Search and rescue operations are on in South America for Malli Mastan Babu, an Andhra Pradesh resident who went missing on March 24 while climbing the Tres Cruces massif on the Chile-Argentina border. Babu went on a solo trek in an attempt to reach the mountain summit and was supposed to return to base camp the same evening. His mountaineering group reported him missing when he did not appear even 24 hours later.

Mastan’s friends have rallied to raise money and support via a Facebook group and are coordinating rescue operations in Argentina and Chile. But his sister Malli Dorsanamma told she has been trying to get the Indian government to act. “His friends are mobilising funds and forming a rescue team, but they have to travel for 700km and are asking for a helicopter,” she said. “There are no private helicopters available in Chile, so we are trying from the government side if they can give any help.”

Forty-year-old Mastan has climbed almost every mountain worth the name in the last decade. A graduate of IIT Kharagpur and IIM Calcutta, Mastan gave up corporate life to be a mountaineer. In 2006, Mastan broke several records by being the fastest to complete the seven-summit challenge, which entails climbing the highest peaks on the seven continents.

Battling geography and weather

Most mountaineers take up the seven-summit climb once they have conquered Mount Everest, said Wing Commander Amit Chowdhury, vice president of the Indian Mountaineering Federation. To climb all seven summits in less than a year is immensely tough because of geography and weather.

“Two of these very big mountains are in the southern hemisphere,” said Chowdhury. “Kilimanjaro is near the equator but Vinson and Aconcagua are very much in the southern hemisphere. It is winter there when it is summer here. So if you do Everest in May you have to do these summits when it is warmer there by December.”

Mastan climbed all seven summits in just 172 days, one in each month from the start of 2006 – Antarctica’s Vinson Massif in January, South America’s Aconcagua in February, Africa’s Kilimanjaro in March, Australia’s Koscuiszko in April, Asia’s Everest in May, Europe’s Elbrus in June, and North America’s Denali in July. He completed the second version of the seven-summit circuit when he summited the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia in October the same year.

“He is the Tendulkar of the mountains,” says K Jayshankar, a business consultant who has helped sponsor some of Mastan’s expeditions. “He is a prodigy, he is a natural.”

Close brushes in the past

Umar Teekay, head of the Teekays business group, recalls climbing Kilimanjaro with Mastan in 2007. “He was already every popular in those parts because he had done Kilimanjaro thrice,” Teekay said. “He wanted to spend the 60th Independence Day at the top and that’s where we were on 15th August.”

To achieve this end Mastan had to push his physical endurance and that of his group to the limit. Although Kilimanjaro is an easy trek, altitude sickness is a real danger on the mountain. Trekkers to the summit are advised to “climb high, sleep low” to avoid Acute Mountain Sickness. Most climbers push for the peak after a long rest at a lower altitude and climb back down within 24 hours, avoiding having to sleep at high altitude.

“Barafu is a high-altitude point and beyond that you are not supposed to stay for more than some 36 hours,” said Teekay. “We went to Barafu and stayed the whole night. Then we went higher to Stella point and stayed another night there. So we had already spent more than 36 hours. He wanted to go slow and he also wanted to be at the summit on 15th August. By the time we came down we were all sick like nobody’s business and we had frost bite and it was a bad scene. That way he is adventurous.”

Mastan’s friends and family are mobilising all their resources and hoping that the ace mountaineer will be located and brought home soon. “He has had close brushes in the past and he has come through,” Jayshankar said. “Even in the Andes he has had very close brushes in the past.”