“Come on guys, let’s go!” Sanjeev Rai, the White Magic company’s main guide for Woodstock’s Friendship Peak expedition, shouted. But even though he easily outclassed his clients in terms of fitness and experience, Mr. Rai never charged ahead. Instead, he took the rear, carrying roughly twice the load of his wards with ease while constantly motivating the back of the pack.
Growing up in Alubari village near Darjeeling, the young Rai was exposed to numerous hikers and expeditions stopping by, so “I grew up aspiring to be just like them,” he said.
At just 16, he joined the staff of his first expedition to Gorchula, Sikkim — as an assistant cook. “I fell in love with the mountains,” he said. “After that, I knew that I wanted to do this kind of job for life.”
Looking towards the frost-laden slopes just to our east, he smiled at the memory, but then also recalled hardship, as he started his career along with his brother, who also works as a guide. ”Back when we started trekking, we didn’t have the equipment we have now. Not even sleeping bags. We slept using thin blankets! It was hard. We couldn’t imagine doing that now,” Mr. Rai said.
As most Woodstockers above Grade 10 know, cold nights in high altitude camps are extremely difficult even with sleeping bags and multiple layers. It is almost impossible not to feel cold and uncomfortable. Having just thin blankets must have been almost unimaginably tough.
But Mr. Rai said it was not totally unbearable. “When you’re young, you don’t really feel the cold,” he said.
However, he said, “The conditions were worse then because it doesn’t snow that much anymore.” The mountaineer attributes the difference to climate change.
After graduating from college, he worked as an expedition cook for a few years before being promoted to guide for a company based in Darjeeling and spent a few years there before taking a job at White Magic. “From the beginning, it was very nice,” he said, mentioning how the job let him go into the mountains and meet new people, “but there were a lot of responsibilities.”
With hiking a high-risk hobby, even if you know what you are doing, guides are responsible for ensuring the survival and well-being of each customer.
Mr. Rai said, “On the mountain, people can die, in a very short time if timely help is not given.”
And sometimes, this becomes very difficult. He relates this to some hikers’ lack of experience before taking on hard expeditions, and their unwillingness to turn back when they feel unwell, sometimes not even telling the guide their problem.
“We’ve had a few close calls,” he said, shaking his head as he walks in the back with me, keeping a careful eye on those moving along the narrow trail up ahead.
Then Rai recalled, “One of the hardest expeditions” was when he led a trek in Ladakh for a group of six Singaporeans in their twenties.
“They were young, so I thought it would go easily,” he said, but one suffered severe altitude sickness with vomiting and bad stomach cramps at base camp and had to be sent back down, and then while he was taking the rest on the summit attempt, the entire group began to falter after they reached the snow line. “It was like they couldn’t walk,” he said.
That summit attempt took six hours longer than the originally planned eight, and they arrived in the heat of the day. On the way back, things got worse.
“One of them was lagging behind.” Mr. Rai said, “so I asked one of the [other] guides to hang back with him.”
But on reaching base camp, he was informed via radio that the situation had gone terribly. The client had collapsed and said he couldn’t walk. The guide had tried to half carry him for a bit but the strapping six-and-a-half foot client was far too much to bear for long. “I had to go back up with a sherpa to attach [the client] to a fixed rope and slide him down,” Mr. Rai said. “Luckily, there was enough snow.”
Those kinds of horror experiences do not stop Mr. Rai from continuing to do his best as a guide. Multiple Friendship peak expeditioners are appreciative of his aid and advice on the trail.
“On the first day, when I was struggling, he stayed behind and advised me on how I could handle my load better,” Saksham Basu, Class of 2019, said. “He also advised me on how I should do things going forward once we got to camp since I had overexerted myself.”
Shantanu Singh, Class of 2019, echoed his views, saying, “I was always at the back, and he kept with me and motivated me, and he kept telling me to keep going. He was so kind, too. Whenever I was out of water, he didn’t hesitate to give me some of his.”
However, Mr. Rai faces pressure at home to stop following his passion. He says his wife, whom he married in 2017, keeps telling him to give up his career, since she is worried about what might happen to him.
But he refuses. “This is my life, this is what I can do,” he said.
And his presence, dedication, and expertise are invaluable to his clients, as the Friendship Peak group saw. It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Rai’s timely counsel and assistance were a huge factor in the expedition making it through the trip without any major injuries. He was the kind of invaluable support resource any expedition needs if they want to survive an attempt to conquer a mountain.
Edited by Janvi Poddar
Photo by Faisal Qadir