Disaster

Rockfall at 17,000 ft: How Kashmir’s ace mountaineer averted a high-altitude tragedy at Kalahoi

Before a local legend came to their rescue, a group of trekkers from Delhi had gone for adventurous Kalahoi expedition.

After a group of trekkers from Delhi sent an SOS from Kolahoi glacier recently, it was this legendary mountaineer from Kashmir who came to their rescue.

At sundown on September 14, 2020, Mohammad Ibrahim Raina was returning home through the tourist-bereft Bazar of picturesque Pahalgam in South Kashmir.

It was a routine homecoming for this 42-year-old president of Pahalgam’s Adventure Tour Operators Association before an unknown number forced him to take a U-turn and ultimately sent him atop mountains for an emergency rescue mission.

The unknown caller had made it curt and pressing: “Report quickly at the office of Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM) in Pahalgam!”

The ‘summon’ sounded strange to Raina, the mountaineer known for his feted trekking track-record, including some death-defying rescue missions on mountains and glaciers.

As SDM’s office, he saw a battery of long-faced bureaucrats and police officials cooling their heels for him. Before he entered the chamber, the officials mobilized by emergency calls—some coming from as far as Delhi—were discussing an emergency situation at the Kolahoi glacier — Kashmir’s highest peak, with an elevation of 17,799 ft.

The officials straightaway talked business with the perplexed visitor. The debriefing session that he received akin to a soldier being sent on a special mission made him realise that he has been called for an emergency rescue task.

A six-member team from Delhi, he was told, had begun the expedition a day ago from the base camp. The team had met with an accident after two of its members came under a barrage of sliding rocks. These trekkers were affiliated with the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF).

“At that time,” Raina recalled, “the team from Delhi was not accessible as their satellite phone was not catching any signal.”

Raina and Co. on their way to the Kolhoi glacier.

The incident came to light after one of the woman trekkers armoured with a satellite phone contacted the IMF from the peak. Raina knew that it’s impossible to get signal at every point on the elevation, as the glacier falls in two areas namely Doudsar and Danwath.

And mostly, the satellite phones catch signal at Danwath area.

With some good stroke of luck, the team had caught the signal and the woman climber sounded petrified: “We’ve met with an incident and two of our climbers are injured. We need help in coming down.”

Shortly, after that SOS signal got snapped at the perilous peak, the IMF rang up the office of Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir. It tasked the SDM Pahalgam for supervising the rescue mission.

To avert what was to be a “national” crisis, the Anantnag administration had even mulled to press an IAF chopper—charging around Rs 6 lakh for the rescue mission—into service.

But after attending the hour-long meeting, it was decided that Raina would form his team and will be sent to the glacier to trace the missing mountaineers.

Within an hour, he formed his expert team of four members including Tariq Ahmed of Pahalgam, Sabzar Ahmed Kuchay and Shakeel Ahmed of Aaru.

The team leader was sent to the rescue mission with a satellite phone.

Powered by flash torches, the exploration trip began on the same night, at around 10:00 pm, on horsebacks. The foursome braved the bone-chilling cold throughout the night before reaching the base camp of the glacier at 5:00 am, on September 15.

The rescue team only found two men—a cook and a helper—at the camp. They were oblivious of the fate of their team members.

“They freaked out after knowing about the rock-felling accident,” Raina recalled.

Apart from hunting the missing adventurers, the rescue team had to also comfort the two men at the base camp.

At 9:00 am that day, as the sun shone on the frosty peak, a weak walkie-talkie signal surfaced. It was from the climbers. “They asked us to wait there at the base camp for the next 12 hours,” Raina detailed.

Drained and bloodied, the mountaineers were dragging themselves from their ambitious trip-gone-wrong summit. Once tracing them, Raina sent an assuring word to anxious officials gathered inside the SDM’s office: “No need of a chopper. We got them.”

But the Delhi climbers were taking their own time to descend from the perilous heights.

Next day, at 8:30, am, the climbers reestablished the contact with Raina’s rescue team: “We’re fatigued. Need help.”

Raina sent three of his team members, along with personnel from State Disaster Response Fund (SDRF), Jammu and Kashmir police and Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering Pahalgam, for the rescue.

They headed towards the point where the climbers would be waiting for them.

Hours later, when the rescuers along with the climbers reached back at the base camp, Raina sent a triumphant signal to the Kashmir administration monitoring the rescue operation at Pahalgam: “Job done. The climbers are safe and sound.”

And soon, amid accolades, Raina resumed his derailed homecoming through the bazars of Pahalgam.

 

EDIT NOTE: Some details in this piece are misleading and have been exaggerated. A ‘part two’ will address them. 

 

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