Nandadevi – serene and hypnotising peak in the Himalayas
Nandadevi – The snowy peak in the Himalayas that is both serene and hypnotising – towers between the Rishiganga and Goriganga Rivers, 25,600 feet above sea level in India’s Garhwal region. She is the goddess of the people of Uttarakhand, the bestower of bliss and for mountaineers around the world, the ultimate object of desire.
It was in May 1963 that the iconic mountaineer Willi Unsoeld along with Tom Hornbein ascended Mount Everest through the western route-a feat that no one had managed so far. Through indomitable will power and desire to prove to the world and to themselves that the western route was not impossible, they braved the howling icy winds on the crest of the mountain an entire night. When he came down from the ethereal silver luminescence on the peak to the ordinary mundane daylight of the plains, what Willi had lost was not only the sense of divine peace that he had experienced, but also nine of his toes through frostbite.
Willi’s first experience of the divine vision of Nanda Devi was in 1948 when as director of the American Peace Corps, he had travelled through the valleys in the foothills of the Himalayas. From the beginning the unearthly beauty of the queen of the mountains had a mysterious, inexplicable attraction for Willi. If ever he had a daughter he decided that day, he would name her after the mountain and one day, he decided, he would come to the Devi with his daughter. As he desired, he was blessed with a daughter and naturally he gave her the sacred name of Nanda Devi. The mountain became an unquenchable fire deep within him. Even the conquest of the Everest left this communion with Nanda Devi untouched.
Along with her education Willi taught his daughter the skills of mountaineering. Perhaps it was the girl bearing the name of the snowy peak, who exhibited to her father her fascination for mountaineering. By 22 she had taken a degree in wildlife biology. But Nanda Devi was not among those wearing mortarboards and gowns at her convocation. On that most important of days for a student, Nanda Devi was triumphantly standing 14,411 feet above sea level on Mount Rainier with her famous mountaineer father.
In July 1976 Willi and Nanda Devi were at Lata village at the foothills of the Himalayas, part of a 13 member team lead by Adams Carter, about to fulfil the cherished dream of going up the holy mountain John Roskelley, Peter Lev, Lou Richardt, Andy Harward and Mary Hoey – all of them acclaimed and experienced mountaineers –were part of the expedition. Along with them were the Indian mountaineers Kiran Kumar and Surendra. On July 14th like a daughter at the feet of a bountiful mother, Nanda Devi, with her father arrived at the foothills of the serene, brocaded Goddess after whom she had been named. This expedition was organized to commemorate 40 years of the conquest of the peak. Another driving force behind this expedition was the intense desire of the father and daughter to touch the forehead of the mountain.
After getting the Darshan at the shrine to Nanda Devi at the foothills, they began to ascend. Braving the rarefied atmosphere and the chilling wind, by the end of July they had reached the base camp and advance base camp. Willi proudly watched his daughter enthusiastically advance step by step. As the ascent became steeper it was at a snail’s pace that the advance team of John Roskelley, Lou Richardt and Jim States slowly crept up to first, second and third camps in thirty days. Behind them was the second group of Andy Harward, Nanda Devi and Peter Lev.
And slowly, somewhere along that snowy, silvery paths Andy began to fall in love with the golden haired namesake of the mountain goddess. Along the path Andy proposed to Nanda Devi and he discussed it with Willi. For Willi there were no second thoughts about handing his daughter to a man who loved heights. Dreaming of a wedding after they came back from the summit, they slowly climbed the silken cliffs.
By August 31, the three- man advance team had set up camp four 1500 feet from the summit and on the 1st of September they stood on the top of Nanda Devi literally kissing the forehead of the Goddess, and becoming only the fifth expedition to achieve the feat.
By September 3, the second team with Nanda Devi reached camp four. They planned to scale the peak the very next day. But then, suddenly the weather worsened and it became impossible for them to leave their tents. The weather did not change for three days and they were trapped in their tents. And then, amidst of the worsening weather Nanda Devi began to feel some discomfort. Soon her abdomen was racked with pain from a hernia. Willi who was at camp three was immediately informed and the next day he rushed to camp four.
The next day the weather cleared and the sun began to lighten up the sky, but for Devi there was no respite. Now Willi knew that it was best not to attempt to go up and decided to take his daughter down the mountain and then he heard Andy crying out for him from inside the tent.
Willi rushed into the tent and he held his daughter as she said “I am going to die”. He held Devi in his lap not knowing what to do or where to turn to. Her face by then had become as pale as the snow. As she gasped for breath, Willi tried to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. After 15 minutes Willi felt a terrible shivering cold, more biting than that of the mountain, slowly seep in to his lips from his daughter’s body.
When he realised that his daughter with whom he had set out to fulfil the most cherished dream of his life was no more, Willi broke down and began to weep uncontrollably. Andy, for whom love had so recently come into his life and so cruelly been snatched away, held Devi’s hands and wept inconsolably. Peter, who was the only other person there, suggested that they bury the body in the tent itself. But Willi somehow could not agree with that. With a voice racked by grief he sobbed “I will offer my daughter to the infinity of the mountains in the way we offer ashes to the sea”.
They laid the lifeless body of Nanda Devi in a sleeping bag with only the face visible and took her out into the howling ice-cold winds outside. They laid her out at the nearest cliff; holding hands they knelt down around her and then sobbing, they bid their final farewell to her. The tears that streamed down their cheeks turned to ice in the biting cold and the wind blew it away. Their racking sighs were wrapped up by the bitter wind and it whistled down the valleys as a dirge. Willi paid his final obsequies with a blessing “thank you for the world we live in…” As they moved her body at the edge of a precipice a howling wind with all the majesty of the mountains arrived out of nowhere, and took Devi into the heart and soul of Nanda Devi.
Later Willi would say that, he had offered his daughter an eternal home in the heart of the sublime snowy wonder of Nanda Devi and that she had gone fulfilling her insatiable yearning for the grandeur of the Himalayas.
With a grief that would never be assuaged, Willi continued mountaineering. It might have been because the company of the people of the plains was intolerable for the anguish in his heart that Willi sought refuge in the solitude of snowy heights. Two years after he gave his daughter to Nanda Devi, in 1979 Willi joined her in an icy grave on Mt Rainier, where he had taught Devi the rudiments of mountaineering, and were both of them, father and daughter, had stood in triumph only a few years before.
Translated by Dr S Nagesh