In tragedy, it’s hard to find a good resolution; it’s not black and white: it’s a big fog of gray.
Arun Sharma (Pandit Ji) breathed his last in the Great Himalayan Range, 300 meters below the Omasi La (5250 meters).
Date and Time of his demise unknown as yet.
Omasi La serves as a Southern Gateway to the desert lands of Zanskar from Jammu and Kashmir. Like many other great passes in this region, Omasi La too is an obsolete trail and finding a guide on these trails is more difficult than actually walking across the pass.
The Epic Plan – Stitching Omasi La and Hagsu La
Pandit Ji would often plan audacious expeditions. And then he would mercilessly execute his plans, unfailingly. He was the one who introduced us to the Great Himalayan Range and trained us in the Pir Panjals before he led us to the mighty heights of GHR. In 2013, he led our expedition across the Sersank La and Pot La, a unique methodology devised by him to stitch two passes at a time.
The seeds of Omasi La expedition were sown while we were resting on the endless glacial zone of Chaini Pass in June 2015.
The party, I, Rijul, and Pandit Ji, was to leave for Kishtwar via Udhampur on 8 August and then start the expedition from Gulabgarh. At last moment, I withdrew because of reasons known best to the Almighty.
But as they say, the show must go on; the two of them left on the scheduled date but unfortunately they had to take the Pangi route instead of Udhampur because of terrorist attack near Udhampur.
Pangi and Onward
The party left from Pangi on 9th Morning and reached Gulabgarh on the same day. The On foot journey started on 9th and they planned to reach Machail before nightfall. But that was a pipe dream from the word go. They had to camp at Chishoti, a small village enroute Machail.
Next day, they crossed Machail and camped at Bhujas, the last village on the trail.
At Bhujas, they hired two guides cum porters who agreed to take them to the base of the pass. They were to be paid 750/- per person per day but God had other plans for them.
Finding a good guide is a luxury in this region. Rijul and Pandit Ji couldn’t find any sane person to help them out during the Sersank La expedition. Those who accompanied them were so absorbed in drinking and arguing that it was Pandit Ji who ended up being the guide. Same thing happened with parties that were exploring this region in 1982 and 1986.
They left Bhujas on 11 August and were accompanied by two more locals, all of them going to Zanskar across the same pass making it a party of six people.
This trail is notorious for its treacherous river crossings and it needs a company of minimum four people to make your way across the river. They were six when they started. After crossing the first stream, their guides refused to budge any further. Their argument turned ugly and those guides decided to turn back. Pandit Ji angrily paid them off and marched ahead.
Just before they were to cross the second (and potentially dangerous) stream, the two locals who were accompanying them from Bhujas also decided to take an alternate route, which was short but extremely strenuous.
They considered their options and decided to follow the apparently less difficult trail, which obviously meant crossing the bone-chilling waters of the waist deep stream ahead. It was not before 1530 Hours that they crossed the river. They did consider the option of turning back but when you are in the middle of nowhere, with summit just within your reach, it is hard to decide otherwise.
After crossing the stream, they pitched their tent at Ruhar Base Camp, a temporary shepherd settlement. They had gained close to 1500 meters in a day and they were pitched at 5000 meters above the MSL on 11th night. Because the plan was to cross Hagsu La within two three days, they discussed about finding a ‘real guide’ this time once they reached Ating in Zanskar.
And possibly about the glory that awaited them on the other side. However, as the night passed, the ugly truth started to unfold.
The Night of 12th
Things turned pretty bad on 12th morning. The sky was overcast, the summit just within the reach but Pandit Ji just couldn’t walk. He tried to move out of the tent but his legs were frozen like wood. He felt exhausted and he just couldn’t get on his feet once he sank in his sleeping bag.
Rijul prepared tea for him and massaged his legs mercilessly but that just wouldn’t work. At one point, Rijul even tried to drag him to the top but things don’t work that way at 5000 meters. Pandit Ji didn’t eat anything and he relied entirely on hot brew. They both couldn’t sleep that night.
Pandit Ji drank hell lot of water that night, probably he was trying to fight AMS in his own way. He drank as much as 4 liters of water on 12th night.
They slept early again and woke up at the crack of dawn on 13th. The sky was still overcast and with their supplies diminishing fast, they had to leave that spot at any cost. Unfortunately, that couldn’t happen. Pandit Ji couldn’t bring himself to walk and asked Rijul to leave and find some help from across the pass.
He even said if the Mother Nature permits, I’ll walk all by myself and meet you on your way back. You just go and find some help. (Agar bhagwati ki ichha hui, to main khud hi aa jaaunga. abhi main thaka hua hun, theek hote hi chal padunga. Tum aage jaao)
On 13 August, Rijul had to leave him at the base camp. He tucked him nicely in his sleeping bag, kept all the food items (whatever little was available by then) at his disposal, kept his money inside his bag, and rushed towards the nearest place inhabited by human race.
Rijul walked all day long on 13th, and spent the night inside a shepherd cave. The next morning, on 14th, he reached Ating after walking for another 4-5 hours. And then he hired a cab to reach Padum. By the time he reached Padum, it was already late in the afternoon and that’s when he messaged me about the mishap.
At 1530 Hours on 14th, to be precise.
To our bad luck, 15th was the day of Independence which we celebrate for no rhyme and reason and that probably turned out to be too long a wait for Pandit Ji. Army choppers didn’t fly on 15th and by the time they reached him on 16th, it was too late.
When Rijul left him, he gently tucked him inside his sleeping bag with his wet shoes kept outside the tent.
When he saw him again on 16th, probably for the last time, he was outside his sleeping bag, his wet shoes on his feet and Srimad Bhagawad Geeta resting on his chest.
Having known Pandit Ji for all these years, I knew he would try. And he did.
He did not give up.
But as he once said, the show must go on. And it will. The mountains will be climbed. The passes embraced. The spirit of Pandit Ji will live forever in the mountains.
Pandit Ji would be a part of stories as he has, already, been! He loved mountains, initiated many of us to fall in love with mountains and having done his job he stayed in the mountains …perhaps to trek more and more and guide others through whispers that wind would make at that altitude!
P.S. The Govt of India has given in principle nod to the use of Sat Phones by Adventure Tourists in 2014. But they have been sitting on this file since then and there is no update on it. Hope they do it before anymore lives are lost.