Love Raj Singh Dharmshaktu is pointing out the medicinal qualities of Himalayan plants when I remember something that nearly makes me laugh out loud and disturb the peace of the hill we are climbing to view the distant snow-peaks.
A few hours earlier, Singh had been almost hyperventilating at the prospect of addressing the 2012 Mountain Festival at Woodstock School in the tranquil highlands near Mussoorie: a man who has reached the summit of Mount Everest four times and seen fellow-climbers die in the attempt was breathless with nerves at the thought of addressing a couple of hundred sympathetic students, writers, naturalists and fellow-mountaineers.
Singh, a much-honoured Indian climber of the Himalayas, is totally at ease now as we strike out on the hillside among the fluttering Buddhist prayer flags. He shows me a leaf for the rapid healing of wounds, crushing it between his fingers to make an antiseptic juice, then points to the bulbous root of a rock plant used to treat kidney stones and gallstones. There is even a shrub from which to make a warming herbal tea – in three varieties of different strengths.
Now 40 years old, Singh was born into a farming family in what today is eastern Uttarakhand, in a village nearly 9,000ft above sea level, with no electricity, telephones, television or even a road. As a child, he took part in the annual upward migration into the mountains to bring the villagers’ sheep and goats to the summer pastures.
His career in climbing began in 1990, when he was 17, through a chance event involving a mountaineering club from Lucknow, where he went to school. A couple of the high-altitude porters fell ill, and he was asked to help out – and soon he was on his way up one of the Himalaya range’s most famous peaks.
“It was my first time. It was just being on top of a peak. There was nothing to say,” he responds, in a mixture of Hindi and English, when I ask him what it was like to stand at the summit of Nanda Kot at more than 22,000ft. “What I remember most is not the summit. At one point on the way down I was alone and there was this huge crevasse, and I was too scared to cross it and had no skills. I could see the camp below, and when somebody came out to pee, I hailed them and they helped me over.”
It was in 1998 that Singh reached the top of Everest, from Tibet on the northern side, for the first time. “That was a turning point in my life. I started getting recognition. Other teams started asking if I was free.” Physically compact, mentally imperturbable and immune to altitude sickness, he is now an assistant commandant of India’s Border Security Force, training its members as mountaineers and leading the climbs in official expeditions.
His most recent ascent of Everest was in May this year, in what turned out to be one of the most lethal seasons for climbers on the unpredictable mountain. “Almost 1,500 people were trying to make the climb. The weather this time was very different. I was quite surprised, because it’s never been like that before. Very windy and a lot of snowfall. There were many cases of frostbite and 11 climbers died. On May 19 there was a very big storm – four or five people died on that day alone and about 35 had severe frostbite.”
Singh was leading a climb for the Eco Everest expedition – organised to create international awareness about the impact of climate change in the Himalayas and the lives of the mountain communities – and they waited out the storm, reaching the summit on May 26. A successful trip, I say. “Thirteen got to the top,” he replies. Then he adds matter-of-factly: “One of them died after the summit, a German. In the rush of getting to the top, it seems he didn’t rest, and on the way back he collapsed.” After speaking to his family by satellite telephone, they took down only his camera and some personal items. “The family just requested that he be buried where people can’t see him.”
Singh has personally tried to tackle the two most sensitive issues for today’s mountaineers – ethics (climbers criticised for failing to help those in need are often close to collapse themselves, he says) and the environment (garbage left on mountaintops and global warming are the biggest concerns). He has taken photos of the frozen corpses littering Everest to help their relatives identify them, and helps to collect rubbish – oxygen bottles, gas canisters, toilet paper, human waste and, yes, dead bodies – to bring down the mountain and dispose of when the weather permits.
Singh is based for the moment in Delhi (“too much traffic”) with his wife Reena Kaushal – the first Indian woman to ski to the South Pole – and their new baby boy, and is proud of having initiated a neighbourhood campaign against the garbage strewn across most of India’s cities.
“There’s this religious belief about feeding sugar to ants, and people bring it in plastic bags to our local park – and then leave the plastic bags behind. That really disturbed me. So I paid the local garbage man Rs200 to come twice a month and clear up the mess. Now the neighbours have started thinking about it and try not to leave their rubbish behind.”
Even on our short walk in the lightly populated Himalayan foothills far to the north of Delhi, we cannot avoid discarded sweet wrappers and pizza boxes. Still, as we wend our way back to Mussoorie between fractured rocks, deodar trees and evergreen oaks garlanded with lichen, I leave aside the topic of the abused environment and ask Singh what really motivates him to climb the highest mountains. “I like the challenge of a high climb, and I like to open new routes,” he says. “Every mountain is different. And the people you climb with are very different in the plains from what they are like up there. Some of them are just dangerous. In the mountains, you can test who are your true friends.”
At public events, Singh is an almost invisible presence, standing shyly in the background until someone approaches him. But with his tales of snow leopards and antibiotic plants, and his lifelong experience in the mountains, he is precisely the kind of friend you would want by your side if you decided to attempt a difficult climb in the high Himalayas.