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10/01/2018 Without Climbing Everest, Chronicling a Solemn Descent - The New York Times

Without Climbing Everest, Chronicling a

Solemn Descent

Mount Everest. Josh Haner/The New York Times

By John Branch ( Dec. 18, 2017

It was while watching Goutam Ghosh’s body slide into the fire, after a year spent
frozen near the summit of Mount Everest, that I wondered — and not for the first
time — just how I got there, to that little riverside crematory in Kolkata, India.

Everyone else left. I stayed, unable or unwilling to move, trying to make sense of
it. A year of heartache and worry, a monumental effort to bring Ghosh home, and
hours after he arrived, he was ash. I was struck by the finality of it all.

An old man stopped me on the way out and wanted to talk. The room soon filled
with acrid smoke. I had to excuse myself. 1/10
10/01/2018 Without Climbing Everest, Chronicling a Solemn Descent - The New York Times

Outside, back into the crowd, the gloomy mood of the day lifted slightly. People
wanted to take photographs of me and the Times photographer Josh Haner. They
wanted to know what we thought of India. Mostly, they wanted to know how we
got there.

Good question. I imagine others will wonder the same thing after reading
“Deliverance From 27,000 Feet.”

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I’ve written several stories about tragedy befalling those in pursuit of outdoor
adventures, from a deadly avalanche
( to
doomed wing-suit flights (
potter-final-yosemite-jump.html?_r=0). And occasionally I hear about the
difficult and emotional task of recovering a body from a remote, unforgiving

A couple of those stories came to me in 2016, and the sports editor Jason
Stallman and I pondered ways to tell them. Then we read a blurb about a doomed
climbing expedition on Everest. Three people died, and the climbing season
closed before two of the bodies could be recovered. Maybe next year, the story
concluded, with a verbal shrug.

As a setting, Everest has been well-mined for books and movies, even reality
shows. But this angle felt fresh and vital — a story that starts after hope is gone,
and a yearlong wait for closure, if it came at all. 2/10
10/01/2018 Without Climbing Everest, Chronicling a Solemn Descent - The New York Times

Cremation rituals for Goutam Ghosh, who died near the summit of Mount Everest in May 2016.
Josh Haner/The New York Times

The trick, for us, was how to capture the story. In other words, how to get there.

With help from a Times colleague from India, I connected with family friends of
Paresh Nath, one of the victims. We had several conversations through Skype,
exploring ways to tell the story. Our bureau in Delhi passed on the name of a
freelance journalist in Kolkata, Chandrasekhar Bhattacharjee, who reached the
families of Ghosh and Subhas Paul, who had died, and Sunita Hazra, the lone
survivor of the group.

I was teamed with Josh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer for The Times.
We have worked together on some of my favorite stories, including a yearlong
project about a rodeo family
saddle-bronc-rodeo.html) and a look at hunting alligators

We spent weeks in West Bengal in February, mostly getting to know all the
families. We wanted to know about the men they had lost, and why it was
important for them — or, perhaps, not important — that the bodies be returned 3/10
10/01/2018 Without Climbing Everest, Chronicling a Solemn Descent - The New York Times

from the high slopes of Everest. We collected family photographs and downloads
of cameras that were recovered from the expedition.

The New York Times photographer Josh Haner’s instruction manual for Dawa Finjhok
Sherpa, who was hired to record the recovery of bodies. Josh Haner/The New York Times

With Bhattacharjee’s help, we spoke to other Indian climbers and government

officials, and went to meetings with the mountaineering clubs of the deceased
men. As journalists often do, we gathered information without knowing what
would be useful, or used, in the end. 4/10
10/01/2018 Without Climbing Everest, Chronicling a Solemn Descent - The New York Times

We returned to Kolkata in early May, with a close eye on the opening of the route
to Everest’s summit. We met again with all the families, and plenty of friends and
officials, as hopes were raised that the bodies would be found and, somehow,
brought down and home to Kolkata.

When reports came from Nepal that the route was nearly open, Ghosh’s brother
Debasish set out for Kathmandu. We went, too.

The days dragged into weeks, wrenching for the waiting families. With the
freelance journalist Rajneesh Bhandari as our fixer and interpreter, we tracked
every rumor and development.

Each day allowed us to consider how to best report the story slowly unfolding on
Everest. A reporter can convey information not experienced firsthand. A
photographer cannot.

Susreeta Paul, the daughter of Subhas Paul, on a swing in her home. Subhas Paul died on the same
Everest expedition as Ghosh. Josh Haner/The New York Times

Should Josh climb Everest with the recovery team? He has climbing experience,
but even the most accomplished climbers spend months preparing and weeks
acclimating at Base Camp before pushing toward the summit. 5/10
10/01/2018 Without Climbing Everest, Chronicling a Solemn Descent - The New York Times

Should he go to Base Camp? At 17,500 feet, it requires either a helicopter or a

short flight and a weeklong uphill trek to get there. But Base Camp wasn’t where
the story was; it was quite likely the bodies would stop there in a helicopter
quickly, if at all, and we couldn’t afford to have Josh stranded out of position as
the story shifted to other places, including India.

It was clear that the best option was to have someone else photograph the on-
mountain recovery operation. But who?

The bodies were found and it was determined that Seven Summit Treks would be
hired to handle the recovery. We met with Mingma Sherpa, the company’s owner.
He agreed to let us hire one of his Sherpas as a freelance journalist, to record the

Josh bought a GoPro camera from a Kathmandu shop and met with Dawa
Finjhok Sherpa, who would carry it. There were countless concerns: Would he
know how to operate the camera? Would he understand the kind of videos and
photographs we hoped to get? What if the batteries died in the extreme
conditions? What if the camera malfunctioned, broke or got lost? What if Dawa
Finjhok Sherpa’s finger obscured the images?

The body of Goutam Ghosh on Mount Everest.

Dawa Finjhok Sherpa/Seven Summit Treks, for The New York Times 6/10
10/01/2018 Without Climbing Everest, Chronicling a Solemn Descent - The New York Times

Josh wrote a detailed instruction manual in English and Nepali (with Rajneesh’s
help). When the bodies (and Dawa Finjhok Sherpa) came off the helicopter in
Kathmandu a week later, we were relieved to discover that the images were
extraordinary. They became both an invaluable reporting source and, eventually,
a key part of the story presentation.

The story moved quickly from there. The bodies were examined in Kathmandu,
then flown to Kolkata late at night. The next morning, the bodies were driven to
the homes of the families. We stationed a journalist with the Naths in Durgapur,
100 miles away, to document what happened there, while Josh and I stayed in
Kolkata with the Ghosh family.

We were the only outsiders in the tiny room when family members received the
body. It was loud from the wailing, and stiflingly hot. We marched with hundreds
of others the several miles to the crematory. We were with the two dozen or so
people in the room where the funeral rites were performed, and there as the body
was moved to the incinerator.

That is how we got there. Mostly, we got there because we were curious to learn
what happened. Hopefully, readers will be curious, too.

Debasish Ghosh watching as his brother’s body is prepared for cremation.

Josh Haner/The New York Times 7/10
10/01/2018 Without Climbing Everest, Chronicling a Solemn Descent - The New York Times

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A version of this article appears in print on December 24, 2017, on Page A2 of the New York edition with the headline: The Descent of
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