Harish Kapadia has been on 34 Himalayan expeditions in the last 40 years, climbed 33 peaks, explored 138 Himalayan passes, and over 1000 peaks in the Sahyadris. And to think that till last year he was running a clothing business on the side in Mumbai to support his passion. Now at age 56, when most people would be thinking in terms of retiring he has turned himself into a full-time mountaineer. Next month he will lead an Indo-Japanese expedition to the 22,000-feet high Theramshehr ice plateau in the Siachen Glacier region. Achal Druva looks at what drives a man like Kapadia. In a companion piece, Kapadia provides a charming account of his last expedition—to the Aranglas Valley in East Karakoram, in August 2001
“It’s an addiction,” Harish Kapadia confesses with a wry smile, “it’s a habit I can’t kick. I can’t explain why I do it but I have to do it.” And he continues candidly, “I get restless if I don’t go on a ‘trip’ every few months.” He has been at it for 40 long years and has no intention of quitting. And for all his indulgence he is amazingly fit, fit enough to climb mountains! Meet ‘mountain man,’ Harish Kapadia, a name synonymous with mountaineering in India.
A far cry from the popular image of a mountaineer, the short statured, slightly built Kapadia if dressed in a dhoti, kurta and Gandhi cap, at first glance would pass off as a typical sethia lolling behind his small table at Mumbai’s Kapada Bazaar in Kalbadevi. Well almost, though the trademark paunch is missing. He comes from a traditional family of cloth merchants and was in the garments business himself till about a few years ago.
In a community where the concept of adventure and adrenalin rush is generally limited to dabbling in stock markets, Kapadia and his obsession to risk limb and life, scaling mountains is likely to be labelled as downright gandpan (or madness) in his native language. How else can one describe a 56-year-old man who retired two years ago by winding up his family business to devote his energies fulltime to his first love, mountaineering! He even named his two sons after leading Sherpa mountaineers—Sonam and Nawang. Kapadia has climbed 33 peaks (21 first ascents) and 138 Himalayan passes. He’s been on 34 expeditions including 7 joint international ones and has led 1,400 ascents in the mountains and hills of Sahyadris.
Though not a professional he is spoken of in the same breath as full time mountaineers. In 1993 he was awarded the President’s Gold Medal for Mountaineering by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation for his contribution towards opening up and charting many unexplored areas in the Himalayas including the Siachen Glacier. Equally impressive has been his contribution to mountaineering literature. He is a prolific author having written a dozen, many of them internationally-acclaimed books, on mountains and mountaineering. His A Guide to Trekking and Climbing in the Indian Himalayas (Globetrotters, London, 2001) was adjudged as the second best book on the subject at the Banff Festival in Canada last year. His seminal Trek The Shayadris, the first guide to trekking and climbing in the Western Ghats written in 1977 is now in its fourth edition. So is High Himalaya Unknown Valleys first published in 1993. Exploring the Hidden Himalaya (with Soli Mehta and published by London’s Hodder and Stoughton in 1990) is in its second edition, so is Spiti Adventures in the Trans-Himalaya, first published in 1996.
“My school, New Era was quite active in organizing outdoor activities, especially our teacher Ishwarbhai. I attended a one-day trek organized by him while I was studying in the eighth standard. I am not too sure but I think it was a trek to the Mumbra Hills, just outside Mumbai. While I enjoyed the trek immensely, I won’t say I began dreaming of becoming a mountaineer. However I became a regular for such outings. I guess I was hooked without realizing it,” is how Kapadia describes his initiation to the world of high-altitude mountain passes and snow-clad peaks. While still in school he embarked on his first Himalayan adventure. Along with classmates Hemendra Kothari (now chairman of investment bank DSP Merrill Lynch) and Zafar Warsi (who was his climbing companion for the next 12 years) he trekked for 14-days to the Pindhari glacier. They planned the expedition largely on their own and managed to reach an impressive altitude of 14,000 feet.
“We were lucky to find a very good porter, Pan Singh at the base village of Harkot, who adopted us and treated us like his own kids. Despite trekking with heavy frame rucksacks and cumbersome second hand equipment of World War II, a far cry from the sophisticated gear available today, I enjoyed it so much that it became an inner compulsion and fortunately I had friends who shared the same passion,” states Kapadia. Also he was very lucky to have parents who not only understood but also supported his craze for mountains at a time when mountaineering was not something children were encouraged to take up.
Once he had experienced the beauty of the Himalayas, Kapadia wanted to go back. The basic mountaineering course at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), Darjeeling and the advanced course at National Mountaineering Institute (NMI), Uttarkashi along with rock climbing and regular hikes and treks in the Sahyadris while in college (he graduated in commerce and law) prepared him for the bigger challenges of exploring unknown regions. His stint at HMI and NMI where he had famous sherpas like Tenzing Norgay and Nawang Gombu as instructors not only inspired him but really fuelled his interest for mountaineering. “The basic and advanced courses are just the beginning. What is more important is what you do after that, the experience you gain, each expedition is a learning experience,” explains Kapadia who has explored the entire Himalayan region with the exception of Arunachal.
“To go where no one has gone before and pave the way for others gives me the biggest kick.”
“No, I wouldn’t like to climb Mt. Everest!” his statement shatters the myth that it is every mountaineers dream. His reasoning, “no doubt it’s the highest peak in the world but then nearly 1,500 people have reached the summit, it’s not interesting enough a challenge.” Kapadia who is not ‘height fixated,’ as in ‘higher the peak, the bigger the challenge,’ prefers exploring new areas, scaling virgin peaks, which may not necessarily be the highest in the range but are more technically challenging in nature. “To go where no one has gone before and pave the way for others gives me the biggest kick,” reveals Kapadia.
His last major expedition, to the Araganglas Valley, Ladakh in July/August 2001 is a prime example of Kapadia’s brand of high adventure [see accompanying story]. The 50-day international expedition comprising four Indians, two British and two American mountaineers was jointly led by the legendary Sir Chris Bonington and Harish Kapadia and it was for the second time that Kapadia was teaming up with the world-famous mountaineer. The expedition made the first ever ascent of three peaks: Yamandaka (6218 m), Abale (6360 m), and Amale (6312 m) and reached two new cols: Konto La (5920 m) and Yah La (5770 m) besides attempts at two peaks: Argan Kangri (6789 m) and Thungu Peak (6158 m). “It was a totally new area in Nubhra Valley where even the locals do not venture. We explored five different glaciers and our toughest challenge was Yamandaka (6218 m) scaled by the Americans, Mark Wilford and Mark Ritchie. It was tough as they had to climb down from the other side. It’s a major climbing area for many years to come, as there are many virgin peaks all above 6,000 metres in the region,” Kapadia says.
Kapadia admits to having a special liking for the eastern Karakoram range and the Siachen Glacier. “A heady brew of beautiful mountains and many high peaks, the region which is a major climbing zone is also the scene of active war and is highly inaccessible. To chart out new areas in those adverse conditions is a different high altogether,” he claims. In fact he lists standing on Indira Col (18,500 ft), the northern most point on Siachen Glacier in 1998 in temperature exceeding minus 10 degree Celsius as his most memorable mountaineering experience.
A keen conservationist Kapadia is working hard to help establish a Peace Park planned by World International Union for Conservation of Nature between India and Pakistan borders at Siachen. “It’s the most beautiful place and a Peace Park fits perfectly in the scheme of things. Sia in Balti means rose and Chen means place and amazingly hundreds of wild roses bloom there during summer. There is a lot of battle fatigue and it would be nice to have a Peace Park and once it is established hopefully both sides will declare peace on Siachen throwing open the area for mountaineering,” Kapadia says wistfully.
He is no stranger to the ravages of war as he lost his younger son Nawang to the insurgency in Kashmir. Commissioned in September 2000 as a Lt. in the Gurkha Rifles, 24 year-old Nawang was posted to Kashmir in November and was killed battling militants on November 11, a day commemorated as World Remembrance Day to honour the World War II heroes. Nawang used to regularly accompany Kapadia on his expeditions including five to the Siachen area, where he met with army officers who inspired him to join the Services. In his passionate internet memorial for his son www.nawang.com, Kapadia provides a glimpse into how he got his children to love the mountains from a very young age.
Kapadia himself has had a few close shaves. In 1974 on an expedition to a peak called Deo Toli (22,000 ft) in the Nanda Devi sanctuary, Uttaranchal, Kapadia fell into a crevasse and dislocated a hip. He had to be carried for 13 days over snow before he could receive proper medical attention. He spent six weeks in plaster and two years on crutches. “That was really an agonizing period, not just the pain but the anxiety of getting back to where I belong, the mountains,” he reminisces. Like any passionate mountaineer he puts down his brush with death as part and parcel of the game.
Others marvel at his power of resilience. “He must be really crazy to get back into the mountains after his hip injury,” says Anand Pendharkar, chief editor, indbazaar.com and an amateur mountaineer. Pendharkar, who was a member of the Nanda Devi expedition led by Kapadia last year describes Kapadia as very meticulous and wonderfully organized. “I would put him down not as a climber but as an explorer as he has charted new areas and done extensive documentation. He has brought a lot of credibility to mountaineering in India thru his extensive documentation and his books. He has brought the Indian mountains into the picture for the outside world,” states Pendharkar.
“A walking-talking encyclopaedia of historical facts, figures, altitudes and dates Kapadia is a very interesting person with an extremely good sense of humour and is a major food freak,” opines Pendharkar and added, “I’ve never had a more lavish spread in my entire climbing experience till date comparable to that of the Nanda Devi expedition. Who would dream of wolfing down pav-bhaji and sausages in a remote high altitude mountain region!” Adds another frequent expedition partner, Kersi Dastoor, Executive Director Finance Godrej Industries, “Hats off to him. I have a very high regard for his abilities and feel he is among the few who have a thorough knowledge about the Himalayas and the Sahyadris.”
Kapadia says if you want to make it as a mountaineer make sure you marry someone who shares your passion like he himself did. Geeta Kapadia is a frequent companion to the base camps where she spends time doing sketches of Himalayan landscapes. “Most people are active climbers during their college days but stop once they pick up a job or it’s curtains once they get married. Despite this India has a very active climbing population with nearly 50,000 trekkers including pilgrims crisscrossing various regions of the Himalayas in a single year and 2,000 people trekking the Sahyadris on weekends during monsoon,” Kapadia claims.
Till recently, because of his business commitments, Kapadia restricted himself to short treks around Mumbai and just one major Himalayan expedition a year. Now that he has sold off his business, he feels like a free man. At an age when others would think in terms of retirement, Kapadia is busy planning major expeditions to several unexplored Himalayan regions. So while most of his friends take off for Europe and America for the summer, Kapadia will be leading an Indo-Japanese expedition to the 22,000 feet high Theramshehr ice plateau in the Siachen Glacier region.
Some holiday this. They don’t make determined adventurers like Harish Kapadia anymore.
This story was first published in the April 2002 issue