, we reached the ‘Laxmivan’ meadow absolutely captivated by the beauty. Easy hike of 9 kms and we had more than half a day to ourselves. We pitched our tents and watched the setting sun’s final rays turn the snow clad mountain into gold. Both of us were in good health. I checked Gautam’s oxygen saturation and all was in good limits.
As we watched the moonlight filtering through our tent, we held each other’s hands and thanked the Gods for what was unfolding and the solace we found in the mountains.
On day two, our destination was Chakrateertha, which lies at 4,390 meters above sea level and 12 kms from Chakrateertha. We met some wandering ascetics on the way who were walking barefoot and hardly wore any clothes. They would meditate and live in caves braving harsh winters with bare minimal food. It intrigued us to know that as humans, we had unlimited will and spiritual dimensions of our consciousness were manifold. Many sages who lived in the Himalayas were testimony of that.
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After around six to seven hours of trek and adequate rest in between, we reached our campsite. We ate rice and Daal (lentils) and sat by the narrow stream with our feet dipped in the icy waters. With the mighty peak, Chaukhamba towering above us and Swargarohini glacier in the background, something reminded me that something inside us changes in the mountains. I looked at Gautam’s face and it was resplendent albeit a little tired from the trek. I felt like telling him how much he meant to me but the grandeur of the mountains took my thoughts somewhere else.
Little did I know that it was the last time I would sit with carefree abandon and glee. Soon weather took a U-turn and the short-lived crisp sunshine gave in to gusty winds and light snow. It was a mesmerizing feeling as the snowflakes brushed past our faces. Shortly after, we rushed to our tents to secure them properly. With a fervent hope for the weather to improve the next day for our trek, we sat curled up in our sleeping bags dreaming about the Satopanth Lake and culmination of this journey.
I checked Gautam’s saturation and it was well above 85. He felt good other than a minor headache, which resolved after drinking water. I kissed him and set alarm for midnight to see the Milky Way and do some night photography. I was doing this trek immediately after doing my basic mountaineering course (BMC) so I was acclimatized well and felt mentally and physically strong.
Suddenly at around 10pm, I was woken up by the sound of Gautam coughing. I sensed something was not right. He was breathing heavily and the headache had returned. I dreaded the moment knowing that AMS had started to set in. His saturation had now dropped to 79 and it sent alarm bells ringing in my mind. I gave him Diamox fully knowing it won’t be effective now. I grew restless knowing that I didn’t have any oxygen with me.
One thing was certain that we could not trek any further up but I was hoping if his situation improved, we could descend in the morning. The rule of mountaineering, which I had learned in my mountaineering course came rushing…descend descend descend. I made him sit up and kept checking his saturation frantically trying not to lose my nerve. His heart rate had increased. Few crepitation and he was turning groggy.
In mere forty minutes, his saturation had suddenly plummeted to 55. I was dazed. I gave him a dexamethasone injection and roared at my porter to start preparing for the descent come what may. As my guide crawled out of his tent rubbing sleep from his eyes, I rushed to other camps hoping to find oxygen. Fate ruled against me. I was literally screaming with tears welled up in my eyes hoping for a miracle.
In that moment of desperation, I looked at the night sky and the Milky Way in full bloom with a crescent moon rising above the Swargarohini glacier. I could not believe the spectacle, which was unfolding in front of me. I could feel my reality shifting and I struggled to understand what was real. Suddenly a gust of wind shook me back to reality.
I was in a dire situation. I had treated many people in hospitals and on expeditions but here I was as a wife, doctor and a mountaineer scampering in my heart to find courage from recesses of fear, which had frozen me. I implored and prayed to the mountain gods to give me strength for the harrowing night ahead. Soon we began our descent in the dark of the night. Before leaving I asked mountains for forgiveness and a promise to get us down to safety. I can never articulate it all in words.
Walking on the razor’s edge with deep gorges on both sides, cold winds blowing past us, I was holding Gautam’s jacket lest he fell. Halfway down, I was completely exhausted and tears gave way to the indomitable spirit of a woman who was determined to chase away death. As a doctor, I knew my husband had symptoms of HACE (High altitude cerebral edema) and HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema). I knew how fatal that could be. Few hours down, he felt slightly better and we stopped to have black tea at a campsite in the dead of night.
It was around 1 am. I was zonked. Gautam fell asleep on top of his trekking pole and I remember staring blankly at his pale face.
I took out my phone to click a picture. If we survive the night, it would be a story and if not, I would have a memory for life. Soon, we resumed walking.
Around eight hours had passed since we had begun descending and the first glimpse of sunshine gave me hope. Something whispered that although death is inevitable, this was not the day.
Soon we reached Mana village after 32 kms of trekking through day & night situated at around 3,200 meters and Gautam was feeling much better though not perfectly fine. I saw a temple of a mountain goddess and cried my heart out and thanked the divinity. I clicked a selfie and took a long glance back at the majestic mountains we had descended all night. I had nothing but awe and reverence in my heart. I thanked my porter without whom I would have been lost that night amidst boulders, loose rock and scree.
Finally we reached Mana after an all night descent..
We drove back to Joshimath and stayed overnight there to rest, recover and reflect on what all had transpired in the last 24 hrs. I was exhausted and relieved and slept like a log hugging Gautam as tightly as possible. So much had happened and I still had my husband breathing beside me. That was the deepest moment of profoundest love. We had escaped Death by a narrow margin and it was only when I burst into tears did I realize the gravity of the night.
Even when the night was deep and I was weak, my frozen courage pulled us through. Next thing I remember was me crashing on bed and Gautam holding my hand and staring at me. It was only then that he could understand what had transpired.
And as I drifted off to sleep, I heard him whisper…I bow down to the divine forces that guided us through the night. I thank you, Varuna, for being more than a doctor, a wife, a trek mate and blessing me with a new birth. May I live up to it.
The night proved to be much more than an adventure that I ever sought, but the lessons will forever be etched in my mind due to the exemplary courage I inherited from the mountains around us. Life happens in a heartbeat. One day we are sipping coffee and the next day, we’re gone. But it’s only the harshest of times when our spirit and emotions are tested do we realize our grit and strength.
What I have learned from mountains is that sometimes the time is not right for you. You should accept that truth with humility and wait till the time is right. I was so close to Satopanth Tal and exploring the Swargarohini glacier, yet so far away. Mountains are always there but your loved ones may not be.
I’m glad the Doctor, Mountaineer and Soulmate in me took the right choice. I cannot imagine myself going to Satopanth Tal without Gautam though whenever we plan, it gives me jitters and shivers. And that resplendent Milky Way is the most treasured memory apart from saving Gautam, which I would always cherish.
Life is ephemeral and we owe ourselves to live each moment of it. Challenge yourself and don’t give in when you’re down and out. Even when you’re lonely, you’re never alone, for it’s the unconquerable spirit that will see you through. There is nothing more adventurous than that. We both have done many treks since that fateful night, but sometimes, I still look back and wonder.
Dr. Varuna Raina