From times immemorial, man has dreamt of conquering the elements with which he has had to struggle from day one of his existence. Winds, rains, gravity, sky, sunlight all these elements had dominated his life for too long and too much. In pursuit of his dream to overpower the elements, he has gone under water to unfathomable depths. He has shattered the sound barrier trusting himself to metal and his own ingenuity. He has also roared through the very lonely and inhospitable outer space at unimaginable speeds. The art of skydiving belongs to this intrepid spirit of mankind that has known no bounds. Skydiving is actually a human activity beyond the terrestrial edge of routine human existence. It is a step into the blue away from relative safety of an airborne platform. This step is a challenge to gravity. It is also a challenge to the birds and their monopoly over the skies. However short it may be, but it is also a divine existence high above the mother earth wherein Man is the master of his own destiny.
While everything is destined they say I sincerely thank God to have given me that kind of strength to experiment to build my own pathway to my destiny. I thank supreme divine power for letting me venture into various possible adventures and also to bring me so close to the nature, be it underwater, mountains or the blue skies. Being a highlander (from Uttrakhand), the deep love and passion for the mountains was obvious. To add to that, the urge to do something new, something unique and something untried has been pushing me to go beyond the limits. For me I always wanted to live up to the true motto of Indian Air Force which is ‘Touch the Sky with Glory’.
Being a Para Jump Instructor for close to two decades now, I got chance to undertake parachute jumps on various training and operational occasions both by day and night from different altitudes. Having made a parachute jump earlier during the airborne training of the Special Forces from height (29,500Ft AGL), slightly higher than that of the Everest, using the fixed wing aircraft, I wished if someday I could actually climb to that height as well. It was this inspiration that motivated me to climbing sport and I formally got into mountaineering in 1992. Thereafter there was no looking back and I found myself invariably on top of the some of moderate peaks in Garhwal and Himachal region which I attempted. Like any other mountaineer, I also had dream to get a glimpse of Everest massif and my obsession was rewarded when I finally got prospect to be part of the First ever IAF expedition to Mt Everest in 2005.
At 0515 hrs of 30 May 2005, when I stepped over the top of the world from the North side, not only was I immensely filled with blend of joy and emotions like anybody else but the immediate thought haunting me at that moment was to retreat as quickly as possible without wasting any time. With the exhaustion and inhospitable conditions at that altitude, my mind was working for shortcut options to return back to the camp. At that moment another brilliant idea struck my mind and I sincerely wished if I had parachute to fly down to reach straight back to ABC. After spending barely 10 minutes all alone with my Sherpa Ang Sona on the top enjoying the sparkling panoramic view of the entire Tibet plateau, I quickly started my decent. All the while struggling my steps on the narrow track of the North east ridge, I was thinking as to how exhilarating it would be to fly so close to Everest and see the massif which otherwise cannot be seen even by the climber who is actually undertaking climb on the mountain. There was this spark at that moment which filled me with inspiration for making a high altitude parachute jump over mountains. I did not at that time imagined if it was ever possible and I would sometime get a prospect to jump over the Everest region.
I consider myself lucky to possess the dual qualification of being a mountaineer and a skydiver, a perfect combination to fulfill my passion and venture into doing such unique adventure of ‘Skydive over Everest’. My sincere interest on the project developed last year when I heard of the British team already working on this new feat. It was through the internet that I got in touch with the chief coordinator in Britain. With my background and experience, I was straight way given a slot for jump which was to take place in Sep 2008. I shared my professional experience and even guided them on few aspects, however due to reasons beyond my control I somehow could not join the maiden jump which was undertaken then at an altitude of 12,600 ft at Siangbouche airfield enroute Everest base camp. Total 41 skydivers made solo and Tandom jumps from a Pelatus aircraft which was brought from Switzerland only for this purpose. The price quoted per jump on the website was 20000 Pounds, indeed a big money at least for me to afford easily. Post jump, the feed back from the clients was not encouraging and few of the split gang wanted to do it once again independently.
I was approached and given an offer once again this year by two Britishers Leo Dickinson and Ralph Mitchell. But it was at the last moment when I was informed about the plan. In fact, both the contenders were already in the mountains acclimatizing and preparing for the jump. This left me with very little reaction time to prepare myself. Sooner I got the official permission for jump given by Nepal Tourism Ministry, I got on to war footing preparations and there was a lot to be done including ticketing, seeking permission from my Headquarters, arranging clothing and gear etc. It was 18 Sep 09 (Friday) that my countdown started for the Everest jump.
I booked the Ticket in Nepal Royal Airlines (NRA) for 20 Sep 09 which was leaving Delhi at 1030 hrs. I got phone call from the handling agency (Yatra.com) at 5 O’clock in the evening that Nepal airlines had cancelled their flights for next three days. It was shocking and put me on high anxiety as to what next. I lost my temper but since it was sweet apologetic voice still holding on phone, I asked the lady what is the accountability of these airline these days? She humbly replied that your money would be refunded without cutting any commission. What a favor I thought. Anyway. While I requested her to manage the next available ticket, She indeed helped me accommodating in Air India flight on 21 Sep 09. I had to pay double the fair but it was assured that I would reach Kathmandu by 0930 hrs. While I was checking my confirmation of the ticket on the mail, I saw mail from Kathmandu sent by Himalaya Expeditions who was coordinating the jump saying –‘Wg Cdr Tripathi if you reach by 0900 hrs on 20 Sep you are in, else you miss the jump’. Helicopter takeoff is planned from Kathmandu at 1000hrs. So the problem had rather started. I again pleaded the lady to change my booking which she again did but now the fare was almost three times.
After a short hospitality session at the Maharaja lounge of the Indira Gandhi International Airport on 20th Sep, I boarded the AI flight. The wheels finally rolled up at 0745 hrs, weather was fine and knowing hectic schedule coming my way in Kathmandu, I judiciously utilized time an quickly went to sleep after refreshing through the jump check list again and again.
The weather was bad in Kathmandu and helicopter flight was delayed to 1400 hrs in the afternoon. During interaction with the crew of the Helicopter, I familiarized myself with the exit procedures from the aircraft. It was not new to me since I had logged close to 700 jumps earlier from the helicopters. But this was first time that I was jumping from French B2 (As350B series) helicopter. It belonged to private airlines by Fish Tail airlines Pvt Ltd.
Jumping in the Everest region at a close proximity of the Everest is something special and more challenging. One looks like a small dot on the vast canvas. But it is most satisfying to get to see the panoramic view of snow clad Himalaya ranges and view of Everest massif at such a close proximity. A glimpse of Everest fills me with inner strength, to stand tall but with humility. The Everest jump is special as it is a real challenge to fight against all odds of high altitude and brutal elements of nature. High wind conditions, sub zero temperatures, strong wind conditions, lack of oxygen, low pressure, chances of drifting away and landing into caravessae and glaciers, restricted area to manage landing etc were few of the factors that pose real difficult condition for undertaking such ventures into that region.
It was low sheet clouds over Lukla and hats off to the pilot to fly adventurously through the vertical clouds and barely managing to attempt safe landing. Lukhla is at 9000 ft plus and offers high altitude sickness as a welcome toast to the visitors. I moved to the lodge, sipped hot cup of tea and slept for two hours for faster acclimatization. All my moves were deliberately slow to avoid exertion and facilitate acclimatization. I had to be extra careful since the height gain was rapid enough to trap me into acute mountain sickness (AMS). I spent about 30 minutes doing Yoga (breathing exercise). I prepared my parachute, oxygen equipment and clothing at late night.
Next day as planned, the take was at 0800 hrs. I have been telling pilot to advance the takeoff as early morning hours offer good conditions for jumping. But later I came to know that it was a requirement from Leo Dickenson and Ralph Mitchell who were already waiting for the helicopter to arrive at Gorekhshep. Leo is a renowned film maker and had made many documentaries for the Discovery and National Geographic channels including famous Balloon Expedition over Everest in which he himself was on board Balloon.
Leo was set with his camera and wanted good light conditions for shooting at Gorekhshep. Heli got airborne at 0750 hrs from lukla in next 10 minutes we were over hovering over Phireche. Thick sheet of clouds covered the valley beyond and thwarted our attempt. The mission was aborted and soon we landed back at Lukhla. Soon the entire valley was covered with clouds. We finally postponed the program for the next day but this time takes off at 0615 hrs.
I peeped through the window glass of my room which was opening into the valley towards south. The sky was looking good. As planned got airborne next day (on 22 Sep 09) sharp at 0630 hrs and heli landed at Gorekhshep at 0650 hrs. Due to weight limitations of the Heli, one jumper at a time was to undertake the jump. It was Leo Dickinson, Ralph Mitchell, and lastly me to jump one by one.
I exited at 0750 hr at 22000 ft AGL facing the Everest in the north direction. The western Cum and the entire south face of Everest was visible. It was just 4 seconds after the exit that I punched my parachute and soon I was under the colourfull canopy descending down. My eyes were fixed in the khumbu glaciar and were trying to locate our ITBP camp (for Everest attempt) at the Base Camp. I could not see it as my eyes became watery due to cold winds making the vision blur. As such, unlike any other season, this time there were not many expeditions this time from the south side.Any way a glimpe of Everest was really satisfying. I joined my hands in prayer to bow before mother goddess and wished if I could get a chance again to climb Everest from the south side.
It was freezing cold and fingers and toes were getting numb. This added to difficulty in pulling the parachute controls. I had carried the tricolor to fly in the air but could not manage it due to cold. The toes were also getting cold and I feared about the landing impact. Due to thin air at that altitude, Parachute was descending very fast. It was just about 4 minutes in the air and soon I flared the parachute for a smooth landing. The landing impact was slightly high but I was happy with my landing. I waived to my friends in jubilation and once again facing Sagarmatha joined hands to thank her. The Heli landed to pick us up and by 0900 hrs we flew back to Lukhla. After refueling we exited from lukhla avoiding approaching clouds and were back in Kathmandu by 1500 hrs.
The feat came only one year after Nepal first started allowing skydiving in the high altitudes region around Mount Everest. The previous record landing was also in the shadow of Mount Everest at a drop zone (Siang bouche) at 12,350 ft made last year, the first year Nepal allowed skydiving in the high mountains. Skydiving is very popular and simple sport all over the world. It’s a weekend sport in Florida, Chicago and many other places abroad but skydive in the Everest region is something different and special.
I am a much contended man today. I don’t know what exactly inspired me and triggered the spark in me to undertake the skydive jump over Everest region, yet it makes me proud to triumph over the untried, something unique that has brought Glory to the Air Force and the country. God has been kind to me to have given me strength and opportunity to undertake the venture else the chance to endorse record by an Indian would have been missed. My faith in supreme almighty and well wishers has strengthened many folds. I am proud to have lived up to the true motto of Indian Air Force ‘Touch the Sky with Glory’. Sky is the limit for me and I believe that ‘we only live once, and if we live well once is enough I am going to relish this memorable feat till my last breath.
Pictures of Skydive
Editor – Please bless Ramesh for sharing his wonderful experiences with the eSamskriti world.