On 25th May 2011 a group of India Air Force personnel reached the summit of Mount Everest. One of the officers heading the team was Squadron Leader Devidutt Panda who lost his toe to frostbite in the process.
Him being a personal friend, I was curious to understand the workings of his mind as a mountaineer (because this wasn’t his first expedition – he has also scaled Mt Elbrus in Europe and Mt. Kilimanjaro in South Africa before). He was a guy who was inseparable from his mountain bike even on ‘average’ days when he was going about his daily life and would escape to heights at the first chance he would get!
The interview you’re about to read, tried to satisfy some of my curiosity about how he thinks, and he had responded to my questions for this interview the old fashioned way as he was recovering after the expedition in the hospital – in a handwritten letter! Makes it that much more precious! I thought it was high time that I gave you a glimpse into his mind too!
Q. Where does the motivation to do something this daring come from?
A. Climbing mountains is an extreme adventure. There is a thrill of an explorer. When one goes to such remote places far away from human civilisation, one can appreciate how powerful are the forces of nature and how fragile is a human being in front of them. Mountains are massive and unforgiving. Climbing a mountain could result in loss of limb and even loss of life. It is an extremely dangerous and difficult undertaking, and may be this is what makes it so exhilarating! The true character of a person comes out when faced with so much danger, difficulty and physical pain. The higher the degree of difficulty and danger, the stronger is the so-called “kick” when you’re climbing a mountain. You are working against your own fears and inhibitions.
Q. Do you think you’re an adrenaline junkie?
A. I think I am! I get tremendous amount of pleasure out of activities which require extreme physical effort such as long distance cycling, lake swimming, cross country running and of course mountaineering. I love the tiredness and pain in the body after doing such activities.
Q. What thoughts go through your mind as you prepare for the expeditions, regarding the trip, your family, and your safety?
A. Mountaineering is an activity that requires meticulous planning. Each and every aspect such as food, clothing, shelter, equipment, ropes, fuel, communication, medicine etc. have to be looked after. Any flaw and missed step in planning may prove hazardous later on as once we are into the wilderness we have to make do with whatever we carry. There’s nothing else to be gotten later. For the trip, we plan our itinerary depending on various factors such as fitness level of the members, terrain, degree of difficulty of the route, weather, facilities available en route etc. Safety is always at the back of our minds during planning and execution stage of the expedition. Its always part of the game. Now that I think about it, not much comes to mind as far as family is concerned, during the preparation phase.
Q. When it gets real tough during the climb, what keeps you going?
A. It’s always a fight between mind and body. The body says “give up” and the mind says “keep going”. Mountain climbing is always a mind game. May be it’s the will to reach the top and not to accept defeat that keeps me going. The pleasure of being able to say “been there done that” is motivating enough to go against all odds.
Q. When you have summited, and when you get back, does it feel empty?
A. On the contrary, it feels empty when you can’t summit and have to return due to weather or something else. But it feels extremely fulfilling to reach the summit. One feels overjoyed, invincible, at the top of the world (which literally you are!).
Q. Do you feel psychologically altered in any way once it’s over?
A. For me mountaineering is a spiritual journey. I lose myself amidst the pristine beauty of the snow-capped peaks. In the calmness of the mountains and far away from the civilisation I can hear my own soul. After coming back from the mountains I start valuing each aspect of life more. Simple and mundane things like opening the kitchen tap to have water give me immense pleasure. Up in the mountains you have to wear four to five layers of clothing, come out of the tent to freezing temperatures and howling winds, find some good snow and bring it back to your tent, heat it up in the small burner that you carry in your rucksack, keep adding more snow and voila! After about an hour of hard work you have a glass of water to drink!
Q. Does your mountaineering affect your personal life and relationships in any way?
A. Mountaineering is a time consuming enterprise. Even a small expedition would necessitate about one month absence from work and home and a big expedition like Mt. Everest takes up to three months! This definitely has an adverse effect on personal life and relationships.
Q. Are you all set for your next adventure?
A. Yes, even before I completely finish one adventure, I’m already excited about the next one! As soon I heal from losing the three toes of my right leg to frostbite, I’ll be all set for another!
(As told to Prachi S Vaish)