Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Legs on Everest - Mark Englis

For the third day in a row I picked and read an interesting book from Rajesh's enviable collection - this time 'Legs on Everest' (Random House India, Rs. 499, 190 pages) written by Mark Englis, a New Zealander who scaled the 8848 metre high Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world, from its North Face on May 15, 2006. What makes Mark Englis's effort special is that he is the first double amputee in the world to scale Mount Everest on prosthetic legs. Though written in a humourous and self-deprecating manner, Englis's book is very disturbing in many ways, and one wonders at the limits to which human endeavour can take us.

Englis, born in New Zealand in 1959, is a researcher, mountaineer, wine maker, entrepreneur (he has a sportsdrink called PeakFuel)  and motivational speaker, an accomplished cyclcist and a silver medal winner at the Paralympics Games in Sydney 2000. In 1982 he lost both his legs to frost bite when he got stuck in a blizzard for 13 days on Mount Cook, New Zealand. In 2002 he summitted the same. In 2004 he summitted Cho Oyu, one of the 8000 meter peaks in the Himalayas, and became the second double amputee in the world to scale a 8000 meter peak. The Cho Oyu expedition was made of a team of 6 guides, 8climbers, 7 sherpas and was an expedition that started on September 14, 2004 and summit achieved on September 27, 2004, Englis's birthday.

In 2006 he undertook the Everest expedition with the HIMEX expedition team led by Russel Brice and summitted the Everest on May 15, 2006, becoming the first double amputee to do so. This expedition had 4 guides, 11 climbers, 16 members of a camera crew, 10 sherpas and 6 cooks. Englis details his preparation for the Everest summit, the physical training that is required (strength is one thing one must certainly have), the various types of illnesses one can be subject to which are often fatal - mountain sickness. high altitude pulmonary edema, high altitude cerebral edema, hypoxia and so on. The winds are ice cold, temperature around -35 degrees and - 50 degrees and the climb is only half the job done - the descent is more treacherous than the climb.

Englis describes his days in Cambodia where he does his social work for those who have lost their legs to land mines and then the lead up to the Everest climb. Kathmandu, Lhasa and the climb up to the base camp. There are pujas before the climb, the mandatory medical tests including the brain swell test, the kit, the sherpas and the climb itself. Englis and his other team members encounter fever, head aches, stomach aches, sore throats, but somehow go on, find the strength to go on. It is tough and scary as there are stories of injuries and death. Englis's prosthetic leg broke during the ascent and he had to wait for a replacement before he took up the rest of the climb. Going up beyond the camp, 1, 2, 3 and 4 and then reaching what they call the 'death zone', somewhere about 500 meters short of the summit is completely crazy. He talks of the mushroom rock and the trickiness of climbing it.

But what was most traumatic even to read is the story of 'Green Boots', an Indian mountaineer Tsewang Paljor, head constable  from an ill fated expedition of the Indo Tibetan Border Force in which three climbers lost their lives, whose corpse lies till date and probably forever, well-preserved in the icy tomb of the North Face of Everest's Himalayan route, and is a landmark (just as there is another landmark of another corpse hanging from a rope). There is no way that these bodies can be brought down and they remain as landarks and warnings for the climbers from the North Face.

Englis's feat is marred by a controversy of his sighting of David Sharp a frostbitten Briton whom Englis claims he saw huddled in the cave near 'Green Boots', frost bite and all. But that day almost 40 climbers passed Sharp, who was finally attended to by one of Englis's climbers Max Chhaya, the first Lebanese to sclae Everest, but by then it was too late for Sharp who was scaling the Everest without support and oxygen and perhaps proper equipment. Despite all the criticism, Englis in my opinion, need take no blame for his action to pass Sharp on his ascent, as he did what he says had to do - "take care of his own life in the upper regions of the Everest". Lack of oxygen, the sheer effort can play tricks on the mind and one would be undermining Englis's own feat by attributing his actions to Sharp's death.

It is interesting to know that the climbers are asked to get off the summit, 20 minutes and no more up there, because it is too dangerous to be in such high altitudes with the mind playing tricks. The descent is as treacherous or worse than the climb and the climbers are allowed only a few moments up on the summit, a place where 50 climbers can stand up at one time says Englis. In his descent Englis suffered serious injuries to both his leg stumps for sheer effort and cold, frost bite on his fingers, and had to be carted quickly down to medical care on the backs of yaks and other improvised tranpsort. In extreme pain Englis was finally flown off to New Zealand where his stumps were shortened by another 3 cms as a result of frostbite and five fingers amputated to frost bite. But he contines to get on at lfie, with zest and his crazy sense of humour.

One line on the blurb of the book says it all. "Whenever you have pushed yourself to the limit, you know you can achieve things that were once only a dream. The more times you undertake the extreme journey, the greater your confidence that you will attain your dreams and the bigger your dreams become. And if you want a bigger dream then why not go for the biggest - imagine standing on the summit of the Everest".

Englis writes the book in a humourous, self deprecating manner. There is no self-pity and he pokes fun at himself, much bathroom humour included. He writes non chalantly about his pain, his travails, his loss of limbs and sticks to telling his story. The preparation, the money, the sponsors, the cameras, the trauma, the pain, the loss, the sacrifice - its crazy to imagine what people can do. The controversy is needless and Englis is not the man to blame certainly. To me he should remain an inspiration for achieving something like this without his legs and many can take inspiration (though I doubt they will - just the thought of how much he lost despite his constant jokes about them - can put people off). For a long time now I have been wanting to read a book on a climber who scaled the Everest and there can be none better than this honest, hard hitting and telling-it-like-it-is book that does not waste time on the technicalities too much. It is certainly not a book for everyone - it is disturbing - and the style may not appeal to everyone. But to me, Englis is a champion, despite what Sir Edmund Hillary feels about him.


harimohan said...

Lovely shall read this

Unknown said...

verry nice storry i like that......